Dangerously Dictatorial? The nature of Viktor Orban’s ‘illiberal democracy’

Hungary’s General Election on 8th April, 2018, saw Prime Minister Viktor Orban win a landslide victory, giving him his third consecutive term in office. It is a major, but also very disturbing, achievement, and also creates all sorts of difficulties for the European Union (Hungary has been a member of the EU since May, 2004). Indeed, international observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) pointed to the ‘intimidating and xenophobic rhetoric’ and ‘media bias’ seen during the election campaign.

Viktor Orbán

As a historian, I have watched Orban’s rise with grim fascination, and it came as no surprise to see that far right leaders from across western Europe queued up to congratulate Orban on his re-election victory. Gert Wilders, for example, who is leader of the anti-Muslim ‘Party for Freedom’ in the Netherlands, tweeted his congratulations to Orban on ‘this excellent result’.

Similarly, Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front National in France, expressed her satisfaction at the success of Orban and his Fidesz party. Le Pen tweeted: ‘The inversion of values and the mass immigration that is propagated by the EU has been rejected once again’.

Extreme right activists on social media forums in Britain, Italy and Germany have also proclaimed delight at the Hungarian result, and see Orban as a ‘heroic’ figure, an assessment also shared by leading bloggers for the ‘alt.right’. But what is it about Orban that so pleases rightwing extremists in western Europe? A brief exploration of his key governing ideas and policies can perhaps offer some important clues.

When he studied law and political science as a student at University in Budapest in the early 1980s, Orban could plausibly be described at that stage as a liberal who merely wanted free elections and to see Soviet troops leave his country. Over the years, however, he has increasingly moved further and further to the right, has become extremely eurosceptic, and some commentators now suspect him of having worryingly autocratic tendencies.

Viktor Orban appears to be the latest example of a new type of ‘semi-dictator’ in central and eastern Europe who have emerged since the collapse of communism in 1989-91, controversial figures who present themselves as ‘strongmen’ and dedicated patriots (Vladimir Putin in Russia is something of a role model for them here). They are mainly nationalist politicians who have often exploited an ill-defined notion that their country is somehow being ‘short-changed’ and treated unfairly; often, this translates into a form of conservative, anti-immigrant populism – a xenophobic type of politics which flirts dangerously with fascist-style ideas but, at the same time, retains an image of democratic legitimacy, with plenty of references to the ‘people’ and the will of the ‘majority’.

Such leaders present historians with a big challenge: how should we label and categorize this new brand of populist politician? These men are not straightforward ‘fascist’ dictators, but neither can they be seen as ‘democratic’ in the usual and conventional meaning of the term. Orban himself has referred to his approach as ‘illiberal democracy’. A parliamentary institutional framework, plurality, opposition parties and the trappings of a constitution are all retained in Hungary but, at the same time, signs of authoritarian behaviour by the Prime Minister and his government can increasingly be detected.

Much of Hungary’s public media, for example, has come under the direct control of Orban’s government, while what is left of Hungary’s free media, especially any independent newspapers, have been subjected to harassment campaigns, intimidation, and other hostile pressures from the ruling party. Independent institutions and NGOs (non-governmental organisations) in civil society have been targeted and seriously devalued. In fact, from 2010 onwards, Orban persuaded the Hungarian parliament to accept a new constitution, which he said would be based on Christian Conservatism and give priority to ‘family’ and ‘nation’. The new arrangements arguably weakened the country’s Constitutional Court and its ability to check the government’s growing powers, and serious questions can now be asked by commentators about the rule of law and whether Hungary today still has a genuinely free judiciary. Human rights have also been denigrated as ‘liberal’ and a tool of outsiders.

