By 1990, the communists "relinquished" their power in Hungary. The vast majority did this by simply turning their coats inside-out and becoming capitalists and liberals. Nevertheless, after fifty years of communist oppression, Hungary finally had a chance to be free again and rejoin the West from which it had been severed following the end of the Second World War.
Living in a communist system one day and then waking up the following day to discover you were a free westerner entitled to do more or less whatever you wanted caught most Hungarians completely off guard. Unfortunately for most, gaining freedom entailed immediate job loss as obsolete factories and industries were liquidated by communist apparatchiks, and rampant inflation as the domestic currency was crushed by the tidal wave of global market forces from which it had been inoculated. Simply put, many Hungarians quickly learned that freedom was not free.
The early nineties were chaotic years in Hungary. The new material realities reordered and reorganized everything. Some people became millionaires overnight. Others were left to stagnate or were simply left behind. Material hardship, the likes of which were rare under communism, became common around the nation. Rural areas and small villages far from major urban centers were particularly hard hit. Despite the collapse of the communist system that had enslaved the nation for more than half-a-century, the first few years of post-communism were depressing times for most Hungarians.
Nonetheless, amidst all the unpredictability and insecurity, an opportunity arose. An opportunity for the citizens of this small, landlocked nation to sense and embrace a spiritual awakening, both individually and en masse. For the first time in fifty years, Hungarians - and other eastern Europeans - had a chance to look at the world and perhaps recognize Reality, the same Reality communism had attempted to obliterate with its dictums and ideology. I imagine some Hungarians caught a sense of this in the early nineties, but for the vast majority, the only reality worthy of any attention was vulgar materialism.
Rather than embrace a chance at spiritual renewal, most Hungarians regarded the collapse of communism as their chance to embrace the hedonism and materialism the communists had denied them. Thus, Hungarians turned their backs on a possible Christian Renaissance and began to worship at the altar of western decadence. In turn, the West was only to happy to oblige these newly opened "markets". As a result, Hungarians in the early nineties were thoroughly convinced they would find happiness and meaning in bananas, color televisions, and new western automobiles.
This headlong acceptance of western liberalism, hedonism, and materialism fueled heady ambitions on both sides of the dismantled Iron Curtain, and the truly ambitious were quick to take advantage of the many shady opportunities the turbulent times offered. One industry that flourished immediately after Hungary liberated itself was the sex industry. I abhor communism with a passion, but one thing the communists got right, at least officially, was their opposition to the sex industry. Prostitution was officially outlawed during communism. Pornography was regarded as harmful western decadence and was illegal to manufacture, sell, or purchase. But this all changed drastically when Hungary became part of the liberal West.
I visited Budapest in 1986 and 1992; the difference between the communist capital and the post-communist capital were overwhelming and saddening. Budapest in 1986 was a beautiful, but drab and sleepy capital. By 1992, the city had transformed into a modern Gomorrah packed with peep shows, strip clubs, and porn theaters. Prostitutes lined street corners in many areas, and adult entertainment companies were staking their claims as fast as the jet planes could fly them in. Lured by the promise of easy money, young Hungarian women signed up to appear in sex films for the simple reason that they could make the equivalent of month's salary in a single shoot.
By the late 1990s, Budapest had earned the moniker of being the Bangkok of the Europe. Some wag pornographers referred to the city as Budaporn. The liberal Hungarian governments of the late nineties were afraid of passing laws curtailing the porn industry for fear such measures would be interpreted as totalitarian in nature. As a result, the industry kept growing. By the early 2000s, Budapest had become the capital of the European pornography industry.
