Month: May 2009

Hungarian justice as a political instrument

It is hard not to come to the conclusion that Fidesz has very close relations with the Hungarian judiciary. In plain language, the party is using the courts and the prosecutor's offices to its own political advantage. Even more bluntly, it is using them against its political "enemies."

Just as Viktor Orbán discovered early in his tenure as prime minister that he needed a friendly media, he also realized that the judiciary is at least as important if not more so for his political purposes. Because the Hungarian constitution is full of legal loopholes he found the first opening: the appointment of the chief prosecutor needs only a simple majority vote while his removal requires a two-thirds majority. Thus the Orbán government forced the retirement of the well respected chief prosecutor who had been serving in this capacity ever since 1990 and put in his place with a simple majority an old Fidesz member and friend, Péter Polt, who had no prosecutorial experience whatsoever. His appointment served Fidesz very well even after 2002 when the new government wanted to investigate some of the murky corruption cases associated with Fidesz. The prosecutor's office didn't find one case worthy of investigation. Polt is no longer the chief prosecutor, but that doesn't mean he left the organization altogether. In Hungary a former chief prosecutor who fails to be reappointed remains in the office in some fairly high position. That's exactly what happened to Polt. A new chief prosecutor was eventually chosen, but he is so close to the compulsory retirement age that his tenure will end shortly after next year's elections. Thus Fidesz, if they win the elections, will be able to get their own man again. Moreover, one wonders how independent any new chief prosecutor is when in the same office there is the old chief looking over his shoulder.

Polt or no Polt, the work of the prosecutor's office hasn't improved since his "departure." The office drags its feet in any case involving the opposition and proceeds with lightning speed when there are alleged dirty tricks or corruption cases on the other side. And the courts seem to assist the prosecution in such cases. MSZP politicians accused of corruption or embezzlement are kept in jail for months on end before their cases come up, allegedly because they will either escape or will try to influence witnesses. At the same time accused Fidesz politicians remain free and their cases are left to die. There are also leaks, always to the right-wing media, from the prosecutor's office. Often Magyar Nemzet learns about a summons issued to a named politician even before the accused receives the letter. This is exactly what happened in the case of György Szilvásy.

Let me very briefly outline the facts of the case. For those of you who would like to know more, read my blog from September 26, 2008, called "'Polypgate' in Hungary" and from September 27, 2008, "'Polypgate' in Hungary: new developments." On September 10, 2008, Sándor Laborc, head of the Nemzetbiztonsági Hivatal ([NBH] National Security Office) charged that a private company was illegally trying to obtain classified information from the National Security Office. It turned out that at least two Fidesz politicians, both former ministers in charge of national security, László Kövér and Ervin Demeter, were in constant touch with the company whose job it was to snoop around NBH. There were apparently hundreds of taped telephone conversations to prove that the company was guilty as charged. The members of the parliamentary committee on national security demanded proof of the charge, and György Szilvássy, the minister, provided it in the form of thirty-two tapes. That was his constitutional duty. A few hours later Fidesz made seven of these tapes public and not long after an anonymous source put all thirty-two tapes on the Internet. On several of the tapes one could hear Kövér and Demeter having friendly conversations with the head of the company. Demeter was quite open in asking his man to get inside information from the National Security Office. Kövér was more circumspect. He simply arranged meetings over the telephone and never said anything about the company's "spying."

Things looked pretty bad for Fidesz and because the best defense is a strong offense Fidesz demanded an investigation of Szilvássy. The whole thing seems to have been carefully choreographed. Róbert Répássy, Fidesz MP and legal expert of the party, must have arranged everything ahead of time. He must have called Magyar Távirati Iroda (MTI) to witness and photograph the meeting between himself and the representative of the prosecutor's office. The complaint was handed to the representative in front of the building of the prosecutor's office. Here is the picture.Répássy és ügyész Now while the NBH's case against the "spying" company has been dragging on for eight months and the silence is deafening, Répássy's case against Szilvássy, on the other hand, is moving along quite rapidly by Hungarian standards. The prosecutor's office decided to name Szilvássy not as a witness but as the accused. He is accused of illegally making public documents not pertaining to any specific crime. That's what Fidesz claimed at the time.

The whole thing is more than mysterious. After all, Szilvássy wasn't the one who made the documents public. He simply provided the information to the members of the parliamentary committee. And he did it because the members demanded the information. It was the Fidesz members who illegally made some of the documents public. Yet the prosecutor's office interrogated Szilvássy for four solid hours and fingerprinted him. In Hungary that is one of the greatest humiliations anyone can suffer. (You may recall that László Sólyom refused to visit the Unites States because of fingerprinting. I don't know what will happen to Hungarians in the next few months. I just read that the new passports will include the holder's fingerprint!)

