Those of you who read my blog regularly surely remember the story of the Ferenc Markoth Heves County Hospital and Hospinvest, a company that manages several other hospitals in the county and elsewhere in the country. However, here is a brief summary. The county hospital, situated in the city of Eger, was (and still is) in terrible financial shape. Every year the county government was called upon to cover the hospital’s losses. Moreover, both the physical plant and the hospital’s medical equipment were in desperate need of capital investment. The county simply didn’t have enough money to make something out of this hospital in which altogether 1214 people worked, including 148 physicians. Either someone had to take over the management of the hospital or it had to be closed. The Medical School of Debrecen showed some interest in assuming control. But the county, where MSZP has a majority, opted for Hospinvest, apparently because their offer was superior.
There was an immediate outcry, including some incredible scenes during the council meeting, demonstrations, and strange happenings inside the hospital. Hospinvest remained resolute and insisted that eventually they would convince the staff that it was in their best interest to become Hospinvest employees. Those who called themselves “defenders of the hospital”–that is, the anti-Hospinvest camp–claimed that the staff would never sign on with Hospinvest and therefore the bid to privatize the hospital would fail. To be certified by the National Health Service (ÁNTSZ) Hospinvest needed 608 signed contracts with employees (that is, a majority of the hospital work force). This morning Gábor Deák, vice president of Hospinvest, announced that they have more than 700 contracts in hand. Moreover, they have applications from 150 well-qualified people to fill jobs that will remain open if the “hospital defenders” don’t change their minds.
It seems that the “hospital defenders” lost this round. However life is never so simple in Hungary. The defenders claim that they have 721 names on their list who claim that they didn’t sign any contract with Hospinvest. Gábor Deák calmly announced that he has in hand over 700 signed contracts. The “hospital defenders” claim that out of the 150 doctors 123 announced that they would never sign any contracts. Hospinvest, on the other hand, claims that three-quarters of the heads of departments as well as head nurses have already signed. (I realize that this is not an apples to apples comparison.)
The real sticking point between Hospinvest and the employees of the hospital was the question of the latter’s civil servant status that, they believed, gave them job security. But what if the hospital goes bankrupt and must be closed? Their civil servant status won’t help a bit. I understand that those who work in Hungarian healthcare find these changes unsettling. However, looking at the issue from the outside one can say that these changes are long overdue. Moreover, healthcare isn’t like manufacturing. When private companies took over state-owned factories a lot of people lost their jobs and became permanently unemployed. But healthcare is in the service sector and addresses a vital domestic need that will undoubtedly grow over time.
Another thing worth considering is that these demonstrations against the privatization of hospital services occur only where MSZP has a majority. In Fidesz localities, privatization goes on all the time without the slightest upheaval. Thus one has the sneaking suspicion that the “hospital defenders” get encouragement and support from Fidesz for its own agenda. They become pawns in a larger political game.
Almost every few weeks while excavating the foundations of a new building in Budapest workers find an old bomb from World War II. And they are big: half a ton, a ton, and this last one, two tons. Why have so many gargantuan old bombs suddenly surfaced? The reason, it seems, is that new office buildings and larger apartment houses must have underground garages, often consisting of several levels, which requires much deeper excavation. And it is very deep underground that these mega-bombs found their not quite final resting place.
Mind you, there must be many bombs still buried underground. Most of the bombing of Hungary during 1944-1945 was done by the Americans who apparently dropped more than 26,000 tons of bombs on the country. These bombings were often very intense, so-called carpet bombings. Sometimes 700-1,000 planes bombed day and night for weeks on end. Budapest suffered the most: the city was carpet bombed 37 times. On Csepel Island, where the Manfréd Weiss Works (a large industrial concern by that time in German hands) was situated, 248 half-ton bombs were dropped at one time. Apparently, the most heavily bombed areas were District I (the Castle District), II, and XII, all on the Buda side, and on the Pest side District IX, where this last mega-bomb was found.
About three weeks ago a half-ton bomb was discovered in District XIII (also known as Angyalföld). Seven thousand people had to be evacuated; clearing the area took almost six hours. The bomb turned out to be an American-made GP type of bomb that was apparently extremely dangerous to defuse. Yet people don’t realize the potential danger when such a bomb is found. Some refuse to leave their apartments. A lot of people start an argument with the police. They don’t understand why they have to leave when that good old bomb has been lying there for more than half a century and has done no harm. Then there are the old folks who can barely get out of bed.
This time the bomb was huge–two tons, and therefore 16,000 people had to be evacuated before the bomb squad dared to work on it. Over 100 people had to be carried out on stretchers. The oldest evacuee was 98. Two thousand people were over 70, and as a group they apparently didn’t take well to their forcible removal from their apartments to temporary shelters. I saw pictures of these shelters and I must say that they were elegant as far as shelters go. Nine ambulances transported those who were unable to leave on their own steam. Five ambulances stood by to assist the 800 people working on the project. It seemed to me that the organization was pretty decent.
