The Hungarian central bank goes on a buying binge

It was on August 3 that I first read about the so-called Borbély castle in Tiszaroff. It was refurbished after the change of regime and was owned by a German businessman who made a four-star luxury hotel out of it. In the wake of the recent downturn in the economy, however, the business failed, and the owners put the property up for sale. The article I read in Vasárnapi Hírek reported on rumors circulating in the village that the Hungarian National Bank had purchased the castle for use as a vacation resort for the central bank’s employees. And indeed, a week later it became official. The bank purchased the property for €1.3 million (415 millon HUF).

Kester Eddy, a reporter for the Financial Times, had a great time writing a story about the purchase. It reminded him of the days when, under communism, state companies and institutions owned holiday properties so their employees could spend two weeks splashing around in Lake Balaton. The bank struck back and explained that “the Magyar Nemzeti Bank, like other EU central banks, seeks to provide its more than one thousand employees with fringe benefits.” Moreover, the castle-hotel is located in the country’s least developed region and by opening the hotel again “more than 30 new jobs have been created.” Between May and the end of August it will function as a recreational center and between September and April as a training center.

The Borbély Castle-Hotel in Tiszaroff on 3.5 hectares

The Borbély Castle-Hotel in Tiszaroff on 3.5 hectares

Earlier the Hungarian National Bank had seven different vacation homes, but by 2009 the bank sold them off one by one. In these still difficult economic times it is hard to justify buying a luxury hotel even if the price was apparently attractive. The owners asked 680 million forints for it, but the bank managed to purchase it for a mere 415 million. Moreover, Matolcsy pointed out that the bank had earned a profit of 26.3 billion forints and therefore the purchase did not cost taxpayers a penny. An interesting explanation from a central banker.

The brouhaha over the purchase of the castle-hotel had barely died down when HVG learned that the Hungarian National Bank also bought perhaps the most expensive office building in Budapest, the eight-story Eiffel Palace. Originally it was rumored that some of the offices of the central bank would be moving into the building. Portfolio thought that purchasing a class A office building was an acceptable business concept. Others were less sanguine. For example, the popular blogger orulunkvincent.hu. According to him, the price was €57.5 million (18 billion forints) and the building has 14,000 square meters of rentable space. In calculating the potential return on this investment he assumed the top rental rate for space in a green building, €13.5 per square meter. In downtown Pest 86% of the available office spaces are occupied. If the Eiffel Palace has the same occupancy rate its gross annual rental income would be €1,950,480. Assuming an 80% profit and 10% tax, the net rental income would be €1,404,346 per year. That means a return of 2.44%. Five-year government bonds have an interest rate of 4.70%. So, says the blogger, this deal does not sound so fantastic to him.

According to critics of the deal, the Hungarian National Bank grossly overpaid the owners of the Eiffel Palace. They paid almost 18 billion forints when according to real estate assessors it is not worth more than 11-12 billion. E-PM will go to court in connection with the purchase of the office building because it suspects malfeasance or a breach of fiduciary responsibility on the part of the central bank.

But these two purchases were nothing compared to yesterday’s revelation. HVG learned that the central bank had transferred 200 billion Hungarian forints to its five foundations named after Pallas Athena, the goddess of wisdom, courage, inspiration, civilization, law and justice, just warfare, mathematics, strength, strategy, the arts, crafts, and skill. A perfect description of Hungary today!  This amount is one and a half times more than the Hungarian government spends a year on higher education.

Initially it was known only that this money will be spent on education. Today the central bank released details of its project. “We are creating a faculty of economics and finance at Kecskemét College, a faculty of finance in Marosvásárhely/Târgu Mureș (Romania), a doctoral school in the Buda Castle, and an intermediate financial training center in Pest.” The reason? “The already obsolete doctrines and mistakes of the neo-liberal school of economics continue to dominate Hungarian education in economics and finance.” Since Matolcsy thinks that mainstream economists in the country–and that means practically all respected experts–are wrong and since he cannot get rid of them, he will build parallel economics departments that will teach his unorthodox economic theories. Just as the Orbán government needs an alternative Holocaust Museum and an alternative academy of artists it also needs a new set of economists who will be the high priests of unorthodoxy.

Matolcsy admitted that it will be an expensive undertaking because, after all, they need “new institutions, professors of new vision, and new teaching materials.” Creating new institutions will probably be the least of Matolcsy’s problems. Where will he find those professors of new vision? Where is he going to find new teaching materials? Perhaps he is planning to write them himself because I can’t believe that any self-respecting economist would be willing to write textbooks acceptable to Matolcsy.

