Learning history in Orbán’s Hungary

The new school year began yesterday and with it an entirely new system as far as textbook distribution is concerned. As you most likely know, a couple of years ago all schools were nationalized and put under the authority of one monstrous organization called Klebelsberg Intézményfenntartó Központ (KLIK), named after Kunó Klebelsberg, minister of education between 1922 and 1931. Critics predicted the failure of such a centralized system where KLIK was to be the employer of about 150,000 teachers. They were right. It was a disaster, which even Zoltán Balog, who is in charge of education, had to admit. The head of KLIK was sacked and right now the government is in the midst of a “reorganization” of KLIK.

One of the important demands of Rózsa Hoffmann, former undersecretary in charge of education, was a reduction in the number of textbooks teachers can choose from. Indeed, as of this year, teachers can only pick one out of two. The textbook publishing industry was also nationalized, so government control over education became all embracing. The new textbooks appeared on the market only a few days ago and therefore each teacher had to decide within a couple of days which one she will use. At the same time a number of “experimental” textbooks were written and introduced in 150 schools picked by the ministry.

Since the “experimental” textbooks have been available for only a few days, critics haven’t had time yet to find all the objectionable passages in them. According to some, at first glance these textbooks are “problematic” in pedagogical terms and reflect “an anti-modernization world view.” There are just too many “political-ideological” messages. One history book spends far too much time on the injustices of Trianon, which only adds to the self-pity of the current generation instilled by the nationalism of the current regime. Others looked at a book on literature (grade 7) that reflects the authors’ distaste for our modern market economy and expresses antagonistic feelings toward life in western countries. For example, to eat hamburgers, visit Disneyland, watch MTV or CNN  means to be satisfied with a lower level of culture.

The same grade 7 textbook is full of anti-American sentiments. In it one can read that “we ought to be proud that according to sociologists for the average Hungarian person the most important value is logical thinking while in the eyes of the Americans this is the least valued trait.” Hungarian medieval poetry that praises war and Petőfi’s calls for struggle can be explained by our “biological roots.”

After reading a few of these critical articles I decided to take a look at a grade 10 history book, one of the experimental textbooks available online. The book covers the period between the age of discovery (15-16th centuries) and 1848. It didn’t take me long to find some glaring problems with the book.

tortenelem 10

At the beginning the students are told–thank God–that they don’t have to learn absolutely every fact in the book but that the concepts that appear in boldface are very important. So, I decided to see how our author deals with some basic concepts. Since anti-Semitism is a topic we encounter a lot nowadays, I decided to start there. To my great surprise, the word appeared only twice in the textbook. Both times as a concept of the utmost importance. But nowhere in the book do we find a definition of the term.

My second search was for the word “nationalism.” That initially looked more promising. The word “nationalism” was mentioned eleven times, but I found no instance that dealt with the concept per se. On page 131 the student learns that after the French revolution there was a new interpretation of the historical nation (nobility) and that it was the “national idea” (nemzeti eszme) or “nationalism.” Proponents of the movement desired national renewal. They tried to form a common national identity and made efforts to discover the national past. So, what does this young man or woman learn? Nationalism is a good thing! Not a word about the negative connotations of the term.

The most controversial discussion of nationalism occurs in connection with the “nationality question” in the so-called reform period, i.e. the last twenty years or so prior to the 1848 revolution. The Hungarian “reform forces” greatly feared the Pan-Slav ideology supported by Russia and were frightened by Gottfried Herder’s vision of the Hungarian language disappearing in the sea of Slavic people. (Pan-Slavism is not explained anywhere in the book.) Therefore, the Hungarian reform generation paid a great deal of attention to the Hungarian language and culture. At the same time they wanted to be sure Hungarians maintained their political primacy in the Carpathian Basin, to which they felt entitled by their 1,000-year history of statehood. Hungarians were able to establish a viable state (államalkotó nemzet) while the others–Slovaks, Romanians, Ruthenians–were not. Rights and privileges were to be extended to all regardless of nationality. This Hungarian concept of nation was based on the definition of the term in the French Encyclopédie. What the authors neglect to mention is that the famous encyclopedia was published between 1751 and 1772, that is before the French revolution. What was a viable way to unify the people of France was no longer true in Eastern Europe.

After this brief discussion, the authors move on to interpretations of Hungarian nationality problems in the first half of the nineteenth century. “Central-European, non-Hungarian historiography unanimously consider the Hungarian language laws of this period as ‘Magyarization’. However, nowadays Hungarian historians present a more complex, more layered study of the question. It recognizes that there were abuses, but the political forces urged a liberal handling of the nationality question.”

