Month: February 2013

A Hungarian pope? Does Péter Erdő have a chance?

As I mentioned earlier, the Hungarian media is full of stories speculating about the possibility of Péter Erdő succeeding Benedict XVI.

Péter Erdő was appointed Archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest in December 2002 and was also made a cardinal at the same time. At the time of his appointment he was auxiliary bishop of Székesfehérvár and was only 50 years old. He has a doctorate in theology and canon law from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome. His biography mentions that he spent three years in Rome (1977-1980).

If people thought that the relatively young Erdő would bring some fresh air into the stale, ultra-conservative Hungarian Church they were mistaken. It is hard to tell whether Erdő tried and failed because of the overwhelming opposition he encountered,  whether he is a weak administrator, or whether he is basically a conservative man. From some of his pronouncements we can see that he is no friend of sudden change: “we react to all important problems in our own rhythm” and this rhythm seems to be very slow. He also claims that “the Church must not get involved with problems of the given moment.”

Cardinal Péter Erdő, Archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest

Cardinal Péter Erdő, Archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest

Since 2003 not much has changed in the Hungarian Catholic Church. Unlike in Western Europe where more and more lay people are involved in church affairs, the case in Hungary is different. Also the church’s transparency, especially when it comes to financial matters, leaves a lot to be desired. The greatest financial scandal occurred in Pécs where the bishop, Mihály Mayer, was eventually forced to resign because of embezzlement, blackmail, and even homosexual practices. The church hierarchy was reluctant to investigate the affair and even Erdő would have liked to have kept the affair within the church, but eventually the Hungarian prosecutor’s office took over the case. It was Pope Benedict who in the end removed Mayer.

One of Erdő’s outspoken critics is Attila Jakab, a young theologian and church historian. He wrote an article a couple of days ago that appeared on the website of the Intézet a Demokratikus Alternativáért (IDEA; Institute for a Democratic Alternative) in which he outlined the reasons that Erdő is not fit to become pope.

Jakab claims that Erdő finds it hard to tolerate freedom of thought. I’m afraid Jakab is right. I remember an interview with him where he didn’t hide his disdain for man’s right to form his own opinions. He is also far too sensitive to criticism; according to an older report on him by an agent of the Hungarian secret service, he can be “hysterical.” He finds it important to cooperate with the current ruling political elite. His relationship with Ferenc Gyurcsány was not as good as it is today because Gyurcsány apparently asked him in 2006 to refrain from interfering with the elections. Normally the Catholic Church wages a veritable election campaign, naturally supporting the right-wing parties.

In addition, Jakab calls attention to Erdő’s lack of leadership qualities. Here he calls attention to the financial scandals and pedophilia that went on in Pécs for years. The other case involved the Bishopric of Győr, a case that also ended up in court. Erdő, according to Jakab, refuses to put an end to the Christian Democratic Party’s running amok and does practically nothing about the fusion of Christian and pagan elements in the current “national-Christian” regime. Indeed, I can recall only one or two occasions when he expressed his disapproval of the Hungarian right’s syncretic religious practices. In case you don’t know what Jakab has in mind, it is worth recalling Viktor Orbán’s famous “Turul” in which we were all born.

Jakab also points out that Erdő knows that the introduction of religious instruction in all schools poses insurmountable problems for the Church. There are simply not enough people trained to fill the thousands of positions its introduction requires. But in Erdő’s defense, it is possible, given the Orbán government’s practices, that the churches were not even consulted before the decision was made. I recall one time that Erdő expressed his dismay over the decision.

Finally, those who oppose the Orbán government and its practices shouldn’t keep fingers crossed for Péter Erdő. Admittedly, Hungarian pride would swell if for the first time there was a Hungarian pope in the Vatican. But surely, the Orbán government would take advantage of Erdő’s presence in Rome. Viktor Orbán would try to brand Erdő’s election as his own victory. Moreover, in addition to the current grave problems of the Vatican, a Hungarian pope would also be stranded with the mess Viktor Orbán has created both inside and outside the country. The new pope surely wouldn’t want to carry that extra burden.

The last and perhaps the greatest obstacle standing in Erdő’s way to the papacy: the Hungarian Catholic Church’s still uncovered activities during the Kádár regime tying practically all prelates to the Hungarian secret service. Documents show that several presidents of the Hungarian Papal Institute in Rome were agents who reported to the Ministry of the Interior. Erdő spent three years there and in 1987 was the president of the institution. Both his predecessors and his successors worked for the Hungarian secret service. Nothing has surfaced yet about Erdő, but it might once all the documents of the Ministry of Interior are available. The Orbán government has no intention of doing anything about uncovering agents despite Fidesz’s fierce anti-communism. If and when Fidesz loses the elections, however, the opposition forces swear that the secret archives will be opened.

Anyone who’s interested in the connection between the secret service and the Papal Institute should read a four-part series by Tamás Majsai that appeared between December 2007 and April 2008 in Beszélő.


An open letter to Tamás Fellegi

An open letter to Tamás Fellegi in Washington

The reason for our open letter is that Tamás Fellegi, former minister of national development, minister in charge of the IMF negotiations and adviser to Viktor Orbán,  spoke before the members of the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations of the Committee on Foreign Affairs.

* * *

Gyömrő, February 27, 2013

Dear Mr. Fellegi,

You claimed prior to your appearance before the congressional committee that all democratic forces in Hungary stand in unison against antisemitism and that not one of the mainstream political parties in Hungary is antisemitic or racist.