I tried to find out more about the institutions mentioned and, as far as I can see, only two seem to exist. The Kecskeméti Főiskola at the moment does not teach economics. It has one section that produces elementary school teachers, another where they teach information science, and another that specializes in what Hungarians call “kertészmérnöki kar”–less elegantly put, gardening and landscaping. This college was established in 2000, i.e. during the first Orbán administration. The second institution, in Marosvásárhely/Târgu Mureș, is not mentioned by name, but I guess it is the Sapentia Hungarian University which was established in 2001 and heavily subsidized by the Hungarian government. I remember that shortly after the 2010 election Viktor Orbán made a trip to Târgu Mureș and gave a billion forints to the institution. As for the others, I assume they will be established sometime in the future.

I used to think that I could not be surprised by anything that is done by this administration, yet I am surprised time and again. It is really frightening how much power is in the hands of people whose sense of reality is greatly impaired.

Did Viktor Orbán backpedal in his address to Hungarian ambassadors?

The consensus seems to be that in his address to the Hungarian ambassadors Viktor Orbán retreated from his previously articulated doctrine of illiberalism. In so doing he followed the lead of several right-wing analysts and journalists who tried to downplay the significance of the radical speech he delivered in Tasnádürdő/Băile Tușnad. In fact, they went to great imaginative lengths to explain the “true” meaning of the word “illiberalism.”

A friend called my attention to an editorial by Matild Torkos of Magyar Nemzet who argued that Orbán’s criticism was not of liberalism per se. What he meant was the kind of liberalism that existed in Hungary before 2010 when the Hungarian state did not defend state assets, when it did not recognize Hungarians living in the neighboring countries as part of the Hungarian nation, and when it allowed the country to be indebted. Or, there was an editorial by Zsolt Bayer of Magyar Hírlap, according to whom Orbán was not talking about the elimination of liberal democratic rights but only about people who make their living by work and not by welfare payments.

Tamás Fricz admitted that the choice of the word “illiberal” was unfortunate because since 1997 it has been equated with autocracy and semi-democracies. He even had a suggestion about a better way to describe “the new state and social model.” It should perhaps be called “national democracy,” where the emphasis is on the community as opposed to the individual.

George Schöpflin, formerly Jean Monnet Professor of Politics at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, is Fidesz’s “political philosopher.” He gave some learned answers to questions posed to him by HVG. For Schöpflin “liberalism” is a dirty word because “it seeks to coercively impose its ideals on the whole world.” In his interpretation, “Orbán was referring to economic liberalism, to market fundamentalism and the damaging impact that this has had on the Hungarian economy.” Later in an interview which is still unavailable in its entirety online he argued that in the United States “illiberal” has a different meaning than it does in Great Britain and therefore “its use was unfortunate.”

Fidesz analysts came to the conclusion that the word “illiberal” should be avoided, and indeed Orbán used the word only once in his address–by now available online–to the ambassadors. Orbán talked about the necessity of raising the number of the actively employed. In this context he said: “Our labor policy cannot be considered liberal because it does not give primacy to the individual but wants to have an equilibrium between individual and community interests. In plain language that means that we will not be able to provide social assistance to someone who is able to work and is offered a job by the government but is unwilling to work . This is an illiberal point of view. György Schöpflin is right that this word should be avoided because the Americans’ understanding of the word is different from that of the Europeans.” Of course, what Schöpflin claims is nonsense. Americans and Europeans have the same negative understanding of the word “illiberal.”

Suggested reading on "illiberalism"

I think it’s fair to say that as far as “illiberalism” and the admiration for authoritarian states or outright dictatorships are concerned, Orbán backpedaled in his address to the ambassadors. In fact, he stressed that “his country is anchored firmly in Western culture and political institutions.” As Ildikó Csuhaj of Népszabadság wrote today, Orbán must have listened to the critical voices coming from conservative circles and changed his tune. Of course, that doesn’t mean that he has given up on building an illiberal state, a project that has been going on for the past four and a half years. He has no intention of abandoning his goal. He just realized that it is not a good idea to talk openly about his plans.

The speech was crafted to avoid controversy. It was basically a pep talk to the ambassadors urging them to encourage foreign investment. There was relatively little about foreign policy, which in Orbán’s opinion has lost its importance.

When it came to the question and answer session, however, Orbán was less guarded. He addressed the subject of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict in response to a question from the Hungarian ambassador to Bratislava. And he offered a view of immigration that will undoubtedly raise hackles in Brussels.

