Viktor Orbán’s War on Intellect
As the Hungarian prime minister systematically undermined his own country’s education system, one institution stood defiant: a university in the heart of Budapest, founded by George Soros.
On a relentlessly gray Budapest morning, Michael Ignatieff took me to the rooftop of Central European University’s main building. The newly erected edifice is all glass, sharp angles, exposed steel, and polished wood. Its roof had been landscaped with billowing grasses and fitted with iron benches, as if a section of New York City’s High Line had been transported to Hungary. “This is probably my favorite place on the campus,” Ignatieff told me. He wore a newsboy cap in the winter chill; his reading glasses, which he’d absentmindedly neglected to remove, were wedged on the very end of his nose. The broad Danube and the architectural remnants of the city’s imperial past were splayed out in front of us.
Ignatieff, an intellectual who made an unsuccessful bid to become prime minister of Canada, has spent much of his career studying the fragility of human rights and the irresistible impulse toward nationalism. When he became CEU’s rector in 2016, however, he didn’t believe the job would catapult him to the front lines of the fight for liberalism. He imagined it would be more like a pleasant homecoming. Hungary is the native land of his wife, Zsuzsanna; he had come to know the place intimately on regular visits to her family. “I’m of a certain age,” he said. “I thought, That’s a nice way to top it off.”
He pointed to nearby government buildings. In one of them, the authoritarian government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán had, less than a year after Ignatieff’s arrival, devised a plan to evict CEU from Hungary. The university is widely considered the country’s most prestigious graduate school—it’s been a training ground for presidents, diplomats, and even members of Orbán’s own inner circle. But that inner circle had turned against the institution that had nurtured it and now sought to chase the school from the country’s borders. As Ignatieff explained this to me, he shook his head. “This was not supposed to happen here,” he said.
Hungary once had some of the best universities in postcommunist Europe. But Orbán’s government has systematically crushed them. His functionaries have descended on public universities, controlling them tightly. Research funding, once determined by an independent body of academics, is now primarily dispensed by an Orbán loyalist. When I arrived in Budapest, a pro-government website had just called on students to submit the names of professors who espoused “unasked-for left-wing political opinions.” A regime-friendly weekly published an “enemies list” that included the names of dozens of academics, “mercenaries” purportedly working on behalf of a foreign cabal.
Like Pol Pot or Josef Stalin, Orbán dreams of liquidating the intelligentsia, draining the public of education, and molding a more pliant nation. But he is a state-of-the-art autocrat; he understands that he need not resort to the truncheon or the midnight knock at the door. His assault on civil society arrives in the guise of legalisms subverting the institutions that might challenge his authority.
CEU is a private university, accredited in both the United States and Hungary, and for that reason it has posed a particular challenge to the regime. The school was founded by the Budapest-born financier George Soros, whom Orbán has vilified as a nefarious interloper in Hungary’s affairs. Soros had conceived the school during the dying days of communism to train a generation of technocrats who would write new constitutions, privatize state enterprises, and lead the post-Soviet world into a cosmopolitan future. The university, he declared, would “become a prototype of an open society.”
But open society is exactly what Orbán hopes to roll back; illiberal democracy is the euphemism he uses to describe the state he is building. The prime minister and his allies did their best to make life unpleasant for CEU. Then, in April 2017, Parliament passed a law setting conditions that threatened to render CEU’s continued presence in the country illegal. All of Ignatieff’s hopes of settling into a placid academic life dissipated. Eighty thousand protesters filled the streets.
The effort to evict CEU rattled liberals across the world. Academic freedom—a bloodless term, but a concept at the core of all that the West professes to treasure—seemed to be slipping away in a country where it had looked firmly established. Universities rushed to declare their solidarity; 17 Nobel Prize winners signed a letter of support. Even the United States, run by a president who is no fan of George Soros, offered to help the university.
And so, for much of the past two years, CEU has been the barricades of a civilizational struggle, where liberalism would mount a defense against right-wing populism. The fate of the university was a test of whether liberalism had the tactical savvy and emotional fortitude to beat back its new ideological foe.
