Kunó Klebelsberg

From the Don River to the proclamation of western artists and scientists

I have a very long list of possible topics but I know that I will never get to the end of it because in the meantime newer topics keep emerging. So I decided to deal with several themes today.

Let’s start with the older ones. For a few days in January, the newspapers were full of historical reminiscences and debates about the role and fate of the Hungary’s Second Army in 1943. I myself wrote a post on January 15 which engendered a lively debate among the readers of Hungarian Spectrum. As usual, after a flurry of articles interest in the subject waned until two months later when a book of Soviet documents was published that revealed that some of the occupying Hungarian soldiers behaved abominably. One of the editors of the volume is Tamás Krausz, who for a while was also active in MSZP’s left wing.

The documents are based on eyewitness accounts that were collected immediately following the withdrawal of the German, Finnish, Latvian, Romanian, and Hungarian forces. According to Krausz, German historians consider these documents authentic. He emphasized that the Hungarians were no better or worse than the other occupying forces but that members of the Second Army committed “war crimes and genocide” alongside the others. Why didn’t these documents emerge earlier? According to Krausz, because during the socialist period neither side wanted to talk about the other side’s crimes. As long as the Hungarians didn’t mention the behavior of the Soviet troops in Hungary, the Soviets decided to be quiet about Hungarian atrocities. But now that former satellite countries are bringing up the sins of the Soviets, the Russians decided to release these documents. There are a couple of good summaries of an interview with Krausz and of a conversation between him and a couple of Russian historians on ATV.

It was inevitable that historians whose ideological views are at odds with those of Tamás Krausz would raise their voices. And indeed, there was a round-table discussion between the two sides that turned into a shouting match. The right-leaning historians doubted the very authenticity of the documents. The final word came from Krisztián Ungváry, who admitted that Hungarian soldiers, like all the others, were responsible for mass murders. But he added that this is “a sensitive topic” and therefore it is not surprising that there was deadly silence in historical circles after the documentary volume appeared. All this came as a shock in Hungary because it has long been accepted that the Hungarian soldiers, unlike the Soviets, behaved admirably in the occupied territories.

Another older story is also connected to history and historians. László Karsai, a historian of the Holocaust, in an interview on ATV called Jobbik a neo-Nazi party back in December. Jobbik sued because Karsai, by referring to them as a neo-Nazi party, damaged Jobbik’s good name. The trial was scheduled for January 10. As usual, no decision was rendered and the verdict was postponed until March. At last the verdict was announced on March 22. The judges decided that Jobbik is not a neo-Nazi party. In my opinion, the courts simply shouldn’t accept such cases because the ideological nature of a party cannot be decided by a court decision. Such historical debates have no place in a courtroom. In any case, Karsai was fined 66,000 forints and he must in a private letter apologize for his “mistake.” Jobbik can make the letter public. Karsai is appealing the verdict.

Benjamin FranklinAnd finally, there was a fascinating interview a few days ago with Iván Sándor, a writer. The interview was conducted by Vera Lánczos, one of my favorite members of the Galamus Group. Although Lánczos was interested in the cultural and educational “reforms” introduced by the Orbán government, Sándor went back to the Horthy regime with the example of the Klebelsberg reforms and their consequences. In his opinion the new structures of the present government “will force the spirit of tyranny on the new generations.” After all, there is a return to the program of Kuno Klebelsberg. Yes, says Sándor, Klebelsberg did a lot of good things but “not much is said about the content of these educational reforms.” Even during Klebelsberg’s life one could feel the results, but after his death, especially during the premiership of Gyula Gömbös, the negative results of this educational program came to full bloom. The Hungarian youth were not taught to think, and therefore they could easily be manipulated. Many of them willingly served a regime that led the country into the abyss.

Klebelsberg’s cultural policies can also be criticized. Although he sent talented Christian youth to western countries to study, at the same time he tried to promote a kind of culture that turned against western European literature because that kind of literature “doesn’t serve” the spirit of the country and its culture; it is not patriotic enough. Present-day Kulturkampf in Hungary bears a strong resemblance to its 1920s variety.

