Kádár regime

Looking backward: Historical complexity and political simplification

A couple of days ago I mentioned that three historians who are attached to the Institute of History of the Hungarian Academy of Science were entrusted with deciding the fate of persons and concepts that can possibly be connected to dictatorial regimes of the twentieth century. The other day the long awaited list was made public and was met with a mix of fury and derision. By today well known historians, members of the Academy, are calling the list and its creators a disgrace to the historical profession.

Almost a month before the appearance of the infamous list András Gerő, whose specialty is the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, rang the alarm bell and predicted that nothing good would come from this enterprise because the text of the law is imprecise and because whoever wrote it has no clue about the complexity of life and thus of history.

I will summarize Gerő’s main objections. The full text of the the law can be read here, but the key sentence is that “the name of no person can be used anywhere (institutions, media organs, public places) who played a leading role in the establishment, formation, and maintenance of twentieth-century dictatorial regimes or such expression or name of an organ that can be directly related with such a regime.”

The first problem is that the law itself is sloppily formulated. On the one hand it talks about dictatorial regimes (rendszerek) in the plural when it comes to persons whereas, when talking about organizations and concepts, it uses the singular (rendszer). So, how many dictatorial regimes are we talking about? Gerő rightly states that there were three such regimes in Hungary in the twentieth century. The Soviet Republic of 1919, the 1944-45 Arrow Cross regime, and the communist regime between 1949 and 1989. The text of the preamble to the bill provides a clue to the lawmakers’ thinking. Here they talk about “dictatorships” but add that “first and foremost” they are thinking of  the communist dictatorship and the 1919 Soviet Republic lasting 133 days. Thus, the emphasis is on dictatorships of the left.

Why does any lawmaker think that such a piece of legislation is necessary in the first place? The reason is that “our streets and institutions should bear names that are worthy of the ideals of a democratic country.” However, Gerő points out, it is not only dictatorship that is opposed to the ideals of a democratic state. What if the equality of citizens is terminated in a perfectly legitimate and democratic manner? The reference here is to the Horthy regime’s anti-Jewish laws. “Without equality of citizens there is no rule of rule (jogállam).” Gerő comes to the conclusion that perhaps the lawmakers are not really familiar with the meaning of the rule of law.

Listed by Epicantus / Daria Nepriakhina

Listed by Epicantus / Daria Nepriakhina / Flickr

But, Gerő says, ignorance has its consequences. On the preliminary list were such names as Béla Kun and Tibor Szamuely, who was personally responsible for political murders during the 1919 communist interlude. Their roles in the establishment and maintenance of a dictatorship are indisputable. But Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels also appeared on the list. They were included because of their role in laying the foundation for the later Soviet regime. Since both died years before 1917, we have no idea what they would have thought of the kind of dictatorship that was established in Soviet Russia. And if Marx and Engels are blacklisted, why don’t we put Prime Minister Pál Teleki, who played a leading role in the enactment of Hungary’s anti-Jewish laws, on the same list? And if we can connect Marx and Engels with the Muscovite Mátyás Rákosi, we should certainly link the name of Bishop Ottokár Prohászka, who is considered to be the theoretician of Ferenc Szálasi’s Hungarism, with the Holocaust.

One must also should keep in mind that people might change their views over their lifetimes. Either because they genuinely had a change of heart or because they responded to a changing situation. As an example Gerő brings up Gyula Szekfű (1883-1955), the historian. His extremely influential book written in 1920, Három nemzedék: Egy hanyatló kor története (Three generations: History of a declining age), blamed the liberals of the dual monarchy for the misfortunes that befell Hungary after World War I. This book played an important role in justifying István Bethlen’s counterrevolutionary regime. Later he moved farther to the left and after 1945 he even praised Stalin’s accomplishments and the Soviet regime. From 1953 he became a member of parliament and in the last two years of his life a member of the Presidium. There’s no question that he helped maintain the communist dictatorship. Right now a street bears his name in Budapest’s District IV. Should he be banned? According to the law, if we take it seriously, yes, he should be.