I heard the spokesman for the prosecutor's office being interviewed on the subject, and I must say that he had a heck of a time explaining why his office acted as it did. The MSZP leadership is up in arms. Ildikó Lendvai, president of MSZP, went so far as to say that it seems a "show trial" is in the making. I personally don't think it will come to that, but a week before the EP elections this charge gives Fidesz more ammunition. It is hard to escape the suspicion that the Hungarian judiciary is not really independent. And that is a very serious problem.


Verdict in the Olaszliszka (Hungary) murder

On October 5, 2006, a teacher of biology in a "general" school in Tiszavasvári was driving with his two young daughters (ages 5 and 13) from Szerencs toward Olaszliszka. All these places are in one of the poorest regions of Hungary–in the northeast corner of the country close to the Slovak and the Ukrainian borders. The percentage of the Roma population there is very high. In some places around 30%. Both in Olaszliszka (population 1,945) and in Tiszavasvári (population 13,000) about 20% of the population is Gypsy. As the teacher was driving through Olaszliszka a young Gypsy girl ran out of one of the houses right in front of his car. Luckily nothing really happened to the little girl. Szögi immediately stopped, but even before he could get out of the car the extended family of the girl surrounded him and dragged him out. Then the savage beating began. Eventually the older girl got out of the car and asked for help. At this point her father was still alive. The onlookers remained impassive. The two girls started running down the road and were eventually picked up by a car. An ambulance was sent but it was too late. It was after this brutal murder that the extreme right began its anti-Roma campaign.

Olaszliszka became a symbol for the extreme right.Olaszliszka Ever since the murder it became a place of pilgrimage for different rightist groups, including, of course, the Hungarian Guard and the Goy Bikers. The bikers were there for the first anniversary. On the second anniversary the Goy Bikers, Jobbik, the Hungarian Guard, and the National Guard (Nemzeti Őrsereg) organized a torchlight possession. A huge police force managed to keep order but there have been numerous attacks on Gypsies in the village since. According to some, Olaszliszka is responsible for the organization of the Hungarian Guard. On the picture above one can see Szögi's older daughter with an escort on whose jacket is the map of Greater Hungary. They are standing in front of the monument erected at the site of the murder.

There was no question that the verdict would be severe. Eventually eight people had to stand trial, including the parents of the child who suffered no bodily injury as a result of the accident. The father, who was obviously the most heavily involved, received a life sentence. That means at least thirty years in jail. The mother, considered to be an accessory before the fact, received fifteen years. Four other adults received fifteen years each. In addition two of the accused were juveniles. They received ten years each, which they will have to spend in a juvenile detention center. All eight will have to pay court costs: 6.4 million forints. I doubt they have that much money. They are all appealing the verdict.

The judge, Attilia Czibrik, refused to consider the defense argument that the crime was committed in the heat of passion because, after all, the relatives knew that the child was fine. It was murder in the first degree. Lajos Szögi was beaten to death; in fact, he was lynched. The attackers' intention was not in question: they wanted to kill him.

But the judge opened up one avenue of appeal–the shoddy work of the police that made the prosecutor's job very difficult. And the defense lawyer for the parents (Dezső H. and his wife), knowing full well that his clients would be found guilty, during the course of the trial prepared the ground for an appeal. He complained about procedural mistakes on the part of both the judge and the prosecution. For instance, a youngster was called as a witness for the prosecution but was never informed of her right as a relative not to testify. And then there was the six-year-old boy who mysteriously surfaced only a couple of months ago as a witness and whose testimony was used against Mrs. Dezső H. According to other witnesses the culprit was not Mrs. Dezső H. but another relative whose child had been killed two years earlier by a drunk driver.

Most Hungarians are undoubtedly satisfied with the verdict. By Hungarian standards it is very severe. The Roma population most likely thinks that if the accused had been Magyars (i.e. not Gypsies) they would have received lighter sentences. Surely, there is no question that Lajos Szögi was beaten to death, but given the shoddy work of the police and the prosecutors some of the details of the crime might be subject to reasonable doubt.

European parliamentary elections in Hungary

I guess it is time to get back to the present, especially since there will be elections between June 4 and 7 in the countries of the European Union. Hungary can send 22 men and women to participate in the work of the European Parliament; the parliament has a total membership of 736. Eight parties are qualified to compete. MSZP, SZDSZ, MDF, Fidesz, and Jobbik are the well known ones. However, there is the Munkáspárt (the communists) in addition to two new parties: Roma Összefogás (Gypsy Cooperation) and LMP-Humanista Párt that has a green hue. LMP, by the way, stands for "Lehet más a politika" (Politics can be different). As things now stand most public opinion polls predict that only three parties will send delegates: Fidesz, MSZP, and Jobbik. Ibolya Dávid only yesterday predicted that MDF might manage to send not one but two delegates. She based her optimism on a public opinion poll done at the University of Szeged. Most analysts predict a low turnout because most people don't give a hoot about the European parliament or the European Union in general. The majority of Hungarians are euroskeptics. They simply don't recognize the advantages membership in the EU offers. Nézőpont Intézet (Perspective Institute), a political think-tank close to Fidesz, is the only one that is predicting a large turnout. I assume because the political scientists working there think that Fidesz's campaign slogans promising the immediate collapse of the current government in case of a huge Fidesz victory will inspire the Fidesz faithful that is always more eager to vote than the left liberals.