And that leads me to one of today’s news items: Western artists called on Hungarians to rebel against Orbán’s regime. They claim that with the usual kinds of protests one cannot achieve anything in Hungary anymore and therefore they call on the intelligentsia of Europe to intervene. Everybody must work together–writers, scientists, philosophers, film and theater directors, musicians, poets, Greenpeace activists. Everybody who wants a democratic Hungary. “Hungary must be liberated.”

That’s all for today.

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A Hungarian high school textbook on the numerus clausus of 1920

A few days ago we had a new visitor to Hungarian Spectrum who called himself “Éljen Fidesz” (Long Live Fidesz). He had a peculiar notion about the meaning of numerus clausus as it was applied in a law enacted by the Hungarian parliament in 1920. He turned to Wikipedia and found that “Numerus clausus (‘closed number’  in Latin) is one of many methods used to limit the number of students who may study at a university. In many cases, the goal of the numerus clausus is simply to limit the number of students to the maximum feasible in some particularly sought-after areas of studies.” The Wikipedia article adds that “the numerus clausus is currently used in countries and universities where the number of applicants greatly exceeds the number of available places for students.”

This is a grave misunderstanding of the Hungarian version of the numerus clausus that aimed at restricting the number of Jewish students in all Hungarian universities.

Of course, I don’t know the age of our Fidesz fan, but if he is in his 30s he most likely used Konrád Salamon’s textbook, which is the most popular choice of high school teachers. Not necessarily because it is the best but because in the days when students had to pass a test to be admitted to college or university the test questions were based on this textbook. Salamon’s text is for grade 12 when the history of the twentieth century is taught. The cover is decorated with modern and folk art and perhaps not by accident at least two of the pictures contain religious motifs. It is published in a large-size format (28 x 20 cm) and is 300 pages long. So, as one can imagine, it is packed with facts.

One could write pages and pages about the shortcomings of the book. László Karsai, historian of the Holocaust, wrote a lengthy critique of the way in which several high school and college textbooks deal with Jewish themes and the Holocaust, including Salamon’s text, which I have in manuscript form. Page 57 of Salamon’s book has three sentences about the numerus clausus. The first sentence states that the “members of the right and the extreme right forced through the acceptance of the law that was devised to decrease the overproduction of university graduates.” He adds that this meant quotas for “races [népfajok] and nationalities” according to their proportion in the population as a whole. And finally, Salamon writes that this law “placed Hungarians of Jewish origin in a  disadvantageous position.”

Anyone who is familiar with the Hungarian political situation in 1920 and knows anything about the numerus clausus understands that the law had nothing to do with the overproduction of  university graduates. In fact, at the two new universities in Pécs and Szeged there was a shortage of students. The two new universities, by the way, weren’t really new. They existed before, one in Kolozsvár (Cluj) and the other in Pozsony (Bratislava), but after Trianon they were moved to Szeged and Pécs respectively.

It is also wrong to say, as Salamon does, that it was only the extreme right that insisted on the introduction of a law that restricted enrollment of students of Jewish origin. The greatest supporters of the bill came from the ranks of the Party of National Unity, and even people who were considered to be moderate, like Kunó Klebelsberg and István Bethlen, were in favor of it.

Mária M. Kovács, Afflicted by Law: The Numerous Clausus in Hungary, 1920-1945 / IPon.hu

Mária M. Kovács, Afflicted by Law: The Numerus Clausus in Hungary, 1920-1945 / IPon.hu

Currently I’m reading a book on the numerus clausus  (Törvénytől sújtva: A numerus clausus Magyarországon, 1920-1945 / Afflicted by Law: The Numerus Clausus in Hungary, 1920-1945) by Mária M. Kovács, a professor at the Central European University in Budapest. In it Kovács shows that if the removal of Jewish students was intended to encourage children of the Christian middle class to enter university in greater numbers it was clearly a failure. But this wasn’t the aim of the bill. The leading politicians of the period were trying to restrict the number of Jews in the professions and the arts. In order to achieve their goal they reinterpreted the meaning of “izraelita.” Until then the word simply meant someone who considered himself to be a member of a religious community. With the adoption of the numerus clausus suddenly Hungarian Jews were considered to be an ethnic minority. According to Kovács, the law was unconstitutional both formally and substantively.

