A balancing act: a decoration for Imre Kertész and another for his right-wing foe

The debate about Imre Kertész’s acceptance of the Order of St. Stephen is slowly subsiding. There were important voices on the left, Ágnes Heller and Tamás Ungvári among them, who decided that since Imre Kertész is a great writer and the only Hungarian Nobel Prize winner in literature he richly deserves the highest decoration that can be awarded by any Hungarian government. In this view, it really doesn’t matter that between 1940 and 1944 several war criminals received the Order of St. Stephen.

Others who are  less forgiving  hope that Imre Kertész, given his illness and possible mental impairment, simply didn’t realize that this award was the Orbán government’s cynical answer to the unsavory reputation it acquired as the leading force in the falsification of the history of the Hungarian Holocaust. Honoring Kertész was conceived as a way to blunt the sharp clash between the Hungarian government and the domestic and international Jewish communities.

erdemrendBut trying to appease one group was guaranteed to outrage another. The Orbán government knew that there would be an outcry in extreme right-wing circles following the decision to award such a high honor to someone whom they consider to be not a member of the nation.

In order to “balance” things they opted to bestow a lesser decoration on a man of extreme political views. The Hungarian government settled on Mihály Takaró, who is supposed to be a “poet and literary historian.”

Takaró’s mission in life is the propagation of Hungary’s “banished literature.” Members of this banished group are writers of the interwar period who in Takaró’s opinion were supremely talented but because of their political views were barred from Hungary’s literary corpus.

The decoration Takaró received is a modest one, called Magyar Érdemrend Lovagkereszt (polgári tagozat), something I’m not even going to try to translate. It is given out twice a year: on March 15 and August 20. Each time at least 30-40 people receive it as a token of the government’s appreciation. In this case presumably one reason for the appreciation is that Takaró was among those who consider Kertész to be a mediocre writer and not a member of the Hungarian nation.

Takaró, who until fairly recently was just a humble high school teacher, is now on the faculty of the Gáspár Károli Hungarian Reformed University, which seems to be a gathering place for people of decidedly rightist views. Takaró’s time arrived with Viktor Orbán’s second administration when he had his own series entitled “Száműzött irodalom” (Banished Literature) on the state Duna TV.  The work of members of this group, in Takaró’s opinion, is among the greatest in Hungarian literature. For example, in an interview he gave on HírTV after receiving the decoration, he talked about Wass and Nyirő as equals of Sándor Petőfi and Attila József.

Featured in the series is an odd assortment of writers. Some, like Albert Wass  and József Nyirő, were members of or very close to Ferenc Szálasi’s Hungarist movement. Others, like Cecile Tormay, were rabid anti-Semites. And there were conservative writers, representatives of the Horthy regime’s “official literature” like Ferenc Herczeg. These writers are not considered by literary historians to be great. But Takaró also included a couple of poets of real talent who were there only because they were from Transylvania, by then in Romanian hands. All in all, Takaró’s series on Duna TV can be considered to be officially sponsored far-right propaganda. Some of the episodes can be seen on YouTube.

Here are a couple of them that should give readers a sense of Takaró’s mission. The first is about Albert Wass.

And here is another one on Cecile Tormay.

Takaró, in addition to his decidedly extremist views, has odd ideas about literary merit in general. He claims that the worth of a writer shouldn’t be determined by literary critics in later generations but by their popularity and acceptance by their contemporaries. In this view bestsellers of the 1920s and 1930s, like the works of Miklós Harsányi or Julianna Zsigray, should be judged to be better and more valuable than those of Attila József, who was almost an unknown but today is considered to be the greatest Hungarian poet.

Takaró complains bitterly about the falsification of the works of Hungarian classics–he specifically mentions Mihály Babits–whose irredentist utterances were unceremoniously left out even from “critical editions.” Very true. But what Takaró does not mention is that the Kádár regime’s self-censoring literary critics did the same thing to the works of such writers as János Kodolányi or László Németh, who became fully accepted writers by the regime although both had more than a slight brush with extreme right views in the 1930s. In their collected works the editors simply left out or rewrote passages that gave away their unsavory pasts.

