Speeches / Speech by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán at the Századvég Sovereignty Conference

Speech by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán at the Századvég Sovereignty Conference

Good morning Ladies and Gentlemen.

Thank you very much for the invitation to what for me is more like a “meet the author” event. Having been invited to such a conference I will, of course, also talk about sovereignty. But I would rather talk about something that interests me more: the history of Századvég [“End of the Century”]. Because there are two reasons that I have been invited here among you. The first is that sovereignty is, after all, a category of constitutional law, and the Hungarian state is governed by the Hungarian government, of which I am a member; and so I have something to do with the issue of sovereignty. But there is another reason, and perhaps this is what now interests me more: the past thirty years. You state that Századvég is thirty years old today, and that is what we are celebrating. My timepiece works differently: I think that Századvég is about to turn forty. And I would like to say a few words about that. 

I will go back in time, as Gábor Fűrész has done, because although of course as an institute Századvég was born thirty years ago, its conception dates back much further: to the mid-1980s. I can tell the young people here that that is when the major things started. After all, the predecessor of Századvég was the Századvég journal, of which – along with some of the ancients sitting here – I was a member, and a sort of founding father. Once every thirty years it is perhaps not a bad idea to talk about the period before birth, the period linked to conception. This is also how it is on birthdays: sooner or later someone – usually your mother – will tell you how it was on the day you were born.

So, if you will allow me, let us start with where the name of the institution comes from. Some people do not understand exactly what we meant by it, and just think that the fall of communism somehow occurred at the end of the 20th century, that it happened at that time, and that there and then this must have been an appropriate name. There are, of course, young people who are now bored with that and find the choice of name less appealing. Their view is more in line with that of János Arany: “Time drives swiftly on, it runs its course; if we mount, it moves us on; if we stay behind, it will not wait”. And they feel that personally there is a lot less connecting them with this thing called Századvég, because in 2023 it is an extremely awkward name, and it does not stand up at all. The more impertinent of them will also say that if they listen to us, they will have to wait another seventy years before such an institutional name makes sense again. Perhaps we can accept that from the young: it is important for them to be right at least sometimes, and that they are allowed to believe that new times are coming, which will require new tasks and new people. After all, that is how things are. Perhaps we can accept some of the critical voices suggesting ineptitude in the choice of names, and accept that at the time we were indeed quite amateurish. It was 1985 – 1984 to 85 – and we were particularly amateurish when it came to communication issues. But with hindsight perhaps we can say that this inexperience was not a flaw, but rather – in the modern language of economists – added value. If we had been experienced old foxes we might not have started the whole thing in the first place. So young people may be right after all – especially when it comes to themselves.

Distinguished Conference,

Why did we get into this in the first place? To quote [Václav]Havel, we started this whole thing because one must not “live within a lie.” That had been the defining experience of our generation. If you cannot say what you see, think or feel, then you will be laid low by it: you will be laid low by it, and then you will die of it. We always admired our parents for not dying of it, and indeed for holding on, for enduring, for somehow managing to live most of their lives within a lie, within a lying system. But our generation thought, “Thank you very much, we can see that this is possible, but we’d rather not continue.” We wanted something completely different. So we did not pretend, and sometimes – especially of an evening – we were even louder in saying that we hated the communists, because they were forcing us into that life, and it was time to do something about it. And the only question was whether this feeling of ours would find any appropriate expression beyond friends meeting in pubs, world-changing late-night discussions and the associated competition for appreciation of girls that were the norm in university life. Eternal gratitude to the older generation! I will name the people to whom we can be grateful, and to whom I am personally grateful. Stumpf, I mean Professor István Stumpf, who is here with us. This may be surprising, but we have reason to be enormously grateful to László Kéri. Tamás Fellegi, who may not be here, was also an important teacher. There was Csaba Varga, the philosopher of law. And then there was Miklós Csapody. I do not know where he is, if he is still around at all, but in the mid-1980s he taught us the history of Hungarian literature from Transylvania/Erdély. It was from these older people and the feeling of life described here that Bibó College emerged. This was a small island of freedom, which we thought was not a bad first step. But we also thought it was not enough, because the end goal was not five years of free university, but a free life. We wanted the communists to fall and the Soviets to clear off; and we thought that after college a journal would be just the thing for a second step. And so as a second step the journal Századvég was created, based on the idea that a free life begins with free speech, and free speech begins with free writing. Then, once written down, it spreads, and freedom gives birth to more freedom and more free people. That was the philosophy behind the founding of Századvég.

