Month: August 2009

Austria vs. Hungary: A personal reflection by S.K.

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.

Hungary and Slovakia: Perhaps there is hope

Mátyás Eörsi, SZDSZ member of parliament and chairman of the parliamentary Committee on European Affairs, described the situation in fairly dire terms: "we are sitting on a tinderbox." I don't think that he is too far from the truth. A few days ago someone threw two Molotov cocktails at the main entrance of the Slovak Embassy. Luckily they didn't explode and the damage was minimal. Two men have been arrested and are now being questioned. A day later the Slovak ambassador's car was forced off the road by two men on Bem Square and he was insulted on account of his nationality. The two men were arrested a few minutes later. At the moment the police want to find out whether these two men had anything to do with the attack on the Slovak embassy and whether they were aware that the man riding in the car was the ambassador. I think this latter line of questioning is superfluous. Surely the ambassador's car had a diplomatic license plate, and therefore they must have known that they were accosting an embassy vehicle.

Meanwhile there now seems to be a unified front on the right concerning the Slovak-Hungarian conflict. MDF, normally a critic of Sólyom and a deadly enemy of Viktor Orbán and of course of Jobbik, now seems to be standing together with them on this issue. And not only the right is up in arms but the socialist politicians as well who otherwise can't stand László Sólyom. MSZP issues rather antagonistic notes on the party's web site expressing their outrage at the treatment Sólyom received. Even Eörsi failed to acknowledge that the Slovak response, admittedly outrageous, had been provoked by László Sólyom's so-called "private visits" to the neighboring countries with large Hungarian minorities.

Let's start with a discussion of "private" visits. Sólyom may call them that, but they are anything but. A politician or a member of the government can certainly make private visits to foreign countries as Péter Medgyessy did to Cuba or as Ferenc Gyurcsány and his family did to the Netherlands, Germany, and Ireland. But Medgyessy and Gyurcsány were not unveiling statues. Medgyessy was sunbathing at Christmas time while the Gyurcsány family traveled with a rented boat, criss-crossing the countries they visited. If Sólyom as a great lover of nature decided to go mountain climbing in Slovakia and eat hearty lunches in country inns no one would object, I'm sure. What they object to are these unreciprocated official visits. State visits are mutually agreed upon. The foreign ministries of the two countries months ahead work out the details. The visiting prime minister or president usually lands at the airport of the country's capital where a delegation awaits him, headed by his foreign counterpart. Surely, this was not the case with Sólyom's trips either to Slovakia or to Romania.

Now comes the interesting twist to the story. Until very recently I was convinced that Hungary's president is subordinate to the Hungarian Foreign Ministry when it comes to official visits abroad. Constitutionally the Hungarian presidency is weak. Most of the president's very limited powers are restricted to domestic affairs and, although according to the constitution he is head of the armed forces, that role is mostly ceremonial. So great was my surprise when on Monday I heard an interview with Foreign Minister Péter Balázs who made clear something almost no one knew, including the very well informed reporter–that Sólyom singlehandedly decides where he goes and when. Honestly, I had to listen to the interview twice because I wasn't sure I heard it right the first time. Unfortunately I did. Try to imagine a Foreign Ministry that is totally in the dark about a trip the president is going to make. What he is going to do once there and what he is going to say! I'm simply outraged. In my opinion no coherent foreign policy can be conducted under such circumstances.

It seems that Sólyom and his staff decide on the details of a "private" state visit while the Foreign Ministry is contacted only in order to officially announce his impending visit. Hungary's foreign minister is no more than a messenger and his colleagues in Bratislava or in Bucharest simply receive the news of his coming. That is an impossible situation and no diplomat worth his salt could put up with it for long. And here I'm not only talking about the receiving end. It is simply demeaning for the Hungarian foreign minister as well as for the country who has to suffer this kind of treatment. That this has been going on for so long indicates that the Hungarian governments have been unable to tell Sólyom off. Because someone should tell him that the Hungarian Constitution says not a word about the president conducting foreign policy. And with his visits this is exactly what he is doing. Just this year there have been two diplomatic upheavals: on March 15 with Romania and on August 21 with Slovakia. He's a bull in the china closet and the broken pieces must be somehow picked up by the Hungarian Foreign Minister and through him the Hungarian government.

I'm not trying to defend how Robert Fico handled the situation because it was boorish, something that is not acceptable in the world of diplomacy. But it seems that Sólyom simply didn't want to listen to earlier warnings. He and his staff are so convinced of the justice of their cause that not for a moment did they consider that perhaps it is not entirely the fault of the Slovak side. That perhaps they behaved in an arrogant, undiplomatic manner. Ferenc Kumin, chief somebody or other of the Office of the President, Thursday night announced that the president demands "redress" from the Slovak president and/or prime minister. Redress? Sólyom demands an apology? The next day Ivan Gašparovič made it clear that he is not apologizing for what happened. The European Union announced that it will not get involved. The warring sides must settle their differences.

