In his 2017 memoir, Világló Részletek (“Luminous Excerpts,” loosely translated), the Hungarian writer Péter Nádas recalls an incident where his mother, Klára Nádas (née Tauber), confronted Mátyás Rákosi, prime minister and the secretary general of the Hungarian Communist faction. It was sometime in the early ’50s at the party conference, and Rákosi had been telling the comrades that the party was unhappy with the country’s falling birth rate, and that women having more babies was the single most important issue for Hungary’s economy.
Rákosi was an ardent Stalinist who shrouded himself in a ruthless cult of personality and was responsible, from 1948–56, for the brutal purge of approximately 350,000 intellectuals and government officials whose views did not agree with his totalitarian brand of communism. (As an intimidation tactic, he also arranged to have a competitor’s child kidnapped.)
Nevertheless Nádas, then an administrator at the Hungarian Democratic Women’s Alliance, told him, “I’m of the opinion, Comrade Rákosi, pardon my language, that first you make the barn and then you get the pigs… You first need to build the nurseries and the schools and the school canteens and buy the potatoes and the nappies, and before that you need midwives and before that still, you need a school to train them. And then we haven’t even talked about women’s right to their autonomy.”
There is no term for baby boomers in Hungarian, but the babies of that period are known as Ratkó-children, after Anna Ratkó, whom Rákosi appointed health and welfare secretary to solve the country’s diminishing-population issue. Relative to its size Hungary lost significant numbers in World War II, some to battle and more to the Holocaust, then still more to the subsequent wave of emigration. Ratkó put in place a robust family-planning programme, including a ban on abortion and a “singles tax” for women between 20 and 45 and men between 20 and 50 who did not have any children.
Leaving aside the fact that many of the Ratkó-children were the result of less-than-wanted pregnancies, the programme was undeniably effective. Combined with a ban on emigration to anywhere outside the Soviet Union and its allies, the number of Hungarians remained fairly constant until the early ’90s. But after the Iron Curtain fell and borders opened up—after the mass wave of emigration that took place when Hungary joined the EU, and after the recession hit—the country began, once again, to haemorrhage citizens faster than it was replacing them.
Enter Viktor Orbán, who came of age as a striving young politician under communism. After a first term as prime minister between 1998 and 2004, he was re-elected in 2010 with a two-thirds majority, and began to establish a centralised, authoritarian governance recalling Rákosi’s, except that Orbán is on the centre-right. Taking a leaf from Ratkó’s book, he began to implement his own set of dystopian family-planning policies.
Klára Nádas died at 46 in 1955, but she was ahead of her time in pointing out that tampering with the birth rate without the necessary infrastructure would only put more strain on those already stretched too thin with childcare: mothers, teachers, healthcare workers. And then, we haven’t even talked about women’s right to their autonomy.
Last August, demographic analyst Pál Demény was awarded the Order of St Stephen, the highest award of lifetime achievement the Hungarian government can bestow. Born and raised in Hungary, Demény got a PhD at Princeton studying under prominent neoliberal economists, and later helped found a demographic research centre at the University of Hawaii. His outstanding contribution to Hungarian governance is the idea that your civil liberties, like the number of votes allocated, and your pension grade, should be tied to the number of children you have.
“How many children a family chooses to have is a private decision,” Demény said in his opening speech at an event called “The Global Meeting of Families” held in Budapest in 2017, “but influencing that decision is an entirely legitimate device.”
Demény proposes to allocate an extra vote per child, to be exercised by the parents until the child turns 18. Mothers would vote for daughters and fathers for sons, though Demény did concede that there might need to be some fine-tuning to account for more “modern” family arrangements, like divorced families where one parent is the primary caregiver. (His policy doesn’t mention LGBTQ+ families. Although civil partnership for same-sex couples has been legal in Hungary since 2009, joint adoption isn’t, hence same-sex parents are an unrecognised family unit.) Demény claimed that his policies would empower children and caregivers with increased political representation, but their only real use is to give cover to the invasive population-control politics of the Orbán government.
Since he sees increasing the birth rate as a utilitarian issue, Demény says, he does not consider it as explicitly gendered; thus he finds the notion that the state should not have the power to interfere with the individual welfare of women irrelevant. In March 2018, Orbán published a video on his Facebook page on the occasion of International Women’s Day, congratulating the 2 million Hungarian women who “on top of being mothers also have a job.” A month later, he issued a statement saying he wants to “make a pact” with Hungarian women because the key to population growth, the “most public private concern,” is in their hands.
“Three bedrooms, three kids, four wheels,” the catchphrase of Orbán’s administration, first appeared in his 2000 year-in-review speech, in the second year of his first term as prime minister. At the time it wasn’t read as an explicitly pronatalist statement, more a projected goal for the country’s economic potential in the new millennium. Three bedrooms is a neat signifier for the petit bourgeoisie that Orbán has identified as his most loyal voter base: those living better than the national average, but not so much so that they aren’t susceptible to his promises.
But by the time he entered his second term in 2010, this tagline conjured up the image of the ideally profitable family unit that shaded into Ratkó-like agitprop, a slogan to augment the birth rate. As part of this new, natality-led governance, Orbán established a tax cut for families with more than two children, as well as financial aid for first-time home buyers that would increase—you guessed it—based on the number of children in the family. (This includes foetuses after the 12th week.)