The other person Gerő mentions is János Szentágothai, the famous Hungarian medical researcher. He was also a member of parliament and later a member of the Presidium during the Kádár regime. Between 1977 and 1985 he was the president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences which was a political post. After 1990 he was again a member of parliament as an MDF member. Again, he should be banned but naturally he won’t be.

The third person is Béla Kovács, secretary-general of the Smallholders party, whom the Soviets exiled to the Gulag on February 25, 1947. In 2000, during the first Orbán administration, the government made February 25 a day of remembrance for the victims of communism. In 2002 Kovács’s statue was unveiled on Kossuth Square. Kovács became a member of Imre Nagy’s cabinet, but in 1958 he became a member of the pseudo-parliament of the early Kádár regime. He should also be banned according to a strict interpretation of the law.

The drafters of the law added that if and when there is any question concerning eligibility the case must be referred to the historians of the Academy. But if one reads the law carefully, it doesn’t allow for any doubt. The choice is either black or white, yes or no. Historians should know full well that life and therefore history is not that simple, and therefore they should not have accepted the job. Unfortunately, they did. The historians “should have told the government that this task cannot be accomplished in the spirit of academic correctness.”

They accepted the job despite the fact that Attila Pók, one of the three historians who took part in this disgraceful exercise, admitted that the law doesn’t allow for any shading or for a scientific approach and that the law was not thought through.

The government passed the buck to the Academy and the historians passed it back to the government. They excused their own participation by emphasizing that theirs was not the final word. They acted only in an advisory capacity.

The concern is growing in historical circles that “by participating in this political game they risked their academic credibility.”  As historian Gábor Gyáni said, “the historians found themselves in such an absurd situation that they had to explain why concepts like “freedom” or “republic” are not directly related to dictatorships. But at the same time they fell into such traps as declaring Maxim Gorky or Vladimir Mayakovsky supporters of a dictatorship. The former, after the assassination of Sergei Kirov in December 1934, was placed under “secret” house arrest. There were rumors that his sudden death wasn’t an accident. Mayakovsky by the late 1920s became increasingly disillusioned with the course the Soviet Union was taking and committed suicide.

Life is not as simple as Fidesz politicos imagine or as even well-known Hungarian historians think. And what if one day historians associate Viktor Orbán and the members of his government with the destruction of democracy in Hungary and with building an authoritarian regime with the assistance of a neo-Nazi party? It could easily happen.

After twenty years of democracy, Hungary is heading back to its authoritarian past

I have the feeling that we will have a short lull before the storm, so I can wander a bit from politics. Of course, most things that happen these days in Hungary are about politics, at least indirectly, something those young students who demonstrated against the government’s educational policies have yet to realize. They keep repeating that they are civilians who have nothing to do with politics. How long will it take them to understand that they are wrong?

I will take this opportunity to summarize a lecture by the academician Ignác Romsics, a respected historian of the twentieth century. (His book on that subject is available in English.) He is considered to be a fairly conservative man and therefore his lecture reported in today’s Népszava is noteworthy. Romsics is trying to set things straight at a time when the government is encouraging a re-evaluation of the Horthy regime (1920-1945). Although Viktor Orbán and his entourage deny it, the signs are clear: a rehabilitation of the Horthy regime is under way.

Ignác Romsics / Nol.hu

Ignác Romsics / Nol.hu

First of all, it is noteworthy that Romsics delivered his lecture in the Politikatörténeti Intézet (Institute of the History of Politics) which is under attack by the current government. One reason for Viktor Orbán’s dislike of the institute is that before the change of regime it was called the Párttörténeti Intézet (Institute of Party History), and thus the historians connected with the institute are politically suspect in his eyes. The institute has a large library and an extensive archive, considered to be a private collection, which the government recently nationalized. This move is especially worrisome because private individuals’ archives are also stored there. The institute right now is fighting for its survival and for its archives. So, giving a lecture at this particular institute is a kind of political statement, especially from a historian who is not a flaming liberal.

The institute began a lecture series in December and Romsics’s lecture on “The modern Hungarian political regimes” was the fifth in the series. I’m happy to announce that our friend Gábor Egry, who just published a lengthy comment on demographic changes in Hungary and Romania after 1918, will be the next to lecture on the “Nationality problems in Hungary in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.” The earlier lectures are available on video on the website of the institute and I assume that soon enough we will be able to listen to Romsics’s lecture as well.