Gordon Bajnai made the first move by inviting Robert Fico to a meeting. Fico immediately agreed, adding that he was ready to meet the Hungarian prime minister at any time anywhere. Newspapers seemed to know that he might be coming to Budapest, but no final decision had been reached yet. Miroslav Lajčák, Slovak foreign minister, and Péter Balázs, his Hungarian counterpart, both attending the Bled Strategic Forum in Slovenia this weekend, are supposed to work out the details and perhaps by tomorrow we will know more. For the time being it seems that Fico is not in the mood to compromise either on the question of the Slovak language law or on the Solyóm affair. Let's hope that this attitude will change because if neither prime minister is willing to move an inch it's not worth getting together. I'm hoping that the two men will be able to come up with some solution. I know that Gordon Bajnai is a persuasive negotiator and a man of compromise. Let's hope that Robert Fico will reciprocate. Otherwise, both countries could make themselves ridiculous in the eyes of the world. As András Gerő, a very witty Hungarian historian, said, if Slovakia and Hungary don't change attitudes they will be compared to the Grand Duchy Pontevedro in The Merry Widow. He added: "After all, Franz Lehár was born in Komárom!"

Saint Stephen of Hungary

Because there are so many references to St. Stephen nowadays in Hungary I thought I ought to write a post on what "Hungary" looked liked in his days. In my narrative here I am relying heavily on Gyula Kristó's Szent István király (Budapest, 2001). Kristó starts off by saying that in the tenth century there was "no country" in the Carpathian Basin. There were several smaller units, but "a single Hungary didn't exist." That must be a blow to those who want to "return to the country of St. Stephen." The Hungarians in those days were still nomads, and nomads didn't rule within geographic regions but over groups of people. As a seventh-century Byzantine historian said: "The nomads didn't respect lawful borders." Another startling piece of information for the layman is that "the Hungarian people" of that period cannot be understood in terms of ethnicity. Everybody was "Hungarian" who was a subject of the "künde." The "künde" was the sacral leader of the nomadic tribes. The military leader of the joint forces of the tribes was the "gyula." "Hungary" was a "nomadic state" comprised of multiple tribes. Eventually the sacral leader's role changed: he became the "grand duke," to use a modern term. Even the designation "künde" disappared. "Gyula" lived on, but he no longer was the "joint chiefs of staff" (again to use a modern term) of the tribes.

In the middle of the tenth century there were seven Hungarian tribes, and each tribe had about 10,000 people. The eighth tribe was made up of the Kabars or Kavars, and it was much larger than the Hungarian tribes; it consisted of about 30,000 people. So the invaders or their descendants totaled no more than 100,000, while there were about 200,000 natives (various Slavic peoples and Avars) and slaves captured during their military campaigns. The newcomers were pagans who worshipped fire and the sun, who believed in an afterlife and in the spirits of their ancestors.

At the time of the conquest the "künde" was Álmos who according to legend was the son of a woman, Emese, and a mythical bird, the "turul." He died or was the victim of a sacrificial murder before the Hungarian tribes crossed the Carpathian Mountains. It was his son Árpád who led the eight tribes to the heart of the Basin. Árpád was the great grandfather of Vajk, the original name of St. Stephen. The rule of succession was based on seniority similar to the custom in Kievan Rus. Árpád had four sons, and after his death all four sons had to follow him on the "throne." We know almost nothing about these sons except their names. Vajk's grandfather was Taksony who was the son of Zoltán, the fourth son of Árpád. Vajk's father was Géza (originally named Gyeücsa) who was baptized in 963 as Stephen. His mother was Sarolt, daughter of Gyula whose headquarters were most likely in northern Transylvania and who no longer was the military leader of the tribes but filled the function of a judge. As far as we know, Gyula was practically independent and was considered at least in Byzantium the "king of Turkia," as they called Hungary in those days. Gyula was also baptized but in Byzantium according to Orthodox rights. His Christian name was also Stephen. His daughter Sarolt is rarely mentioned in the pious Christian legends of St. Stephen because, although she was a religious Christian, as the daughter and wife of a nomadic chief she apparently drank along with the men and rode a horse as well as if not better than any nomadic fighter.

Vajk was most likely born around 980, probably in Esztergom. The name "Vajk" is of Turkic origin. It means "hero, leader." When was he baptized? The guess is sometime around 995. Who baptized him? Most likely Adalbert, bishop of Prague, who a couple of years later died at the hands of pagan Prussians. It was most likely Adalbert who was instrumental in Stephen's marriage to Gisella, daughter of Henry the Quarrelsome of Bavaria. Her uncle was Otto I, the first Holy Roman Emperor. Put it this way: the marriage was a fantastic boost to Stephen who at that point could claim only a small portion of the country as his own. The wedding took place in 996. A year later Géza died and Stephen became "king." Foreigners at the time considered the rulers of the Hungarians "kings."