Yet, as usual, people are dissatisfied. They complain that they were not individually notified after the bomb was unearthed that the evacuation would begin the next morning at 9 a.m. Of course, TV and radio stations as well as internet sites carried the story and the evacuation information, but for those who live in a media vacuum it was a huge surprise when police cars equipped with bullhorns arrived. Then the police knocked on doors, trying to convince reluctant people to move out. Well, by 4 o’clock in the afternoon the evacuation was complete and the bomb squad went to work only to find that somebody, most likely way back in 1945, had already defused the bomb. However, that couldn’t have been known beforehand because the head of the bomb, where the detonator is situated, was buried deep in the ground.
Echo and HirTV, two right-wing television stations, immediately found “experts” who announced that this bomb scare was a fiasco. After all, with a robot the bomb squad could have handled the whole thing and ultrasound would have been able to ascertain whether or not the bomb was dangerous. The head of the bomb squad very rightly pointed out that no robot could move a two-ton bomb. Moreover, the evacuation would have had to occur even if there were such robot because the bomb could have exploded, robot or no robot. As for ultrasound, he doesn’t know of any ultrasound equipment that could penetrate such a monster of a bomb.
Put it this way, it is better to be safe than sorry. If I lived near a two-ton bomb I would meekly follow police instructions, but I guess I have been acculturated differently in Canada and the U.S. I think the Hungarian people would be a great deal happier if they complained less and took things in stride.
Apparently ever since Hungary began successful negotiations with Russia concerning the Southern Stream, a new pipeline carrying natural gas through Turkey and the Balkans to Italy, Hungary, and Austria, the United States has been miffed with Ferenc Gyurcsány. Washington was worried, despite Hungary’s protestation to the contrary, that Hungary’s commitment to receive Russian natural gas through this new pipeline meant its abandonment of the Nabucco project of the European Union, still in the planning stage and strongly endorsed by the United States. Gyurcsány kept repeating that Hungary simply didn’t want to rely on only one source of natural gas. Washington remained suspicious. The relationship between the two countries became somewhat strained.
Viktor Orbán immediately sensed an opening here. His own relations with Washington in the last few years had been cool, if not outright frigid. It all started with 9/11 when István Csurka, head of the right radical MIÉP, then still a party with representation in parliament, made a speech in which he pretty well announced that the United States got what it deserved. Orbán, although present when the offending speech was delivered, said nothing in response. One of the problems with Orbán is that he subjugates everything to domestic considerations, and at that time he needed MIÉP’s votes. I’m sure he thought he could explain things away. He didn’t know the president of the United States. Although he desperately tried to get an invitation to the White House in the spring of 2002 when receiving an honorary doctorate from Tufts University, George W. Bush had no time for him. Washington, in order to show that the problem was not Hungary but Viktor Orbán, invited both Orbán’s successor, Péter Medgyessy, and Ferenc Gyurcsány to the White House. George W. Bush visited Budapest in the spring of 2006.
Fidesz and its media answered in kind: article after article appeared in Magyar Nemzet critical of U.S. policy especially concerning Israel and the Palestinian question. However, after Orbán sensed a cooling of U.S.-Hungarian relations he moved into high gear. He visited New York and Washington, had conversations with middle echelon leaders at the State Department, and courted the American ambassador, April H. Foley, and her predecessor, George H. Walker, first cousin of former president George H. Bush. His efforts bore fruit. George H. Walker apparently intervened on Orbán’s behalf so he would be received by the older Bush. For one reason or another that trip didn’t materialize but now, after the Southern Stream, things looked a bit brighter. An influential strategist from the Republican National Committee spent a week or so in Hungary giving lectures to Fidesz politicians about political strategy in general and tips on successful campaigning in particular. Then came the news that Orbán is going to the United States in late August to attend the Republican National Convention. This time, it seems, he will be the guest of former President Bush.
However, Gyurcsány is nobody’s fool, and he knew he had to do something to show Washington that Hungary is still America’s faithful ally and not a pawn of President/Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The Hungarian Foreign Ministry organized a three-day trip to Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, the two countries whose cooperation is absolutely necessary to make the Nabucco pipeline a reality. Turkmenistan especially is a hard nut to crack and we still don’t know what the final word is. One Hungarian paper gingerly described the attitude of Gurbanduly Berdimuhammedow, president of the country, as “he doesn’t completely reject the idea of the transportation of the gas to Europe.” That’s not much, but I guess it’s more than was expected. In any case, the encounter between the two men were interesting. Their first meeting lasted one and a half hours longer than scheduled and as a result several planned programs had to be cancelled. In their place, out of the blue the president invited Gyurcsány to a horse show followed by a dinner for two and a visiting to a bazaar. The result: the Hungarian delegation left Ashkadab, the Turkmen capital, four hours late. All told Berdimuhammedow and Gyurcsány spent six and a half hours together.