European and American politicians are accustomed to Viktor Orbán’s “peacock dance.” At home he is belligerent while in Brussels he rarely raises objections and votes dutifully with the majority. Jean-Claude Juncker’s nomination was an exception and turned out to be a mistake. It is very possible that if it comes to further sanctions against Russia, Orbán will again support the majority. And the “peacock dance” continues.

Reactions to Viktor Orbán’s speech to the ambassadors

I simply cannot get over the ineptitude of the Hungarian opposition parties. It is hard to pick the biggest loser among them. Here we are before the Budapest municipal elections where the stakes are high since with good candidates and a good campaign the democratic parties have a chance of replacing István Tarlós and perhaps even receiving  the majority of the district mayoralties. The chief MSZP negotiator was Ágnes Kunhalmi, a young woman with little political experience who, it seems, had difficulties keeping the local party bosses in line. As a result, in several districts the democratic parties will run not only against the Fidesz candidates but also against each other. A sure way of losing.

And what did the brand new party chief, József Tóbiás, do during these tense weeks of constant intra-party negotiations? He went on vacation! In his opinion he has nothing whatsoever to do with local Budapest affairs. The locals will take care of local affairs! As for the common candidate for the lord mayoralty, when asked what he thought of him, Tóbiás without batting an eyelash answered that Ferenc Falus must be a good candidate if all three parties agreed on his nomination. When pressed, he admitted that he does not know Falus, but after he meets him he will form an opinion. As far as I know, the meeting has been postponed several times since. Tóbiás is too busy.

The parties’ reactions to Viktor Orbán’s speech to the ambassadors yesterday were also poor. Perhaps the most feeble was Együtt-PM’s statement. It was penned by Nóra Hajdu, who is not exactly a household name in Hungarian politics. I managed to find her in tenth place on Együtt-PM’s list for the EU election. At that point E-PM was hoping to send three people to Brussels, but in the end they received only a single mandate.

Her statement began by expressing the party’s disappointment over Orbán’s failure to remedy the mistakes he committed in his “illiberal” speech because these mistakes “are accompanied by serious international consequences.” Disappointment? Couldn’t she find a more forceful and apt word for this speech? Hajdu expressed her surprise that Orbán instructed the ambassadors to represent “his mistaken policies.” I don’t know what else Nóra Hajdu expected. That is what ambassadors are supposed to do. At the end she did mention the unacceptable turn of phrase about “the half-witted nations” who follow a foreign policy based on universal liberal values.

Tóbiás wasn’t exactly hard-hitting either. He talked in general about mistaken policies and an alternative reality that exists only in Orbán’s head. But the most surprising part of the announcement was that, in his opinion,”the ambassadors should represent the Hungarian nation and not Viktor Orbán’s parallel world.” I really don’t know what to think. Ambassadors represent the government they serve. If someone cannot in good conscience do that, he should resign.

Szabolcs Kerék-Bárczy of DK spoke somewhat more forcefully about his and his party’s objections on ATV’s Egyenes beszéd where he stressed the unacceptability of a foreign policy based exclusively on material gain. In his interpretation Orbán “gave the order” to lead Hungary further toward eastern dictatorships.

In addition to these official statements, Viktor Szigetvári, who by now has assumed the leading role in E-PM, wrote a long post on his own blog. Of course, this is not the best place to air his reactions to Orbán’s latest since few people will find it. It is, however, a surprisingly good analysis, which indicates to me that Szigetvári is most likely a better political analyst than a politician. After all, he was trained as a political scientist.

Szigetvári rightly points out that “in all mistaken analyses there are several real and factual elements.” For example, it is true that the European Union struggles with the problems of the protracted economic crisis.

According to Szigetvári, Orbán is also right about the necessity of conducting “intelligent Realpolitik.” In the classical meaning of the word, it means a diplomacy that is primarily based on power and material considerations rather than ideological or ethical premises. Such a foreign policy, however, presupposes individual, absolutely sovereign states who can play a power game on the chessboard of the world. Hungary cannot conduct that kind of Realpolitik since it is part of a larger unit, the European Union, and is a country without complete sovereignty. Therefore, the kind of Realpolitik Orbán advocates is unrealistic and doomed to failure.

Unless, of course, Orbán is contemplating a series of moves that would end in Hungary’s either leaving the European Union on its own or being forced out of it. András Vértes, an economist and chairman of GKI Gazdaságkutató Zrt, is convinced that, in spite of what everybody says, Orbán’s final goal is saying goodbye to Brussels. Orbán suggested in his speech that 50% of Hungary’s exports should go to countries outside the European Union. “That is an astonishing wish…. The overwhelming majority of investment in Hungary comes from EU sources and EU countries, but we send the message that Russian and Chinese capital is more important for us…. That kind of talk will frighten away the few investors who are still interested.”

