The newest propaganda initiative: The “National Library”

In case you think that we will be talking about the Országos Széchényi Könyvtár (Hungarian National Library), you are wrong. This “national library” (nemzeti könyvtár) is a planned book series that will eventually consist of 100 volumes. The government is getting into the publishing business. The philosophy behind this venture is that, according to the ideologues of the Fidesz government, the oppressive left-liberal regimes ever since 1945 have forced their “literary canon” on Hungarians and have oppressed all those who didn’t share their liberal worldviews. Thus many writers of great talent were not only neglected but suppressed. Now that the right has practically unlimited power Hungarians will become reacquainted with the silenced greats of the past.

The idea for this publishing venture came straight from Viktor Orbán. We know that from Imre Kerényi, who was named “commissioner” in charge of cultural matters. And since Kerényi was already entrusted with erecting statues of the heroes of the right, he decided to combine the two tasks: so far one statue, seven books. The first statue that already stands is that of Cécile Tormay, a fiercely anti-Semitic and very conservative woman writer whose most famous work is a pseudo-diary allegedly written during the 133 days of the Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919. I call it a pseudo-diary because the book was in fact written after the events.

As for Kerényi, on September 24, 2011 I wrote an article devoted entirely to his person. There I described his alleged background and indicated that I don’t believe most of the details about his family and professional life. I highly recommend going back to that piece because my detailed description there will be useful in assessing his current activities.

The opposition papers consider this publishing venture a propaganda move that will cost a lot of money and that will flop just as Imre Kerényi’s other propaganda efforts have. Looking at the first seven titles, I was baffled by the selection. Cécile Tormay’s A régi ház (The Old House) is already in print and retails for 2,099 forints; the government publication will cost 2,500. Mind you, some people, perhaps children, will receive the books gratis. Károly Gundel’s book, A vendéglátás művészete (The Art of Entertaining) is also available in another edition. The ornithologist Ottó Hermann’s 1901 book on the usefulness and harm of birds (A madarak hasznáról és káráról) doesn’t sound like an instant bestseller to me. I also have my doubts about the popularity of a book published in 1934 giving a detailed description of Lake Balaton and its environs (A Balaton vidék részletes kalauza) by Béla Dornay and János Vigyázó.

Imre Kerényi with his books ready to go
Photo Zoltán Kocsis, Magyar Nemzet

So far I find no rhyme or reason in the selections that were made by Kerényi, András Bencsik (editor-in-chief of the far-right Magyar Demokrata and one of the organizers of the Peace March), and Gábor Szigethy (who seems to be an expert on 1956). The next few volumes that Kerényi announced are also rather peculiar choices, including a novel by Zsigmond Móricz that is currently in print.

If the series is eclectic, the statues that Kerényi is planning  to erect manifest a definite political ideology. Kerényi calls the five politicians and writers who will have statues in Budapest “the witnesses of Trianon.” Cécile Tormay’s bust was unveiled a few months ago. The statue of the conservative politician István Bethlen will be erected soon as will that of János Esterházy, who was a Hungarian politician in Czechoslovakia between the two world wars. Two Transylvanians will also be honored by a statue: Károly Kós, an architect in Transylvania, and Miklós Bánffy, a writer and politician originally also from Transylvania. In brief, representatives of the Hungarian minorities from the surrounding countries and conservative politicians of the interwar period.

The whole idea of a “national library” is ill conceived, but it was interesting to listen to Kerényi’s explanation of the rationale behind the venture. He was interviewed this morning by György Bolgár and from this interview it became clear what motivates him and the regime he serves. He doesn’t believe in a balanced political landscape where at fairly frequent intervals governments come and go as a result of popular will. According to him, this democratic tradition is alien to the Hungarians where there is a tradition of “central power.” In the middle is a strong political force and on the fringes a weak opposition. Thus the strong center can remain in power for eight or twelve years, or perhaps longer. This way what one political grouping achieves is not torn down in four years by the antagonistic political formation. This is how it was throughout Hungarian history, from the Middle Ages to Rákosi and Kádár. Admittedly, this central force can be in good or bad hands, but I assume Kerényi is convinced that currently it is in the hands of a wise leader.

