Hungarians and their attitude toward their own history

In an interview with Pécsi Stop, an Internet newspaper, Krisztián Ungváry said something in passing about the interconnection between history and politics. He brought up the example of the Rákóczi Rebellion (1703–1711). For the most part the interpretation of this failed war of independence is of no great interest to ordinary citizens. Yet when we hear the words “kuruc” and “labanc,” the contemporary descriptions of the patriots as opposed to those who stood by Vienna, history enters the vocabulary of everyday politics.

I talked about the “kurucok” who fought the “labancok” in an article entitled “A distorted past haunts Hungarians.” These two words are bandied about in Hungary practically daily. There is the notorious neo-Nazi Internet site that calls itself “kuruc.info.” Surely, the editors are convinced that they stand for true Hungarian values and for patriotism. Even the Hungarian prime minister turns to the kuruc/labanc comparison. In his formulation, his government stands on the side of the nation and thus conducts a kuruc foreign policy while he calls his political opponents traitors, “labancok.”

I recently read a book that was written six years ago, but the data Mária Vásárhelyi, a sociologist, gathered over the years and presented in this book about Hungarians’ views on their own history is still timely. The book is entitled Csalóka emlékezet (Deceptive memory). The overarching feeling of Hungarians toward their history is that it has been a continuous story of victimization of the country by others. Over the centuries Hungary was often abandoned by the great powers, and the country’s failures are mostly due to outside forces. Past greatness is exaggerated and Hungary’s weight on the world stage overemphasized.  For example, according to one poll 58% of adult Hungarians are certain that “without Hungary there is no Europe” and about 50% think that “Europe ought to be grateful to Hungary.” An overwhelming majority are convinced that during the past century Europe let Hungary down time and time again.

Very few Hungarians doubt that Hungary has always been part of Europe, and by Europe they understand Western Europe. But we know from research done by Jenő Szűcs in the 1970s and 1980s that even early Hungarian development was different from the western type. The region has features that separate it from the regions both to its west and to its east.

This is also the conclusion Thomas Schmid of Die Welt came to by looking at the Hungary of today. In an opinion piece entitled “Unsere traurige Ahnungslosigkeit von Europa” he points out that Western Europeans don’t know much about the countries of Eastern Europe. As for Hungary, he talks about the resentments of Hungarians, “resentments that spring from [former] traumas,” including Trianon. Although “we should not accept these resentments … we must understand that they are there.” And they will be there for a long time. “Europe is not united,” he warns.

Distorted Viewby Cathlon / Flickr

Distorted View by Cathlon / Flickr

So, while Western Europeans sense that East or Central Europe is different because of the region’s historical development, Hungarians themselves seem to be blissfully ignorant of this fact. 95% of the adult population look upon Hungary as the very center of Europe; the proof is the map of the continent.

Considering that so many people have definite opinions about the course of Hungarian history, it is amazing how little they know about the most often talked about topics like Trianon or the Horthy regime. Only 29% of those asked could identify the year that the Treaty of Trianon was signed; 42% couldn’t even guess. When it came to the Horthy period, only 11% could remember the dates of the beginning and the end of Miklós Horthy’s governorship.

But let’s return to the territories lost as a result of the Treaty of Trianon. Sociologists asked which cities that belong to the successor states have a Hungarian majority. The answers identified twenty-four such cities, but in fact there is only one where there is a slight Hungarian majority and that is Marosvásárhely/ Târgu Mureș (52.4%). The two most often mentioned cities were Kassa/Košice and Kolozsvár/Cluj when actually in Kassa the size of the Hungarian speaking population is only 12.6% and in Kolozsvár 22.8%. Irredentist impulses are aided by politicians, starting with József Antall who kept talking about 15 million Hungarians in the Carpathian Basin; this number by now is firmly planted in the minds of the population. Naturally, few people would bother to look at the recent census numbers to realize that this number is no longer accurate.

As for Hungary’s participation in World War II, three major interpretations are currently in circulation. The first, supported by 47% of the population, blames Hungary’s allies for dragging [belesodorták] her into the conflict. This theory is held by the more conservative elements. The second opinion holds that Hungary was an ally of Nazi Germany and thus entered the war on its own volition. This second interpretation is favored by the more liberal people. Only 8% of the population think that Hungary entered the war in order to ensure the possession of territories regained as a result of German and Italian arbitration.

One final observation based on data presented by Vásárhelyi about acceptance of the regime change in 1989-1990. There is general dissatisfaction with the way Hungary handled the political change. Close to 40% of the people don’t think there was real change either because the former elite kept power in its own hands or because the communists were not excluded from future participation in political life. But what is more frightening is that 53% of those asked are convinced that “Hungary today still serves the interests of foreign powers,” 55% think that “Hungarian interests still don’t come into full play in Hungary,” and 59% believe that “real regime change will take place in Hungary only when all that belongs to Hungarians is in Hungarian hands.” Finally, 39% percent believe that “”those who live in Hungary but who are not considered Hungarians have too great an economic and political influence.” Only 38% believe that this is untrue while 23% have no opinion. I assume I don’t have to elaborate on the meaning of this finding.

So, Viktor Orbán knows what he is doing. He is appealing to the worst instincts of Hungarians that stem from their distorted view of Hungary’s past and present. Hungary, the victim, wants to turn inward because today just as in the past foreigners take advantage of Hungarians. These foreign elements must be fought off to ensure that Hungarian interests are protected. Orbán pretty well follows this course. The results, alas, amply prove that this distorted Hungarian view leads straight to economic and social disaster.