A charming fact about George Soros is that he keeps a court of eccentrics, loquacious intellectuals and academic theoreticians who have become his advisers and friends. Among them is a historian named István Rév. He presides over the CEU archives, a collection of artifacts of communism and the movements that resisted it. Rév works in a dimly lit room at a rolltop desk, beside an antique radio. As he ushered me into his office, he said, “I was the first employee of the university here, and I hope I will not be the last.”
When Rév met Soros, in the 1980s, the financier was already fantastically rich but as yet little known. Soros was just beginning to spend down his fortune, and he hurled himself into the work of philanthropy. “When he arrived in Budapest, he came alone, with a briefcase,” Rév remembered. “After a long trip, he told me, ‘I found worthy causes on which I could spend $10 million, and I’m so happy.’ ”
Not many Jews of Soros’s age would have returned to Budapest with such beneficent intentions. He was 13 when the Nazis invaded the city. Soros went into hiding and assumed a false identity; forged papers announced him as the Gentile Sandor Kiss. Liberation brought fresh horrors. Soros stepped over corpses in the street. Years later, he discovered that Russian soldiers had raped his mother.
Shaking off the traumas of the war, Soros sought to remake his life in London. He worked as a waiter and railway porter before eventually enrolling in the London School of Economics. Soon, he found himself sitting in classes taught by a fellow expatriate who would become his intellectual hero: the Viennese philosopher Karl Popper.
Popper had written one of the great works of Cold War liberalism, The Open Society and Its Enemies. An open society, he wrote, demanded an ethic of tolerance and intellectual modesty. Through democratic debate, a nation could struggle toward knowledge, but there were no ultimate truths. Society could progress only through a process of intellectual experimentation, subjecting ideas to criticism and abandoning them in the face of contrary evidence.
When Soros pondered how he might help reshape the country of his birth as it emerged from communism, Popper’s voice was still ringing in his ear. Hungary, like all Soviet societies, had been cordoned off from the wider world of knowledge. Through the foundation he established, Soros attempted to remedy this. In the last decade of the dying regime, he imported hundreds of Xerox machines to a country where only 12 had existed. The photocopiers were a revolution in Hungarian communications, allowing samizdat to travel faster and farther.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Soros deployed this model on a larger scale. He spent ecumenically and with minimal bureaucratic impediments. Balázs Trencsényi, a history professor at CEU, first heard of Soros’s foundation as a student. Without an appointment, he strolled into the office, filled out a few forms, and left with a grant to fund a series of film screenings. His was a typical experience. “All the cultural journals were funded by Soros,” Trencsényi said. “Left-wing, right-wing. It didn’t matter.” Soros’s goal was to create the institutions that made an open society viable—not to predetermine which side prevailed in the debates those institutions would foster.
It was in this same audacious spirit that he launched CEU in 1991. The university, he hoped, would compensate for the sorry condition of higher education that had emerged from communism. It would train a new elite for the hard work of reconstructing trampled societies.
Rootless cosmopolitan is a slur often hurled against Soros by his anti-Semitic critics, but it is a worldview he proudly claims as his own. He initially imagined an institution that would transcend borders, fostering the movement of scholars and ideas across the former Soviet bloc. Václav Havel, who had just ascended to the presidency of Czechoslovakia, helped secure an old trade-union hall in Prague, which became one of several CEU outposts in the region. But the right-wing prime minister elected in 1992 was far less hospitable. Soros’s decentralized vision quickly proved logistically and politically impossible to sustain.
Reluctantly, he confined his university to his native city. It lived in the ruins of an old television production company; its buildings were ramshackle, the neighborhood even shabbier. But the university was a church key that opened a bottle of intellectual energies. It attracted students who had come up through stultifying institutions where lecturers droned from prepared texts and censored their thoughts to conform to Marxist dogma. Students breathed the freedom of American-style seminars and encountered previously verboten texts, which they treated with a reverence that humbled their Western instructors.
Soros imbibed the atmosphere of experimentation and enthusiasm. “He was involved in every detail,” according to Rév. Leaning on his network of intellectuals, he suggested people to hire, such as the great scholar of nationalism Ernest Gellner. He weighed in on which academic programs the school would offer. On many of his visits, he would stay in the CEU dorm, a building that had once housed the city’s factory workers.