Equally alarming, and this is what has probably been especially attractive to western far right leaders, Orban has also appropriated some of the language and ideas of the more explicit form of fascism found in Hungary’s ‘Jobbik’ movement (the ‘Movement for a Better Hungary’), the country’s main far right party. While this strategy has undermined the growth and appeal of Jobbik, it is a highly dangerous and risky move by the Prime Minister: it has brought some of Jobbik’s ideas very much into the mainstream of the nation’s politics and, frankly, legitimised them. Indeed, Orban has emphasised the need for a ‘Hungarian’ Hungary, and has vowed to defend the country and its core Christian values from (to use his words) the ‘threat’ of a ‘mixed population’ with no sense of ‘identity’.

He has regularly played the ‘race’ card, stating that he seeks to protect Hungary (and Europe more generally) from an ‘invasion’ of ‘Muslim immigrants’ and ‘terrorists’ (he often conflates the two). The idea that Hungary is under ‘siege’ from ‘outsiders’ has evidently helped Orban create a sense of crisis in the nation, and enabled him to portray himself as a ‘strong’ leader who will steer his country through an emergency situation.

Victor Orban electoral posters illegalAs far as Orban is concerned, the EU itself has been too ‘soft’ on immigration, so he has been forced to seize the initiative and show other EU states what needs to be done. Significantly, the 2018 General Election saw Orban’s party make extensive use of giant billboards (see photo), with an eerily familiar image on an anti-immigration poster: a long and wide queue of migrants. This was a poster that was undoubtedly influenced by the now infamous and controversial ‘Breaking Point’ poster used by Britain’s eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) during the 2016 Brexit campaign.

Moreover, although he has denied this in interviews, Orban appears to be resurrecting a form of ugly racism which many commentators hoped had disappeared from modern Hungary: anti-Semitism. In 2017, the philanthropist George Soros became a particular target in Fidesz propaganda, and this was notably evident again in the 2018 election campaign. Soros was portrayed by Fidesz as a puppet-master, secretly pulling the strings of other people and organisations from behind the scenes (a classic anti-Semitic and conspiratorial idea).

Hungary election poster on Soros

Another manifestation of this racist theme in Orban’s campaign was to associate George Soros with a deliberate ‘plot’ to cut border fences and encourage more immigration into Hungary (see photo). There has also been a sustained campaign by the government to de-legitimize the Central European University (CEU), an institution which has partly benefited from finance provided by Soros. Tellingly, within days of his 2018 re-election, an emboldened Orban announced that he would push through new ‘Stop Soros’ laws.

Some commentators have taken to calling Viktor Orban ‘The Viktator’ and, despite his vigorous anti-Communism, he has been able to tap into a kind of nostalgia on the part of many Hungarians for the old pre-1989 days of ‘social order’ and a strong state. It may even be the case that some of Orban’s oldest voters look back fondly to the days of Miklos Horthy (1868-1957), who adopted the title ‘Regent’ and ruled Hungary as a rightwing dictatorship from 1920-1944.

Whether Orban is able to consolidate his own personal power even further will be interesting to see. Whatever happens, he will be watched with alarm by other EU members, but with relish by a whole range of extreme right movements across Europe. It is no exaggeration to say that Hungary now faces some very dark days ahead.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University

(Photos: WikiMedia Commons)

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Upcoming British Library talks explore controversial aspects of America’s recent past

The British Library’s spring and early summer season includes a number of talks devoted to some controversial aspects of America’s recent history, such as the Vietnam war, the roots of ‘America First’, the evolution of Anglo-American relations, the impact of scandals on presidential power, and the role of ‘race’ in U.S. society.

Vietnam soldier 2

The Vietnam War Q&A: On Tuesday, 10th April, at 19.15-20.30 pm, filmmaker Lynn Novick, who is the long-term collaborating partner of Ken Burns, will discuss and showcase excerpts from their recent critically acclaimed 10-part 18-hour documentary, The Vietnam War.

Sarah Churchwell: Behold, America: On Wednesday, 9th May, at 19.15-20.30 pm, there will be a history provided of ‘America First’, one of President Donald Trump’s campaign slogans, but a concept which has a long and dark history rooted in ‘100 per cent Americanism’ and interwar isolationism.