So, let’s look at Romsics’ overview of late nineteenth- and twentieth-century Hungarian political history.

As far as the period of dualism (1867-1918) is concerned, Hungarians like to talk about it as a time of peace and prosperity (boldog békeidők). It was a time of fantastic economic growth, when everything was just perfect. But was it? No it wasn’t because there was no representative government, there was no democracy, and liberalism was greatly constrained. The Emperor-King Franz Joseph I’s power was much wider than that of other western rulers. He influenced foreign policy and defense decisions, and the parliament was able to vote on a piece of legislation only if it was approved by the king ahead of time. Another characteristic of the regime was that very few people had the right to vote. In 1910, at the last election before the war, only 6% of the adult population was able to cast a vote–and not by secret ballot. During the dualistic period government after government had a two-thirds majority, and it happened only once that such a government was removed by a vote of no-confidence. But the victorious opposition had to promise the king before being able to form a new government that it wouldn’t touch the dualistic structure.

During the Károlyi period (1918-1919) no elections were held, but a new electoral law would have made 50-60% of the population eligible to vote, including women. During the Soviet Republic practically the entire adult population had the vote, except it didn’t mean much because of the one-party system.

After the fall of the Soviet Republic the first election took place in 1920 on the basis of the electoral law of the Friedrich government (August 7-November 24, 1919): 40% of the adult population could vote, and vote secretly. This brought about a revolutionary change. The peasantry constituted 60% of the country’s population prior to 1920 but the party representing them had only one or two representatives in a pre-war parliament of 413 members. Now suddenly their number swelled to 30 in a downsized parliament of 219.

One of the first moves of the Horthy regime was to reduce the number of eligible voters. In the larger cities the vote was secret but everywhere else it was again open. By introducing a new electoral system the governments of the interwar period had two-thirds majorities and thus their perpetuation was ensured. The powers of Governor Miklós Horthy were not extensive, but such powers were not really necessary. The system worked without his direct influence.

During both the era of dualism and the period between the two world wars, Hungary had an authoritarian political system. But during the Horthy period even the equal rights of citizens were trampled on by the so-called Jewish laws.

After World War II there was a brief period of “democratic experimentation” that was over by 1949. During the Rákosi and Kádár periods the “role of parliament was only formal.” Real decisions were made within the party apparatus. Parliament had even less of a role to play than it did in the Horthy regime, in which parliamentary debates at least had a moderating influence on the government.

However, and this is an interesting point, “in the late Kádár regime, after the 1985 elections because of the new election law 10% of the members of parliament were elected in opposition to the communist party candidates. It is true that some of these so-called independents were fellow travelers or even party members, but here and there one could hear speeches in parliament that would have been unimaginable earlier.” While “we can certainly label the Rákosi and the early Kádár regimes dictatorships, the late Kádár era can be called authoritarian only.”

This is an important statement, especially in light of Fidesz’s penchant for making no distinction between the Stalinist Rákosi regime, the early Kádár period, and the last five years of the one party-system that was already being challenged.

As for the situation under the second Orbán government, “there is no dictatorship in Hungary today because the elimination of the separation of powers hasn’t taken place, there is still a multi-party system, and there is still media freedom. At the same time the steps the government has taken in the last three years have led to such a concentration of power that we can say that Hungary has started on the road toward an authoritarian political system.” I do hope that the world listens.

Whom should Viktor Orbán fear? Not his former self but the rebellious students

I’m sure many of you are familiar with Attila Ara-Kovács’s name because I’ve written about him several times on this blog, but if anyone needs a refresher course here’s a brief description of his career from Cluj/Kolozsvár to Budapest where he joined the democratic opposition. In the late 1980s the democratic opposition worked side by side with Fidesz, then a youth organization, so Ara-Kovács had plenty of opportunity to get to know the young Viktor Orbán.

Ara-Kovács, who nowadays has a column (Diplomatic Notes) in the weekly Magyar Narancs, was inspired a couple of days ago to include a piece on domestic issues in his column: he decided to share the impression the democratic opposition gained of the young Viktor Orbán in those days.

