István Bibó (August 7, 1911- May 10, 1979)

István Bibó is considered by some to be the greatest Hungarian political thinker of the twentieth century. His published writings appeared primarily between 1945 and 1947, the period he deemed the most important in his whole life. He suggested that the epitaph "István Bibó, lived between 1945 and 1947" be inscribed on his tombstone.

He was rediscovered after his death when members of the democratic opposition decided to publish a memorial volume of essays in his honor. Considering that István Bibó for a few days was a member of Imre Nagy's second government in 1956 and after the revolution he was sentenced to life imprisonment, the authorities refused to grant permission to have the volume published which eventually appeared in samizdat. According to some analysts it was István Bibó who managed to bring together the two warring factions of János Kádár's opposition: the urbanites and the "narodniks." Today we would call these urbanites liberals; the narodniks by now can be safely placed right of center. Sometimes even way right of center. But, as Krisztián Ungváry remarks in an essay written for the occasion of the Bibó centennial, out of the ten editors of the volume there was only one person from the "völkisch" side, Sándor Csoóri. Jenő Szücs, the medieval historian, couldn't be placed in either group. The rest were former urbanites/liberals.

Bibó is greatly revered in liberal circles. Although Viktor Orbán and Fidesz occasionally pay lip service to Bibó's work and significance, he could not possibly speak the language of today's Fidesz. That despite the fact that early Fidesz history is organically connected to a dormitory/specialty college that was later named after István Bibó and where several of the founders of the party lived while in university.

However, says Ungváry, Bibó was not a liberal, and he brings up a few examples to prove his point. I must say that these facts of Bibó's life were unknown to me. For example, he didn't think that the introduction of universal suffrage or the full-fledged functioning of a parliamentary system would be appropriate until "political and moral regeneration" takes place. He also considered the mass migration of former Arrow Cross members into the Hungarian Communist Party  (MKP) inevitable.

There is no question about Bibó's moral stance, which was indeed exemplary, but some of his political value judgments are questionable. As an internet friend remarked years ago: "István Bibó was an excellent man who joined the wrong party." He opted for the Peasant Party which, as it turned out, was the creation of MKP. I'm sure that Bibó was not aware of the fact that some of the leaders, like his old friend from school days, Ferenc Erdei, were secretly also members of the Hungarian Communist Party.

There are a few works of Bibó that every educated Hungarian must read. For example, "Zsidókérdés Magyarországon" (The Jewish Question in Hungary). But when it came to practical politics of the immediate post-1945 years Bibó could exhibit extraordinary naiveté. I remember when I first picked up Bibó's essay on "The Crisis of Hungarian Democracy," I stopped dead at the very first sentences: "Hungarian democracy is in crisis. It is in crisis because it lives in fear. It has two kinds of fear: it is afraid of the proletarian dictatorship and it is afraid of reaction. There are no objectively grounded reasons for either fear. Those in Hungary who want to establish a proletarian dictatorship and those who want the return of the old regime are in a significant minority. Moreover, outside forces would not welcome either turn of events." How wrong Bibó was or how naive. Of course, there was plenty of reason to fear that the Hungarian Communist Party with the Red Army in place was building a road toward proletarian dictatorship during 1945 and 1946.

Bibó later in life acknowledged his own naiveté. Although in his last years he wrote almost nothing, he gave a long interview before his death in which he said that "I know that my complete work is hopelessly naive, as my writings during 1945-46 were naive." Ungváry considers Bibó's blindness toward the machinations of Mátyás Rákosi's communists more than naiveté. Here, in my opinion, Ungváry takes an intellectually dangerous turn, trying to psychoanalyze Bibó.

Bibó was implacably harsh against himself, against his faults. And because he considered himself a member of the Hungarian Christian middle class whom he found for the most part guilty of political and moral blindness that led the country to the precipice, he overcompensated, says Ungváry. For example, after the 1947 Paris Peace Treaty, Bibó uttered a sentence Ungváry finds horrible: "Hungary got what it deserved." To his mind, the treaty was punishment for the wrongs of the Christian-national regime.

As for the Jewish question, Ungváry claims that Bibó didn't always see clearly on the question of Hungarian-Jewish relations. For example, he refused to sign the petition of the intellectuals against the so-called Jewish laws of 1939 because the petition said nothing about the deprivations of the rights of Hungarians. Perhaps, continues Ungváry, Bibó's reaction after the Holocaust is more understandable. He felt shame as a result of the Christian national middle class's behavior after the German occupation and during the Szálasi period. One also has to bear in mind that his closest friend, Béla Reitzer, died in 1943 somewhere in the Ukraine as a member of a Jewish labor battalion.

