Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, as self-aware Freudians like to quip. And sometimes a scarf is just a scarf, especially when it’s donned to support your country at a soccer match. But when the wearer happens to be Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban — and the said scarf depicts a map of “Greater Hungary” that implies territorial claims on neighboring countries — we have a problem.
Orban is a far-right populist who’s been in power in his current stint since 2010. In that time, he has systematically undermined his country’s rule of law, democratic norms, civic institutions and relations with the European Union. He’s also besties with Vladimir Putin, notwithstanding the Russian president’s genocidal imperialism. And he’s a model for wannabe autocrats in the West. As for those maps of Greater Hungary, they’re an integral part of his hyper-nationalist shtick.
The maps keep popping up wherever Orban and his minions show up — the spokesman of Hungary’s government has a huge one on the office wall behind his desk, for example. They depict the Hungarian crown lands as they existed within the Austro-Hungarian Empire and until the Treaty of Trianon, signed in 1920 as part of the Paris Peace Conference that ended World War I.
Trianon, admittedly, was hard on Hungarians. The new nation had to cede about two-thirds of its territory and population to other states. It signed over particularly large swathes to what are today Ukraine, Romania, Slovakia, Serbia, Croatia and Austria.
Then again, in that respect the Hungarians are no different than most Europeans. Still, you don’t see German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, say, showing up at soccer matches wrapped in maps on which Germany stretches from Koenigsberg (Russian Kaliningrad) to Silesia (Poland), South Jutland/North Schleswig (Denmark) and Alsace (France). And thank heavens for that.
There’s a good reason why most Europeans don’t play with the fire of irredentism. The whole point of European integration after World War II was to move on from the dark centuries during which Europeans kept killing one another over their borders, and to strive instead for a mode of coexistence and cooperation in which boundaries no longer mattered much to the people living on either side, because Europeans were free.
One of the best examples is Alsace. For centuries, France and Germany fought over it. Today the place is happily French but also quintessentially European, a prosperous part of a tri-national region where people live, love, work and commute as they please. The “Alsatian lesson” is: Don’t contest borders, just make them irrelevant. The EU demands that all members, and all applicant countries, accept that premise. Hungary did so, in theory, when it joined the club in 2004.
What makes Orban’s paleo-nationalism so disturbing is that he’s deliberately leading a trend in the opposite direction, back toward the bad old days of irredentism. And a trend it is.
The Balkan nations that emerged from the former Yugoslavia have stopped warring for now, but the Serbs are still playing their ethno-nationalist games in Kosovo and, indirectly, Bosnia. In the Aegean Sea, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been threatening that his troops may “come suddenly one night” to seize Greek islands.
Then, of course, there’s Putin, that self-styled “gatherer of Russian lands.” He, too, had old and outdated maps on his mind when he attacked Ukraine and started destroying it. The Ukrainians — who have for centuries lived under Lithuanians, Poles, Habsburgs, Tsars, Germans and Soviets — recognize the imperialist script, and are resisting heroically.
Because they’re busy repelling the Russian invaders in the south and east, the Ukrainians therefore weren’t exactly amused by Orban’s scarf and the map showing swathes of western Ukraine being Hungarian. Kyiv summoned the Hungarian ambassador and gave him an earful. Hungary’s neighbors inside the EU weren’t pleased either. Romania expressed its “firm disapproval.”
Slovakia’s prime minister, Eduard Heger, opted for a sartorial response. “I noticed that Viktor Orban has an old scarf,” he deadpanned. “So I gave him a new one.” It turned out to be Slovakian soccer fan swag. Heger draped the scarf around himself and Orban, and the duo posed for a reconciliation selfie. Now that’s the European spirit. Let’s hope Orban gets it.
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Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics. A former editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist, he is author of “Hannibal and Me.”
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