"Orbán is smarter than Trump" - Interview with Bernard-Henri Lévy


Europe's future is now hinged on Viktor Orbán, as he became sort of a godfather to all European extremists: if his illiberal system gains ground, Europe will collapse - says one of the most influential political activists, philosophers and writers of France, Bernard-Henri Lévy.

Ne maradjon le semmiről!

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Lévy would like to do everything he can to prevent that, that is why he is touring Europe with the play he wrote and self-produced: "Looking for Europe." The play will be staged in 20 countries, but organising the event was difficult only in Poland and Hungary - no theatres in Hungary were willing to host the play that will debut in a non-state theatre on 10 April 2019.

We interviewed Lévy in Paris about "Looking for Europe," we talked about the play, about an old acquaintance of the philosopher, George Soros, and about how he sees Viktor Orbán now and how he saw him when they first met in Budapest soon after the fall of Communism.

Why are you doing your tour in Europe now, before the elections of European Parliament?

My proposal is to plead for Europe and against a new tendency which is spreading all over Europe, and Budapest is the capital of it: illiberal democracy. This is a plague, this is a disaster, this is the denial of the best of the European spirit. I wish to contribute to the fact that there are as few MPs as possible in the Parliament from this current. I speak of Le Pen, I speak of the Fidesz and of the extreme right parties everywhere. I wish to contribute to the defeat of populism, the defeat of illiberal regimes and I wish to say again and again, very loudly, that we have a lot to believe in, and that liberal values are great. I know that a lot of people in Budapest – maybe half of them, maybe the majority – believes in that. But now they are intellectually blackmailed, and they don’t dare to say it.

Why did you choose to write a play about the current situation and politics in the European Union instead of an essay or a study?

Because theatre has a political virtue. My mentor, Jean-Paul Sartre always said that the best way to express yourself politically is through theatre. And he always did so. In theatre, there is a direct relationship with the audience which makes the message more sharp. In emergencies, theatre is a good option.

Bernard-Henri Lévy

A leader of the "Nouveaux Philosophes" movement, "the most prominent intellectual in France today" according to the Boston Globe, author to many sociological and political bestsellers Bernard-Henri Lévy was born to an affluent Jewish family in colonial Algeria, but his family moved to Paris a couple of months after he was born. He graduated from one of the most prestigious French universities in 1968 and then joined Albert Camus' newspaper "Combat" as a war reporter. He covered the Bangladesh Liberation War and summed up his experiences in his book "Bangladesh: Nationalism in revolution." Soon after his arrival back to Paris, he became one of the founding members of the Nouveaux Philosophes movement created as a response to the socialist and communist answers given to the 1968 revolutions. The movement criticised the left-wing and the tradition of Marx and Hegel claiming that they are responsible for providing grounds for repressive systems. His first book in 1977, "Barbarism with a human face" brought him instant fame.

He spoke out against the detention camps for Muslims during the Bosnian wars and against the "new totalitarianism" threatening the freedom of speech in connection with the Muhammad-caricatures of Danish cartoonists. He wrote a controversial book about the American journalist who was beheaded by Islam extremists, and he visited many crisis hot-spots from Angola to the Gaza strip.

He directed a movie starring Alain Delon and Lauren Bacal (The Day and the Night), but it turned out to be a flop. The early version of his play about to debut in Hungary was adapted to a movie titled "Death in Sarajevo" that won the FIRPRESCI and the jury awards at the Berlinale. His latest appearance in international press was prompted by his manifesto in defence of Europe and against populism that was signed by Nobel-laureates such as Svetlana Alexievich, Elfriede Jelinek, Herta Müller, and Mario Vargas Llosa, along with Anne Applebaum, Ágnes Heller, Milan Kundera, Ljudmilla Ulickaja, Orhan Pamuk, or Salman Rushdie. Looking for Europe will debut on 10 April 2019 in Belvárosi Színház (Downtown Theatre).

Before the Brexit-vote, you made a different version of the play and with the performance, you tried to persuade the audience to vote for “no”. Can you expressly ask people to do anything with a theatre performance?

No, I can’t ask people anything from outside, after just two or three days in Budapest. But I can give another accent, another light, another context to questions which have been already asked by the people in Budapest. But I certainly can’t recommend anything to people who are fighting for their rights, fighting for democracy and the state of law every day. The people who will be there are the ones who are fighting, but if I could give them some kind of ammunition, I would be happy.

Do you think that Budapest is so important in these processes that we are – as you said – the capital?

Of course you are. Budapest is important for two reasons. It was the capital of the Habsburg Empire which was in a way a draft to Europe, as Milan Kundera wrote it. And Budapest was one the capitals of the fights against totalitarianism. I remember so well the joy of people when I came to Budapest in February of 1990, as I was on an official mission for François Mitterrand, and went to all the countries which were recently liberated. I remember the feeling of victory, the vibrancy of democracy and how important democratic values were for everyone – I was moved to tears. It gave a new a wind, a new spirit and new blood to the western democracies. And now Budapest is the capital of this incredible U-turn from democracy to non-democratic regimes. This is the third time in the last 100 years when Budapest is in a crucial place in terms of European democracy.

