András Nyerges

A short history lesson about 1918-1919 in Hungary

I’ve written several times about András Nyerges’s excellent column, “Color Separation,” that compares today’s right wing to their interwar counterparts. His articles–originally published in Magyar Hírlap when it was a liberal paper and, after Gábor Széles made it a mouthpiece of the far right, in Élet és Irodalom–were reprinted in a two-volume collection. Inspired by some recent topics of discussion, I went back to these books. Today I’ll focus on two articles that are especially on target. One deals with the Romanian occupation of Budapest in August 1919 and even mentions Cécile Tormay by name. The other, published in 2002, is about Fidesz’s “reinterpretation” of Mihály Károlyi and the First Republic.

First to Tormay and the Romanians. I took a look at the last few pages of Cécile Tormay’s second volume in which she discusses the events between August 1 and August 8, 1919. During this time Tormay was hiding from the Budapest terrorists in a border town between Slovakia and Hungary, Balassagyarmat. It turned out to be a bad choice: Balassagyarmat was swarming with local terrorists who planned to kill practically all the better-off people in town even after the fall of Béla Kun. At least according to Tormay.

It is here that Tormay learned that the Romanians had occupied Budapest. She immediately came up with a conspiracy theory. That’s why the Entente representative refused to negotiate with “us, Hungarians” and instead turned to “William Böhm, Kunfi and with Károlyi’s henchman, Garami.” I guess it doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone that all three happened to be of Jewish origin. The Entente didn’t allow the Hungarian troops stationed in French-occupied Szeged to liberate Hungary because “the occupation of Budapest was reserved by the Great Powers for the Rumanians so that the city might become their prey and they might still act the role of deliverers.”

Well, it seems from Nyerges’s article that there were alternative theories about the arrival of the Romanian troops. One of the very few liberal members of parliament in 1922 inquired from István Bethlen, by then prime minister, whether he was planning to set up a committee to investigate “who those traitors were who, against the expressed wishes of the Entente, asked the Romanians to occupy the capital city.”  The committee was indeed set up and those members of parliament who in one way or the other were involved in the coup d’état against the social democratic government that took over after the fall of Béla Kun loudly protested, although no one accused them of anything. They all denied complicity. As usual with investigative committees in Hungary then or now, no one became any the wiser as a result of the hearings.

Outside the House, however, rumors didn’t die down. A Romanian politician, Ioan Erdeli (in Hungarian sources he is referred to as Erdélyi János) who was involved in the secret Hungarian-Romanian negotiations during September-October 1919, gave an interview in a Cluj (Kolozsvár) paper in 1922 in which he said that there were indeed several delegations to the Romanian army asking for the occupation of Budapest. He was not at liberty to disclose names, “but they were mostly aristocrats and important representatives of industry.” But a journalist close to government circles had already mentioned in late 1919 two important people who were allegedly involved: István Friedrich, prime minister in 1919, and General Ferenc Schnetzer, his minister of defense. There is no real proof of their complicity, but what we can say for sure is that the fall of Béla Kun and the arrival of the Romanians was greeted with relief. In fact, the Romanians’ reception in Budapest was more than cordial; the disillusioned Hungarians welcomed the soldiers with a shower of late summer flowers. Tormay was “longingly waiting for the arrival of the occupiers” because communism meant the death of the nation. Foreign occupation was only humiliating.

And since we were just talking about the White Terror, mostly conducted by Miklós Horthy’s officers stationed in Siófok at Lake Balaton, here is Tormay’s account. “In Western Hungary the peasants are arresting the hiding butchers of the dictatorship and delivering them up to the justice of the crowd. They are executed by those whose father, mother, husband or child they have murdered.” This is how people rewrite history according to their own political views. Surely, true Hungarian officers couldn’t possibly murder the Jews and riff-raff whom Tormay loathed; this task had to fall to the aggrieved peasant masses.

