Month: April 2009

The new Hungarian finance minister: Péter Oszkó and the media

Even before he was named minister of finance in the Bajnai government Péter Oszkó appeared frequently in the Hungarian media because he was one of the bipartisan "experts" who crafted the recommendations of the Reform Alliance. Since he headed one of the workshops dealing with tax reforms he was often asked to explain the Alliance's ideas to television viewers. I always found him to be clear and measured, and therefore I didn't think that Oszkó would have any communication problem once he became finance minister. However, it seems that the communication skills necessary for a politician belong to a genre different from those required of a simple expert. Compared to his predecessor, he hasn't yet learned to hold his own with representatives of the media.

Journalists try to trip up politicians, and therefore anyone who accepts a political position has to be on his toes. For instance, if there is a misstatement on the part of the reporter it should be immediately corrected. Words should be chosen carefully and must be such that they are not open to misinterpretation. Below I will focus on a brief satellite interview between Szilvia Krizsó, the new anchor woman of A Szólás Szabadsága (Freedom of Speech, MTV on Sunday nights), and Péter Oszkó in Washington. Oszkó was one of the finance ministers who went to Washington for the spring meeting of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund this past weekend. The IMF and the World Bank have two meetings a year, one in the spring and the other in November. Oszkó attended this meeting as a matter of course. If there hadn't been a change of government his predecessor János Veres would have travelled to Washington. A routine affair.

Well, let's see what Szilvia Krizsó did with this interview. She began by saying that surely Oszkó went to Washington "not only to pay an introductory visit to the IMF" but obviously he must have had something more important in mind. Did he talk with the IMF about restructuring the IMF loan? Was he asking perhaps for further financial assistance for Hungary from the IMF? These presuppositions are the bread and butter of Hungarian journalists. Instead of simply asking the politician what he is doing in Washington, Krizsó tells him what she thinks he is doing in Washington. Oszkó at this point should have told her that she was totally mistaken. He should have explained the twice-yearly IMF meetings and said that his visit was routine.

Krizsó pressed on, using ammunition from an earlier Oszkó interview with Bloomberg. In this interview, widely reported in the Hungarian press, Oszkó didn't confirm that Hungary will adhere to the schedule arrived at between the IMF and Hungary. Instead, he said that "Hungary will endeavor to fulfill its obligations." That, in my opinion incorrectly, was understood as "Hungary will try but is not at all sure that it will be able to fulfill the demands of the IMF." The Hungarian verb used was "igyekszik" which, according to Magyar Értelmező Kéziszótár, means that "one does his utmost to achieve something." But Hungarian journalists were quick to consider this back pedaling on the part of the government.

Oszkó again didn't have the political savvy to give a Hungarian lesson to the journalist. Perhaps he could have started by saying: "The word 'igyekszik' doesn't mean what you think it means." And then explain what it means. That might not have been polite but it would have been clear-cut and understandable by all. But he didn't, so Krizsó went on. This time she wanted to know whether Oszkó was asking for some "flexibility" from the IMF. In plain language: did Hungary ask for more favorable terms? Perhaps they could spend a little more here and a little more there and Dominick Strauss-Kahn would smile benignly and even pat Oszkó and Bajnai on the back.

Krizsó, by the way, is not alone in badgering politicians. The standard line is that the government won't be able to carry out the necessary spending cuts. Surely, the government will be frightened by demonstrations or strikes. Or MSZP politicians, signed promissory notes or not, won't support the government because they are worried about their sinking popularity. If one heard this only three times a day it would perhaps be merely tiresome, but hearing it twenty times from the mouth of virtually every reporter is infuriating. I try to imagine an American journalist getting up at a press conference and saying to President Obama: "Isn't it obvious that you will fail to solve the problems of this country? Isn't it possible that all the Democrats will leave you in the lurch?" Surely, this is hard to imagine. But in Hungary it is everyday fare. Somehow Hungarians journalists think that this is good journalism.

