Hope and Scandal in Hungary

Hope and Scandal in Hungary

The work of Hungarian thinker and statesman István Bibó provides a guide to his country’s twisted politics.

The prison in the northern Hungarian town of Vác where István Bibó was incarcerated (Róbert Pölcz)

This year a new Hungarian film, White God, has been touring the festival circuit. It’s about an abandoned mongrel whose trusting nature is repeatedly tested by abuse and cruelty. The result: what had once been an endearingly naughty pooch turns into a very bad dog.

White God could be an allegory about Hungary—a proud creature, kicked around and abused, diminished and blamed, that eventually lashes out in fury. Or maybe it’s about how Hungary has treated some of its own since the second half of the nineteenth century—assimilating them, but forever suspecting them of betrayal; marginalizing them, persecuting them outright, or even killing them. And so, as in the film, the odd victim leaps up to tear out the jugular of a Hungarian guard in a single snap.

This tortured sense of intractable antagonism was the lifelong preoccupation of the Hungarian thinker and former statesman, István Bibó. Born in Budapest in 1911, Bibó spent most of his life trying to divert the states and peoples of Central and Eastern Europe—and, above all, his native country—away from the extremes of enraged self-pity and self-righteousness and toward responsibility. At the same time he tried to sensitize the Great Powers to the miseries that fed these extremes. As he wrote in 1946, “Men are most wicked when they believe they are threatened, morally justified, and exonerated, and particularly when they feel they are entitled and obliged to punish others.”

Having served the Hungarian government at critical moments in the country’s mid-century history, Bibó’s drive to mediate between extremes assured that his forays into state service would end badly. As a civil servant in the Ministry of Justice during the period of Hungary’s alliance with Germany and later under German occupation, he forged papers for Hungarian Jews to help them escape deportation. This got him arrested, but his internment lasted just a few days. In 1958, however, he was handed a life sentence (of which he served six years) for having stood his ground in parliament as the sole representative of the 1956 Hungarian revolutionary government, while Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest.

In a country and culture that gave the world “Gloomy Sunday” (also known as the “Hungarian Suicide Song”) and that has long taken a strange pride in having one of the world’s highest suicide rates, Bibó’s greatest character flaw was his optimism. By all accounts a very decent and honorable man, his remarkable deficiency in earthly vices has made him a difficult target for criticism; so much so that one determined Hungarian conservative scholar, András Lánczi, prefaced his critique of Bibó’s thought with the claim that, just as a bad person may still have good ideas, a person of “venerable character” can as readily have bad ones.


Bibó’s thought is not easy to categorize. He was a socialist but not a Marxist; a Calvinist, but one who forever sought to reconcile the Protestantism of his father with the Catholic traditions of his mother. He loved Hungary but remained one of its harshest critics, and was an intellectual who believed that intellectuals were too fixated on ideology. The “common sin” of capitalism and communism, in his view, was that both imposed social quarantines—there was always some minority to be excluded from the “whole.” If it had been up to Bibó, all binaries—from the Schism to the Cold War—would have been abolished.

The best way into the mind of a figure who embodied so many apparent contradictions is through his vocabulary. Words that resonated positively for Bibó: democracy, facts, responsibility, duty, possibility, potential, and release. On the opposite end of the spectrum: confusion, misapprehension, hysteria, claim, grievance, essential, necessary, and, above all, fear. He regularly quarantined problematic words within scare quotes, punctuating the distance between his own thinking and terms almost universally misused during the Second World War.

One of these terms was “justice.” After Hungary sustained significant territorial losses in the wake of the post–First World War settlement, “Justice for Hungary” became a popular revisionist slogan, often coupled with images of a mangled Hungary nailed to a cross. It was with the cry of “justice” that the Hungarian government joined the Axis alliance, committing significant numbers of soldiers to the war against the Soviet Union in exchange for the partial re-annexation of these territories. When it became clear that the Germans would not win the war, the Hungarian government sought to switch alliances. The result was German occupation and the carrying out of the “Final Solution” in Hungary with the active participation of many Hungarian officials and gendarmes. The word “solution” was thus also generally cosseted in scare quotes in Bibó’s work.

Bibó began his career in state service as these events were unfolding. In 1938, he became a civil servant in the Ministry of Justice. That year the first of three anti-Jewish laws was introduced in Hungary, limiting Jews’ representation in the professions—including the press and the law—to 20 percent. A few months later, the longstanding law journal Rule-of-Law State (Jogállam: jog- és államtudományi szemle) ceased publication. Although the courts retained a degree of independence, the disappearance of the periodical effectively marked the end of the rule of law in Hungary. Bibó called the first anti-Jewish law “disgusting,” but did not sign the protest memorandum opposing it. Later he would write that its implementation underscored the “moral nose-dive of society.”

