historical research institutes

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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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.