Ara-Kovács discovered on YouTube a composed young woman, Réka Kinga Papp, who for two and a half minutes severely criticizes Hungary’s prime minister. She actually calls him a “mad dictator” who will be swept away by the wrath of the people. But she still gives him credit for the constructive role he played in the late eighties. Especially his famous speech at the reburial of Imre Nagy and his fellow martyrs that launched his spectacular political career. So did another new youthful opponent of the Orbán regime, Máté Ábrahám, who also expressed his admiration for the young Orbán. This young man said something to the effect that today’s Orbán would surely be afraid to meet his young self. These students suppose that in those days Orbán, Kövér, Deutsch, Áder, and the others were pure as the driven snow. They became corrupt only because politics and power corrupted them.

It is time to tell the truth, says Ara-Kovács, because it is essential that these youngsters don’t labor under false impressions of Fidesz’s role in the regime change. According to Ara-Kovács, Réka Kinga Papp’s young Orbán never existed. She talked about the “innovative, happy, well meaning will” that Orbán allegedly added to “the big Hungarian collective.” Ara-Kovács categorically denies that Orbán added anything of the sort. On the contrary, he decided to establish a second liberal party by which he divided “the camp of the most authentic opponents” of the Kádár regime.

Viktor Orbán broke his wordOn the reburial of Imre Nagy and other martyrs of 1956 / July 16, 1989

Viktor Orbán broke his word
at the reburial of Imre Nagy and other martyrs of 1956 / JuneLászló Kövér 16, 1989

As for Orbán’s famous speech in which he demanded the withdrawal of the Soviet troops, Ara-Kovács provides some background information. The so-called round table of the opposition made the decision not to mention this demand. First, because they knew that negotiations were already underway and second, because they didn’t want to trap Mikhail Gorbachev in “an impossible” situation. In addition, they didn’t want to provide additional ammunition to the hardliners in the Soviet bloc: the East Germans, the Czechoslovaks, and the Romanians. One must keep in mind that Václav Havel at this point was still in jail. Viktor Orbán and László Kövér, representing Fidesz, accepted this joint decision only for Orbán to break his word the next day. The impression created by that speech was that only Fidesz and Viktor Orbán were radical enough to dare to strive for complete independence while the others were political opportunists. “For him even the revolutionary moment of 1989 was no more than a question of power politics.

This was Viktor Orbán’s first betrayal that was  followed by many more. He betrayed his ally, SZDSZ, and three years later betrayed his own supporters when “he changed Fidesz from a radical liberal party into a party adopting an extreme nationalistic ideology.” No, says Ara-Kovács, these young university and high school students are not at all like the young Orbán, Kövér, Deutsch, Áder, and the others. “Viktor Orbán is not afraid of a meeting with his former self but he is afraid of you. And it is important for you to know that.”

Almost simultaneously with the appearance of Ara-Kovács’s article another news item caught my attention. It is an interview with László Kövér that will appear in tomorrow’s print edition of Heti Válasz. A short description of it is already available on the Internet. According to Kövér, there is no resemblance between today’s “rebels” and their former selves. Ever since the early 1980s they purposefully prepared themselves to accept a political role in the future. “We knew that belonging to the eight percent of the population who received an opportunity to become part of the elite by attending university entailed responsibility. It never occurred to us to leave this country although then there was a dictatorship in Hungary.”

Well, let’s dissect these sentences. Kövér talks about the early 1980s. In the early 1980s no one but no one had the slightest inkling that the days of the Soviet Union were numbered. That its empire would crumble by the end of the decade. Most of us didn’t even know it in 1987 or early 1988. So, if Kövér and Orbán were preparing themselves for political roles they were getting ready to join the socialist political elite of the Kádár regime. It cannot be interpreted in any other way. If that is the case, it is no wonder that they didn’t want to leave the country despite its being a dictatorship. No, they would have been an integral part of that dictatorship. Perhaps those who would actually steer the ship of that one-party regime. Everything Orbán, Kövér, Áder, and some of the others from the original crew are doing right now supports this hypothesis.