The Orbáns and Hungarian gentleman farmers

I just raced through Krisztina Ferenczi’s new book, Narancsbőr (Orange peel). Since I usually read her articles about the Orbán family’s dubious financial dealings, I was familiar with most of the details. Ferenczi’s earlier book was about the Orbáns’ brief encounter with viticulture in Tokaj. They got burned when it came to light that Viktor Orbán as prime minister used his influence to receive a substantial state subsidy for their newly acquired vineyard. It was only through a clever legal trick that Orbán’s skin was saved. Since then he has been super clever and has avoided any kind of business venture that may get him into a tight spot as a possible recipient of subsidies either from the European Union or from the Hungarian state. It is true that his wife, Anikó Lévai, owns some agricultural land in Felcsút, but officially at least it is leased to János Flier, the former electrician I was talking about yesterday and one of Orbán’s likely front men in Felcsút. Lévai claims that the subsidies she is entitled to actually go to Flier. When Ferenczi asked Flier about it, he replied: “You ought to ask her how it is exactly” (Tőle kellene megkérdezni, hogyan is van ez). Flier is obviously not the sharpest knife in the drawer.

So, the Orbáns who got burned with Tokaj are now very careful. And yet the incredible wealth Orbán’s two close friends in Felcsút, Lőrinc Mészáros and János Flier, amassed made the inhabitants of the village more than suspicious. They are convinced that Viktor Orbán is an active business partner in the growing Mészáros-Flier estates. Perhaps he is the majority owner of them.

Ferenczi found many signs that this is probably the case. She talked at length with people who work on the cattle ranch owned by Mészáros, which Viktor Orbán visits frequently. It seemed obvious to them that Orbán is not just a casual visitor there. “He had something to do with the enterprise.” It also came to light that the charolais cows of Orbán’s new son-in-law are also part of the herd of 3-4,000 animals which, by the way, are kept, according to Ferenczi, under terrible conditions. I might also add here as a footnote that in the past at least the people who worked there officially received only 65,000 forints a month; the rest, 35-45,000 forints, illegally changed hands under the table.

Yesterday an article about the new stadium in Felcsút appeared in The New York Times with a picture of the half-finished stadium right next to the Orbáns’ country home. It is perhaps the best picture I have seen of the two together and leads me to believe that the modest abode the Orbáns built in 2003 will not be there for long. If the stadium is a “jewel box,” as Orbán once described it, the peasant adobe house 20 feet away is a jarring eyesore. And that leads me to the very good possibility that the Orbáns have a very much more elegant dwelling in mind: the former country house of the Hungarian Habsburgs nearby. The building was badly damaged during World War II, but it looks as if the Orbán family has plans to rebuild it in its earlier splendor. Viktor Orbán’s father, Győző, who apparently besides his quarry also has a real estate business, purchased the whole remaining estate a few years ago.

Who were the Hungarian Habsburgs? The founder of the Hungarian branch was Archduke József, the much beloved palatine (nádor) of Hungary (1776-1847), who became a patron of art and an important promoter of the development of Budapest and the country in general. It was he who acquired a large piece of land in Alcsút and built a beautiful palace there. He and his family settled in Hungary for good. The last Archduke Joseph (1872-1962) who played a role in Hungarian politics was actually born in Alcsút. By all indications some of the remnants of Archduke Joseph’s estate are in the hands of the Orbán family and, according to some information Ferenczi received on the spot, work has already begun. The site is off limits to strangers. It is guarded by security personnel as well as by a kuvasz named Nárcisz (Daffodil). Orbán admitted that the family has a ferocious dog called Nárcisz, but, he added, “it is in Felcsút.” I guess he didn’t want to say that the animal is actually guarding part of the Archduke Joseph’s estate owned by his family.

The remnant of the Habsburg Palace, Alcsútdoboz Source: Wikipedia Commons

The remnants of the Habsburg Palace, Alcsútdoboz
Source: Wikipedia Commons

As I was reading about the landholdings of Viktor Orbán and Anikó Lévai it occurred to me that this unexpected yearning to be “lord of the manor” (földesúr) is typical of Hungarians who may have achieved great wealth or fame in some other endeavor but think their life is not fulfilled without having some land and preferably a sizable and elegant palace to go with it. One of my favorite Hungarian novels is Kezdetben volt a kert (In the beginning there was the garden) by Anna Lesznai, first wife of Oszkár Jászi. The book is largely based on her own family’s story. The grandfather, a well-known Jewish doctor who amassed a fortune, feels that his life is not complete without owning land. He buys a large estate somewhere in the Uplands (today Slovakia) only to realize that this kind of life is not for him. But then comes his son who finds it very much to his liking. The assimilated well-off Jewish family becomes like their non-Jewish noble neighbors next door. Many of these Jewish gentleman farmers eventually received nobility in the second half of the nineteenth century.

I also read stories about 1956 refugees who made it in the United States or in western Europe and who after 1990 went in search of neglected manor houses and country estates in Hungary. Now they are gentleman farmers. A favorite hobby investment was viticulture. Neglected old vineyards were bought up in Tokaj, and with some state subsidies the new owners planted new vines and are currently trying their hands at producing quality Hungarian wines. A good example of this kind of 1956er is Dezső Kékessy, earlier a business partner of Viktor Orbán. He has a vineyard in Tokaj and also bought a country estate.

In her book Ferenczi recalls a film in which Anikó Lévai talked about her ardent desire to return to the soil. After all, she came from peasant stock. Her father finished only six grades. We don’t know how much land her father had, but she referred to him as a “kulák,” a rich peasant. She hoped, she said, that once her husband retires from politics, she could perhaps start “a somewhat larger organic farm.” I learned while researching this post that the Habsburg archdukes had a “model farm” (mintagazdaság) in Alcsút. Perhaps one day on the old Habsburg lands Anikó Lévai can run an organic farm.


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.