Secret Affairs: Spies and the Special Relationship: On Tuesday, 15th May, at 19.00-20.00 pm, Gordon Corera will deliver the annual D.W. Bryant Lecture and explore how the ‘special relationship’ between Britain and America’s intelligence agencies has evolved, describing some of the challenges that lie ahead.

Donald-Trump-US-flagSurvivors: American Presidents and the Politics of Scandal: On Tuesday, 12th June, at 19.15-20.30 pm, there will be a discussion chaired by the author and broadcaster Gavin Esler on the various political scandals that have hit the White House over the years, and how some presidents have fared (Nixon resigned, while Clinton survived). Will Trump be engulfed in scandal?

From Black Lives Matter to the White Power Presidency: Race and Class in the Trump Era: On Friday, 22nd June, at 17.00-18.30 pm, a leading scholar of the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM), Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, will discuss BLM, and race and class in America during the age of Trump.

British Library

Black Lives Matter in the US and UK Today: An Activist Panel: On Saturday, 23rd June, at 18.00-19.30 pm, American and British Black Lives Matter leaders will talk about why they are part of BLM, their goals and methods, and the challenges facing the movement today.

Further details of all the above sessions can be obtained from the British Library, Euston Road, central London (located between Euston and Kings Cross train stations), or you can visit:




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A Future Career shaped by a History Degree

At this time of the year, when students are thinking carefully about where to study and what type of degree to pursue, it is good to pause for breath and reflect briefly on the value of studying history and the past.


A history degree, in my humble opinion, can equip you with a whole range of ‘transferable skills’ i.e. skills that can be taken and used in a wide variety of interesting future careers.

When invited to ‘sell’ the importance of history to potential students, I often refer back to an issue of BBC History magazine from October, 2015, which contained a very helpful supplement with expert advice, practical tips and inspiration for students ‘hoping to plan a future based on the past’. When it comes to history, for example, the supplement provided some great details on how a degree in history can lead to all manner of careers, and it listed some famous celebrity graduates in Britain to illustrate the point.

From the world of the media, for example, such history graduates include the broadcaster Jonathan Ross, who studied Modern European History at the University of London, and BBC radio presenter Simon Mayo, who graduated from Warwick University with a degree in History and Politics.

To take another example, from the world of literature, another history graduate is the hugely popular writer Penelope Lively, who found tremendous success as a writer of books for children and then of novels. Her best-selling novels include Moon Tiger, which won the prestigious Booker Prize in 1987. Similarly, the acting profession has a famous history graduate in the shape of the comedian and writer Sacha Baron Cohen, who graduated from Cambridge in 1993 with a degree in History. The Golden-Globe winner and Oscar-nominated actor has since become one of Britain’s best-known comics, whose creations have included Ali G and Borat.

And the world of British politics has witnessed numerous examples of history graduates rising through the ranks, including to the top job of Prime Minister: former PM Gordon Brown graduated from the University of Edinburgh with a First-Class degree in History, and stayed at the same institution to complete a PhD in History ten years later, titled ‘The Labour Party and Political Change in Scotland 1918-29’. Moreover, as was observed recently, three members of the current Cabinet under Theresa May have history degrees.

Another section in that very useful BBC History magazine supplement contained a fascinating short article by Dr. Anna Whitelock, of Royal Holloway, University of London, on the role of the historian today, and the new challenges and opportunities of the digital age.

Documents stacks in a repository at The National Archives (WikiCommons)

Documents stacks in a repository at The National Archives (WikiCommons)

As Dr. Whitelock noted in her opening line: ‘Has there ever been a better or more important time to study history? The past is alive, dynamic, controversial and hugely relevant’. She went on to argue that history is constantly being written and rewritten, contested and reinterpreted. Moreover, history is more than just studying the past – it is also about ‘critically engaging with the present and future’.

Furthermore, in her estimation, a history degree is not just for those who want to be professional historians – ‘it is for anyone who is curious about the world around them and who wants to be a critically engaged citizen’.

