“The trap of silence or the aftermath of the Nyirő affair”

Today I began my day by reading Attila Ara-Kovács’s latest article in Magyar Narancs where he has a column, “Diplomáciai jegyzetek” (Diplomatic notes). Ara-Kovács is originally from Transylvania. He was born in Nagyvárad/Oradea and graduated from the Babeş-Bólyai University in Kolozsvár/Cluj. He was among those who began the first Hungarian-Romanian samizdat publication entitled Ellenpontok (Counterpoints). He has been living in Hungary since 1983 where he joined the handful of dissidents who voiced their opposition to the one-party system. It was this group that eventually established SZDSZ (Szabad Demokraták Szövetsége). Ara-Kovács became the party’s foreign policy expert.

Ara-Kovács latest article, “The trap of silence or the aftermath of the Nyirő affair,” deals with the Nyirő affair but not in the sense that most people approach the subject. He is hunting for the underlying issues that  inevitably led to this embarrassing affair that was politely described by President János Áder as a “malheur diplomatique.”

Well, this diplomatic misfortune stirred up, at least abroad, some history that Hungarians would like to forget: Miklós Horthy as Hitler’s ally, Hungary as the country that stood by Nazi Germany to the bitter end, Hungarian antisemitism, the unbelievably speedy elimination of 400,000 Hungarian Jews. And all this “dirty laundry” is now being dragged out and spread around on the pages of German, French, and English newspapers. This is the last thing either the country or Viktor Orbán’s government needed.

How did János Kövér and others, including the poet Géza Szőcs, himself a Transylvanian, end up taking part in an affair which with a little more knowledge of József Nyirő’s literary qualities and his politics could have easily been avoided? Ara-Kovács finds the answer in the “directed cultural policy” of the post 1945 period.  The leadership, especially during the Kádár period, found it embarrassing to talk honestly about the Hungarian far right’s misdeeds. They were also incapable of making a distinction between value and worthlessness, and they were incapable of admitting that even among the best literary talents there were some who made horrible mistakes. There were indeed Hungarian writers active during the Kádár regime whose past was not exactly spotless: László Németh, Lőrinc Szabó, János Kodolányi, for example. In their cases the regime simply forbade any mention of their political activities in the 1930s and 1940s. Others were labelled not quite normal, like Dezső Szabó or József Erdélyi, or were ignored, like Kálmán Sértő and István Sinka (who posthumously received the Kossuth Prize in 1990 and now Hungarian Jewish organizations demand his removal from the curriculum). József Nyirő belonged to the forgotten category. And now all this, because of László Kövér’s attempt to rebury Nyirő, came out of the “national cesspool.”

Twentieth-century Hungarian history may have taught people that forgetting is the best remedy for sleepless nights, but such silence has its pitfalls. The skeleton of Nyirő fell out of the closet and that skeleton reminds us that for such silence one sooner or later will have to pay. If the literary historians had assigned Nyirő his proper place in the history of Hungarian literature and if the politicians in charge of cultural policy didn’t look upon his past as nonexistent, then the right radicals and neo-Nazis of today couldn’t have made “first a martyr and later a clown” out of him.

Silence / rezinate.wordpress.com

In his article Ara-Kovács brings up the story of Hitler’s Mein Kampf  in Hungary. The book was translated into Hungarian in the 1930s but it was an expurgated version. The editors left out everything that even “the not so delicate political taste” of the Horthy regime couldn’t tolerate. After 1945 this edited version was banned. In the 1990s Hungarian right radicals illegally republished that old translation of Mein Kampf. So today, if a young person is interested in reading Hitler’s famous book, he will be reading only an edited version that gives a much more favorable picture of the dictator than the original German. It would be time to publish a critical edition of Mein Kampf. 