There were two things that distinguished us from the other opposition movements that were being organised at the time. One was that we were the most inexperienced. And – closely related to this – the second was that we were the most radical. As I have been able to see from the previous overview, this is a virtue that Századvég has managed to retain. We did not want to hear about long transitions, consolidated reforms and slow changes. I well remember when János Kis and his Beszélő kör [“Talking Circle”] published a samizdat, a volume of his work – I should know the exact year, but it was after 1985. It was entitled “Kádár must go”. At the time I remember [Laszló] Kövér twirling his moustache and saying, “Kádár? Well, the system must go!” So this little story quite clearly illustrates the radicalism and heterogeneity of the opposition movements of the day. Journal: “Let it have a title, let it have a name”. Sadly it is lost in the depths of Hungarian press history, but the first idea was not “Századvég”, but “Váltóláz” [“Fever for Change”, or “Malaria”].  Right now we could be sitting at a “Malaria conference”, but fortunately that is not the case – although it was a good idea, because the youthful and activist “Váltóláz” was much better suited to our mood and the mood of the times than the somewhat academic-sounding “Századvég”. The truth is that around 1985 there were many of us who were already thinking that in a few years the Russians would be forced to withdraw, the communists could be sent to the ash heap of history, and “the short 20th century” – of which Hungary was, of course, the loser on several occasions – would come to an end. And this is why the idea of Váltóláz was replaced by Századvég. Soon something was about to end, and “End of the Century” reflected that whole atmosphere much better than “Fever for Change”; because it was not simply a question of a two-week changeover, as we had thought in ’56, but of an irreversible transformation closing one era and opening a new one. We were not prophets, of course, and we could not have known for sure that this would happen; but – to summarise our conversations at the time – what we did see was that the economic reserves of the socialist world were running out, there was resistance in Poland, political movements were rising in the peripheral states of the Soviet Union, and that those peripheral states were very likely to fall. The real surprise was that the Soviet Union itself could not be kept together – about which I would just say here, “Vivat Gorbachev!” 

Today we know that we were right in our assessment of the situation. There is one important lesson that young people can perhaps use now, and it is this: it pays to be radical! Even if you cannot achieve radical goals, it is worth it, because either you will achieve them, or if not, at least you have something to bargain with. For me, this has always been my interpretation of so-called “goulash communism”: that life was more bearable in Hungary in the 1970s and 1980s because the ’56 Revolution was the most radical anti-communist movement; it may have failed, but the communists who defeated the Revolution thought of it as an anchor point, telling them what was possible in this country and what was not possible. Therefore it is no exaggeration to say that it is thanks to the ’56ers that in Hungary in the 1970s and 1980s the most liveable conditions in Central Europe were created.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Of course we did not get into journal editing because we were professional or because we were preparing for this career. In fact, we were amateurs. This can also be seen from the first issue of Századvég, which I have brought here to you, and which is not even available in any antiquarian bookshops, but only in libraries – and possibly in the library of István Stumpf. Here is the cover of the first edition of Századvég. No one remembers this. This is where it all started. Later the format changed, but I am showing you this as the most glaring example of amateurism. As you can see, there are photos that embody the concept – shared by us – of János Gyurgyák: that what was needed then was not the advancement of one or another sectarian camp, but the liberation and reclaiming of Hungarian history. And therefore the only place where a Western-minded progressive and a provincial traditionalist – an Oszkár Jászi and a Dezső Szabó – could peacefully coexist was on the cover of Századvég. But that is another story and now I do not want to talk about it, but about amateurism. The essence of the latter can be seen in the fact that here poor Dezső Szabó appears twice, in a younger and an older version, but someone else is missing. So, to return to my point, this shows that the ambition was not really to contribute to the history of Hungarian periodicals, but that there were other considerations behind editing the journal. 

We have János Gyurgyák to thank for the fact that, in such amateurish circumstances, if read or reread, these magazines – these issues – can be seen to have stood the test of time. János Gyurgyák was the only real professional newspaper editor among us. It is thanks to him that we have come this far at all. He spotted the mistake and from the second issue onwards the journal was published correctly. It is no coincidence that János later became his own publisher, and from the very beginning he was the one suited to that kind of thing. He remained in his original vocation, but I would also like to say a few words about the editorial board of the first magazine. 