I’m trying to imagine myself as a studious fourteen- or fifteen-year-old acquiring a basic knowledge of Hungarian history. What kind of a picture would I get of the history of my own country? By and large a very positive one. I would learn that Hungarians are superior to others living in the Carpathian Basin because they had the ability to establish a state. And that this would entitle them to have political primacy within the historic borders of Hungary. I would learn that non-Hungarian historians are prejudiced against the Hungarians and that in the past Hungarian historians were far too hard on the Hungarian political elite. Lately, I would come to understand, a much more balanced view is emerging that shows liberal tolerance toward the nationalities.

I just heard that István Hiller (MSZP), former minister of education,  is launching a kind of alternative curriculum called “School of Reasoning” (Gondolkodás iskolája). It will be a series of video lectures given by outstanding teachers who donate their time to the project. I think it is a capital idea, and next week when the project begins I will be one of those listening to the lectures on modern history. It will be interesting to compare these lectures to the experimental textbooks.


  1. Thanks, Eva, a very interesting post!

    I’ve always thought it would be a great idea to look at the different history textbooks published in Eastern European countries side by side and compare their take on historical events. It would be very enlightening. It could even be worthwhile for the EU to support a project like that.

  2. I dont’t wish to defent that history book (I haven’t seen it, moreover I can well imagine that the interpretative sections are probably highly questionable), but I think that your examples, at least that which concerns nationalism (I’m not talking about your paragraph about the interpretation given in the book, only the previous one) are not necessarily the best. The XIX century is indeed the century of the emergence of the nation idea, of the forging of national identities, whether we like this notion of nation or not. The concept of the nation in the Encyclopédie was motivated by noble intention, same with the extension to all of the rights and privileges. So the facts described in the section that you cite do represent what has happened. The problem is to not mention, neither among the fact, nor in the subsequent interpretation that the promotion of the Hungarian national idea was in the name of a (false) superiority and was met by the reaction of the nationalities living in the Monarchy that wished to create their own nation or at least keep their own identity and that was something that the Hungarian ruling class was unable to deal with and accept, preparing the explosion of the Monarchy. Finally (but it’s again not an excuse) this Hungarian attitude of that time was not much different from the French one that led, in France, to the disappearance of regional cultures, identities and languages in the name of the unitary Republic. What was different is that in Hungary this politics was conducted in the name of a superiority of the Hungarians, while in France it was done in the name of a mythical unity of the nation in which individual differences (religion, language etc) were allowed to exist but only as rights of the person, not of a group.

  3. @Jean-Paul, I don’t particularly care in this respect what the French did or did not do. I think that Hungarian children must learn that the Hungarian political elite’s answer to the multi-national state of Hungary was wrong. It lead straight to Trianon.

  4. The majority of Hungarians grew up, educated under various different political and ideological motivations, all of which are highly distorted. This is a guarantee, that those people, who are lazy to thing for themselves and these are in the great majority, have a distorted sense of values and view the World around them with prejudice, anti-Semitism and racism. Therefore they are fully in the belief that Hungary Performs Better! Consequently, they don’t have to do anything better, they are already the best. A tragic and lost society, made so by the successive government comprised of thieves, piers, criminals, country where the hoodlums, the police, the city attorneys, judges and the ministers are all working together in secret.

  5. Cink.hu had a nice impromptu “Best of Hungarian Textbooks” collection.


    The first was the cover of a math book. A girl seems to be tearing her hair out – to suggest how fun math can be. Immediately a bunch of Matolcsy inspired memes followed (see link above).

    Then in a 6th grade ethics book they wanted to illustrate something about slavery and recommended movies. One of them was the Isaura the Slave Woman. A Brazilian soap opera from the seventies that was shown in Hungary in the eighties. Anybody below 35 probably never heard about this masterpiece. It’s funny to see that most of the authors cultural experiences came from the Kadar era.

    Next is the black crusader knight on the 6th grade history book cover. No big deal, but funny …

     The 5th grade literature workbook has a hidden advertisement. It’s pedaling a book club. Then they go on and analyze the advantages of the book club in a series of tests.

    And the list goes on …

    One final thing. It just echoes the Orbanites’ luddite views about computers. All referenced web addresses (urls) are type out. Who the hell will punch in a foot and a half long address into a browser? These are for clicking, dummies!

  6. Eva the post was truly interesting, I would say the commentary on pan- Slav ideology is reflective of the cultural education Hungarian Americans were given in the late 1950s and early 1960s In church based Hungarian Saturday schools. No doubt Vald the invader will want that aspect of the curriculum corrected to demonstrate that back into time memorial Slav’s have been the wise and considerate friends of the Magyar providing protection not only from the Moslem hoards and various gypsy marauders/child abductors and also from western enemies who do not share fundamental values with people of Central Europe.

