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.