Stopping time: Back to the Horthy regime (Kossuth Square)

The Hungarian government which is supposed to be conservative and thus should espouse values based on historical continuity has somewhat odd notions about history. They think they can pick and choose periods they want to acknowledge and revere while others can simply be cast away. This worldview manifests itself in the preamble of the new constitution which declares: “We date the restoration of our country’s self-determination, lost on the nineteenth day of March 1944, from the second day of May 1990, when the first freely elected body of popular representation was formed. We shall consider this date to be the beginning of our country’s new democracy and constitutional order.” The present government in effect banishes the period between March 19, 1944 and May 2, 1990 from the history of the nation simply because in their view the country was not free. As we will see later, it is even doubtful whether Viktor Orbán’s government is ready to embrace the last twenty years or so as a legitimate part of Hungarian history.

There are more and more signs that a rehabilitation or even restoration of the Horthy regime (1920-1944) is under way. I will offer two examples. The first is the proposed restoration of Kossuth Square in front of the Hungarian parliament which aims at a perfect recreation of the square as it stood in the last year of the Horthy regime. Everything that was added since will be removed. And everything that was removed after 1944 will be put back to its former place. The second example is the new law on education that seems to be modelled on the ideas of Count Kunó Klebersberg (1875-1932), minister of education between 1922 and 1932, about which I will talk tomorrow.

Let’s first take a look at the issue of Kossuth Square. Cityscapes change over time. As I was trying to find material on the sculptor whose Kossuth statue was erected on the square, then still called Országház tér, I discovered that János Horvay seems to have specialized in Kossuth statues. He was a native of Pécs, and therefore it is not at all surprising that the Kossuth statue of Pécs was also his creation. My research led me to a wonderful site where one can see the changes in Pécs’s Kossuth Square between 1890 and 2006 through old postcards and photos. Squares and streets also have a history, and history cannot be stopped. Or, it shouldn’t be stopped, but this is exactly what the present political leaders in the Hungarian parliament are attempting to do.

András Gerő, the historian of the Habsburg era, wrote a whole book about the history of Budapest’s Kossuth Square. The first time we encounter a name for the place is 1820 when it was called Stadtischer Auswind Platz (Unloading Square for Ships). In the middle of the nineteenth century it was called Tömő tér or Stadt Schopper Platz (Landfill Square; how pedestrian!) because it was a low-lying swampy area that had to be built up in order to utilize it. The square received its final shape after the construction of the current parliament building at the turn of the last century.

The Orbán government’s problem is not with the buildings but with the statues that were erected on the square itself. After 1948 a couple of statues were removed while others were installed. The original Kossuth statue erected in 1927 was considered to be “too pessimistic” by Mátyás Rákosi and another was put in its place, presumably more optimistic. The “pessimistic” statue of Kossuth and his fellow ministers was removed to Dombóvár, a smallish town in Transdanubia, where it was erected as separate statues. Here is the original Horvay statue:


And here is the “optimistic” Kossuth, the work of Zsigmond Kisfaludy Strobl:


So, according to plans the 1927 Kossuth statue will be coming back. That is, if Dombovár relinquishes it. At the moment the city fathers are resisting.

Then two statues that had been standing in 1944 were removed. One was of István Tisza, prime minister of Hungary during World War I who was assassinated in 1918. His statue was erected in 1934. He was considered to be the hero of Hungary by the Horthy regime and the new regime wasn’t too keen on having his statue on that square.


The other statue that was removed was that of Count Gyula Andrássy, Hungarian prime minister and foreign minister of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy who was largely responsible for the alliance between Germany and the Dual Monarchy.


Since then, however, a few new statues were placed on the square. One especially irritates Jobbik, the neo-nazi party, because they wrongly assume that Count Mihály Károlyi, Hungary’s prime minister in 1918-1919, was responsible for Trianon. The party leaders staged several demonstrations in front of the statue and several times it was covered with red paint. I have the sneaking suspicion that the whole idea of recreating the pre-1944 look of the square is just an excuse for Fidesz to oblige Jobbik, removing the offensive statue which is, by the way, artistically the best among all the statues in front of parliament.