The Hungarian far-right: “Jobbik”

This morning I received a link to an interview with András Balczó, the three-time pentathlon gold medalist (1960,1968, 1972) who was named “Honored Master of Sports of the USSR” after his third win. Somehow I don’t think that Balczó proudly displays this particular trophy because by now he is one of the most outspoken right-wingers in the country. The interview was published at http://portal.jobbik.net/index.php?q=node/4430, a website whose the editors/owners consider themselves “politically independent” but admit that some of their ideas are close to certain groups. I would say so. Jobbik.net is even more openly antisemitic than http://www.jobbik.hu/, the official website of the Movement for a Better Hungary (Jobbik Mozgalom Magyarországért), the official name of the party. By the way, here is the party’s logo.  Anyone who is interested in Jobbik should visit that site because it has plenty of information about the party in English in addition to Russian, German, and French. Surely, money is no object.

András Balczó’s interview is entitled: “Hungary is a Jewish Colony.” The whole fairly lengthy interview is nothing but an attempt to prove that Jews rule Hungary. He is only telling the truth, he maintains; among themselves Jews admit that he is right. And since he is only telling the truth, he cannot be an antisemite. The interview fits in with the rest of jobbik.net. The slogan of the website, by the way, is: Si vis pacem, para bellum, that is “If you wish for peace, prepare for war.” How apt when the first item is “In memoriam Eduardo Rózsa-Flores (1960-2009).”

While András Balczó (whose brother by the way is one of the vice presidents of Jobbik) openly reveals his antisemitism, the official Jobbik program for the EP elections is more subtle. But the message is the same. The title of the program is “Hungary belongs to the Hungarians.” To whom should it belong, one could ask. The program is 56 pages long and a perfect example of right-wing social demagoguery, xenophobia, anti-capitalist slogans, and anti-Gypsy rhetoric. Jobbik until now was no friend of the European Union and therefore it is surprising that the party even wants to be represented in the European parliament. Their program claims that the party’s aim is to change the very nature of the European Union. I somehow doubt that if Jobbik’s Krisztina Morvai gets to Brussels she will be able to change the course of the EU. On the other hand, her presence there might be a huge embarrassment to Hungary.

Krisztina Morvai’s autobiography can be found on Jobbik’s website. It is somewhat embellished, but at least on paper her curriculum vitae is impressive. An elite high school in Budapest, a law degree from ELTE (University of Budapest), a qualifying exam for a judgeship, a degree of “kandidátus” that used to be the equivalent of a Ph.D. but given out by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. She received an LL.M. from King’s College, London University, spent a year at the University of Wisconsin, Madison as a Fulbright Scholar, and for four years, between 2002 and 2006, was Hungary’s representative at the “Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination” (CEDAW) of the United Nations. The dates are important: it was the socialist government that sent her to New York. However, four years later the government decided not to renew her contract and opted for Andrea Pető instead. Morvai decided to act. She wrote a letter to the head of the committee in which she accused her own government of sending a “zionist” to New York, most likely due to Israeli pressure. I won’t go into the ensuing gory details, but the end result was that Morvai left New York and Hungary lost its right to be represented at CEDAW. Morvai’s extreme right-wing, anti-Jewish, pro-Palestine attitudes can be dated from this time.

Since her return to Hungary she has thrown herself into anti-government activities, siding with the extreme right. She was the one who launched a successful propaganda campaign against the police during the riots of October 23, 2006. Admittedly, there were a few overreactions on the part of the fairly inexperienced Hungarian police but nothing like what Morvai portrayed. And she hasn’t let up since. She is at every right-wing demonstration, after which she accuses the police of wrongdoing even when there is absolutely no sign of it. The last time she claimed that she needed body guards to defend her from a concerted police attack. By now I am sure the policemen don’t even dare to get close to the woman.

Whether Morvai ends up in Brussels depends on how many people go to the polls. Supporters of Jobbik most likely will vote in large numbers. Fidesz voters are also eager. MSZP and SZDSZ supporters, on the other hand, are lackadaisical, especially when an election is not national. If the socialist and liberal voters don’t get motivated the EU elections might be a total bust for these two parties. Both Fidesz and Jobbik are putting a great deal of effort into the campaign. As usual MSZP and SZDSZ are still nowhere to be seen. MSZP promised to start its campaign on May 1. We will see.