Apparently, Gyurcsány needed all his powers of persuasion, and at the beginning the negotiations didn’t go at all well. It was at this point that the Hungarian prime minister came up with the idea of a Nabucco summit and invited the Turkman president to be part of it. That seemed to do the trick. Suddenly Berdimuhammedow was enthusiastic about such a summit and showed an eagerness to attend. Apparently, the summit will take place in Budapest.
And now comes Washington. Gábor Horváth, foreign correspondent of Népszabadság, had an interview with Matthew Bryza, undersecretary of the State Department in charge of Central Asia and questions of energy. During this interview Bryza said to Horváth that “in the name of my government I can officially express our satisfaction at the visit of the [Hungarian] prime minister and minister of foreign affairs. The United States strongly supports the summit and is pleased that Prime Minister Gyurcsány undertook such a trip.” Bryza also praised Kinga Göncz, the foreign minister, who “was always very honest with us. We had serious negotiations and she always emphasized that Hungary was greatly interested in the project. With her own and the prime minister’s trip to Central Asia all her promises have been fulfilled.”
Just a word here about Kinga Göncz. She is the daughter of former President Árpád Göncz, and one is always a little bit suspicious about such appointments. She is a psychiatrist by training and I had never heard of her before she became minister of social welfare in the Medgyessy government, a role in which she didn’t impress me. I couldn’t figure out why Ferenc Gyurcsány asked her to be foreign minister. Yes, she does know languages and that is important. But otherwise? The Hungarian media were equally puzzled: the only thing they could figure was that with Hungary being part of the European Union the position of foreign minister was no longer very important. Moreover, they added, Gyurcsány is so active in foreign affairs that poor Kinga won’t matter much.
I must say that I have had to change my mind about her. As minister of social welfare she was a boring goody-goody and, at least in my opinion, never said anything of interest. She smiled a lot and was pleasant. But otherwise? As they say, dull as dish water. Since she became foreign minister I changed my mind about her. I find her very diplomatic, well spoken, at ease, and someone who really knows her subject. There is a warmth and genuineness about her which I assume is refreshing in the diplomatic world. All in all, she appears to have been an excellent choice.
This past weekend Hungarian students found out whether they got into college. Great excitement preceded the announcement that was made public on the internet; students could also inquire about their fate via SMS. Well, they didn’t have to worry too much: five out of six students were admitted to a college or university of their choice.
There is a new point system. Its introduction was so successful (at least this is how the ministry of education interpreted the results) that while last year only 75% and two years ago only 70% of applicants gained entrance to university, this year it was 83%! Thus although this year 12,000 fewer students applied than last year, the number of new freshmen will be almost the same: 80,924. Moreover, this is not even the final figure; for those who didn’t manage to get in this time there is a second chance, “pótfelvételi.” If the results on this second try are somewhat similar to those in the last few years then another 8,000-10,000 students may gain entrance to college. So of the 16,006 students who didn’t manage to get admitted in the first cut, probably fewer than half will find themselves outside the walls of academe. The large majority of those accepted don’t have to pay tuition, 52,618 of the already admitted 80,924 to be precise. So the cost of the undertaking is substantial.
If we compare the current situation with that of 1898, the last year of the Kádár regime, one realizes the enormous changes that have taken place in Hungarian education in the last twenty years. Then only 69,000 students matriculated and thus became eligible to enter college. The number of those who obtained university degrees that year was a mere 25,000. Here are a couple of other figures that might be of some interest for the sake of comparison. In 1990, 46,767 students applied and 16,818 were admitted. After the change of regime the number of those who applied went up, reaching 79,419 in 1994, but only 29,787 were accepted. The percentage of people with university degrees was very low in Hungary–about 12% of the adult population (age twenty-five and over) and that number certainly had to be increased. However, some people who teach in Hungarian colleges and universities complain bitterly about the preparation of the students. Moreover, in many cases neither the size of the faculty nor the physical infrastructure has kept up with the sudden growth in the student population. Another problem I see is the appearance of newly established colleges that receive prompt and not well deserved accreditation. Apparently the level of these new institutions is very, very low.
Looking at the Hungarian point system, past and present, it seems to me that the emphasis is on educational achievement on the high school level. Out of the 480 points, a maximum of 200 can be obtained from grades received in high school, while another 200 come from the results of the matriculation exam in two subjects. This seems to me a very bad way of adding up those points: after all there are some fantastically good high schools, a lot of mediocre, and many outright poor ones. Yet an A (a five in the Hungarian system) is worth the same regardless of the quality of the high school the student attended. Maybe Hungary is a potential market for a firm such as Educational Testing Service, creator of the SAT (scholastic aptitude test) in the U.S.