Soon, CEU’s footprint in the city grew, with a gymnasium, a publishing house, and the most important social-science library in the region. The school could even be said to have achieved the lofty goals of its founding. A generation of alumni had remained tethered to the region. One former student became the president of the Republic of Georgia; others became members of the European Parliament. Hungary joined the European Union in 2004, setting the country on a liberal trajectory.
With a justified sense of self-satisfaction, Soros gave the university a $250 million endowment in 2001. Six years later, he stepped down as chairman of its board. CEU modified its raison d’être to adapt to its success. It admitted more students from Africa, Latin America, and other noncontinental locales, reconstituting itself as a global university.
Sitting in the school’s café this winter, I could still glimpse its achievements. A student wearing a hijab leaned over a laptop, a defiant sight in a country that has hermetically sealed itself off from Muslim migration. Several tables over, a professor (and former dissident) wiped croissant crumbs from his beard as he called to a student who had skipped his class to protest the current regime. I’d met the student earlier in the day; he had told me that he was gay, and that CEU was one of the few places in his native country where he could hold hands with a partner without fear of violent recrimination. He pointed in the direction of a nearby bathroom: “The only gender-neutral toilet facility in eastern Europe.”
When Viktor Orbán attacks George Soros, he sometimes refers to him as “Uncle George,” a moniker that drips with sarcasm but also has a fitting sense of familiarity. Before Orbán denounced Soros, he benefited from his philanthropy. Soros’s patronage helped propel Orbán’s rise from the beet fields and pigpens of his village. At age 15, Orbán encountered his first bathroom and the miracle of hot water pouring from a tap. His diminutive size invited bullying, which he attempted to repel with displays of overwhelming force. “If I’m hit once, then I hit back twice,” he would bluster decades later. His aspiration to toughness manifested in a fanatical affection for Charles Bronson movies.
Orbán’s big break came in the mid-1980s, with his acceptance to a new college in Budapest called István Bibó. But before he could go to the big city, the state mandated a stint in the military. Orbán chafed at the army’s relentless indoctrination and its strict hold on his time. On several occasions, his superiors punished him for going AWOL to watch the World Cup. By the time he arrived at Bibó, he had settled into firm anticommunist convictions, which he voiced with stridency and courage.
Bibó was run by a reformer who permitted a freewheeling atmosphere. After Soros visited the school in 1985, he gave the students a photocopier, subsidized a feisty student journal (edited by Orbán), and paid for activists to take language courses and travel abroad.
If Bibó was an island in Budapest, Orbán lived on an island within the island. He roomed with other kids from the countryside. Kim Lane Scheppele, a former CEU professor who now teaches at Princeton, calls them the “dorm kids”—their more urbane classmates from Budapest lived with their parents. It was with a small band of dorm kids that Orbán hatched the Alliance of Young Democrats, or Fidesz.
With his aura of fearlessness, Orbán became a salvific figure for older veterans of the struggle against the Soviet order. In his otherwise critical biography, the journalist Paul Lendvai concedes that Orbán was “blessed with exceptional personal talent and tactical skills.” But the battle-worn activists also saw in him a chance to leap over the demographic obstacles that they believed had constrained their success. The eternal division in Hungarian politics pits Budapest against the rest of the country, an extreme version of the urban-rural divide that afflicts most political cultures. Budapest had been the center of a great empire, a soi-disant capital of European civilization. Peasant life, meanwhile, remained frozen in premodernity.
During the 20th century, there was another way to express this division. Rural Hungary regarded Budapest as synonymous with Jewry. This association required wild exaggeration and sprung from deep reservoirs of anti-Semitism. But the leaders of the opposition understood the political challenge this perception presented. Hungary was home to central Europe’s largest Jewish population after the Holocaust: About 100,000 Jews remained in Budapest, and their children included important critics of communism. They hungered for a transcendent figure like Orbán, who could carry their message beyond the metropolis.