And there is another problem, and that is a big one. There is a statue erected in 1980 depicting Attila József (1905-1937), by many considered to be Hungary’s best poet. Removing his statue is unimaginable to lovers of his poetry. Mind you, József was not exactly a favorite of the Horthy regime. He was considered to be a “proletarian poet” and at one point he even joined the illegal communist party. His statue is appropriately placed here because one of his best known poems is “At the Danube,” describing his thoughts while sitting on the bank of the river.


And finally. How will they explain the removal of the 1956 Memorial that was erected after 1990? It is an appropriate place for it. After all, it was here that the demonstrators waited for hours for Imre Nagy.


What will the excuse be? Perhaps that the revolution occurred while Hungary’s sovereignty was in question? According to at least one poster at the Sunday demonstration,”Viktor Orbán is the traitor of 1956.” And, let me add, he is betraying the spirit of 1989 as well.


  1. The grasping-back to the Horthy era is as fascinating as it is disturbing. Surely enthusiasts of this idea are very selective readers of history. For example, one thing I don’t get is why right-wingers so anxious about Hungarian “independence” would long for a period when Hungary was either more or less diplomatically impotent, a regional pariah, or increasingly drawn into the gravity well of the Axis. This seems like a pretty dubious example to follow.

  2. If they really want to change the square to the time that Horthy was in charge. They may also want to consider the replace the current tram types to the old ones, as they are almost part of the street furniture.
    As to Horthy furniture he may have used, apparently in Godollo they have some. (Need google translation from Dutch into requested language)
    As to the car situation I do not know in that time, or where they using horse and carriage?

  3. Ron: “They may also want to consider the replace the current tram types to the old ones, as they are almost part of the street furniture.”
    That’s exactly. Why only the statues? After I had finished writing today’s piece I listened to one of my favorite programs, “A tét,” with András Bánó on ATV. The last topic was the Square and one of the guests the very same András Gerő, the historian, who wrote a whole book on its history. I must say that his views are almost identical to mine.

  4. Yes, and let’s cover the Metro signs and move the cars of the PM’s from the parking lot.
    Viktor should ride around Kossuth ter on a white horse in an old navy uniform.
    They should remove all iPads and the PMs should leave their cigars in the cigar holders near the entrances.

  5. Maybe in the next step all Budapest will be turned back to prior 1945. Buildings will be taken down, roads will be destroyed and telecommunication towers dismantled. I can see how they reinstalling the streetcar tracks on Rakoczi street, and close the entrances to the blue and red line of the subway system. Orban’s disillusions at work: Why concentrate on things that really matter when we can provide hocus pocus to entertain and bemuse the masses?

  6. “Viktor should ride around Kossuth ter on a white horse in an old navy uniform.”
    But only if he gets some serious tatoos first, like Horthy.

  7. Another question is whether they will get rid of the rather mediocre statue of post-war politician Béla Kovács, erected during the first Orbán government.
    It sits on the south side of Parliament, near the tram tracks.

  8. At least it offers an occasion to “make sense of the past”. Of course Viktor Orban cannot take back time but perhaps more people than Eva or Andras Gerö will think about what exactly those years before and after 1944 mean for Hungary. Both time periods appear full of unresolved issues. It does sound strange that sculptures are being installed, removed, installed and removed again but it would be an occasion to reconsider the role of Karolyi, Kossuth (pessimistic or optimistic?, sounds like a rather minor issue but who knows…), 1867, 1956, “critics” such as Attila Jozsef. It has been surprising to me before that Hungarian national pride is able (after some time) to accommodate to any person born Hungarian who became famous (at least this is how it appears to me; Hungarians “that one can be proud of” are such a diverse group that I have already wondered what exactly – in addition to the language – might connect them). I would find a debate useful, and such debate would not stop when the Kossuth tér is renamed Auswind Platz or Orszaghaz ter and other statues put on it.

