Looking backward: Historical complexity and political simplification

A couple of days ago I mentioned that three historians who are attached to the Institute of History of the Hungarian Academy of Science were entrusted with deciding the fate of persons and concepts that can possibly be connected to dictatorial regimes of the twentieth century. The other day the long awaited list was made public and was met with a mix of fury and derision. By today well known historians, members of the Academy, are calling the list and its creators a disgrace to the historical profession.

Almost a month before the appearance of the infamous list András Gerő, whose specialty is the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, rang the alarm bell and predicted that nothing good would come from this enterprise because the text of the law is imprecise and because whoever wrote it has no clue about the complexity of life and thus of history.

I will summarize Gerő’s main objections. The full text of the the law can be read here, but the key sentence is that “the name of no person can be used anywhere (institutions, media organs, public places) who played a leading role in the establishment, formation, and maintenance of twentieth-century dictatorial regimes or such expression or name of an organ that can be directly related with such a regime.”

The first problem is that the law itself is sloppily formulated. On the one hand it talks about dictatorial regimes (rendszerek) in the plural when it comes to persons whereas, when talking about organizations and concepts, it uses the singular (rendszer). So, how many dictatorial regimes are we talking about? Gerő rightly states that there were three such regimes in Hungary in the twentieth century. The Soviet Republic of 1919, the 1944-45 Arrow Cross regime, and the communist regime between 1949 and 1989. The text of the preamble to the bill provides a clue to the lawmakers’ thinking. Here they talk about “dictatorships” but add that “first and foremost” they are thinking of  the communist dictatorship and the 1919 Soviet Republic lasting 133 days. Thus, the emphasis is on dictatorships of the left.

Why does any lawmaker think that such a piece of legislation is necessary in the first place? The reason is that “our streets and institutions should bear names that are worthy of the ideals of a democratic country.” However, Gerő points out, it is not only dictatorship that is opposed to the ideals of a democratic state. What if the equality of citizens is terminated in a perfectly legitimate and democratic manner? The reference here is to the Horthy regime’s anti-Jewish laws. “Without equality of citizens there is no rule of rule (jogállam).” Gerő comes to the conclusion that perhaps the lawmakers are not really familiar with the meaning of the rule of law.

Listed by Epicantus / Daria Nepriakhina

Listed by Epicantus / Daria Nepriakhina / Flickr

But, Gerő says, ignorance has its consequences. On the preliminary list were such names as Béla Kun and Tibor Szamuely, who was personally responsible for political murders during the 1919 communist interlude. Their roles in the establishment and maintenance of a dictatorship are indisputable. But Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels also appeared on the list. They were included because of their role in laying the foundation for the later Soviet regime. Since both died years before 1917, we have no idea what they would have thought of the kind of dictatorship that was established in Soviet Russia. And if Marx and Engels are blacklisted, why don’t we put Prime Minister Pál Teleki, who played a leading role in the enactment of Hungary’s anti-Jewish laws, on the same list? And if we can connect Marx and Engels with the Muscovite Mátyás Rákosi, we should certainly link the name of Bishop Ottokár Prohászka, who is considered to be the theoretician of Ferenc Szálasi’s Hungarism, with the Holocaust.

One must also should keep in mind that people might change their views over their lifetimes. Either because they genuinely had a change of heart or because they responded to a changing situation. As an example Gerő brings up Gyula Szekfű (1883-1955), the historian. His extremely influential book written in 1920, Három nemzedék: Egy hanyatló kor története (Three generations: History of a declining age), blamed the liberals of the dual monarchy for the misfortunes that befell Hungary after World War I. This book played an important role in justifying István Bethlen’s counterrevolutionary regime. Later he moved farther to the left and after 1945 he even praised Stalin’s accomplishments and the Soviet regime. From 1953 he became a member of parliament and in the last two years of his life a member of the Presidium. There’s no question that he helped maintain the communist dictatorship. Right now a street bears his name in Budapest’s District IV. Should he be banned? According to the law, if we take it seriously, yes, he should be.

