alternative history

Veritas Historical Research Institute: State ordered history

Today I’ll add a little more color to Viktor Orbán’s decision to establish a new institute whose associates will study history, specifically the history of the last 150 years.

As I wrote earlier, the new body will be known as the Veritas Historical Research Institute. The government decree (373/2013. (X. 25.) was signed by Viktor Orbán himself. Who knows who planted the idea of yet another historical institute into the prime minister’s head and who came up with the idea of calling it Veritas. I assume the party hacks, including the prime minister himself, believe in one “truthful” description of past events and hence the name. Unfortunately they are not alone in this holding this untenable view. Even a learned legal scholar, László Sólyom, was foolish enough to talk about the necessity of producing a “true” history of the October Revolution of 1956. A rather strange idea from some who comes from the world of legal research with its many conflicting opinions.

Clio, Goddess Muse of History

Clio, muse of history

History, just like law or any other social science, is not exact; it is not like mathematics where 2 + 2 is always 4. There are, of course, indisputable facts, the kinds we discussed at length in our debate over Miklós Horthy’s decision to halt the deportation of Budapest Jews on August 24, 1944. But his motivations are open to interpretation. So Viktor Orbán is looking in vain for absolute truth from the future associates of the Veritas Institute.

It is worth taking a look at the actual decree to see that the search for truth is not the principal goal of the Orbán government. In one of the first sentences we read that the government is establishing this institute “in the interest of national unity with special emphasis on the legal tradition.” The works born there will have “to strengthen national consciousness.”

Those historians who join the staff will have their goalposts set by none other than János Lázár, chief of staff of the prime minister’s office. As Csaba Fazekas mentions in an article on the subject in Galamus today, this government doesn’t worry about appearances because a research institute of this sort should fall under the aegis of the Ministry of Human Resources which is in charge, among other things, of education. It will be János Lázár who will appoint and/or dismiss the director of the institute, whose appointment will be for five years. There will be two deputy directors, also appointed  and/or dismissed by Lázár. Someone will be in charge of finances, and again it will be Lázár on whom his appointment depends. The remuneration of the staff will also be decided by Lázár. So, for all practical purposes it will be János Lázár who will head the Veritas Institute.

What does the Orbán government expect from this new historical institute? “To reveal  the formation of the system of parliamentary democracy.” If you think this mandate doesn’t make sense and perhaps it is only a bad translation, you are wrong. This is what the decree says. In addition, the historians who work there will have to study “the survival of the centuries-old parliamentary tradition, a unique feature of the Hungarian legal system,  in the last one hundred and fifty years.” A questionable statement.

But that’s not all. They will have to work on a “portrait gallery” which, I assume, means, writing biographies of important politicians. Since this government is madly looking for forebears, I assume the emphasis will be on politicians of a conservative bent.  The publications should also concentrate on “the successful efforts of successive governments worthy of emulation.” Parties and their ideologies should be studied with special emphasis on unique national characteristics and traditions. The researchers should pay attention to the whole Carpathian Basin, but naturally the focal point of that attention should be Hungary. In addition, the historians working at Veritas must fulfill any tasks János Lázár deems necessary for them to perform.

After reading this “to do” list, someone unfamiliar with Hungarian historiography might think that the history of the last 150 years is uncharted territory. Of course, this is not the case. There are thousands and thousands of books and articles on all of the subjects mentioned in this decree. So it is not a dearth of historical literature that prompted the Orbán government to establish a research institute under its direct supervision. Moreover, if they simply wanted to encourage more historical research they could have given additional money to universities and to the existing research institutes. No, the Orbán government wants to have their “own version of modern Hungarian history.” The kind that serves their political agenda. They want an “alternative” history, separate from the normal historical intercourse.

If the government’s plans for Veritas bear fruit, we can predict the ideology that will motivate the historians working there. But Veritas cannot function in a bubble, and the monographs produced within its walls will have to stand the test of time and the criticism of colleagues. Unless, of course, Viktor Orbán plans to introduce a totalitarian dictatorship where there is only one official history. But that kind of forcible uniformity of historical thought couldn’t even survive for long during the socialist period. By the late 1960s different schools of historical thought and different interpretations surfaced. Csaba Fazekas points out that during the socialist period MSZMP established an institute called Párttörténeti Intézet (Institute of Party History), but even within that body by the 1970s and 1980s the party line was not always followed.

With a little luck the Veritas Institute will be short lived. We don’t need history that is merely propaganda in academic disguise.

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The House of Árpád and nationalism

I made a note to myself a couple of weeks ago to write a post on András Gerő’s “The House of Árpád and Nationalism,” which appeared in the April 26 issue of Élet és Irodalom. But then there were too many current events that I wanted to cover and the post on history was postponed. Soon enough, however, the past became present–and political. As Zsófia Mihancsik noted in her article, Ádám Pozsonyi, a contributor to the right-wing pro-government paper Demokrata, found the essay I liked so much an abomination that “reviled the House of Árpád.”