As for propaganda, naturally Kerényi denies that he is the head of a propaganda machine that during the Kádár regime used to be called “agitprop osztály” (agitation and propaganda department). According to him, every government’s duty is to inform people of the laws it enacts.  “Every political power promulgates its own philosophy.” In fact, this proclamation of its philosophy is really compulsory. “This is the aim of every state, be it good or bad. It wants to manifest itself in public buildings, in statues, in book series.” It is a normal practice and it is the right practice.

At this point Bolgár interjected that this is the kind of state philosophy that advanced western European countries broke with after World War II. In those countries the governing parties don’t want to force their ideology on the whole population. Kerényi’s answer was that those states could afford such generosity because they are stronger. In East-Central Europe the states are weak and therefore they have to implant their ideology firmly in the minds of the subjects.

At least Kerényi is not trying to hide the intentions of the government he serves. Meanwhile the brainwashing continues, although I doubt that this attempt will be successful in the long run. The Rákosi and to some extent the Kádár regime also tried to change literary taste, but their efforts were only superficially successful. They could throw out all the books they considered to be either worthless or antagonistic to the communist regime and they could replace them with socialist realist books from the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact countries, but people didn’t become enthusiastic readers of  third-rate literature drawing a false picture of the reality they could see for themselves. And if that couldn’t be done in the 1950s and 1960s, it surely cannot be done today when the choices are so great.

A waste of effort, waste of money. The only result will be that the population will hate the government more and more. I already see the shift to outright hatred of the aggressive ways in which Fidesz-KDNP operates. Viktor Orbán knows that he could easily lose the elections in 2014 and is working very hard to rig them. But that could also backfire. And then what on earth are they going to do with the 100 volumes?

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27 comments

  1. “And if that couldn’t be done in the 1950s and 1960s, it surely cannot be done today when the choices are so great.

    A waste of effort, waste of money.”

    – I sincerely wish, it was true.
    While the choices are doubtlessly in another league today, there is a significant difference.
    In Hungary during the ’50-’60es the main source of information was written.
    People actually used to read quite a lot then, literature – in my experience – was part of the common, everyday experience for the majority.

    I think needless to compare to the present, habits-, lifestyles- even the education changed a great deal.
    I also think, that the effort aimed partly toward the true believers – deepening the bound in the cult, they will have it at any price – partly toward the defenseless schoolkids – planting the ideology deep, in good time.

    You see, the money ‘well’ spent!

  2. This thing has it’s own government web site: http://nemzetikonyvtar.kormany.hu

    This four start a-hole, Kerenyi, signs his message modestly at the end like this:

    “Imre Kerenyi, appointed by the prime minister to develop the concept and oversee
    the implementation of the dissemination of the Basic Law.”

    He is bragging about his success in spreading the great news about the Basic Law.

    He goes:

    “The booster rockets of the words of the law in the special edition of the Basic Law are the Hungarian historical paintings.”

    Do you remember the horrible kitsches Eva was talking about a few months back?

    He also says:

    “The National Library is an eloquent representation of literary works from the sea of ​​Hungarian literature. By being read or re-read again, they will entertain, teach and strengthen the national feelings.”

    Right. A big time anti-Semite an ornithologist. Birds of a feather.

  3. Mutt :
    This thing has it’s own government web site: http://nemzetikonyvtar.kormany.hu
    This four start a-hole, Kerenyi, signs his message modestly at the end like this:
    “Imre Kerenyi, appointed by the prime minister to develop the concept and oversee
    the implementation of the dissemination of the Basic Law.”
    He is bragging about his success in spreading the great news about the Basic Law.
    He goes:
    “The booster rockets of the words of the law in the special edition of the Basic Law are the Hungarian historical paintings.”
    Do you remember the horrible kitsches Eva was talking about a few months back?
    He also says:
    “The National Library is an eloquent representation of literary works from the sea of ​​Hungarian literature. By being read or re-read again, they will entertain, teach and strengthen the national feelings.”
    Right. A big time anti-Semite an ornithologist. Birds of a feather.

    Yeah, Mutt, I’ve heard him speak. He’s a master moron.

