Keynote remarks at the Hungarian American Coalition’s 31st Annual Mikulás Dinner Held at the Embassy of Hungary in Washington DC on December 2, 2022
Thank you, Andrea. I am deeply grateful to you for your friendship and your
invitation. I also want to thank Edith Lauer, a Trustee of VOC, and an incredible
leader who has done so much, not just for Hungarian Americans, and bilateral
relations, but for the cause of freedom.
As Andrea mentioned, I have the honor to serve as the President of the Victims of
Communism Memorial Foundation. Before becoming President last year, I served
as the US Representative to the United Nations in Geneva, and had previously
served as the Assistant to the President, and Director of the White House
Domestic Policy Council.
The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation was created by the US Congress
in 1993 to remember the more than 100 million victims killed by communist
regimes. We dedicated a Memorial Statue 15 years ago, and just this summer
opened the Victims of Communism Museum, just 2 blocks from the White House.
While I could spend the next hour talking about the museum, I won’t, I’ll just
invite you all to come and see it. I also want to take this opportunity to once again
express our gratitude to the government of Hungary for their partnership and
support for this incredibly important project.
I was honored and excited to be asked to speak at this year’s Mikulas Dinner,
especially after attending my first dinner last year. Since then, I have made 2 visits
to Hungary, and I was just there last month. I had the honor to speak about the
transatlantic relationship at a conference sponsored by the Otto Von Habsburg
Foundation and the University for Public Service.
While I was there, I got to see the Budapest Christmas Market just beginning to
open up. Seeing the wonderful Christmas traditions around the world has always
been an enriching experience for me, and it was beautiful to see.
Tonight at this Mikulas Dinner, we come together to celebrate and remember and
to give thanks. This dinner takes it name from St. Mikulas or St. Nicholas, who’s
feast day is celebrated on December 6. Of course, we all know he is the origin of
the Santa tradition celebrated in different ways around much of the world. In
Hungary, boys and girls leave out their freshly cleaned boots the night before his
feast day, and by the morning St. Nicholas will fill them with sweets, fruit, or other
treats, unless they or course were naughty children, and then they would be left
sticks. While I do not have the honor of being Hungarian, I grew up with a similar
tradition, where on the morning of December 6th we would get chocolate. In my
wife’s family, they would get freshly made fudge in the morning, and while there is
no evidence that her mother was Hungarian at all, they would also get
toothbrushes. To me that seemed worse than getting sticks… my kids too get
toothbrushes with their fudge…
This wonderful gift giving tradition has its roots in the story of St. Nicholas, who
was a bishop in the 4th century, and according to tradition, once night, secretly
gave money to a poor family with 3 daughters who could not afford dowries. This
act of charity and care for someone else more than 16 centuries ago has inspired
so much care and love shown to billions of other people.
So, it is fitting that on the occasion of the Feast of St Mikulas, we feast and
celebrate. Now, for those of us that are Catholic, we are not in fact in the
Christmas season yet, but in Advent. Advent is a season meant to be a time of
preparation and in fact of fasting, with occasions like the feast of St. Mikulas,
being a much-welcomed break any fasting. But of course, fasting is not something
we have much of connection to today in the US. If anything, you could say that
the only thing that we fast from is “fasting”. We are blessed to live in the richest
country in the history of the world. While we have been blessed with incredible
prosperity, I believe we face a challenge today that in a time of so much
prosperity, at times it becomes harder to be truly grateful.
Just as the sayings “absence makes the heart grow fonder”, or “hunger is the best
sauce” we know that it is truly in times of great suffering or loss that we usually
realize just how grateful we are.
I want to take a moment to mention one small exhibit at the museum that has
gotten the attention of a lot of our younger visitors, a replica of a piece of bread.
It is the old soviet black bread that was given to prisoners in the Gulag, and it is
the exact portion that you would get to eat for an entire day. The looks on the
faces of students who have seen this is priceless, and in those moments, I think
they begin to have a renewed sense of gratitude.
But I don’t really want to talk about being grateful for our prosperity or material
wealth tonight, but for something much rarer, more precious, and far more
difficult to get if you don’t already have it. Of course I’m speaking about Freedom.
In the US today, many have forgotten how blessed we are and desperately need to
be reminded of the importance of preserving and protecting our freedom. While
some of this comes from complacency, much comes from ignorance.
That is one reason why it was such an honor to participate in the dedication
ceremony in October of the Coalition’s Hungarian Freedom Fighter statue in
Atlanta. This beautiful statue will both educate and inspire generations of
Americans about the heroes of the 1956 revolution. Men and women who fought
for and briefly won their freedom.