Dr. Whitelock also pointed out that a history degree can lead to a career in law, business, publishing, heritage, teaching, media or politics, but it is ‘equally valuable for those wanting to become an artist, author, actor or even a computer game designer’.

Significantly, according to Whitelock, the digital age has brought new opportunities for historians, ‘opening up archives online, digitising documents and allowing the study of far-flung archives from home’. That said, she also reminded us that ‘there is nothing better’ than visiting an archive and touching documents, and studying history can give access to ‘this vast treasure trove’. I couldn’t agree more! And those students here at Kingston who are about to put the finishing touches on a Final Year dissertation will certainly have had plenty of exciting opportunities to do this.

Studying history, Whitelock argued, also ‘requires students to consider what the archives of today will consist of for future generations of historians’. This is because there has been a revolution in communication, with tweets, texts, and e-mails rapidly replacing ‘traditional’ forms of contacts, such as hard-copy letters.

Dr. Whitelock then offered a nicely succinct summary of the dilemmas and challenges faced by historians today in the light of these rapid changes: the key questions, she suggested, are the following: what should be preserved? How? By whom? And for whom?

These are just some of the challenges that will face the historians of tomorrow. If you enjoy such challenges and conundrums, embarking on a history degree will more than equip you with the necessary skills to engage in our increasingly digital world.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University

(All images: WikiCommons)



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History restored: New technology recreates JFK’s ‘unspoken speech’ from 1963

I recently gave a lecture on the nature of U.S. foreign policy during the all-too brief presidency of John F. Kennedy, who was in the White House 1961-63. Kennedy, of course, was particularly skilled at oratory, and the 35th president of the USA arguably left us with some of the most memorable speeches ever made by an American leader during the course of the late 20th century.


Thanks to an impressive breakthrough using modern technology, scholars of American history are now able to hear the final speech of president J.F. Kennedy, an address he was due to make in Dallas on November 22nd, 1963, had he not been brutally assassinated beforehand by the lone gunman Lee Harvey Oswald.

As part of an initiative by the London Times newspaper (entitled the JFK: Unsilenced project), sound engineers have used new technology to recreate the voice of the 46-year old president. The paper teamed up with CereProc, a British audio technology company, and Rothco, an Irish creative agency, to construct a database that has been employed to deliver JFK’s ‘unspoken’ speech in the U.S. president’s own voice.

The team recreated JFK’s voice by analysing recordings of his speeches and radio addresses. Sound engineers then took 116,777 sound units from clips of Kennedy speaking in order to create an audio track of him delivering the ‘final’ speech in his unique cadence. Chris Pidcock, co-founder and chief voice engineer at CereProc in Edinburgh, told The Times (March 16th) that it was the first time that the company’s technology had been employed in this particular way. Pidcock’s company specialises in ‘text-to-voice’ technology, and has previously helped people who have lost their voice through degenerative disease or other such problems.

The Kennedy project was especially challenging, but also highly satisfying. The best-quality recordings of JFK’s voice were cross-referenced with the text of Kennedy’s undelivered 1963 speech, and a new computer system was then employed to recognise and recreate JFK’s oratorical ‘style’. Data from JFK’s speeches was then fed into a computer until it learnt the patterns of his delivery, and then the sounds were tweaked to make them sound more natural (as far as possible). It took eight weeks to bring to life the 2,590 words that Kennedy was never able to deliver to a lunch at the Dallas Trade Mart.

JFK assassination heading

Despite the confusion, shock and panic that surrounded that November day’s dramatic events back in Dallas in 1963, and the tragic death of JFK, the text of his speech was preserved and was given to a local businessman by Lyndon B. Johnson, Kennedy’s vice-president who was quickly sworn in as the 36th president.