Bust of István Bibó (1911-1979) on the Danube promenade in Budapest. Just above the inscription is graffiti directed against the current prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán. Photo by Róbert Pölcz.

One of Bibó’s most profound works is a long essay from 1948, “The Jewish Question in Hungary After 1944,” in which he documented the “moral degradation of Hungarian society” in persecuting the Jews. “[O]ur most urgent task is to create a public conception that takes the issues of responsibility and culpability seriously,” an imperative that Bibó exercised on himself in the piece, addressing with wrenching frankness the temptations of anti-Semitism. “[O]f all of the prejudices, anger, feelings of superiority, induration, actions, and omissions to which I have referred in harsh terms,” he wrote, “there was none that I myself have not experienced or for which I would not feel directly or indirectly responsible.” When he expounded in another essay on the example of Christ, who had overcome his own peevishness, one senses the lesson was as personal as it was world-historical for Bibó.

The essay closes with a plea for “a clearer, more courageous national reckoning that will be more prepared to face responsibilities.” “[I]t is hopeless,” he wrote, “to seek a singular ‘solution,’ a magic potion or an incantation to remedy this situation. Rather, we must deprive the circle of its momentum . . . we must combat prejudices which postulate that qualitative inequalities between individuals are fated, and strive to bring about a social order based on the qualitative co-equality of all men.”

These themes were to inform much of Bibó’s thought. The experience of watching and participating in the moral breakdown of Hungarian society during the war led him to believe all the more firmly in “the classical institutions of liberty,” among them, the independence of the courts, the separation of powers, and judicial control over administration. Opposed to all forms of charismatic leadership—a genealogy of which he traced from Napoleon to Hitler—Bibó saw the historical trend toward the “depersonalization of power” as a fundamentally positive development. In a long work completed in the early 1970s called “The Meaning of European Social Development,” he repeated Aristotle’s insight: “given a constitution, people are ruled not by people but by law.”

Bibó made it his lifelong intellectual project to understand why the people of some nations—including Germans, Hungarians, Poles and Czechs—have had such a fraught relationship with democratic ideas and institutions. He began by rejecting commonly cited causes, like economic conditions or innate national characteristics. One of Bibó’s favorite rhetorical strategies was to demolish a misleading binary that necessitated a choice between extremes. The Germans were neither basically good nor inherently wicked; borders should be neither rigidly fixed nor inherently fungible. Instead, he would reframe the problem. The real question in German history was whether Germans were “constantly marked by a hysterical attitude to the community of Europe” or not. If the answer was “no,” Bibó wrote in a long essay from 1943 to 1944, then Germany could be redeemed, and arguably has been since.

Not many thinkers were contemplating Germany’s redemption at the time. What one of Bibó’s conservative critics calls his “laughable naiveté” has long elicited condescending commentary from both ends of the Hungarian political spectrum. And yet Bibó was no Pollyanna. Hope, he wrote in his essay “Memorandum: Hungary, A Scandal and Hope for the World,” does not presuppose “historical necessity.” Instead, “it is an opportunity that can be grasped or bungled.” Politics had to concern itself with addressing proximal, concrete tasks in order to advance toward a more equitable society, rather than propagating grandiose theories for why events and peoples had to bend to one inevitability or another. Instead of claims and status, he believed, one should speak of responsibilities; in place of grievance and redress, of a sense of duty. “We are not in the comfortable position of either being able to establish, as a kind of natural law, the rule of the right and wrong development of society or being discharged by any such natural law from the responsibility of leading the great activity of organizing human polity in the wrong direction, a dead end, or, most recently, the total annihilation of mankind.”

For Bibó, there was nothing “natural” about natural law and nothing “lawful” about the laws of history. He especially scorned the hermetic, conspiratorial explanations of historical development and human nature offered by fascism and Marxism-Leninism. Just after the war he seemed to think the Russian Revolution represented a potentially positive development in human history, and later in life, he defended the use of revolutionary tactics in Latin America and in Hungary in 1956, but generally spoke with vitriol against the two kinds of “unproductive” men: the revolutionary and the reactionary.

For Bibó the problem with Marxism-Leninism was that its conspiratorial framework made it blind to divisions within capitalist interests that could be exploited to effect a positive social transformation by more democratic means. The only force that made capitalism cohere and capitalists close ranks was the threat of socialism. The Marxist-Leninist inclination to view capitalists as a monolithic whole, casting them as both fatally foolish and abnormally shrewd, he felt, undermined the cause of social reform.

