We must be simultaneously conservative, forward-thinking and technologically progressive—I think this is the only plausible route in today’s world. Hungary is an example of this, and maybe some are apprehensive of Orbán because he doesn’t do Brussels’ bidding– said Alexander von Schönburg, writer-journalist, an editor of Germany’s Bild paper, and the direct descendant of Count István Széchenyi of Sárvár-Felsővidék. Our conversation covered Hungarian and European politics, the condition of the Chain Bridge, his great-great-great-grandfather Széchenyi, and the necessity of addressing religious debates.
– We’ve greeted each other with “Jó napot kívánok” (Good day). How much Hungarian do you speak?
– It’s my greatest source of shame that I can’t speak Hungarian. Well, just very little. But it would be quite useful—it could be my secret language anywhere in the world. My mother, Beatrix Széchenyi, is Hungarian so Hungarian culture always played a significant role in my life. My father, Count Joachim of Schönburg-Glauchau was a German nobleman, but his love for my mother spurred him to learn Hungarian and he spoke it quite well actually. Like my sisters too… but they didn’t teach me. Although, István Széchenyi learned Hungarian as an adult—so there is still hope for me.
–Does it have anything to do with you being born in Somalia? I assume not many Counts are born in Mogadishu. How did this come about?
– My parents met in 1956 when both of them volunteered with the Maltese Charity Service to help Hungarians fleeing communist retaliation. My father was in a position of leadership there; when he spotted my mother he instantly fell in love. My father was a refugee too; in 1945 the communists took all my family’s property as it was in East Germany. He was regarded as an enemy of the working class, so he escaped to Austria because if the Soviets would’ve caught him, he most likely would’ve ended up in Siberia. He was active in the anticommunist groups of West-Berlin in the 1950s; in the 60s he was commissioned by the German government to help build radio channels in and around Somalia as part of a development program for Africa. I was born there in 1969 but we had to leave the country that year because the new Soviet-backed powers there expelled all Westerners. That’s why I say that communism was my midwife as an infant.
–You’re a writer-journalist. Only one of your books can be read in Hungarian, The Art of Growing Poor Stylishly. You’ve often mentioned that you grew up poor. What exactly was this poverty like?
– I never liked the phrase “impoverished noble” because it sounds like we lost our money and property because of recklessness, or over a game of cards. That’s not the case! The communists took our wealth—yet I don’t remember a single moment when my parents complained about this. It became my advantage that I grew up knowing that no matter how much you have today, it can all be lost tomorrow. This is a useful piece of knowledge in the West because people believe this can never happen, they’ve never experienced this. They think that prosperity is a natural state of being, a given; yet we know all too well how suddenly this can change. In addition to other things, this book is also about how you can live off a meager amount of money—with an accompanying little wink of course—because despite every terrible thing that happened in our family, we were still happy. These were my beginnings where I struggled from to reach my current status of, if not wealthiness, a certain kind of prosperity. My newest book, Der grüne Hedonist (The Green Hedonist) was recently released in which I examine the phenomena of the eco-ideology.
–Your articles and interviews reveal a conservative, catholic man. Do I sense a spirit of noblesse oblige?
– I come from a very international family. My father is German, his mother was Polish, my mother was Hungarian, and her mother was Russian. I grew up in Africa, England, and Germany. I’m not a nationalist, but I believe that a person should belong somewhere. First and foremost to their family, second to their hometown, and then to their country. Europe in and of itself is too abstract to provide an identity.
–So, if I understand correctly, your Hungarians roots are important to you.
– Since I was a child I’ve been visiting Hungary; we went a lot to Sopron and Nagycenk, I vividly remember the communist period. Among our close relatives, only Zsigmond Széchenyi remained in Hungary, but he passed away in 1967. When I visited Hungary in the 80s, I stayed with my Nyáry relatives; all 8 of them lived in a two-room apartment because the old aristocracy was thoroughly robbed. But I would go up to the Buda Castle, visit the Széchenyi library and read his diary because he wrote it in German, even though it wasn’t published in German.