  9. Expect some noise — “What’s wrong with Kossuth?” — when it will be re-named from Kossuth to Országház tér. For the kulturkämpfers inside the building, wouldn’t it be much easier to explain the waste of countless HUF 100 millions by giving the square the name: “Visual Preamble to Our New Basic Law” or: “Viktor Orbán Expels the German Troops on 19 March 1944” or: “The World’s First Time Machine Designed on IPad” or: … please continue…

  10. Actually, here is the most precise inscription for any of the statues on the square: “Jobbik only wanted to remove the Karolyi statue, but FIDESZ removed the whole square. So come on, Mr. Vona, give me your tired, huddled, wretched voters ASAP, I lift my lamp beside the golden door. — Viktor”

  11. Miklós Haraszti: “”Jobbik only wanted to remove the Karolyi statue, but FIDESZ removed the whole square.”
    Of course, that’s a wonderful way to satisfy Jobbik’s demand without making it too obvious. And at the tune of 2.5 billion!

  12. I think the formula is very simple for Orban. Communists are the big bad wolf while the ultra right (jobbik) is something to flirt with. It is beside the point that many of Orban’s new moves would make Lenin beg for the recipe, at this point being up the behind of Vona gives more popular points to Orban that sticking with he values of Europe or the developed world. He is pushing the country back by decades if not by centuries. St Stephan took on Christianity to bring Hungary closer to European values, and even the controversial Klebersberg tried to bring Hungary closer to Europe. Orban on the other hand…

  13. some1: “Orban on the other hand…”
    This is what I do not comprehend either, that the European orientation is all of the sudden doubted, Asian values “rediscovered”, while the Holy Crown of the “European” St Stephen and Christianity are most prominently mentioned in the national creed.
    And a redesign of the whole Kossuth ter only to remove “inconspicuously” the statue of Karolyi is really cunning, it is a bit sad that this brainpower is not spent on economic growth strategies instead. Or perhaps no wonder that the suggested growth strategies are so shallow if brainpower is wasted on the question how to remove the statue of Karolyi without suggesting that it was the intention to remove it.

  14. Getting back to Count Mihály Károlyi – can anyone explain the ‘logic’ of the right’s claim that he was responsible for Trianon?
    From my reading on the subject, apart from the fact he was PM for a couple of years just before Trianon, he seems to have had no particular part to play in the unfortunate outcome. In fact, it appears that decisions on Hungary’s fate had already been taken some time before the final verdict and nothing Hungary could do or say was going to make the slightest difference.
    How do they make out that Károlyi made things any worse, or could have made things any better? (JB, are you there?)
    Interestingly, although I fail to see how Károlyi can be blamed for anything, Bethlen actually could be. Because of the strong ‘all or nothing’ line he took on revision of Trianon, the Allies, who might well have been sympathetic to adjustments of the new border in Hungary’s favour, got tired of Bethlen’s intransigence – and Hungary’s one great chance to recover from the worst injustices of Trianon was lost forever.
    Without Bethlen’s hard-line stance, there’s a very good chance that modern day Hungary would have included cities such as Kassa, Ungvár, Beregszász, Nagyvárad, Arad, etc. His attitude not only ensured that this would never happen, but also effectively created the situation where Hungary was enticed into the Faustian pact of the Vienna ‘awards’, and the hell that followed from that*.
    (*I am aware that he was against an alliance with Germany and worked to stop/delay the fascists within Hungary, but it was his pro-Italy/Germany stance, and, in particular, his unbending insistence on complete revision of Trianon, or nothing, that ultimately led Hungary to its dreadful fate.)

  15. @ Paul THey can’t! On the other hand they need a scapegoat. They dismiss historical facts in order to show the uneducated and easily influenced the “perfect society” Hungary could of have without Trianon (all Jews dead and peasants happily working away on the fields 18 hours a day to support the aristocrats). They fail to reinforce what reality was, namely that Hungary started a bloody war with its friends, and the price had to be paid. When Hungarians look for stronger sentences for criminals, they should take a look first on WWI, and realize that Trianon is the stronger sentence that Hungary deserved.