Róbert Berényi's famous poster for recruiting volunteers for the Red Army

Róbert Berény’s famous poster to recruit volunteers for the Red Army

Nyerges’s second article deals with the reevaluation of the 1918-1919 period. Nyerges wrote it in 2002 after reading a work by a historian of decidedly right-wing views. This work as well as many other studies of the period try to portray the period in black and white. All the good men were on the right; those who supported Mihály Károlyi, and especially the Hungarian Soviet Republic, were “the garbage of Hungarian society.” This is still the case, says the unnamed historian, “even if some well known intellectuals enthusiastically spoke of the communist system and the arrival of the Red God and for a while served the regime. That was only their error or rather their shame.”

But life is never that simple. Combing through the contemporary conservative press Nyerges found plenty from the other side who enthusiastically supported the Károlyi regime. Here is an editorial (December 24, 1918) from Alkotmány (Constitution), the official paper of the Katolikus Néppárt (Catholic People’s Party). “We can take it for granted, based on Mihály Károlyi’s political past, and he himself certainly has the right to claim that every word of his comes from inner conviction. We don’t believe that the ship of state would be heading in better direction than in his hands.” The militantly conservative Budapesti Hírlap on February 25, 1919 wrote in connection with the land reform that “regardless of how it will end, it is leading toward true democratization. …  As the Romans said: Quod bonum, faustum, felix fortunatumque sit (May the outcome be good, propitious, lucky and successful.)” But this very same newspaper on October 7, 1919 wrote: “Károlyi and his conniving accomplices killed Hungary!”  A few weeks later the Budapesti Hírlap thought that the stupefied people didn’t realize that the October 1918 revolution  “was not national but a Bolshevik revolution. Every thinking man in the very first week, at the time Barna Buza announced the land reform, should have seen that.”  But if that was the case, why did the same newspaper say on February 22, 1919 that Buza “clearly stated that the land reform means not only a right but a responsibility.” The conservative Élet (Life), a literary magazine, wrote: “Károlyi is a martyr. A well meaning man who is ready to negotiate with the enemy and who received real promises.” In another article, the literary weekly admitted that under the circumstances the socialists became the backbone of society. Moreover, they are real patriots because “the socialists fought for the integrity of Greater Hungary” at the meeting of the Bern International in February 1919.”We were reading their speeches with great excitement at home. We applauded and cheered.” And the very last example, which is really telling: the Alkotmány (Catholic People’s Party) wrote on March 23, two days after the declaration of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, that “when pacifism and the pro-Entente politics failed, the hand of the proletariat was raised. The Hungarian Soviet Republic was born in order to save the integrity of Hungary.”  “During the war years the enemy called the Hungarian soldier ‘the red devil.’ The enemy will certainly hear in the future about the Red Army.” So, not only duped, ill-informed, naive people were enthusiastic about the revolutionary events of 1918-1919.

After the arrival of the counterrevolutionaries the history of these years was rewritten.  And today the rewriting of history is again proceeding apace. Black (or red) and white, evil and good, non-Christian and Christian, international (and by implication treasonous) and national. But a binary history is a false history, whichever side writes it.

“National literature” in the making in Hungary

Last night when I read that Heti Válasz will be coming out with sensational revelations about how Ferenc Gyurcsány’s  infamous speech at Balatonőszöd in the spring of 2006 ended up in Fidesz hands, I thought that today’s topic was a given. I should have known better. It turned out to be a cheap journalistic performance. The so-called “crown witness,” that is the informer, was totally discredited within a few hours. Anyone who’s interested in the story should listen to György Bolgár’s interview with the informer on “Megbeszéljük” on Klubrádió. Actually, the whole two-hour program makes for worthwhile listening, including two other important interviews that Bolgár conducted.

But it’s just as well that I had to change topics because for days I have been contemplating turning to one of my favorite essayists, András Nyerges, for inspiration. I’ve written about Nyerges several times. He is a full-time novelist and poet, but on the side once a month or so he writes short pieces comparing the present Hungarian right to its counterpart between the two world wars. Nyerges must have combed through hundreds and hundreds of right-wing newspapers. Some of his findings are quite embarrassing to later greats of Hungarian literature. That’s why the subtitle of one volume of his collected essays is “Blasphemous Investigations.”