It seems that it is very, very easy to get into college in Hungary. That is certainly one way of organizing things. There are places where a C average is enough to gain entrance to a state university in the United States and elsewhere, but then the student knows that his chance of flunking out is great. The other way of organizing college admission is to be very selective; then almost everybody graduates. In Hungary, it seems to be that there is easy admission and a practically endless possibility of trying to pass the necessary subjects while no one is paying the slightest attention to how long it takes to finish the course of study. Thus the average time spent in college in Hungary is about seven years. Well, this is the worst possible outcome. I wouldn’t mind if it were easy to get in and difficult to get out, but the current Hungarian practice is the worst possible scenario that can only result in a lot of graduates with diplomas that are worth nothing.
When Károly Manherz, undersecretary of the Ministry of Education and Culture in charge of higher education, was asked whether this easy admission to college will not result in a lowering of standards, he answered: “It is one thing that we accept everybody, the question is how many will finish.” But he added, the requirements must be raised and “that depends on the teaching staff and the university leadership.” Well, that is the crux of the matter and I’m not at all hopeful. Being accustomed to a well structured four-year study program at my alma mater in Canada I’m aghast at the laxity of Hungarian universities. Moreover, even if the university were to tighten the reins there is the all powerful student associations who do everything in their power to make sure that the educational demands on the students are minimal. So I’m not at all optimistic about the future of Hungarian education, even if 27 billion forints are going to be spent in the next few years at seven universities. Yes, you can change the walls, but you cannot change either the faculty or the students so easily. And that’s the problem.
For months now the fate of the turul statue erected in Buda about three years ago has been in limbo. The turul is a mythical bird resembling an eagle or a falcon. According to legend there was a woman named Emese who was visited by an eagle/falcon in her dream. She became pregnant and gave birth to Álmos (in Hungarian dream is “álom”), the man who eventually led the seven Hungarian tribes to their new homeland in the Carpathian basin. The legend was most likely born when the Hungarians lived side by side with Turkic tribes because the word “turul” is of Turkic origin. As time went by the turul wasn’t so much the symbol of the Hungarian royal house as of power, war, and nobility in general. Such totem animals are well known the world over as parts of coats of arms; one can even find an eagle in the Great Seal of the United States. To this day the turul appears in the coat of arms of the Hungarian Army and the Office of National Security. So far, so good. So what’s wrong with that statue of the turul in District XII?
First of all, this particular statue was erected without a permit. The erection of a statue on public property must have the permission of a board whose members can decide about the artistic merit and the appropriateness of a particular work of art. The board wasn’t too taken with either the artistic merit or the appropriateness of this statue. One can certainly argue about the artistic value of this or that work of art, but when it came to the appropriateness of the statue there were grave doubts. The statue was supposed to commemorate the civilian victims of the district during the bombing and the subsequent siege of Budapest in World War II. But why use the symbol of the army as a memorial to civilian victims?
Then there was the problem that the turul had been used as a symbol of radical right-wing student organizations between the two world wars. In 1920 the right radical students of Budapest established the Turul Bajtársi Szövetség (Brotherhood Association of Turul) whose favorite pastime was beating up their fellow students of Jewish origin. The Turul Association had a very important part to play in the enactment of the law discriminating against Jews in admission to institutes of higher education (numerus clausus). A vivid description of the not infrequent “celebrations” of students of the Turul Association can be found in András Nyerges’s masterful account in “Március, kardlap, gumibot” (March, sword, night-stick) in the March 16, 2007 issue of Élet és Irodalom. The events described by Nyerges bear an uncanny resemblance to what has been going on in Budapest in the last couple of years. Rather frightening. In any case, the modern history of the turul was not something that was deemed appropriate as a memorial to the victims of 1944-45. In addition, early in the history of the Arrow Cross Party the turul was featured in the party’s emblem.
Permission or no permission the Fidesz mayor of District XII went ahead and came up with a masterful plan. Not far from the turul statue the local government began building another edifice on which were carved the names of non-Jews who allegedly helped the district’s Jews in 1944-45. This was also erected without a permit. Upon completion, the chief rabbi and the Israeli ambassador were invited to unveil the wall on which the names appeared. That was a clever move. If the turul must be removed because of a lack of permit then surely the wall commemorating those brave non-Jews must also be removed. And who will do that? Who can do that? Of course, the whole thing could have been solved at the beginning: get the police out and prevent the erection of the turul and that’s that. But no, the huge statue remains, overwhelming the square. Occasionally groups keep watch to make sure that no one tries to remove it in the dead of night. Or sometimes those who oppose it give speeches about the necessity of removing it. This has been going on while the case has been dragged through the court system. The new mayor (also Fidesz) offered compromise solutions that were not accepted by the city. And finally, when it looked as if the court had finally put an end to the appeal process, two thousand people gathered to demonstrate against the turul’s removal. All in all, it is a real circus. One has the sneaking suspicion that the illegal statue will stay. By now nobody dares to remove it. Its removal, in the eyes of the right, would be the victory of a small minority (I guess that means the Jews) against the overwhelming majority of good Hungarians who are fighting for their national symbol. The whole thing, as usual, is a complete fiasco.