You were quoted as saying that it is very hard for a country to be shielded against racism, including antisemitism, and indeed you are right, especially if one considers that in the preamble of the new constitution the present Hungarian government considers itself the direct successor to the Horthy regime while it does not take responsibility for the most important events of the Hungarian Holocaust, including the deportations of Jewish citizens. Or, when the Kossuth Square in front of the Hungarian parliament building is being refashioned as it was in 1944, the worst year of the Holocaust.

It is difficult to confront racism and antisemitism when our minister in charge of education and culture, Zoltán Balog, and the deputy speaker of the House, Sándor Lezsák, while still in opposition unveiled the statue of Ottokár Prohászka, Catholic bishop and member of parliament, who was the author of Europe’s first racist legislation, the so-called Numerus Clausus of 1920 that made antisemitism part of the Hungarian legal system.

In the new constitution Christianity is mentioned as Hungary’s only religious heritage, excluding other faiths, while Hungarian Reformed Bishop Gusztáv Bölcskei unveiled a plaque honoring Regent Miklós Horthy, who bears the foremost responsibility for the Hungarian Holocaust. He did that in the presence of a banned neo-Nazi paramilitary organization called Magyar Gárda. And this celebration took place in the famous Reformed College of Debrecen where many of the greats of Hungarian culture studied: the sin of the Holocaust is elevated to the status of memorials to János Arany, Mihály Vitéz Csokonai, and Zsigmond Móricz.

How can societal memory function when the government maintains a Holocaust Institute but at the same time an undersecretary and a Fidesz mayor collect donations for a statue of Miklós Horthy in Budapest?

The Hungarian Parliament enacted a law mandating that all public places and organizations that are named after people whose ideology is not to the liking of the current government must be changed. We are not talking about politicians connected to the Rákosi or Kádár regimes but those who had anything to do with the trade union movement or early social democracy. At the same time there are more and more streets being named after people who are responsible for the anti-Jewish laws of the 1920s and 1930s or the Holocaust. In the last two decades at least a dozen institutions have been named after Ottokár Prohászka. The situation is the same with racist and antisemitic politicians, for example Prime Minister Pál Teleki. Statues and streets carry his name. He was prime minister when the Numerus Clausus was enacted and he was responsible for the text of the second and third anti-Jewish laws. There are at least 50 statues of the antisemitic Albert Wass who was condemned to death in absentia as a war criminal in Romania after the war. József Nyirő, who was an admirer of Hitler and who remained a member of the Hungarian parliament even after the Arrow Cross take-over, was reburied at government expense, an event organized by László Kövér. By that act Kövér violated the Romanian law banning the adulation of war criminals. A law that doesn’t exist in Hungary.

Miklós Horthy, who bears a major responsibility for the Holocaust, was reburied in the presence of several government officials and members of parliament in 1993. A member of that government was Péter Boross, an open sympathizer with the Horthy regime, who is the chairman of the National Memorial and Reverence Committee. In Kenderes, a small town where the Horthy family’s residence is situated, there is a permanent exhibition in which Horthy’s role in the Holocaust is not even mentioned. Today in Kenderes there is official Holocaust denial. On the other hand, one can hear a lot of irredentist propaganda from the tour guides.

In 2000 Hungary signed the Declaration of the Stockholm International Holocaust Forum that obliged the signatories, including Hungary, to teach and disseminate information about the events of the Holocaust. The state of affairs described above doesn’t jibe with these declared obligations.

Gyomro Horthy ter

Miklós Horthy Square, Kereki / Photo by Martin Fejér (

Since Miklós Horthy’s reburial in Kenderes eight towns honored the former governor either by erecting statues or by naming public places after him–Szeged, Páty, Csókakő, Kereki, Gyömrő, Debrecen, Harc, Kunhegyes–as well as three districts in Budapest. Most of these occurred in 2012. While irredentist national flags (országzászlók), the so-called Árpád-striped flags recalling the Arrow Cross Party of Ferenc Szálasi, are prominently displayed in several towns and villages, the government organized an exhibit in the Holocaust Center about the very same flag’s role in the Holocaust.

For a number of years the Military Museum has organized a remembrance for the “Day of the Breakthrough” of German and Hungarian troops from the Hungarian capital that was surrounded by Soviet troops. Sometimes the day is called the “Day of Honor,” borrowing the term from the Waffen-SS’s motto. On the wall of the museum is a plaque honoring the gendarmes who were entrusted with the deportation of the Hungarian Jews in the summer of 1944. All this is happening while the Criminal Code (§269/C) states that the denial of the Holocaust is a punishable act.

Hungary thus disgraces the memory of the Holocaust and denies the responsibility of the Hungarian state and societyHow can the country integrate itself into the European culture of remembrance this way? How can one government undersecretary attend a Holocaust Memorial while another collects money for a Horthy statue? How can they dedicate a year of remembrance to Raoul Wallenberg while the works of racist, antisemitic writers are made part of the school curriculum? Or how can someone–namely Ottokár Prohászka–be deemed a propagator of antisemitic ideas by the Holocaust Center while at least a dozen mostly educational institutions bear his name?

You claim that only the far-right Jobbik is an antisemitic party. However, open neo-Nazi  demagoguery goes on unchecked in the Hungarian Parliament even from an MP who happens to be the editor-in-chief of a weekly magazine. The banned Magyar Gárda can parade in military formation with government permission. The government with a two-thirds majority doesn’t move a finger to enforce the law on hate speech.