Stephen was "king" of a tiny, tiny "country" and even that piece of land was not secure. The problem lay in the nomadic custom of succession. When Géza, son of Taksony, followed his father on the "throne," the succession was not legitimate. Géza somehow convinced the rightful successor, Tar Szerind, a pagan relative, to be satisfied with governing the area that is today the county of Somogy. When Géza died, Tar Szerind's son Koppány considered himself the rightful successor to Géza. Moreover, again according to pagan nomadic custom, he wanted to marry Géza's widow, Sarolt. Koppány waged war against Stephen which Stephen most likely won only with the help of Bavarian troops. Koppány's body, according to pagan custom, was quartered and sent to different parts of the country. One quarter was sent to Esztergom, the second to Veszprém, the third to Győr, and the fourth to Transylvania! This piece of information tells us a lot about Stephen's limited kingdom: Esztergom, Veszprém, and Győr are all close to each other in the northern part of Transdanubia. Admittedly, sending a part of Koppány's body to Stephen's uncle Gyula in Transylvania didn't fit the pattern. Historians today assume that this was a warning that Gyula's rule over the northern part of Transylvania was soon to end.

As I mentioned, all foreign sources considered both Stephen and Gyula to be kings, so why did Stephen need a crown from the pope? In 996 Stephen received a lance from Bavaria which at the time was the symbol of kingship. Perhaps Stephen didn't want to be considered a vassal to the Holy Roman Emperor. In any event, the crown eventually came from Pope Sylvester II and Stephen was most likely crowned on January 1,1000, though not with the famous Crown of St. Stephen, which as we know never touched his head. With this act the Hungarian Kingdom, however small it was at that point, was internationally recognized as a Christian monarchy.

Stephen's next thirty years was spent getting rid of the heads of the other tribes. He started with his uncle Gyula in northern Transylvania in 1003. He won, arrested Gyula, his wife, and two sons and forcibly converted the people to Christianity. Gyula and his court had converted long before, but Christianity spread very slowly in these parts. He turned next against Keán, a puzzling figure of early Hungarian history. There is only one source that even mentions his name. According to this chronicle, Keán was the "leader of the Bulgarians and the Slavs.'" Where can we place them? Mostly likely in southern Transylvania, around Gyulafehérvár (Alba Iulia). Historians assume that Keán's ancestors were already living in the Carpathian Basin before the conquest. Keán's title was "voevode" or "vajda." Next he turned against the so-called "black Hungarians." These people probably lived somewhere along the lower Danube. Apparently they were called "black" Hungarians because "they were dark skinned like the Ethiopians." According to modern historians these "black Hungarians" were the descendants of the Kabars.

The Kabars lived not only in southern Hungary but also in northern Hungary around the Matra Mountains. Their leader was Aba Samuel who was a convert to Judaism. Here Stephen didn't employ force. Aba Samuel married one of Stephen's sisters. He handled Vata, chieftain of another tribe that settled around the river Körös (Criş in Romanian), somewhat similarly. By 1020 or so only one chieftain remained who was the ruler of an "independent country." His name was Ajtony and his territory was an area alongside the river Maros (Mureş in Romanian). The war against Ajtony began around 1028. By that time Stephen was about fifty years old so it was a relative of his, Csanád, who led the army. Ajtony died on the battlefield. Thus Stephen's rule can be compared to what in Russian history is called "the gathering of Russia." His whole reign was devoted to gathering the lands from nearby chieftains into his own hands.

Stephen and Gisella had only one son, Imre, the Hungarian version of Heinrich. Obviously named after his grandfather Henry the Quarrelsome. Stephen, who like most early medieval kings probably couldn't read or write, left behind a Latin text called "Exhortations" which was addressed to his "dear son." Surely, Stephen didn't know any Latin and it was undoubtedly one of the learned foreign priests from Bavaria who put his thoughts into Latin. It is a very pious piece of writing from which I think it is pretty clear that Stephen was a devout Christian. One could write a whole blog just on the "Exhortations," but here I want to quote just one of them. It is about foreigners and a country with "only one language and one custom." Hungarians are now quoting these words frequently in connection with Slovakia and Robert Fico. The people who suddenly discovered St. Stephen's exhortations usually quote only one sentence: "Because a kingdom where only one language is spoken and only one custom is followed is weak and fragile." However, it is worth quoting the whole passage: "The guests (hospeses) and those who arrived from foreign countries are very useful…. Because these guests come from different countries and therefore they bring along diverse languages, different pieces of knowledge, different armed forces. All that brings embellishment to the kingship, raises the prestige of the court. Because a kingdom where only one language is spoken and only one custom is followed is weak and fragile. Therefore I call upon you my son to take care of them, respect them so they would stay with you, instead of living elsewhere." Surely, Stephen here wasn't talking about a multi-national state in the modern sense.

