HUNGARY and Germany are usually the best of friends. So the current diplomatic spat between Budapest and Berlin is raising eyebrows across central Europe.
It all started on May 16th, when Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, told an annual meeting of politicians and businessmen and women that while Berlin was concerned about the centralisation of political power under Viktor Orbán (pictured above), the Hungarian prime minister, the problem could be resolved. “We will do anything to get Hungary onto the right path – but not by sending in the cavalry right away.”
Yet any mention of German military action is still deeply sensitive in Hungary. The Nazis invaded in March 1944 and met little resistance. The Hungarian state readily cooperated with the Nazis although Admiral Horthy, the country’s leader, sent out feelers to the Allies. Horthy stayed in power until October 1944, when he was finally toppled in a coup backed by the SS.
In an apparent response to Mrs Merkel’s remarks Mr Orbán said in a radio interview on May 17th: “The Germans have in the past sent the cavalry against Hungary, in the form of tanks, and we ask them not to send them again. It was not a good idea and it didn’t work.”
This statement caused a furore in Berlin, where politicians are even touchier than their Hungarian counterparts about references to the second world war. The Social Democrats, the Greens and even an MP from the ruling Christian Democratic Union, all weighed in with fresh salvoes against Budapest. Guido Westerwelle, the German foreign minister, opined that Mr Orbán’s statement was “a regrettable lapse that we clearly reject”. Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, told the website of Der Spiegel, a German weekly, that he was certain that Mr Orbán “understood full well that the chancellor was sending an ironic warning in Hungary’s direction—but his populist leanings won’t let him refrain from attacking even his fellow party friend Merkel”, referring to the fact that Mr Orbán’s Fidesz party is a sister party of Mrs Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. “The fact that Orbán reacted this way shows just how vulnerable he is,” he added,
Even so, Mr Orbán’s bluntness is unlikely to damage his standing at home, and nor will it derail Hungarian-German relations, which remain strong. To send a conciliatory signal to Berlin, the Hungarian ministry of foreign affairs quickly sent out a statement saying that the prime minister “reacted to the suggestion made by Peer Steinbrück…. the Hungarian Prime Minister is in complete agreement with the position of the German Chancellor”.
Both countries have invested, materially and otherwise, in their good relationship. German manufacturers, especially from the automobile sector, continue to pour money into the country. Cultural ties are as strong as ever. Despite the imposition of crisis taxes, there are 6,000 German businesses in Hungary, employing 300,000 people, a sizeable proportion of the labour force. Budapest is home to the German-language Andrassy University, the only institution of its kind outside Germany.