Thus, there is something very wrong with Orbán’s version of Realpolitik. It doesn’t seem to serve the interests of the country. Orbán urged the ambassadors to entice investors to Hungary, but Vértes is right. Given the political and economic climate in Hungary, the ambassadors’ attempts cannot be successful.

As for the overall assessment of the speech, there seem to be two schools of thought. One is that Viktor Orbán retreated from his resolve to develop an “illiberal state” and the other is that he simply reiterated and strengthened the messages of his speech in Tusnádfűrdő/Băile Tușnad. Given Viktor Orbán’s penchant for delivering talks that are anything but clear, both groups will find plenty to support their contentions. But more about that tomorrow.

Viktor Orbán’s foreign policy doctrine: only national interest

Every year Hungarian ambassadors assemble in Budapest to listen to very lengthy lectures by Viktor Orbán on their duties.  I began covering this gathering in 2010, when the prime minister outlined “a much more courageous, much more aggressive foreign policy”  than the one pursued by the socialist-liberal governments. In 2011 he announced his intention to wage a war against the European Union in defense of the country’s sovereignty, and he urged the ambassadors to steadfastly defend all of the government’s unorthodox moves. In July 2012 his speech centered around the protracted economic crisis that was “not made any easier” by the existence of the democratic model. “Europe chose the democratic model after World War II,” so that’s that. This was not a criticism on his part, he added. And a year later, in 2013, he claimed that Europe can remain competitive only if it finds accommodation with Russia. He admitted that this is a difficult proposition because Russia is not a democratic country. “However, we must understand that for Russia it is not democracy that is the most important consideration but rather how the country can be kept intact.”

If anyone thought that after his speech of July 26 Orbán would try to retreat, realizing that foreign reaction was exceedingly critical of his illiberal ideas that are incompatible with the values of western democracies, they were mistaken. Here are the most important segments of his long speech as reported by MTI. It appeared on the government’s website.

Orbán in his 2010 speech urged the ambassadors to defend the Hungary’s unorthodox policies. Today he suggested the opposite. They “should not assume a defensive posture” because “the Hungarian position can defend itself.” They should listen to what other nations’ representatives have to say, but their answers should not be substantive. It should be no more than a polite gesture, “a civilised obligation.” In brief, Hungary needs no advice from anyone.

Source: Népszabadság / Photo: Zsolt Reviczky

Source: Népszabadság / Photo: Zsolt Reviczky

The ambassadors must not represent a country which is constantly criticized and questioned on its economic indicators or on its historical sins. “No one in the whole world has the right to take us to task, especially since Hungary’s democratic credentials are the best in all of Europe.” After all, at the time of the acceptance of the new constitution every possible legal question was answered satisfactorily.

As for Hungary’s place in today’s world order, there is no question that “Hungary’s place is within the western alliance system,” but “we no longer follow a foreign policy based on ideology.” The only consideration is “Hungarian national interest.” In his opinion “clever nations invented foreign policy based on ideology for half-witted nations.” And surely, Hungary is not one of them.

Normally, Orbán does not like question and answer periods. For example, apparently the reason for his recent cancellation of a speech at Georgetown University was the university administration’s insistence on such a format. It seems that on these occasions, however, whether he likes it or not, he has to answer a few polite questions by the ambassadors.

So Csaba Balogh, ambassador to Bratislava, asked him about Hungary’s position on the Russian-Ukrainian crisis. We already knew that Orbán is reluctant to support joint European efforts at containing Putin’s expansionist plans. This time he made his position crystal clear. For him the Russian-Ukrainian crisis has only economic ramifications, and these are obviously negative. Already last year on the same occasion Orbán advocated closer ties between Russia and the European Union. Today he sadly noted that, despite his advice, relations between Russia and the European Union are getting worse and worse. And that is bad not only for Hungary but also for the European Union.

So, what will Hungary do under these circumstances? Orbán’s Hungary will seek out those countries whose interests lie in preventing further rifts between Russia and the EU and promote closer cooperation with them. In plain English, he will try to drive a wedge between the member states in their policy toward Putin’s Russia.

Orbán seems to be convinced that criticism of his “seeking a different political model”–as he euphemistically called his illiberal vision of Hungary’s future– is some kind of punishment for his “different views on Russian sanctions.” Otherwise, there would not be all that fuss.

