Paris, France – Viktor Orban’s conservative government has waged a culture war in Hungary, and it’s now spreading beyond its borders.
According to Le Courrier d’Europe centrale, a French-language news site specializing in the Central European region and Visegrad Group countries, the Hungarian Institute in Paris cancelled on Thursday a Gyorgy Spiro theatre play at the last minute over anti-Orban comments made by the show’s director, Bea Gerzsenyi.
In Hungary, “stupidity has become a state religion”
In an invitation e-mail sent to over 100 people ahead of the performance, Ms. Gerzsenyi strongly criticized the creeping authoritarianism in Hungary, which she described as slowly morphing into “Orbanisthan”. “Thirty years after the fall of the communist dictatorship (…), totalitarian thought continues to proliferate in the so-called free world, which finds itself more paralyzed than ever by the fear and dread of Others (foreigners, migrants)”, she wrote, referring to the Hungarian government’s constant refusal to accept refugees and Orban’s rallying cry to “defend the European civilization” from the “invasion” of Muslim migrants.
“To state corruption, M. Viktor Orban adds the subjection of the media and judicial system”. She also draws parallels between the current political situation in Hungary and the play, written in the 1980’s a few years before the fall of communism, that “sheds some light on modern-day Hungary, sadder, bleaker and more absurd than ever”, a country where “stupidity has become a state religion (and) unbelievers are scarce.”
The director of the Hungarian Institute, located in the very chic Saint-Germain district in the French capital, claimed that he decided to cancel the show because “Bea Gerzsenyi sent a provocative invitation letter with comments that were uncalled for, disgraceful and defamatory towards Hungary”. “In light of these elements, performing the show at the Hungarian Institute, a state-institution funded by Hungarian taxpayers, is not acceptable”, he concluded.
A typographic confusion?
Quoting local outlet HVG, Le Courrier d’Europe centrale points out that Ms. Gerzsenyi stands by her comments but points out that her remarks were made in a private capacity, as the e-mail was sent to “acquaintances, friends, members of the Hungarian community in Paris” and wasn’t intended for public officials, journalists or diplomats.
The controversy came to light when one of the e-mail’s recipients forwarded it to the Hungarian Foreign Ministry. The director of the Institute confirmed to the press that he was informed of Ms. Gerzsenyi’s message by the Foreign Ministry. “The main problem is that her comments were written in the same typography as the institute’s”, he justified, claiming that “it caused confusion” and that people could have thought this was the official stance of the institute, a public organization “funded by the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs”.
Talking to local media HVG, Bea Gerzsenyi denied allegations she had done this simply as a provocation. She points out that she got “disaccustomed with Hungary and got used to France, where the fact of expressing one’s opinions doesn’t cause such a fuss”.
Orban’s illiberal revolution spreads to the cultural sphere
This controversy is only the latest example of the struggle opposing Hungarian artists and members of its cultural scene to Orban’s government. Writing in the Calvert Journal, local investigative reporter Anita Komuves pointed out that, following his re-election in April, Orban “has also turned its attention to the arts, and a full-blown culture war is in effect” today.
After attacks against the media, the judicial system, schools, academia, churches, NGO’s and foreign companies, “the latest target of the Orban government is the cultural sphere”, the author argued. “In the past few months, theatres, novelists, museum personnel and pop musicians have all found themselves under attack for being left-wing, socially liberal or simply critical of the government”. Posing as the champion of Europe’s Christian roots, Orban’s so-called “illiberal revolution” aims to encompass all areas of life, and culture, from music halls to classrooms, is high on his agenda.
From a Billy Elliot musical to a Frida Kahlo exhibition, every single cultural event comes under scrutiny from the government, its followers and its media – now gathered into one huge conglomerate. But whether the advocates of Hungary’s illiberalism actually believe in their mission doesn’t really matter. The impact and consequences are crystal-clear: “This is about Orban trying to replace the Hungarian cultural elite with a new one loyal to him and his ideas”, Anita Komuves wrote.
The Hungarian Institute prides itself, on its website, for being much more than the “mere reflection of the latest developments in Hungarian culture and society”. This latest incident proves otherwise. Or rather, it shows that the latest political developments are now also encroaching – to say the least – on cultural and artistic considerations.