The stories countries tell about themselves are key to national identity — and authoritarian governments in Hungary and Poland have made it their mission to control the plot.
“We have been mandated to build a new era,” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban proclaimed in July 2018. “An era is always more than a political system. An era is a special and characteristic cultural reality. We must embed the political system in a cultural era.”
With these words, delivered in a speech three months after his Fidesz party won elections with a landslide, Hungary’s populist leader made it clear he planned to use his third consecutive term to craft a new national narrative — a founding story, of sorts, to inform national identity.
In this modified history, critics say Orban has cast himself as saviour of a pure nation steeped in Christian values but besieged by external threats: migrants, Muslims, liberal ideologues.
For the story to be believable, academic, educational and cultural institutions have to play along.
“Orban practically announced that the task of the new parliamentary session was to take over the national narrative, to change the cultural course and the political history that produces it in a way beneficial for his government,” said Peter Kreko, director of Budapest-based think tank Political Capital.
“This means putting the institutions that manufacture this knowledge under control.”
All countries have national narratives but few governments in Europe have gone as far as Hungary in seeking to shape the plot. Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party appears, however, to be seeking a similar grip on the manufacturers of knowledge.
In Hungary, the most egregious example of trying to control the message is a recent move to put the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA) under the thumb of the prime minister.
A bill passed in July will hand the 15 research institutes controlled by the country’s oldest scientific institute to the newly founded Eotvos Lorand Research Network, a government-controlled body.
The government claims the move was needed to improve research and development. Despite recent progress, Hungary lags most of its EU peers in innovation rankings.
It will allow the government to “promote research that contributes to Hungary’s economic growth and overall development … that turns knowledge into tangible results,” government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs wrote in a blog. He also hinted that funding levels for the 15 research bodies will depend on what they study.
The move flies in the face of fierce resistance from scientists at home and abroad. The MTA has warned of a brain drain amid fears that political pressure will now threaten academic freedom.
The takeover of the MTA is viewed in many quarters as part of a systemic drive to make sure schools and science, theatres and galleries toe the line in supporting the Fidesz regime’s warnings that Hungary is under threat.
Looming in the background of the new national narrative is the spectre of the Treaty of Trianon, the World War I peace terms forced on Hungary by the victorious allied powers that stripped the country of many border territories.
In Fidesz’s version of the story, only a strongman like Orban can repel liberal globalist forces seeking to finish off the job.
Although it has its own distinct national subplots, the script promoted by Poland’s PiS is largely the same.
“PiS is very keen to promote a sense of constant threat,” said Ben Stanley, an assistant professor at SWPS University in Warsaw. “They promote the idea that the authentic Polish nation has won a temporary reprieve against the homogenising forces of liberal cosmopolitanism.”
While Orban’s focus is on the losses inflicted on Hungary in the wake of World War I, it is the horrors endured during World War II that are key in Poland.
Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of the nationalist-conservative PiS, has long pushed a policy of the “politics of memory”. The country is marinated in stories highlighting Polish heroism and sacrifice.
“You go to a bookshop, you switch on the television, you pick up a newspaper and you’d think that nothing but history is relevant,” said Anita Prazmowska, a professor of history at the London School of Economics.
PiS has put museums and research institutes into harness, installing new managers loyal to the party and giving them expanded powers.
You go to a bookshop, you switch on the television, you pick up a newspaper and you’d think that nothing but history is relevant.
Last year, the Institute of National Remembrance wielded its new heft to initiate a controversial “Holocaust law”, which made it a criminal act to suggest Polish complicity in Nazi-era crimes.
“Historical debate is complicated, but the government-controlled institutions produce a simple and straightforward narrative that Poland is besieged and there’s only one party that defends true Polish identity,” Prazmowska said.
Critics also note that reforms to the education system have introduced a curriculum in secondary schools intended to cultivate the “correct” values, historical interpretations and Polish identity.
The theatre and arts are also feeling the pressure. Performances and exhibitions deemed to cross the boundaries of conservative Catholic values have been attacked by government and Church officials as well as state media.
All of which fuels self-censorship as researchers, theatres and galleries increasingly fear losing vital funding, Stanley said.
In Hungary, too, such a survival instinct already infects the very largest of cultural institutions.
The Hungarian State Opera has announced that its 2019/20 Christian Spirit Season will feature productions “inspired by biblical stories, or those that convey Christian ideas and values”.
Last year, it cancelled performances of the musical Billy Elliot after pro-government media said the show promotes homosexuality.
Beyond the basics
Orban’s longer reach stems from the depth and longevity of his rule.
Fidesz has governed with a large majority since 2010. Orban spent most of his first two terms on the basics: engineering changes in the electoral system and putting the key democratic institutions — the judiciary and media — under control.
For the campaign ahead of the elections in April 2018, he began scripting his “special cultural reality”, as he termed it in his July 2018 speech. Islam, Brussels and US financier George Soros played the villains, leaving Orban to save Hungary and Europe’s “Christian culture”.
That moved many institutions that might disrupt the show by offering alternative values into the firing line. The Soros-founded Central European University has been hounded out of Budapest. Gender studies courses have been shut down across the country.
Museums and research institutions dealing with Hungary’s wartime history and the 1956 revolution against the communist regime have also been taken over.
“The takeover of the MTA is not a sporadic measure,” said Kreko from Political Capital, “but fits with a broader strategy”.
Kaczynski’s grip on Polish institutions is not as tight. PiS has only ruled since 2015 and doesn’t enjoy the same level of parliamentary dominance as Fidesz.
“The process in Poland has been slowed by PiS’ need for governing partners,” Stanley said.
Poland’s de facto leader is also less flamboyant than Orban, preferring to play the puppet-master rather than the firebrand.
However, Kaczynski’s laundry list appears the same. PiS has sought legal reforms that critics say undermine judicial independence despite resistance at home and in Brussels. State media have been tamed.
And while Kaczynski can’t match Orban’s sheer political muscle, he has additional levers at hand. On top of the external threats, he has manufactured an enemy within, analysts say.
The transition from communism, PiS insists, was a con that saw communist apparatchiks keep their privileges and position in return for handing the country’s assets to rapacious globalists. In the eyes of conservative Poles, these same figures now constitute the Polish opposition and EU elite.
We have an unholy alliance of the altar and the state working to produce a new Polish narrative.
Meanwhile, the Catholic Church presents another institutional pillar for the nationalist narrative.
In Hungary, where there is a more ambivalent approach to religion, Orban’s bid to secure the support of the Church is fairly recent. However, the strength and size of the Catholic Church in Poland made it a more vital institution for Kaczynski.
“We have an unholy alliance of the altar and the state working to produce a new Polish narrative,” Prazmowska said.
The Polish Catholic Church, which controls a large media network, is a good match for PiS’ social conservativism.
Even if it might like an even firmer hand on issues like abortion, the Church clearly sees the party as a natural partner that offers a chance to parlay its power into political capital, analysts say.
“The Church is the moral authority for true Poles,” Stanley said. “PiS is the political expression of that.”