Finally, Orbán stated that he is “dead against” immigration because he does not consider multiculturalism a desirable end. Homogeneity is a valuable feature within individual countries, and therefore these homogeneous communities should not be broken up. To quote Reuters, Orbán told his audience that “we must fight to keep this issue under national jurisdiction…. I make no secret of this: we will continue with a very tough policy that does not at all encourage immigration … For Europe to have general rules that affect all of us who think differently is out of the question.” I assume he means only extra-European immigration. In plain language, this is a “whites (and probably Christians) only” policy. He called the EU’s immigration policy hypocritical, impractical, and without moral foundation. As Reuters rightly pointed out, that might put Orbán at odds with Brussels.

It is also interesting to note what MTI’s summary left out, which other journalists who were present noticed. The most obvious to me was Népszabadság’s reporting that “one must not overrate the so-called common European values.” The liberal paper considered that sentence so important that it used it as its headline.

So, there is plenty to chew on here, and I am sure there will be more to discuss when the complete transcript is released. In any case, the European Union has a problem on its hands as Wolfgang H. Reinicke, president of the Global Public Policy Institute, pointed out a few days ago. He optimistically predicted that “Europe’s Orbán problem” can be fixed. It all depends on the political will to confront him. Orbán is ready for that fight.

Jobbik-Fidesz cooperation: The case of the Western Hungarian Uprising of 1921

In a way I’m continuing the same topic as yesterday–the Orbán government’s appeasement of Jobbik and its supporters. Actually, it may be imprecise to talk about appeasement. There is a partially shared ideology that on quite a few occasions has brought the Orbán government and Jobbik together on the same platform, working hand in hand. Fidesz politicians would like to keep this cooperation quiet. Openly they refuse to associate themselves with Jobbik, but under cover they are more than ready to pick up and support Jobbik’s ideas.

One such endeavor seems to run into difficulties year after year. I’m talking about the restoration of the statue of a young man that adorns the grave of Tibor Vámossy, a nineteen-year-old engineering student who died in the so-called Western Hungarian Uprising of August 28 – October 13, 1921. Before 1920 Western Hungary was the official name of that part of Greater Hungary called Burgenland today.

Austria, in the name of self-determination of nations, laid claim to the territory, including the city of Sopron, on November 17, 1918. The Allied and Associated Powers approved the transfer of territories in the September 10, 1919 Treaty of Saint-Germain. The Hungarian government did not expect such an “unfriendly act” from the “in-laws,” as Hungarians often refer to their former Austrian partners, but the Austrian claim was well founded. The territory’s population according to the 1920 census was about 350,000. The vast majority were German-speaking (72.4%). Croatians (13.8%) and Hungarians (12.3%) made up the rest.

This territory–as opposed to those in the north, east, and south–remained under Hungarian administration after the military collapse, which gave the Hungarian government some hope of retaining it. Budapest tried to come to a separate understanding with Vienna, but these negotiations not surprisingly were unsuccessful. At this point “independent” armed groups decided to prevent the entry of Austrian gendarmes. Eventually 2,000-3,000 quite well armed men were involved on the Hungarian side; the Austrian policemen were no match for them. After a few people died on both sides, the Austrians withdrew. Eventually a peaceful solution was found at the Conference of Venice with Italian moderation. The Hungarians asked for a plebiscite in Sopron and in nine villages nearby. Although the plebiscite produced a Hungarian majority in only three villages, the inhabitants of Sopron voted for Hungary so overwhelmingly (72%) that eventually the whole area remained within Hungary. This was the only negotiated settlement between Hungary and her successors.

In the last few years the statue of Tibor Vámossy in the Farkasréti Cemetery has become a gathering place for Jobbik supporters who, flanked by members of Magyar Gárda, commemorate Vámossy’s death on October 6, 1921. Young Vámossy was the only son of  upper-middle class parents who were rich enough to hire a well-known artist to sculpt a statue of their son and who were patriotic enough to make sure that everybody would know that Tibor died for “Western Hungary.” The Latin words “Pro Integritate” were chiseled into the base of the statue. Vámossy, Jobbik contends, was a member of the so-called Rongyos Gárda (Ragged Guard), one of the many paramilitary organizations that took part in the uprising. Jobbik–and Magyar Gárda–consider it a precursor of sorts.

By the time members of Jobbik and Magyar Gárda discovered the grave site, it was neglected and crumbling. But it had not been completely ignored. Earlier, in 2004, a government organization looking after places and objects that have some national significance (Nemzeti Emlékhely és Kegyeleti Bizottság/NEKB) decided to include the grave on its roster. The president of this organization is Péter Boross, prime minister of Hungary for a few months after József Antall, who in my opinion is very much to the right on the Hungarian political spectrum. So when Jobbik came up with the idea of restoring the crumbling statue they had to turn to NEKB for permission. On September 12, 2012 the organization gave Jobbik permission to go ahead with the project.