Until now the campaign was fairly lukewarm, especially on the left. Almost as if the socialists had given up. They know that they will lose big and it is not worth putting up a fight or spending a lot of money. Fidesz, as usual, has started campaigning vigorously. The campaign slogans have nothing to do with the European Union. From the posters and the television ads one would think that national elections are coming. The Fidesz slogan is: "Elég!" (Enough!). But enough of what? The European Union? Surely not: enough of the socialist-liberal supported government of experts. Fidesz is hoping that the MSZP loss will be so great that early elections will have to be held. The television ad I saw draws from the negative campaiging popular in the United States. This particular ad reminded me of the infamous Willy Horton ad of 1988 in which the Bush campaign pretty well accused Dukakis of murder by allowing criminals to spend weekends outside the prison. The Fidesz ad begins with a picture of Ferenc Gyurcsány that as the seconds go by morphs into the face of Gordon Bajnai while words like Lying, Raising Taxes, Corruption, Unemployment flash by. Then comes a snippet from the end of an old, staticky film reel. A huge bang, enormous orange letters "Enough! Vote!" I must say that it is a very effective ad even if I find it fairly disgusting. Here's the link; one doesn't even have to know the language:  

As I said, MSZP was not hitting back. Their politicians kept repeating that it is not nice to wage an EP campaign as if it were a national election, but that was about all. Then a couple of days ago I noticed a change. A serious effort is being made to challenge the work of the Fidesz delegation to the European parliament over the last five years. At the top of the list is Pál Schmitt, former Olympic fencing champion. Schmitt likes titles and most likely the money that comes with each position. He is not only a member of the European parliament but also the head of the Hungarian Olympic Committee in addition to being a member of the International Olympic Committee. I don't know anything about his activities on the International Olympic Committee, but I do know that he is a pretty lousy chairman of the Hungarian Olympic Committee. At one point there was an attempt to unseat him, but he managed to remain and at the last election there wasn't the slightest sign of protest against his reappointment. Earlier his activities in Brussels flew under the radar, it turns out for obvious reasons. A few days ago Schmitt was asked to make an appearance before the Hungarian parliamentary committee on European affairs. MSZP members of the committee asked all sorts of questions pertaining to European affairs from him but he was unable to answer most of them. As it turned out, because of his many other obligations he rarely appears at the parliament's sessions. For example, he wasn't even present when the members voted on the budget. A budget that surely mattered for Hungary.

Kinga Göncz, former foreign minister in the Gyurcsány govrnment, called for a debate between Schmitt and herself. Not surprisingly he refused. He said: "If there is a debate I will do my best to avoid it." Not too subtle! Since a televised debate is out of the question, Göncz is trying to make Schmitt commit himself in writing. She posed ten questions to him in an open letter and added that she was expecting answers by Saturday. I doubt that Schmitt will answer, especially since some of the questions might be very uncomfortable not just for Schmitt but for Fidesz. The MSZP staff has been madly looking through the thin voting record of Schmitt and found quite a few skeletons in the closet. The most interesting to my mind is that Schmitt supported an amendment of the communists that would have limited the employment of Hungarians in other countries of the EU. Interestingly, Schmitt voted against a proposal that would have increased women's rights to remain at home after the birth of their children from a minimum of 18 weeks to 20.

Fidesz has also given elegant places on the EU list to prominent members of the party. Two founding fathers of Fidesz, János Áder and Tamás Deutsch, are the most interesting names. Both men held very high positions in the party as well as in the Orbán government. Of late both men faded into the background; then they resurfaced on the Fidesz list. The Áder nomination has mobilized the other side, and not only in Hungary. One problem is that he claimed that he speaks English. Some enterprising Hungarian youngsters purporting to phone from Brussels taped his responses to their requests for an interview in English. The youngsters' English was not exactly faultless, but it is very unlikely that Áder noticed that problem. Anyone wanting a good laugh should listen to this YouTube segment: In fact, as far as I can see, Áder doesn't speak any foreign language. On the Hungarian Parliament's website he is said to have passed the beginners' German examination. Apparently that means that he has no appreciable knowledge of the language. There is another problem with Áder. The socialist caucus of the European parliament placed him on a black list they call "the list of the most awful candidates." There are twelve names on the list, including Nick Griffin, the British neo-nazi. Áder got on the list because he likened Ferenc Gyurcsány and his finance minister's handshake after the budget passed to the kiss of Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker. As for Deutsch, no one has tested his competence in English, but at least he passed the intermediate English exam. However, with Deutsch there is another problem. He doesn't always know what he should and should not say. He blurted out that if Fidesz wins the elections some of the important Fidesz people currently in Brussels as well as the hopeful ones like Áder or Deutsch might leave Brussels in the greatest hurry to return to Budapest and once again play prominent roles in the party and government.

