Hungarian extreme right

A balancing act: a decoration for Imre Kertész and another for his right-wing foe

The debate about Imre Kertész’s acceptance of the Order of St. Stephen is slowly subsiding. There were important voices on the left, Ágnes Heller and Tamás Ungvári among them, who decided that since Imre Kertész is a great writer and the only Hungarian Nobel Prize winner in literature he richly deserves the highest decoration that can be awarded by any Hungarian government. In this view, it really doesn’t matter that between 1940 and 1944 several war criminals received the Order of St. Stephen.

Others who are  less forgiving  hope that Imre Kertész, given his illness and possible mental impairment, simply didn’t realize that this award was the Orbán government’s cynical answer to the unsavory reputation it acquired as the leading force in the falsification of the history of the Hungarian Holocaust. Honoring Kertész was conceived as a way to blunt the sharp clash between the Hungarian government and the domestic and international Jewish communities.

erdemrendBut trying to appease one group was guaranteed to outrage another. The Orbán government knew that there would be an outcry in extreme right-wing circles following the decision to award such a high honor to someone whom they consider to be not a member of the nation.

In order to “balance” things they opted to bestow a lesser decoration on a man of extreme political views. The Hungarian government settled on Mihály Takaró, who is supposed to be a “poet and literary historian.”

Takaró’s mission in life is the propagation of Hungary’s “banished literature.” Members of this banished group are writers of the interwar period who in Takaró’s opinion were supremely talented but because of their political views were barred from Hungary’s literary corpus.

The decoration Takaró received is a modest one, called Magyar Érdemrend Lovagkereszt (polgári tagozat), something I’m not even going to try to translate. It is given out twice a year: on March 15 and August 20. Each time at least 30-40 people receive it as a token of the government’s appreciation. In this case presumably one reason for the appreciation is that Takaró was among those who consider Kertész to be a mediocre writer and not a member of the Hungarian nation.

Takaró, who until fairly recently was just a humble high school teacher, is now on the faculty of the Gáspár Károli Hungarian Reformed University, which seems to be a gathering place for people of decidedly rightist views. Takaró’s time arrived with Viktor Orbán’s second administration when he had his own series entitled “Száműzött irodalom” (Banished Literature) on the state Duna TV.  The work of members of this group, in Takaró’s opinion, is among the greatest in Hungarian literature. For example, in an interview he gave on HírTV after receiving the decoration, he talked about Wass and Nyirő as equals of Sándor Petőfi and Attila József.

Featured in the series is an odd assortment of writers. Some, like Albert Wass  and József Nyirő, were members of or very close to Ferenc Szálasi’s Hungarist movement. Others, like Cecile Tormay, were rabid anti-Semites. And there were conservative writers, representatives of the Horthy regime’s “official literature” like Ferenc Herczeg. These writers are not considered by literary historians to be great. But Takaró also included a couple of poets of real talent who were there only because they were from Transylvania, by then in Romanian hands. All in all, Takaró’s series on Duna TV can be considered to be officially sponsored far-right propaganda. Some of the episodes can be seen on YouTube.

Here are a couple of them that should give readers a sense of Takaró’s mission. The first is about Albert Wass.

And here is another one on Cecile Tormay.

Takaró, in addition to his decidedly extremist views, has odd ideas about literary merit in general. He claims that the worth of a writer shouldn’t be determined by literary critics in later generations but by their popularity and acceptance by their contemporaries. In this view bestsellers of the 1920s and 1930s, like the works of Miklós Harsányi or Julianna Zsigray, should be judged to be better and more valuable than those of Attila József, who was almost an unknown but today is considered to be the greatest Hungarian poet.

Takaró complains bitterly about the falsification of the works of Hungarian classics–he specifically mentions Mihály Babits–whose irredentist utterances were unceremoniously left out even from “critical editions.” Very true. But what Takaró does not mention is that the Kádár regime’s self-censoring literary critics did the same thing to the works of such writers as János Kodolányi or László Németh, who became fully accepted writers by the regime although both had more than a slight brush with extreme right views in the 1930s. In their collected works the editors simply left out or rewrote passages that gave away their unsavory pasts.

HírTV invited Takaró for a fifteen-minute talk after he received his award. During the interview the question of literary worth and the writer’s political views was discussed. Perhaps the two should be completely separated, said the reporter. This was an opportunity for Takaró to get out of a sticky situation, especially when it came to his evangelizing for Hungarists like Wass and Nyirő. But our literary historian refused to budge. No, when judging an artist that person should be taken as a whole, including his political views. So Takaró is rehabilitating not only literary works but political ideologies as well.

In fact, one has the distinct feeling that Takaró’s main concern is the political views of these people and not the literary merit of their work. Moreover, he does not restrict his campaign to right-wing writers but often ventures into the field of history. Among his available lectures on YouTube there is a long appreciation of Miklós Horthy.

I doubt whether the extreme right will be satisfied with the decoration of one of their own as a consolation prize for the Order of St. Stephen for Imre Kertész. Even so, this government’s well practiced navigation through the treacherous waters of the far right never ceases to amaze me.