Updated at 4:47 p.m. ET on May 15, 2019.
We first met almost 30 years ago, right after the Berlin Wall came down, at a meeting of dissidents held in France’s embassy in Budapest.
President François Mitterrand had asked me to prepare a report on how France could contribute to the reconstruction of the countries of Central Europe after the lifting of the Communist yoke.
At the time, Viktor Orbán was one of the brightest figures in the victorious opposition to the Soviet order. He was the young author of a master’s thesis on the Polish Solidarity movement, which he had written while attending Oxford with the help of a grant from George Soros. He had become famous overnight following a speech he had given in Heroes’ Square in Budapest honoring Imre Nagy, the martyr of the Hungarian uprising of 1956.
And now, April 10, here he is transformed by the intervening 30 years: a pudgy satrap with the physique of a retired wrestler, Vladimir Putin without the muscles, with something sad and somber in his look—all accompanied by an odd reserve, bordering on shyness, that he did not have before. That reserve comes out as he greets my friend Gilles Hertzog, who helps me take notes, extending a tentative hand and murmuring, “Good morning, my name is Viktor Orbán. Welcome to Budapest.”
We are in the library of the former Carmelite monastery in the Buda Castle district, its walls lined with religious books, into which Orbán has just moved his offices. This I learn from Hungary’s ambassador to France, György Károly. He has traveled from Paris for the express purpose of attending our interview, which we conducted in English.
Because I am preoccupied with memories and am reluctant to ask Orbán right at the start how a former anti-totalitarian militant discovered conservatism and ultranationalism on his way to Damascus (or rather Moscow), or how the recipient of a Soros grant was able to make his former mentor public enemy No. 1 (with Soros’s caricature plastered all over the streets of the capital a while back), and because I did not wish to begin with the mystery of a true dissident who somehow relearned the Stalinist technique of retrospective reinvention of biographies (in this case, it is his own memory that he is purging), I begin benignly with a polite question, simply to buy myself a little time to let everything settle in.
“Why did you choose this monastery? Why such an austere site?”
But his response is curiously intense and sets the conversation in motion.
“Because my old offices were in the Parliament building down the hill on the other side of the Danube, and that wasn’t good from the point of view of the separation of powers.”
He would have been more truthful had he said, Because I wanted to dominate this town, which is the only part of the country that is still resisting me.
The inventor of illiberalism, the man who uses democracy to torpedo democracy, the autocrat constantly engaged in gagging the Hungarian Parliament, bringing judges to heel, and controlling the media, tells me baldly that he left his former offices out of concern for democratic processes.
I let it go.
I have no idea, at the moment, how much time he is going to give me.
I have no idea that Hungary’s free press is going to observe, the next morning, that I spent with him, in the course of an afternoon, more time than they, collectively, have spent with him in nine years of demotatorship—a term I use to mean a democratic dictatorship. So I prefer to push on.
“You have become the leader, in Europe, of the illiberal strain of demotatorship—”
The term illiberal seems to take him aback.
“Let me stop you there. Because we should agree on our terms. What is the reality? Liberalism gave rise to political correctness—that is, to a form of totalitarianism, which is the opposite of democracy. That’s why I believe that illiberalism restores true freedom, true democracy.”
This time, I feel obliged to tell him how specious I find this line of reasoning.
And I recount to him some of the infringements of the spirit of democracy that I had learned about a few hours earlier, at an NGO meeting organized for my benefit: shuttered newspapers; starving migrants; prison sentences for individuals aiding asylum seekers; the Central European University—known as George Soros University—forced to have its degrees validated in Vienna; homeless people arrested and fined; judges operating under orders; and so on.
He listens without interrupting, his mien subdued and sad looking. With one exception, which occurs when I raise the case of Gábor Iványi, a sort of people’s priest who took part in the NGO meeting and founded the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship, a haven for the homeless and the rare migrants who have succeeded in penetrating the barbed wire of the new iron curtain that Orbán has installed on Hungary’s borders. By revoking the fellowship’s church status, the regime has choked off its funding.
“I know Iványi well,” he interrupted me. “He baptized two of my children. But it was a decision by the Parliament, which is absolutely responsible for church affairs. Moreover …”
He hesitates, seeming to search for words.
“Moreover, he called me a fascist. And that is the only thing for which I cannot forgive him.”
I push on.
“So—you are the leader, however you may define it, of the illiberal trend in Europe. Is that an accurate description? Do you accept the role?”