Here among us we have István Stumpf, to whom we cannot but be grateful. He was our responsible publisher. Courage is a fine thing, but then someone has to take the blame. That is how it is in communist regimes. That was István Stumpf, who took on that burden, and who then also served as Minister of the Prime Minister’s Office in what could be called the first government of specialist college alumni. He was also a member of the Constitutional Court, but remained our teacher to the end. It is also important to mention Tamás Fellegi, who may be a businessman today, but when we needed him he also helped us and participated in the work of one of our governments. 

But the reason I am reciting the whole list of names here is to point out a difference between the current generation of leading politicians and the old generation. Because we still have with us Parliamentary Speaker László Kövér and Mayor of Balatonfüred István Bóka – who back then was the chairman of the board of the specialist college, and therefore also on the editorial board. So we stayed involved in politics. Nowadays it is fashionable for politicians to shuttle between politics and business. This is also the fashion in the West, and the Hungarian socialists do nothing else. On the other hand, those of us – including the aforementioned mayor and the Speaker of the House – who were part of the editorial board are among the old-fashioned ones, who decided that if we entered politics together, which is simply public service, then this is a life path, a vocation. We decided we would stay in it, with no jumping around: not one day being billionaires, another day businessmen and then politicians, until we would not even know exactly what we were anymore, with the only important thing being to stay in power. We did not like this approach, and nor do we like it in current European political culture. We like Jacques Chirac, we like Helmut Kohl, and Aznar – perhaps somewhat a man of the transition era. We have always liked and respected those people who have undertaken public service in conformity with the old school, who have considered it to be a lifelong vocation, and who – regardless of their remuneration – have stayed on the field, whether they lost or won. 

And there is one more name that we need to talk about, because without it we cannot understand anything. This is the name of George Soros. In every ceremony it is important that the name of the Devil is mentioned. This is also necessary in a conference of the Right. At one time we were on the same team as him; and the reason was that, like us, George Soros did not want Hungary to be ruled by the communists. And there was an agreement of intent, so he always supported anti-communist initiatives in Hungary, even in the mid-1980s. How this was possible under the communist regime is not a puzzle we should attempt to solve now, but at some future conference on Miklós Vásárhelyi. The point here is that he was already helping anti-communist initiatives – even our modest attempts – in the mid-eighties. At that time it was not yet clear that he wanted to dominate Central Europe instead of the communists and the Soviets. We could not have known that then. Today we are further ahead, he is no longer hiding his plans, we know about the Soros Plan, he crashed the pound sterling, he is flooding Europe with migrants, and he is openly declaring that national borders must be abolished – in other words, that European countries must be deprived of their sovereignty. This is another instructive story from the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st. 

Ladies and Gentlemen, Dear Friends,

This is how things started. At that time there were only a dozen of us in the team, but no one minded – it was not about how many of us there were. In fact – and I ask those who are doing it now, running it and carrying it forward to never forget this – the whole of Századvég, the story of the founding of Századvég, was a story of heart and patriotism. And I would like it to remain that way. What mattered was not how many of us there were, but what we wanted to say. In the first issue István Stumpf wrote a great essay, expressing it thus: “What we want, and what is possible.” Because at that time not everything was possible. Here in 1985 the communists were still rampaging up and down. To found such a magazine was radicalism itself. The launch of Századvég was a radical declaration that there was a generation here who not only believed that changes were needed, but that radical changes would be made. This is what Századvég is about. We thought that we had to help those who wanted change, to tell and write down what happened in ’56, to write down the truths here that could not be written down elsewhere. An outstanding moment in the history of Századvég was when we published the text of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which made it clear that forty-five years earlier the communists and the Nazis had already agreed, for the greater glory of sovereignty, on how to divide up Eastern and Central Europe above our heads. If we had not taken that approach then, we would not be standing here today, there would be no Századvég. But there would also be no Fidesz – and, most importantly, there would be no sovereign Hungary. We were right, we set the right goals, and as the name says, the end of the century really did come before that of Századvég. The gag worked, Ladies and Gentlemen! 

