History Returns, with a Vengeance

Dismemberment of Hungary at Trianon, 1920

Hungary: Between Democracy and Authoritarianism
by Paul Lendvai, trans. Keith Chester.
Columbia University Press, 2012, 236 pp.

In March 1990, I served as a member of an international team of observers to the first postcommunist elections in Hungary. It was a heady experience to bear witness to the crumbling of a totalitarian system and the dramatic, yet peaceful, emergence of a democratic transition.

One episode from that period: while walking along the fashionable Vaci utca pedestrian mall in downtown Budapest, I noticed numerous street vendors selling maps showing the pre-1914 borders of Hungary. This map included present day Slovakia, as well as Transylvania (now part of Romania) and parts of Ukraine, Yugoslavia, and even Austria. I knew that for Hungarians the peace treaty imposed by the Allied victors at Trianon in 1920 was a ruthless diktat that broke up their historical homeland.

When I pointed out these maps to some of my fellow Western election observers, they suggested that it was innocent nostalgia. To me, it seemed irresponsible and worrisome to imagine a different outcome to the First World War. At a time when Western triumphalism was celebrating Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History,” this return to history seemed ominous.

But I could never have guessed that twenty years later, in 2010, a democratically elected nationalist-populist government would designate June 4, the day of the signing of the Trianon Treaty, as “Day of National Unity.” Nor could I imagine that after a festive session of Parliament in June 2010, I would witness black-clad militia members marching in front of St. Stephen’s Basilica with flags of cities in Romania, Slovakia, and Serbia that had belonged to the Kingdom of Hungary before the First World War.

Few people are better qualified to recount this turn in Hungary’s recent history than the historian and journalist Paul Lendvai, who fled his native Hungary for Austria after the 1956 revolution and has since published numerous books on Central Eastern Europe as well as served as a correspondent for the Financial Times and headed Radio Austria International. Most of his family was murdered in the Holocaust, and he brings to his analysis a Mitteleuropa sensitivity to nationalism, minority rights, and historical memory. All this makes his book essential for understanding the current developments in Hungary.

Among postcommunist countries, Hungary seemed initially to be the paragon of a successful transition to democracy and a market economy. The 1989–1990 transition was an outcome of peaceful roundtable negotiations between the ruling Communist Party and the major opposition group, the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF). It was also anchored in two decades of what was then called “goulash communism”: a kind of soft, one-party rule identified with the Communist leader János Kádár, whose mott...

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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.