  4. I’m a conservation biologist and the bird book caught my attention. It is typical of some of the books and pamphlets produced by the US department of Agriculture during the same period when there was a lot emphasis on categorizing nature by its usefulness. So insect eaters were considered good, but hawks that ate ducks or pheasants were considered bad. Coincidentally when I was in Hungary during summer 2011 I had a chance to talk about the current politics of bird conservation with some members of a leading conservation NGO. They told me some Fidesz lawmakers (duck, pheasant, rabbit hunters) were trying to push through legislation to allow the indiscriminate shooting of birds of prey, since they claimed they were destroying the populations of their favorite targets. Which was off course complete nonsense. Fortunately the Hungarian conservation NGO’s are very well connected internationally and they were able to get the European conservation community to shame Fidesz. They withdrew the legislation.

    The book “A madarak hasznáról és káráról” can be downloased for free at: http://mek.oszk.hu/00500/00550/

    Herman Ottó was an important Hungarian natural historian. But, I don’t think this book should make any general top 100 list. I do now put it on my top 100 list of books on Hungarian natural history of historical significance.

  5. Pete H. :
    The book “A madarak hasznáról és káráról” can be downloased for free at: http://mek.oszk.hu/00500/00550/
    Herman Ottó was an important Hungarian natural historian. But, I don’t think this book should make any general top 100 list. I do now put it on my top 100 list of books on Hungarian natural history of historical significance.

    It’s boring as hell …

    In the intro you can read that no other nation compares to the Hungarian when it comes to protecting and knowing birds. No surprise here – we are the best in anything. It lists a bunch of proverbs related to birds. Many I’ve never heard of. The best is probably this: “Sok sas, sok dög” which is something like “Lots of eagles, lots of carrion”. Perfectly applies to the FIDESZ.

    Apropos carrion. Rozsa “The Riveter” Hoffmann, the undersecretary in charge of the education in the Orban government has leaked information about a bill that wants to ban the teaching of math and history in foreign languages. No, I’m not kidding. That is going to be the coup de grâce to the teaching of foreign languages in the country. Another roadkill on the way to the education reform christian democrat style. The Hungarian turul bird will be delighted.

  6. I belive those books will be “sold”. I bet you anything that all educational institutions will have to have these particular copies, as well as libraries will be stocked. It will become part of the curriculum in order to make parents to purchase it.

  7. Contemporary Hungarian literature is one of the country’s glories, and a skilled band of literary translators – such as George Szirtes, Len Rix and Tim Wilkinson – are valiantly bringing it to the English reading world in brilliant translations.

    I have hardly ever seen any of these books on Hungarian bookshelves, swamped as they are by the appaling Wass and the like.

    I can’t help being reminded of a conversation that I had a few years ago with a Hungarian relative. Wanting to impress him with my love for all things Hungarian, I told him how much I had genuinely enjoyed reading Nadas, Esterhazy, Kertesz, Krasznahorkai, Szerb etc. He was furious. “They’re not Hungarians,” he told me. “They’re Jews and they’re traitors”. I have heard this many times since, from others . But I realised, then, that something was fundamentally wrong.

    When the extraordinary Imre Kertesz won the Nobel Prize for Literature ten years ago – so far the only Hungarian to be awarded the honour – the Nobel committee were astounded at the number of complaints that they received from Hungarians, an unprecedented number. And Kertesz himself was a little distressed some time later to discover that his Budapest high school had refused to place him on the board of famous alumni.

    Kertesz, a holocaust survivor, is a great Hungarian, and certainly one of the world’s great writers. His books are also very Hungarian. One of his great feats is his inclination to detach where others would simplistically condemn.

  8. Some1 :
    I belive those books will be “sold”. I bet you anything that all educational institutions will have to have these particular copies, as well as libraries will be stocked. It will become part of the curriculum in order to make parents to purchase it.

  9. Just wait until all those books will be sold on the flea markets …

    These Orbanites are getting crazier each day – wonder what the next step will be, maybe change the tv programs too ? Just reruns of patriotic films – well it wouldn’t be worse than the reruns of US action films that you find now.

    A bit OT:

    I’ve marvelled often at the quality and spectrum of books you see in the Hungarian bookshops, especially titles translated. Surely a translator doesn’t make too much money in Hungary so these people must be real idealist.