The other person Gerő mentions is János Szentágothai, the famous Hungarian medical researcher. He was also a member of parliament and later a member of the Presidium during the Kádár regime. Between 1977 and 1985 he was the president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences which was a political post. After 1990 he was again a member of parliament as an MDF member. Again, he should be banned but naturally he won’t be.

The third person is Béla Kovács, secretary-general of the Smallholders party, whom the Soviets exiled to the Gulag on February 25, 1947. In 2000, during the first Orbán administration, the government made February 25 a day of remembrance for the victims of communism. In 2002 Kovács’s statue was unveiled on Kossuth Square. Kovács became a member of Imre Nagy’s cabinet, but in 1958 he became a member of the pseudo-parliament of the early Kádár regime. He should also be banned according to a strict interpretation of the law.

The drafters of the law added that if and when there is any question concerning eligibility the case must be referred to the historians of the Academy. But if one reads the law carefully, it doesn’t allow for any doubt. The choice is either black or white, yes or no. Historians should know full well that life and therefore history is not that simple, and therefore they should not have accepted the job. Unfortunately, they did. The historians “should have told the government that this task cannot be accomplished in the spirit of academic correctness.”

They accepted the job despite the fact that Attila Pók, one of the three historians who took part in this disgraceful exercise, admitted that the law doesn’t allow for any shading or for a scientific approach and that the law was not thought through.

The government passed the buck to the Academy and the historians passed it back to the government. They excused their own participation by emphasizing that theirs was not the final word. They acted only in an advisory capacity.

The concern is growing in historical circles that “by participating in this political game they risked their academic credibility.”  As historian Gábor Gyáni said, “the historians found themselves in such an absurd situation that they had to explain why concepts like “freedom” or “republic” are not directly related to dictatorships. But at the same time they fell into such traps as declaring Maxim Gorky or Vladimir Mayakovsky supporters of a dictatorship. The former, after the assassination of Sergei Kirov in December 1934, was placed under “secret” house arrest. There were rumors that his sudden death wasn’t an accident. Mayakovsky by the late 1920s became increasingly disillusioned with the course the Soviet Union was taking and committed suicide.

Life is not as simple as Fidesz politicos imagine or as even well-known Hungarian historians think. And what if one day historians associate Viktor Orbán and the members of his government with the destruction of democracy in Hungary and with building an authoritarian regime with the assistance of a neo-Nazi party? It could easily happen.

Advertisements

26 comments

  1. They do seem oddly obsessed with re-naming, and not at all clear in their thinking. Perhaps my nearest bridge will once again be known as Ferencz József híd…

  2. anglawbp :

    They do seem oddly obsessed with re-naming, and not at all clear in their thinking. Perhaps my nearest bridge will once again be known as Ferencz József híd…

    It would be nothing wrong with that as far as I’m concerned. He was hated right after the failed revolution but became a beloved figure thirty-forty years later. I also think that removing great Habsburg ruler’s statues after 1945 was wrong. You can’t forget about 400 years of history just as you can’t get Kádár out of it.

  3. As I was re-reading my own post an old memory cropped up in my head. It was during the school year 1949/50. I was in grade 8. We were taught about Mayakovski. I heard from my father that he had committed suicide. So, I got up and asked the teacher: “If Mayakovski loved the Soviet system so much why did he commit suicide?” It just shows that I was always a trouble maker. Luckily nothing terrible happened to me.

  4. I think that András Gerő is a competent and intelligent person.
    He was right to question the quality of work of Romsics.
    He is right again.
    Somebody like him, should be the prime minister of Hungary,
    to end the anarchy and chaos.

  5. I agree absolutely about not forgetting history. In Whitehall, London, we have a statue of our only executed king and at the other end a statue of the man responsible for the execution. And so it should be.