Considering that Élet és Irodalom is a subscription-based publication, which limits its accessibility, I thought I should summarize the article so that readers of Hungarian Spectrum can see what is considered to be unacceptable historical scholarship in extreme-right circles.

It is a historical commonplace that nationalism and the idea of the nation state are relatively new phenomena. Before the eighteenth century the organization of society was based on a feudal hierarchy, at the top of which was the king who at least in theory “owned” the land that he considered his domain. His subjects were loyal to him personally, not to the nation.

In the late eighteenth century all that changed and with it came “nationalized” historical scholarship. It was at this time that the concept of the House of Árpád emerged. Two members of the Jesuit school of Hungarian historiography, György Pray (1723-1801) and István Katona (1732-1811), coined the term “House of Árpád” to refer to the kings who ruled the Kingdom of Hungary between 1000 and 1301.

What did the twenty-three kings who reigned between these two dates actually call themselves? Simon Kézai in his Gesta Hunnorum et Hungarorum (circ. 1282) calls them the Clan of Turul (de genere turul). As far as we know, the members of the House of Árpád called themselves “the family or clan of the saintly kings” because there were indeed many. The list is quite impressive.

Hungarian historiography of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries considered the House of Árpád to be a Hungarian dynasty as opposed to the dynasties that followed: the Anjou, the Jagellonian or the Habsburg. The distinguishing criterion they invoked was linguistic. In the first half of the nineteenth century being Hungarian primarily meant that Hungarian was one’s mother tongue. The whole Reform period–the three or four decades before the 1848 Revolution–was accompanied by linguistic reform as well. The reformers wanted to build a cultured nation by making the language capable of transmitting modern western ideas.

Language is, however, a flawed criterion of what it means to be a Hungarian. Even a foreigner could become a Hungarian if he identified with the national cause. Take, for instance, the thirteen generals who were executed in Arad on October 6, 1849. Among them were several whose mother tongue was not Hungarian, but today they are considered to be Hungarian patriots who died for the national cause.

Nineteenth-century depiction of Árpád It can be found at a website named "for real hungarians network

Nineteenth-century depiction of Árpád
It can be found on the website “for real Hungarians network”

By the twentieth century the notion arose–a notion with horrific consequences–that belonging to a nation was tied to ethnicity. A true Hungarian would be an ethnic Hungarian.

By either of these criteria the House of Árpád wouldn’t be genuinely Hungarian. First of all, Hungarian kings, just as their counterparts elsewhere, married foreigners. Marriages were arranged on the basis of foreign policy considerations. Gerő couldn’t find one “Hungarian” spouse among the Árpád kings. So, as far as ethnicity is concerned, they were a very mixed lot. And, as far as their language is concerned, it is unlikely that they were monolingual. After all, their mothers came from all over Europe and usually with a large entourage. Some of them spent considerable time abroad. Péter Orseolo, the successor to Stephen, in Italy; Géza I in Poland; Béla III in the Byzantine Empire.

The kings of the Árpád dynasty were Hungarian kings in the constitutional sense; that is, they were the rulers of the Kingdom of Hungary. But so were the Anjous, the Jagellonians, and the Habsburgs. Yet in Hungarian historiography the House of Árpád was long considered to be more “national” than the other dynasties.

After the communist takeover, Marxist  historians pretty well excluded “the nation” from consideration and concentrated on class struggle and economic conditions. In consequence, the description of the Árpád dynasty as a national dynasty disappeared from historical dialogue. And after the Marxist interlude in Hungarian historiography, as historians delved deeper into the Middle Ages, they saw no compelling reason to revive the concept of a national dynasty.

But even though mainstream historians find the notion of a national dynasty intellectually indefensible, proponents of “alternative history” embrace it wholeheartedly. For these people, who are not really historians or just marginally so, making the kings of the House of Árpád true Hungarians is very important. These “Hungarian kings” worked for the good of the country, whereas the foreigners by and large set out to ruin it. The worst culprits were the Habsburgs, whom one such author, Lajos Darai, accuses of wanting to obliterate the Hungarian past. Others claim that there were “secret forces” that stood behind the Habsburgs whose intention was to make Hungary a colony of Austria. “For four hundred years the crowned heads of Hungary fought a war against the Hungarians.” The implication is that these secret forces were manipulated by Jews.

Moreover, a pseudo-linguist in a paper about Hungarian’s affinity with Etruscan comes to the startling conclusion that Ármin Vámbéry, the famous Turkologist of the nineteenth century, was in fact the hired hand of Franz Joseph II, who instead of telling the truth about Hungarian-Etruscan relations sent the Hungarians to Asia at the emperor-king’s orders. Another self-appointed historian, István Szatmári, goes even further when he claims that the Habsburgs were Jewish. According to him, the Habsburg family came from the “rich Roman Jewish family called Pierleone whose members arrived in Switzerland via Genoa and bought the decrepit castle of the Habsburgs.”

The practitioners of alternative history unfortunately are making headway in Hungarian right-wing thinking. The spokesmen for the “us and them” theories don’t even leave the early kings alone. These kings are forced to play a role in the “nationalized” history of the new Hungarian far right.