While in December Antal Rogán, a leading member of the government party, stood by the demonstrators against the infamous Márton Gyöngyösi (Jobbik) who suggested keeping lists of Jews, in February another important member of Fidesz, Lajos Kósa, mayor of Debrecen, made one of the cultural institutions of the city available for Gyöngyösi to deliver a lecture there.

We ask Tamás Fellegi to admit that in Hungary there is a glorification, with the active assistance of the government, of those responsible for the Holocaust. Admit that Hungary is incapable of admitting responsibility for the death of 600,000 Hungarian victims. Admit that Hungary is incapable of recognizing the danger of neo-Nazi ideology fostered by legislators. The Hungarian government is idly watching the ever increasing racism that once already ended in a series of murders. This is a greater problem than the racism of one party.

We ask you to take legislative steps to end the glorification of people who are responsible for the HolocaustMiklós Horthy, Ferenc Szálasi and members of the government between 1941 and 1945 in addition to those who voted for the Numerus Clausus, among them Ottokár Prohászka and Pál Teleki, and all those who took an active part in spreading racist ideologies, for example Albert Wass, József Nyirő, and Cécile Tormay. Memorials, places suitable for pilgrimages by extremists, plaques, and museums devoted to war criminals should be removed and their erection in the future forbidden.

According to the Declaration of the Stockholm International Forum it is the Holocaust Memorial Center and the Hungarian school system that are responsible for documenting Hungarian events accurately. We can remember these events on international and Hungarian days of remembrance without a denial of the past and without the glorification of those responsible.

Környezet-, Ifjúság- és Gyermekvédelmi Egyesület (KIGYE), Gyömrő /A civic group that protested the renaming a park Miklós Horthy Park

Testimony of Tamás Fellegi at Hearing on “Anti-­Semitism: A Growing Threat”

Testimony of Tamás Fellegi before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations; Hearing on “Anti-­‐Semitism: A Growing Threat to All Faiths” February 27, 2013

** *

Chairman Smith, Distinguished Members of the Hearing Committee, Ladies and Gentlemen:

It is a real honor for me to be invited to testify for and about Hungary. A country, where I was born and where as a Jew I feel at home. I cannot stress enough the importance of this hearing, which comes at a time when Hungary is going through major changes internally.

Preparing for this public hearing, I spoke to several prominent figures of Hungarian public life, including executives of Jewish organizations, religious leaders, intellectuals, university professors, government people and opposition figures, including the prime minister and the president of the Hungarian Socialist Party. However, what follows here represents my ideas and my evaluation of the current situation.

I would like to anchor my brief opening on three main tenets:

First, anti­‐Semitism has been on the rise in Hungary. This fact has complex reasons but at its core, the current phenomenon is an expression of frustration with Hungary’s imperfect democratic transition, and especially with the deep political, moral and economic crisis dominating Hungary since 2006.

Second, only Jobbik, a party with a ten percent base among the national population, is an openly anti­‐Semitic party. There is a clear line of demarcation between Jobbik, and the center­‐right government and all other mainstream political parties.

Third, despite all this, Jewish life, including religious life, has been enjoying a renaissance in Hungary that is welcome and encouraged by all mainstream parties.

Let me put these points into a historical perspective. Similarly to most of Europe, prejudice against Jews has always been present in Hungary, both open and latent. However, it is important to distinguish between deep-seated prejudices and anti-Semitic manifestations, and the use of anti-­Semitism for political manipulation or to gain political advantages.

In Hungary, Jews lived, ever since the 13th century, under circumstances that were unparalleled in Medieval and early modern continental Europe. By the 19th century, the Hungarian Jewish community became one of the most numerous, successful, integrated and assimilated minorities in Europe, in all aspects of life: education, business, culture, and the arts. But this favorable and welcoming atmosphere changed for the worse following World War I. While Europe’s Jews found refuge in Hungary fleeing from Nazism, the political elite, lead by Regent Miklos Horthy – who is still one of the most debated public figures of Hungary – eventually bowed to the pressure of Nazi Germany. Between 1920 and 1945, he oversaw the introduction of anti-‐Jewish legislation, and Hungary’s involvement in the Second World War on the side of Nazi Germany. The Hungarian Holocaust, which happened with the active participation of the Hungarian political establishment, became a tragedy of our entire nation.

During the almost 45 years of Communist rule, any realistic chance to honestly face the legacy of the pre­‐war era and the Second World War was denied by the one­‐party rule. Anti­‐Semitism, however, was tangible in the infighting of the Communist elite. In society in general, anti-Jewish sentiments took the appearance of an anti-Israeli stance, especially after the 1967 Middle East war, when the open manifestation of anti­‐Semitism by the European Left was disguised as criticism of Israeli policies. Undoubtedly, we still carry on this legacy in Hungary and elsewhere in Europe.

The democratic changes of 1989-1990, the freedom of speech and of the media allowed open discussion about our twentieth century history and its legacy. Previously suppressed frustrations and open debates we never had before about our troubled past came to the surface. Thus, the same democratization itself made ever­‐present latent anti­‐Semitism manifest.

Several openly anti­‐Semitic political and civic organizations have surfaced, but they have never – and let me emphasize this point – never ended up in government.. Here, I have to mention the establishment of the openly anti-Semitic and anti­‐Roma party, Jobbik, which started out as a radical anti­‐establishment movement, revolting against the post­‐communist political elite, and has picked up its racist and anti­‐Semitic edge as a tool of political marketing, only to be immediately engulfed by it.

