A Liberal Project? Hungarian University Colleges Since Late Socialism
Associated PhD project
of the Interdisciplinary Research Network Legacies of Communism? Post‐Communist Europe from Stagnation to Reform, between Autocracy and Revolution
When today Viktor Orbán refers to Hungary as an “illiberal democracy”, it seems surprising how he originally started out in the late 1980s: The founder of a youth party, he and his friends vigorously demanded democratic reforms and the withdrawal of Soviet troops. The socialist state party was already on the brink of collapse, and Fidesz provoked it in every possible way. The Orbán group had met in a Budapest student dormitory that stood out among the mass accommodations of the time: Here, a small community of hand-picked law students worked independently to further their education beyond the university curriculum, some of them even studied in Oxford on scholarships awarded by George Soros’ Open Society Foundation – which had to leave the country in 2017 as a result of a Fidesz campaign.
To this day, the “Colleges of Advanced Studies” are considered the playground of the young elite in Hungary. Graduates hold high positions in the state administration, they are members of the government or exert influence as political advisors. Apart from a close-knit network, they are united by the lasting influence they experienced in the college as young adults: a lifestyle between exams and parties, between socialism and post-socialism, between political activism and the striving to become the best out of the best.
The colleges provided a setting for discourses critical of society and the regime, caught between ideas of democratisation, modernisation and burgeoning populist currents. They emerged in late socialism as a student initiative that became an institution largely autonomous from the university. Both before and after the regime change, students have acquired democratic culture and practices and learned to make politics in this sheltered space. Since the 1990s, however, they have also had to reconsider their relationship to Fidesz, which has had continuously moved to the right.
The research project explores the role of the colleges in the transition from late socialism to democracy. Particular attention is paid to three fields of interest: 1. the family-like life and the resulting tightly knit personal networks; 2. the hybrid character of traditions of Hungarian and international institutions of elite education; 3. the interaction with populist and illiberal discourses in a liberal-democratic environment. Thus, the project contributes to providing insights into Hungary’s contradictory development since the end of state socialism.
The thesis is supervised by Hannes Grandits (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin) and Friederike Kind-Kovács (Hannah-Arendt-Institut für Totalitarismusforschung).
Leibniz Centre for Contemporary History
Am Neuen Markt 1
Office: Am Neuen Markt 9d, room 1.00
Phone: 0331 74510-119
Fax: 0331 74510-143
Email: francke [at] zzf-potsdam.de