Another St. Stephen’s Day in Hungary
It was twelve years ago, about this time of year, that the St. Stephen mania was at its height during the first Orbán government. Because of the celebrations of the millennium of Stephen’s coronation and thus the historically accepted date of the establishment of the Hungarian state Viktor Orbán had a fantastic opportunity for self-aggrandizement. On August 19, 2000, the prime minister visited the neighboring villages, Alcsútdoboz and Felcsút, where he grew up. It was here that he awaited the arrival of Hungarian pilgrims returning from Rome on foot. The pilgrims had taken a replica of the Holy Crown to the Vatican where the pope blessed it. When the pilgrims arrived with the fake crown with its papal blessing, the prime minister delivered a speech in which he recalled that St. Stephen offered his country to the Virgin Mary in the very place where he was standing: in Alcsútdoboz.
There are a couple of problems with Orbán’s claim. The first is that the earliest reference to Alcsútdoboz is from the fourteenth century. The second problem, and the more serious one, is that St. Stephen most likely never offered his country to the Virgin Mary. The first mention of this alleged offering was at the end of the eleventh century when Pope Gregory VII made all sorts of fiscal demands on the Hungarian kings who cleverly replied that unfortunately the country was already ruled by none other than the Virgin Mary herself.
At the beginning of his political career Orbán was known to profess no faith. Later the public learned that he was a devout Calvinist. People suspected that his sudden interest in Calvinism had something to do with his need to have the political assistance of István Csurka’s MIÉP. The Hungarian Reformed Church happened to have good relations with that party. But if he was a good Calvinist, how could he take the Regnum Marianum cult seriously? After all, Calvinists don’t consider the Virgin Mary an important part of their religious beliefs. On the contrary, they reject anything that has to do with saints and post-biblical miracles.
This story from twelve years ago shows how far politicians are willing to go to use history and religion to their own political advantage. By now Viktor Orbán is being compared to St. Stephen himself . Lajos Kósa, deputy chairman of Fidesz and mayor of Debrecen, in his speech emphasized that Stephen used “unusual methods to convert his country from a pagan tribal society to a Christian state,” just as Viktor Orbán decided to use “unorthodox methods” to change Hungary. János Áder, the president, talked about a new foundation of Hungary, just as in Stephen’s time. János Lázár emphasized that the whole country must change radically, just as in Stephen’s time.
The saintly king’s methods were “unusual” in one sense: he was ruthless. He forcibly converted the people to Christianity and used every possible method to make sure that they followed the strictures of the new religion. He was equally ruthless with his relatives who threatened his position. One was drawn and quartered; his remains were displayed on the gates of four different cities. Another was blinded and his ears filled with hot lead. Let’s hope that the Matolcsy-Orbán duo’s “unorthodox methods” will be less draconian.
Then came Péter Harrach (KDNP). From him we learned that Stephen was a man who wanted to introduce order but not dictatorship. Dictatorship in the early eleventh century? The word didn’t even exist until the mid-sixteenth century. I guess this reference to Stephen’s desire for order but not dictatorship has something to do with the charge leveled against Orbán, that he’s a man of dictatorial tendencies. Another modern concept Harrach attributed to Stephen’s days is ” unity.” Stephen certainly managed to break down the power of other chieftains and expanded his own rule over their lands, but I’m afraid Harrach wasn’t talking about geographical unity but rather national unity which is of course a historical anomaly when we are talking about the eleventh century. According to Gyula Kristó, the foremost historian of the period, most likely the majority of the population of the Carpathian Basin was Slavic speaking and the Hungarians at that time were still in the minority. Stephen most likely didn’t give a hoot who spoke what language. The only thing that was important for him was that they were his faithful subjects.
Harrach, a Christian Democrat, could not leave out the usual idealized description of Stephen as a deeply religious and pious man. According to him, the key to his personality is his “Exhortations” to his son. The problem is that most medieval kings were illiterate; according to Kristó, that probably was the case with Stephen as well. The “Exhortations” were most likely written by Bishop Asrik-Anastas, the man who brought a crown (not the Holy Crown of today) to Stephen from Rome. It is therefore doubtful that this document is the key to Stephen’s personality.
Perhaps the most confusing speech was delivered by János Áder. According to the president, the old world is in crisis and “those nations will be successful in the twenty-first century that can lift their souls. We carry the knowledge in our blood that if the soul is rising, everything rises with it.” I’m not even going to try to figure out what he wanted to say. Perhaps the most intriguing part of these sentences was that “knowledge is in our blood.” I thought that knowledge had to be acquired, usually through hard work, but I guess the Hungarians are different. In their case, at least this particular piece of knowledge is in their blood.
By way of a footnote: the only reference I found to “Knowledge in the Blood” was a book by the first black dean of education at the University of Pretoria. The subtitle of the book was: “Confronting Race and the Apartheid Past.”