Hungarism

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.

Viktor Orbán’s speech at the meeting of the Association of Christian Intelligentsia

Viktor Orbán gave a speech at a round table discussion of the Association of Christian Intelligentsia (Keresztény Értlemiségiek Szövetsége/KÉSZ = Ready). The name of the organization didn’t immediately ring a bell until I read that its president is Zoltán Osztie, a Catholic priest known for his reactionary worldview. Moreover, Osztie is a politically committed man in the service of the current government. He and his organization work hand in hand with László Csizmadia’s CÖF (Civil Összefogás Fórum), which is behind the peace marches and which lately announced plans for a peace march to Brussels. CÖF received billions of forints from the central government, and thus Csizmadia and his friends had no problem footing the rather expensive campaign against Gordon Bajnai. Zsolt Bayer, András Bencsik, Gábor Széles, Ádám Pozsonyi, and László Csizmadia are prominent members of a “defense front” in the service of Viktor Orbán and his policies. Zoltán Osztie belongs to that inner circle of supporters.

I did some research on KÉSZ, which originally I mistakenly thought was just one of the many Christian civil groups. I always get suspicious when a group of people get together in the name of Christianity because in Hungary the adjective “keresztény” normally carries an emphasis on being “non-Jewish.” Otherwise, I see no reason for writers, journalists, and actors to distinguish themselves as Christians. KÉSZ is certainly not a simple gathering place for practicing Christians. Under the leadership of Zoltán Osztie it has become a politically committed organization.

The group was formed by another Catholic priest, Béla Csanád, in 1989 with the mission to spread the word. After years of anti-religious propaganda Csanád and his friends felt that there was a need for a kind of re-conversion of the intellectual elite who could then spread the gospel further. Although Csanád was a Catholic poet, the organization theoretically was open to all practicing Christians; according to the by-laws this is still the case. Osztie, however, often talks about the one and only church, the mysterious body of Christ, about a community in the middle of which lives the Virgin Mary. Well, that is a rather specific worldview in which Protestants wouldn’t be welcome.

kereszteny ertelmisegiek szovetsegeOsztie took over the presidency of KÉSZ after Csanád’s death in 1996. His election was questioned by some of the members and eventually the court found it illegal. Seventeen years later he shows no inclination to leave the position, and most likely his grip on KÉSZ is such that no one could unseat him. There is an excellent article on Osztie that appeared in Magyar Narancs a couple of months ago.

A few interesting tidbits about the man. While he was studying for the priesthood in the 1970s he didn’t seem to be at all attracted to the small group of students who stood up to professors servile to the regime. He especially liked those professors whom most of the students disliked because of their rigidity. And he developed a hatred of liberalism, which he calls the result of “the devil’s destructive fury.” In his eyes, everything that has happened since the Renaissance is an attack on the church. Why was the Catholic Church the target? Because “the church is the guardian of natural communities, the family, the nation, the natural sexual and societal roles.” Society must therefore return to Christianity “because without God life has no meaning and no morality.” As for the appropriate sexual roles, in summer camps for children organized by KÉSZ boys learn to harvest and girls learn home canning. Traditional all right.

As for the role of the church, “Hungary is a Christian country. It is that simple. No other ideology, no other religion, no other messages have any place in this homeland. It is time to say that at last.” Of modern governments, he considers the Horthy regime’s attitude toward the church the most satisfactory. He finds the anti-Semitic Pál Teleki, the extreme right-wing Bálint Hóman, and Ottokár Prohászka, the spiritual father of Hungarism,”wonderful people who with the help of God resurrected the dead, mutilated country.”

As for his ideas on the media, Osztie thinks that its duties include the delivery of the aspirations and the accomplishments of the government. It’s no wonder that Osztie welcomed the much criticized media law.

When we analyze Viktor Orbán’s speech at the round table discussion of KÉSZ in Győr we must keep his audience in mind. The speech is partially transcribed on Viktor Orbán’s website and available on YouTube in its entirety. Here he describes himself as a Christian politician who must answer to God not just every four years but every day. We also learn the reason for the European Union’s intense dislike of Hungary. “While the European Union piles fiasco on top of fiasco it doesn’t want to recognize the success story of Hungary… We have been blacklisted. They want to force the role of black sheep on us.” And why is this so? “Because of our traditional and natural view of the family. In the center of the controversy is the family. Our Fundamental Law defends the family and marriage.”  He added that “for four thousand years the rule was that every marriage consists of a man and a woman. … We don’t have to explain anything; we must ask them why it was necessary to give up a four-thousand-year tradition.” According to Orbán, there is a strong secular and anti-family lobby in Europe that has been very successful. Hungary bucks this trend and receives Europe’s hatred as a result.

And finally, he assured his audience that the government counts on the Christian intelligentsia because without them there is no electoral victory.

At the end, let me mention a Galamus article on this speech by the philosopher Ferenc L. Lendvai. He found a few pieces of nonsense [zöldség in Hungarian] in it. First, Viktor Orbán’s reference to the 4,000-year tradition of marriage between men and women. Orbán specifically mentioned 2,000 years of the New Testament and 2,000 years of the New Testament. Nice, but wrong!  Napoleon talked about 4,000 years of civilization during his campaign against Egypt. And he was right; the pyramids are more than 4,000 years old. But Orbán has a problem with Old Testament chronology. Abraham wasn’t even born 2,000 years before Christ. And where was Moses with his tablets? And where were the priests who wrote down the laws of God? Moreover, even if they had lived four thousand years ago, the good Hungarian Christians wouldn’t be too enamored with the concepts of marriage and family of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. “If they don’t believe it, I suggest they should read the Bible if they are such good Christians.”

As for Orbán’s reference to good Christian politicians who have to give account to God every day, Lendvai quotes Matthew 7:22-23.

On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

Gábor Bethlen, prince of Transylvania (1580-1629), was a good Calvinist. In his lifetime he read the Old and New Testaments forty times. Viktor Orbán, who is so proud of belonging to the Hungarian Reformed Church, should follow the example of Bethlen whom he admires. Start reading. And not just the Bible.