At this point members of the Vámossy family raised objections. They refused to have anything to do with Jobbik and its efforts at reconstructing their ancestor’s grave. They announced that, contrary to Jobbik’s claim, Tibor Vámossy was not a member of the Rongyos Gárda; he was a simple patriotic engineering student who decided to fight for his country. The Rongyos Gárda’s reputation is pretty bad in Hungary: it was a murderous anti-Semitic group. So, it is understandable that the Vámossy family refused to endorse the project.

The Vámossy relatives, most of whom live abroad, were right. Young Vámossy was not a member of this unsavory group. According to Andor Ladányi, who wrote a book on the role of university students in the first years of the counterrevolution, there were two recruiters at the engineering school: István Friederich, former prime minister between August 7 and November 25, 1919, and EKSZ (Etelközi Szövetség), an irredentist group active in universities. According to Ladányi, about 50 students were recruited from the engineering students by Friederich, some of whom were described by contemporaries as “all very stylish and well-educated boys.” They even had a “uniform” of sorts: green hunting caps and brown “sporty outfits.” Vámossy was one of these. He and a friend of his, Antal Lossonczy, died while writing postcards home along a roadside near Kismarton. An Austrian patrol opened fire on them.

So, Jobbik came up with an idea which was then approved by the Boross-led organization in charge of national monuments. When the family objected to the presence of Jobbik, the Ministry of Defense decided to take upon itself the cost of the restoration. That is what I meant when I said that Jobbik and the Orbán government often work hand in hand. As Előd Novák, vie-chairman of Jobbik, reported in August 2013, it was on Jobbik’s initiative that the project received the nod from Csaba Hende, who wrote to him that ” although Tibor Vámossy did not die as a soldier on October 6, 1921, he sacrificed his life in defense of the integrity of our country.” Apparently, Hende added that “naturally the government and the ministry acknowledge the merits of the Rongyos Gárda” as well.

The restored tomb and statue

The restored tomb and statue

In August 2013 the whole project was almost ready and Jobbik was preparing for the official unveiling of the statue sometime in October. Naturally, the Magyar Gárda and Jobbik wanted to be present. After all, it was their idea, and they would have been ready to pay for the restoration if the family hadn’t objected. But this was exactly what Csaba Hende, the minister of defense who planned to deliver the speech at the unveiling, did not want. So, according to Jobbik sources, the ministry decided to unveil “the statue of Tibor Vámossy who was a member of the Rongyos Gárda in secret” on October 11. As soon as the ministry discovered that Jobbik knew about the “secret” event and that they intended to participate, Hende’s ministry “postponed the ceremony” again.

Jobbik was outraged and began to attack both the ministry and the Vámossy family. In Novák’s opinion, the ministry is using the family as an excuse. They simply don’t want to be seen with Jobbik. Jobbik also began questioning the right of the Vámossys to speak on the issue at all. After all, they said, Tibor was unmarried and had no direct descendants. Yes and no. I happen to know that Tibor Vámossy had a sister who was married to someone whose family name was Mikecz. At the request of his father-in-law Mikecz changed his name to Vámossy in order to carry on the family name.

Another year has gone by and the anniversary of the uprising’s beginning, August 28,  is approaching. There is still no resolution to the unveiling even though by now the restored memorial is in place. According to Jobbik, the government must decide whether it recognizes the heroism of the Rongyos Gárda in the Western Hungarian Uprising that resulted in a negotiated settlement in Hungary’s favor or not. Előd Novák wants the government not to hide anymore and instead to come out openly and bravely. Hende cannot say one thing to Novák and another to the general public or the Vámossy family. The members of the Orbán government must choose. I agree with Novák.

A balancing act: a decoration for Imre Kertész and another for his right-wing foe

The debate about Imre Kertész’s acceptance of the Order of St. Stephen is slowly subsiding. There were important voices on the left, Ágnes Heller and Tamás Ungvári among them, who decided that since Imre Kertész is a great writer and the only Hungarian Nobel Prize winner in literature he richly deserves the highest decoration that can be awarded by any Hungarian government. In this view, it really doesn’t matter that between 1940 and 1944 several war criminals received the Order of St. Stephen.

Others who are  less forgiving  hope that Imre Kertész, given his illness and possible mental impairment, simply didn’t realize that this award was the Orbán government’s cynical answer to the unsavory reputation it acquired as the leading force in the falsification of the history of the Hungarian Holocaust. Honoring Kertész was conceived as a way to blunt the sharp clash between the Hungarian government and the domestic and international Jewish communities.

erdemrendBut trying to appease one group was guaranteed to outrage another. The Orbán government knew that there would be an outcry in extreme right-wing circles following the decision to award such a high honor to someone whom they consider to be not a member of the nation.