The Carpathian Basin and the Hungarian conquest

Sorry that I'm going back so far but the other day I heard the mayor of Komárno, Tibor Bastrnák, talk about Slovak and Hungarian historical consciousness. When the interviewer mentioned that according to Robert Fico the Slovaks' great king is not St. Stephen but Svatopluk, the mayor's reaction was rather peculiar: they don't care what the Slovaks think. St. Stephen was the king of the whole Carpathian Basin. It's that simple. Thus according to him there can be only one interpretation of the history of the region: the Hungarian one. As we know, the city council of Komárno refused to invite the Slovak president although the city fathers claim that St. Stephen is also the king of the Slovaks. Komárno's city council has twenty-five members and, judging by their given and family names, I found four or five ethnic Slovaks among them. The reason that I cannot decide whether their number is four or five is because the ethnic origin of one is questionable. His last name is Hungarian but his given name is Gabriel instead of Gábor. Sixty percent of the town's population is Hungarian and thirty-five percent is Slovak. Thus, if my linguistic reading is correct, the Hungarians are overrepresented in the city council. This is the same city council that refused to allow the erection of a statue of Cyrill and Method.

To get some perspective on this whole question, let's rewind to the conquest that in Hungarian is called "honfoglalás" (taking of the fatherland). This occupation, to the best of our knowledge, occurred between 896 and 899, but one must keep in mind that written sources are scarce for the period. There is no reliable mention of the Hungarians before 830 and therefore historians must piece together the earliest history of the Hungarians with the help of language–the original Finno-Ugric vocabulary and the loan words the marauding Hungarians picked up on their way to the Carpathian Basin. But linguists often disagree about the origins of certain words, starting with the word "magyar."

Even after 830 there are few references to Hungarians or even to the political map of the Carpathian Basin in the ninth century. The Svatopluk Fico was talking about was the "king" of Greater Moravia, but even the geographic position of Moravia is not at all certain. Apparently there were two Moravias–and, no, not just a greater and a lesser. However, the best guess is that the Carpathian Basin was divided among three "powers" in the ninth century: the Franks, the Moravians, and the Bulgarians. The centers of all three "empires" were outside of the Carpathian Basin. They came into possession of these territories by conquest. This area was basically a frontier zone, which might explain why the invading Hungarians had a relatively easy time.

The population of the Carpathian Basin at the time of the conquest was mostly Slavic. The evidence is that most of the geographic names of the area in Hungarian are either directly of Slavic origin or if earlier inhabitants (Dacians, Goths, Celts, and others) referred to the larger rivers, for example, in their own language, these names got into Hungarian through a Slavic filter. This is also true about names of towns or cities: Veszprém, Esztergom, Komárom, Pécs, and Nyitra. The language of these people varied greatly and the Slavic groups were even called by different names in the ninth century: Timociani, Abodriti, Praedenecenti, Sclavi, Marahenses, Sclavi Margenses, etc. In addition to the Slavic groups there was a larger but ever decreasing Avar population. The Avars spoke a Turkic language; until recently historians believed that the Avars disappeared in the sea of Slavic tribes prior to the arrival of the Hungarians. Lately, they changed their minds mostly as a result of recent archaeological finds. Anyone who's interested in the Avars should read András Róna-Tas's book available on the Internet, Hungarians and Europe in the Early Middle Ages. There are even a few place names today that have the word "várkony"  as part of them. In Byzantine sources these villages were called "uarhon(itai)" because "várkonys" (Avars) lived in them. In addition to the Avars another Turkic-speaking people lived in the area: the Onogurs or Wangars. By the time the Hungarians arrived on the scene these people were most likely Slavic speaking.

Thus, according to our current knowledge, on the eve of the conquest the Carpathian Basin was not an uninhabited or sparsely inhabited region. It is also likely that the Hungarian tribes were familiar with the area even before the famous conquest of 896. We have written sources that mention them fighting in an area which today comprises eastern parts of Austria. They were waging battles there, most likely at the request of Svatopluk, "king" of Greater Moravia in the early 880s, against Arnulf of Carinthia. However a few years later, in 892, the Hungarians are found in an alliance against Svatopluk. The alliance consisted of the "prince" of Poland, Wratislaw, the "king" of the Hungarians, Cusalan, and Arnulf of Carinthia. They attacked Svatopluk's Moravia from three sides. According to the source the Franks and Bavarians of Arnulf did terrible damage to Moravia, burning villages and killing young and old alike; apparently the Hungarians were even worse. According to the same source the Hungarians already took possession of large territories south of the Rivers Garam (Hron) and Danube. The attack and conquest of these territories didn't mean that Hungarian tribes actually settled in the area. That came a few years later. Soon enough the Hungarian fighting troops abandoned Arnulf and joined Svatopluk to fight the Franks. There is a highly suspect story, almost a legend, concocted by a chronicler of the early thirteenth century: Svatopluk was duped by the Hungarians who in return for some favor asked Svatopluk simply for some water from the Danube and for a handful of grass grown on the land in order to test the quality of the water and the grass. When he acceded to their modest request, the Hungarians put their own spin on the act; they claimed that Svatopluk had gave his land to the Hungarians.