Today, the essence of Jobbik is a gut reaction against the status quo. It is a radical statement made against the EU, against the entire ‘post-Communist’ political establishment, against the unrealized economic security of the democratic transition, dressed up in racism. It is a catch­‐all party, giving everyone a little bit of something to hate and someone to blame.

After eight years of socialist-liberal government, which brought Hungary to the brink of economic collapse and essentially let the rural population of Hungary become a prey of local gangs, Jobbik managed to get around 15 percent of the popular vote in  2010  to become the third largest party in Parliament. It has also cultivated  an  aggressive paramilitary arm, which was banned by the present government but  keeps  reinventing itself. Constitutionally­‐protected freedom of speech enables Jobbik to voice its openly racist views on websites and print magazines and even in the Hungarian Parliament. I personally believe that the most negative consequence of this has been the decline of public sensitivity to racism. Whether people dismiss the ideas of Jobbik or not – it is still there.

What is also there, however, is a rebirth of Jewish culture. Jewish life in Hungary started to blossom from day one of democracy. Thousands of families started to speak about their history, both as individuals and as a people. The Lubavich Community has a strong presence. An extremely popular summer camp for Jewish children in Szarvas brings together Jewish children from all across Hungary; there is a high school to complement to the Rabbinic Seminary, which, by the way, happened to be the only functioning one in any Communist country. A new synagogue will be built in Csepel for the first time in 80 years. The Main Synagogue in Dohány utca, which was for a long time the second largest synagogue in the world, has become a touristic and cultural hub. Budapest’s formerly abandoned Jewish district is now the most lively part of downtown Pest. The Lauder Yavne School is one of the best educational institutions in the nation, and Hungary just opened the International Israeli Cultural Institute. The annual Jewish Summer Festival brings thousands from all across Europe; there are courses in Hebrew offered by language schools and there is a number of Jewish weeklies and periodicals which did not exist before. All historic Jewish groups are acknowledged and registered as religious institutions entitled to receive state support for the cultural contributions they make. These facts about the state of Jewish life in Hungary cannot be ignored.

In our newly born democracy, both anti-Semitism and pro-Jewish sentiments have become openly political. Political parties and civil organizations very quickly recognized how anti-Semitism could be used to gain political support and sympathy at home and abroad. Anti-Semitism has become a political card to be used.

Patterns of voting behavior and public opinion polls clearly indicate that, when it comes to anti­‐Semitism, there is a substantial overlap between the electorate of the Left and that of the far­‐right Jobbik Party. Does this mean that the political Left is racist or the center-right is devoid of prejudices? The answer to both questions is no. One should not really argue that certain writings by journalists associated with the center­‐right, such as the infamous commentaries of Zsolt Bayer, cannot be deemed as racist. It is also a fact that there are people associated with the center­‐right political community who support the rehabilitation of the historic period of Admiral Horthy. I am personally against his rehabilitation, and that applies to a wide range of political and literary figures of that era.

Let me briefly list the milestones that democratic Hungary has done as a nation since the collapse of Communism to reconcile with the Jewish community:

  • Establishment of the Hungarian Jewish Heritage Fund;
  • The Kaddish was cited in Parliament to commemorate the victims of the Shoah;
  • Designating  April  16th   as  a  national  Holocaust  Memorial  Day  compulsory  in  all  public schools to commemorate the anniversary of the start of deportations in 1944;
  • Teaching of Holocaust history was made mandatory in schools for 5th-­12th  graders;
  • The Holocaust Memorial and Documentation Center and the House of Terror Memorial Museum have been established;
  • Restitution claims of Holocaust survivors have been settled;
  • Establishment   and   financial   support   of   the   Tom   Lantos   Institute   in   Hungary in association with the Lantos Foundation on Human Rights;
  • Doubling the pension payments of Holocaust survivors;
  • 2012 was proclaimed as Raoul Wallenberg Memorial Year;
  • A Holocaust memorial committee chaired by the head of the Prime Minister’s Office has been set up to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust in 2014;
  • Each section of the bank of the Danube bears the name of people who saved lives making these unsung heroes household names for Hungarians and visitors alike;
  • A  ground-‐breaking,  historic  data  exchange  agreement  has  been  signed  with  Yad  Vashem to open Hungarian archives so that the history of the Shoah can be more thoroughly studied and the victims accurately named, accounted for and remembered;
  • Hungary repeatedly requested the US authorities to shut down the openly anti­‐Semitic, Nazi­‐style Hungarian language website called which operates in the United States;
  • Paramilitary groups inciting hatred were banned and the criminal code was tightened regarding uniformed crime;
  • The House Rules of the Parliament were tightened and now the Speaker can fine or exclude MPs from the floor if they use hateful language;
  • In  a  first,  the  courts  convicted  a  Holocaust  denier.  In  the  sentence, offender was ordered to visit either the Holocaust Museum, Yad Vashem or Auswitz, and write a report about what he learnt from that trip.

Is it a respectable list? Yes, it is. Has the Hungarian political and cultural elite done enough to counter  racism in  Hungary?  No, not  by  a long  shot. Is  it  true that  occasionally the government side was slow and ineffective in its statements and actions? Yes, unfortunately it is true.