Meanwhile the socialists keep reminding the electorate that their members have been very active and have been doing outstanding jobs. MDF proudly announced that between Lajos Bokros and György Habsburg they speak fifteen languages. The socialists emphasize that their candidates speak at least two or three languages. The socialists outright demand the withdrawal of Áder's candidacy because, according to them, he lied about his knowledge of the English language. Gyula Cserey, a young MSZP candidate, is leading the charge against Áder. According to him the most commonly used languages in Brussels are English and French. What will Áder do there? Most likely not much, but I don't that matters either to Fidesz or to the party faithful.

Hungarian public education: 1956-1990

Because I have no personal experience to rely on, I have to turn to historians dealing with this period. I chose Ignác Romsics's Magyarország története–A XX. században (Budapest: Osiris, 1999) mostly because Romsics spends a fair amount of his book on educational and cultural matters. I learned from him about the educational changes introduced, what worked and what didn't. It seems that the ministry of education and the experts came up with new ideas about every ten years.

Romsics considers the expansion of kindergartens a real success. In 1938 there were only 1,140 kindergartens, most of them private, but between 1960 and 1980 the regime built 2,000 new ones. With this expansion the number of children who could enjoy the benefits of early education tripled. By 1986 92% of children between the ages of four and six attended kindergarten. The number of kindergarten teachers also grew enormously–to 33,500. While in 1950 one teacher had to look after 44 children, that number was only 13 by 1985.

During this period the quality of education improved substantially in the lower grades (that is, the first eight grades in the 8 + 4 model). I mentioned earlier that the reform of 1945 establishing a uniform school system was slow to take hold due to the huge discrepancies inherent in the old system. It took a couple of decades to close the old one-room village schools. In their place the government established larger district schools to which children were bused from a number of smaller villages. Just to give you some idea of the changes. In 1960 there were 6,300 "general schools" but by 1980 there were only 3,500. Seventy-five thousand children under the age of fourteen were bused while 10,000 lived in boarding schools. In 1955 98% of children attended elementary schools, but 37% of them never finished the compulsory eight grades. By 1980 the dropout rate was under 5%. You may recall that in earlier years the teacher-student ratio was 1:44. By the 1980s it was 1:15. The quality of education was further improved in 1978 when new textbooks were issued, and in some better schools the teaching of a foreign language (in addition to Russian) was introduced, occasionally starting with grade three.

Unfortunately high schools didn't participate in this improvement in educational standards. According to Romsics the problem lay with the regime's failed attempts to extend the duration of compulsory education to ten or twelve years. Between 1960 and 1965 the number of high schools grew by 50%. There were about 200 new high schools, mostly in small towns and larger villages. The number of high school students also mushroomed. In 1955-56 there were 119,000 students attending high schools (gymnasiums, technical high schools, or teachers' high schools); by 1965 their number had reached 236,000. Moreover, over time the classroom size decreased. In 1960 there were 35-40 students per class, but by the 1980s that number was only 28-32. The teacher-student ratio during the same period changed from 1:18 to 1:13. These statistics may sound impressive, but they gloss over the huge differences among high schools. On the one hand there were the elite gymnasiums, mostly in Budapest; on the other, the mediocre to outright inadequate high schools in the small towns. (This is still the case, and that's why on international educational olympics a small number of Hungarian students excel while on general tests [PISA for example] Hungarian high school students as a whole perform miserably.)

The last time I wrote about education I neglected to mention a new type of high school that was introduced in 1949. These schools were called "technikums" or technical schools; they were designed  to produce "middle cadres." I remember their beginnings. In Pécs, a city with coal reserves nearby, the first "technikum" trained middle cadres in mining. These "technikums" were not a great success and by 1968-69 they were discontinued. Instead a new technical high school (szakközépiskola) appeared on the scene. It was supposed to prepare students to become well educated workers with specialized skills. Since relatively few students could enter university and the gymnasiums with their matriculation examinations prepared students only to enter college, these technical high schools became more and more popular. Between 1970 when they were first introduced and 1980, 367 such technical schools were established; by contrast, the number of gymnasiums shrank from 258 to 165. About 30,000 more students studied in technical high schools than in gymnasiums.