In addition, there might have been other psychological factors that led Bibó in a direction closer to the left. His father-in-law, Hungarian Reformed Bishop László Ravasz, as a member of the Upper House spoke in favor of the second Jewish Laws. Although Bibó never talked about it, Dénes Bibó, his uncle, was a favorite of Pál Prónay, the notorious white terrorist, responsible for the deaths of perhaps hundreds of Jews and non-Jews. Dénes Bibó is described in the index of names of A határban a Halál kaszál: Fejezetek Prónay Pál naplójából as "a most cruel terrorist." (An interesting footnote to family history. István's Bibó's paternal grandmother was of Jewish origin. I wonder what Prónay would have thought, if he knew that his favorite officer was half Jewish!)

The "third road" of the "narodniks," something between communism and capitalism, was a solution Bibó very much wanted to believe in. He rejected a bipolar world divided between American imperialism and a Soviet-led socialist camp. Thus, says Ungváry, Bibó has very little offer to the Hungary of today.

Perhaps, but there is serious work being done on an evaluation of István Bibó's work and his place in Hungarian intellectual history and political philosophy. In 1996 the István Bibó Intellectual Workshop was established, and his collected works will be available soon in twelve volumes. His four-volume Selected Works are already available online. Moreover, some of his essays were translated into English, French, and German.



  1. Reading:
    “Halljuk azt az ellenvetést is, hogy a magyar társadalom nagyobbrészt nem tudott arról, ami a megsemmisítő táborokban történt, s ha hallott ilyenekről, azok annyira valószínűtlenül hangzottak, hogy el sem hitte. Az, hogy ezeket első szóra nem hiszi el valaki, természetes. De nem az a lényeges, hogy első szóra elhittük-e, vagy ameddig lehetett, kételkedtünk. Hanem az a lényeges, hogy abban a pillanatban, mikor először felvetődött a legtávolibb lehetősége annak, hogy ilyenek történnek, ettől magától meg kell borzadnia és cselekvésbe kell lendülnie minden ép erkölcsi érzékű embernek. Mi pedig éppen akkor kezdtük nem „elhinni” a megsemmisítő táborokat, mikor a deportáló vagonokról már éppen eleget tudtunk ahhoz, hogy amazokat is elhihessük: s nem azért nem hittük el, mert töretlenül bíztunk az emberi jóérzésben, hanem azért, hogy ne kelljen szembenéznünk a magunk felelősségével.”
    I like Bibo’s moral approach. I wish more Christian and Jewish Hungarians were as honest as Bibo.

  2. reading-bibo-for-the -first-time, Here is the translation of the Hungarian quote from Bibo’s essay, The Jewish question in Hungary after 1944: “We also hear the objection that the majority of Hungarian society did not know what was going on in the extermination camps, and considered whatever they heard to be unbelievable. It is natural enough not to believe such stories on first hearing. But the important thing is not whether we believe these stories on first hearing or not, or that we were doubtful as long as we could be; the crux of the matter is that the first time even the possibility arose that these kinds of things were happening, should have been enough for anyone with healthy moral sense to be horrified and to take action. As for us Hungarians, we started “doubting” the stories about the extermination camps just when we had learned enough about the deportation trains to suspect that stories of death camps were true. Moreover, we did not disbelieve because we steadfastly believed in human goodness, but in order not to have face our own responsibility.”

  3. Bibo suggested in his work about the Jewish question, that it was wrong to let Jews act as judges or state attorneys after the liberation in cases of persecution and murder of Jews.
    No one can imagine, that a white South African would have suggested after the downfall of apartheid, that it was wrong to employ black judges or state attorneys in cases of apartheid crimes.
    I consider his most original work the German political Hysteria. Much of it is highly actual in Hungary of 2011.