Hungarians in Bolivia

The Hungarian political scene is relatively quiet at the moment. The MSZP and SZDSZ caucuses are planning to do something against holocaust denial, but knowing the Hungarian Constitutional Court most likely nothing will come of it. Another Gypsy was killed, this time in Tiszalök. This man certainly wasn't stealing wood from the nearby forest. Both he and his wife had jobs and lived in relative comfort. He was just getting into his car around 6 p.m. to go to work when he was shot dead. The police are madly looking for the perpetrator whom they suspect has military training and might be responsible for two earlier assassinations.

The question of military training takes us straight to Bolivia and perhaps reveals something about the Hungarian far right as well. The Hungarian Foreign Ministry's reaction to the Bolivian attack on the Bolivian-Hungarian-Croatian-Irish "terrorists" has been, in my opinion, somewhat hasty. Although the new foreign minister keeps repeating that the Hungarian government considers this case a "consular" matter, the first announcements were tinged with political overtones. That is, the Hungarians don't think that Rózsa-Flores and his co-conspirators were terrorists. Neither do the journalists. The word "terrorists" is always in quotation marks. Here is a good example. Boliviafegyverek2The caption reads: "Confiscated weapons from 'terrorists' in Santa Cruz: A show?" In brief, they consider the Bolivian allegations baseless. As far as I can ascertain, Rózsa-Flores might not have wanted to assassinate Evo Morales, but he certainly went to Bolivia to organize an army. Meanwhile MTV aired a video by András Kepes who has a weekly program called "Strange Stories." Eduardo Rózsa-Flores, an old friend of Kepes, approached him to videotape a conversation that Kepes was supposed to keep  secret and release only in the event of Rózsa-Flores's death. The conversation took place on September 8, 2008. Rózsa-Flores told Kepes that he had been approached by people from Bolivia asking him to come and organize an army that was supposed to defend the eastern provinces' autonomy from the central government. Although he emphasized that this army was supposed to act only in self-defense, by the end it was clear that if Santa Cruz's aim of autonomy was in any way threatened, this army was ready to engage in a civil war. Rózsa-Flores and his co-conspirators received money for travel expenses to Brazil where "his friends" waited for him at the airport. They took him by car to the "green zone" and on foot he crossed the border illegally through the jungle. On the other side, friends met him and took him to Santa Cruz. In the video Rózsa-Flores didn't mention anyone else, but he must have recruited men from the Székely Legion made up of Transylvanian Hungarians living in Hungary.

The video offered some interesting tidbits about Rózsa-Flores's life. A few years ago he bought a house in a village somewhere in northern Hungary. On the solid wooden fence one can see MONDJON LE! in large white letters. "Resign!" in English. When Kepes inquired who should resign, he jokingly said: "Everybody should resign!" It is of course obvious whom he had in mind: Ferenc Gyurcsány. After all, Fidesz had demanded the same for years. Gyurcsány's picture was plastered on some kind of damaged military object and the rumor spread that Rózsa-Flores practiced target shooting there. That turned out not to be the case. However, he had a somewhat damaged Stalin bust in his backyard with a whole in its head. Rózsa-Flores said something to Kepes about using the bust as a vessel for "vomiting" after drinking bouts. However, people remember when Rózsa-Flores's room was full of Lenin and Che Guevara pictures and Stalin statues. That time not as a joke. In his yard one can also find Christ on the cross alongside Stalin and Gyurcsány. All sorts of helmets that Rózsa-Flores had collected over the years were placed in a row . He mentioned something about trips to Baghdad, Indonesia, Sudan, and his conversion to Islam. However, his conversion didn't prevent him from serving as an altar boy in the local Catholic church.

It is fascinating how Rózsa-Flores's image has been morphing of late in certain circles. Kepes thinks that he was a unique individual who cannot be labeled simply as a left- or a right-winger. A unique individual who fought for the liberation of people in general. However, the bits and pieces that emerge from his past life show an erratic individual who began his career, most likely under the influence of his father, on the far left. According to an anonymous friend, he even spent some time in the school of the KGB in Moscow. He apparently worked for the Hungarian secret service as an informer. One of his daily reports about a meeting of the democratic opposition in Hungary actually became public. Later he became active in Fidesz. But then he moved farther to the right.