This blog was inspired by the recent far-right gathering at the controversial statue of the mythical eagle that ostensibly gave birth to the founder of the House of Árpád, the ancestor of the first kings of Hungary. Fortunately at this gathering there was no major violence although two newspapermen were roughed up a bit. Predictably there was a lot of verbal abuse against Jews and others who aren’t protected/endorsed by the eagle. What was interesting and unusual about this particular gathering of the extreme right was that for the first time Fidesz and KDNP (Keresztény Demokrata Néppárt/Christian Democratic Party) politicians could be seen among the demonstrators. The best known among them was Béla Turi-Kovács, a member of parliament since 1998. In his first four years he represented the Smallholders’ Party, a coalition partner of Fidesz. After 2001-2002 when Viktor Orbán managed to get rid of József Torgyán and with him the Smallholders, Turi Kovács abandoned his old party and joined Fidesz. As for the Christian Democrats, it’s true that no KDNP member of parliament was present; however, the party was represented by several of the local council’s KDNP’s delegation. In addition, one could find in the crowd Zsolt Lányi, a former Smallholder member of parliament and undersecretary of defense in the Orbán government.
That was one source of the inspiration. Another was an old article from 2003 that appeared in Hetek (Weeks), a publication of the fundamentalist Hitgyülekezet (Assembly of God) which is in Hungary somewhat surprisingly politically liberal. An internet friend of mine sent me the link, adding: “Sometimes it is worth reading old articles.” The piece in Hetek (2003) is an interview with Tamás Szemenyei-Kiss who claims to be the last director of the Hungarist Movement’s News Service (Hungarista Mozgalom Hírszolgálata [HMH]). I did a little research on Szemenyei-Kiss and he is certainly a controversial character. Recently he has published in Sófár, a Jewish media site, about members of the network of Hungarists all over the world. How does a former director of HMH end up writing in Sófár? A far-far right-wing site called Metapedia brands him a turncoat, a communist spy, a Romanian agent, an alcoholic homeless person, someone who had to flee Germany because he was going to be arrested for larceny. Maybe, but Metapedia ‘s mission is to set us straight about all the liberal lies that have been fed to us. They also want “to defend Europe [not the European Union] from the brown, black, and yellow hordes.” Anyone who’s interested in this garbage can go to: http://hu.metapedia.org/ However, László Bartus, currently the editor-in-chief of Amerikai Magyar Népszava Szabadság, while still living in Hungary published a book entitled Jobb magyarok: A szélsőjobb útja a hatalomhoz, 1990-2000 [Budapest: 2001] which relied on some of Szemenyei-Kiss’s information about the Hungarists abroad. Szemenyei-Kiss claims that he has a 3,000-page archive that he is organizing at the moment and that this archive is deposited in the Hungarian National Library. I simply cannot make a judgment on who is right, who is wrong, but some of Szemenyei-Kiss’s information sounds plausible. At least the names and dates seem to jibe.
According to Szemenyei-Kiss among those who left Hungary in 1945-46 and ended up in western countries there were a fair number of Arrow Cross leaders, members, and sympathizers. Quite a few of them ended up in Venezuela–for example, Árpád Henney, deputy to Szálasi, and Zoltán Nyisztor, a Catholic priest. These two men organized the HMH, whose mission was to keep Hungarist sympathizers in touch with one another through publications in Australia, South America, and Canada. When in 1990 Hungary joined the family of democratic nations, the Hungarists became active in Hungary. According to Szemenyei-Kiss the plan was to help the Smallholders become sufficiently important to be part of the government. Two wealthy American-Hungarian businessmen financed the undertaking: Sándor Pákh and Géza Bánkuty. In 1997 Pákh and Bánkuty visited Hungary urging cooperation with the Smallholders, but, again according to Szemenyei-Kiss, the Hungarists (200-300,000 strong) could not work with Torgyán. If Zsolt Lányi had been the leader the party it would have been a different story because he is a Hungarist. [Here let me interject that I have also read quite a bit about Lányi and I can only say that he is so far to the right that his appearance at the demonstration at the Turul statue is not at all surprising.]