    We just bought for my wife (I still can’t read books in Hungarian, it’s just too slow …) a lot of US and British books from the 70s and 80s, second hand of course – so even during communist times many interesting titles appeared in Hungarian. Will this change now and might we even have some kind of censorship in Hungary ?

  10. The statue of the conservative politician István Bethlen will be erected soon as will that of János Esterházy, who was a Hungarian politician in Czechoslovakia between the two world wars. Two Transylvanians will also be honored by a statue: Károly Kós, an architect in Transylvania, and Miklós Bánffy, a writer and politician originally also from Transylvania.

    I do loathe Kerényi. I also don’t see the point of the state’s publishing books that are already in print. However, I don’t see what’s wrong with these statues.

    János Esterházy was one of only three MPs in the Slovak parliament who refused to vote for the deportation of Jews and subsequently helped hundreds of Poles, Jews, Czechs and Slovaks to escape. The Nazis interned him. What’s wrong with erecting a statue to a man like this? Károly Kós was a great architect with a significant legacy in Budapest (google “Wekerle estate” if you aren’t familiar with his name) and elsewhere. Miklós Bánffy, while lesser known, was also a worthy figure noted for his anti-Fascist activities, which resulted in his family mansion in Transylvania being bombed to ruins by the Luftwaffe in retaliation.

  11. I have to speak up for Miklós Bánffy–his Transylvania trilogy (called The Writing on the Wall in English) is pretty great. Difficult to find in translation, though.

  12. I have an interesting story relating to Imre Kertész: when he was awarded the Nobel Prize, the television companies had a huge problem finding anyone to comment because so few people had read his books! That was why in the evening, M1 (MTV1 in those days) featured the great pianist and conductor Zoltán Kocsis (who has read everything and is a big Kertész fan) rather than some familiar figure from the literary establishment. But I remember how disenchanting it was to hear that MIEP were writing protest letters to the Nobel Prize committee.

  13. Kingfisher :
    I have an interesting story relating to Imre Kertész: when he was awarded the Nobel Prize, the television companies had a huge problem finding anyone to comment because so few people had read his books! That was why in the evening, M1 (MTV1 in those days) featured the great pianist and conductor Zoltán Kocsis (who has read everything and is a big Kertész fan) rather than some familiar figure from the literary establishment. But I remember how disenchanting it was to hear that MIEP were writing protest letters to the Nobel Prize committee.

    In the past, Hungarians would ‘adopt’ their glory winning jews and call them ‘Hungarian’. Now no more. It has become fashionable to display your anti-semitism and so disdain for all jews–even award winners–breaks out in this hapless society like measles.

  14. As far as István Bethlen is concerned, he is one of a couple of conservative politicians in 20th century Hungarian history who deserves unconditional respect (the other is his Minister for Religious Affairs and Education – previously Minister of Home Affairs -, the highly successful Count Kuno Klebelsberg who even Gábor Fodor of SZDSZ fame considered a role model). Depite the very harsh economic and political conditions that had resulted from the Treaty of Trianon he was able to consolidate the country and break out of the isolation, introduced a new stable currency and brought about economic growth that was only halted by the Great Depression. He even agreed to the legalisation of Hungary’s Social Democratic Party, despite the latter’s involvement in the bloody Red dictatorship of 1919. Before and at the beginning of the Second World War he warned against cutting diplomatic ties with the UK and US, and condemned the anti-Jewish laws. After Hungary’s German invasion in 1944, he had to hide from the Gestapo. The Germans never found him but the Reds did – and deported him to the Soviet Union, where he died.

  15. Hasn’t this government ever heard of the Internet? Producing propaganda just isn’t quite as effective as it used to be when a country could easily control what its people read, watched and listened to. This government seems to be acting as though no one goes online at all. But I guess that fits with their backwards views on so many things.

  16. Mutt “It’s boring as hell …” It’s a window into how they thought about wildlife in Hungary circa 1900. As a primary source for schools, it would be a travesty.