A writer who has done a lot to bring to light the political past of some of the Hungarian writers is András Nyerges, who for years wrote a column called “Színrebontás” (Color Separation) in various dailies and eventually in ÉS. Nyerges has a phenomenal knowledge of the right-wing or outright Nazi press between the two world wars. And while he was diligently reading these old newspapers in the Széchenyi Library he found names of contributors that surprised him greatly. People who followed Nyerges’s revelations learned about the ugly spots on some of the most famous Hungarian writers, even those who were loyal followers of the Rákosi and Kádár regimes. For example, Péter Veres. But Nyerges wrote about József Nyirő as well. The article was eventually published in a collected volume, Rendes ország, kétféle történelem. 113 színrebontás (Decent country, two kinds of history. 113 color separations).  From the article we learn that there was a debate over Nyirő’s political role already in 1989 on the occasion of the centennial of the writer’s birth. The argument of Nyirő’s supporters sounds familiar: Nyirő “didn’t serve national socialism with his pen, only with his mere presence.” But this presence was steadfast. According to György Oláh, editor-in-chief of Egyedül Vagyunk, a far-right newspaper, among the radical writers many of them got “”burned by democratic-Marxist ideas.” The only exceptions were Albert Wass and József Nyirő in addition to Antal Práger, the actor.

It is time to face facts, and therefore I was pleased to hear that a conference was held on the role of Horthy and the nature of the Horthy regime today. But conferences are not enough. A balanced and truthful history of the recent past must start in the schools. In the last twenty-two years the Hungarian school system was incapable of fulfilling this duty and I very much doubt that the Orbán government has any intention of righting this wrong. On the contrary, they are doing their best to falsify history.


  1. Thank you Éva for this excellent article and for publishing the timely analysis of Attila Ara-Kovács.

  2. London Calling!

    Definitely O/T!

    Does anyone have an annoying footer advert when they read HS? – I use Chrome but it’s so annoying that I will desert it for Firefox if I can’t get rid of it!

    It’s the thin end of the wedge – WordPress will start using it for other ads later – rest assured.

    Adblock doesn’t stop it – and it gets worse on other sites.

    Any ideas?



  3. Charlie H: When (on Firefox) I read the blog itself, there is a “Hungarian Spectrum wordpress.com” line at the bottom. It disappears, however, when I read Comments. If I have clicked on ‘comments’ at the top of the blog, I can read the blog and the comments without the “HS/wp.com”. Does this help?

  4. Charlie, I don’t think it’s chrome, it might be geography. Having said that, I don’t recall getting ads when I’m traveling about. Chrome is my primary browser and I’ve got pop-ups blocked. These annoying floating ads are technically not a popup. Here is a link explaining how they work http://www.dynamicdrive.com/dynamicindex17/dropinbox.htm.

    All said, I’m not getting ads where I am now and I don’t recall getting ads when I’m in London or anywhere else for that matter.

  5. Charlie: This footer advert is caused because your Chrome is linked to your g-mail account. Just log out of your g-mail account. And you will not see it.

  6. London Calling!

    Thanks Gretchen, LwiiH and Ron.

    I think I have achieved it through your ideas and serendipity!

    I tried logging out of Gmail – but still got it whether I was in or out; I deleted all cookies – and still it appeared.

    However I noticed it didn’t appear if the ‘comments parameters’ were entered – email addy – ‘Name’ – ‘website’ – at the foot of Eva’s post.

    If these aren’t completed – it appears! – if not, then not! Strange

    This may help you Gretchen with Firefox? try it. – Thanks for the warning though – switching would not have helped.

    I’d be grateful if anyone eventually finds a permanent blocker for these footers – I think it breaches all trust we have in their software – if a browser declares it will refrain from these ever encroaching practices I will switch to them like a shot.

    Thanks again.


  7. I am very puzzled as to why Orban Viktor and Fidesz are dabbling in the past. After the last election the Viktator and his leading supporters proclaimed a revolution! If they had any sense they should have entirely divorced themselves from the past. Any problems they encountered they could have blamed on those who held power before themselves.

    Fidesz should have divorced themselves from all of Hungary’s past and have pushed the idea that they were something which is ‘freshly fresh and newly new’. They should have condemned the history of this land to the past and emphasised the bad things which were done.

    No! These clowns have had to dig up the past and to try to anchor themselves in that past. Why? From what I have read of this benighted land’s often unsavoury history they have chosen to try to attach themselves to a person whose major decisions were wrong and were taken for some short idea of term gain. I suppose they want to bask in the reflected glories of the past.