Soros’s friends in Hungary’s liberal intelligentsia recommended Orbán as one of their own. When Soros met him, he was captivated by the young activist’s charisma. He made a donation to Fidesz and gave Orbán a scholarship to study civil society at Oxford. For a time, Orbán reciprocated the generosity. He railed against the “malicious attacks” of nationalists who waxed hysterical over Soros’s philanthropic presence in Hungary. In those years, Orbán proudly called himself a liberal, and his party distanced itself from anti-Semitism and revanchist nationalism.
How did the Orbán of the early ’90s, with his long hair and academic aspirations, become the architect of illiberalism? One theory suggests that political expediency pulled him to the right. But the liberals had also wishfully imposed their hopes on Orbán, never looking carefully enough at him to notice that he deeply resented them. “The dorm kids always wanted to show the urban intellectuals that they had always been the smarter, better leaders,” Scheppele told me.
There’s a story, which might not be wholly accurate in its particulars, that captures this blister of anger. It was memorialized in verse by the poet István Kemény. At a reception for new parliamentarians in 1994, a liberal leader makes his way across the room to Orbán. The event was one of the rare occasions when the young Orbán, usually clad in blue jeans, wore a necktie. In front of the crowd, the liberal adjusts Orbán’s tie, a condescending gesture that reddens Orbán’s face. The poem declares this humiliation a transformational moment for the “last prime minister of the drowning country of Hungary.”
Orbán’s first stint as prime minister ended after four years, with his defeat in the 2002 elections. The loss caught him by surprise, and it was followed by another, four years later. Orbán vowed that he would never suffer defeat again. In a closed-door speech in 2009, leaked to Hungary’s formerly robust media, he said that he wanted to create “a central political force field” that would allow conservatives to rule for “the coming 15 to 20 years.” As he put it in another speech, “We have only to win once, but then properly.”
When scandal and recession crashed his socialist opponents in 2010, Orbán returned to power, reinventing himself as the field marshal of a civilizational Kulturkampf. His old resentments became the basis for his political platform. He alone would defend the integrity of the family, the nation, and Christendom against “the holy alliance of Brussels bureaucrats, the liberal world media, and insatiable international capital.” He stoked mass hysteria about a wave of immigrants from the Middle East and Africa that arrived in the autumn of 2015, passing through Budapest on their way north.
His masterstroke was to describe the migration crisis as the handiwork of an odious cabal, orchestrated by a Jewish puppet master. In one typical attack, he bellowed, “We are fighting an enemy that is different from us. Not open, but hiding; not straightforward, but crafty; not honest, but base; not national, but international; does not believe in working, but speculates with money.” All of the time-honored tropes of anti-Semitism were unmistakably heaped on George Soros. Soon billboards appeared across the country with an image of Soros cackling and the caption don’t let him have the last laugh.
This counteroffensive was wholly cynical. Soros had long ago ceased to be much of a player in the country. By 2016, his annual spending on nongovernmental organizations in Hungary had dwindled to $3.6 million. “When they started the anti-Soros campaign, nobody thought it would be this successful,” Péter Kréko, a political analyst at the think tank Political Capital Institute, told me. “The polling data showed Soros was an unknown figure. Nobody hated him. In one and a half years, Orbán turned him into a diabolical figure.”
In the face of his demagoguery, the country had already suffered a brain drain. “Hundreds of thousands of people are leaving,” Kréko said. “They will transfer money home, but they don’t vote here. They don’t go to protests. The government likes having a smaller population that is more loyal.” But if one generation of critics exits, the universities can always generate another, so the government set out to shred the academy, too. When Orbán moved against CEU, it wasn’t just political posturing or spleen. Destroying Hungary’s finest institution of higher education was a crucial step in his quest for eternal political life.
Michael Ignatieff had barely unpacked his books when he first heard rumors about CEU’s endangered future, surreptitiously passed to his staff by a sympathetic source in the government. The source whispered about the possibility of an imminent attack encapsulating everything that made Orbán such a vexing opponent. Having studied law at Bibó, Orbán implemented his agenda with legalistic aplomb. He constantly revised statutes to serve his own purposes.
