Friedrich Engels

One statue comes, another one goes. Maybe

Let’s start with the one that most likely will come unless Mazsihisz, the organization of Hungarian Jewish communities, really means what it threatened: to boycott the 70th anniversary memorial year of the Holocaust.

In its litany of complaints Mazsihisz wrote that it finds the erection of a statue commemorating the German “occupation” of Hungary on March 19, 1944 highly objectionable. To the current Hungarian government’s way of thinking, this date marks the beginning of a more than 45-year period during which Hungary was deprived of her sovereignty. The intention of the present regime is clear. They want to disassociate Hungarian governments and the nation from all acts associated with the Holocaust. It was only the Germans’ fault. The preamble to the new Orbán constitution makes that clear. The erection of this memorial will be an “artistic” depiction of the appropriate passages in the preamble.

So, how do the current rulers see those events? What was Hungary’s role in that fateful year? The statue, whose plans were made public by an MSZP member of the District V city council yesterday, is a perfect representation of this government’s ideas on history. Or rather their attempt to distort history in such a way that Hungary and the Hungarian people will not have to face the brutal facts: that Hungarian governments had a large share, perhaps the major share in what happened to almost half a million Hungarians of Jewish origin.

The statue depicts Hungary as Archangel Gabriel, completely powerless, being attacked by the German eagle. Naturally, this is an unacceptable interpretation of the facts.  As Magyar Narancs ironically summed up this falsification of history in a headline: “Hungary, the angelic axis power.” Archangel Gabriel, according to the Legend of Bishop Hartvik (1095-1116), intervened on Stephen’s behalf with the pope who originally wanted to send the crown to Mieszko I of Poland. The Hartvik legend cannot be correct, even if Gabriel’s alleged intervention is excised, because by 1000 Mieszko I was already dead. However, Hungarian Catholic tradition kept up the myth, and therefore a statue of Archangel Gabriel was erected at the time of the millennial celebrations in 1898. It stands in the middle of the statues depicting Hungarian kings and heroes on Heroes’ Square.

So, the main figure of the statue is not at all new. It goes back to the same Christian legend and naturally has wings as an archangel should. But if one compares the two, the old and the new, there are great differences in the depictions of the same figure. The 1898 statue is a self-confident and powerful figure, in one hand holding the Holy Crown and in the other the double cross. The new one is beaten and powerless, at the mercy of his enemy. His arms are uplifted in supplication, presumably praying to God for help as his wings are being attacked by an eagle, representing the Reich. A pitiful, sad, blameless figure. A victim.

German occupation

And the statue will be big. Very big. It will be 7 meters tall, and the spread of the eagle’s wings will be 4.5 meters wide. Yes, I think the statue is hideous, but this is the least of its problems. Much more worrisome is the message it conveys.

And now let’s move on to the statue that might be going away. It is a not too attractive statue of Karl Marx, currently still in place at Corvinus University, which used to be called Karl Marx University. Until now the statue didn’t bother anyone. In fact, it is a favorite with the students. It is almost obligatory to have a picture taken with Marx as a memento before graduating. Well, Bence Rétvári, deputy chairman of the phantom Christian Democratic Party and undersecretary of the Ministry of Administration and Justice, decided that it was a disgrace that Marx’s statue adorns the main hallway of the university. He decided to act. He wrote an open letter to the faculty and students of the university and asked them to remove the statue because Marx was a racist and an anti-Semite who hated the Slavs and who wanted to herd women together and force them to be prostitutes. He also approved of slavery. In addition, he was a Social Darwinist and thus a forerunner of Nazism. In addition, of course, to all his other sins, including the 100 million victims of communism.

Sound unfamiliar? You wouldn’t quite recognize Karl Marx from this description? I’m not surprised. Most Hungarian commentators made fun of Rétvári’s ignorance, including a few who actually know something about Marxism because they had to study the works of Marx and Engels. Rétvári, who was ten years old at the time of the regime change, most likely never read Marx. Júlia Lévai, who wrote an excellent piece about the nonsensical nature of his accusations, thinks that Rétvári only acts as if  “he were that stupid.” As opposed to Lévai, I am convinced that this guy really is that ignorant. We mustn’t forget that he attended the famous Piarist Gymnasium in Budapest. Later he received a law degree from the Péter Pázmány Catholic University. I doubt that at either place he had much reason to read Marx.