–You were that interested in your Hungarian great-great-great grandfather?
– Of course, István Széchenyi played an enormous role in our family’s history. We have many portraits of him and if my mother ever wanted to praise me, she’d say “You’re exactly like István!” Granted, I’m not like him at all, but within the family this was the highest honor possible. But I never liked the fact that I had to carry a Kossuth banknote in my pocket (he says laughing). As far as I know though, it’s no longer in circulation.
–No, it’s not. However, since 2009 the Chain Bridge was put on the 200-forint coin. The Bridge is currently a hot topic in Hungary because its condition is deteriorating day to day. The new, left-wing Budapest city government continually botches its tender applications for the restoration and is just wasting time.
– I once read that enormous controversy surrounded the construction of the bridge: people opposing Széchenyi’s plans wanted the bridge to be built of stone and held my grandfather’s plans to be quite dangerous—yet he, the “tech freak”, was only willing to use the newest technology. This is surprising though; I didn’t know it was in such bad shape.
–I’ll show you a few photos: rusted, neglected, almost life-threatening.
– I could say, almost ironically, that Széchenyi’s opposers were right and maybe it should have been built from stone. But then it wouldn’t have become a national symbol! This was state-of-the-art technology at the time—kind of like a self-driving car today; back then, only the English could create stuff like this. The bridge must be restored, we can’t let it go to waste because it’s a symbol of Hungary’s modernity and reminds us that Hungary’s prosperity began with the utilization of brand-new technologies. I’m also very attached to the bridge emotionally as well and its quite painful to see it in such condition. If you can’t do it any other way, if the city’s leadership can’t or won’t take care of this, I suggest you renovate it through public donations and anyone who contributes will get a letter of recognition. And if this can’t be done, you should collect toll money like in the good old days. It’s simple: the bigger your car is the more you have to pay, and those on foot can cross for free. This bridge belongs to everyone, every Hungarian—it must become a social issue.
–The capital is making social issues out of something else: currently the Pride symbol, the rainbow flag is shaking up the public sphere. Gergely Karácsony, Mayor of Budapest, has hung the rainbow flag on the mayor’s office for the first time in history. The leader of another party climbed up on a ladder to tear it down.
– I don’t have a problem with the rainbow flag; throughout history homosexuals really were persecuted, in Germany, even until the 70s homosexuality was a criminal offense. I understand that these people want to celebrate their current freedom. But what happens when Starbucks, Apple, Coca-Cola or any other corporate giant, or public institution displays the rainbow flag? It puts enormous pressure on people because it suggests that if you don’t agree then you are an outsider– and sooner or later this will become dogmatic. A friend of mine, who is a famous German model, mentioned that all her colleagues took a stand for Black Lives Matter on social media, but given that she avoids politics, she chose to not disclose anything on the topic. I understand this, but what happens when this is brought up a year later and she is confronted over why she didn’t support it? In today’s western world, it’s social and political suicide to take a stand against them, but if you don’t say anything, it could lead to the same fate. Today we’re at the point where if you’re not waving the rainbow flag, there’s going to be a problem. It reminds me of George Orwell’s world where everyone thinks the same and this is a problem.
–This ardor must be a Széchenyi trait, am I right?
– István Széchenyi’s biggest debate centered around language. He fought for the rights of the Hungarian language; he spoke Hungarian in the parliament even though this was opposed in Vienna because, as we all know, language is power because language is our tool of thought. If you forbid people to speak a certain language or force them to speak another language, it’s as if you’re forbidding thought. Brussels is pursuing this direction, yet it shouldn’t be allowed to force a mainstream language—and thereby thought—upon Europe, or rather on the whole world.
–As a journalist and a past and present leader at prominent German newspapers, how do you think Hungary is viewed in the West today?