  4. I am reluctant to write this as I don’t want in any way to support the anti-Jewish outlook of many Hungarians, then and now, but I think we should be very careful not to judge people with the benefit of 65 years hindsight, and from the comfort of our modern-day world and outlook.
    How many of us, finding ourselves in the position of non-Jewish Hungarians between 1943 and 45 can honestly say we would have acted any differently? I like to think I would have, but let’s imagine I have a wife and children – am I going to put their lives at risk, as well as my own, to protect others? In the general anti-Semitic ‘normality’ of the time, would I have thought about the Jews as I do now? Would I have believed all I heard about our friends the Germans, who, after all, had given us back so much of what we had stolen from us in 21?
    We have, or had, this phrase in Britain. “what did you do in the war, Daddy?”, which (I think) originated in propaganda to shame people into doing their bit for the war effort. But when Thatcher was elected in 79 and started doing to Britain what Orbán is intent on doing to Hungary (with less hysteria, but unfortunately, more success), these words came to haunt me.
    The children from my first family were all born in the early Thatcher years, and, at the time, it seemed they were going to live a considerable part of their lives under her regime. I often used to wonder what I would say to them when they confronted me as adults and asked what I did to get rid of Thatcher.
    The answer was effectively “nothing”. I went on demos, I did what I could to support the miners, I joined the Labour Party (and then left!), I wore badges. But that was it. I had a wife and kids and a huge mortgage, I had a well-paid job, which I couldn’t afford to lose. In short, I was utterly part of the ‘system’, I wasn’t free to do anything significant without taking risks I was unwilling or unable to take.
    It’s a trivial example, compared to the Holocaust, I know, but it served to focus my thoughts very effectively. If I couldn’t even stand up and be counted in a largely free and democratic country in the late 20th century, how would I have coped in the Hungary of the mid-40s?
    I suspect we all know the answer to that. And we should remember it when judging others.
    No disrespected intended towards those who did do their bit, of course, but it makes you realise even more just how heroic and amazing their actions were.

  5. The messages of Karl Pfeifer and Paul should be melted together.
    The best thing is to think that Hungarian Christians and Jews have the usual dose of prejudices, and both need a cure.
    The crime perpetrated against all Jews was breathtaking.
    It can be only explained by the fact that the 1800-1900 Catholic and Christian moral failed the people of Germany and Hungary.
    Instead of moral, people were concerned with Trianon?
    The cure is not Communism, but the Deak Ferenc type non-violence and enlightened unity.

  6. Paul nobody in Germany or Hungary was forced to kill or rob Jews. The British Historian Kershaw documented, if someone of the Hamburg police unit, which was sent to the east with the task to kill Jews, refused, he was released and sent to the front. And there were those who refused.
    I recommend you to read Sándor Márai’s diary 1944/45 in which he documented what happened to so many Hungarian “Christians”.
    By the way until today many Hungarians use the word “Christian” as synonym to non-Jew.
    I am afraid to hope for Deak Ferenc type politics in today’s Hungary is overdoing optimism.
    Just a few days ago a Hungarian Nazi called at the “Hungarian Island” for killing Jews. No action of police or justice is taken against him.
    So if tomorrow such words will be followed by deeds nobody should wonder.

  7. @Some1: That is a beautifully fluent translation. Is it your work? If so, congratulations (with a bit of envy). If so or if not, thank you for providing it.

  8. Karl:
    “Paul nobody in Germany or Hungary was forced to kill or rob Jews. The British Historian Kershaw documented, if someone of the Hamburg police unit, which was sent to the east with the task to kill Jews, refused, he was released and sent to the front. And there were those who refused.”
    I don’t think that this was the point that Paul was making. Instead he was suggesting that most people who disagree with the killing would probably just “keep their heads down” ans stay quiet. It might take a lot of bravery to openly oppose such killing.

  9. Wondercat, chayenne: I wish I could take a credit for the translation but I cannot. As you read my rumblings, I am a very careless when typing away. It is a mixture of Hungarian expressions mixed with English translation and all the curse that comes with it. On the other hand when I give attention and happen to reread what I typed away in haste, I can be flawless, but not that good.
    It is from Democracy, revolution, self-determination : selected writings / Istvan Bibo ; edited by Karoly Nagy ; translation by Andras Boros-Kazai

  10. So who was Bibo? Our private little “Marx”? A philosopher, who had questionable ideas but did not want to stick an AK into our butt to realize it? Or a politician we should admire?
    This is sort of off topic but bugs me. Aren’t we eastern-Europeans overusing the word “intellectual”? Especially when referring to a group like “the intellectuals”. Every time there’s a letter or a political pamphlet it’s always signed by “intellectuals”. It’s so unfortunate that we keep drawing this line between the “smart people” and the plebs. It always implies that the country is full of ignorant peasants but luckily here we are the “intellectuals” and we know what’s going on. I’m just wondering who the heck is an intellectual? People with college degrees? Is community college enough?

