“We Should Not Conflate Values with Instruments” — A Conversation with Balázs Trencsényi

, by Christian Gibbons

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“We Should Not Conflate Values with Instruments” — A Conversation with Balázs Trencsényi
Trencsényi began his career at Central European University as a Master’s student. Photo credit: the interviewee

In 2019, Central European University, a renowned graduate-level educational institution in Budapest, Hungary, was finally forced to relocate most of its teaching programmes to Vienna, Austria. The decision was the result of a protracted legal battle with the right-wing government of Hungary. This battle began in 2017, when the ruling Fidesz party passed a law requiring the university to meet a difficult new requirement in order to continue to operate in the country. This requirement was met; however, the Hungarian government refused to recognize this. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, already well-known for his “illiberal”, nationalistic rhetoric and policies, has been accused of designing this law to specifically to target and remove CEU from the country. Such an autocratic use of law and other political instruments to suppress academic freedom in Hungary raises important questions for European institutions and politicians, particularly at the EU level.

To better understand the antecedents and consequences of the university’s forced departure, Christian Gibbons sat down to talk with Balázs Trencsényi, a Professor at the History Department of CEU, and co-director of the Pasts, Inc. Center for Historical Studies. Mr. Trencsényi began his career as an historian at CEU, first as a Master’s student in the university’s Nationalism Studies program, then as a doctoral student in Comparative History. Since that time, he has published, co-authored, and co-edited a number of books and articles on the history of modern political thought in East Central Europe. His latest work is Brave New Hungary: Mapping the "System of National Cooperation”.

CHRISTIAN GIBBONS: Nationalism is a very relevant topic right now, but you were already studying it here as a Master’s student at CEU in 1997. What made nationalism relevant for you back then?

BALÁZS TRENCSÉNYI: There is a story that I always tell about this. There was a big conference in 2003 or 2004 that we organized at CEU about European historiographies. A colleague of mine and I were presenting a paper about the “re-nationalization” of historical discourses in contemporary Eastern Europe. But at the conference there were a lot of prominent German and French scholars who, at that point, were the top European experts in comparative and transnational historiography. And one of them came to us during the break after our presentation, and he said angrily that what we were doing was completely scandalous, that talking about this “re-nationalization” was a retrograde thing, and that we should have prepared a presentation instead on how our countries were contributing to European unification.

We tried to explain to him: look, we aren’t nationalists, we’re just detecting a very strong tendency. And they didn’t believe us. They just stared at us and said that “nationalism is not relevant anymore as a research topic”. But 10 years later, pretty much the same people were saying that nationalism had become relevant again. And we said, “Guys, you didn’t pay attention to something that was right in front of you!”

And that, of course, made us vulnerable. Because instead of having the means to counter this—for example, with international help and engagement—there was a complete withdrawal. Everyone believed that European integration would solve everything, that when these Eastern countries entered the European Union there would be this immediate switch into transnational discourses. After 2004, most Western political and academic foundations cut back their presence in the region, hoping that everything would just fall in place. And this is also, I think, connected to the story of CEU.

CHRISTIAN GIBBONS: Speaking of CEU’s transition, what are some of the difficulties that have accompanied that? Obviously, you can’t just put the university on the Danube and let it float up to Vienna. There are so many logistical and material difficulties associated with that… Has it also affected your intellectual life, or that of your students?

BALÁZS TRENCSÉNYI: I think it depends to a certain extent on what you teach, whom you teach, and what you expected to do when you came to CEU. I was already coming to CEU as a student, because I thought that this was the only institution in East-Central Europe that could make a regional difference—a difference in the sense that this is a place to which people could come back and which can help people remain. Because at that point it was increasingly clear that there was a brain drain.

In the 1990s, this was still not that visible, because there were still demographic booms (although in some countries, like Bulgaria or Romania, the consequences of the emigration of well-educated people were already drastic). But now there is an almost permanent discussion of the depletion of the region, yes? Not just intellectual depletion, but numerical depletion, demographic depletion.

CHRISTIAN GIBBONS: And that has in turn become politically salient. But what kind of impact do you think CEU’s departure will have on local or regional life, then?

BALÁZS TRENCSÉNYI: I think it’s a loss on multiple levels. My colleagues and I have often discussed the intertwining of local and global spheres—we always have to look at globalization in local terms, and look at global dynamics in local terms. And I think that precisely because of this we cannot completely separate location from mission. With CEU, it’s not only about political expediency or a commitment to open society and academic freedom in general. It’s also about a very, very complex responsibility towards how the world, and how this part of the world in particular, will look a generation from now.