But do you really think that what Viktor Orbán says or does is more important for Europe than what Angela Merkel or Emmanuel Macron says or does?

Orbán is important because he is an enemy of the European values from inside the EU. Hungary belongs to Europe. In 1990 I said: Hungary should enter Europe, but a Hungarian corrected me: “No. Hungary should come back to Europe. We want to be back home.” Now, Marine Le Pen, Salvini, the Vox party in Spain, all these people recognize themselves in Orbán; he is a godfather for them. They are amateurs, the master thinker is clearly Orbán. The battle of Europe will be Orbán vs. Macron.

And I mean the Orbán of today; I met him in 1990. He was proud to go out of the communist regime. I am surprised at his trajectory. The young Orbán whom I met 30 years ago was so different than the Orbán of today; he was a true liberal back then. By the way, I would like to meet him again after all this time, to ask him what happened: “You were one of those who took Hungary out of the grips of the KGB; how can you today, even without the intention, sell Hungary to FSB. What happened?” 

Hungary has the legitimate feeling of being the beating heart of Europe, of the anti-totalitarian revolt, with 1956 and so on. And now? Back to Russia. This is a tragedy, and that’s what I want to say with this play. Out of KGB, back to FSB. The best ally of Hungary is Putin. In my play, I even imagine the moment when Hungary joins the ruble zone.

I heard that it wasn’t easy to find a theatre in Hungary which would host the performance, so you had to rent a non-state theatre for the night. What happened?

What happened with the great Budapest theatres was like a comedy. When my tour operator said that it is a play from Bernard-Henri Lévy, performed by himself, some of them said okay, great. But when they found out that this is a political play about Europe, about democracy, they said they had no place, or the date is not good, “maybe next year”. It happened many times. Then I called for help to my old friend György Konrád, a literary giant, and he sort of rescued me. He introduced me to his nephew, Balazs Gera, himself a theatre director. Gera found a non-state theatre. And made the whole thing happen. His help was crucial. Because this European tour is impossible without Budapest. My tour operator had no difficulties in any countries in Europe but Hungary and Poland. In Poland, I had difficulties in Krakow and Warsaw, but I was invited to Gdansk by Pawel Adamowicz, the mayor who has recently been assassinated, and who was a good friend of mine.

What do you think, why did it happen like this in Hungary?

Self-censorship and fear. Dictatorships begin like that: not with violence, but with fear. I saw many dictatorships in my life, I spent a lot of time of my life investigating and fighting against tyrannies. So I know that fear is the first symptom of tyrannical fever.

What do you think will happen if – as you say – Orbán wins in the “battle of Europe”?

Europe will collapse, and Trump, Putin and Erdogan will prevail. Thank God and the great American democracy Trump may be out in two years, but at the moment they are allied against Europe, and they are allied with Orbán too. These three people officially hate what Europe embodies and what European spirit means: the relationship to faith, to freedom, to love, to women. Europe is not only a space but a body of values. And they hate this body.

But what do you mean by the collapse of Europe? I can’t really imagine a real dictatorship in France or in Germany now.

But you can imagine the victory of the far-right in France. It can absolutely happen, and if the Orbán-allies will win in Europe, that will give a huge boost to the National Front in France too. Look at what happened in the UK with the Brexit, look at what happened in Italy. Salvini is a true fascist, and now he is ruling Italy. Look at what happens now in Germany: it was once inconceivable that AfD would come up so high. I don’t know what will happen but all of Europe is threatened. “A ghost haunts Europe” as Marx said, but that ghost is now populism, which means neo-fascism. Populism is a nice word for a very dirty thing: people don’t dare to call it what it is: fascism.

In your play, you write that Trump is the ringleader of the populist politicians, including Orbán. Do you think that Orbán follows Trump?

Orbán is more intelligent than Trump. In another life, he was a dissident and a democrat, but yes: the tendency is the same. The relationship to the press, to law, to justice is the same.

In the play, you consistently refer to Trump as “baby Trump”. Why?

Because there is something ridiculous in Trump – thank God! But I don’t believe in the innocence of children; children can be killers, as I have seen so many times in my life in different contexts.

You also write about the anti-Soros campaign. Do you consider it anti-Semitic?

It’s pure anti-Semitism. You can decipher it from what they say about Soros: the hidden plot, the hidden conspiracy, the control from behind. These are copied and pasted from the old anti-Jewish phantasmagoria. In Hungary, in the United States and also in France Soros is one of the embodiments of the Jew as the anti-Semites see it. I know Soros well; he’s not an angel, but he has been doing good things for twenty years. He gave speed to the democratic process. Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic owe him a lot for that and Orbán knows that.

In your play, you connect the anti-Soros propaganda to the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre. Do you really think that these two things are directly connected?

