For his eightieth birthday, the famous journalist Paul Lendvai received the gift of a book publication from the Hungarian public. This book, about which I have read, but have not seen, or read it, is supposedly a summary of the difference between Austria and Hungary. The subject is large and interesting and the author is a highly respected, well-seasoned, liberal gentleman of the old school: reason prevails over passion, and opinion without ideology. A man after my own heart.
Lendvai has spent forty years in the forefront of the Austrian political press, has written in almost every newspaper and magazine. He is a frequent contributor to the Hungarian press and television news as well.
What gave me the cause to write this today was however, not him, but the subject of his present book; The Austrian secret. Ever since I first set foot on the land of Austria, this subject occupied me as well. Particularly the question why is Austria such a rich and happy place as opposed to the larger and better-endowed Hungary, that is a downtrodden and bitter country.
I visited Austria the first time in 1971. After the long and humiliating examination at the hands of the Hungarian border guards on the way out, as the train crossed slowly into Austria I felt the world has changed completely. The then still poor villages around the border looked like jewel boxes in comparison. Their clean and cheerful appearance could not have been more different from their drab and gloomy Hungarian counterparts. In the next two weeks I spent time in Vienna and traveled around the province of Lower Austria and wherever I went I found the same thing: every street, every building, every flower bed was beautifully maintained, lovingly cared for and the people were quietly cheerful and self-confident. The proof of good taste and sunny disposition was obvious everywhere.
I have visited Austria countless times since and the nagging of the same question, albeit not to the same degree, has hounded me ever since.
The Soviet occupiers left Austria in 1955. The country was slow in recovering its previous self in the next few years, but by 1971 at the time of my first visit they were wealthier and more advanced than at the time of the Anschluss, in 1938, when the disaster started.
Hungary had an additional 36 years to go under the Soviet occupation. While Vienna has escaped the war relatively unscathed, Budapest was demolished to a large degree, and it was repaired and cleaned up more, or less by 1956 when it was demolished again in the revolution and its aftermath.
Today Austria is smaller by about ten thousand square kilometers, and by about 1.7 million in population. The GDP however is $328.5 billion in Austria and 156.2 billion in Hungary. The per capita GDP is 43.5 thousand in Austria and 15.5 thousand in Hungary. But even starker is the trend: the Austrian is climbing and the Hungarian is declining.
The long and inescapable association between the two countries has led to a certain mutual, if grudging appreciation and also to obvious and also subliminal cultural bonds. The Austrians and Hungarians speak of each other as “brothers-in-law,” as if they were saying that the bond between them is that of family, but not a very close one and in any case, it was by somebody else’s choice not their own and not by blood.
At last the Soviet occupation of Hungary ended in 1991 and the country had received the signal to start upward and forward. All, especially the Austrians, extended a lot of goodwill, but almost instantly the internal squabbles began and the initial impetus was lost in the usual Hungarian obsessions. We can say by now that the opportunity was lost.
When on another visit I crossed the border again in 2002 it occurred to me that there were endless sunflower fields on both sides of the border and, for the first time, I couldn’t help noticing that somehow the flowers were bigger, nicer, more rich on the Hungarian side than on the Austrian. It appeared that the fortunes had turned. I didn’t hesitate to tell this to my companions. They were laughing derisively.
There was a time when the Hungarian education system was better and more comprehensive than the Austrian. Today the difference is similar to that of the GDP. The Austrian children are growing up to be fluent in languages, in Hungary hardly anyone speaks a serviceable second language. The Hungarian school system is in the process of disintegration. Since the change of the system a new generation grew up that has no capacity, nor the necessary knowledge to think and to make judgments on their own. In the countryside the number of segregated elementary schools is increasing.
Is it any wonder, therefore, that the Austrians are easily understanding their place in the world and in Europe, while the Hungarians are sulking and protesting their lot in the international environment, demanding better treatment than they deserve and sinking ever deeper into irrationality.
There is a famous characteristic of the Austrian temperament, a national “emblem” of personality, which they call Gemütlichkeit. It is the inclination to be fun, good-natured; a national jollity. Now this is the last thing the Hungarians could be accused of.
Hitler was Austrian by birth and by upbringing. Austria has its own inglorious racist tradition that hasn’t passed completely. Yet it has a healthy system of minorities, and recognizes the official language status of its Italian, Slovenian, Croatian and Hungarian minorities. There is a Nationalist party, but it had only fleeting success in election and is defeated for now. Hungary has only one substantial minority, the Gypsies, but there is no official policy to recognize them, no language policy for any minorities and society is increasingly gravitating towards accepting, if not demanding, discrimination. In fact, discrimination is the unofficial policy of the right-wing parties and one of the most effective vote getters for them. Hungary is a “house divided” now along racist lines.
In Transparency International’s corruption index, Austria is on the 12th place (with a score of 8.1), while Hungary is the 47th (score: 5.1). In the comparison Hungary is a much more corrupt place than Austria. Correspondingly, the population is much more cynical and more disillusioned than the Austrians are.
Austria is justifiably proud of its cultural heritage: Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mahler and the countless other artistic and literary creators and creations of their past gives them a quiet, but unshakable self-confidence. Hungary also has a comparable, albeit shorter, cultural history, art and science of the world greatly benefited from the Hungarian’s contributions, and yet, all that is not enough to buck up their self-esteem without reaching for all kinds of irrational boosterism.
So, my advice to you is: go and see the beautiful Austria. Also, go and see the beautiful Hungary, preferably, before the Hungarians ruin it completely.