Another admirer of Rózsa-Flores is Ibolya Fekete, the writer and director of the film Chico  (2001) in which Rózsa-Flores more or less plays himself in the Serbian-Croatian war of the early 1990s. The film is going to be shown again because of the great interest. Opinions on the film vary. Some find it a pseudo-documentary, no more than a travelogue through five countries. One can read some viewer comments here: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0251636/usercomments

Rózsa-Flores had to be a very persuasive man to convince inexperienced young men to travel to Bolivia to fight for a cause they knew nothing about except what Rózsa-Flores told them. One of these men, originally from Transylvania, is dead. Another was badly beaten. Yesterday I heard that another Hungarian was arrested: Tibor Révész, the founder of the Székely Légió. When I tried to learn something about the Légió I found a website and there an anonymous comment: "Tibor Révész, you're responsible for the death of Árpád Magyarosi." Although the Székely Légió vigorously denied Romanian accusations that it was a paramilitary organization established to fight for the autonomy of those two or three Romanian counties where Hungarians are in the majority, perhaps Romanian intelligence wasn't that far off after all. I hasten to add that the whole thing sounds to me like a childish enterprise without the slightest chance of success.

The Hungarian literary scene: Péter Esterházy’s view

I assume most of my readers are familiar with the name Esterházy. Not necessarily Péter, the contemporary Hungarian writer, but his ancestors, most notably Prince Miklós József Esterházy (1714-1790), the fabulously rich Hungarian aristocrat in whose Hungarian "country estate" Joseph Haydn lived and worked. The country estate was modelled on Versailles and naturally had a concert hall, still in use. (For anyone planning a Hungarian vacation, a side trip to Fertőd would be rewarding.)Fertod But one doesn't have to go back that far in Péter Esterházy's family tree. His grandfather, Count Móric Esterházy (1881-1960), was prime minister of Hungary for a short stint. Grandfather Móric was no friend of the Germans and, after the Arrow Cross takeover of Hungary, the Gestapo arrested him. He was detained in Hungary for a while and then in February 1945 was taken by the Germans to Mauthausen. He returned to Hungary in September 1945. As a Hungarian aristocrat after the war he had more than his share of troubles. He was rendered penniless and his family was exiled from Budapest. After 1956 he obviously had had enough and moved to Vienna where he died four years later. But his son Mátyás (1919-1980) remained in Hungary and his children were born there–Péter, the oldest, in 1950. Péter attended the famous Jesuit High School in Budapest and entered the University of Budapest (1969-1974) as a mathematics major.

So were there any skeletons in the aristocractic family closet?  Aren't there always?Esterházy  As was later revealed, Mátyás Esterházy was approached by the Hungarian secret police and asked to report on his friends. Apparently the father agreed to cooperate with the authorities in the hope that his son would be able to enter university. Péter had no clue about this Faustian bargain. He wrote a monumental novel about his ancestors, Celestial Harmonies: A Novel (Harmonia Caelestis, 2000, 2004) in which he painted a glowing portrait of his father. That was before he discovered his father's cooperation with the communist dictatorship. He wrote a sequel entitled Revised Edition (Javított kiadás); as far as I know this book has not been translated into English, which is a pity.

Péter Esterházy is especially popular in Germany. But along with Péter Nádas, György Konrád, and Imre Kertész, he is also familiar to English readers. Several of Esterházy's books were translated into English: Helping Verbs of the Heart (1985), The Transporters (1983), The Glance of Countess Hahn-Hahn (Down the Danube) (1991), She Loves Me (1993), A Little Hungarian Pornography (1985), and the above mentioned Celestial Harmonies: A Novel. All told, his works have been translated into more than twenty languages. John Updike wrote about him in The New Yorker: "Esterhazy's prose is jumpy, allusive, and slangy. . . . there is vividness, an electric crackle. The sentences are active and concrete. Physical details leap from the murk of emotional ambivalence."