During the 1956-90 period higher education was also expanded greatly. According to Romsich the changes were in fact injurious to the quality of education in these institutions. Between 1960 and 1965 the number of institutions of higher learning more than doubled. From 43 to 92. This expansion was mostly due to changes in name only. Educational facilities training teachers for kindergartens or lower grades were upgraded to universities. That move further lowered the quality of higher education. (A similar situation occurred in this country as well when rather inferior teachers' colleges were transformed into universities offering both undergraduate and advanced degrees, mostly in education.) Out of these 92 there were only 24 bona fide universities. The rest were colleges training future teachers or nurses. (I would like to mention here that, unlike in English, Hungarian has two words for teacher: "tanító" and "tanár." The former can teach only in the first four grades while the latter is qualified to teach in the higher grades. Even in that second category one normally distinguishes between "általános iskolai tanár" and "középiskolai tanár." I.e. the general school teacher and the high school teacher.)

In the 1960s only 18% of students who finished high school entered college or university. By the 1980s 35%, though many more would have liked to enroll. In 1962 the regime gave up the idea of strict quotas based on social origin, so the percentage of students coming from a working-class or peasant background slowly dropped. In 1956-57 it was 55% but by 1984 only 37%.

Acceptance to college was based on a point system. The formula combined high school grades and  entrance examination results, with more weight given to grades. I never considered this fair because, after all, grades vary greatly from school to school. An "A" from an elite school simply can't be compared to an "A" from a substandard school. I also found it strange that after the centrally administered matriculation exams students still had to take entrance exams.

Prior to the war the favorite course of study was law. That changed after 1948. Who wanted to be a lawyer, a judge, or a prosecutor in a dictatorship? Even at the end of the Kádár regime only 4-6% of university graduates got law degrees. (Note that there are no separate law schools in Hungary. Law is essentially an undergraduate "major.") Engineering students, on the other hand, were in great abundance: 27-30% of the undergraduate population. Eleven to fourteen percent chose teaching.

At the universities the teacher-student ratio was outstanding by any standard–1:4. However, the quality of the professors was uneven. According to Romsics "it was way below international standards." One problem was the cultural isolation of the country. Another was linguistic isolation. To help alleviate the latter problem by the mid-1980s some bilingual high schools were established. And among well-off families many children attended private language classes. Slowly but surely more people took higher-level foreign language examinations.

The main indicators showed progress. By the 1980s 18.5% of the population had high school degrees (still very low) but that was a marked improvement over 1960 when it was only 6.2%. Those with college or university degrees grew during the same period from 2.3% to 7%, though in comparison to other western countries anemic. The problem is that statistics don't lend themselves to qualitative analysis. What do students learn (to analyze, to be creative, or to spout back)? How do they spend their free time? What is their relationship to their college or university (as alums or potential contributors, for instance)? Of course, I realize that this is not part of the Hungarian model, but it can have a powerful influence on the quality of the institutions.

I was talking to a university professor the other day who attended one of the better universities in the second half of the 1980s. She told me that "quality was bad when I was a student but today it is is even worse." And one hears the same thing over and over again. The student body grew tremendously but the teaching staff didn't. New colleges and universities were established some of which, according to their critics, don't even deserve accreditation. But that is another topic.

Skipping along in Hungary: Public transportation anomalies

A bit of an explanation of the title. If outside of Hungary one uses public transportation without paying for it, it is called "cheating." In Hungary they call it "bliccelés," the same word students use when they skip a class here and there. "Bliccelni" generally means to gain a certain advantage by cleverness, by outfoxing the authorities. It is not really a crime.

It seems that twenty-five percent of people who use public transportation in Budapest "skip" the price of the ticket. To tell you the truth, I'm surprised that even that many pay their fare. (Of course, there are large segments of the population who can legally ride for free.) Ticket inspectors don't regularly check to see whether passengers have tickets. Moreover, because the ticket inspectors don't have the right to demand to see valid identification cards people without tickets can give false names and addresses. The "skippers" (bliccelők) sometimes feel so self-righteous that it has happened more than once that some indignant passenger physically attacked the inspector. Or the guilty ones complain about the rude behavior of the inspectors. Of course, sometimes the criticism is valid, especially when the inspectors behave in an unacceptable manner toward foreigners who don't speak a word of Hungarian and who had no idea that they had to buy their tickets at some designated place before they got on the bus or streetcar. Yelling at them in Hungarian will not promote tourism!

When the topic comes up on forums where there are Hungarians from all over the world there is an interesting split between those who live in Hungary and those live or have lived abroad. The ex-patriots almost unanimously, regardless of the country in which they live, suggest that new passengers should enter in the front and show their ticket or their season pass to the driver. Passengers who want to get off should use the back door. That was immediately rejected by people from Budapest. It would slow down traffic. It would be an impossibility. They added that there are those endlessly long streetcars where this arrangement wouldn't work.That last argument does have merit, but the question is how many of these long monsters are in Budapest. And for the few would it not be a good idea to employ inspectors at every door? I'll bet that the extra money collected would more than pay for their salaries. The Budapesters added that the financial loss was simply not enough to worry about. Peanuts!