The bureaucrat warned of an imminent amendment to the national higher-education law that had been scripted in secret. Although the legislation didn’t mention CEU by name, the school was its obvious—and only—target. The bill would suddenly make CEU’s existence in the country dependent on quickly meeting a series of impossible-seeming requirements. As a foreign university, it would have to operate a campus in its country of origin. (CEU was chartered in the state of New York, but it didn’t have any faculty or facilities there.) Its national government would need to enter into a bilateral accreditation agreement with Hungary. (In the U.S., accreditation agreements are the jurisdiction of the states, not the federal government.) “It was an absolute masterpiece of this style of legal mugging,” Ignatieff told me.
While he had the benefit of a warning, the broader community had no inkling of the attack. One evening, Judit Sándor, a law professor who had taught at CEU since its earliest years, arrived home from the symphony. With the music still thrumming in her head, she couldn’t sleep, so she reached for her phone. News of the amendment had broken. She told me: “My entire life changed while I was at the concert.”
Sándor came to campus the next day and consoled tearful colleagues and students. By that afternoon, however, the mood had begun to shift. Students from across Budapest descended on CEU with homemade placards—a prelude to a series of larger demonstrations. Protesters crowded the narrow streets and joined hands, creating a human chain that wrapped around the campus. “People were risking their jobs to stand with us,” Sándor said. For a country that had sleepwalked into an era of illiberalism, it was a startling display of resistance.
Despite the protests, the law was rushed through Parliament. Confronting the terrifying new reality that CEU might be evicted, Ignatieff began a good-faith effort to cut a deal with Orbán, although he had no illusions about the prime minister. Instead of feeding Orbán’s hunger for confrontation, Ignatieff made a calculated decision to cool the fervor of the university community. “I explicitly gave the order that we cannot be associated with street protests. It’s not what universities should do.” Soros also held his tongue for the sake of the institution. According to one adviser, “He felt that he was not able to respond, because he did not want to endanger CEU.”
The law mandated a U.S. campus, so Ignatieff opened one. He quickly managed to procure space at Bard College, in New York’s Hudson Valley; in three months, he created a program and sent 15 students there. Lawyers from the office of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo started to hammer out an agreement with the government of Hungary. The European Union, in theory, afforded the university a canopy of protections. Early on, Ignatieff believed that it was only a matter of time before the whole mess went away. “I’m not prey to many illusions,” he told me, “but I kind of thought the machinery would work.”
The machinery, however, wasn’t designed for a confrontation with this sort of adversary. The public face of the regime’s war on CEU is a graduate of the institution. When I went to meet the government’s official spokesman, Zoltán Kovács, in his office, he had crammed himself into a corner of the spacious room. He was working at a small antique side table that held an open MacBook and a Coke Zero. A television mounted across the room was tuned to CNN International.
Kovács looks like a functionary who could have been plucked from any European capital. Rimless glasses sit on a face coated in stubble, which extends toward a shaved scalp. His starched shirt was open at the collar. During his years at CEU, Kovács wrote a doctoral dissertation titled “The Political Image of the Habsburg Monarchy in Mid-18th Century England,” as if he was always studying to flack on behalf of an absolutist ruler. There’s a poster on Kovács’s wall, in the style of an advertisement for a boxing match, with an image of him standing next to the political theorist Francis Fukuyama. It hypes a bout that supposedly pits Kovács against the author of The End of History and the Last Man, a text that has become a shorthand for neoliberal triumphalism. In actuality, Kovács has never met Fukuyama, though he did submit some letters to the editor quibbling with an essay that Fukuyama wrote in a small-circulation journal. “It was rather a kind of symbolic fight,” he explained.
Kovács delivers his spin with an even temper and a British inflection, obtained through his own Soros-funded scholarship to Oxford. He presents himself as possessing a superior grasp of the facts, an aura of confidence that permits him to speak in long paragraphs filled with obfuscation. Using the legalistic talk that is the métier of his government, he tried to convince me that CEU is somehow the academic equivalent of an offshore shell company. When I seemed confused by his debater’s point, he fell back on invective, denouncing Ignatieff as a “failed liberal politician coming from Canada.”