What kinds of ideas and assertions were present in JFK’s undelivered speech? According to commentators and historians, it can be partly interpreted as a rebuke to the growing ‘populist’ politics of the time, voices on the right of politics who were sceptical about the new liberalism of the 1960s. It is a speech that warned about the ‘dissident voices’ in U.S. society, voices that played only to people’s fears, ‘finding fault but never favour’, and rejecting the progress of the period. Kennedy warned: ‘In a world of complex problems, in a world full of frustrations and irritations, America’s leadership must be guided by the lights of learning and reason – or else those who confuse rhetoric with reality and the plausible with the possible will gain the popular ascendancy with their seemingly simple solutions’. He added: ‘There will always be dissident voices in the land expressing opposition without alternative…’.

In relation to America’s wider position in the world, some familiar ‘Kennedy-esque’ themes can also be detected. His message seemed to be that America’s role and status in the world would be shaped more by its role as a ‘beacon of freedom’ than on its military might. At one point, he referred to his generation as being ‘the watchmen on the walls of world freedom’, and explained: ‘I have spoken of strength largely in terms of deterrence and resistance of aggression and attack. But freedom can be lost without a shot being fired, by ballots as well as bullets. Our success is dependent upon respect for our mission in the world as well as our missiles; on a clearer recognition of the virtues of freedom as well as the evils of tyranny’.

JFK looking presidential

While we should always be wary about the claims made by politicians, the opportunity to actually hear JFK’s voice deliver such words in a speech he never made is a real bonus for the historian.

However, the use of such technology does raise some tricky ethical and other issues for historians. As one writer in The Times (Libby Purves) put it a few days later, on March 19th, the JFK voice software should be ‘handled with care’. Purves wrote that she is unsurprised ‘but slightly alarmed’ by the technological brilliance of CereProc and Rothco on the JFK project. On the one hand, such new technology is evidently a real boon for those who lose speech through illness, but could be a potential tool for worse-intentioned users. She warned: ‘The lying creators of “fake news” will be on it soon’. Familiar voices could be harvested, analysed, and reproduced ‘to say words they never uttered’. In an age of ‘post-truth’ and alt-facts, this could be potentially dangerous.

These are powerful points. Such technology could be ‘weaponised’ by the more unscrupulous and manipulative in society, especially those with extreme ideological agendas. There does need to be a serious debate about all this. Nevertheless, from a historian’s perspective, if used responsibly, such technology can surely be very helpful in making certain aspects of the past ‘come alive’ once again for a modern audience.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University

(All images: WikiMedia Commons)

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Today (15th March): Whatever happened to the British centre ground? Kingston University History Research Series Seminar

Whatever happened to the British centre ground?

The next talk in the Kingston University History Research Seminar Series will be given by Dr. Jeremy Nuttall on the above theme, based on his latest research findings

Cameron with Blair in background

Amidst Brexit, the rise of Jeremy Corby, and the collapse of the Liberal Democrats, the British political centre appears in a state of crisis. Wider echoes of this also appear in support for Marine Le Pen in France, the AfD in Germany, the rise of populism in Italy, and the election of Donald Trump. But is the British middle ground more resilient than we think? This talk explores the ‘moderate’ tradition in British politics, from Stanley Baldwin, through Clement Attlee to Tony Blair and David Cameron, and asks whether it has a future.

Dr. Nuttall’s talk will take place on:

Thursday, 15th March, 2018, at:

5.00-6.30pm, in:

Room JG2012,

Penrhyn Road campus, Kingston University,

Kingston-on-Thames, Surrey.

Wine and nibbles provided.

All are welcome.


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Land and Home: The campaign to encourage more land cultivation in Surrey in 1917

During the course of 1917, in a determined attempt to cut down on the amount of food imports and to alleviate pressure on Allied ships sailing across the Atlantic, the British government initiated a national campaign to encourage as much cultivation of land as possible, and evidence of this can be seen at local level in Surrey, including in the Kingston area and surrounding districts.