Yes, I think so. Of course, the only one who is responsible for the Pittsburgh massacre is the killer, but such a massacre is only possible in a context, and this context was created by the hysteria of Donald Trump. By all the ghosts he liberated, all the repressed speakers who came out like genies from the bottle. This is America of today, this is Hungary and Russia of today. Anti-Semitism is back in everywhere in the western world. It’s still contained by the memory of Holocaust but it’s on the way back. And the anti-Soros campaign is a sign of that.

How big do you consider Hungary’s role in that?

Soros has become one of the main symbols of the new anti-Semitism so Hungary evidently has a central part of the whole story. The new anti-Semitism is built around three things: Israel, the name Rothschild and the name Soros, even though these three things don’t fit together (Soros doesn’t like Israel and Israel doesn’t like Soros). One of those three magnets of anti-Semitism is Hungarian as Soros was born there and as that is the place where he is the most hated.

I think that 70 years after the second world war people all over the democratic world vote against all the values we fought for: the value of democracy itself, liberalism, freedom in all senses. Why do you think we arrived here in seven decades?

It doesn’t happen now; it is always happening. History of democracy is a succession of crises and rises. We had a crisis at the end of the 19th century with the Dreyfus affair, we had one at the end of the 1930s with the rise of Nazism and we have one now. There’s a constant oscillation between the desire of democracy and the fear of democracy; the wish for liberty and the burden of liberty. More, of course, intolerable economic inequality, unresolved by successive governments…More, forgetfulness of the history which corrupts the spirits. This is often due to ineffective education. 

But I thought the closure of the biggest cataclysm of Europe, the second world war will stop that constant oscillation.

I thought that too, and that was my mistake. This is why I engage myself in this campaign, in this crusade: I realized that I was too optimistic. I spent my life fighting for the Kurds, fighting for democracy in the Arabic world, fighting for the right of Israel to exist, fighting for Bangladesh. And then I discovered that there is a fire in my house too, and I didn’t expect that.

Did you think that Europe is somehow at a higher level than the Arabic countries or Bangladesh?

Exactly. And the contemporaries of the Weimar Republic thought the same. They thought it is inconceivable. But cords sometimes flame up – it happens everywhere. Monsters can absolutely match with civilization, with enlightenment.

But isn’t it obvious that everyone loves freedom?

There was a great Russian writer, Alexander Zinoviev, who was a friend of mine. He wrote in one of his books that in the communist block there was a true, genuine desire for non-freedom, for slavery, and communism could not have been working without this desire. This is part of the truth. There is a desire for slavery and there is a desire for freedom, sometimes inside one person.

What do you think people should do if they don’t like how things going in their country? I mean, besides going to the street.

First, go to the street, second, don’t fear, because fears of the people are the best allies of a dictator, and third, create links or brotherhoods with friends of freedom outside one own’s country. This is one of the ways that Hungary left communism. These kinds of bridges can prevent dictatorships from anchoring themselves in society. There are millions of people all around the world who believe that Orbán is a disaster for Hungary and that Hungary is a pillar of Europe.

What do you think about the yellow vests protests in France?

It was a good revindication but in a wrong way. These protests were full of racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, despise and hate of institutions of the French Republic.

What would have been the right way?

What happens today: the grand debate. People gathering in the city halls, deliberating and proposing ideas.

Some fear that this means nothing and debates are only organized so politicians can say “we gave our ears to you” and then do nothing.

It’s not true; hundreds of thousands of people come to the debates. Le Pen says thing like this because he wants to keep the market of despair. But this is a great democratic moment.

Do you think that the EU should have more strict sanctions against anti-democratic processes in the member states or it should “laissez-passer”?

I think that the EU should be much more tough and honest, and less cowardly. I don’t know if all Hungarian citizens know that there is a red line and where it is, and it's the EU’s responsibility to show it in all matters: rule of law, freedom, etc. It should be clear that the road Hungary is taking leads out from the European Union. Orbán should know that, and citizens who vote for Orbán should know that. They can’t vote for Putin and for the EU at the same time. The leaders of the Union know that but they don’t say it and this is their mistake. This also concerns the Americans who, for example, did not defend the presence of Central European University in Budapest enough. 

One of Orbán’s most important topic is migration, and…

But how many refugees went to Hungary? This is a joke, a lie. In the performance I will shout and laugh about it, I will show the figures and compare it to darker times of the past, like the fact that Austria was never more anti-Semitic than when no Jews remained in the country. It’s absurd. In fascism, there are some absurdities also but it feeds the tragedy. This being said, there is one thing I can understand: the fact that Hungary is a small country at the crossroads of the West and the East and which has, due to that, often been occupied throughout the course of its history; the fact that this small country has a language which is not spoken by many; and the fact that it is afraid, therefore, to lose its specificity and language because of globalization. There is obviously a fear that one can exacerbate and instrumentalize easily. Let’s make the point clear: authoritarianism, totalitarianism, fascism never ever have any excuses.

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