    I then asked myself what are these reflected glories? Wars? No war is not glorious it is a horror. The Kingdom of Hungary and the Kingdom of Austria started a war which killed millions, ruined and bankrupted Europe and gave rise to three of the most poisonous little toads ever known to man. (These were in alphabetic order Hitler, Lenin, and Stalin). During the reign of Horthy (one of the ‘heroes’ they seek to celebrate and take on board) Hungary was often called ‘The Land of a Million Beggars’. What an epithet! What a judgement.

  8. “The trap of silence” – what a shameless misinterpretation of the title! In the Hungarian original, Ara-Kovács talks not about the trap/pitfall of “silence” but that of “censorship.” The distinction is important not only from the point of view of staying true to the original but also because “silence” can be voluntary whereas “censorship” is always imposed. Ara-Kovács is talking about the pitfalls of (imposing) censorship and the boomerang effect it may have in the long run.

    The way I see it the Ara-Kovács article, while doubtlessly containing a few ironic remarks addressed at the current Hungarian right (most of them well deserved and probably inevitable when you’re writing for a publication like Magyar Narancs), is essentially a criticism of the cultural policies of the left-wing/communist regime that ran the country in the decades that followed the war. Specifically, of compiling and maintaining a list of prohibited books. In the author’s own words: “Perhaps the experiences of the years that [immediately] followed the war dictated that it was better to suppress certain views than to get to know them and discuss them in earnest, but democratic and open societies quickly lifted the Draconian bans [i.e. on the republication and distribution of works by Nazi/fascist/ultra-right-wing authors],,, Access [to these books] is not denied, at most minimally restricted, in these societies; simply because of the realisation that a mere awareness of these works, in and of itself, will not make a Nazi out of anyone,”

    The essence of Ara-Kovács’s article is that “a cultural policy based around the censorship of ideas and works, and the eradication of literary achievements from the collective memory [of the nation] is extremely wrong,” And I concur. The sole reason that the right-wing extremist writers of the past can now be presented to the public as long-oppressed “truth-tellers” is that their works were forbidden fruit for decades. Today’s neo-Nazis go, “look, these people dared to write the truth, that’s why the commies wanted us to forget them,” which obviously isn’t true but clearly resonates with a number of people. Critical editions of the defining works of Hitler, Szálasi and their propagandists should indeed have been published decades ago and taught in schools – rather than be censored for decades.

  9. London Calling!

    Mutt! Sorry I missed yr post re infinite scroll (sounds painful).

    I can see why my solution works! When you get into the comment stream there’s no (or limited) buffering.

    But it comes back if you don’t populate the ‘who you are’ fields – which I don’t understand!

    I can see it probably makes Eva’s blog more efficient and enhances readability but It’s a pity WordPress just don’t do it invisibly (it’s nothing new!) – their narcissistic advertising is unnecessary.




  10. London Calling

    On Topic now!

    Odin – I think you have penetrated the dark mindset of the Hungarian political psyche. Hitting the nail on the head.

    What Hungary has not done is to truthfully own up to the past, for example, open those bloody archives for a start – and to fully expose – and admit – to the wrongdoing. A sort of National Mea Culpa.

    Once a universal truth is established – or as near to it as possible – then all the ‘forbidden fruits’ will lose their potency; and freedom of the press will allow all sorts of odious publications to be honestly reviewed – and all the revisionist ‘heroes’ will become untouchable.

    Just as Germany has done – amazingly, responsibly and courageously.

    By ‘picking’ the bits you admit to – and having ‘selective amnesia’ for the rest – and with other politicians having different ‘selective amnesia’ you end up with all sorts of dirt being stirred up in the murky pond.

    It’s a lack of leadership from Orban and an unwillingness to confront the ugly past – that has put Hungary in such a pickle.

    As each ‘disciple’ comes up with his re-written idea of history it becomes a bigger slimy mess – and you become the pariah of Europe. It is not a ‘Global’ conspiracy – you are truly doing some objectionable things and different countries are reacting to different aspects and are showing different degrees of offence.

    It is really damaging Hungary and will take many years to recover any semblance of respect.

    Only a new administration with integrity and honesty will redeem Hungary in the World’s eyes.

    I am certain that when Orban disappears from the political arena – there will be a wholesale replacing of Ter names; replacing and demolition of statues and removing of ideologies from the educational curriculum. And the revisionist politicians should – hopefully – reap the backlash; something which I don’t think they have given any thought to.

    The population are in blind manipulation.