Of course, pornography was not the only "business" to flourish during this time. Smuggling activities of all kinds were extremely lucrative, as were the drug trade, pyramid schemes, racketeering, extortion, blackmail, and human trafficking. When I visited the country in the early 2000s, I was utterly depressed by what I saw. In many cases, the worst had become first - porn producers and stars, ex-communists, crime bosses, smugglers, and petty crooks had formed a new unofficial elite within the country, while the average Hungarian who had not given into the dark side, so to speak, saw their lives stagnate. Unsurprisingly, many left the country during these years and never returned. I lived in Hungary from 2001 to 2003, and even then, many young Hungarians regarded "getting out" as their only chance at happiness and prosperity.
By the mid-to-late 2000s, the "Wild West" atmosphere in and around Budapest began to wane. The economic and financial conditions that had created such glaring disparities between east and west began to dissipate. The 2008 economic crisis sent another shock wave through the country, but the country's backdrop had changed by then. The porn companies began folding and moving. The peepshows, strip clubs, and prostitutes dwindled. An air of normalcy returned. Granted, adult entertainment businesses still operated here and there (and still do), but they were not (and are not) nearly as ubiquitous as they had been in the previous two decades. Though still a little rough around the edges, Hungary began to look and feel like a country again.
Over the past decade, Hungary has experienced unprecedented growth and prosperity. It has recovered from the tumult of the 1990s. Unemployment rates are low. Wages are rising. Legitimate opportunities are plentiful. In other words, from a material perspective, things are looking good. On top of this, the government has taken measures to address the country's demographic decline by promulgating pro-family policies. Government officials also speak of the need to defend and preserve Christianity, and of the importance of Christian values.
Though the current "illiberal" government is scorned by its more enlightened Western Western counterparts, Hungarians are very supportive of it. The government in turn appears to be supportive of its people. I generally do not place to much faith in governments, and there is no doubt the current Hungarian government has its fair share of flaws, but when I see its policies in action firsthand, I can't help but wonder that maybe the government is actually sincere in its motivations. Time will tell what the truth turns out to be.
Thirty years ago in Sopron, Hungary was given a chance and a choice. It blew the chance and took the wrong choice. Thirty years later, it is being offered another chance and another choice. In 1989, material needs were pressing, hedonism beckoned, and decadence mesmerized. In 2019, material needs appear to have waned, hedonism appears to have cooled, and decadence appears to have faded. The extremes have dissipated. Things have stabilized.
Today, Hungarians have the chance to revisit the choice they did not make in 1989 and reflect upon the consequences this non-choice created. Will they recognize the second chance they are being offered? Will they repent the wrong choices they made or the wrong choices circumstances forced upon them three decades ago? Will they seek spiritual renewal? Or will they rush headlong into another tidal wave of Western materialism, hedonism, and decadence? The choice is a stark one. The difference between life and death.
Hungary's spirit has kept the nation alive in one form or another for over 1100 years. It has survived Mongol and Ottoman conquests, Austrian imperialism, Soviet communism (not once, but twice), Nazi occupation, and one stormy bout with Western liberalism.
As history shows, Hungary can survive anything if it maintains its spirit, but it can only maintain its spirit if its people maintain the spiritual within themselves.
As ridiculous as it may sound to a contemporary reader, I feel the biggest challenge Hungary has ever faced was its most recent one, when communism collapsed and the country "liberated" itself into the West. This liberation into the West nearly cost Hungary its spirit. The same cannot be said for the Ottoman conquest, Nazi occupation, or the Soviet occupation. Though tragedy was rife during these dark and tragic times, the Hungarian spirit was able to survive if by no other means than through repentence.
But Hungary nearly lost its spirit forever after 1989. And though the economic landscape is much brighter now than it was back then, the spiritual dangers are just as high if not higher. Hungary and Hungarians in general appear to be making better choices, but only time will tell if they will ultimately make the right choices this time around, and whether these choices will lead to any sort of spiritual awakening.
If a spiritual awakening does occur, Hungary stands a chance going forward. If it does not, Hungary will surrender in a way it never has before, and it will lose that mysterious spiritual strength that can only be forged after a country is physically defeated, but remains metaphysically resilient.