There might be a kernel of truth in this story in the sense that the Hungarians might have demanded certain territories in compensation for the help given to Svatopluk against the Franks. Svatopluk died in 894, most likely fighting alongside the Hungarians against the Franks. His younger son, Svatopluk II, was the prince of Nitra. He died in 906, most likely fighting against the Hungarians who by that time had more or less settled in the the middle of the Carpathian Basin.

So, as we can see, the histories of both the Slovaks and the Hungarians are not so simple as some politicians today imagine. There is a lot of guesswork involved in piecing together a more or less coherent narrative. There are hypotheses that might be contradicted at any time by some new archaeological find. Written sources are unlikely to crop up. Historians have studied every bit of "evidence" that is often no more than a sentence here or there in a source written hundreds of years after the events. To imagine Greater Moravia as some Slovak or Czecho-Slovak empire, an ethnically and religiously homogenous country in the modern sense, is most likely a figment of the imagination. It is also unlikely that if the Hungarians hadn't arrived in the Carpathian Basin there would be a huge Slavic empire with a common language today. After all, the Poles and the Slovaks lived next to each other for centuries and yet there is a Polish language and a Slovak language. The same can be said about the Poles and the Ukrainians. Or the Croats and the Slovenes. And one could continue.

As for Svatopluk and the Hungarians chieftains, sometimes they were comrades in arms, at other times enemies. And the history after 896? Perhaps if the Hungarians hadn't arrived Arnulf and his successors, the Franks or the Bavarians, would have gobbled up the territory. It is quite obvious that these territories changed hands often. A very volatile situation existed. The upshot: it is highly unlikely that Robert Fico's "Ur-Slovaks" ever existed. These early Slovaks, according to the prime minister, had already settled in today's Slovakia when in other countries only animals were roaming! Well, well. Some mad Hungarians think that even Christ was Hungarian.  Or that writing was invented by Hungarians who had lived in the Carpathian Basin for more than ten thousand years!

A Hungarian historical atlas

Every time the topic of historical atlases comes up I have to think of an old story when I tried to buy a good historical atlas. The salesman who waited on me was obviously not quite fit to work in a bookstore because he looked at me as if I came from the moon. I tried to help him out: "You know, in the last couple of thousand years the political map of the world has changed a bit." I don't think it registered. In the end I ordered a three-volume German historical atlas for Bavarian high school kids. It's excellent.

In Hungary the historical atlas that was available during the Kádár regime was poor–a few pages long and not very informative. For the last seven years a much larger and more detailed historical atlas has been available. It is almost 120 pages long and includes a 20-page historical chronology. Recently a group of experts took a look at it and found it wanting. They especially objected to the almost total neglect of Jews and Gypsies in the chronology section of the atlas. The chronology skims over the holocaust, never once using the word. The authors of the study admitted that this atlas and chronology are used in conjunction with textbooks in which some space is given to the holocaust. In the case of the Gypsies, however, the problem is more acute. About 10% of the students who use this atlas are of Roma origin. The Gypsies are marginalized in the atlas and the textbooks ignore them completely. Thus Roma children learn absolutely nothing about the past of their own people.

I find the complaint that there are 106 "graphic pictures" of Greater Hungary in the atlas less justified. Yes, just as I told the salesman in the bookstore, the world has changed over the centuries. One cannot discuss Hungarian history, let's say in the thirteenth century, without having a map that reflects the country's borders at the time. The critics complain about the number of these maps especially in light of the habit of some people of placing a decal of Greater Hungary on their cars. I understand the worry but one cannot change history. What students must be taught is why the map of Hungary has changed.

The nationalities are dealt with extensively. It seems almost like overkill. For instance, seven separate maps show the areas inhabited by the Alans  (jászok in Hungarian). On the other hand, I don't quite understand the authors' complaint that the "jászok" are also called "alánok." Obviously they don't think that this information is necessary. They also complain that the atlas mentions that the Romanians were also called "vlachs" or "oláhs" and that the Slovaks used to be called "tótok." In fact, I consider these pieces of information important, especially when reading older texts. I know that "oláh" for Romanian or "tót" for Slovak today has a prejorative meaning, but in the old days that was not so. A hundred years ago, the 1910 census called the Slovaks tótok and the Romanians oláhok in the official publication.