– If I consider how Hungary is thought of in the West –especially in Germany—I see a lot of similarities to Istvan Széchenyi’s era. The Viennese and Metternich considered Széchenyi a radical, yet he was a modern-thinking, middle-of-the-road man who strove to abolish noble privileges and advocated nobles to pay their fair share. Viktor Orbán is seen as the same kind of radical, yet he is clearly liberal, culturally conservative and a pro-Western politician. Even though he wants to be a part of the “new empire” Merkel still sees him as a radical. Széchenyi also believed in modern technology and wanted to build bridges and railroads and wanted to make Hungary a modern state while being culturally conservative.
–If we’re on the topic of cultural conservatism: I see you have a sacred image on your phone case. I assume this is not an accident.
– It’s no wonder given that I come from a very Catholic family; György Széchenyi was a Hungarian archbishop. As a Catholic, I appreciate Orbán for his family politics most of all. But it should also be said that Hungary is indeed a very modern country: Zala county is home to a smart-city built with public money and an advanced, world-class auto industry. I think that presently this is the only way forward: We must be simultaneously conservative, forward-thinking and technologically progressive. It may be that some are apprehensive of Orbán because he doesn’t do Brussels’ bidding, he’s not willing to give up national beliefs and borders.
–He is most often labeled a dictator along with many other negative indicators regarding the whole country as well. In fact the latest development: the Hungarian Foreign minister summoned the German Ambassador to Budapest for the German politician’s, Michael Roth’s, statements on Saturday declaring that the Article 7 procedures were partly motivated by accusations of antisemitism.
– This is stupidity because Fidesz is a liberal-conservative party, how can they be antisemitic? Hungary’s Western perception is full of negative propaganda and negative stereotypes. They also say in the West that Orbán is trying to annex the media, yet the biggest and most-watched portal in Hungary is the German RTL.
–If you can, do you correct those spreading negative propaganda about Hungary? Or is it not worth it to get into these debates?
– I’m a journalist, I live in Berlin where great, contemporary European debates are taking place. I feel it’s my mission to write about this, to show the other side of the coin. It’s a lot of work because people love the stereotypes they’re used to. But sticking with the debates: I think it’s very important that we don’t rush ahead. I love that Hungarians have such confidence. I’ll tell you a joke about this that I heard from my mother.
– Let’s hear it!
– A Hungarian goes into a store and wants to buy a globe. The shopkeeper shows him the globe and the Hungarian indignantly asks: where is Hungary? The shopkeeper points to a small spot and says there, there it is. The Hungarian angrily replies: no, no I want one with only Hungary! So, I love this sort of intuitive confidence, this kind of mentality that, where a Hungarian is standing is the middle of the world. This attitude is great and offers a lot of strength, but it has many downsides as well.
–And these are?
– The Hungarians usually say something along the lines of: “Let’s forget Berlin and Brussels, they don’t like us anyway, we don’t need to deal with them, they don’t understand us, there’s no point in arguing with them, they’re idiots anyways, let’s just stick to our own affairs.” Believe me, this mentality is a dead-end! Now that Great Britain has left the EU, the balance of power has been disrupted even more. The Brits are modern but rather conservative culturally; with their departure, an important conservative voice is now gone from the European community. On the other hand, the Germans and French benefitted from this. But now who will defend conservative values? We have challenge these debates– for example, disputes over family because someone has to defend the traditional family. What’s normal in England is already heresy in Holland because, there, if you say a family is composed of a mother, father, and children then you might end up in jail because this qualifies as hate-speech.
–Maybe this is exactly why we don’t join in the debate, because we see that there’s no one to debate with. If you have a point of view different from the liberals, then you automatically get some sort of “fascist” label from the West. Am I wrong?
– Even as a minimum we need debate because we’re aren’t just arguing about the quality of the bread, or its import-export, but rather the basic moral questions—and we need to reach a consensus. In the Western world homosexuality is praised as a modern way of life, and I don’t have a problem with it because everyone does what they want, but as conservatives we must involve ourselves in the debate because we don’t agree. We must present our argument, we have to make it clear that we tolerate this, but the basic building block of society and the state is still the traditional, stable family. They often try to counter by saying that many get divorced, which is true, but we have to find the desired state and create a moral standard by which to define ourselves. Promiscuity, homosexuality, anything can be a mentality, or we should align with something else in life? It makes a big difference what we make our societal example.
