Béla Kun

Victor Orbán and twentieth-century Hungarian history

Those of you who follow the comments may already have discovered that next year a new historical research institute will be set up by the Hungarian government. The institute, named Veritas Történetkutató Intézet (Veritas Historical Research Institute), will be up and running in 2014. The idea for yet another historical institute naturally came from the prime minister, who instructed the Ministry of National Economy to find funds for it in next year’s budget.

The goal of the institute will be “the strengthening of national unity” and “the authentic and worthy depiction of the Hungarian constitutional tradition.” Those who are chosen as associates will have to concentrate on the last 150 years, especially on political and social events. And they will have to produce research results “without any distortion,” which might not be an easy task since one of the goals of the institute will be the “strengthening of national consciousness.” Scientific neutrality and “national” historiography are hard to reconcile.

It seems that the Orbán government is not satisfied with the number of institutes whose members already study this particular period: there is the Habsburg Foundation as well as the Twentieth-Century and the Twenty-First Century Institutes directed by historians close to the present government. One suspects that the government’s aim is to widen the circle of historians whose devotion to the nation is unquestioning.

Viktor Orbán, the seeker of historical truth. Let’s see what he had to say in his speech about the times before and after 1956 and about another landmark in Hungarian history, the change of regime in 1989-1990.

Orbán described the 1956 revolution as the manifestation of an all-embracing feeling that the Hungarian people must act because otherwise the nation will perish. According to him, “everybody knew, or if they didn’t they felt it, that this cannot go on. If the Soviet world continues, nothing will remain of Hungarian life which is ours. … We felt in our bones and guts that the fate of our country is at stake. That’s why the overwhelming strength of the enemy didn’t matter. One couldn’t wait any longer. We had to do what was superhuman. Everything else would have led to the extinction of the nation.” For Orbán, the revolution’s only goal was national survival.

One doesn’t have to be a student of the revolution and its aftermath to sense that this explanation cannot be correct. After all, the revolution was crushed after about two weeks and Hungarian life managed to survive forty-three more years under communist rule within the Soviet bloc. Moreover, hundreds of books and memoirs attest to the fact that the uprising was totally spontaneous. And very few us who took part thought in such lofty terms. No one was terribly worried about our 1,000-year history; we wanted to get rid of the Stalinist leadership that had brought so much suffering to so many.

Viktor Orbán offered another highly questionable hypothesis. The arrival of János Kádár, which began his long rule at the head of MSZMP (Magyar Szocialista Munkáspárt), was bearable for the citizens of the country “because we could remember our heroes of whom we were so proud.” I think it is enough to read the memoirs of those who were incarcerated for a few years. When they were at last freed no one cared a whit about either them or the revolution. In fact, most people considered them fools for sacrificing years of their lives to a lost cause. As István Eörsi, the poet, described so well his encounter with reality in 1960. A book was written on this subject with the title “Silent Heritage.” No one talked about it, no one cared about it.

Once Orbán was in the swing of things he moved on to Hungarians’ other heroic struggles against communism in the twentieth century. He claimed that in the last century “Hungarians threw off the shackles of dictatorship three times. We got rid of the Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1919; we cut loose the fetters in 1956, and in 1990 we overthrew the reign of goulash communism.”

Let’s start with 1919. The Hungarian people didn’t get rid of Béla Kun and his fellow commissars, the Romanians did. The Hungarian Red Army was demolished by the Romanian army, the Béla Kun government resigned, and  most of its members escaped. A couple of days later the Romanians occupied Budapest.

In 1956 Hungarians naturally did not throw off any shackles; they only tried. Although the outbreak of the revolution in Hungary was an uncomfortable episode for the Soviet Union, a few years later US-Soviet relations, for example, improved in comparison to the 1950s.

When it comes to 1990 and the overthrow of the regime, once again anyone who watched the events leading to the change of regime knows that the Eastern European countries managed to regain their freedom as a result of an economically and militarily greatly weakened Soviet Union whose leaders decided that they didn’t have either the will or the resources to fight for a Soviet empire in the region. Without that Soviet decision, in Hungary, just like in the other nations of the Soviet bloc, the one-party system would have continued–a system in which, most probably, Viktor Orbán and the other top Fidesz leaders would have had high party and government positions just as László Kövér predicted in 1985.

Orbán told his listeners yet another story that bears little resemblance to reality. 1989 was the year in which monumental changes took place. Imre Nagy and his fellow martyrs were reburied, the Oppositional Round Table (which included MSZMP) worked out all the arrangements for the regime change. The barbed wire fence between Austria and Hungary had already been dismantled. Therefore it is more than an exaggeration to say that “the strength of those killed in ’56 worked in our cells and the crushed truth expanded our chests. There was no power that could stop us. It was here on that square that we declared that the Soviet soldiers must leave Hungary. It was here that we said that the communist party must be forced to accept free elections.”

The young Viktor Orbán tells the Russians to go home, June 16, 1989

The young Viktor Orbán tells the Russians to go home
June 16, 1989

Of all this, the only thing that is true is that Viktor Orbán did demand Soviet troop withdrawal in his speech, which in fact was an unnecessary gesture because an agreement had been already reached between Hungary and the Soviet Union concerning the issue of troop withdrawal.

I guess one cannot make an effective speech about 1989-1990 by calling attention to the less heroic aspects of those years. For example, the general apathy of the people who passively watched the few politically active leaders who were deciding their fate. And I guess one shouldn’t note that just as many people showed up at the funeral of János Kádár as at the reburial of Imre Nagy two weeks earlier.

1956 had to be reshaped in the image of Orbán’s own nationalism and his own program. Because, after all, he gave the marching orders for the coming victorious election after which “we can finish what we started in 1956.” They? There’s an ideological chasm between the ideas of the intellectual leaders of the 1956 uprising and the thousands of students who played a large role in the events on the one hand and Viktor Orbán’s “System of National Unity” (Nemzeti Együttműködés Rendszere [NER]) on the other. They started nothing, and they’re not finishing anything either, except in the sense of “finishing off” the country’s fledgling democratic spirit.

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.