“Yes and no.”
Again the modest, almost fearful face, which squares badly with the idea most of us have of the big bad Orbán.
“Because of the attacks to which you’re subjected?”
“I don’t give a damn about the attacks,” he says. “Hungary is a special country, you know. It is the only country in Europe whose language is absolutely incomprehensible to a foreigner. And, you know, that poorly understood side suits me fine.”
“Which means what?”
“Which means that I find the mantle of leader of the movement a little heavy. Because Hungary is also a small country, don’t forget. And it has neither the ambition nor the means to assume leadership.”
He is sitting squarely in his armchair, his torso bent slightly over the little wooden table that separates us. Is he sincere? The European People’s Party recently suspended the membership of Orbán’s party, Fidesz.* Is that what has him backpedaling? Did he feel the bullet whistling by and get spooked? I press him.
“Do you mean to say that the press is wrong to characterize the upcoming European elections as an Orbán–[Emmanuel] Macron matchup?”
At this, he laughs out loud and, turning to Ambassador Károly (Károly uttered not one word during our conversation, but on several occasions, Orbán spoke to him, as if there was something about the old-school aristocrat that impressed him), scoffs:
“Orbán–Macron … Orbán–Macron …”
“You detest Macron that much?”
“Not at all. I have a good personal relationship with him. I just think he’s too intellectual for the profession we’re in.”
“So, I already have too much on my hands with my own country, which, like all small countries, is fragile and threatened. For the match you mention, I’d prefer to see somebody else carry the torch.”
“Are you thinking of Marine Le Pen?”
Hearing this, he stiffens, and his laughter disappears.
“Absolutely not! I have nothing at all to do with Madame Le Pen. Nothing.”
“Because Laurent Wauquiez warned me that she was a red line.”
“A friend of mine. I have a lot of friends in France, you know.”
He gestures as if listing them.
“Nicolas Sarkozy, of course. Jacques Chirac, who has always greeted me very warmly. And Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, a touchstone, whom I try to see whenever I’m in Paris.”
But I come back to Le Pen.
“Do you mean to suggest that if these French friends weren’t cautioning you, you would seek an alliance with Marine Le Pen?”
His response bursts forth without any hesitation.
“No. I would not ally with her even so.”
“Once again, why not?”
“Because she’s not in power.”
It is my turn to be startled.
“When political leaders are out of power, they can say and do anything they like. They can slip out of control. I don’t want to get mixed up with any of that.”
“So who, then? If you’re not the champion, and neither is Marine Le Pen, who’s left?”
He answers without missing a beat, as if he had pondered the question at length and long ago decided on his position.
“Matteo Salvini. He leads a large country. Europe can sanction a little country like Hungary. It wouldn’t dare go after a country like Italy, with 60 million people. Moreover, Italy has a powerful voice. It is standing firm against the migrants—manning the front line.”
He utters “front line” with a hint of grandiloquence, as if the tragedy of the migrants were a war of aggression against Hungary. I ask him if he is not sounding a bit like the anti-Semites who, after the war—the real one, the one that saw the near-extermination of Europe’s Jews—remained anti-Semites, while the Jews were nearly all dead or departed.
He cuts me off.
“You can’t talk like that. I have the best relations in the world with Israel.”
“Fine. But with Jews?”
“The same. Let me tell you something. There was a time in Hungary’s history when we didn’t have enough farm labor and had to bring in Czechs, Ruthenians, Roma, and so on. So that by the middle of the 19th century, the Magyars were becoming a minority. And do you know how we settled that? Through a grand alliance between Magyars and Jews, which together made up a little more than 50 percent of the population.”
He speaks of this alliance in the manner of a captain of industry describing a shift in the majority of the board of directors. And when I ask him about the source of the Magyar strain of anti-Semitism, which was, after all, one of Europe’s deadliest, he counters with this astonishing response.
Kun was a Lenin ally who, in 1918, founded the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic.
“Yes,” he insists. “Béla Kun. The Jews played a large role—an unfortunate fact, but a fact nonetheless—in his abortive attempt at a Communist revolution. And that is what undid the fine alliance in Budapest between the Jewish and Magyar people.”
Is he aware that, by equating the terms Jew and Bolshevik, he is reprising one of the major themes of 20th-century anti-Semitic propaganda?