HírTV invited Takaró for a fifteen-minute talk after he received his award. During the interview the question of literary worth and the writer’s political views was discussed. Perhaps the two should be completely separated, said the reporter. This was an opportunity for Takaró to get out of a sticky situation, especially when it came to his evangelizing for Hungarists like Wass and Nyirő. But our literary historian refused to budge. No, when judging an artist that person should be taken as a whole, including his political views. So Takaró is rehabilitating not only literary works but political ideologies as well.

In fact, one has the distinct feeling that Takaró’s main concern is the political views of these people and not the literary merit of their work. Moreover, he does not restrict his campaign to right-wing writers but often ventures into the field of history. Among his available lectures on YouTube there is a long appreciation of Miklós Horthy.

I doubt whether the extreme right will be satisfied with the decoration of one of their own as a consolation prize for the Order of St. Stephen for Imre Kertész. Even so, this government’s well practiced navigation through the treacherous waters of the far right never ceases to amaze me.

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40 comments

  1. Since February 2011, hundred and ten thousand newly-weds have received these pieces of marital advice from our fatherly government.

  2. Orban the Fifth government managed to degrade pretty much all the high decorations by giving them out like candy to untalented bozos like this Takaro guy. All this colorful, low hanging, bigass crosses (“nagy valagrend”) will end up one day on the Ecseri street flee market where I saw the highest commie decorations sold for pennies. Why do the all look like the German iron cross anyway?

  3. Since February 2011, hundred and ten thousand newly-weds have received these pieces of marital advice from our fatherly government.

    In sickness and in health, until death do us apart, blah, blah, whatever. Go and make some Hungarians … 

    Imagine the face of a 50 something couple. And try to imagine the future of same sex marriages. Hungarian sharia law. 

    Why is everything so tasteless and stupid under the Orban government?

  4. A very well known female poet criticized the bestowing of the bizarrely named award to Takaró. In a post on Facebook, she then said she received so many criticisms and hate messages that she felt compelled to withdraw her original post. She quoted one of the hate messages she got and it was truly vile.
    Such is the atmosphere of hatred and intolerance in Hungary today. I admire the courage of this poet for speaking out, but I also understand her decision to withdraw the post. Shame to all those who tried to shut her up.

  5. “we demand the creation of a strong, central national authority;
    unconditional authority of the central Parliament […] ;
    and the formation of corporative and vocational chambers for the purpose of executing the general law”

    Well, this is the last, 25th demand of the NSDAP, February 24, 1920.

    The 25-point program was declared “unabänderlich” (unchangeable) in 1926.

    “Central national authority” is Zentralgewalt in the original.

    Does Zentralgewalt sound like Orban’s 2009 “central power field”?

    Is the forcibly created teachers’ “kar” a corporative chamber?

  6. London Calling!

    Yes ‘gongs’ become devalued when handed out like confetti – in England honours like the OBE and MBE are handed out like confetti too, for example, a long serving civil servant will get one just for time served.

    They are also handed out to deserving people, for example, to dedicated voluntary service.

    Awards to the wrong people debase certain awards too. For example ‘Sir Anthony Blunt’ was shielded for many years by the royal family – yes the Queen, who appointed him as keeper of the royal art collection (or similar). They knew all along that he was one of the Cambridge spies.

    Mrs Thatcher outed him and her majesty was forced to take away his knighthood.

    (I sometimes ruminate on the choices we made during the war. In those days deference to the royal family was almost absolute. Concomitant with this was the dubious fact that several of the royal family were actually fraternising with Hitler and were not convinced that we should go to war. They wanted to find an accommodation with him in relation to the Empire. However democracy prevailed even then and Churchill pursuaded Parliament that war was necessary. We at least took the correct route.

    While it is not as straightforward there are parallels with Horthy – who didn’t resist Hitler. He probably saw it as an opportunity to retrieve Trianon. As I pointed out to the Reverend recently, Horthy and Hungary’s Parliament had choices too.)

    Sir Anthony Blunt along with the other Cambridge spies, Philby, MacLean and Burgess were traitors helped massively by Blunt who was hidden by the Royal Family.

    I am no royalist but Blunt was finally unmasked and went to his grave as an unconvicted traitor thanks to the Royal Family – who probably influenced the decision not to prosecute him in the final hour.

    He went to his grave a sad broken man without his knighthood.