So when Péter Esterházy speaks not as a novelist but as a social commentator people listen. And he did so only a few days ago in Élet és Irodalom (April 17, 2009). The title of the piece is "Hungarian or Szilárd Rubin's foreign success." Apparently the highlight of this year's book festival is a novel written in 1964 that remained pretty well forgotten. Szilárd Rubin (1927-) wrote a couple of not too good novels in the 1960s but his Csirkejáték (Playing Chicken) was outside the mold. A Hungarian publisher decided that it was time to reissue the book, and suddenly everybody discovered that it was in fact a modern classic. Once the novel was translated into German, critics compared Rubin to Alain-Fournier and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

So why does Esterházy speak about "Hungarian success" as opposed to Szilárd Rubin's success? Because right-wing writers and critics in publications such as Magyar Nemzet and Heti Válasz divide contemporary Hungarian literature into two camps. There are the good guys–those who write literature that helps readers discover their national identity and who "think in terms of nation and  community." By contrast, the bad guys think of literature as exportable, modern. These writers avoid local idiosyncracies and focus on Europe as a whole. They want to have a presence in the centers of world culture. They think in terms of their own careers, and Hungary's problems leave them cold.

Esterházy promoted Rubin's book, despite the fact that the author is ideologically to the right and is embraced by right-wing critics. He did so because he thought the novel was good. By contrast, Esterházy is under relentless attack by right-wing critics. He is viewed as one of the bad guys. Not unnaturally, he blames politics and politicians for this state of affair. Good writers espouse a range of political and cultural views. For instance, I doubt that Ferenc Herczeg, the conservative writer between the two world wars, and Attila József who claimed that he "has no God and no fatherland" were exactly happy bedfellows. But Viktor Orbán and "the national side" (nemzeti oldal) repeatedly assert that only those people belong to the "nation" who are on the "national" side. On their side. If one doesn't agree with them, that person simply doesn't belong to the nation. Thus, the above mentioned internationally acclaimed Hungarian writers are not really Hungarians. What Esterházy wants to know is what the situation is now that Szilárd Rubin is the talk of Leipzig? After all, he is on the national side. Is it his success or a Hungarian success? Or perhaps both?

The Hungarian parliament

First, let me say a few things about the building. Work on it began in 1885 and went on for seventeen years. It was designed in the Gothic Revival style of the 1830s and was grandiose. Perhaps as grandiose as the then Hungarian political elite imagined Hungary to be. The building itself is 268 meters long and 123 meters wide.Parliament3 Forty kilograms of gold were used to gild the interior. There are thirteen elevators, innumerable corridors, and a huge gallery. There are two chambers because in those days the Hungarian parliament followed the British practice–a house of lords and a house of commons. Today the upper house's chamber is rarely used, though here and there one hears rumblings about reestablishing the upper house. For the time being one doesn't have to take them seriously.

The chamber used for parliamentary sessions is impressive, especially the galleries. But even the floor (using an American expression, as in "on the floor of the Senate") is grandiose. The first row of seats is covered in red velvet; the rest are upholstered in leather. The first row is reserved for ministers of the government; hence in Hungarian one of the synonyms for a ministerial post is "velvet chair" (bársony szék).Parliament The speaker of the house (házelnök, president of the house in Hungarian) sits in the middle on a throne-like podium. At the moment the speaker of the house is Katalin Szili who, on the whole, is handling her duties quite well. She has several deputies, one from each party with a parliamentary caucus, who occasionally take over her duties.  The galleries are reserved for visitors and the press. Until László Sólyom became president, if a president wanted to attend a parliamentary session, he could sit in the first row in a designated seat. Sólyom decided that sitting with the government was too cozy and opted instead to sit in the gallery, in a box right across from the speaker of the house.

When Gordon Bajnai was confirmed as the new prime minister, he had to wend his way through the corridors to appear in the president's box because Sólyom wanted to congratulate him. One of the MSZP members called the president a boor. Because, he said, the one who congratulates goes to the celebrant and not vice versa. However some protocol expert (by now retired) apparently found it perfectly acceptable. It's another thing, in my opinion, that by this move Sólyom wanted to define his relation to the prime minister and the government. But, as someone called Bajnai, the "boy scout" smilingly obliged.

Here is the view of the chamber from the other end, showing the box to which the president decided to move. Parliament4 In the middle of the first row one can see two shorter sets of chairs. On the left the first chair is where the current prime minister sits. Next to him the minister in charge of his office. The two chairs on the right side of the aisle are now vacant. But if the prime minister were, for example, Viktor Orbán, he would sit in the middle on the right side of the aisle. Behind the prime minister sits Ildikó Lendvai, the former head of the MSZP caucus, and next to her Attila Mesterházy, her successor. While the prime minister spoke for almost twenty minutes last Monday, the camera remained focused on him and those who sat directly behind him. So we could watch MSZP members  passing notes to each other. Lendvai got at least three notes during this period. It's also always amusing to watch the eighty-four-year-old Iván Vitányi who is still sharp but obviously bored. He is always present but his eyes are inevitably closed.

