Thursday, January 26, 2012
Vienna-Budapest, a journey into the past
Heirs to the Hapsburg Empire, Austria and Hungary have something else in common: an ambiguous relationship with history and a tendency to tolerate political excesses. Ten years after European sanctions against Vienna, why does the Budapest seem to be stuck in the 1930s?
Some years ago, they finally built a comfortable rail link between Vienna and Budapest. It is actually fast, certainly a lot faster than the one I took almost a quarter of a century ago when a trip between the two cities still meant crossing the Iron Curtain.
Today Austria and Hungary are both members of the European Union, and their capitals seem like two cousins that have finally made peace after a long feud. With their wide avenues swept by breezes from the Danube, their neo-Renaissance palaces built by barons of industry, their adoration of Empress Sissi of Austria and her great love for Hungarian rebels – both cities share a common heritage, the legacy of Central Europe.
So when traveling from Vienna to Budapest, why do you get the nagging impression that you are taking a train back to the 1930s? No doubt from the anti-Semitic violence and and political hatred that have been expressed in Hungary. But also from the widening gap, that has emerged between two countries with similar experiences: both were born from the trauma of the First World War. Like Hungary, Austria lost the greater part of its territory, which was distributed to the peoples it had dominated – before being reduced, in the wake of the Anschluss in 1938, to a simple province in Hitler’s Germany.
The "cowardice" of European conservatives
Indentured to the Hapsburgs, the Hungarians had been granted the right to dominate and forcibly Hungarianize Croats, Slovaks, Romanians and other vassals, but with the Trianon Treaty in 1920, they had to pay the bill for these abuses, and they have never really recovered. Had you had the opportunity to visit one of the offices of the current Hungarian Minister for Foreign Affairs, János Martonyi, in early 2010, you might have been surprised to see a map of Greater Hungary with its pre-1920 borders.
Following the 1986 election of Kurt Waldheim, who become president in spite of revelations about his time in the Wehrmacht, Austria had to come to terms with its role in the Nazi catastrophe. In contrast, Hungary has continued to take refuge in its assumed role of victim, in which others – the Ottomans, the Hapsburgs, the Jews, the liberals, the Germans, the Russians, the Gypsies, and now the European Commission and the Strasbourg Parliament – are always to blame.
"Hungary is Europe’s most long-suffering nation," ironically remarks former Austrian vice-chancellor Erhard Busek, of the ÖVP People’s Party, one of the rare Christian Democrats to have held out against any alliance with FPÖ extreme-right populist Jörg Haider. It is a familiar rhetoric in Austria, he adds: for many years the country presented itself as the "first victim of Nazism," while forgetting that it had supplied many of the highly ranked members of Hitler’s regime.
Mr Busek deplores the "cowardice" of European conservatives with regard to Mr Orbán. Torn between the fury prompted by Budapest’s attacks on their companies and a slightly shameful solidarity, the Austrians have hardly dared to criticise Hungary’s excesses. They know what it means to be in the spotlight – an experience they lived through in January 2000, when they had to endure a seven-month preventive purgatory of European sanctions.
For Austrians, Europe has been a good deal
The goal of the sanctions was the symbolic isolation of a government that conservative Wolfgang Schüssel had formed with a party imbued with the legacy of Nazism – an ignominious lesson that was poorly received. Even today, many Austrians are convinced that they were unjustly punished because Austria is a small country, just as many Hungarians believe that the international press has now fallen into the grip of "hysteria."
Remarkably, even at the height of the crisis, Mr Schüssel remained a devout European. In his office he had a large canvas by painter Max Weiler, who for many years had been rejected as too modern by Austrian public opinion. Whereas Mr Orbán likes to appear before a dense thicket of Hungarian flags, swears by the Holy Crown, and likens Brussels to a "new Moscow."
This is perhaps explained, remarks Hungarian political analyst Zoltán Kiszely, by the fact that many Hungarians do not believe the European Union will survive the current turmoil. "We had the Hapsburg monarchy, and it came to an end. Then we sided with Nazism, and that failed to work out. Thereafter we thought the Soviet Union was going last until its collapse took us by surprise."
For the Austrians, on the contrary, Europe has been a good deal: a recent study has revealed that their country has derived the most economic benefit from belonging to the EU. However, that has not prevented the current successor to the late Jörg Haider, Heinz-Christian Strache, from adroitly surfing the wave of the European financial crisis to boost his ratings in the polls. Vienna-Budapest, anyone?