The argument he pressed hardest was, in some ways, his most honest. He insisted that CEU would “need to operate according to the rules, full stop.” If the government wanted to change those rules, that was the regime’s prerogative. “What you see is an effort on behalf of a pretty small state, actually, to regain much of its independence—or sovereignty, rather.” Sovereignty, in this illiberal use of the term, means the freedom to exert control over an independent institution. CEU could either submit to the will of the state or leave.
With one week left for the government and CEU to strike a deal, students attempted another round of protests in November. An organizer of the effort was a 26-year-old from the suburbs of Budapest named Imre Szijarto. I met him outside a tent village, modeled after Occupy Wall Street, in the square beside the parliament building. He was wearing a wool cap, work boots, and a backpack strapped over both shoulders.
Like so many Hungarians, Szijarto describes life in the Orbán era as if it were a dream sequence. Not very many years ago, his parents would tell him, “You’re so lucky to live in a democracy.” His mother had been rejected from university after admitting that she hadn’t joined a communist youth league.
Perhaps the biggest thrill of liberty was the ability to move easily across Europe. Szijarto went to live in Berlin and to study at University College London. When he heard about Orbán’s attempt to expel CEU, he was living abroad. The protests he saw from afar inspired him. He hopped a flight home to join the marches in the street. The next fall he enrolled as a student at CEU, despite the threat of eviction hanging over his new school.
In his year at CEU, he watched as the regime deadened the spirit of resistance. Its legalistic approach—its feints toward compromise, followed by inexplicable delays—left CEU twisting for months. In the meantime, the public’s outrage dissipated. Szijarto found it hard to recruit other Hungarian students, who worried that their CEU degree might be a “scarlet letter.” Protesting would only make their chances of landing a good job, especially in the public sector, harder.
Szijarto was working tirelessly to keep CEU in Hungary, but, he told me, he could no longer imagine his own future there. The relentless presence of propaganda demoralized him. “Since I don’t believe Hungary is a democracy anymore, I don’t think I can have an impact.” He had already mentally committed himself to a life in exile.
As I stood with Szijarto, I found it hard to believe that 80,000 protesters had once marched on behalf of CEU. Here were four tents and maybe 20 souls. A mist settled on the encampment as the small crowd stood close to gas heaters, a cold and lonely last stand.
In his bleakest moments, Ignatieff would hang his hopes on a new arrival to the city. He would make the five-minute walk from his office to the American embassy to meet with the freshly installed ambassador, an 80-year-old jeweler from New York City named David Cornstein. A long friendship with Donald Trump had landed him the gig, in his grandmother’s ancestral homeland.
When I visited the embassy to meet Cornstein, he sauntered into the room in a purple turtleneck sweater, a large watch on his wrist. A public-affairs officer sat nearby as we talked, taking careful notes on a legal pad. With each adjustment of his necktie, he projected the anxiety that comes from having a self-confident boss who might revise his talking points in the middle of a sentence.
Ignatieff had reason to hope that Cornstein might elevate the school into a priority of American foreign policy. During the confirmation process, senators from both parties pressed him to take up the cause. On his fourth working day in Budapest, he visited the campus, a display of support that Ignatieff had craved.
But if Cornstein was going to confront the Orbán government over CEU, he would have to redirect the Trump administration’s tendencies. Until recently, the State Department bureau that oversees Hungary was run by a foreign-policy hand named A. Wess Mitchell, who came from a Washington think tank that had once received payments totaling $20,000 from the Orbán government. In speeches, Mitchell made it clear that the days of tongue-lashing Orbán over human-rights abuses had come to an end. The Trump administration spiked a program that would have given $700,000 to support independent Hungarian media, grants that the Orbán government had lobbied American lawmakers to prevent.