Rétvári or his staff dug up some lesser known works of Marx and Engels which they didn’t quite understand and came up with bizarre interpretations. Mind you, in the case of Marx’s alleged anti-Slav prejudices Rétvári is actually quoting from an article written by Friedrich Engels. Engels? Marx? Who cares. Rétvári is also not quite familiar with the meaning of the verb “to prostitute” in the sense of “to degrade” and therefore he decided that Marx wanted women to become prostitutes. One doesn’t have to be too familiar with Marx’s work to know that he considered the marriages of his day a kind of prostitution in the sense that women were completely subjugated to their husbands. Since Marx’s ideas on socialism or communism were based on the alleged equality of all, it is hard to imagine therefore that someone would think that Marx promoted the exploitation and oppression of women.

As for Marx’s anti-Semitism, it is not exactly Rétvári’s discovery. However, Marx’s views on Jews are not as simple as the learned undersecretary thinks. Marx talked about Jews as a synonym for capitalists. When it comes to Marx’s approval of the slave trade, Rétvári or his assistants misunderstood the passage which, according to Mihály Kálmán, is actually a critique of the simplistic dialectics of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Some of the works Rétvári mentions can be found on the Internet: Friedrich Engels: “The Magyar Struggle” (Neue Rheinische Zeitung, January 1849) and Karl Marx, “Forced Emigration” (New York Tribune, 1853).

As for precedent, Rétvári began his letter by saying that if after the change of regime the statue of Georgi Dimitrov, the Bulgarian communist leader between 1945 and 1949, could be removed and the square in front of Corvinus University could be renamed, how it is possible that Marx’s statue is still inside the building? As if the intellectual weight of Dimitrov and Marx could be compared. It’s no wonder that Rétvári’s open letter was received with derision in certain circles. But again, I’m not surprised. Most members of this political “elite” are profoundly ignorant, yet they feel free to pass judgment on anyone whose views are different from theirs. For example, István Tarlós, currently mayor of Budapest and an engineer who is very proud of his technical approach to problems, said the following about Marx in 2007: “Marx as a philosopher is a duffer [antitalentum] where the ‘anti-‘ doesn’t signify his lack of talent but tells us about the direction of his activities which is the opposite of normal.”

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Looking backward: Historical complexity and political simplification

A couple of days ago I mentioned that three historians who are attached to the Institute of History of the Hungarian Academy of Science were entrusted with deciding the fate of persons and concepts that can possibly be connected to dictatorial regimes of the twentieth century. The other day the long awaited list was made public and was met with a mix of fury and derision. By today well known historians, members of the Academy, are calling the list and its creators a disgrace to the historical profession.

Almost a month before the appearance of the infamous list András Gerő, whose specialty is the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, rang the alarm bell and predicted that nothing good would come from this enterprise because the text of the law is imprecise and because whoever wrote it has no clue about the complexity of life and thus of history.

I will summarize Gerő’s main objections. The full text of the the law can be read here, but the key sentence is that “the name of no person can be used anywhere (institutions, media organs, public places) who played a leading role in the establishment, formation, and maintenance of twentieth-century dictatorial regimes or such expression or name of an organ that can be directly related with such a regime.”

The first problem is that the law itself is sloppily formulated. On the one hand it talks about dictatorial regimes (rendszerek) in the plural when it comes to persons whereas, when talking about organizations and concepts, it uses the singular (rendszer). So, how many dictatorial regimes are we talking about? Gerő rightly states that there were three such regimes in Hungary in the twentieth century. The Soviet Republic of 1919, the 1944-45 Arrow Cross regime, and the communist regime between 1949 and 1989. The text of the preamble to the bill provides a clue to the lawmakers’ thinking. Here they talk about “dictatorships” but add that “first and foremost” they are thinking of  the communist dictatorship and the 1919 Soviet Republic lasting 133 days. Thus, the emphasis is on dictatorships of the left.

Why does any lawmaker think that such a piece of legislation is necessary in the first place? The reason is that “our streets and institutions should bear names that are worthy of the ideals of a democratic country.” However, Gerő points out, it is not only dictatorship that is opposed to the ideals of a democratic state. What if the equality of citizens is terminated in a perfectly legitimate and democratic manner? The reference here is to the Horthy regime’s anti-Jewish laws. “Without equality of citizens there is no rule of rule (jogállam).” Gerő comes to the conclusion that perhaps the lawmakers are not really familiar with the meaning of the rule of law.

