Last week, Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó visited the United Nations to drum up diplomatic support for an international day commemorating the victims of communism. I sat down with him at the Hungarian consulate in New York to discuss the initiative and other matters. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
— Sohrab Ahmari
Sohrab Ahmari: Minister, you hosted a lunch at the United Nations this week to propose an international day to commemorate the victims of communism. Tell me why that’s important to Hungary.
Péter Szijjártó: This year marks the 30th anniversary of us getting rid of the communist dictatorship. We Hungarians have our history full of fights for freedom, wars for independence. So if there is a nation on earth that is aware of how important sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence [are], it is us. Plus, we got rid of the communists only 30 years ago, and they unfortunately spent more than 40 years in Hungary occupying us. [This means] we are deeply aware of the crimes they committed against the peoples they ruled.
That’s why we think it’s really strange that the victims of communist dictatorships don’t yet have an international day. We have all sorts of international days [celebrating] yoga, jazz, bicycle[s]. Tea was the last I saw. They are all very important. I like tea. I ride a bike. I have nothing against jazz and yoga. But it’s really unacceptable and strange that the victims of one of the cruelest dictatorships ever don’t have a day of commemoration. That’s why the Hungarian government, building on the 30th anniversary, decided to launch this initiative. We tried to gather partners to the initiative and ask countries to cosponsor.
SA: And how did the reception at Turtle Bay go?
PS: You know for me the initial reactions were a bit surprising. Those countries that are usually so brave when it’s about criticizing Eastern countries, now they say, “Oh, we have to be more careful. We have to use more general terms. We shouldn’t use the word ‘Communist.'” I represent Hungary, so I don’t want to give concrete examples [of which countries responded in this way to the Hungarian initiative]. It was really surprising to me. But we will do our best.
SA: As you well know, there are still one-party communist governments in power that are represented at the United Nations. Do you expect opposition from, say, Cuba or China?
PS: You know, I carry out a foreign policy that is based on mutual respect. I never interfere in nor do I comment on the domestic issues of other countries, because this simply isn’t my job. To be honest, I’m really fed up with those who think that it is their duty to lecture others and tell others how they should live their lives—to tell Hungarians how they should decide their own future. So I think it should be left to all nations in what way they think about their own future. This declaration would address the past. “Victims” means the past. And these victims really deserve to be remembered.
In my country, I can hardly think of anyone who hasn’t been negatively impacted by communism. I could even tell you my personal experience.
SA: Please do.
PS: I was raised in a very devout and determinedly Catholic family. My great-grandpa was an industrialist. And then the communists came in. All of his assets were expropriated. He committed suicide. My grandmother was treated as an “alien” under the system. That’s why my mother wasn’t allowed to study in university. You can talk [to] Hungarian families; almost all will be able to give you such stories. So the communist dictatorship in Hungary has ruined families—physically, emotionally, intellectually, financially.
SA: Do you hope that such a commemoration would have lessons for the present, and are there other ideologies that have totalitarian tendencies that we perhaps don’t recognize as such?
PS: Currently, the major threat to the world is terrorism and the ideologies behind it. When extremist ideas are being supported by state actors, or not being fought against by state actors, then they can become really, really dangerous. That’s why Hungary is a very committed supporter of the global war against terror. We have been part of the anti-ISIS coalition led by the Americans since 2015. We have troops on the ground. We have been supporting communities forced to escape from their homes by the terrorist organizations. I think we have to address that challenge much more actively and intensively than we have been.
SA: What about the trend toward a dogmatic, doctrinaire, dare I say totalitarian liberalism that doesn’t send its victims to the gulags but nevertheless through intense social-control mechanisms silences and punishes non-liberals?
PS: We have to be aware that nowadays, if you are not part of the international liberal mainstream, then you will be under continuous attacks. That’s not a question. The example of the Hungarians and the Polish proves it very clearly. We carry out very patriotic, conservative policies that are based on Christian values—Christian-democratic policies. We have been under relentless attacks for it, and if anyone speaks in favor of us in the West, they come under severe attacks immediately. We have to be aware that currently in Europe and maybe here in North America, this is the situation.
Let me give you a personal example. When President Trump was elected, a big hysteria broke out in Europe. European media started to attack President Trump like hell. The foreign ministers gathered for an extraordinary meeting to discuss the situation. Boris Johnson and myself, we didn’t show up. Trump hadn’t even taken office yet: What were we supposed to discuss about him?
When I hear him say “America First,” and he is attacked for that, my question is: What is the American president supposed to say, “America Second, Third, Fourth”? We Hungarians do the same. For us, Hungary is first. But nowadays . . . if you carry out such a patriotic policy, you are instantly stigmatized by the liberal mainstream media and political elite, saying that “you represent the Nazi and Fascist approach, you represent the past, you are retrograde, you are killing globalization.”