Two months before our meeting, Cornstein had gathered representatives of the university and the Orbán government in his office to cut a deal. But Cornstein’s sympathy for the university didn’t prove to be terribly deep. He didn’t see himself as an advocate for the U.S.‑chartered school so much as an honest broker, bringing two sides together, each with a valid case. “It is not Viktor Orbán and the government of Hungary alone that caused this to happen,” he told me. Cornstein said that Soros (whom he has never met) was driven by a crazed hatred of Orbán that prevented him from making concessions that could save CEU. He even felt some sympathy for Orbán: “If you see what has been said by Soros regarding Orbán, you would say, ‘I don’t want this guy near me. I don’t want anything to do with him.’ ”
When I asked Cornstein about Orbán’s description of his own government as an “illiberal democracy,” the ambassador shifted forward and rested his elbows on a table. “It’s a question of a personal view, or what the American people, or the president of the United States, think of illiberal democracy, and what its definition is.” As he danced around the question, never quite arriving at an opinion, he added, “I can tell you, knowing the president for a good 25 or 30 years, that he would love to have the situation that Viktor Orbán has, but he doesn’t.”
In October, a pipe bomb arrived at George Soros’s mansion in Westchester. Police detonated the device without harm, but the story dominated the national news nonetheless. The failed attack seemed to encapsulate how Trump’s demagoguery had migrated into dangerous territory.
While the press dwelled on the bomb, Soros’s own mind quickly pivoted away from his brush with death. About 90 minutes after learning of the bomb, he called an aide to discuss the security of CEU students in the shadow of Orbán’s campaign against the school.
More than most human beings, Soros is skilled at deflecting personal attacks. His protective layers have been tested by war, by a career as a speculator who placed outrageously large bets, and by decades in which mouthpieces of the global right have assailed him.
Even Orbán’s insults didn’t seem to bother him deeply, with one exception. “The only time I saw a flicker of pain across his face was when he was told that his picture had been put on the floor of a tram in the city where he was born,” Ignatieff told me. “The malignity of that, the meanness of putting his face in a place it would be trampled, a reminder of so much history. There was physical pain.”
Although Soros didn’t wallow in his victimhood, by the height of Orbán’s campaign against him, he no longer felt welcome or safe in Budapest. For decades, he had enjoyed strolling the city of his youth. He took special pleasure in his annual pilgrimage to CEU graduation, an event that he etched into his calendar. As he walked from his hotel to campus, bystanders would recognize him. He would speak with them in what remained of his Hungarian. When the university’s board of trustees convened in Manhattan last October, Soros hadn’t set foot in Budapest in two and a half years. Several classes of students had graduated without Soros handing them a diploma.
As the board debated how to manage CEU’s existential crisis, a handful of trustees urged that the university defiantly remain in Budapest, no matter what the new law mandated. Soros didn’t do much talking, but he was clearly unmoved by the argument. The university had been toyed with long enough, he believed. There was a new class of students to admit, and they needed to know whether they would be living in Budapest. One trustee remembers looking over at Soros: “He had this look of finality. I thought, He’s just done with Hungary.”
As the government’s attacks on the school escalated, Ignatieff began to imagine a relocated campus in Vienna. He scouted for real estate and met with Austrian officials. In December, when the government failed to sign an agreement securing CEU’s existence, the plans were activated. A makeshift campus will open this fall.
What does it really mean to suffer such an assault on academic freedom? Re-creating CEU in Vienna will cost Soros a hefty sum—193 million euros have been budgeted over the next six years—but he can afford it. Ignatieff says that there is opportunity in the crisis. In Vienna, internships at international organizations abound.
While CEU hopes to maintain a presence in Budapest—it will perhaps host public lectures and adult-education programs there—the university is devoting its resources and attention to building a new identity in a new land. But Soros’s concern was always about those left behind. He founded the university to counteract the possibility of a regional brain drain. In 1994, he said in a speech that he hoped his efforts would turn Hungary into a “country from which I wouldn’t want to emigrate.” Implicit in his worry about flight was an anxiety that those who remained would consist of the uneducated and disengaged, people susceptible to political manipulation.