I earlier referred to the fact that anti-Semitism and racism in general have been on the rise, which tells us that both official Hungary and civil society must do much more in this field. Having said this, let me conclude by a probably surprising closing statement: in terms of government actions to foster Jewish life and to combat anti­‐Semitism in Hungary, all of the milestones I cited a minute ago, I mean: all of them, with the one exception of the Jewish Heritage Fund, have been introduced by either the first or the second administrations of Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Actions speak for themselves.

Thank you very much for your attention. I am ready for your comments and questions.

The embattled Hungarian Constitutional Court fights back

Originally I wanted to write about the excitement over rumors that Péter Erdő, head of the Hungarian Catholic Church, might be a serious candidate to become the next pope. Not because I believe for a moment that Erdő has a chance but because devoting a post to him would give me an opportunity to spend some time on the state of the Hungarian Catholic Church under his leadership.

But then a barrage of legal news arrived. So today I would like to concentrate on two recent issues: the precarious position of the Hungarian Constitutional Court and its latest decisions.

Let’s start with the issue of the red star. The European Court of Justice ruled twice in the past few years on the display of the red star. In the early days of the Third Republic the use of symbols representing dictatorships, e.g. the red star on the one hand and the swastika or the symbol of the Arrow Cross Party on the other, was deemed a criminal act. At least two individuals tested the legality of the law by displaying the red star and being found guilty. When they exhausted all appeals  they went to Strasbourg. In both cases the European Court of Justice ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and the Hungarian state had to pay a few thousand euros to them by way of compensation. At this point even Tibor Navracsics, the minister of justice, thought that it was futile to stick with the original passage in the criminal code because time and again Hungary would lose in the European Court of Justice.

So, the Constitutional Court took the case and handed down an unexpected decision. They ruled that not only should the display of the red star be legalized but also symbols of far-right dictatorships. I guess the judges wanted to save themselves from the uncomfortable position of  repealing only half of the law, the one related to the communist symbol.

People who argue that the red star should be legalized while the swastika, for example, shouldn’t, claim that the red star was originally the symbol of the working class movement and social democracy and not the symbol of Soviet dictatorship. Only later were the red star and the red flag expropriated by a cruel dictatorship that had little to do with the original idea. Moreover, these people add that the far-left ideology is practically nonexistent in Hungary today and thus poses no threat to democracy.

On the other hand, goes the argument, the Hungarian far right is strong and poses a threat. Moreover, while in the Hungary of  the pre-war years the Hungarian communist party was a negligible organization, the Hungarian far right was strong. Thus, the swastika and the symbol of the Hungarian Arrow Cross Party should be banned because of the history of far-right movements and their present strength in the country.

Political reactions to the Constitutional Court’s decision are telling. The first party to respond was the Christian Democratic Party. MTI reported that the party accepts the decision but “it regrets that from here on anyone can march with an emblem depicting the hammer and the sickle or the red star on May 1.” Then Antal Rogán expressed his regret that “anyone can loiter on the streets with a swastika, the red star, or an SS badge.” He considers this situation untenable and brought up the possibility of another amendment to the constitution that would forbid the display of these symbols.

But, of course, the last word is Viktor Orbán’s and he announced a couple of days ago that the law forbidding the use of these symbols must stay. He announced his opinion on the day that was devoted to the victims of communism. The communist symbols, as we know, bother him more than those of the far right. After all, Orbán makes every effort to appease the far right and therefore glosses over the past and present sins of the Hungarian Nazis.

A more important decision of the Constitutional Court is the ruling on the disputed church law. Today the Court repealed parts of the law and told parliament to work out new rules on the status of churches. I have written fairly extensively on the issue; one can read some of the details here. The decision is retroactive, which means that the seventeen churches that were stripped of their status as bona fide churches will regain their former legal status.

This decision was hailed by practically everybody as a great victory for Hungarian democrats and a serious defeat for the Orbán government. See, for example, the quick response to the law by Bloomberg. I would wait, however, before rejoicing. Again the first government politician who responded to the decision was a Christian Democrat, Tamás Lukács, a not so bright lawyer, who pointed out that the parliament at the moment is working on the new amendments to the constitution and if these amendments are approved (and who doubts that they will be approved) the Court’s decision might have to be re-examined.  This doesn’t sound too promising. Even less promising is what Antal Rogán had to say a few minutes later. In his opinion the amendments to the constitution “will solve the problem.” But he added that they will carefully study the matter and they will respect “whatever possible” of the decision. And naturally there will be parts they will ignore.

Law books

And finally, which I can touch on only very briefly here, there is the Orbán government’s decision to further strip the Constitutional Court of its already greatly curtailed powers. A few days ago we learned that the plan is to annul all Court decisions of the last twenty-two years. Zoltán Fleck, a professor of law, considers such a step a “liquidation of our twenty-year-old constitutional development and our legal culture.” However, according to an MTI report today, “ruling Fidesz lawmakers … will reconsider [their] earlier proposal to strip the Constitutional Court of its right to refer to its previous decisions when making a ruling.” Apparently, in the parliamentary committee on the constitution the legislators are contemplating another version of the proposal that would allow the Court to make decisions identical to its earlier rulings and/or make decisions contrary to earlier decisions.

The country is in legal limbo but probably not for long. Orbán has appointed a new judge who used to be a Christian Democratic member of parliament. He will join the five earlier appointees who vote together and always in the government’s favor. Within a few months another judge will be appointed. Soon enough, the Constitutional Court will also be Orbán’s plaything.