The complaint about the lack of information about the Roma seems to be more justified. The word "Roma" doesn't appear at all, and Gypsy (cigány) only on a map entitled "Immigration and inner migrations in the eighteenth century." This map gives the wrong impression that Gypsies arrived in Hungary only in the 1700s. Moreover, no explanation is given about their origin, their occupations, or what language they spoke. Although there are pictures of peasants and artisans in different centuries, there is not one picture of a Gypsy. And a couple of obvious choices would have been to portray a Gypsy as a musician or a bricklayer.

The situation is not better when it comes to the Jews. They first appear on the same map as the Gypsies showing immigration in the eighteenth century, again giving the false impression that Jews arrived in Hungary only in the 1700s. On maps showing religious composition, Jews are simply not mentioned. In the chronology section there is only one reference to the Jews: "1942. Beginning of the Nazi program of the Jewish question (January 20)." That's all. That is mighty little for sure. Not a word about the numerus clausus of 1920 or the so-called Jewish laws between 1938 and 1942. This is indeed a serious problem.

The historical knowledge of the younger generation is appalling. Apparently Hungarian sociologists just finished a study based on a sample of people under the age of 30. The results are not yet public but Mária Vásárhelyi, one of the sociologists involved in the study, calls the results "depressing." The lack of knowledge is "frightening." I will be very interested to see the published results and will certainly pass the information on to you. 

Viktor Orbán and Hungarian democracy

There are many who dread the prospect of Viktor Orbán's return to power. And, I'm afraid, not without reason. Although it seems that the majority of people don't quite remember the days when Viktor Orbán was prime minister, others have a better memory. They recall that even then Orbán was not exactly a faithful guardian of democracy. In fact, he and his government considered parliament a burden that constrained their activities. They did everything in their power to limit its competence. They couldn't change the constitution because according to the Hungarian system any constitutional change must be passed by a two-thirds majority. Thus, Fidesz had to be satisfied with changes made, for example, in the house rules governing the the functioning of parliament. One house rule demands that parliament while in session convenes "every week." The government parties by a simple majority vote changed that to "every three weeks." The opposition turned to the Constitutional Court which as usual dragged its feet, but three or four years later when Orbán was long gone the Court ruled that the change was indeed unconstitutional. One of the first decisions of the Medgyessy government, by the way, was to honor the letter and the spirit of the law and to restore the custom of meeting every week that parliament is in session.

In a decent parliamentary system the prime minister usually attends at least one parliamentary session a week. Ferenc Gyurcsány, for example, practically every Monday gave a speech and answered questions. Gordon Bajnai has followed that practice. Orbán hardly showed up in parliament as prime minister and, after he lost the elections, for three and a half years the leader of the opposition didn't show up at all! Not once. And after 2006 Fidesz members walked out every time the prime minister spoke. What kind of a parliamentary party are we talking about whose leader thinks so little of the most important institution of democracy, the parliament?

But one can go further. In a democracy the government prepares a yearly budget. As we know, the vote on the budget is an important moment in the life of any government. If the governing party's support has eroded over the course of the year and there are not enough votes to pass the budget, the government falls. Orbán in 2000 prepared and managed to pass with the help of his coalition partner the Smallholders not the requisite yearly budget but a two-year one. And as soon as the budget passed, he got rid of Torgyán and and his party.

Another important instrument of parliamentary politics is setting up investigative committees. It is customary to accede to the wishes of the opposition when it requests an investigation. In the Orbán years not one such committee was convened. Since then every Fidesz request for such a committee has been honored. Another interesting development in Orbán's parliament was the expropriation of the system of interpellations. Interpellations are normally used by the opposition. At the beginning of each session a certain amount of time is set aside for members of parliament to ask questions of the ministers. In order to save themselves a lot of trouble Fidesz came up with the brilliant idea of simply encouraging their own members to ask benign questions from their own ministers who then gave glowing reports about their wonderful accomplishments. It was a mockery of parliamentary democracy.

While in opposition Orbán's anti-democratic tendencies have only grown. First of all a cult of personality has developed around him. He shows up only in front of adoring audiences where the devoted crowd similar to the Rákosi days rises when the chief enters and rhythmically claps while shouting: Viktor! Viktor! Viktor! Every time I see that I shudder because I remember my school days when we had to do the same except we had to repeat: Long live Stalin! Long live Rákosi! Long live the Red Army! No thanks! And who can forget the picture of an old lady kissing the young Viktor Orbán's hand?Kézcsók He is completely unaccustomed to having someone say "no" to him. Or even to listening to contrary opinions. He organized the party on Bolshevik models. Party democracy doesn't exist. Every position must be approved by him. People he takes a fancy to can occupy important positions in the party with no apparent qualifications. At the same time he can drop people willy-nilly whenever he wants. I think one reason that Orbán did so poorly in his debate with Gyurcsány before the 2006 elections is that he only gives speeches where he cannot be interrupted or questioned.