It’s not completely the same with all universities, but here, there were very many regional stakes, and very many regional dynamics. In Hungary, due to emigration, and the weakening and sometimes total disappearance of institutions and structures, there is now a lack of people who will be able to keep this country intellectually, socially, culturally, economically running.

CHRISTIAN GIBBONS: Do you think that what has happened here in Hungary sets any meaningful new precedents? Because even though this is one of the more flagrant transgressions of intellectual and academic freedom in the world right now, it isn’t the only one. In Italy, for example, there have been other incidents, and in Poland as well...


CHRISTIAN GIBBONS: In Turkey too! I mean, we can also talk about the United States, for that matter.


CHRISTIAN GIBBONS: But I think that the prevailing discourse in Europe has been to view these things as the return of older patterns of repression. And I think that with Hungary, at least from my perspective, it’s not so easy to say, because it’s about the loss of an entire university, and not simply people leaving posts or funds being shut down.

BALÁZS TRENCSÉNYI: I think that there are basically two things there. On the one hand, I think the dismantling of liberal democracy in Hungary is an interesting story in itself, exactly because it was comparably painless. This is basically an elimination of the rule of law with the relative consensus of a relative majority of the society. And I think that this is super interesting, and also super dangerous, because it also shows that when this happens, societies might continue living as if everything was completely normal.

On the other hand, the CEU story is a striking example of what happens when symbolic aggression becomes tangible—you know, what is the real face of this regime? For a long time, many people just said, “okay, it’s virtual, just verbal aggression and poster campaigns, so it doesn’t matter”. But virtual aggression is actually very easily, very conveniently converted into real aggression. Of course, it’s selective, and most people don’t feel targeted. But this is exactly how it works, no?

There are also other issues here, such as how a regime like this treats intellectuals. And again, in a way, this is a local problem, because I think that Orbán is probably even more outspokenly anti-intellectual than some of the other authoritarians. Even Putin needs some trained, Westernized guys. But on the other hand, as we both know, this is a global tendency, which is present in different places to different degrees.

CHRISTIAN GIBBONS: It’s interesting that you bring up that this is a crisis—of principles, or politics, of many other things—which people don’t feel. Because there are many crises at the present moment that people feel quite acutely. We talk a lot about Europe itself undergoing an identity crisis, for instance.


CHRISTIAN GIBBONS: It’s very interesting for me to see the different manifestations of that...for example, there was an international forum held a few weekends ago called the Munich Security Conference. It’s the largest annual international security conference in the world. And oddly enough, the theme of the conference this year was “Westlessness”—which, on the face of things, doesn’t seem to have anything to do with defense at all.

Why does there seem to be a connection between ideas about defense and ideas about identity? How will that play out? I mean, the idea of “the West” has different manifestations—it has a liberal variant that’s very prominent, and it also has a conservative or, I would say, a neo-traditionalist variant that has become much more prominent. And both of these things seem to have accomplished something which the EU never quite has: the creation and the sustaining of a transnational community of values.

But these things are in competition with each other, and now the EU has become one of the battlegrounds. Orbán, for example, would probably say that he’s the defender of Europe—and in that respect, perhaps, that the East is the new West. What do you make of this trend?

BALÁZS TRENCSÉNYI: It’s exactly what you’re saying. Historically, there has been a false confidence that internationalism is a weapon of the “good guys”. And I think we now see this quite clearly. Of course, I can go back as an historian and show examples from the interwar period—you can have committed international networks working to demolish liberal democracy, for example. There was a “fascist international” during the interwar period.

And that should make us think in a very critical way, so that we are not conflating values with instruments. Since the 1970s, “civil society” has become a kind of buzzword. If a country has any civil society, supposedly, then that is good. But no—völkisch civil society was also a sort of civil society, except that it was basically operating to undermine liberal-democratic structures and introduce ethno-cultural homogenization.

Importantly, unless we are able to create some sort of European public sphere, we cannot counter this kind of retention of the nation-state as the ultimate axis of politics. The European political level too easily ends up being this kind of “Other” against whom local populist leaders can say, “We are trying to defend your rights against this European bureaucracy!”

There has been a lot of blind faith in the European project. Too many decisions have emphasized technocratic considerations, not cultural or political ones. And for a long time, there was a counterproductive discourse of normality vs. abnormality, which I think has made people feel overconfident, and neglect their duties, which are actually transnational duties. Those polities that still seem to have a certain level of stability, like Germany, have to think seriously about how to handle the democratic backsliding in the Eastern part of the EU. Keeping up “business as usual” is not enough.

More information about Mr. Trencsényi and his work can be found here.

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