“Reforming” higher education, Orbán style

“Zdenek” suggested today’s topic and I gladly accepted his invitation. The topic is timely, and I am naturally interested in higher education.

There has been talk about trimming the faculties at a number of universities for some time. The first piece of news I read about the dismissal of faculty members across the board was in March 2012 when it was reported that colleges and universities were in trouble because their budgets had already been trimmed by 13 billion forints in 2011. How much less money they would get in 2012 was still not known.

Today, a year later, we know that Hungarian higher education is not exactly high on the Orbán government’s agenda. Although Viktor Orbán’s twenty-year plan includes upgrading Hungarian universities to the point that they will be among the best in Europe, his government seems determined to diminish even their current state of mediocrity.

kick outOne way to destroy the reputation of a university is to fire faculty members with distinguished international reputations. And that’s exactly what the Orbán government has been doing in the last few years. I assume that long-time readers of Hungarian Spectrum remember the cleansing of the Philosophical Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. If not, it is worth taking a look at the January 2010 post on the affair. At that point several philosophers were dismissed. Now it seems that literature and linguistics professors are in the crosshairs. It is not immaterial that they are liberals.

I do understand, given the government’s attitude toward higher education and its financing, that universities are strapped for funds. The problem is that the decision about who gets dismissed seems to be politically motivated.  At least this was the situation in 2011. At the moment we don’t know with any certainty who will be leaving the Faculty of Arts, just that 22 university professors who are older than 62 will lose their jobs. In addition, the university will ask 10 part-time instructors to take a half a year of unpaid leave. According to the by-laws of ELTE, associate professors can work up to the age of 65 while full professors can stay until the age of 70.

None of the people mentioned as possible targets would qualify for forced retirement under the rules of the university. Tamás Tarján (Hungarian literature) is a 62-year-old associate professor. Sándor Radnóti, a full professor, is 66. László Kálmán (linguistics) is an associate professor and is only 56 years old. György Tverdota (literature), a full professor and departmental chairman, is 65. The last person mentioned was Ádám Nádasdy (linguist), a 66-year-old associate professor; he is the only one who should, according to ELTE’s retirement terms, step down.

The news about the dismissals was first reported by NépszabadságThe author of the article specifically mentioned four names: Sándor Radnóti, Tamás Tarján, György Tverdota, and László Kálmán. Since then, Sándor Radnóti told Magyar Narancs that as far as he knows his name is not on the list. As Radnóti explained, he shouldn’t be forced to retire because he didn’t have the privilege of having a job for forty years as required by law. In the 1970s he worked for a publishing house but was fired for political reasons. Radnóti told Magyar Narancs that he has a verbal assurance that his job is safe.

László Kálmán told Magyar Narancs that he did receive a letter from the dean of the faculty suggesting that he take an unpaid leave of absence until the end of the year. However, it turned out that this is not the first time he received such a notice. Ádám Nádasdy is also among those who might be terminated, but so far he hasn’t received any word about his fate. However, he knows that things can change very quickly.

Everything is in flux, but my hunch is that the information Népszabadság received has some basis. Perhaps the letters haven’t been sent out yet, but most likely the decisions have already been made.

One problem with this allegedly mechanical approach is that the decision makers pay no attention whatsoever to quality. It doesn’t matter how famous or how valuable the faculty member is. The person must leave because of his or her age.  It is enough to take a quick look at these men’s curriculum vitae to realize that if they are dismissed the university will deprive itself of valuable assets. They all are known abroad because they either studied or taught at foreign universities. They all received high academic honors at home and abroad. László Kálmán speaks English, French, Spanish, Dutch, German, and Russian. Ádám Nádasdy speaks English, Italian, German, and French. And what a lecturer! I highly recommend listening to a lecture he delivered at the Mindentudás Egyeteme a few years ago. It is a treat. György Tverdota is the foremost expert on the poetry of Attila József and is regularly invited to international conferences. Several of his works have been translated.

I used the phrase “allegedly mechanical” advisedly in describing the process of forced faculty retirement. Do we really think that only 22 members of the Faculty of Arts at ELTE are older than 62? Presumably age is only one criterion in deciding who stays and who goes. The people mentioned above are well known liberals who frequently express their opposition to the Orbán government’s policies. László Kálmán often analyses speeches of Fidesz politicians, and Radnóti was already a victim of political harassment when Viktor Orbán set Gyula Budai loose to find dirt on the liberal opposition.

I’ve saved the best for last. The new undersecretary for higher education, István Klinghammer, came out with this startling statement: “It is not in the interest of foreigners to have high quality Hungarian education.”  It is jarring, to say the least, to hear this kind of right-wing paranoia from a former president of ELTE and a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (elected in 2010).

Klinghammer is a great fan of forcing students who receive scholarships to stay in Hungary for a number of years. However, trying to make scholarship students the modern-day equivalent of indentured servants will prompt yet another fight with the European Union. Just today László Andor, EU commissioner for employment, social affairs, and inclusion, made it clear in an interview that Brussels will not accept the proposed bill tying Hungarian students to the homeland in its current form.

Klinghammer also has a very low opinion of certain majors. In his introductory interview as the new undersecretary in Zoltán Balog’s ministry he referred to Mickey Mouse majors. He himself began his studies at the College of Engineering (mechanical engineering) but switched to ELTE’s Faculty of Science where he received a degree in geography. His first diploma entitled him to teach geography in high school. He received a degree in cartography later. It seems that Klinghammer’s fame as a cartographer didn’t exactly spread far and wide.