Another charge Bibó leveled against Marxism was that its critique of property was too categorical. He believed that a distinction should be made between property for a single person or family to use (a home, a farm), which brought status and greater freedom to the individual, and “mammoth property” (factories, apartment complexes), which essentially created a right of disposal, mainly over people. Along with other Hungarian populist thinkers of the time, Bibó felt the former should be preserved, the latter, held in check.


For all his navigation between extremes, Bibó was no moderate. He sought an inspired politics beyond the cult of the charismatic leader, one rooted in the potential of every person to effect change in themselves and others. This cultural Calvinism comes through most powerfully in his romance with the word “radical.” The word conducts an electric sense of possibility in Bibó’s work. One had to “radically think through the social meaning of the full liberation of the Hungarian people,” to “radically give up the hopeless phraseology of revolution,” and reverently recall the “radically democratic parliamentary democracy” that existed in Hungary for a few years after the Second World War.

It was during that fragile interlude that Bibó came into his element. Though he wrote extensively—from his time studying law in Vienna and Geneva in the mid-to-late 1930s, up until his death in 1979 of a heart attack—very few of his works were published in Hungary during his lifetime, and the bulk of them were written in that slim span of postwar years. “And what will they carve on the cross at my grave?” he later wondered to a group of friends. “István Bibó. Lived: 1945–1948.” Yet the perennial optimist was ever hopeful that he and Hungarian democracy might someday live again. Even while working as a librarian in the National Statistical Office, where he served out the remainder of his “career” after being released from prison, he never ceased contemplating the shape of possible futures and drafting elaborate reform programs.

Though he viewed capitalism as a transitory phenomenon, he feared the rise of a class with “tremendous financial opportunities and little matching sense of personal responsibility.” Viable social reform would therefore have to disable the “sector of capitalism” that possessed both the desire and the capacity to influence state, military, and other policies in its own narrow self-interest. To this end he proposed making factories non-inheritable and introducing a tax to loosen the concentration of massive amounts of property in the hands of a few.

Bibó’s ideal was the total devolution of power: no technocrats, no vanguard, no oligarchy, just “mutual services,” introducing a kind of equality into human relationships insofar as everyone would both serve and be served. He called this ideal “an-archic,” emphasizing with the hyphen that it was non-hierarchical, yet distinct from the chaos implied by “anarchy.” The realization of an “an-archic future” was not an assured outcome, but striving towards its eventual achievement was a worthy enterprise.

If Bibó had a weakness, it was his pathologization of East-Central Europe, a proclivity shared by many Western commentators who have persisted in seeing this part of the world as a problem and the creation of more or less homogeneous democratic nation-states as the only possible solution. Bibó himself knew all too well that “original backwardness,” “underdeveloped and anti-democratic social relations,” and “coarse political methods” were the region’s most outstanding features in the eyes of most of his Western contemporaries. While he considered such assessments “gravely misconceived,” he also maintained repeatedly that the region warranted special attention for the dubious distinction of having set off two world wars, to which he added the threat of a third.


Though Bibó’s legacy does not enjoy the near-universal reverence it once did, he is still a formidable presence in the Hungarian intellectual pantheon. In today’s Hungary, where it is commonplace to cast any form of leftism or even liberal democracy as a “foreign”—often implying “Jewish”—imposition, Bibó is wielded like a talisman of irreproachability by his champions. Foremost among these is Árpád Göncz, a longtime friend of Bibó’s who became the first president of post–socialist Hungary (1990–2000). In 1995, Göncz recalled a conversation with Bibó in the infamous Vác prison where they were interned together for their roles in the 1956 revolution. “I had a terrible dream last night,” Bibó told him. “It was winter and snowing. I stood atop a pediment for a statue and was horribly cold and I wanted to get down, but I couldn’t.” Göncz read the dream as prescient of how Bibó’s thought has been frozen and isolated by its own authoritativeness.

Hungary’s current prime minister Viktor Orbán, a founding member of the “Young Democrats” (or Fidesz), has made offerings at the altar of Bibó, even gifting the late thinker’s portrait to the European Parliament in Brussels in 2007. But the rule of law has not fared too well in Bibó’s birthplace of late. It was within the István Bibó College dormitory of Hungary’s most prestigious university that Orbán and others founded the “Young Democrats” (or Fidesz) in 1988, a time when Bibó enjoyed immense posthumous popularity as a voice of reform and opposition. Bibó’s spirit strode arm-in-arm with Orbán and Fidesz through the wall of history that was 1989. Having emerged on the other side into a new world, however, their paths began to diverge.

Two residents of the István Bibó dormitory in the room where the current prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, resided when he co-founded the Young Democrats (Fidesz) together with his roommate Gábor Fodor and other disaffected students in 1988. Photo by Róbert Pölcz.