Here I collected a few Orbán quotations that might give a fair idea of what Orbán thinks of parliamentary democracy. Let's start with 2002 after he lost the elections. "Although our parties and our representatives are in opposition in parliament, we, who are here on this square cannot be and will not be in opposition because the nation cannot be in opposition. Only a government can be in opposition against its own people." Or in 2005: "There are people who put the emphasis on parliament but I put it on democracy." Or a couple of years later: "Today we must restore public confidence not with movements within parliament but at last with giving people the experience that the people themselves can decide the most important questions of the day. Democracy is more than sending representatives every four years to parliament. I will never be satisfied with that." Or a few days later (May 2007): "Parliamentary democracy robbed us of the possibility of taking the fate of the country into our own hands. We will see who is the boss, the galley or the current of the river." Another quotation also from 2007: "The political direction that determines the life of the nation must be formed by the will of the people … despite every Hungarian election won as a result of lies and fraud. If the constitutional order cannot serve democracy–and under the present circumstances in Hungary it cannot–then one must create those constitutional institutions and guarantees with which Hungarian democracy can defend itself. Only once must we win but then very big." In case someone has difficulty understanding the meaning of this last sentence Orbán here is talking about a situation in which Fidesz has such a large majority that it can effect those constitutional changes that could allow it to remain in power for a very long time. Perhaps it is also worth mentioning that he envisaged lately a "one-colored parliament." Here he is referring to the picture showing the seating arrangement in the chamber. This picture shows the results of the elections of 2006.Parlament As Orbán's critics rightly pointed out, Hungary did experience days when the parliament was all red but those were not the best days in the life of the nation.

Fidesz under the guidance of Orbán simply doesn't understand that politics in a democracy means politics of compromise. Zoltán Pokorny, one of the vice-chairmen of the party, apparently said to one of his MSZP colleagues after his party lost the elections in 2002: "You will always feel our chilly breath on your necks!" And indeed. No question about it. Another way people describe Fidesz strategy is as a "full court press." While other opposition parties can agree on a "national minimum," that is simply impossible as long as Fidesz is under the leadership of Viktor Orbán.

A lot of people are afraid that Fidesz will gain such an overwhelming victory next year that they can change the constitution. From there on Hungarian democracy might not be exactly the kind we are accustomed to in Western Europe. Some people worry that Orbán is planning to restore the Horthy regime, but József Debreczeni who has been a consistent critic of Orbán begs to differ. No, he says, it will be much worse. Orbán is not a second Horthy but a second Gyula Gömbös.  Gömbös was the leader of the Hungarian far right during the 1920s who became prime minister in 1932. I don't think that Debreczeni is exaggerating. Reading Gömbös's program (Nemzeti Munkaterv/National Work Program) I also found a lot of similarities between the ideas of the two men. I even wondered whether perhaps Orbán decided to refresh his high school history and took the time to read one of those books on Gömbös that came out recently. For example, Jenő Gergely's Gömbös Gyula: Politikai pályakép, Budapest, 2001. The similarities are striking. And Gömbös's ideal wasn't exactly parliamentary democracy. It was Hungary's good fortune that he died suddenly in 1936.

Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1968: Kádár and Dubček

Because there have been so many references recently to Hungarian participation in the August 21, 1968, occupation of Czechoslovakia I decided to take a look at János Kádár's role in this whole drama. My source is Tibor Huszár, Kádár János: Politikai életrajz, 2 vols. (Budapest: 2001-2003). The second volume deals with the period between November 1957 and June 1989.

Alexander Dubček and János Kádár first met two weeks before Dubček's visit to Moscow on January 29-30, 1968. The private meeting took place in a hunting lodge in Topolčany in Eastern Slovakia. Kádár later described the meeting this way: "The atmosphere was very good. Comrade Dubček even said that there are no two other people in the whole world with whom he could talk in such a way and about such things as he could with me. The reasons are obvious." Dubček's situation within the party wasn't easy because Antonín Novotný, the general secretary of the Czechoslovak party before Dubček, stayed on as president. Moreover Novotný's men continued to hold important positions in the party and in the army. Kádár in response to Dubček's description of the situation expressed his hope that the reform wing of the party could be strengthened, but at the same time he pointed to the divisions among the reformers as a source of future problems. Kádár apparently tried to bolster Dubček's resolve to act forcefully. But Kádár was a faithful party man; he immediately phoned Leonid Brezhnev and told him about the conversation.