But to qualify for a children-based tax exemption, both parents have to be paying income tax, meaning that the family is ineligible if one parent is unemployed or not legally employed. Also, their combined income has to exceed a set amount that increases exponentially per number of children. Similarly, you cannot apply for the homemakers’ allowance if you are unemployed or were in the previous six months, or if you have significant pre-existing debt and no health insurance. It is available only for newly built properties with a floorplan of at least 60–90 square metres, and covers up to 10 million Hungarian forints (approximately $35,700), scarcely enough for a construction of the required size, without independent wealth to cover the surplus.
The Orbán government has made an art of strategically applying tax obligations to manipulate the country’s optics. Wealthier families are incentivised to have more children, while poorer ones are punished for doing the same. It is in the national interest that everybody reproduce; it’s just preferable that repopulation is carried out by the middle class.
Hungary’s biggest ethnic minority is the Roma, though they are rarely called that. Mostly they are called gypsies, and when you want to identify if someone is Roma or not you will often say, Are they Hungarian or are they gypsy? This is done without explicit malice, which makes it even more chilling: no trouble here, it’s just that a white person is a Hungarian person and a person of colour isn’t, and that’s a fact. Another fact is that most people believe the country is under threat of being overrun by Muslim refugees (we’ll return to that later).
Last March Orbán gave a speech in Miskolc, a former Soviet industrial hub with a large Roma population, warning the audience that they should be wary of an influx of “migrants,” because they already knew what it’s like when a “group from the outside arrives in your city en masse.” (The Roma in question were all Hungarian citizens.) These two facts fold into each other like an ouroboros, making the collective irrational fear induced greater than the sum of its parts. Migrants aren’t white and everyone who isn’t white is a migrant. Everyone who isn’t white is a migrant and migrants are bad, therefore everyone who isn’t white is a threat.
Orbán grew up under state-ordained secularism during the Soviet occupation, but has made “Christian family values” a guiding principle of his ideology, a rhetoric that’s even more effective once it is no longer applied in a vacuum but against an alleged cultural danger. A month after Orbán proposed a pact with the nation’s women, a video entitled “The ‘Give Birth to a Hungarian’ Movement” surfaced and quickly went viral, its female narrator urging the viewers that the most effective way to join the “fight against immigration” is to give birth to Hungarian children. “Family, country, God,” she concludes, on a final crucial point: having more children is the Christian thing to do.
Last May the journalist Árpád W. Tóta wrote an article for the alternative left-leaning, or at least non-populist weekly, HVG, the basic thesis of which is that “breeding Hungarians” is a pointless exercise without significant leftist intervention that would ensure these children grow up with equal opportunity. As Tóta sees
My mother was 26, only two years older than I am now, when she became pregnant with me. By then, she’d already been dating my father for 11 years and married to him for a few months, and they were in love and maybe a bit naive, so there was no reason not to do it. But by and large, having a young family was not the norm when I was growing up, or rather, not necessarily an aspiration. The great thing was traveling to countries beyond those allied with the Soviet Union, and taking jobs at the multinational firms that arrived one after the other, trying to take advantage of an untapped, unregulated market.
But after the long summer of love following the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, attitudes to in-family gender dynamics have apparently reversed. According to a 2018 “demographic portrait,” 93 percent of 20- to 44-year-olds think that providing for the family is primarily a man’s job. Almost 60 percent think that the most important decisions in the family should be made by a man, and 68 percent agree or mostly agree that a woman should handle domestic duties, even if that means giving up her job. (It is worth mentioning that as of January 2018, women with two children have to pay back only 50 percent of their tuition fees, and after three they are completely written off.)
That all this demographic programming is working is evident, because having a young family is newly aspirational in my age group. “It is a woman’s duty to have a child,” a Ratkó slogan famously stated, “but it is a girl’s triumph.” Many of the friends I went to school with are now one or two years out of university or maybe finishing a postgrad, living in setups that I have come to think of as “family prep”: alone or with a boyfriend in a one- or two-bedroom, buying a car or taking out a mortgage, in a job that they can maximise for income for two or three years, before they have to take some years out for childcare.
I left Hungary as a teenager and went to university in the UK. It’s unlikely I’ll live there again as a young woman, and if I have children they will probably be born elsewhere. Even writing this is an armchair exercise and a luxury; it implies distance from the situation. Wanting to have children young doesn’t make you a “bad feminist,” not even if you do it because of better taxes or because the prime minister tells you to. Neither does not wanting to stand up to a government that tells you your job is to be a mother. It makes you “normal.” If I hadn’t been granted a different life, getting to move to another country for school and for work, I’d be doing the same, because what I would be is a normal Hungarian woman and there would be no reason not to.
Right before Christmas a TV ad came out in Hungary that seemed to, kind of belatedly, remind everyone that 2018 was the “year of families.” In it, a small child runs head first into a snow-covered pine tree; another kid is painting her own stomach blue with watercolours. A Christmas tree tips over as the family stands around it, singing. “Children are a gift,” says the narrator. “Being a parent is an adventure for a lifetime.”