Szemenyei-Kiss claims that several million dollars were sent to the Hungarist cause from abroad. In 2003 he asserted that since 1990 there had been at least 25 Hungarist members of parliament. One of the people who was financing the Hungarist movement in Hungary, Bánkuty, met Viktor Orbán several times when Fidesz was still in opposition. Once Orbán won the election with Smallholders’ help Bánkuty was received in the Parliament. A picture was taken which didn’t not appear in any Hungarian paper but only in the extreme right-wing paper Szittyakürt published abroad and financed by Bánkuty. According to Szemenyei-Kiss this picture also appeared in Spotlight, the American Nazis’ official publication. Apparently it was at that time that Orbán’s chief of protocol was sacked because he was responsible for the pictures taken at the meeting. Szemenyei-Kiss thinks that the appearance of this picture in an American Nazi publication had something to do with the fact that Viktor Orbán became a persona non grata in Washington.
How much of is this true? I don’t know. However, the appearance of two former Smallholders, Turi Kovács and Lányi, at this gathering of the extreme right is certainly interesting.
I humbly confess that I had never heard of Lajos Papp as a world famous cardiologist, as some people call him, before his name kept cropping up in extreme right-wing circles. To my mind, he is the parody of all those semi-mad nationalists who think that God just dropped them into the twenty-first century by mistake and that their real selves rode next to Chieftain Árpád leading the Hungarians into the Carpathian basin at the end of the ninth century. For everybody’s edification here is Dr. Papp’s, pardon, Professor Papp’s portrait.
One could ask: what? Why are these four names lumped together? Yes, we know who János Kádár was and perhaps even who Gyula Thürmer and Béla Király are, but who is this Imre Del Medico? Del Medico is perhaps the most prolific and best known author of letters to the editor. He is an older man who is disabled and therefore spends most of his time reading, researching and writing. He is a fountain of factual knowledge and has a sharp eye for finding mistakes, inaccuracies. In any case, lately a sharp exchange took place between Király and Del Medico over the role of János Kádár.
It all started with a short opinion piece by Béla Király, former commander-in-chief of the National Guard formed in the last days of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 (Népszava, July 17). Without going into details concerning the career of Béla Király, it might be worth mentioning that in 1956 he escaped and lived in the United States until 1990. Király, originally a professional soldier, received his Ph.D. in history from Columbia University and taught until his retirement at Brooklyn College. He wrote and edited a number of books on Hungarian history and was the editor-in-chief of a series on East European history. In 1990 he returned to Hungary where he successfully ran for parliament representing a district in his hometown of Kaposvár. He ran again in 1994 but didn’t manage to get a seat. By now Béla Király is 96 years old but still active.
Király wrote a short piece on the occasion of a visit by some faithful communists, headed by Gyula Thürmer, president of the Hungarian Workers’ Party, to János Kádár’s grave on the anniversary of his death. Thürmer said some laudatory words about János Kádár and then compared him to Ferenc Gyurcsány. According to him “János Kádár told the people, fill your bellies because you only live once, while Ferenc Gyurcsány tells the people that they should die of hunger because it is cheaper for the government, cheaper for the country. This is the difference between the two men. That’s why people come to the cemetery to his grave and what’s why János Kádár’s prestige and respect keeps growing in Hungarian society.”
One could argue about the truthfulness of this statement, but this is not what Király objected to. Király was upset that Thürmer didn’t talk about the wave of terrror that Kádár initiated between 1956 and 1963. One shouldn’t be surprised that Türmer didn’t talk about the darker side of Kádár’s career. Király mentioned in this piece that 230 people were condemned to death, something that had not happened in Hungary since 1849.
Enters Del Medico who this time I believe is off target (Népszava, July 22). First of all, he corrects Király’s statement that the reprisals after 1956 were so horrendous that they could only be compared to the vengeance of the crown against the rebels of 1848-49. Del Medico brings up as another example the red and white terrors of 1919. However, I don’t think that the actions carried out by Tibor Szamuelly and József Cserni, communist terrorists, against the “enemies of the people” or the arbitrary hanging of communist collaborators by detachments of the national army can be compared to official, judicial proceedings by the central authority. These left- and right-wing extremists acted more or less on their own. They moved from village to village, hanging a few people in one village and then moving on and killing a few more in another. They hanged their victims on trees or shot them dead. By contrast, after the 1848-49 revolution the punitive actions were administered by military and civilian courts. The same was the case after 1956. Whatever we may think of these court proceedings, they cannot be compared to arbitrary lynchings by groups of maniacal ideologues.