Telephone calls were frequent between Brezhnev and Kádár in those days. Mostly Brezhnev called with dire predictions about the Czechoslovak situation. Kádár was led by pragmatic considerations: can the Czechoslovak events be kept within bounds? What he tried to do at least initially was to make sure that  no "counterrevolution" would break out in Czechoslovakia that would necessitate a Soviet intervention similar to what happened in Hungary in 1956. That's why he took upon himself the "role of cautious defender of the new Czechoslovak leadership in the spring of 1968." However, the Soviets were growing increasingly impatient. As it later became obvious, already in March Brezhnev and the Soviet leadership considered Dubček a man whose days were numbered. That became crystal clear in Dresden where there was a summit of the leaderships of six socialist countries. Gomułka and Ulbricht delivered harsh speeches while Kádár "tried to loosen the isolation of the Czechoslovaks" with a moderate speech.

Kádár continued his support of the Czechoslovaks even in May when there was another summit that the Czechoslovaks decided to boycott. Here he was even clearer in his opposition to "hasty decisions." He emphasized that under the circumstances the most important task was "a sound assessment of the situation." Kádár rather bravely announced that it was Novotný who was primarily responsible for the Czechoslovak situation. "If we condemn anyone, although it is not our business, first Comrade Novotný should be criticized and only after him Comrade Dubček." He would not bend even under pressure: "At the moment we have to support Dubček. Our assistance . . . is very important now." He continued: "We cannot solve the problem merely by arms because these are complicated political questions. . . . Removing Dubček can mean the collapse of the Czechoslovak party in the current situation."

But then Kádár started having doubts. According to Tibor Huszár they began to surface on June 13, 1968, the very day that Dubček arrived in Budapest. On that day an article appeared in Literárni noviny entitled "Also an Anniversary." It was about the tenth anniversary of the execution of Imre Nagy. Kádár was offended. We know from his somewhat incoherent final speech that Kádár was fixated on and could never escape feeling guilty about the execution of Imre Nagy. By mid-June Kádár told the members of the Hungarian Central Committee that if a situation similar to 1956 developed in Czechoslovakia he "would immediately vote with both hands for the occupation of the country by the willing and active members of the Warsaw Pact because the socialist world cannot lose Czechoslovakia." But, barring such a "counterrevolution," he still preferred a non-military solution.

On June 27, 1968, Kádár and the Hungarian delegation arrived in Moscow. On the very same day a piece appeared in Prague entitled "Two Thousand Words." Until then Kádár had believed that the Dubček-led group within the party enjoyed the support of the reform-minded elite in Czechoslovakia. But it was clear that the authors of "Dva tisíce slov" were promulgating a multi-party system that was completely unacceptable to Kádár. He no longer knew whether supporting Dubček and the reform communists made any sense. The Soviet leadership most likely noticed Kádár's hesitation and decided to test his stand on the issue. The Budapest representative of the Warsaw Pact forces showed up at the office of the Hungarian minister of defense announcing a joint military exercise, adding that "Comrade Brezhnev already discussed this with Comrade Kádár who agreed." It was clear that this military exercise would be a rehearsal for the occupation of Czechoslovakia. The Hungarian minister of defense expressed his surprise because he had talked to Kádár only a couple of hours before and Kádár hadn't mentioned anything about a military exercise. It turned out to be a Soviet ruse. The minister of defense wrote back: "There must be some misunderstanding. Comrade Kádár doesn't understand the reference to any such conversation." In fact, even as late as July 12 when the Politburo had only one item on the agenda, the political situation in Czechoslovakia, the Hungarians decided that "a political solution must be found . . . and we must caution our sister parties against military intervention."

A day later, on July 13, Kádár met Dubček again in Komárom. Kádár was very upset because he didn't approve of the Czechoslovak decision to meet the sister parties only individually, refusing to meet them together. Dubček and Oldřich Černýk who was also present were surprised at Kádár's behavior "and at this point they completely broke down, they even wept. In their agony they said that they realized now that all doors are closed in front of them." It was after this encounter that the socialist parties met in Warsaw. Kádár maintained that in Czechoslovakia "there is still no counterrevolution" but added that "there are signs of a transformation of the Czechoslovak party to a Yugoslav model." And that would bring "the danger of counterrevolution closer." Ulbright got up and said, "we are warning Comrade Kádár that the next strike might be against Hungary." In the end Kádár gave in and joined the others in the decision to invade Czechoslovakia.

The Hungarian Communist party's highest body, the Politburo, hadn't authorized Kádár to agree to take part in a military "solution" to the Czechoslovak "problem." Perhaps Ulbricht's warning that after Czechoslovakia Hungary would be next made an impression on him. The reluctant Kádár gave in. However, although he might have been better than Brezhnev, Ulbricht or Gomułka, in the final analysis it really didn't matter. The whole incident reminds me of István Tisza, prime minister of Hungary from 1903 to 1905 and again from 1913 to 1917, whose agreement was necessary for declaration of war in 1914. Tisza hesitated for a very long time but in the end he gave his nod. Hungarians like to point out that the Hungarian prime minister was a reluctant participant and somehow this is supposed to be a plus. But in the final analysis it made no difference.