This is how we got to 1993, which is when you think history began. But that is only the date of birth, not the date of conception. In 1993 we were still young, but we were nowhere near the amateurs we had been ten years earlier. It was clear to everyone that there was and would be a Fidesz – at least it was clear to those who were in it. We thought it was nice to have the parliamentary group of twenty-two members that we had been given in the first parliamentary election; but we felt that we would soon have more serious tasks ahead of us, and we also felt that we were going to have to do something so big that we would certainly need intellectual support. I say to the young people of today that confidence is a good thing, and of course “Let me play the lion too” is also very good. But I am one of those people who knows that they are not young enough to know all the answers. You can go further if you realise this at a young age. At a young age we realised that youth alone does not give you a valid answer to every question, and so you need support – and we started to organise this supporting background. We were no longer in the college common room discussing matters only with one another, deciding only together, deciding what should happen only among ourselves: we needed broader and more in-depth knowledge, because we were preparing to win a parliamentary majority. At that time we were also facing major intellectual challenges. I am talking about 1993–94. And then the communists came back, and they were like the Bourbons: they had learned nothing, but they had forgotten nothing. They were freed from the political quarantine in which we had kept them until then. They had been sitting next to us on the edge of the parliamentary “horseshoe”: the poor things were squeezed in there, symbolising the existence of a cordon sanitaire, and that people of good conscience who enter politics because of their anti-communism cannot associate with MPs from the communists’ successor parties – regardless of their personal ability or lack thereof. The real twist in the whole story, which made it even more difficult for us intellectually, was that it was the pro-freedom liberals who opened the door for the ex-communists to come out from behind the cordon. Today I see that this does shock anyone here, which is probably because it is now commonplace in the West: everyone knows that in Western Europe it is natural for the liberals to be the new communists. But in 1993–94 it caused quite a shock here, a moral shock, and it shook up the whole Hungarian political system; because at that time at least people of good conscience were still suspicious of such things. So we had to gird our loins. This was in 1993–94, the other side had united what belonged together, and we had to strengthen ourselves. We needed an intellectual workshop, we needed a civic research centre to support us, so that we could continue in a more serious framework what we had started in 1985 when we founded the journal against the same people – the people against whom we had founded the journal in 1985. This is how the Századvég Public Knowledge Center was created thirty years ago. This is what we, as parents – as mothers and fathers – could tell our children on their birthdays: “This is how it happened, my darlings, on that day, this is how the labour pains came, and this is how we took your mother to hospital where she gave birth to you.” 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

If we are talking about a sovereignty conference, there is one more thing I need to talk about. In 2002 we acquired an important piece of knowledge. After losing the elections then, we had to face up to the fact that the battle we were fighting could not be won in that way. After losing an election you have to think a lot about why you lost it, you have to find out where you went wrong, and how deep the problem is. And we had to understand that our fundamental mistake – which takes us back to 1990 – was that we thought that if we were living in a democracy, then from that point on nothing could threaten us. We thought that we had national sovereignty, that it was ours, that everyone at home would serve it and everyone abroad respect it. But in life, things often work differently from the way that you are taught or read or think. And after 2002 we had to learn that Hungary remaining sovereign is in the interests of us Hungarians alone. It is in no one else’s interest. Hungary remaining a sovereign country is not in the interest of the world around us, and neither is it in the interest of that world’s people inside Hungary: although they are Hungarians, it is not in their interest for Hungary to remain sovereign, and they would be better off if we lost our sovereignty – either partially or completely. So what we had to reckon with in 2002, and what we have to live with in our lives today, is that we know that there are and always will be forces – let’s call them dark forces, as someone has just mentioned Star Wars – that will continue to besiege the defensive lines of sovereignty, including those of Hungary. 

What lessons have we learned from this realisation? The lesson we have learned is that Hungary will not be sovereign as long as liberal hegemony dominates public thinking. The country cannot be sovereign if every existing institution, newspaper, television station and think tank takes one view – most likely the view of a kind of liberal Western elite. If there is liberal hegemony, then – as in the West – conservatives, nationalists and Christians can only win elections by accident, with good luck, with the kiss of Fortuna. And then there is still the question of what László Kövér said: that we were in government but not in power. And power is the essence of sovereignty. Therefore for Hungary to remain a sovereign country it is necessary that a liberal hegemony does not exist in our country. This is the essence of what we realised, and the essence of the conclusion drawn from that realisation. This does not mean that we must eliminate what belongs to the opponent. That is the communist way. On the contrary: in Hungary we want pluralism. So our opponent has a hegemonic approach, and we have a pluralist approach. After the election defeat in 2002 we thought that we had to create an environment in which everyone can have their place in the sun. We were in opposition for eight years, and in 2010 we created that environment. This is why we won in Hungary, and this is why we have been able to win continuously since 2010. We believe that there should be competition in Hungary, including intellectual competition. In other words there should be pluralism, and the conditions for this should be created and maintained.