    So I am an even more dedicated Republican believing that most factions of the ‘Royal Family’ are parasites to the man on the Clapham omnibus – an unnecessary burden on all taxpayers.

    Tappanch

    When people got married in the Nazi Germany, they got a free copy of Hitler’s Mein Kamf.

    Hitler made an awful lot of money from his books because of this – he charged the state the full price for every copy and when he committed suicide was a very wealthy man.

    Germany is still trying to trace the funds, with little help from his heirs.

    Regards

    Charlie

  7. @CharlieH

    Far be it for me to defend Nazi Germany but I’d hazard a guess that it was far less corrupt than
    today’s Hungary…

  8. re: our brother Russians

    Has there ever been a case where a country insisted on delivering its own humanitarian aid
    without the permission of the country it is intended for?
    Why aren’t the western powers insisting that Russia give over the aid to the Red Cross for distribution?

  9. Petofi: Far be it for me to defend Nazi Germany but I’d hazard a guess that it was far less corrupt than today’s Hungary…

    Where did get that idea? For example the entire war machine is based upon a lie. Ever heard bour Kraft durch Freude (KdF). This was Hitler’s idea that everybody could receive a car (we called it now the VW Beetle). And people saved money, but that money was used to start the war machine.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strength_Through_Joy
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volkswagen

  10. I’m afraid I agree with Heller and Ungvári. I’ve lamented enough about this government systematically ignoring the country’s best talents based on dubious nationalistic motives to oppose when it eventually honors one. On the other hand, I reserve the right to comment the political exploitation of the event by Fidesz’s fuzzy thinkers.

    In the same manner, while the conditions of the succession at the head of the Ludwig Muzeum remain scandalous, I’m glad the works of the late Simon Hantaï, another great Hungarian exile, are being exhibited in Budapest this summer.

    As for Mr. Takaró, well… this blog post seems eloquent enough. Surely, every country has a tin-foil hat crowd, but this government’s insistance upon giving them decorations never ceases to amaze me. They’re not babies anymore, and won’t keep quiet when given rattles.

  11. @CharlieH

    “Germany is still trying to trace the funds, with little help from his heirs.”

    At the end of the war, Hitler’s private wealth was estimated at 10 million Reichsmark.

    The official heir of Hitler’s estate is the “Freistaat Bayern” as there are no survivors. It also owns the copyright to “Mein Kampf” (except in the US of A).

    ——————————-

    Concerning the question of having a constitutional monarchy or a republic:

    A monarchy is much cheaper, and the mass of the people find it easier to identify with a king/queen as the head of state than with a president.

    However, in a democracy a president can take the opportunity to use speeches to influence political thinking (in Germany: Heuss, Heinemann, von Weizsäcker, Herzog = 4 out of 11), a chance tragically missed by Sólyom during his watch.

  12. Marcel Dé: @Ron: Orbánistan has KdP, Kraft durch Pálinka. Didn’t you notice the ever-expanding summer ads for alcohol stills in supermarket brochures ?

    Ohh yes, but these stills are mainly made in Slovakia.

  13. @tappanch

    “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.”

    I agree with Goethe, but my historical observation has been that freed slaves do not automatically become sovereign human beings who begin to think for themselves. This was apparent in all ex-Eastern Bloc countries, very much so also in the ex-GDR, although its integration into the West was the most generously funded.

  14. As to handing the wrong awards to the wrong people by the wrong people, I wrote a registered letter to the President of the Federal Republic of Germany (of which I am a citizen) on August 11. I protested against his awarding one of the highest orders of merit to Zoltán Balog (2013) and against his meeting with Mária Schmidt (2014), endorsing her “work” by arranging for a co-operation with a similarly controversial institution at Hohenschönhausen near Berlin.

    I wonder if I’ll ever get a reply. I know, here in Switzerland I would – however feeble.

  15. @Marcel Dé (@MarcelD10)

    To my mind, both merit a French award vastly more than Balog does the German.

  16. London Calling

    Yes Minusio you are correct – his nephew Leo Raubal (his half sister’s child) and other legitimate claimants refuse to touch the ‘blood’ money.

    However there is still money to trace that Hitler stashed away.