Listed by Epicantus / Daria Nepriakhina

Listed by Epicantus / Daria Nepriakhina / Flickr

But, Gerő says, ignorance has its consequences. On the preliminary list were such names as Béla Kun and Tibor Szamuely, who was personally responsible for political murders during the 1919 communist interlude. Their roles in the establishment and maintenance of a dictatorship are indisputable. But Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels also appeared on the list. They were included because of their role in laying the foundation for the later Soviet regime. Since both died years before 1917, we have no idea what they would have thought of the kind of dictatorship that was established in Soviet Russia. And if Marx and Engels are blacklisted, why don’t we put Prime Minister Pál Teleki, who played a leading role in the enactment of Hungary’s anti-Jewish laws, on the same list? And if we can connect Marx and Engels with the Muscovite Mátyás Rákosi, we should certainly link the name of Bishop Ottokár Prohászka, who is considered to be the theoretician of Ferenc Szálasi’s Hungarism, with the Holocaust.

One must also should keep in mind that people might change their views over their lifetimes. Either because they genuinely had a change of heart or because they responded to a changing situation. As an example Gerő brings up Gyula Szekfű (1883-1955), the historian. His extremely influential book written in 1920, Három nemzedék: Egy hanyatló kor története (Three generations: History of a declining age), blamed the liberals of the dual monarchy for the misfortunes that befell Hungary after World War I. This book played an important role in justifying István Bethlen’s counterrevolutionary regime. Later he moved farther to the left and after 1945 he even praised Stalin’s accomplishments and the Soviet regime. From 1953 he became a member of parliament and in the last two years of his life a member of the Presidium. There’s no question that he helped maintain the communist dictatorship. Right now a street bears his name in Budapest’s District IV. Should he be banned? According to the law, if we take it seriously, yes, he should be.

The other person Gerő mentions is János Szentágothai, the famous Hungarian medical researcher. He was also a member of parliament and later a member of the Presidium during the Kádár regime. Between 1977 and 1985 he was the president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences which was a political post. After 1990 he was again a member of parliament as an MDF member. Again, he should be banned but naturally he won’t be.

The third person is Béla Kovács, secretary-general of the Smallholders party, whom the Soviets exiled to the Gulag on February 25, 1947. In 2000, during the first Orbán administration, the government made February 25 a day of remembrance for the victims of communism. In 2002 Kovács’s statue was unveiled on Kossuth Square. Kovács became a member of Imre Nagy’s cabinet, but in 1958 he became a member of the pseudo-parliament of the early Kádár regime. He should also be banned according to a strict interpretation of the law.

The drafters of the law added that if and when there is any question concerning eligibility the case must be referred to the historians of the Academy. But if one reads the law carefully, it doesn’t allow for any doubt. The choice is either black or white, yes or no. Historians should know full well that life and therefore history is not that simple, and therefore they should not have accepted the job. Unfortunately, they did. The historians “should have told the government that this task cannot be accomplished in the spirit of academic correctness.”

They accepted the job despite the fact that Attila Pók, one of the three historians who took part in this disgraceful exercise, admitted that the law doesn’t allow for any shading or for a scientific approach and that the law was not thought through.

The government passed the buck to the Academy and the historians passed it back to the government. They excused their own participation by emphasizing that theirs was not the final word. They acted only in an advisory capacity.

The concern is growing in historical circles that “by participating in this political game they risked their academic credibility.”  As historian Gábor Gyáni said, “the historians found themselves in such an absurd situation that they had to explain why concepts like “freedom” or “republic” are not directly related to dictatorships. But at the same time they fell into such traps as declaring Maxim Gorky or Vladimir Mayakovsky supporters of a dictatorship. The former, after the assassination of Sergei Kirov in December 1934, was placed under “secret” house arrest. There were rumors that his sudden death wasn’t an accident. Mayakovsky by the late 1920s became increasingly disillusioned with the course the Soviet Union was taking and committed suicide.

Life is not as simple as Fidesz politicos imagine or as even well-known Hungarian historians think. And what if one day historians associate Viktor Orbán and the members of his government with the destruction of democracy in Hungary and with building an authoritarian regime with the assistance of a neo-Nazi party? It could easily happen.