–If this is what you believe, why do you live in Berlin, the capital of liberalism in Europe?
– Because I like to resist, it’s a good thing to stand against the mainstream. It would be comfortable to live in Vienna, and I wouldn’t live in Munich either because I’d agree with everyone. Berlin is interesting because it’s the culture war’s frontline. If I set out to defend family, true diversity, and freedom of speech, then that is where I should be.
–You’re not afraid that one day you might be “banished” for an overly “radical” tone?
– In today’s world you can never know the consequences of what you say. If someone decides that I’m a radical and I’m excommunicated, it’s not a problem, I can “escape” to Budapest whenever I want. It wouldn’t be so bad: I’d go out to Vörösmarty square, master Hungarian, eat pörkölt and of course my favorite, cabbage noodles.
–Rebellion with cabbage noodles? It sounds a little funny.
– But I mean it. The other day I was in Prague and I wanted to eat a very delicious, traditional Czech dessert. In the pastry shop, I asked if they had powidltascherl; they said no and instead I was offered American cheesecake. Well this is what I call the powidltascherl-problem because it’s a small example of the problems of borders and nationalism.
–Prague’s American cheesecake is an example of multiculturalism. They often call this multiculturalism, however, the rights of Europe’s native minorities are no longer recognized by the EU. Isn’t this behavior hypocritical?
– If you take away people’s sense of belonging, it’s like taking away their family. A culture war is going on and we cannot afford to avoid taking part in the debate. But it’s hard because a lot of people are brainwashed and they have come to believe that borders and countries are bad. Multiculturalism eradicates cultures because everything becomes all mixed up. Europe isn’t a uniform bloc—its beauty lies in its patchwork-like diversity. You can mix foods, you can combine Austrian food with Asian, you can make pörkölt-sushi—but in the end what are we left with? Diversity means you tolerate different opinions. Whenever this comes up, I always say there’s a lot to learn from Hungary’s example because this really was a multicultural society: a people from the east ended up integrating with Germans and Slavs but we still have the Cumans, Saxons, Jews, Gypsies etc. The other day I was debating with a left-wing Protestant female bishop on a TV show and I told her that we should all embrace each other and be happy that we see the world differently. She got totally upset. And this highlights the liberals’ big lie that as they preach diversity, only their absolute truth can prevail and they won’t tolerate any other opinions.
–Is this also part of the reason why they want to expel Fidesz from the European People’s Party?
– It’s outrageous that they want to expel Fidesz from the EPP because this totally goes against the party’s values. Chancellor Helmut Kohl made a name for the People’s Party; I knew him, had multiple interviews with him, and I was at his funeral. He was a great admirer of Hungary and Viktor Orbán because he knew that the downfall of the Iron Curtain and German unification was mainly due to Hungarians. He saw the EPP as a party-group with common conservative values while the party’s opinions could deviate, they don’t have to think totally alike. The proceedings against Hungary oppose the original spirit of the European People’s Party. I follow the proceedings with deep concern because I believe the Dutch and Belgians have become the loudest voices, yet their thinking is entirely opposite to that of Italy, Poland, or Hungary. If we let them direct everything, there will be big problems in Europe.
– If you live in Brussels or Aachen, in the Rhine region, of course you don’t understand the meaning of “nation” because you don’t even know where you actually are. A little bit in France, a little in Germany, a little everywhere—then of course you’ll think: what’s the point of borders? They don’t want to even hear about nations because they don’t even know what they are. Currently there’s no dispute over this, so they are winning. If you don’t think like them, they simply push you to the curb. I’m glad there’s a Kurz-led government in Austria, a conservative government in Poland, and an Orbán-government in Hungary, but the problem is that they look down on these countries. They say, “you guys have fallen behind, but we are patient and one day you will think like us anyways so don’t worry, we are patient.” This kind of approach is outrageous! That’s why I said Hungary must be simultaneously the most conservative but most technologically advanced country in Europe. We can’t allow Brussels or the Hague to achieve their European project.