I’m curious whether the Faculty of Sciences at ELTE will have similar budgetary cuts that will necessitate firing twenty-thirty faculty members. By the way, as far as I can ascertain, Klinghammer is still on the faculty of ELTE. He is 72 years old.

The new Hungarian education system: The model was France

I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me before. Rózsa Hoffmann, the Francophile, most likely turned to the French system when under her stewardship the whole Hungarian primary and secondary education system was turned upside down. Among other things, she wanted children to start their language education with a romance language (clearly she had French in mind) and wanted to discourage the study of English because it was too easy. At least it was very easy according to Viktor Orbán, who greatly regretted having focused on English as a student. I wonder what would have happened to him as a politician on the world stage if he had learned only Russian.

So, after all, it seems, Viktor Orbán was not the prime architect of the new system although most likely he and Hoffmann saw eye-to-eye. Surely, a highly centralized educational system must have appealed to Orbán who thinks that all problems, economic or otherwise, can be remedied by increasing centralization. Both might have recalled their youth when life was simple: the central government imposed a national standard so everybody was taught the same thing. And perhaps Rózsa Hoffmann sang the praises of French education, which is highly centralized. Whatever the precise scenario, Hungary will now imitate the basically nineteenth-century French educational system.

All educati0n programs in France are regulated by the Ministère de l’Éducation nationale, de la Jeunesse et de la Vie associative. The ministry is huge and the minister of education is “one of the highest-ranking officials in the cabinet.” The budget of the ministry is  €64.6 billion. The ministry is responsible for 15 million students, and the 1.5 million teachers and university professors are civil servants. The idea of enrolling all children in kindergarten at the age of 3 is most likely also borrowed from France where between the ages of 3 and 6 children attend “maternelle” classes which are normally attached to the regular schools that children attend between the ages of 6 and 11.


Apparently, the French system hasn’t changed much since the 1880s when Jules Ferry, the minister of public instruction, created it. The curriculum is determined by the ministry. Classes are large and students have to take far too many subjects.  The question is whether this old-fashioned system is effective in the twenty-first century. If we look at international statistics, France is not exactly in the forefront of educational achievement.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) publishes an annual report called “Education at a Glance” in which they use such metrics as educational performance, class size, and teachers’ salaries to rank countries. According to the 2012 report France and Hungary are neck to neck in the middle of the pack that includes countries like Thailand, Azerbaijan, and Kyrgyzstan. In Europe Finland leads in reading comprehension, mathematics, and science. In reading comprehension France is #21 while Hungary is #25. In mathematics France is #22 while Hungary is #29. In science Hungary is #22 and France #27. Well, if I had a two-thirds majority and if I were willing to turn the whole education system upside down, I wouldn’t imitate France. I would try to learn from the Finns. But Viktor Orbán would never turn to Finland because the Finns’ egalitarian attitude toward education would not align with the interests of his constituency, the upper middle class.

The Hungarian system may end up even worse than the French because while in France there are 26 districts in Hungary there will be 175. And to make matters worse, in Hungary a new administrative unit was established to serve as an intermediary between the schools and the ministry, the so-called Klebelsberg Intézményfenntartó Központ (Klebelsberg Center). Yet another layer of bureaucracy.

A few days ago a reporter from a Hungarian Internet newspaper talked to Nelly Guet, who has extensive experience with the educational systems of France, Germany, and Switzerland. She had little positive to say about the French system, and she emphasized that the European Union’s recommendations go against the kind of centralization characteristic of French education and just introduced in Hungary. Guet pointed out that the centralized system introduced in the 1880s served a kind of “nation-building mechanism” that would make a child from Bretagne the same as one from Paris. Moreover, at least that French reform was secular as opposed to what the Orbán government is doing by bringing religious education into the public school system and encouraging the churches to take over more and more schools.

Guet quoted a few “achievements” of the French system. Thirteen percent of students don’t finish high school because compulsory education ends at the age of 15. In Hungary the dropout rate is actually lower: 11%.  French children, just like the Hungarians, leave school without learning a foreign language. Although a European Union goal is that at least 50% of all students who finish high school get a college degree, that figure in France is only 27% while in Hungary last year it was 35%. (Hoffmann and Orbán are doing everything in their power to lower that number!) Interestingly enough, the best French students leave France to study, and they often work abroad. In France, just like in Hungary, life-long learning is an unknown concept.

A typical Hungarian story. The efforts of the last twenty years to make the Hungarian educational system more flexible and to prepare youngsters for the modern world have been overturned. The country is going back more than a century to find a model that will make its students less competitive both academically and professionally. Madness!

* * *

I would like to call readers’ attention to a new Internet publication entitled The Hungarian Historical Review ( The first double issue includes some studies dealing with urban history. I especially enjoyed “In the Web of Political Language. Verbal Warfare and the 1945 Change of Regime in a Residential Building in Budapest” by Ágnes Nagy. It describes the tensions between “the genteel” and gentile Aranka Richter and her Jewish neighbors before and after the liberation. A fascinating read.

