When a Hungarian Says “Nation” He Means “Ethnic”

BBC joined the long list of sources who misquoted Orbán as calling for an “illiberal democracy”. But he didn’t. He said he is building an “illiberal nation”.

That is – if possible – even worse.


In Hungarian, the word we translate as ‘nation’ is ‘nemzet’. And ‘nemzet’ is an ethnic term. It doesn’t denote a country, nor that territory on the map. A ‘nemzet’ doesn’t have borders because it consists of people who are ethnically related – 19th century-style. And therein lies the evil.

I remember my old professor, who was an international legal expert of minority rights, lamenting this confusion. Calling an international organisation United Nations when it consists of countries – very strictly – is lousy at best. Common language may confuse the two. But a Hungarian never will. It will always mean ethnic groups to Hungarian ears. Otherwise they should have called them “united countries” instead.

So when a table stuffed with international law experts from all over the world nods that sure, nations are supposed to be this and that – they mostly just mean the majority ethnic group of their respective countries. Especially the Hungarians, approximately five million of whom (the ethnic Hungarians) live outside the borders of Hungary – partly in neighbouring countries, partly everywhere around the globe (due to emigration).

When Orbán said “illiberal nation” he wasn’t only referring to the roughly 15 million Hungarians. He was actually talking about it at an event outside of the borders, in Romania, where millions of ethnic Hungarians still live and nationalists never fail to stoke tensions on both sides of that ethnic divide.

And when – more recently – Orbán pressed the importance of keeping ethnic homogeneity in Hungary, he met a relieved approval. He was also playing on the fears he stoked himself about Muslim migrants forcing people to remove their crosses, moving into their homes and raping their purebred Hungarian women. No wonder racists and identitarians of all stripes and nationality are flocking to Hungary seeking “ethnic refuge”. They claim they “heard Orbán’s message loud and clear”.

They didn’t even have to read between the lines.

“Of course we can give shelter to the real refugees: Germans, Dutch, French, Italians; scared politicians and journalists; Christians who had to flee their own country; those people who want to find here the Europe that they lost at their home”

–PM Orbán,  State of the Nation speech on 10 February, 2017

He talked about Western Europeans, nice and white, who are oppressed by liberalism. He also named five areas where poor Hungary was facing attacks:

  • from migrants, moving through the Balkans towards central and western Europe
  • from billionaire George Soros, whom Orbán accuses of funding anti-government groups (this inspired three of his “policies”: listing NGOs as foreign agents, attempting to shut down CEU to please Trump, and two sets of direct mail and billboard campaigns accusing NGOs and Geaore Soros himself of being the problem here)
  • from EU challenges to his attempts to fix energy prices (that makes energy very expensive in Hungary, but Orbán calls it utility bill reduction and makes energy companies write on every energy bill how much the bill would be “without Your Government”)
  • from EU efforts to synchronise tax policies (we need that 27% VAT and 50% tax wedge on employment)
  • from EU efforts to control funding for job creation (it’s the EUs fault…)

The less the Muslims the bigger the fear of them. Data: Pew Research, 2017

But of course, civilized onlookers are all too happy to accept explanations such as: “that’s not how he meant it”. And that he was “just testing the media” when he said his “illiberal nation” speech – whatever that excuse means. Or my favorite excuse to whitewash Orbán abroad: “You don’t understand Hungarian history so you couldn’t understand this but he was right”.

Curiously, when I dare to suggest someone that the same (perfectly excusable) ignorance in Hungarian current affairs might be the reason he sees Orbán as a “conservative” or “free marketeer”, they always feel they know quite enough, thank you very much, to make their own judgement. They only accept the ignorance-excuse from the zillion state secretaries and young ministry apparatchiks, roaming the globe and repeating snippets from their communication brief.

But of course, this is no surprise to me, a scholar of authoritarian thinking. Sometimes people just need an excuse to finally take the side of the strong – that’s where they feel more comfortable.


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One thought on “When a Hungarian Says “Nation” He Means “Ethnic”

  1. Pingback: One Million New Voters Created | Meanwhile in Budapest

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