  6. anglawbp :

    I agree absolutely about not forgetting history. In Whitehall, London, we have a statue of our only executed king and at the other end a statue of the man responsible for the execution. And so it should be.

    Fantastic example. Charles I and Cromwell! I wish Hungary would realize that both Kossuth and Franz Joseph deserve a statue.

  7. What is democracy?

    Ancient Athens was democratic to its male citizens, less so to its metics [< metoikos], and was not democratic at all to the slaves.

    Universal suffrage, which is now considered as one of the necessary ingredients of a democracy was first introduced in the world as late as 1906 [in the Russian occupied Finland to boot].

    My claim is that the only time Hungary had democratic system in its 1000+ history was the 1990-2010 period.

    The first, the "saint" king was a tyrant too, he built an "önkényuralmi" system – his name should be expunged first.

    The new law restricts itself to the 20th century. This means that no street,institution or company should be named after any 20th century politician, soldier, ideologue or state employee.

  8. Exsqueeze me, but, to me, “universal suffrage” includes women, and that came long after 1906. In fact, there are many parts of the world that will, likely, never have universal suffrage.

  9. Australia was the first country in the world to grant universal suffrage, including women, in 1894 in the colony of South Australia.

  10. qua qua :
    I think that András Gerő is a competent and intelligent person.
    He was right to question the quality of work of Romsics.
    He is right again.
    Somebody like him, should be the prime minister of Hungary,
    to end the anarchy and chaos.

    He should be the president of the Academy.

  11. Aboriginal men and women were included in the franchise of 1894 though, in practice, very few of them would have been aware of that right. However, it is a matter of historical record that some (only a few individuals) Aboriginal men and women did vote in the first elections to be held after 1894.

  12. New Zealand gave the women the right to vote a year earlier, in 1893, but they were not permitted to stand for election. Could women be elected to any office in Australia after 1894?

    There is a good summary at the not-always-reliable Wikipedia

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women%27s_suffrage

    France was the first country to introduce universal male suffrage in 1792, but it did not last long. It was not until 1875 that male suffrage was made universal again.

    So democracy, as we define it, is not very old worldwide and the events in Hungary show that it is fragile.

    The dozen or so people in Fidesz’s inner circle can still claim to have democratic rights.

  13. Thanks, Tappanch, I stand corrected: New Zealand was the first country to give women the right to vote in 1893; South Australia was the first colony to allow women to stand for office in 1894, which was extended nationally in 1902, after Federation of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901. I think Australia was one of the first countries to allow women to be elected.

    I was referring only to South Australia in above remarks as some other Australian colonies at the time expressly barred indigenous people from voting.

  14. anglawbp :
    I agree absolutely about not forgetting history. In Whitehall, London, we have a statue of our only executed king and at the other end a statue of the man responsible for the execution. And so it should be.

    Brits have always been pretty good at ‘balance’, especially when it didn’t matter that much. Like in statues on the streets. It is only in these parts that the mania for renaming streets and removing statues (see Kossuth ter!) is rife. Reading the comments above it came to me, whether the existence of both Charles I’s and Cromwell’s statues, especially so near each other, expresses what Prof. Balogh thought it expressed. I suppose that depends on what you think governments or any bodies erect statues for. If it is only about significant figures, irrespective of who they were, what they did and how – if at all – they progressed their own societies and the well-being of their peoples, then yes, it is great to have that type of balance. However, if – as I and I hope many others think – that going to the bother and expense of creating, casting and erecting a statue should only be for those characters whose role in society can be agreed to have been generally progressive and to the benefit of the majority of their people than it is EITHER Charles I OR Cromwell, NOT BOTH.

  15. Very interesting writing. It proves, that the highest science group how can be influenced for helping the government authoriter behaviour. The author have mentioned people whos ideology were changing during theirs life time. I would mentioned for istance Arthur Koestler, .In 1931 he joined the Communist Party of Germany until, disillusioned by Stalinism, he resigned in 1938.. In 1940 published his novel Darkness at Noon, an anti-totalitarian work, which gained him international fame. And there are many similar to mention..