  11. Tyrker :

    “The trap of silence” – what a shameless misinterpretation of the title! In the Hungarian original, Ara-Kovács talks not about the trap/pitfall of “silence” but that of “censorship.”

    Interestingly enough Attila Ara-Kovács liked it. “Eva, dear, this is really splendid. Excellent article, informative, deep. Thank you very much.”

    I think, in fact, that this title is better than the one Attila gave. It wasn’t so much censorship as hiding the truth especially in case of favorite writers of the Kádár regime. About Nyirő there was almost total silence. As if he didn’t exist. I don’t think that anyone would have censored a literary historian if he wanted to write something about Nyirő. But the regime swept all this dirt under the rug. Just as they did in East Germany. And now you can see the result not only in Hungary but also in the eastern part of Germany. Between 1948 and 1988 I found altogether eight articles in which Nyirő was discussed. However, in 1989, that is before the change of regime, several articles came out on the occasion of the centennial of his birth.

  12. London Calling!

    Eva – your gentle demolition of a given stance; quietly argued with the awesome power of the pen – but with the blood-letting finality of a visceral sword – is what makes your blog such an entertaining knowledgeable read!

    You affect us all!




  13. This discussion reminded me what Solzhenitsyn wrote in the introduction to The Gulag Archipelago:

    By an unexpected turn of our history, a bit of the truth, an insignificant part of the whole, was allowed out in the open. But those same hands which once screwed tight our handcuffs now hold out their palms in reconciliation: “No, don’t! Don’t dig up the past! Dwell on the past and you’ll lose an eye.”

    But the proverb goes on to say: “Forget the past and you’ll lose both eyes.”

  14. Eva,
    I really enjoy reading your blog and it always gives me a good synopsis of the events in Hungary, it also points out interesting articles that are worth reading. It also helps my wife to understand better the country from where her husband comes from. Lately, anti-Semitism was in the focus directly or indirectly in most of your topics. Yet, I feel that discrimination and prejudice against the Roma may be a far bigger problem in Hungary, even among liberals. I believe the subject is neglected; in fact it is being swept under the rug in Hungary.

  15. Before 1990, in the Kadar regime, whoever had Nyiro’s books on their bookshelves didn’t think about the writer’s past, perhaps didn’t even know about it. Most of them just liked everything from Transylvania, mix in a nostalgia for the pre-war period, very likely no Horthy sympathy. They thought Bence Uz was funny and they gave it to their kids. It was some kind of silent protest to the status quo.

    I don’t intend to defend Kadar’s culture commissars, but what should have they done? Censor what? The books were not available in stores. Speaking out against Nyiro? It just would have stirred up more interest.

    In the recent years in Hungary the extra-right whipped up this almost innocent interest during the Kadar era in the literature of the 30s and started to make these works a national treasure. The problem is that the nation didn’t even blink when the nazis became part of the national curriculum. But I’m afraid the reasons for this are a lot more complex then silence or lack of censorship in the past.

  16. I agree with Mutt, the real problem is elevating these not so great works of not so great writers into the curriculum. On top of it, their writers represented indefensible political view outside of their literature. I am afraid to think how history will be taught next to these masterpieces of literature.

  17. I am thinking whether the Communists’ “silence” about the past of some Hungarians is so different from the general difficulties with “accounting for the past” and the inclination to paint a rather distorted picture of the Hungarian glory (in the past). The title of the right-wing publication (egyedül vagyunk) is in my impression the clue to this approach, the nation must stick together (even if that is constantly being violated – or not, depends on how the accusations of people being “alien to the nation” are interpreted), so whoever promises to be loyally magyar (and only that) is more or less safe from any pressures to account for his or her past. It has to be acceptable (for the wide public, not for individuals) first that even “true Hungarians” can be capable of things that the “nation” cannot be proud of.

  18. Kirsten :

    The title of the right-wing publication (egyedül vagyunk) is in my impression the clue to this approach,

    You are right on target. “We are alone” is certainly a thread that goes through 20th century Hungarian history. Especially in the period between the two world wars. Actually, they were not far off. They were alone because they refused to make peace at least with one of their neighbors and the Great Powers were not going to assist Hungary’s quest for territorial revision.

  19. “It is time to face facts, ” ….

    Hear, hear!

    But how to do it in a non-partisan way ?

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