It is usually on Mondays that the prime minister addresses parliament. Heads of each causus are then allowed five minutes to respond. So we hear from Tibor Navracsics of Fidesz, Attila Mesterházy of MSZP, János Kóka of SZDSZ, and finally either the leader of KDNP (Christian Democratic People's Party) or one his deputies. Before MDF lost its right to form a caucus either Károly Herényi, head of the caucus, or Ibolya Dávid, his deputy, also spoke.

I watched at least an hour's worth of the Monday session and tried to compare the atmosphere to the pre-Bajnai period. First of all, Fidesz and KDNP decided to stay in the chamber while Bajnai spoke. That is a welcome change. And the atmosphere is different. Bajnai is very low-keyed and a bit dull, although he can speak quite well without notes. He is not eloquent but rather businesslike. However, Tibor Navracsics responded to Bajnai in exactly the same manner, sarcastic and somewhat shrill, as if he were talking to Ferenc Gyurcsány. All the while his great admirer who sits next to him, Mrs. Pelcz neé Ildikó Gál, nodded vigorously and smiled broadly when she thought that Navracsics said something terribly clever. And there was plenty of opportunity to nod and smile because Navracsics as usual tore into Bajnai. What kind of economic crisis solving government is it that still doesn't have a minister of the economy and development? What can Bajnai come up with when he was part and parcel of the government that caused all the problems? In the past it was in answers to Navracsics that Gyurcsány shined. He was witty and cutting and gave back to Navracsics in kind. But a new man, a new way of dealing with the opposition. I would have liked to know what went on in Navracsics's head when the quiet-spoken Bajnai replied: "I seem to discover a certain amount of agreement in Mr. Navracsics's speech." Mrs. Pelcz was outraged: "What agreement?"–that was written all over her face. And Bajnai continued: "I'm sorry if I got you into trouble!" Big laughter on the left.

A similar situation occurred after Mihály Varga gave a five-minute harangue about the economic missteps of the government past and present. The new minister of finance, Péter Oszkó, answered. Oszkó is also a soft-spoken fellow. Varga's insulting speech was answered briefly as if he didn't even hear any of the accusations. Oszkó's reaction was: "I welcome every constructive suggestion. My door is always open."

I don't know what Fidesz's frontmen will do in these new circumstances. Can they go on as before or will they have to come out with something better, or at least different? I don't know.

Finally, videos of the Hungarian parliamentary sessions are available on the internet. To view them one needs Real Player's latest version. The Monday session I'm writing about here can be accessed at http://tinyurl.com/dhx2ul Just click on the Videó/Felsz. idő and you will be able to listen to any speech you are interested in.

“My war with nationalism”

I could have written the article published by Gyula Hellenbart that appeared in the April 10 issue of Élet és Irodalom's "Feuilleton" section. Or, at least, I agree wholeheartedly with his sentiments.

I must say that I wasn't familiar with Gyula Hellenbart's writings, most likely because he is a literary historian who left Hungary in 1956 for Germany. Having lived outside of Hungary for over 50 years, his way at looking at Hungary and Hungarian national identity is obviously different from the homegrown variety. In this article Hellenbart sets aside such obvious components of national identity as language or heritage. Instead, he concentrates on the way in which people's knowledge of history (or lack thereof) contributes to Hungarian societal attitudes. His overarching thesis is that national self-knowledge cannot exist without a critically parsed knowledge of history.

Although Hungarian historiography of the last few decades has been of very high quality, Hellenbart points to the paucity of historical references in the Hungarian media. And when they occur they are mostly untrue clichés. For example: Hungary as the "bastion of Christendom," the Golden Bull as "the first constitution of the Continent," and Hungary as a great power because "during the reign of Louis the Great three oceans washed the shores of the country." A lot of boasting, wishful thinking, half-truths or "outright fiction." All this supports the "ethnocentric bias" and makes it difficult for "the society to grow up." In brief, Hungarian society has not moved beyond the romanticism of the nineteenth century and continues to find in its statues, oils, and operas "a source of national glory that feeds its patriotism and its desire for prestige."