To the contrary, for the past few years one has heard more and more about the transit system's staggering losses, specifically the losses incurred as a result of "skipping." Billions and billions of forints. It has taken management a long time, but it seems that they have finally recognized that the current system is unsustainable. As is it, there are talks about reducing the number of buses and streetcars by thirty percent in order to survive. Or perhaps allowing private companies to provide public transportation.

My first inkling that something was in the offing came from a relative in Pécs. I happened to mention to my cousin the practice here of getting on in the front and off in the back. The surprise answer came: they introduced this a few months ago in Pécs.

A few days later what do I read? As an "experiment" they are testing out the system we have been suggesting for years on "less frequented" bus lines in Budapest. The article mentioned four such lines and stressed that this is just a trial run. After assessing the experience with these four lines they will decide whether this new practice could possibly be introduced on other lines as well.

And now comes the modern monsters' case. This is a real problem due to the extraordinary length of the Siemens Combino streetcars recently introduced in Budapest. As you can see from the attached picture checking tickets here might be a real problem.Combino Again as a "experiment" they are checking passengers' tickets at the beginning of their run and only during rush hours. During the day everything is going on in the same old way. The experiment started off well, the "passengers were cooperative."  A reporter sent out by Népszava talked to a man in his thirties who unabashedly told him that he never buys a season pass and only purchases a ticket when he really has to. Yesterday he didn't have to because it wasn't rush hour. And if tomorrow the inspectors  allow people to ride only if they have tickets, he will just walk a few minutes to the next stop where no one checks anything. At home he has hundreds of "summonses" to pay a surcharge on his travels without tickets, but he will never pay them a penny. The reporter did a mini unscientific survey which confirmed the general impression. Out of ten passengers six paid while four skipped. Another man interviewed called the whole checking process "humbug." His wife used his season pass today, so he "skipped." Of course there were no consequences.

During our animated discussions about public transportation we, ex-pats, also suggested queueing up at the bus stops. That too was rejected. First because it slows down traffic. Second, because several buses stop at the same place. Let's say one wants to take bus number 17 but 19 and 23 also stop there. One cannot queue up under these circumstances!  We suggested that perhaps there should be more than one stop if three different buses go along the same road for a while. Well, that wouldn't work either, they answered. It would take up too much space at the curb. At that point we gave up.

This story tells a lot about how difficult it is to introduce anything new. People are afraid of innovation and will go to great lengths to explain why a particular change wouldn't work. It might work everywhere else in the world but not in Budapest. A difficult situation.

Hungarian public education: 1945-1956

First a few words about the war years, especially 1943 and 1944. Although the Soviet troops were still nowhere and Hungary was not yet a battlefield, the education of children was not without its problems. During 1943 Hungary was the target of aerial attacks so attending school wasn't always easy. In Budapest, for example, the "siege" lasted for months; most people were happy to survive in bomb shelters. And when there was door to door armed conflict, going to school was out of the question. Even in cities where the German takeover was relatively easy, with armed opposition lasting only a few days, schools were closed for the first semester of the 1944-45 academic year. No teaching, no grades. And what was especially academically damaging was that many school districts didn't insist on repeating this term. They simply passed students on. This was especially harmful to students in the lower grades.

Where the fighting was intense, schools were not spared. Across the country sixty percent of the high schools were damaged and about half of the elementary schools. Two thousand schools were very heavily damaged. Although repair began immediately, over 800 couldn't be used as late as 1947. There was not only damage to the buildings; often such items as desks, books, and lab equipment were gone.

In spite of these difficulties the coalition government launched the democratization of the school system because in the years prior to 1945 the school system was effectively organized along class lines. The lower classes (mostly peasant boys and girls) attended the six-grade elementary schools, the lower middle-class the "middle schools" (polgári), and the children of the middle- and upper-middle-class attended gymnasium between the ages of 10 and 18. This system was immediately changed with the introduction of eight years of "general school" (általános iskola) and four years of high school that could be either gymnasium or teachers' high school. Later the ministry here and there tinkered with the system, but the formula of 8 + 4 has remained to this day.

Educational reform got off to a rough start. In the first couple of years the change was often merely a difference in name. It didn't matter what the old one-classroom village school was called; basically it remained the same old village school. It didn't matter what the law said about the educational attainment necessary for teachers in the higher grades of the general school if there were no such teachers available. And the demand for "specialists" in math-physics, in geography, in literature-history or in a foreign languages for grades five through eight was empty if there were no trained experts. At the top, the former elite gymnasiums remained exactly the same elite schools as before. The teachers were university educated with specialties. There was no shortage of foreign language teachers. Theoretically schools could teach any western language if there were qualified teachers, but in most schools the preferred language was still German. This was the situation until 1949 when Hungary introduced Russian as a compulsory language and stopped teaching everything else.