Fidesz is neither young nor overly democratic anymore, having practically assumed the role of the dominant party in a new kind of one-party state. Although Orbán parrots Bibó’s insistence that “anything is possible,” the ideal he envisions is “illiberal democracy,” a far cry from Bibó’s “an-archic future.” In fact, today the very word “future” is one that Bibó would likely inoculate with quotation marks. “Better future” (Szebb jövőt), a revival of the interwar Hungarian boy-scout greeting, is now best known as the slogan of the far-right Jobbik party.

Over the past few years, Hungary has diverged so sharply from rule-of-law precepts that the EU parliament passed a resolution in 2013 calling on the country to restore an independent judiciary and alter parliamentary procedure to allow the opposition to participate in lawmaking. Last spring, the European Commission drafted A New EU Framework to Strengthen the Rule of Law. “[E]xperience has shown that a systemic threat to the rule of law in Member States cannot, in all circumstances, be effectively addressed by the instruments currently existing at the level of the Union,” the report reads, citing the Hungarian example.

In his foreword to a new collection of Bibó’s selected essays in English translation, the Polish public intellectual and former dissident Adam Michnik characterized the current Hungarian political configuration as “more like Vladimir Putin’s model of ‘sovereign democracy,’” and made a not-so-oblique reference to the specter of “anti-communism with a Bolshevik face.” Even more ominously, last year the iron grip of Fidesz began to slip in parliamentary elections, with Jobbik as the primary beneficiary.

It is in this climate that Göncz, along with a handful of other Hungarian intellectuals, sought to bring Bibó and his ideas down from their pedestal and out of the cold. Göncz wrote the foreword to a collection of documents on Bibó’s life published in 1995, and personally subsidized the publication of another volume marking the centenary of Bibó’s birth. These efforts have been seconded by the recent publication of a new collection of Bibó’s work in English translation, The Art of Peacemaking: Political Essays by István Bibó. The collection’s editor, Iván Zoltán Dénes, is also a founder of the István Bibó Center for Advanced Studies, established in 1996 to promote scholarship on the late thinker’s ideas and to propagate “positive individual and communal models.”

Reading these collections, it is Bibó’s strange, seemingly unwarranted faith in politics that most commands our attention. In his 1948 essay “The Warped Hungarian Self: A History of Impasse,” he wrote that “politics does not permit lies.” He not only believed that the future could change course entirely, providing an “invaluable release” from ruinous fixations, he also acted on this belief. In the surreal caesura between the Soviet intervention and his arrest in early 1957, he sat at his desk and wrote incessantly. He wrote an open letter to the Hungarians, urging them to engage in passive resistance. Then he wrote a lengthy “Memorandum” addressed to the world, and especially to the forces he knew would determine Hungary’s fate—the Soviets, the West, and the nascent Non-Aligned Movement. Ever the mediator, Bibó tried to reframe the problem in a way that would bring all sides together. If Hungary were allowed to carry out its revolutionary objectives, he argued, its example would show how capitalism could be humanized, how socialism could take various forms, and how to imagine a “third way.” With Soviet tanks on the streets and in the squares of Budapest, the revolutionary leadership facing trial and execution, and the West distracted by the Suez crisis, Bibó’s “Memorandum” concludes with the otherworldly assertion that “the potentials of the Hungarian case and the world situation are now far more hopeful than at any time in the previous decade.”

In the final scene of White God, a spree of vengeance ends with a standoff between dogs and people, which is resolved by a gesture—a song. A fragile peace unfolds, with the protagonists keeping a safe distance from one another. The sleeping dogs are left to lie, at least for as long as it takes for the credits to roll, but we know that the real ending lies just beyond the copyright notice and cannot be anything but catastrophic. The cycle of retribution will inevitably resume.

Here Bibó would call a stop. It was simply not true, he insisted, that natural law necessitated struggle between all living creatures. “[I]n the world of animals,” he wrote, “mutual interest in life is far more significant than mutual antagonism.” The same then holds for the twisted politics of extremes in the human realm. Because the next stage of the cataclysm boded by White God has not yet actually occurred, maybe we can still hope that things will turn out differently. Bibó, the would-be mediator, believed that there was “a disarming gesture for every aggression, and this is what we ought to seek.” Maybe this time it will be found.

Holly Case is an associate professor of history at Cornell University and the author of Between States: The Transylvanian Question and the European Idea During World War II (Stanford University Press, 2009). She is currently completing a manuscript on the “age of questions.”

Correction: This article originally stated that, for his wartime work assisting Hungarian Jews as a civil servant in the Ministry of Justice, Bibó was later given the title of “Righteous among the Nations.” Bibó was considered for the title, but did not, in fact, receive it.

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