Viktor Orbán’s twenty-year plan: empty promises

Perhaps “narancsblog” was right when he announced that it really doesn’t matter what Viktor Orbán said yesterday in front of invited guests about the state of the country. He is right. It makes no difference. It is also immaterial what the adoring fans of Viktor Orbán thought of the speech. Népszabadság‘s reporter was there, microphone in hand, and asked the same questions he asked a year ago, starting with: “What did you think of the speech?” Not only were the questions the same but the answers were as well: “Everything is wonderful, everything is going in the right direction.” They feel richer than ever and how nice that they will have to pay 10% less for natural gas. Nothing could change their minds. “What about the GDP? What about the drop in real wages? What about unemployment? What about the almost half a million Hungarians who live and work abroad?” The answer: statistics cannot be trusted.

As for the commentators, they couldn’t come up with anything terribly new either. Many labelled Orbán’s speech a pack of lies. They pointed out that Orbán again mixed up two famous Hungarian writers, Géza Ottlik and Sándor Márai, and that he recycled his jokes. They also emphasized that instead of talking about the present that is, let’s face it, unpleasant and even painful, he decided to look back over the past one hundred years and look forward to what will happen in 2030.

Viktor Orbán came out with a most ambitious “twenty year plan” (presumably already being implemented). Even Nikita Krushchev, as we were reminded by Endre Aczél, dared to plan for only seven years when in 1959 he promised that the Soviet Union’s GDP per capita would surpass that of the United States. And then came 1966 and no one remembered his boasting any more. Not only was the plan forgotten, Khrushchev himself was gone.

The slogan that was plastered all over the podium read “Hungary is performing better.” As it turned out in the course of Orbán’s address, this means that in all respects Hungary is doing better now than at any time since 1990. A quick look at economic indicators, however, reveals that actually the opposite is true: Hungary’s economy is in shambles. But then I guess these are just more untrustworthy statistics.

Ferenc Gyurcsány summarized Orbán’s performance in a single phrase: “empty head, empty speech.” Others were even less charitable. A blog writer called him “the national bullshit generator.” Klára Ungár, Orbán’s former friend and colleague in Fidesz, made a witty remark in which she quoted from Erzsi Gazdag, a poet who often wrote children’s verse. One of her best known poems is “A mesebolt,” a store that sells tales:

Volt egyszer egy mesebolt,
abban minden mese volt.
Fiókjában törpék ültek,
vízilányok hegedültek.

I’m not going to try to translate it, but basically in that “tale store everything was a tale.” So, in Orbán’s speech there was not word of truth.

Another truckload of political promisesBy les mois de l'année / Flickr

Another truckload of political promises
By les mois de l’année / Flickr

In his brief reference to the last one hundred years he compared Hungary’s situation to an old folk ballad about Mrs. Kelemen Kömíves. A fairly gruesome story about twelve bricklayers who are hired to build the walls of the Fortress of Déva (Deva, Romania). Whatever they build during the day collapses overnight. So, they decide that the first wife who comes to visit will be killed and her ashes will have some miraculous powers to keep the mortar strong. According to Orbán, whatever “our great-great grandparents built was taken away by World War I and the peace (békerendszer) that it brought; what our great grandparents built was taken away by World War II and the system of peace created afterward; what our grandparents and parents built was taken away by the communist system.” The message is that, considering everything, Hungary’s situation is not at all bad. (I don’t know who the sacrificial lamb is supposed to be in this analogy.) I think I should also point out that from Orbán’s grandparents and parents nothing was taken away by the communists. The opposite is true. The Orbán family was a beneficiary of the socialist system.

After spending only a little time on his accomplishments he quickly moved on to his grand design, his “master plan” as he called it. Miracles will take place. By 2030 Hungary will not be financially dependent, although I’m not quite sure what he means by financial independence. The central government will not have to borrow money? Will not have to issue government bonds? Hard to imagine. No country works that way and the country that tried it, I have Romania in mind, had a sorry end. “We will end our energy dependence” by that date. Furthermore, everybody will be saved from “the slavery of indebtedness in foreign currencies.”  The population will stop decreasing. Everybody will find work who wants to live in Hungary. Hungary will be among the thirty most competitive countries in the world. From these sentences it is clear that Viktor Orbán envisages himself as prime minister of Hungary at least for another eighteen years because he and his team will carry out this master plan.

“By a reindustrialization of the country Hungarian industry will be linked to the German industrial complex (a magyar ipart összeépítjük a némettel)…. We will build up ten thousand middle-size companies that will be competitive in the export business. Fifteen to twenty large Hungarian multinational companies will strengthen the global expansion of the Hungarian economy…. Four to five percent of the country’s GDP will be spent on research and development. Several of our universities will be among the top 200 in the world…. The living standards of Hungarian families will surpass the European average. We will achieve all this with carefully prepared plans, with a reorganized state, with committed experts, and with a society that wants and is able to work.

Shortly before Viktor Orbán delivered his speech came the news that the European Commission has its doubts about Hungary’s ability to hold the deficit under 3% in 2013. Commentators tried to guess what the prime minister would say about this piece of news. Would he say anything? Well, he did. Let me quote:

You shouldn’t be troubled by the European Union’s economic prognosis. For example, as far as the budget is concerned not once did they manage to guess it right. We keep fingers crossed that perhaps this time they will manage. We will help them because this year the deficit will again be under 3%.

Of course, what Orbán neglected to tell his adoring audience is that during 2012 the budget had to be rejiggered time and again to remain below the magic 3%. And surely, he didn’t want to tell them that most likely the EU prediction for 2013 is correct and that to remain under 3% new austerity measures will have to be introduced.

But Fidesz supporters can hang on to those twenty-year dreams and sleep unencumbered by the realities of today.