  11. Mutt Damon, I often wonder about the meaning of the “intellectuals” myself. I think it means different things in different content, but for me it never meant “college degree”. For me it means “those who think”, “people who use their brain”. So in my definition it covers people who come to conclusions on their own, while using various facts, and resources, and are capable to weed out the junk. (So that already disqualifies many people with diplomas, while gives room for the “uneducated” thinkers.)

  12. @Some1 You are absolutely right. My point is that it’s a bad habit, if you wish, and it’s harmful. I have the feeling that the Decaration of Independence if it was written by present day easter-Europeans it would start with “We The Intellectuals”.

  13. David, all the same, the argument, I had to do it, otherwise I would have been killed myself is not valid.
    Randolph Braham once described in detail the responsibility of Christian Churches for what happened in Hungary.
    It can be found on internet

  14. One cannot forget the image of Bibó writing his For Freedom and Truth while awaiting his arrest in the early hours of the 4th of November 1956. Not because of the actual content of the proclamation, but because of the heroic gesture. That could be an historical accident of course, but there is little doubt that Bibó is much more than that. For all I know, he is a serious candidate for the title of greatest Hungarian of the 20th century. If such a title were conceivable (which it isn’t), Bibó´s nomination would be supported by both his writings and his deeds.
    Sure, we must be careful, we are still waiting for a biography and his writings are only partly accessible (and hardly translated). But in the meantime we may at least think about the question why he attracted, and still attracts, so little attention in Hungary. Hungarians are generally not shy about their greats, but not a single street in Budapest is named after Bibó. His merits are be recognized by prominent individuals, but not one of the many political groups that took part in the government of Hungary in the last decades seems to have taken his case to heart.
    Bibó was, I think, essentially a third way thinker, trying to find an alternative to both liberal capitalism and communism. It is probably this quality that made him a figure head for the various shades of the Hungarian opposition in the 1970s and ´80s. The drab commonness of western life was after all not the ideal they had in mind. But for the same reason he may have lost actuality after the regime change in 1989. From the point of view of the westerners he was just naive. And he was hardly the tough nationalist to appeal to the more volkische leaders that are now in power.
    Bibó was an intellectual (you know one when you see one), and as far as I know an impeccable democrat. Qualities that are not much in vogue nowadays. But most of all he seems to have had a special moral quality. Honesty, the will to understand others and to make compromises. He has been called the most patient Hungarian. That should make him an inspiration for the harassed opposition, but we cannot expect to see many Bibó streets anytime soon.

  15. Leo: “That should make him an inspiration for the harassed opposition, but we cannot expect to see many Bibó streets anytime soon.”
    There is talk about it. Not a street but an unnamed public place somewhere near where he lived.

  16. Dear Paul;
    “How many of us, finding ourselves in the position of non-Jewish Hungarians between 1943 and 45 can honestly say we would have acted any differently? I like to think I would have, but let’s imagine I have a wife and children – am I going to put their lives at risk, as well as my own, to protect others?”
    Shame on you. Half of my family were not Jewish and they did what they had to do. Some of them died and yes, they all had a family / eventually me included and lovingly remembering them as long as I live and right now/.
    Of course I am not 100% sure what I would/ could have done. Yet most likely I would have behaved just like they did: do my duty.
    What sort of person are you with your hip left wing whine and this…. this you wrote is such pure bullshit. Ordinary people they were indeed. I understand so were their opponents; it’s just them people were not ethical. So here you are/ am. If you betrayed before in life /I did/: just don’t do it again. Don’t write bullshit to begin with. NO: there is right and wrong. Your choice.
    Dear Mutt:
    “So who was Bibo? Our private little “Marx”? A philosopher, who had questionable ideas but did not want to stick an AK into our butt to realize it? Or a politician we should admire?” – what the hell is this about? Community college will do; besides what was exactly your point? I might not agree with Bibo on many subjects but I consider him a very good man and a most respectable thinker.
    Peter Litvanyi

  17. @Peter “what the hell is this about? Community college will do; besides what was exactly your point?”
    I believe nobody really cares about Bibo nowadays besides academic circles. He is still an interesting reading.
    Reading your rant against Paul I’m not sure about the “very good man” if he refused to sign a petition against Jewish laws.

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