Those who consider themselves as the most tolerant people on earth show zero tolerance for ideas other than their own.
SA: Hungary was the first country from the European Union to join the new U.S.-led International Religious Liberty Alliance. Why did you do that?
PS: Look, we have been a Christian country for more than 1,000 years, and we even say it in our constitution: that we recognize the role of Christianity in maintaining our statehood for such a long time, under such brutal challenges. We Hungarians feel a sense of responsibility for Christian communities all over the world that are really suffering. We think it’s unacceptable that no one, or almost no one, is brave enough to say that Christianity has become the most persecuted religion globally. Four of five persons persecuted for their faith are Christians. When you look at the international discourse, there is a perception that Christianophobia is an acceptable kind of bigotry. We think that’s insane.
We have launched a policy called Hungary Helps, under the framework of which we have spent $50 million so far to help Christian communities in the Middle East and Africa. We have helped 75,000 Christians either to stay in their indigenous communities or to return to them. We have built three Christian hospitals in Lebanon. We have rebuilt a complete settlement for Christians in Iraq. We have been covering the medical expenditures of the three biggest Christian hospitals in Syria. This is direct financing; it’s not like we give the money to some international groups. No, the patriarchs come to Budapest, they tell us about their needs, they tell us how they could strengthen their communities, what could help their communities carry on where they have been for millennia. And then we provide them with direct funding for these projects. Because we feel responsible for persecuted Christian communities around the world, [the Trump administration initiative] is in line with our strategy.
SA: Can you talk a bit about Christianity’s role in preserving Hungarian culture under communism?
PS: When you ask about how Hungary could have survived the communist dictatorship, there were brave and fantastic Hungarian people, who gave hope to the hopeless. Many of them came from the Church—the priests, the bishops, sometimes hidden, sometimes open. Unfortunately, they were sometimes forced to make compromises. I know many families, because I come from such [Catholic] circles, who had been praying for decades to gain back the liberty of the country. The Christian culture, our longstanding Christian heritage as a state, all played a role in our surviving 40 years of communism.
SA: Are Christian identity and Christianity as such always the same thing? There has been some criticism, even from conservative Christian quarters, of your government’s decision to finance in vitro fertilization, which, as you know, numerous popes have condemned. The Catechism of the Catholic Church likewise prohibits the use of IVF.
PS: Look, I’m speaking as a private person: I think children are the greatest blessing in the world. And I really do believe that all human beings deserve this opportunity [IVF], in case of illness, of course, to become parents. The state has assets and instruments to help them become parents. And if the state helps such people, who for some reason cannot but want to, I’m sorry, I cannot say anything against this. As a father of two sons, I would not like to begin to imagine my life without that experience.
SA: Why is Hungary—a small, landbound nation of 10 million people—constantly polarizing global opinion?
PS: Hungarians’ policy, just like the Polish [policy], goes totally against the international liberal mainstream, and that’s why we are under very serious attacks. Nowadays, [if] you are brave enough to say that you are proud of who you are, you have to be ready to be attacked like hell. But we are ready. We [the Fidesz party] have been in office since 2010 onward. In 2010, ’14, and ’18, we have won the national elections by two-thirds majorities, with increasing support each time. In 2018, we received 40 percent more votes than we did in 2014, and we have been enjoying a supermajority for a 10th consecutive year now, which is totally unique in Europe. There are only two countries in the European Union where one single party has a majority on its own, and these are Poland and Hungary. Maybe this isn’t an accident.
Look, Mr. [Josep] Borrell, who is the high representative of the European Union, came to Budapest at the end of 2018 as the socialist foreign minister of Spain. I invited him to come. I thought I would have a chance to talk to a socialist foreign minister who is a university professor by profession, so he might be more open to talk through things in a fair way. And do you know what his final takeaway from his day in Budapest was? He still didn’t like our policies, which is natural, because he is a Spanish socialist and we are Hungarian Christian democrats. But he said one thing he could never again maintain was this: that our success in Hungary is anti-democratic. Because he understood that what we have been doing enjoys broad support among the people. You can like it or not. But one thing must not be said: that we’re anti-democratic.
SA: To return to our original theme, did you read Jean-Claude Juncker’s speech in 2018 on the bicentennial of Karl Marx’s birthday, at which the president of the European Commission said that “Marx isn’t responsible for all the atrocity his alleged heirs have to answer for”?
PS: The fact that the president of the European Commission took part in that event is a shame. He was accusing [us] of so many bad things—of being anti-Semitic, of being anti-democratic and so on. Now this same person, who took part in that Marx celebration, has no right to say anything about anybody.
Péter Szijjártó is Hungary’s minister for foreign affairs and trade. Sohrab Ahmari is the op-ed editor of the New York Post.