In order to “balance” things they opted to bestow a lesser decoration on a man of extreme political views. The Hungarian government settled on Mihály Takaró, who is supposed to be a “poet and literary historian.”

Takaró’s mission in life is the propagation of Hungary’s “banished literature.” Members of this banished group are writers of the interwar period who in Takaró’s opinion were supremely talented but because of their political views were barred from Hungary’s literary corpus.

The decoration Takaró received is a modest one, called Magyar Érdemrend Lovagkereszt (polgári tagozat), something I’m not even going to try to translate. It is given out twice a year: on March 15 and August 20. Each time at least 30-40 people receive it as a token of the government’s appreciation. In this case presumably one reason for the appreciation is that Takaró was among those who consider Kertész to be a mediocre writer and not a member of the Hungarian nation.

Takaró, who until fairly recently was just a humble high school teacher, is now on the faculty of the Gáspár Károli Hungarian Reformed University, which seems to be a gathering place for people of decidedly rightist views. Takaró’s time arrived with Viktor Orbán’s second administration when he had his own series entitled “Száműzött irodalom” (Banished Literature) on the state Duna TV.  The work of members of this group, in Takaró’s opinion, is among the greatest in Hungarian literature. For example, in an interview he gave on HírTV after receiving the decoration, he talked about Wass and Nyirő as equals of Sándor Petőfi and Attila József.

Featured in the series is an odd assortment of writers. Some, like Albert Wass  and József Nyirő, were members of or very close to Ferenc Szálasi’s Hungarist movement. Others, like Cecile Tormay, were rabid anti-Semites. And there were conservative writers, representatives of the Horthy regime’s “official literature” like Ferenc Herczeg. These writers are not considered by literary historians to be great. But Takaró also included a couple of poets of real talent who were there only because they were from Transylvania, by then in Romanian hands. All in all, Takaró’s series on Duna TV can be considered to be officially sponsored far-right propaganda. Some of the episodes can be seen on YouTube.

Here are a couple of them that should give readers a sense of Takaró’s mission. The first is about Albert Wass.

And here is another one on Cecile Tormay.

Takaró, in addition to his decidedly extremist views, has odd ideas about literary merit in general. He claims that the worth of a writer shouldn’t be determined by literary critics in later generations but by their popularity and acceptance by their contemporaries. In this view bestsellers of the 1920s and 1930s, like the works of Miklós Harsányi or Julianna Zsigray, should be judged to be better and more valuable than those of Attila József, who was almost an unknown but today is considered to be the greatest Hungarian poet.

Takaró complains bitterly about the falsification of the works of Hungarian classics–he specifically mentions Mihály Babits–whose irredentist utterances were unceremoniously left out even from “critical editions.” Very true. But what Takaró does not mention is that the Kádár regime’s self-censoring literary critics did the same thing to the works of such writers as János Kodolányi or László Németh, who became fully accepted writers by the regime although both had more than a slight brush with extreme right views in the 1930s. In their collected works the editors simply left out or rewrote passages that gave away their unsavory pasts.

HírTV invited Takaró for a fifteen-minute talk after he received his award. During the interview the question of literary worth and the writer’s political views was discussed. Perhaps the two should be completely separated, said the reporter. This was an opportunity for Takaró to get out of a sticky situation, especially when it came to his evangelizing for Hungarists like Wass and Nyirő. But our literary historian refused to budge. No, when judging an artist that person should be taken as a whole, including his political views. So Takaró is rehabilitating not only literary works but political ideologies as well.

In fact, one has the distinct feeling that Takaró’s main concern is the political views of these people and not the literary merit of their work. Moreover, he does not restrict his campaign to right-wing writers but often ventures into the field of history. Among his available lectures on YouTube there is a long appreciation of Miklós Horthy.

I doubt whether the extreme right will be satisfied with the decoration of one of their own as a consolation prize for the Order of St. Stephen for Imre Kertész. Even so, this government’s well practiced navigation through the treacherous waters of the far right never ceases to amaze me.

August 22, 1914

A change of pace. What else can we say about Viktor Orbán after his three recent public appearances and his decision to share his vision and wisdom with the world? Instead, let’s talk about history.

I must have mentioned how great the interest is in Europe on the 100th anniversary of World War I. German and Austrian papers in particular have been spending considerable time and energy telling their readers about events a hundred years ago. Often on a daily basis.