Between 1945 and 1948 most of the schools were in the churches' hands, predominantly in the hands of the Catholic Church. Sixty-three percent of the eight-grade general schools, 49% of gymnasiums and 74% of all teachers' high schools were parochial. In the summer of 1948, after a huge debate, parliament passed the law on the nationalization of schools. Altogether 6,500 schools were taken over by the state. The Protestant churches and the Jewish community, realizing the hopelessness of their situation, didn't put up a fight. The Catholic Church, under the guidance of the Prince Primate József Mindszenty, resisted–with devastating consequences.

After the nationalization students encountered an entirely new world. Often they had to change schools because theoretically at least the cities were carved up into different school districts and each student was supposed to attend the school in his district. But Hungary was still Hungary, communist or noncommunist. I had classmates in my new school who came from the other end of town because they were attached to the school and its teachers. On the other hand, a former classmate of mine who lived about three doors down from the district school, refused to change schools and remained in the old Catholic gymnasium, most likely because her parents were convinced that standards would be higher there than in the former Hungarian Reformed middle school (polgári) catering to daughters of better-off peasants from the surrounding villages. But the standards didn't remain the same even there because the nuns could no longer teach and most of the lay teachers were transferred to other district schools.

In my new district school some teachers remained from the earlier Calvinist days, but they were not exactly shining lights. Then there were the (I assume) undereducated newcomers. The most amusing was a fellow who was supposed to teach history but got stuck on "primitive man." What I remember most vividly was how "primitive man" tried to discover what in his environment was poisonous and what could be eaten safely. The "taste tester" sampled. If it was poisonous, we know what happened to him. All this high-level teaching was accompanied by the teacher's ostensibly imitative theatrical performances!

Between 1948 and 1955 the number of high school students almost doubled in contrast to the Horthy period when it grew by only 20%. The emphasis was on developing a new educated class with working class or peasant roots. That could only be achieved by the Hungarian version of affirmative action at the expense of children of white collar workers or those of the former "ruling classes." Children whose parents the regime found objectionable were often denied admission to high school. Entrance to university was strictly regulated by quotas; well over 50% of the students came from a lower-class background. To accelerate the process the government introduced the so-called "specialized matriculation course" (szakérettségi) that was supposed to prepare people, often older than eighteen and with very little formal education, to enter college. The "course" was originally one year in length, and when that turned out to be a huge fiasco it was changed to two years. Gyula Horn, prime minister of Hungary between 1994 and 1998 and formerly a high party official in the Kádár regime, went through one of these preparatory courses and from there straight to the Soviet Union to study "finance." I often wondered what kind of economics he could possibly have learned in Stalin's Soviet Union! I'm not saying that these students were undeserving, but many were unprepared. I personally encountered quite a few fast-tracked students as classmates; as far as I know they all finished college. According to rumors, professors were told to pay special attention to their "progress."

As far as the universities were concerned standards dropped considerably. Famous professors were fired to make room for the "politically correct." Some didn't even have to go through the usual promotional procedure. I knew one teacher who without any experience whatsoever became a full professor and head of a department. (Later he became a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences!) Between 1950 and 1952 175 new university textbooks were published. Eighty-six of them were translations from Russian. Everybody had to take two years of Marxism-Leninism and two years of "extra" Russian–basically elementary Russian redux. There were an incredible number of compulsory classes, and attendance was taken. It was like an extension of high school. Classes started at eight in the morning and at four o'clock we were still busily taking notes. Independent work was practically non-existent, and very little time remained to do any extra reading in the library. Each course had a textbook that had to be memorized and spewed back at oral examinations. At the same time some professors had a more self-serving concept of teaching. A later famous literary historian taught us early Hungarian literature in the second semester of the first year. He happened to be writing a book on a minor Hungarian poet. Thus, for the entire semester every lecture was a detailed analysis of everything this fellow ever wrote. Beside his name I don't remember a thing about him!

If you think I exaggerate, let me quote the historian T. Iván Berend, who attended the same university I did a few years earlier. In his autobiography Történelem– ahogy én láttam (History as I saw it [Budapest 1997]) he writes about his university years. "The standards of my studies at the Faculty of Arts [of ELTE] were shamefully low. We were unable to become familiar with most of the historical literature of the past. Our 'textbooks' on world history were light-blue colored pamphlets published by the Soviet Party College [Pártfőiskola]…. Important historical works were absent from the recommended reading list and often even from the libraries. What they considered to be ideologically undesirable, bourgeois, or 'antagonistic' to the regime were discarded or their reading was restricted to 'researchers' with special passes. Western books and periodicals were not available. We heard nothing of new historical debates or theories…. Language requirements didn't exist, only Russian was available and even that on a low level."