Del Medico then makes another mistake, at least in my opinion. He compares János Kádár favorably with Franz Joseph and Miklós Horthy because, according to him, Kádár was guilt ridden all his life while neither Franz Joseph nor Miklós Horthy showed the slightest remorse. Let’s leave out Miklós Horthy because I already dismissed the white terror as not comparable to 1848-49 or 1956. When it comes to Franz Joseph, I am sure that he didn’t feel any remorse because he was convinced that his action was both just and justifiable. As far as he was concerned he was the annointed ruler of the empire, and his subjects had risen up against him, ruler by the grace of God. The military men (for example the Martyrs of Arad) swore allegiance to him and promised to defend the empire. Instead they turned against him. They were traitors. And legally, constitutionally speaking, he was most likely right. I’m sure that he didn’t feel guilty. On the contrary, he must have felt virtuous saving the empire. From his own point of view, he was right.
Whether Kádár was guilt ridden all his life as Del Medico claims I find hard to believe. Del Medico bases this opinion on the last confusing speech Kádár made before the party’s Central Committee. His brain wasn’t functioning properly and it is very difficult to make sense of it, but I read the speech as an attempt at self-justification. He tried to explain why he did what he did. He asked for understanding: under the circumstances he couldn’t do anything else. Tibor Huszár in his excellent two-volume biography of Kádár began the part of the book dealing with this last speech with a quotation from the speech: “I am a scapegoat in the biblical sense.” This is not someone who is asking for forgiveness, but someone who thinks that he is a victim.
Király, again in my opinion, doesn’t answer Del Medico well (Népszava, July 24). He keeps repeating that his aim was not to give a history of Hungarian waves of terror but simply to point out the sins of Kádár. Király signs his piece as professor emeritus of history, but he is so close to the topic, so personally involved that he cannot be objective. He accuses Del Medico of worshipping Kádár, and therefore “he deserves [Király's] contempt.” I’m sure, after reading many of Del Medico’s letters, that he doesn’t worship Kádár. He simply had a different reading of a very difficult text. He may also have the rather typical dislike of the Habsburgs without realizing Franz Joseph’s position and worldview.
During the Kádár regime relatively few biographies of politicians from the Horthy period appeared. One reason was the Marxist belief that political leaders play relatively minor roles in history. A second reason was that it was somewhat risky to write a political biography of a counterrevolutionary figure. No reputable professional historian would write a biography of Miklós Horthy, for example. In fact, we are still waiting for such a work. However in the last fifteen years or so several serious biographies of well-known politicians of the Horthy regime have appeared. To mention only two: a political biography of István Bethlen written by Ignác Romsics, perhaps the best historian of the period, and another one of Pál Teleki, twice prime minister who committed suicide in 1941 when Hungary agreed to take part in the German attack on Yugoslavia. The author of Teleki Pál (Budapest 2005) is a young historian, Balázs Ablonczy, a former student of Romsics.
Teleki is a highly controversial character mostly because of his intense “scientific” antisemitism. It was during his first premiership (1920-1921) that the infamous law, known as numerus clausus, was prepared by the Hungarian government and voted on by an overwhelming majority of parliament. This law fixed university quotas according to nationality and religion. The law’s real purpose was to limit the number of Jewish students. But here I don’t want to focus on Teleki but rather on the political situation when he first became prime minister in July 1920.
The Hungarian Soviet Republic came to an end when the Red Army attacked the Romanian troops that had already advanced as far as the left bank of the Tisza River. The Romanians, who were itching to get rid of the communists and occupy the Hungarian capital, counterattacked and within a few days were in Budapest. Meanwhile, the Hungarian counterrevolutionaries under the military leadership of Admiral Miklós Horthy moved from the southern town of Szeged and advanced as far as Lake Balaton where in the town of Siófok Horthy established the headquarters of the National Army. The members of the National Army were an interesting lot: the whole army consisted only of officers whose political views were fiercely anticommunist. These officer detachments went from village to village looking for former supporters of the Soviet Republic whom they often executed on the spot. Once the Romanians left Budapest in November and Horthy moved in, some of these detachments continued their murderous ways. Eventually there was a legitimate government recognized by the Great Powers. But it was unable to put an end to the activities of these detachments because they enjoyed the protection of Horthy, by then the governor of the country.
There is a frightening parallel between right radicalism in the summer and fall of 1920 and Hungary today where groups are targeted and representatives of those groups attacked. In 1920 the primary targets were Jews, today mostly Gypsies and gays (though Jews aren’t immune).
To go back in time and flesh out the story a bit. Radical groups comprised of former officers, young no-goods, and university students became especially active after the Treaty of Trianon was signed during the summer of 1920. In July, for example, about 30 right radicals broke into the Café Club and attacked the patrons. One of the victims, a bank director, died as a result of the eight dagger wounds he received. A lawyer who happened to be walking nearby was shot to death. Considering that Café Club was situated on Lipót körút, in the middle of a heavily Jewish district of Pest, it was clear who the targets were. At least the perpetrators were caught a month later and received sentences of more than ten years. However, a few months later another mob attack occurred at the same Café Club. Members of the “patriotic mob” badly beat the customers.