I tell him that one of the participants in this morning’s NGO meeting had informed me that Maria Schmidt, whom Orbán appointed to direct Hungary’s Holocaust museum, had been singing the praises of Regent Miklós Horthy, who hung around with Hitler from 1933 to 1944.
Again, he cuts me off.
“Stop right there. I, Viktor Orbán, would be the first to praise Regent Horthy. He is a part of Hungary’s history. We have him to thank for ridding us of Béla Kun.”
“Granted. But afterwards? Isn’t he also the one who, in March 1944, when the Nazis were invading Hungary, let them in and allowed them to begin deporting Jews?”
My interlocutor assumes an air of contrition. Fleetingly, a bit of the young dissident of long ago returns to his features, now heavier with age.
“Yes, that’s true. He should have left at that point.”
But I return to the question of the migrants.
“What I meant to convey to you on the subject of the migrants is that there has been, at certain times, a sort of anti-Semitism without Jews. Hungary seems to harbor anti-migrant hatred even though it’s hard to find one on the streets of Budapest.”
“Don’t kid yourself! We had migrants. In 2015. When Angela Merkel opened the doors to them. It was a flood, a tsunami.”
“You know full well that they didn’t stay.”
“That’s true. But they could come back. That’s the rule in the European Union. A migrant always has the right to return to the place where he entered the Schengen Area. And you have to understand something: Hungary has always been a land of passage; everybody, absolutely everybody, has traipsed through here. I have no desire for that to start up again.”
He concedes that the right of return is valid for only six months and that, as a result, any risk of a “reverse tsunami” is slight.
He also concedes that the former Orbán had lauded Hungary for serving as an escape route for East Germans seeking refuge in the West.
And that the Hungary of 1956, the Hungary that saw 180,000 of its own welcomed in Austria after the insurrection was put down, had benefited from the right of asylum. This point, however, he concedes only partially, clarifying that the 150,000 defeated insurgents were initially “parked in camps” by the Austrians.
At that point, he hits back hard against Merkel.
“The chancellor is very nice,” he begins. “And I understand that she has a problem with demographics and labor. But why should we Hungarians have to pay to solve her problem?”
And he hits back harder still against the migratory phenomenon in general. “Europe’s problem is Islam. And on the rise of Islam, what can I say? It is Christianity that has resisted that rise. Christianity is still resisting it. Hungary is today, as it has been, the forward post of European Christianity.”
Does he seek to distance his country from the Europe that he describes as serving the interests of Germany and living under threat of a “great replacement”?
He reacts strongly, thinking, I imagine, of the billions of euros in European structural funds that have allowed Hungary to build highways and restore the domes, bridges, and palaces that have made Budapest the Nineveh of Central Europe, nestled voluptuously on the Danube.
“Absolutely not! Because, as I told you, I am the most Christian, and thus the most European, of Europeans. Europe’s DNA is me. I am its guardian.”
“Even if the pope does not agree with you and continues to reaffirm the duty to welcome and shelter migrants?”
For the second time, as with the suspension of Fidesz from the European Parliament, I sense that he feels anxious and unsure of himself.
“Yes, that is awkward. Especially since the pope is due to visit Budapest. But having shouldered my pilgrim’s burden, I go, several times a week, unaccompanied by journalists or anyone else, to explain my position to Catholics. Now, pay close attention to this.”
His animal side has returned quickly to the fore.
“Our partners have to realize that the Hungarians are an ancient people, free and proud, who will not be lectured to. We were occupied by the Ottomans. By the Slavs. By the Communists. We didn’t go through this so we could fall under the thumb of Brussels.”
I object that Brussels cannot be compared to an occupying army.
From there I move quickly to the two real powers that have weighed on Hungary’s history, and with whose successors he seems to find common ground.
“Are you referring to [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan?” he asks.
“To name one.”
“It’s complicated with Erdoğan. As it was with Silvio Berlusconi. Very few people are aware of my personal relationship with Silvio Berlusconi. Are you?”
“I don’t believe so.”
“One day in the early 1990s, I get a phone call. He’s on the other end of the line. I had never heard of him before. But he invites me to an A.C. Milan match. At the time, he was thinking about starting up Forza Italia. He wanted me to come tell him how I’d done it with Fidesz. So there I was, at 30, tutoring the future prime minister of Italy!”
“There is something you have to know about Erdoğan. He’s a big soccer fan, like me. And soccer fans share a trait. They have a muscle here, in the lower back …”
He leans out of his chair a little, as if to show me his lower back.