Hungarians who are so terribly interested in history seem to spend less time on the Great War, as it was called at the time. However, there is a company called Arcanum Adatbázis Kft. that specializes in the digitization of documents, maps, paintings, etc. They just offered free access to the issues of five Hungarian newspapers published one hundred years ago. I took advantage of the offer and read the August 22, 1914 issue of Népszava, the newspaper of the Hungarian Social Democratic Party. Today I’ll share some of that hundred-year-old news.

Before I embark on my project let me note that the Hungarian social democrats, just like other social democratic parties all over Europe, forgot about their internationalism after the outbreak of the war and became enthusiastic supporters of the war effort. Thus no one should be surprised about Népszava‘s patriotism and its fierce attack on tsarist Russia. After all, Russia’s oppressive regime was one of the justifications for socialist support of the war effort.

I should also mention that by coincidence I happened to pick a day that is described by historians as the war’s “deadliest.” It was on August 22, 1914 near Ardennes and Charleroi that the French army lost 27,000 men. It was a much larger loss than the one the British suffered in the Battle of Somme, which is usually cited as the war’s worst. The Battle of the Ardennes lasted three days, between August 21 and 23. Keep in mind that the articles in Népszava, a morning paper, were most likely written the night before.

Népszava was a slim paper in those days, ten pages in all, but six of these were devoted to the war. Headlines: “The German army destroyed the French. The troops of the Monarchy advance in Russia. Revolution broke out in the empire of the hangman Tsar.”

The paper enthusiastically announces that the German advance this time is even swifter than it was during 1870-1871 and optimistically predicts that “the war will soon be over.” The first decisive battle has taken place. Although it was not on French territory, as was predicted, it was very close, only 12 kilometers from the border. “Brussels already belongs to the Germans”; this occupation was a magnificent military achievement. Liège is also in German hands.  “The German army will soon move all the way to the North Sea.”

The situation on the ground was not so rosy. Here are a few lines from a German soldier’s diary entry: “Nothing more terrible could be imagined…. We advanced much too fast–a civilian fired at us–he was immediately shot–we were ordered to attack the enemy flank in the forest beeches–we lost our direction–the men were done for–the enemy opened fire–shells came down on us like hail.”

Népszava, like the other papers, spends considerable time accusing the enemy of all sorts of beastly things. According to the paper, German soldiers write letters home in which they tell stories about the cruelty of the French toward prisoners of war. For example, “they cut both hands, poked the eyes out, and tore out the tongue” of a German prisoner.

After the Battle of Ardennes

After the Battle of Ardennes

On the Russian front the newspaper is unable to come up with such spectacular victories. The report simply says that “the Russians have been unable to cross the border of Bukovina,” which was  part of Austria-Hungary until 1918. As for the paper’s claim of a revolution in the Crimea, that might have been only wishful thinking on the part of the Hungarians because history books do not seem to know about it.

It is interesting to read about Russian-Ukrainian relations from the perspective of 1914. The paper points out that there are 30 million Ukrainians living in Russia who look upon this war as “a war of independence.” These oppressed Ukrainians are looking forward to the day when they can join their four million Ruthenian brethren who live in Austria-Hungary.

A Hungarian paper would naturally spend considerable time on the war next door, in Serbia. They relate stories coming from returning wounded soldiers and prisoners of war. According to a Hungarian lieutenant, the Hungarians “decimated” the Serbian forces. Those who were not killed escaped in the direction of Podgorica (in Montenegro) and Ada (Serbia). However, some soldiers climbed trees and kept shooting at the Hungarian troops. He claimed that the Serbs are cowardly and brutish soldiers who leave their own wounded men behind. The Serbs, according to the paper, don’t have too many fatalities, but they do have a lot of wounded soldiers. Two of them were brought to Budapest. They told the Hungarians that they did not want to join the army but their officers forced them with revolvers. These two also claimed that the army is tired, but the officers are trying to convince them to go on because the Russians will be coming momentarily.

A fair number of Serb prisoners of war arrived in Hungary already by late August.  The paper talks about 300 prisoners in Esztergom. Apparently another 3,000 were on their way, being transported by ship.

All in all, the usual war psychosis. The enemy is vile, cowardly, cruel while our side is brave and wonderful. Our victories are magnified, the enemy’s minimized. Hopes center around a Ukrainian uprising so they can join the Ukrainians living in the Monarchy. There is also speculation of a revolution in Russia. Much time is spent on the weariness, disillusionment, and hardships in the enemy country. This is especially the case when it comes to stories about Serbia.

Finally, something the journalists of Népszava did not know when they put the newspaper together. It was on August 22, 1914 that Austria-Hungary declared war on Belgium. A bit late, don’t you think?