  16. Paul, I think the logic was that Karolyi retreated too quickly. He accepted to play fair (I would say) and wait for a peace conference that would have drawn new borders based on the nationality principle. He may not have known or not believed that the decision was already taken that Hungary would be reduced to what it actually became. The “criticism” of Karolyi was that he should have sent the army to fight. That this was impossible (as there was nearly nothing left of the army) and futile (the new borders were more or less decided and France had made that clear to Hungary afterwards a number of times), does not seem to be very acceptable for some audience. But I think that other characteristics of Karolyi will have been “problematic”, too, a noble who starts with a land reform or who widens suffrage, that must have been a shock!
    If you read on Budapost, 31st October, the ideas of Andras Bencsik, this type of thinking will also make Karolyi a problem. He thinks that “participation in public affairs [should] be confined to those who meet certain material and cultural standards”. And then there are people who really introduced universal suffrage and destroyed the “happy era” when only the most gifted decided… (and Hungary was great). Karolyi was too democratic (and certainly an “ultra-liberal” 😉 ). That is my interpretation.

  17. I suspect you are right, Kirsten.
    But even a quick read of the history of that period shows, a) (as you say) that sending the army to fight (who? where?) would have been futile, if not virtually impossible, and b) when Kun did send the army into battle it ultimately just made things a lot worse.
    Károlyi comes across as weak and indecisive and not a man for shouldering responsibility or taking decisions, so he certainly wasn’t the PM Hungary might have hoped for at such a critical time in its history, but he didn’t actually do (or not do) anything that made Trianon happen or be worse than it might have been.
    He was just the wrong man at the wrong time. There are plenty of others who should shoulder a lot more of the blame for Trianon and its after effects before we get round to blaming Károlyi.

  18. What I am missing (perhaps because I have not yet found a suitable source) is something that could be considered “Hungarian democratic thinking” or “Hungarian democrats”. I am sure that a number of people could be included, but Kossuth is more important as a national (language, descent-wise) hero, Karolyi is a national traitor (only topped by Ferenc Gyurcsany), Bibo is a “communist” and so forth. I think democratic-minded Hungarians could use some aspects of Karolyi’s thinking as an inspiration. But in general it appears that thinking about “great” or important Hungarians in terms of democracy is of second (if not tenth) rank. National survival is the top (or even only) priority. But generally for the democratically minded opposition it would be very helpful to try to detect the “democratic line of thinking” in Hungarians past and present (more modern that the elective king or the liberties of nobles also called tax exemption). That may help conceptualise a democratic Hungary.

  19. The bad rap that Karolyi is “enjoying” for some time goes back to the early 1920s and originates in the book of Cécil Tormay: The Outlaw’s Diary.
    In this book the author, describe Karolyi in every disagreeable term, not making secret at all of her deep dislike of him, going back far before the War. The book is in renewed circulation again and every self-respecting Jobbik supporter must read it to acquire the righteous attitude towards Karolyi. Although the book doesn’t attribute the Trianon fiasko to him. It would have been a lie then, when every living soul remembered who the responsible party was. (So it is a lie still today, when nobody is willing to remember what actually happened.)
    He was the president of the first republic, (not prime minister), and as such he is the one who buried the Monarchy. He was also the one who, as president, invited the communists to form the government, in March 1919, but only under duress, since nobody else was willing to take the job.
    He was disgusted with militarism, didn’t hesitate to say so in public, but that was just too early right after the shamefully lost war.
    As a consequence, he was closely associated with the Jewish elite, some of whom were the members of his government and his administration, therefore, in the eyes of the Right he tainted his own human qualities. (This is why his statue received that famous yarmulke not so long ago.)
    He also committed the unforgivable sin of taking the propaganda for land reform seriously, alone among his peers, and distributed some of his estate amongst the landless peasants.
    But likely his greatest sin was then as well as now, that he “betrayed” his class. To boot, he was more than rich and secure enough to afford him being above the fray and acting on his principles. This cost him dearly. He bumped up against every regime in his life time, but refused to bend.
    His appearance was awkward and thus misleading his enemies to think that he is not “good enough” to dare defying them. But he was and he is. Orban Viktor soon will be one of the greatest of national embarrassments, his name is and increasingly will be mud, but Karolyi somehow will come out on the top as he has done repeatedly, living, or dead.

  20. Paul about Károlyi: “From my reading on the subject, apart from the fact he was PM for a couple of years just before Trianon”
    Not even that much. He became prime minister in October 1918 and the whole thing was over by March 1919 when the communists took over.

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