    This link deals with Mein Kamf

    http://www.celebritynetworth.com/articles/celebrity/rich-hitler/

    And here is a mystery that may be even more of Hitler’s dosh:

    http://www.american-buddha.com/demo.hitlerangelhas3millions.htm

    Regards

    Charlie

  17. @CharlieH

    This celebrity networth link is full of mistakes. For example, Hitler spent only a little more than a year in prison. His first heir in line would have been his sister, Paula. There were two court cases about Hitler’s estate, one in 1948, the other in 1960 when Paula was awarded two thirds of Hitler’s estate. But she died a few months later. So that was the end of it, and Bavaria became the sole “surviving” heir.

    As for his expenses on cars and real estate, that was most probably paid for by the Reich after 1933. But he didn’t have to fund his political rise all by himself before 1933 either. There was a lot of big industry and finance that smelled profits and filled his pockets.

    But lest we forget: It was the conservatives that made him chancellor. And his first government had only three nazis in it, one of them Hitler.

  18. Very interesting article. This is OT, and people will claim that oh this has nothing to do with Hungary. I disagree. Racism and nationalism are a huge issue among Hungarian youth also, where just like in Israel “leftist” is now a clearly derogatory term, which implies a weak person who does not love his country. Any kid branded as a “leftist” immediately feels the need to apologize and deny that he is one: no, he/she is right wing, of course, just as the nation demands from him/her too. I think the mechanisms of racism and nationalism are similar even if the reasons (more like the proximate causes) are different. It is not a surprise and not by accident that Jobbik is by far the most popular party among Hungarian people under 40, and especially under 25 among whom Jobbik is ‘the’ political party. Under 40 in Hungary people just don’t care about “leftists”, just don’t.

    http://www.haaretz.com/mobile/.premium-1.611822?v=C1FFA498A4B3F60AC8696D3A46E2F4D2

  19. @teriyaki

    The word “leftist” has completely different meanings in Israel, in Hungary and in the US.

    In the US, the “rightist” GOP fans hate big government, in Hungary they love it.

    Very rough, perhaps lame characterizations (so do not hesitate flame me…)

    Hungarian “rightist” = nationalist socialist
    (Of course, Fidesz’s socialism is a fake one. Their leaders’ main aim is to pilfer
    as much public money as possible)
    Hungarian “leftist” = internationalist capitalist
    Hungarian communist (an almost extinct species) = internationalist socialist

    US “rightist” = nationalist capitalist

    Israeli “leftist” = ready to give up the country
    Israeli “rightist” = wants to stay there.

    In addition, the majority of media is “rightist” in Hungary, while “leftist” in Israel.

  20. The Haaretz article implicitly redefines the word “race” to prove its point. In reality, Arab and Jew are not races, as you can find every skin color in both groups.

  21. Possible behaviors when conflict arises between two countries or in the relationship of two people (see “game theory” and read Professor Aumann)

    1. Massive Retaliatory Strike — cooperate until the first screw, and then screw for the rest of the game.

    2. Tester — start by attacking; if retaliation is received, then back off and start cooperating for a while; then, throw in another attack; tester is designed to see how much it can get away with.

    If Tester plays Massive Retaliatory Strike, both do badly.

    3. Jesus — one line of code: always cooperate.

    4. Lucifer — one line of code: always screw.

    If Lucifer plays Jesus, evil prevails.”

    “5. Tit for Tat or Moses — First line: be nice (never nasty first); 2nd line: do whatever the other guy did on the last move; Tit for tat retaliates only once, letting bygones be bygones.

    Tit for tat can swing both ways. It elicits cooperation if you’ve got any inclination, but doesn’t take any guff. When playing against Jesus, a virtuous cycle of cooperation prevails for all 200 rounds.

    Against Lucifer, Tit for Tat plays pretty good defense.

    And it wins, in evolutionary terms. ”

    6. Generous Tit for Tat (the optimal behavior!) —
    “The second line of code (the one that says, do whatever the other guy did last time) gets modified to not always retaliate, but nearly always retaliate. Mathematically, that translates to not retaliating one in 10 times after sustaining an attack.”