This grim vision is becoming Hungary’s reality. Orbán has lowered the age at which compulsory education ends from 18 to 16, triggering a spike in high-school dropouts. Textbooks and curricula, once the domain of municipalities, have been centralized and now inculcate the regime’s politics. “The government is quite clear that patriotic education is as important as transferring knowledge,” Péter Kréko, the political analyst, told me. An eighth-grade history book praises Orbán as a “foundational figure.” A high-school textbook opens a section on “multiculturalism” with an image of refugees huddled at the Budapest train station, accompanied by a quotation from the prime minister: “We consider it a value that Hungary is a homogeneous country.”
The country’s universities, which had been free, have begun charging tuition, and the cost now exceeds the reach of most Hungarians. Hungary used to have the highest level of university enrollment in postcommunist Europe; it now has one of the lowest. Once-great institutions have become venues for cronyism. Law students are more likely to receive stipends if they study at the one institution filled with Fidesz loyalists.
This assault has helped create conditions that many Hungarians simply can’t abide. Nearly 1 million have emigrated over the past decade—a trend that began before Orbán assumed power but has accelerated in the years since. It’s a stunning number, considering that Hungary’s total population is less than 10 million. Many of these exiles are college-educated. Every intellectual in Budapest can list the names of fellow intellectuals who have gone off to places like Berlin or Salzburg.
All of this has transpired without much substantive criticism from abroad. A quirk of European politics is its transcontinental political parties. Orbán is a stalwart of the European People’s Party, a center-right coalition that features Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats. Terrified of nationalist revolt in their own ranks—and resigned to Orbán’s status as an icon of the anti-immigrant right—his more reputable partners have largely refrained from meaningfully chastising him. Germany, which has posed as the leading protector of Europe, has been especially mute. This silence stems, in part, from economic self-interest. In the past two decades, Audi and Mercedes have invested billions in building new plants in Hungary, with its pool of skilled, cheap labor.
Orbán, however, has done his best to provoke his partners. This spring, he described some of them as “useful idiots”—a slander that finally elicited a reprimand. The European People’s Party voted to suspend Orbán for three months, and its leaders insisted that Orbán keep CEU in Budapest, part of a longer list of democratic displays it demanded. In the face of the suspension, Orbán remained true to his tactics. Once again, he gestured in the direction of compromise, issuing a statement about his willingness to entertain the possibility of CEU remaining in Budapest, in the hopes that appearing to relent might preserve his place in the center-right coalition—and with the knowledge that CEU had signed complex agreements with the Austrian government and irreversibly committed itself to placing the core of the institution in Vienna. The conductor Leon Botstein, the chair of the CEU board, told me, “You can only abuse an institution for so long.” According to Botstein, nearly the entirety of CEU’s academic operation will depart Budapest within the next two years. After voting to suspend Orbán, politicians congratulated themselves on finally standing up to the bully, but the bully had already prevailed.
When I asked David Cornstein whether U.S. relations with Hungary would suffer as a result of Orbán’s treatment of CEU, he quickly replied, “Not really.” There was no hint of sorrow or regret in his voice. The answer unnerved his press aide, who asked the ambassador to step out of the room as our interview was winding down. “I’m in trouble,” the ambassador said on his way out the door. After he returned, he admitted that he should probably show greater sensitivity to the plight of CEU: “I am saddened that they are leaving.” But he explicitly refused to amend the substance of his answer. “I’m hopeful we can turn the page and move on to other subjects.” Two weeks after the university’s deadline for an agreement passed, Cornstein joined Orbán and officials from his regime to watch a soccer game.
One of the fears about the move to Vienna is that it will deprive the university of its visceral connection to history. CEU could settle into a vapid bourgeois existence, insulated from the events roiling Hungary. But Austria, too, is a country experiencing a rightward turn. While the country’s right-wing chancellor has welcomed CEU, his nationalistic vice chancellor has nastily protested its arrival. He argued against providing a home to a “wandering university,” a remark widely interpreted as carrying classical anti-Semitic insinuations. Even the government officials positively inclined to the university have proved tone-deaf. They want the university founded by a Holocaust survivor to move into an old hospital where the Nazis once performed medical experiments. Illiberalism has forced the open society’s retreat, but there may no longer be a place where it is truly safe.
This article appears in the June 2019 print edition with the headline “Liberalism’s Last Stand.”