As I was reading about these horrendous stories from 1920 it was hard not to think of the repeated atrocities committed in our time. Then, largely due to the efforts of Teleki and his successor Bethlen, the murderous activities of these radical groups were stopped and the Hungarian radicals were pushed into the background. One can only hope that the same will happen now, but such an outcome would need the active support of the opposition. I’m really curious when Viktor Orbán will realize that it’s in his best intererst to help put an end to the activities of the extreme right-wing groups. Perhaps at the moment he thinks that the goverment’s inability to act forcefully will help his party. However, today’s political advantage might turn into a serious disadvantage later. Most of these radicals are almost as dissatisfied with Viktor Orbán as they are with Ferenc Gyurcsány. They consider him too liberal, too beholden to Israel, the United States, and the multinationals. One day they might turn against him and then what? Will a couple of slaps on the face be enough as Viktor Orbán thinks? I very much doubt it.
Until now it was a simple price war between farmers and supermarkets, but as of today watermelon is no longer just an agricultural commodity. It has become a political football. (Just think of the opportunities for a good cartoonist!) On the one side is a mad socialist member of parliament; on the other a farmers’ association linked to Fidesz.
József Karsai, formerly a member of the defunct Smallholders’ Party and currently a representative of MSZP, has a penchant for creating havoc. His latest cause is the plight of Hungarian watermelon growers who cannot sell their crop at a price they consider fair. He became the spokesman for the “thousands of watermelon growers” in his county of Békés. Building on his success there he moved on to Heves County, also a center of watermelon farming. I was astonished to read that Hungarian farmers grow watermelon on 6,000 acres and that 90% of their crop goes to export. The amount of watermelon produced is staggering: 140,000-150,000 tons a year. Last year, apparently because of the late frost and the subsequent drought, the price of watermelon was very high. Such a price hike usually results in more watermelon being planted the following year. Naive farmers think that if the price of a commodity the year before was good it is worth growing lots more of the same crop. Then, of course, there is a surplus and the price goes down. That’s exactly what happened with watermelon this year.
Back to the political aspects of watermelon. In the last few years, especially since a socialist-liberal government has been in power, the Magosz (Magyar Gazdakörök és Gazdaszövetkezetek Szövetsége/Hungarian Association of Farmers and Farming Cooperatives), one of the numerous farmers’ associations, regularly organized demonstrations and partial roadblocks to protest this or that. The complaints usually centered around subsidies: they were insufficient or they were late. At times they demonstrated because the price of wheat was too low; they demanded that the state buy and store the wheat at an above-market price. It became clear soon enough that Magosz was an antigovernment organization with close ties to Fidesz, the party then in opposition. These ties were eventually so close that Fidesz and Magosz signed a document of cooperation prior to the national elections of 2006. Magosz would try to deliver the votes for Fidesz in exchange for five parliamentary seats. Fidesz didn’t win the elections, but five Magosz leaders, including István Jakab, the president of Magosz, became members of parliament. In the last two years Magosz has been less disruptive. First, agricultural subsidies increased substantially after Hungary became a member of the European Union; second, the minister of agriculture, József Gráf, has a way with the farmers.
Magosz apparently supported Karsai initially when Karsai’s farmers dumped a few tons of watermelon in the parking lot of one of the Auchen stores. However, when Karsai, emboldened by his initial success with Auchen, extended his activities to blockading the premises of exporters, Magosz made a public declaration in which the farmers’ association protested “Karsai’s radical methods that are opposed to the union’s market economy.” Magosz further claimed that “because of the blockade and the resulting uncertainty regarding shipping, important foreign buyers have turned away, perhaps for good, from buying Hungarian agricultural products.” Magosz added that the association considers Karsai’s actions no more than political profiteering. This opinion was shared by eighteen farmers’ organizations whose main activity is selling the products of their members. These cooperatives went so far as to accuse Karsai of representing the interests of certain watermelon wholesalers who want to ruin their competitors. They also claimed that on the free market there is no way of selling watermelon at 30 Ft per kilogram, the price Karsai demands.
It seems that some socialist politicians support Karsai and expressed their surprise that farmers would side with the wholesalers. Actually they used a not too nice slang word for the wholesalers: “neppers.”
Well, this time I’m on the side of Magosz, the cooperatives, and the “neppers.” When 90% of Hungarian watermelon is sold abroad and when there is an overproduction of watermelon all over Europe, when the temperature is fairly cold for the season and thus fewer watermelon are sold, it is impossible to play the kinds of games Karsai advocates. Hungarian farmers will not be able to sell their products and Italian watermelon growers will have a heyday. One of the leaders of Magosz kept repeating that “one cannot go against the market.” Indeed. Karsai is on the wrong side.