Wrong Way Down the Danube

How Hungary's Democratic Backsliding Threatens Europe

In January 2011, the government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban announced that the 82-year-old philosopher Agnes Heller and four other academics would be investigated for the misuse of nearly $2.5 million in public grant money. The same day, the country's leading conservative newspaper, Magyar Nemzet -- a supporter of Orban -- published a bracing attack on the professors. Other right-wing publications and television channels followed suit, derisively referring to the "Heller gang" which had "researched away" government money. The investigation, such as it was, lasted for nearly two months before being quietly put to bed with no evidence of wrongdoing. 

Agnes Heller did not strike me as the sort of woman who would pose a threat to Orban when I visited her small, messy flat in a Budapest apartment overlooking the Danube River in February. She is about four feet tall and seems more like a doting Jewish grandmother than a corrupt political functionary. After surviving the Holocaust, and thus avoiding the fate of some 450,000 of her fellow Hungarian Jews, Heller studied under the renowned Marxist philosopher Gyorgy Lukacs at the University of Budapest. Heavily influenced by Lukacs' critique of Stalinism (he had served briefly as a minister in the revolutionary government of Imry Nagy which was violently put down by the Soviets in 1956), she eventually became an outspoken opponent of Hungary's communist regime and was forced into exile in 1977. Now, she mainly spends her days overseeing graduate students and enjoying semi-retirement. "I have not picked up one single penny," Heller told me when I asked her about the allegation that she had stolen government money. 

To some in Hungary, the attack on Heller and her colleagues reflected a coordinated campaign against Orban's most outspoken critics. Heller has publically chided Orban for what she terms his "dictatorial inclinations" and testified against his policies at the European Parliament. "It was so well orchestrated, it doesn't happen by accident," Gabor Horvath, an editor for the daily Népszabadság, told me about the investigation and the accompanying media attacks. "This is character assassination." 

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