Of course, a stable national self-esteem is necessary but not the kind that is based on illusions. Hellenbart quotes himself from 1967. He wrote a piece in Új Látóhatár, an emigré monthly, in which he outlined the Hungarian refugees' response to the West. The Hungarian university students who found themselves in western Europe after 1956 were upset about how little the world knew about Hungary. But Hellenbart pointed out that people from other countries know very little about other people in general. The "world" knows just as little about Poland, Norway, Finland, or Romania. And what do Hungarians know about German or French history? Mighty little. Apparently, Hellenbart's compatriots didn't buy his argument. A reader from Zurich wrote a scathing critique of the piece. In his rebuttal he recounted an event that actually supported Hellenbart's conclusions. "During the spring of 1965 I saw, together with a friend from Hungary, the exhibition 'Les tresors des églises de France' in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. We went from room to room and admired the masterpieces of this fabulously rich exhibition. Then my friend exclaimed: 'Let's leave because it makes my blood boil!' 'But why'–I asked, surprised. 'Because it is only here that I see what we have lost, while everything these people built has survived.' " This obviously learned friend from Hungary truly believed that Hungarian culture of the Middle Ages equaled that of France or for that matter that of any western European country. The truth is that Hungary even then was an "underdeveloped" or "developing" nation. But there's always an excuse. If Hungarians go, let's say, to Versailles, they immediately start talking about the Mongols, the Turks, and the Habsburg oppression.

"We don't want to accept ourselves as we are. We don't want to understand that ever since Saint Stephen we have been at the periphery." Yes, this is difficult to swallow, especially when the Hungarian school system teaches Hungarian history in a vacuum and never subjects the country to international metrics. A few years ago a series was launched entitled "Hungarians in Europe" that, especially the first volume (Pál Engel, Beilleszkedés Európába a kezdetektől 1440-ig), made a valiant effort to put Hungary "in its place." But how many people read it? Not too many. I have also made efforts to offer a few sobering examples of Hungary's backwardness. I mentioned the economic historian György Ránki's witty remark: "The European Continent slants eastward." It didn't make a dent. I tried to ask: 'Why was not possible to establish a university in Hungary until the seventeenth century?" Why did the two earlier attempts fail? The first under the reign of Louis the Great "whose country was surrounded by three oceans." And the second under the reign of Matthias, the Renaissance king whose time is described as the golden age of Hungary.

At the same time Hungarians look down on some of their neighbors and have an especially low opinion of "American culture." Well, I'm not going to enter into cultural warfare. But let me give an example that may be a bit above the fray. Not long ago, an internet acquaintance belittled American history: "Let's face it. What is two hundred years! Hungary has been an important country for the last 1,100 years!" First I had to remind her that although the war of independence took place only at the end of the eighteenth century, the British settlers came to these shores four hundred years ago. I also reminded her that the Pilgrims arrived here in 1620 and sixteen years later established Harvard University. Hungary's first university was established in 1635, one year earlier. The discussion came to an abrupt halt.

The Hungarian Guard and holocaust denial

The Hungarian Constitution was written to ensure freedom of speech as an absolute right (a right that, as the U.S. Constitution says, cannot be abridged), so all parliamentary attempts to limit this right have failed at the hands of the judges of the Constitutional Court. Parliament sought to constrain what we call "hate speech." There were many instances of verbal abuse of minority groups, Gypsies, Jews, or homosexuals, but the Court deemed them legal expressions of free speech. The Constitution is equally liberal when it comes to establishing parties. According to the constitution "political parties may be freely founded and may act in freedom provided they show respect for the Constitution and the statutes of constitutional law." Therefore for the past twenty years or so far-right parties could be freely established.

Last Saturday, April 18, sixty members of the Hungarian Guard, uniforms and all, demonstrated in front of the German Embassy. The Hungarian Guard a few months ago split into two not quite equal factions. The people who took part in the demonstration belong to the smaller splinter group led by István Dósa. Since the group announced its intention to march and demonstrate to the Budapest police, the sixty guardists received a police escort from the Adam Clark Square at the Chain Bridge all the way to the German Embassy in the Castle District. This splinter group openly calls itself national socialist. Banners saying "Down with the Dogma of the Holocaust" and "The Third Reich Will Fight Back" can be seen on the picture below.Neonacik The guardists wanted to hand their "manifesto" to the Germans inside but, not surprisingly, the staff of the embassy refused to take it.