“And that’s what Erdoğan and I did the first time we met. We touched each other’s lower back—and recognized a fellow fan.”
“Okay. But what about the Hungary that you’ve described as a small, fragile nation threatened by—”
He doubled down.
“It’s a miracle! That’s what you have to understand. Hungary is not a nation; it’s a miracle!”
“Let’s call it a miracle. Shouldn’t this miracle be all the more mistrustful of the Ottoman imperialism that is galloping back in Ankara?”
“Yes, of course. But once again, pay attention …” He gestures toward the shelves of the library in which he closets himself every Thursday. “Scholars have made a lot of progress. Especially the linguists working on the Finno-Ugric matrix from which the Turkish and Magyar languages are derived. I mean to say that our two nations have a past that is what it is, but we are also cousins.”
No serious scholar puts any stock in the hazy theory that is known in Ankara as Pan-Turanianism. But it seems to meet the needs of Viktor Orbán.
I push on.
“Russia is a big country.”
“It is a big country located very close to us—only Ukraine separates us.”
“I am aware of that as well.”
“I mean to imply that we must be careful. Very careful. We must support Ukraine, since it is the main bulwark between us and the Russians. At the same time, we must not provoke Putin. And that is why I oppose the European Union’s sanctions against him.”
“Even to the point of granting quasi-diplomatic status to the Russian investment bank that set up in Budapest in March?”
For the first time since the beginning of the interview, he seems on the point of losing his temper.
“First of all, it’s not a Russian bank.” He gestures as if counting on his fingers and again assumes the expression he had when listing his French friends or explaining that the alliance of Jews and Magyars had yielded a majority. “The bank to which you refer is called the International Investment Bank. Fifty-one percent of its capital is held by non-Russians. And, frankly, the Europeans, ah, the Europeans … ”
“The Europeans are being incredibly hypocritical. On the one hand, they lecture us. On the other hand, I wasn’t the one, at least as far as I know, who launched the Nord Stream 2 project that puts you at the mercy of Russian gas.”
I think of what is rumored in Budapest about Orbán’s business ties with Putin and the Kremlin.
And I think of what I am going to say on a Budapest stage in a couple of hours about this real-world Luke Skywalker who may have gone over to the dark side of the Force, become the puppet of the oligarchs’ empire, and made his old friend Lőrinc Mészáros the richest man in the world in the same way Caligula made his horse a senator.
Strangely, I feel less sure of all that than I had been.
I have trouble believing that his speech about crusading Christianity masks deal-making opportunism.
I am more inclined to believe, ultimately, in an absurd form of sincerity on his part—no less sincere for being absurd.
Horthy, whom he admires, was an admiral in a country without an outlet to the sea and regent of a nation without a king.
Viktor Orbán, the would-be herald of Christian values criticized continually by the pope; the critic of a European Union that he sees more as a prison for distinctive peoples than as a source of billions in annual subsidies and aid; the sovereignist fascinated by Putin; the artisan of the renewal of the Hungarian soul whose pro-Russian stance leaves the people possessing that soul as no more than pawns in the game of the new Radetzkys who intend to carve Europe up from Moscow—yes, it may be that man is, making due allowance for differences, a new Horthy embodying a similar absurdity.
The interview is nearing its end.
He leads us out onto the terrace overlooking the Danube, inviting my cameraman to follow us.
I am reminded once again of the courageous dissident of 30 years ago.
And then, suddenly, as if reading my thoughts—or perhaps noticing for the first time the badge I am wearing from the university supported by George Soros, which he wants to shutter—he asks me if I am in contact with Soros.
I respond that I count him as a friend.
Almost timidly, he asks me how he is.
And when I, in turn, ask him, in front of the camera, if he might have a message for his former mentor, he responds not once, but twice: “I wish him good health and good luck.”
One last time I see the Oxford student who shed hot tears before Imre Nagy’s empty tomb on Heroes’ Square.
I glimpse the once-young man who, today, devotes his energy to running his rosebud over the head of his former benefactor.
And I would swear that at that instant, the man who is the enemy of Soros, of myself, and of every democrat struggling against populism, the man who killed the young person inside and is probably a lost cause as far as the truth is concerned, experiences a vision of the path he did not take and the life he did not lead.
Of course, I cannot be sure.
* This article originally stated that Orbán’s party, Fidesz, was suspended from voting in the European Parliament. In fact, it was suspended from membership in the European People’s Party.