A couple of days ago it came to light that one of the most distasteful characters in Viktor Orbán’s entourage, Imre Kerényi, made another outrageous comment on a local television station serving the inhabitants of District V in Budapest. I’ve written about Kerényi three times, but perhaps the most revealing post was entitled “Imre Kerényi, the brains behind the ‘Table of the Basic Laws.'” Kerényi seems to have a free hand when it comes to spending billions of forints on kitsch art or a “National Library” that even includes a third-rate cookbook from the Kádár period.

There is only one good thing that one can say about Kerényi. He doesn’t hide the fact that  as “commissioner in charge of art” he divides all art forms into “right and left” or “national and international.” Good and bad. For instance, he views the history of twentieth-century Hungarian literature as a victory of the left over the right. In fact, he makes no secret of his belief that the literary greats of the right were actually suppressed. But, he says, from here on everything will be different. The current regime will develop its own “national canon.” Now that they are in power, they will make sure that those who have been successful both inside and outside the country, for example Péter Esterházy and Péter Nádas, will be pushed into the background.

Actually, it is unlikely that the Hungarian government can ruin the careers of these two particular writers because their international fame protects them, but others are not so lucky. Let’s take, for example, the University of Performing Arts whose president is not a favorite of the regime. In order to ruin the institution, the government simply cut back its support. With the National Theater at least they had the decency to let Róbert Alföldi, the current director, finish his term. But when he reapplied for the position, the powers that be made sure that their man, naturally someone with right-wing political views, got the job. Kerényi was one of the jurors. He admitted that the nomination of the new director wasn’t exactly cricket but, he said, sorry, “our time has arrived.”

Kerényi’s latest pronouncement on the local TV station was that from here on everything will be different in the National Theater. It will not be a theater of “fags” but of “loyalty” and “love.” Keep in mind that this man is a member of the Hungarian government.

And now to Nyerges. Let’s see how the Hungarian right saw the state of Hungarian literature in the 1920s and 1930s. A Hungarian member of parliament in 1920 expressed his view that “national literature went to the dogs and anyone who tried to follow the national or religious path was branded. A new kind of literature was born: the literature of Pest, an anti-literature.” And he went on to list the names of those “from whom the national feeling died out”: Ferenc Molnár-Neumann, Mór Szomori-Weiss, Sándor Bródy, Ernő Szép-Schőn, Lajos Bíró-Blau. “The time of reckoning has come. The time will come when everybody will be measured by our natural feelings.” Cécile Tormay, just lately elevated to the national curriculum, called Endre Ady, one of Hungary’s greatest poet, “the singing gravedigger of the nation.” These right-wingers bemoaned the fact that Hungarian literature seemed to be following Western models. Just as Kerényi in the same television appearance complained that the Hungarian National Theater’s performances are not Hungarian enough. The performances are indistinguishable from others elsewhere in Europe or North America.

At least in the 1920s some of the critics of the Western model admitted that Hungarian conservative literature didn’t really have outstanding writers “with the exception of Ferenc Herczeg and Ottokár Prohászka.” The latter, as you may recall, was the founding father of the idea of Hungarism later adopted by Ferenc Szálasi. Cécile Tormay’s “rehabilitation” as a great writer is especially amusing considering that her own conservative or right-wing contemporaries found her untalented. Dezső Szabó compared her to Renée Erdős, the author of light novels much favored by middle-class ladies of no great literary refinement.

Gyula Pekár, a mediocre writer and politician, was certain that there were “two Hungarian literary canons that are engaged in a life and death battle.” He, as undersecretary in charge of cultural affairs in the early 1920s, made sure that the “national side” would emerge victorious. The Hungarian writer Sándor Márai, recently discovered in international circles as a great writer, complained  in 1932 about “the ideological terror of a reactionary minority.” He added that “not liking Pekár but reading [Gyula] Krúdy is considered to be treason, but even then we cannot agree to make the mistake of mixing up Hungarian literature with national literature.”

The Orbán government’s cultural policy is practically a carbon copy of the Horthy regime’s attempt to force “national” literature on the country’s literati. The interesting thing, in my opinion, is that Kerényi most likely knows very little about what András Nyerges is talking about in this essay. His own instincts are simply guiding him down the same path. There is nothing new under the sun.