    “For every nine parts Moses, you need one part Jesus,”

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/rogerkay/2011/12/19/generous-tit-for-tat-a-winning-strategy/

  22. @tappanch, re the haaretz article

    I think you can’t see the forest from the trees. I agree that if one is a political scientist than there are huge differences between the meanings of the terms “leftist”, left-wing in Hungary, in Israel or wherever. These differences exist and political scientists can analyze these differences forever.

    Having said that, the point is that in most cases uncritical nationalists usually gather on the right-wing, while more critical, more rational people who have understanding towards the other side (who are willing to compromise) on the left wing. This is true for Israel, Hungary and the US.

    In the US the right-wing, the republicans have been associated with war efforts, most veterans voted republicans, who detested ‘bleeding heart’, ‘tree hugging’ etc. liberals. Clinton and Obama succeeded to change that image, they are almost as a trigger-happy and ‘tough-acting’ as Dick Cheney, certainly the voters think so. People who say that Obama is a US-hater are invariably on the right-wing and come from the republican side.

    Same in Hungary. The term Hungary-hater is well-known: these are the left wing/liberal/jewish etc., however defined by themselves or by right-wingers, people who are not on the right-wing and are not nationalistic. This is standard: they are critical of Hungary or the government, so they are Hungary-haters.

    In Israel, if you dare to criticize the war on Gaza you are a leftist, an Israel-hater, simple as that. Isn’t there a similarity? My point was not about Israel or US, but about the youth, however.

    These days – similarly to the picture about the Israeli kids – in Hungary it is completely ordinary to talk about ‘power’ (of an imagined version of Hungary when it was supposedly powerful) and denounce gipsies. Kids want – much more than kids 20-30 years ago – to be strong, ally with and conform to the strong and powerful, and easily mention hatred against gipsies (or other foreigners). And they do not want to be seen belonging to a losing, dying breed (ie. “leftists”, who in the kids’ eyes are usually old folks and altogether make up 25-30% of the population in Israel or in Hungary). Hating gipsies for kids is not an issue to be ‘critical’ about. It became normalized so that such person who questions it is the weird guy, it is so much received wisdom, part of the paradigm, or the ideology. You just don’t think about it, it is so natural to hate them. In that sense the article is useful, these are average kids and this is their reality. And these kids will grow up and vote.

  23. You do not know that nazis are socialists? Socialists are of international (communist) and of nationalistic (nazi) origin. They both believe in the same economic system i.e. socialism. They differ in their political orientation and not in their economic orientation. Red socialists do not place much emphasis on the idea of the “nation” while black socialists believe in the nation. Anyway you are silly and it will be a waste of time talking to you. I cannot help you more. You need to think.

  24. Actually Iakovos Alhadeff is a friend of Israel and fighting against antisemites like Le Pen – but this is only marginally relevant for Hungary. At least I hope so, because if Le Pen’s party and UKIP etc came to power in Europe we might as well give up hope …

  25. But if you don’t explain to people what is going on, of course Le Pen and others like Le Pen will come to power. You have to talk now that you can. And there is Facebook, Twitter, Youtube etc. The worst enemy of anti-Semitism is truth. And as long as the internet is free, truth can easily circulate.

    And you know, one person saying the truth can embarass one hundred liars. For instance I wrote here the causes of Greek anti-semitism. In Hungary there must be a similar story. But you have to let the people know.

    http://iakal.wordpress.com/2014/08/15/the-true-causes-of-greek-anti-semitism/

  26. @wolfi: whoever he is, shouldn’t he open a few history books (and a couple essays on French politics) before writing on such subjects?

    Btw, the intellectual confusion some people seem keen on nurturing might be relevant to Hungary. Reminds me of Mz Schmidt’s mumbo-jumbo.

  27. Dear Marcel, I have a background in economics and I haven’t read much history and politics. But do you know what I have come to realize? That most things, whether in economics or history, or politics, or whatever else are very simple.

    The way they are presented is very complicated. Have a look at my essay about Greek anti-Semitism. You will see how easy it is to explain greek anti-semitism. People like you, like to analyse Greek anti-Semitism, and analyze it again, and the reanalyze it and so on.

    I describe Greek antisemitism in 3 pages, not because I more clever from people like you but because I am willing to talk seriously. And I think it is now a good time for Jewish people to stop analyzing and talk seriously. Or they might have to shut up forever

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