historical research

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.