Let me stress that this has not yet been understood in the West. Western public thinking is not capable of leaving the liberal framework, the framework with which it has been surrounded. Take the Western European press, for example. If you open a Western newspaper, whether of the Left or the Right, and read what it says on the important issues, the articles could have been published in a paper from the other side; because on the most important issues the Right and the Left write essentially the same things. There is no difference in substance, the palette is monochrome. Consequently the authors belong to the same faction – however much they try to deny it. If we do the same in Hungary, we see a different situation: the political palette is multicoloured and pluralist; and therefore the everyday life of the Hungarian political world is much more exciting, vibrant and colourful than that of our Western friends. In other words, I would say that from this point of view the Hungarian political system is much more democratic than the Western one. There are still substantive debates here. We cannot imagine such a survey as the one we have seen, or a survey with such a result, because if the opinion of the Hungarian political elite were to diverge to such an extent from that of the people, it would not survive a week – or to the next election at the latest. And it could easily fail even before that, because in Hungary it would certainly be impossible to manage such a democratic deficit: such a deficit between the policies of the elites and the will of the people. And in this sense we can safely assume that our political system is closer to the classical democratic conception than the Western European one, which for a long time was considered exemplary.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

If the majority of the Hungarian people can identify with one of the available positions rather than the other, in Hungary this is called a victory. If one of them is better, more skilful and more hardworking than the other, it wins. This is the nature of competition. Those who cannot accept this, those who think that this should not be the case, those who want liberal hegemony, are in fact in the historical sense communists. We can identify them from a distance, from the air, because of the history we have just told. 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to make one final comment. The important thing is that the liberals, who are our opponents, do not care about the people. So the starting point of their thinking, as we heard from the opening speaker Gábor Fűrész, is not freedom in a positive sense. Their starting point is not the human community in which we live, but an ideal. Liberals, like communists, are always essentially activists for an ideal – which is why there are so many similarities between the two groups. As seen from the survey, they are not interested in what people think, but in what Marx, Engels, Locke or Mill think about an issue. They follow an idea, and anyone who deviates from that idea is stigmatised, and perhaps even despised – but in any case they are excluded from debates in the political arena. This is why events such as today’s Sovereignty Conference and research such as we have just seen here are so important. We are under constant pressure, and after a while – under hegemonic, political, public pressure – one becomes willing to accept the liberal premises of public life and to perceive one’s own position as that of a squeezed minority position. Meanwhile these surveys show us that the reality is the opposite. We are in great need of these projects, which time and again reaffirm our pluralist thinking. 

This survey has clearly shown what it has shown, and there is no need to go over it again here. The point is that people’s views are clear, the majority view is clear, but people in the West who have these views are being left to their own devices. Under these circumstances, they can want to express their opinions all they like, but if the information medium does not accept the starting point and the facts, then the voice of the people will not be heard. This is why Hungary is important in European politics today. Think about it: the reason is not our GDP, nor the number of our soldiers, the size of our army, of our military forces. If there is a reason for the attention and influence that Hungary has in European politics today, it is precisely because we are the only country and government that speaks in the way that people think – and in this sense not only the way that Hungarian people think, but also the way that Western European people think. This is what gives it its importance, this is what gives it its weight. What we can do with this is another matter, and that is now a matter for the professional art of politicians. But there is no doubt that in international politics Hungary has an influence that exceeds its true weight, the reason for this being that today the people of Europe can express their opinions through Hungary and not through their own public spheres. 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is time that the West also learned that one cannot live within a lie, because one will be laid low by it, and then one will die of it. It is time for people to assert the positions that we have just seen here, and for these to be reflected and represented in European politics. In other words, it is time for change to happen in Europe too, and for the European people to take back the European institutions. 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The last century was about the loss of national sovereignty, the end of the century was about regaining it, and the current decade is about retaining sovereignty. In this struggle, I believe that Századvég will have a great task. In the struggle for Hungary’s sovereignty, we, as leading politicians, continue to count on Századvég’s help, and especially on its young people. As Gábor said, Századvég has many young people working for it, and we are counting on them. We have gained sovereignty, and it is up to them, the young people, to keep it. On behalf of the founders of Századvég, I wish you every success!

Thank you for your attention.


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