And finally a few words about Jewish overrepresentation in higher education. Yes, on the surface that seems to have been the case. During the academic year of 1918-1919 there were 18,449 students enrolled; of this number 6,719 were Jewish. One reason for these lopsided figures was that very few students came from villages and  small towns. Most of them were city dwellers, and Hungary’s Jewish population was concentrated in larger cities. In Budapest 25% of the inhabitants were Jewish. The other reason for this overrepresentation was that a greater number of Jewish youngsters finished gymnasium and took matriculation exams than did their non-Jewish contemporaries. In 1910 among Jewish men over the age of eighteen 18.2% took matriculation exams, among Catholics only 4.2% and among Protestants only 3.9%. And since you needed to matriculate in order to enter university one mustn’t be terribly surprised at the lopsided statistics. Kovács quotes the antisemitic Alajos Kovács, head of the Central Statistical Office, who found the situation “terrifying.”

Other figures often cited are the very high percentages of Jews in the medical and legal profession: 49.4% of lawyers and 46.3% of physicians were Jewish. One must keep in mind, however, that these professions attracted only 20% of all people with higher education. It is practically never mentioned that among the 30,000 college-educated civil servants one could find very few Jews–4.9% to be precise.

All in all, Kovács argues, the numerus clausus of 1920 can be considered the first anti-Jewish discriminatory law in Europe. According to some of the creators of the law it was a form of punishment of the Jews for Trianon. István Haller, minister of education in 1920, wrote an autobiography in 1926 which included a chapter entitled “As long as there is Trianon there will be numerus clausus.” The Jews must use their influence in the world to restore the old borders of historical Hungary. This opinion was shared by the entire political elite. Klebelsberg, for instance, announced in one of his speeches in parliament: “Give us back the old Greater Hungary, then we will abrogate the numerus clausus.”

And finally, on a different topic, a real gem from Konrád Salamon’s book (p. 8). The author of this high school textbook lists six reasons for the sorry state of the civilized world in the twentieth century. One of the reasons is that “the media became a significant factor in politics … and could easily influence the uninformed masses with the promise of creating material wealth quickly.” Should we wonder why Hungarian youngsters have so little knowledge of or attraction to democratic institutions? Unfortunately, the new textbooks that are being planned by Rózsa Hoffmann’s ministry will most likely be even more slanted than Konrád Salamon’s opus.

The Orbán regime’s search for historical antecedents

During the weekends I usually find time to read articles and books that have nothing to do with the present political situation in Hungary. But somehow it always turns out that even a book review about  the Rákosi period can have relevance to what’s going on today. The book in question is György Gyarmati’s Rákosi-korszak: Rendszerváltó fordulatok évtizede Magyarországon (The Rákosi period: A decade of regime changes in Hungary).

Gyarmati’s thesis is that the Rákosi regime failed not because of the natural aversion of society and its passive resistance against totalitarianism but because “those who were in charge of the regime couldn’t make the regime work.”  Changes were introduced at a rapid pace to which neither society nor the economy could adjust. Rákosi believed that the Moscow inspired changes couldn’t be accompanied by similarly rapid changes in the economic and social sphere. It was the regime’s “voluntarism that destined Rákosi to fail twice.” First in 1952-53 when he was forced to relinquish some of his posts and a new “gentler” transformation of society and the economy was introduced and then in 1956 when a full-fledged revolution broke out against his rule.