This Dósa-led group seems very active. Just lately they staged several demonstrations together with the Pax Hungarica Movement, also a neo-nazi organization. See http://www.paxhungarica.org/ The demonstration was staged a day before the annual "March of Life" commemorating the victims of the holocaust. Although I didn't spend much time at their web site, there was one thing that was hard to miss. In Hungarian the March of Life is called "Élet menete," but the "peaceful" Hungarian movement corrected it: "Az élősködők [the parasites'] march." A nice bunch of people in brief. Dósa otherwise is looking forward to any possible legal consequence of his action. No wonder that he is so brief: unlike in Germany or Austria holocaust denial is not a crime.

Until now it was mostly MSZP members of parliament who tried to prevent by legal means the spread of hate speech and extreme propaganda against minority groups. SZDSZ in a somewhat doctrinaire manner refused to lend a helping hand to such attempts. The liberal politicians argued that legal restrictions are useless. It is education that will solve the problem. The more enlightened and rational members of society will be able to explain to this minority that they are simply wrong. And they will see the light. I don't want to sound too pessimistic, but I'm afraid that the Hungarian liberals are naive. I suspect that none of them ever sat down with a Hungarian "national socialist" and tried to have a rational dialogue. Just today two people, one a leader of Jobbik and the other a MIÉP sympathizer, phoned in to György Bolgár's show and, although Bolgár tried his darndest to convince them of their mistaken ways, his callers didn't budge an inch from their earlier position.

It seems that the activity of these sixty guardists was too much even for SZDSZ. First of all, some of their leaders called Jobbik, the party that brought the Hungarian Guard to life, a neo-nazi organization. Also, they would now like to introduce legislation that would make denial of the holocaust a crime. On Monday several parliamentary members (MSZP and SZDSZ) demanded a change in the constitution. Fidesz offered a different agenda: a parliamentary committee to investigate the role of the police. Why the police didn't stop the demonstration, a demonstration that as far as I can see was perfectly legal, however abhorrent.

Jobbik's reaction was interesting. One of the vice presidents of the party explained to Bolgár today that this Hungarian Guard is not their Hungarian Guard. They are in no way responsible for what Dósa's Hungarian Guard does. (Mind you, outwardly one cannot distinguish between the two groups: same uniform, same everything.) Moreover, Jobbik will sue every politician who called Jobbik a nazi party. I have already counted at least three such politicians: Gábor Fodor (SZDSZ), Péter Gusztos (SZDSZ), and Ildikó Lendvai (MSZP). As she put it: "A nazi is a nazi and shame is shame." Jobbik is not a right radical party but a nazi party. One ought to mention that Jobbik is doing quite well according to the polls. If elections were held today, Jobbik most likely would have parliamentary representation. It is also possible that Jobbik will be able to send a person to the European Parliament, the unspeakable Krisztina Morvai. On the other hand, SZDSZ, representing the liberals who call Jobbik a nazi party, has very little support. As things now stand it's unlikely that the party will be represented in either the European or the Hungarian Parliament.

György Bolgár was asked by the Jobbik representative what he considers to be characteristics of the nazi ideology. Bolgár listed a few: racism, homophobia, chauvinism, xenophobia, militarism. Jobbik doesn't think that any of these characteristics apply to their beliefs. Racism? Oh no, they simply talk about "gypsy crime." Homophobia? Oh no, they just think that it is a sick minority whose freedom should be limited. Chauvinism?  Oh no, they are simply patriotic and want to defend the country. Xenophobia? Oh no, they just want to defend the Hungarians against foreigners. Militarism? Oh no, they would like a conscript army where Hungarian youngsters would receive a "patriotic education."

Meanwhile, Gusztos and Fodor keep repeating that it would be an awful shame if the third largest party in Hungary were neo-nazi. I guess this is an appeal to the former liberal voters who turned their backs on SZDSZ to think before they vote.