David Lloyd George

In late December, 1917, the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George (pictured), made what the local Surrey Comet called an ‘eloquent address’ to the various chairmen of the County War Agricultural Committees across the nation, many of them large-scale farmers themselves. The War Agricultural Committees (including the Committee for Surrey) had been established in 1915, and many of them had sub-branches at district level across their respective counties, an organisational structure also seen in Surrey. The Prime Minister announced that the government aimed to get 3,000,000 acres of land under cultivation, and this would free more ships from carrying corn, making them available instead for carrying men, guns and ammunition from the United States (which had entered the war earlier in 1917).

The campaign was not just aimed at large-scale farmers, however. The government also emphasised how small-scale land owners, allotment holders and individual gardeners could play a vital role in the effort to cultivate more home-grown food. Similarly, pockets of public and private land, such as in parks and on golf courses, could also be identified and put into cultivation. Potatoes and general root-vegetables were especially seen as important (potato was increasingly in demand as a wheat-substitute in bread and cakes).

In Kingston-on-Thames, for example, the local branch of the ‘Land and Home League’ was active in encouraging more cultivation of all types of spare land. In early December, 1917, it was reported that the League had secured another seven acres of land for local allotments, and there had already been more applicants than the number of allotments available. The message was put out that more such land was required to meet the demand and to make full use of the enthusiasm of the applicants.

On the other hand, the League was clearly keen to ensure that any ‘amateurs’ new to land cultivation did not make mistakes, and that they had the correct type of training and advice. The League announced that, naturally, ‘first consideration’ would be given to members of the League, and all intending allotment holders who were not members of the League should join the Society: ‘Indeed, all those who cultivate land in the borough will benefit by so doing, as they will be able to obtain their seeds and tools at better prices than by individual effort’.

Save Bread WW1 poster

It was also announced by the League in the local press that: ‘All cultivators of land should be very careful in the use of seeds for the coming year. Many sorts will be scarce, and some unobtainable. A general fault, especially with those new to the work, is to sow too lavishly and too closely. This fault must be overcome. It wastes seeds and does not give the best results’.

The League added: ‘All possible food must be grown, and it is unpatriotic not to get the uttermost yield from every rod cultivated’. Evidence of ‘training’ and advice for those keen to cultivate more land and aid the home-grown food effort can also be seen in newspaper reports from mid-December, 1917.

In one such report, readers were told that: ‘The War Food Society for the Urban District of Surbiton is arranging for a course of lectures to be given at St. Matthew’s Church hall, Tolworth, on subjects of interest to gardeners and allotment holders’. The first of these lectures took place on the evening of 20th December, when Mr. G.P. Berry, the General Inspector for Horticulture to the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries, gave a talk on ‘The Management and Manuring of Allotments’. A report of the evening’s proceedings in the Surrey Comet also told readers that during the summer of 1917 the War Food Society in Surbiton had distributed, ‘under very great difficulties’, about 6,000 fruit-bottling jars, ‘the chance of obtaining which at small cost seems to have been much appreciated’.

Another lecture in this educational series at St. Matthew’s Church hall was reported on in the Surrey Comet in late December, 1917. Chaired by Mr. R.S. Bond, ‘who called attention to the great need for production of every possible pound of food’, the main talk of the evening was again delivered by Mr. G.P. Berry, who gave ‘a most interesting address’ on the manuring of allotments, especially on the need for lime, as many soils in the local area were ‘lacking in this essential ingredient of fertile soils’.

Food poster WW1

It is perhaps worth noting that skilled allotment cultivation, in addition to appropriation of any possible spare land, became a very important part of the local home-front war effort in Kingston, Surbiton and Tolworth during the Great War. Interestingly, the Surbiton and Tolworth areas in particular also played a very similar role just 20 years later, in the Second World War, when 96 extra acres of allotments were created along the local Hogsmill river and in the Fishponds area.

Elsewhere in Surrey, the First World War saw some notably successful efforts to cultivate more land for food production purposes. Indeed, a fascinating report from the County War Agricultural Committee in May, 1918, proudly recorded that an estimated 24,000 additional acres of land had been brought into cultivation, which was, in hindsight, a truly major achievement.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University

(Images: Wikimedia Commons and the Imperial War Museum)


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