What made the Soviet imposed changes especially difficult in Hungary–and even more so in Czechoslovakia and East Germany–was that in comparison to Soviet Russia these countries had already experienced a capitalist development before and had a more sizable middle class than Russia had in 1917 or even later. Thus, more developed societies were forced to adapt to a regime originally introduced in a less developed state.

So, one could ask, what is it here that reminded me of the present situation? First, the rapid and unpredictable changes introduced by Mátyás Rákosi’s regime. Somewhat similarly to the Muscovites of 1946-48 Orbán and his enablers have been waiting for a long time to put their ideas into practice and therefore they feel that everything must change as soon as possible. Their revolutionary zeal is akin to that of the Hungarian communists who returned home from Moscow or who joined the illegal communist party during the interwar years. It is clear from the practices of the Orbán government in the last three years that the time between 2002 and 2010 was spent drawing a road map of action to introduce a “revolutionary change.” Admittedly, not all the details were worked out ahead of time, but the final goal was certainly outlined.

We often speak of Viktor Orbán’s “voluntarism,” which is a doctrine that views the will as the driving force of both the individual and the universe. Indeed, Orbán operates on this principle: he has a goal and to reach it is merely a question of will regardless of any outside forces.

But, as the Rákosi regime’s fate illustrates, society and its accompanying economy are simply not flexible enough to be bent by Viktor Orbán’s will. Moreover, the regime Viktor Orbán wants to introduce would be a step backward for a society that bears no resemblance to the one to which Orbán and his fellow politicians want to return: the Horthy regime. Because, let’s not kid ourselves, Orbán’s goal is to develop a political system in Hungary that greatly resembles the pseudo-democracy of  that era. And this would be a step backward just like the Soviet-imposed dictatorship on countries that were more developed than Russia was at the time of the Bolshevik takeover.

Recently I also read a number of articles on Kunó Klebelsberg, minister of education in the 1920s and the idol of the Orbán regime. Klebelsberg is pictured as the founder of progressive education who symbolized the best of Hungarian conservatism. Klebelsberg certainly was right that after the lost war Hungary’s route to success was not through military might but through educational attainment. And since in the 1920s Hungary was forbidden to maintain a large army, Klebelsberg’s ministry received a sizable portion of the budget.

Looking back, but not moving forward

Looking back, but not moving forward

Klebelsberg’s ideas are, however, no longer applicable in today’s world. Klebelsberg was an elitist whose aim was to offer educational opportunities to the Christian middle classes. The emphasis was on “Christian,” and by “middle class” he more or less understood the sons of civil servants. He was a nationalist who at one point even entertained moving Hungarian speaking citizens to dilute the large pockets of Slovaks, Romanians, and Serbs. Klebelsberg also shared the antisemitism of his contemporaries and, although he knew that the numerus clausus that restricted university enrollment of Jewish students was unconstitutional and unfair, he defended it by claiming that the law was “misunderstood” by foreigners. Sounds familiar,  doesn’t it? How often we hear nowadays that this or that law is misunderstood, wrongly translated, purposely misinterpreted by the outside world. How often the government spokesmen blame the liberals for anti-patriotic acts. Oh, yes, the liberals! Klebelsberg hated the liberals. He was certain liberalism opened the door to left-wing radicalism and from there the revolution was only a few steps away.

So, turning to Klebelsberg for inspiration on designing public education in the 21st century seems not only a retrograde step but completely inappropriate to the needs of a modern society. The kind of elitist educational philosophy Klebelsberg adhered to is no longer applicable today. Yet, an incredible number of Hungarian educators would like to return to an elitist higher educational system when a very small percentage of the adult population entered college or university. Certainly, there is a need for reform of education in Hungary, but naming that “reform'”after a man who formulated his educational ideas around the turn of the twentieth century is not exactly forward looking.

But I think there is a silver lining in Fidesz’s mad search for right-wing antecedents. It will most likely fail for the same reason that Mátyás Rákosi failed in the 1950s. What Orbán is building is a retrograde system foisted on a modern society. Such a regime cannot be maintained for long.