    Yes the new curriculum will have to reflect the love the Russian people have always shown for Hungary. But when will this curriculum be implemented, that is the question?

  7. “Others looked at a book on literature (grade 7) that reflects the authors’ distaste for our modern market economy and expresses antagonistic feelings toward life in western countries. For example, to eat hamburgers, visit Disneyland, watch MTV or CNN means to be satisfied with a lower level of culture.”

    That textbook is indeed shocking but what those ‘others’ you mention failed to pinpoint initially is that this 7th-Grade literature book has been in use since 2006.

  8. Tyrker: That textbook is indeed shocking but what those ‘others’ you mention failed to pinpoint initially is that this 7th-Grade literature book has been in use since 2006.

    The issue is that from a wide range of textbooks previous years only two types are allowed this year. Both issued by the State. Reducing competition and the fact that teachers have only a few days to make a decision.

  9. Eva S. Balogh: @Jean-Paul, I don’t particularly care in this respect what the French did or did not do. I think that Hungarian children must learn that the Hungarian political elite’s answer to the multi-national state of Hungary was wrong. It lead straight to Trianon.

    And how would that be possible when the Prime Minister refers to ‘the ethnic basis of the nation-state’? 🙂

    One thing for sure: as far as the methodology is concerned, Hungarian and French 10th grade History books seem to belong to two different planets entirely. Or more exactly, two different timeframes, the Hungarian version being quite similar to the pre-1980 French manuals. I wonder if other European commentators had the same feeling?

  10. Dear Eva,

    Many thanks for your excellent blog. I am avid reader of your writings and please carry on!

    Based on your piece on history education in Hungary, it seems to me that history books at hungarian schools overemphasise the history of Hungary to the point it becomes navel-gazing. Is this the case or is it because of the selection of examples in your text?

  11. The nationalism discussion reminds me of Orbán’s “homogeneity” remarks, and how I have recently been thinking of another possible unintended consequence of that line of thinking. It’s clear that Orbán and his acolytes have absorbed the Horthy/Jobbik desire to reclaim some of the lands lost in Trianon, even if they don’t openly say so. However, if that were to happen (unlikely in the extreme, at least for the next 20 years), what would Dear Leader Orbán do with the non-ethnic Hungarians living in those lands (especially in the areas between Hungary and Székelyföld, where ethnic Hungarians are nowhere near a majority)? I imagine that it wouldn’t be pleasant for those people, and they are fully aware of that, It stands to reason that, since they probably fear Hungarian control because of that danger, they would be more likely to violently resist Hungarian control, and possibly even any moves towards Hungarian control. Therefore, Orbán is not only hurting the dreams of those who want to reunite all majority-Hungarian areas with Hungary, he might also be hurting the cause of autonomy for majority-Hungarian areas, and even the prospects of contemporary inter-communal peace and cooperation. He even made these remarks in the very land where those ethnic Hungarians who might suffer from them live and work. If I were an ethnic-Hungarian citizen of Romania, I would be very angry at Orbán for not only jeopardising my dreams, but making my family’s everyday life a little less harmonious (hopefully only a little). That may even be Orbán’s intent – after seeing what happened in Crimea, he might think that riling up the locals in Romania can lead to a separatist movement and an eventual expansion of his personal empire (more people to embezzle from!). Of course, Hungary is not Russia, but might be more comparable to Paraguay under Francisco Solano López, during the time leading up to the catastrophic Paraguayan War. Let’s hope I’m wrong.

  12. @Hans. Luckily most of my knowledge of history was acquired outside of Hungary; Canada and the United States. What we learned in high school was the most primitive Stalinist historical interpretation. I could write a whole post about what it was like to learn anything in a Hungarian high school. The structure of the classes itself was all wrong and I have the feeling that the format hasn’t changed since.

    The book I talked about yesterday has 222 pages. By American standards a very slim volume. Roughly half of it is devoted to word history and the rest is Hungarian history. A couple of examples: Reformation and its spread 4 pages; Rise of England and the Netherlands 4 pages; Development of French absolutism and the decline of Spain 5 pages; Power shift in Eastern Europe 4 pages.

  13. Jobbik just attended an “anti-fascist” conference held in Hotel Yalta (ironically referring to the town in which the West effectively sold Hungary to Russia) negotiating with Russian siloviki about the dismemberment of Ukraine and the establishment of the Transcarpathian Autonomous region (of course the Russians are not even offering land, only autonomy).

    In attendance was Marton Gyongyosi, whose international background is not unlike that of Kovacs Bela.


  14. That textbook is indeed shocking but what those ‘others’ you mention failed to pinpoint initially is that this 7th-Grade literature book has been in use since 2006.

    Exactly … and very few used it because it’s quality. Now the teachers are forced to use it.

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