  16. JGrant: “. However, if – as I and I hope many others think – that going to the bother and expense of creating, casting and erecting a statue should only be for those characters whose role in society can be agreed to have been generally progressive and to the benefit of the majority of their people than it is EITHER Charles I OR Cromwell, NOT BOTH.”

    If it were so simple. Which one would you think was “progressive and to the benefit of the majority of their people”?

  17. Koestler is an excellent example. By the way, he should have a street named after him. After all, he was a Hungarian and in the second half of the 30s he even lived in Hungary. Good friend of Attila József. In his autobiography he writes about this period of his life and the literary scene in Budapest at the time. He also did a very good English translation of József’s poem “For my birthday” that appeared in this autobiography.

  18. “The new law restricts itself to the 20th century. This means that no street,institution or company should be named after any 20th century politician, soldier, ideologue or state employee.” This people get crazy.They do not know what they are doing, and will be on the disgraceful pages of history..

  19. And more can be known above you mentioned from the book by Kati Marton. Kilenc magyar aki világgá ment és megváltoztatta a világot(The origin title is:The Great Escape.)

  20. Eva S. Balogh :
    JGrant: “. However, if – as I and I hope many others think – that going to the bother and expense of creating, casting and erecting a statue should only be for those characters whose role in society can be agreed to have been generally progressive and to the benefit of the majority of their people than it is EITHER Charles I OR Cromwell, NOT BOTH.”
    If it were so simple. Which one would you think was “progressive and to the benefit of the majority of their people”?

    The British Academy can tell it right away if they are worth their salt.

  21. Eva S. Balogh :
    JGrant: “. However, if – as I and I hope many others think – that going to the bother and expense of creating, casting and erecting a statue should only be for those characters whose role in society can be agreed to have been generally progressive and to the benefit of the majority of their people than it is EITHER Charles I OR Cromwell, NOT BOTH.”
    If it were so simple. Which one would you think was “progressive and to the benefit of the majority of their people”?

    This is terribly subjective, I know. Out of those two I would side with Cromwell, as when it comes to the roundheads as against the cavaliers under any criteria the former would have stood for the common man and for the future, whatever we now think of their methods. I do not judge “progressive” by moral standards, because if we did that there would be no sculptures anywhere. Perhaps that might be a solution.

  22. I think naming anything after Koestler is going to be problematic, simply based on his personal life and the open questions surrounding his wife’s suicide.

  23. Gábor DrKirály :
    And more can be known above you mentioned from the book by Kati Marton. Kilenc magyar aki világgá ment és megváltoztatta a világot(The origin title is:The Great Escape.)

    The original title is
    The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World

    http://www.amazon.com/The-Great-Escape-Hitler-Changed/dp/074326116X

    Look at the translation:
    Jews —-> magyar
    fled Hitler —-> világgá ment

    Ms Marton should have objected to this castrated translation, in my humble opinion.

  24. So, what about again the guy who killed the most of the Hungarians to turn them Christians? Yes, that, Saint Stephen? They guy, who’s fist your are running around every year.

    Also what about Napoleon? 3 to 6 million people died in the Napoleonic wars. The guy was a mini Hitler. He locked up the pope. Did you know that?

    I know it’s inappropriate, but I also would like to know, after he kicked the bucket, can I name my street, Imre Pozsgay? No? What do you mean he was an ex-communist the first secretary of the Patriotic Peoples’s Front who won the 99% of the votes in the Kadar era elections? He wrote the effing constitution with Mr Szajer !?! He is a hero, right?

    We are also considering to name our street Anakin Skywalker. I know he eventually turned into Lord Darth Vader, but his accomplishments to defend the Republic before that is undeniable. What do you mean there’s no more Republic? What? The Republic of the Galaxy now just called Galaxy?

Comments are closed.