    Not sure where HUngary stood in 1900, but today Hungary is a leader in central European bird conservation. They are also well ahead of some western European countries. The reason? While during the communist era independent civic organizations were banned, the exception was a few birder’s organizations. The government could not imagine that birders would pose any threat to their rule. These organizations made connections with British organizations and modeled their structure and activities after those. When the system changed they immediately had the financial support and expertise of the British and other western European conservation NGO’s. And they already had an organizational strutter win place. Something that other central and eastern European countries did not. Today the Magyar Madártani és Természetvédelmi Egyesület, which is associated with Birdlife International, is the top conservation organization in Hungary. http://www.mme.hu/

    MME has plenty of books that would make a great addition to the school curriculum.

  17. “oppressed all those who didn’t share their liberal worldviews”

    I’m always amazed (and depressed) by statements such as this. How on earth can anyone be oppressed by liberal worldviews? I think these people just don’t understand that words have meaniings, they’re not just labels?

  18. Wolfi – they’re going to show nothing but local news of no importance to anyone, so-called ‘reality TV’ shows, and Bud Spencer and Terence Hill cowboy films.

    The cunning part of this plan is that no one will notice the difference!

  19. Kerenyi’s ideas display the state of education in Hungary. How do they expect kids to compete in the years to come? Perhaps, only for street-sweeping
    jobs with the Azeris…Moscow, here they come!

  20. Mark :Hasn’t this government ever heard of the Internet? Producing propaganda just isn’t quite as effective as it used to be when a country could easily control what its people read, watched and listened to. This government seems to be acting as though no one goes online at all. But I guess that fits with their backwards views on so many things.

    Mark, manipulating a hugely monolingual population is not that difficult … as Fidesz has shown. Instil a sense of national unity against the ‘other’, add a draconian media law, dismiss those concerned about domestic violence as traitorous bluestockings, sideline all great Hungarian artists … it’s not THAT difficult. Almost everyone I know votes Fidesz, out of unquestioning national duty.

  21. @wolfi
    ‘..so even during communist times many interesting titles appeared in Hungarian.’

    You would be really surprised just how many, and even how much earlier!
    I remember starting to buy the first “Modern Könyvtár” (Könyvtár – Library in Hungarian) books sometime in ’68, – if I don’t mistaken “The Catcher in the Rye” came out in the same year or thereabout – and many more, and there were periodicals with all the latest stuff, you name it.
    Yes, there was a time with a definitive politically weighted line of books, but already around that time I mentioned started lighten significantly.

    The same applies to the movies too – while in grammar school we went to watch films of the Soviet Revolution and WW2, my high school literature teacher lead us to watch Fellini and Bergman just to name some. Yes, in those times we were oppressed, so I haven’t meet with John Wayne in the movies when he was on top – but somehow survived this tremendous loss. Already from the seventies nearly all the really great movies came to Hungary – probably they thought, that if they only can pay for a few, it better be good.

    Normally you won’t hear of this through the media today, so I thought, I’ll tell you about.

  22. Again a bit OT (Thanks, spectator btw):

    It’s really marvellous that my wife is into books as much as me and often w discuss titles from the last century and I ask : Did you read that in “communist times” and sometimes it’s of course and sometimes: No never heard about that author …

    So I wonder what kind of selection criteria the regime used – or was it just an initiative by some translator: Hey, this is a good book, I’ll translate it – and it will get published …

    Even more OT:

    Just a few weeks ago we bought for my wife a large number of old Science Fiction titles from a couple in Héviz: I searched the piles of stuff and saw: Asimov, Dick, Bester, Gibson and her favourite right now: C J Cherryh (one of the first US women Science Fiction writers …) and bingo …

    Around 60 books for around 40 000 HUF!

  23. I’ve actually had coffee with Kerényi at the Művész in Andrássy. In truth, he is actually quite a nice man. He’s also totally nuts and I don’t believe for a minute that anyone takes him seriously. But I think people sometimes overlook the cynicism of Fidesz. The whole nonsense with the constitution and the table is not taken seriously by anyone. But I’m convinced Orbán enjoys making liberal flesh creep, and Kerényi is a clown who draws attention from other moor sinister things that they are doing. Never forget what Orbán said about Pepó, the environment minister in his first administration: he said he was his best minister because he created so much scandal the press focused on him, allowing the other ministers to carry on with whatever nonsense was going on at the time. (That story comes from Illés Zoltán, by the way, now state secretary)

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