On October 25th this year we also had the opportunity to host an event at the VOC
museum on Remembering the Hungarian freedom fighters of 1956. In
partnership with the Hungarian embassy we commemorated the 66th anniversary
of the Hungarian revolution, and heard from the Minister of Justice, our founder
Dr. Lee Edwards, who traces his ardent anticommunism to his time studying in
Paris in 1956 when he first heard of the student led revolution. And from 2
American ‘56ers. At both of these events we told a retold the stories of incredibly
brave people who sacrificed so much for their country all in the name of freedom.
Students who gathered in lecture halls to craft political demands, men and
women who fought an empire and freed prisoners, leaders who worked to create
a new government. All of whom were shouting “Russians go home!”
I have repeatedly said at events, why do we remember, why do we memorialize?
Yes, it has to do with commemorating and honoring the heroism and sacrifices of
those in the past, in their own right, but it is mostly for us. It is essential that we
memorialize and remember for our and our children’s future. As has been said
many time “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
Sadly, in fact tragically, we seemed to have failed to learn these lessons.
Today, we see the most horrible war in Europe in over 70 years. The unjust and
unprovoked act of war by Russia against Ukraine has killed over 100,000 and
shaken the entire western world. It has demonstrated to us the that the world of
peace and prosperity, of international norms and order is not so safe and secure
as many of us may have thought. The democratic world has been united in its
condemnation of Russia’s attack, and Hungary, and all of Ukraine’s neighbors have
welcomed millions of refugees as almost 8 million have fled the war. Early in this
war, I saw images on TV of citizens fighting and helping one another that
reminded me of the black and white film we have in our museum showing the
freedom fighters from 1956. I can’t imagine the number of times this year that
Ukrainians must have shouted “Russians, go home!” As we enter winter, and approach 1 year since the beginning of this war, we must all remember the suffering of the Ukrainian people, and also the suffering this war has caused around the world. The skyrocketing energy cost throughout Europe could become debilitating, and the risk of food shortages and famine continues to rise. We in the US and all democratic countries must continue to stand again this act of evil.
Unfortunately, this is not the only evil that we must face today. As we have seen
in the news in the last few days, thousands of brave men and women are currently
protesting the oppression of the Chinese Communist Party. While they have not
yet reached the same level, these have become the largest protests in China since 1989. 1989, what an incredible moment in time. I was only a student at the time,
but I remember the hope and fear and well as the horror and joy my parents and
other adults were experiencing at that time. In June we watched from the US, the
massacre of thousands of students at Tiananmen Square, the first elections in
Poland, refugees fleeing East Germany, and a youth activist in Hungary demand
with withdrawal of Soviet troops.
When thinking back to 1989, I ask what would have become of those students and
workers, intellectuals and religious leaders, if the Soviets and their puppet
governments had possessed the type of technological surveillance tools we are
watching China use today to harass, intimidate and arrest?
When I spoke about our transatlantic relationship in Budapest last month I had a
surprising reaction from the crowd. I had asked how much of the crowd was
familiar with the story of Lord of the Rings, and when it was clear nearly the entire
room was, I shared a story from my time in Geneva.
Story background. “Rohan will answer”; EU is Gondor; But honestly the US is not
far behind. Has the west lost its sense of purpose? Led by “Stewards” who will
manage decline? Will there be a return of the King?
The west is falling into nihilism, we risk losing a sense of belief in ourselves, in our
own goodness, our shared values, and the importance of freedom.
In the US we have a sense of rising Cultural Marxism. Not state imposed classless
society, but a deeply authoritarian cultural conflict that doesn’t allow dissent of
thought or speech. It seeks to ostracize, any words or actions outside the “partyapproved” line. A culture of lies and doublespeak permeate this ideology, as
intolerance is championed in the name of tolerance.
Some try to set up different groups or classes of people as categorically against
one another. We even hear some say that our greatest enemies are some of our
fellow Americans. This idea must be rejected. We, and all western democratic
countries, have always had, and always will have, internal political differences. I
have strong policy and political views, and I can argue them with my fellow
Americans, some of whom may be by political “opponents” but not my enemy.
It is a danger to become too self-absorbed in our internal struggles, and often the
best way to reignite the importance of freedom in our society is to look to those
who are desperately fighting for it around the world.
As we prepare to enter this Christmas season, I hope that we will have a renewed
sense of gratitude and thankfulness for all that we have been given. And that as
we do so, I pray that we reawaken the conscience of the Western world. We must
be champions for our civilization’s understanding of freedom, and as we look for
inspiration from those who have successfully fought for it and defended in the
past, we must reach out in support to those fighting for freedom today. I hope
that their persistence and courage in the face of such danger and oppression will
serve as a catalyst for renewal here in the West.
Thank you all very much, and Merry Christmas.