By leaving Hungary I entered an entirely different educational system, and I must say that it was a welcome change. As opposed to my Hungarian university experience the years spent in college in the West were enjoyable and fruitful.

Hungarian public education: The beginnings

It is clear from comments to my earlier post on education that people have rather strong views about the kind of education Hungarian children should receive. Some believe in the old-fashioned "Prussian" model that has been the norm in Hungary ever since 1869 when the first education law was drafted. Although Hungarian education underwent many changes over the subsequent 140 years, the Prussian model that emphasizes factual learning and discipline remained its cornerstone. Yes, today most of the children finish high school at the age of eighteen while about a hundred years ago most sons and daughters of Hungarian peasants quit school after four grades at the age of ten. Yes, a hundred years ago most village schools had only one classroom with a single teacher. Today there are very few schools where there are not enough teachers. In fact, the opposite is true: too many teachers for too few children. While in 1910 the student teacher ratio was 67:1, nowadays the trouble is that in certain places the ratio is 14:1. Discipline until very recently was enforced rigorously. Children were supposed to sit in their seats with their hands behind their backs and no spontaneity of any sort was allowed.

Even today there are a lot of people who are convinced that this was and remains a good model and that new ideas about teaching lead to ignorance and sloth. Our academician, Gábor Náray-Szabó, who gave such a bad name to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in an interview that I translated to everybody's delight, said another terribly clever thing the other day. He thinks that no one should be able to matriculate and go on to college unless the student knows fifty Hungarian poems by heart! Obviously his thinking on education is rooted in the Prussian model. Even in the 1950s for the Hungarian language and literature matriculation exams students had to memorize several dozen poems. As if it served any useful purpose. (But wait, here's an old rationalization made new in a poem by an American high school English teacher: "I make them memorize soliloquies, some lines to keep, should they / be taken prisoner, like John McCain, in some foreign jail.")

In the 1870s illiteracy was high in Hungary–over 65%. By 1910 it was only 33% but still lagged behind Western Europe where illiteracy was around 10%. The 1869 law made education compulsory between ages of 6 and 12 or six grades, but most of the village boys and girls left school after the fourth grade and began to work alongside their fathers and mothers. The overwhelming majority of the village schools had only one classroom and children of all grades studied together. If one could call it studying. The teachers in these schools were not terribly well educated themselves. After four years of elementary school and four years of middle school they attended teachers' high school and at the age of eighteen were let loose on the villages. The lower middle class sent their sons and daughters after the first four grades to middle school called polgári. Most of the girls never got any farther. Girls actually couldn't even attend gymnasium before 1891. They could study at home and take exams in the school. Very few did. Those boys who aspired to greater heights after finishing four years of elementary school entered gymnasium of eight years' duration that ended with a comprehensive (matriculation) exam necessary to enter college. Before World War I  2.5% to 3% of students between the age of 10 and 18 attended gymnasium; put another way, 1.4% of the whole population finished high school. That sounds terribly low today, but apparently on the continent only in Germany was the percentage of high school students higher.

After the First World War the structure itself remained the same but more money was spent on education. More than twice as much, mostly on elementary education. In 1919-1920 there were 5,584 elementary schools with 824,454 students while in 1937-38 there were 6,899 elementary schools with 963,087 students. The student-teacher ratio improved greatly: only 48 students were taught by one teacher. Let me add that even in the 1950s in gymnasiums the average class size was over 40. Illiteracy was lowered from 33% to 15% while the number of high school graduates grew substantially. By the 1930s 10% of the children between the ages of 10 and 18 were attending high school. The percentage of those who finished high school in the population as a whole also grew enormously. It more than doubled from 2.6% to 6%. As for university graduates–before the war out of 1,234 Hungarians there was one university graduate; by 1930 the ratio had improved to one in 759. Put differently, in the population over the age of six, in 1930 1.1% had finished university. Again, this sounds very low but if we compare it to as late as 1990 when only 7.6% of the population over the age of seven had finished university, neither the Rákosi nor the Kádár regime could brag about its achievements in this respect.

Finally, one more thing about the educational system prior to 1948, the year of the nationalization of schools. Most of the schools were parochial, and most of the parochial schools were Catholic. Prior to World War I 80% of elementary schools, 64% of gymnasiums and 59% of middle schools were in the hands of the churches. After the war because of border changes the churches' role in education only increased. By 1920 86% of elementary schools were parochial. The situation was the same in other types of schools as well. Despite the government's efforts to establish new state schools, the situation barely changed. There were cities where there was no choice: all high schools were in the hands of the Catholic Church. For example, in my hometown Pécs. Two parochial boys' gymnasiums and one girls' gymnasium. Interestingly enough, prior to World War I there was a state "reálgimnázium" for boys but after the war the school simply vanished.

It was after World War II that a thorough reorganization of the educational system occurred and in 1948 that the dominance of parochial schools was broken. But that is another story.