Mária Vásárhelyi

Mária Vásárhelyi on the “media octopus” in Hungary

Yesterday I talked about the state of the Hungarian media. In today’s Galamus, Zsófia Mihancsik, who is a very good journalist, suggested to her colleagues that it would be a good idea if they learned to read. But, as some of you suggested, the slanted reporting on certain “sensitive” topics might be the result not so much of careless reading or writing but of a willful distortion of the facts. This is definitely true about media under the direct or indirect control of the governing party.

So, I think it’s time to look around a little in the world of the Hungarian media. Here I’m relying heavily on Mária Vásárhelyi’s essay “The Workings of the Media Octopus–Brain and Money Laundering” that appeared in the Bálint Magyar-edited volume, The Hungarian Octopus.

According to Vásárhelyi, Viktor Orbán’s psyche was crushed in 1994 when he  managed to lead his party with a 40% chance of winning the election into almost total ruin with 7.7% of the votes. Before that fiasco Orbán was the darling of the press, but subsequently he became the pariah of the then still mostly liberal Hungarian media. He decided right then and there that the goal is not to be liked by the existing media; rather, a smart politician should strive for a loyal media he can easily influence. In Vásárhelyi’s estimate Fidesz had the lion’s share of responsibility for the 1996 media law that turned out to be neither liberal nor democratic.

Once Fidesz won the election in 1998 Viktor Orbán made a concerted effort to build a media empire with the use of private and public money. Billions of public money were spent on establishing Heti Válasz and on the “rescue” of the heavily indebted Magyar Nemzet. And right-wing oligarchs like Gábor Széles, Tamás Vitézy (Orbán’s uncle by marriage), Zoltán Spéder, István Töröcskei, and Lajos Simicska put large sums of their own money into media outlets that were anything but profitable. They were hopeful that their investments would serve them well one day when Viktor Orbán again returned to power.

Between 2002 and 2010 the preponderance of media outlets shifted to the right. Moreover, by 2008 the liberal media’s financial situation was dire. Companies strapped for funds cut their advertising budgets, and the liberal media outlets had no rich oligarchs who could ensure their continued existence during the hard times. Since 2010 the lopsidedness between right and left in the field of media has only become worse. According to Mária Vásárhelyi, “only those messages which the government party wants to deliver reach 80% of the country’s population.”


Studying the changes in the political orientation of radio stations is perhaps the most fruitful and most telling because it is here that the Media Council, made up entirely of Fidesz appointees, can directly influence the media. It is in charge of allocating radio frequencies. As the result, in the last five years the radio market became unrecognizable. Every time existing radio stations had to reapply for frequencies, the frequencies were given to someone else. The new stations were owned by companies or non-profits preferred by the government party, and in consequence government advertisements immediately poured in. Between 2010 and 2012 some 50 local and regional radio frequencies changed hands. Of these Mária Rádió (Catholic Church) got seven frequencies all over the country and Lánchíd Rádió (also close to the Catholic Church) got five. Európa Rádió, which is close to the Calvinist Church, by now can broadcast on three frequencies. Magyar Katolikus Rádió has two local and two regional frequencies. All these stations are considered to be non-profit and therefore they don’t pay for the use of the frequencies.

Zsolt Nyerges has built a veritable media empire: he is behind “the three most valuable radio frequencies in the country.” During the same time the liberal stations have been disappearing one by one. Radio Café, very popular among Budapest liberals, lost its frequency in 2011. So did another popular liberal station called Radio1. Of course, Klubrádió is the best known victim of Viktor Orbán’s ruthless suppression of media freedom. Klubrádió began broadcasting in 2001 and could be heard in a radius of 70-80 km around Budapest. By 2007 the station had acquired eleven frequencies and could be heard in and around 11 cities. Soon enough Klubrádió was the second most popular radio station in Budapest. Today, Klubrádió after years of litigation moved over to a free but weaker frequency that it already had won before the change of government in 2010. Out of its 11 provincial stations there is only one left, in Debrecen, and we can be pretty sure that as soon as its contract expires Klubrádió will no longer be able to broadcast there either.

As for the public radio and television stations, let’s just call them what they are: state radio and television stations as they were during socialist times. But then at least the communist leaders of Hungary didn’t pretend that these media outlets were in any way independent: the institution was called Hungarian State Television and Radio. They were at least honest. The only difference was that in those days state television and radio aired excellent programs, especially high quality theatrical productions and mini-series, all produced in-house. Now I understand the programming is terrible and only about 10% of the population even bothers to watch MTV, and most likely even fewer watch Duna TV. Their news is government propaganda: on MTV more than 70% of the news is about government politicians and the situation is even worse at Magyar Rádió.

These state radios and television stations have a budget of over 70 billion forints, a good portion of which ends up in the hands of Lajos Simicska. How? MTV and Duna TV no longer produce shows in-house but hire outside production companies. Thus, public money is being systematically siphoned through MTV and Duna TV to Fidesz oligarchs. The programs are usually of very low quality and complete flops.

Most Hungarians watch one of the two commercial stations: RTL Klub and TV2. Both are foreign owned but as Orbán said not long ago, “this will not be so for long.” And indeed, a couple of weeks ago TV2 was sold, allegedly to the director of the company. Surely, he is only a front man. An MSZP politician has been trying to find out who the real owner is. Everybody suspects the men behind the deal are Lajos Simicska and Zsolt Nyerges.

And finally, the print media is also dying, which is not surprising given the worldwide trend. But right-wing papers are doing a great deal better than liberal and socialist ones for the simple reason that public money is being funneled into them through advertisements by the government and by state-owned companies. Even free newspapers are being brought into the right-wing fold. There was a very popular free paper called Metro owned by a Swedish company. But Orbán obviously wasn’t satisfied with its content. So, the government severely limited the locations where Metro could be stacked up, free for the taking. Thus squeezed, the Swedish owner decided to sell. And who bought it? A certain Károly Fonyó, who is a business partner of Lajos Simicska. The paper is now called Metropol and, in case you’re wondering, is doing quite well financially.

Napi Gazdaság was sold to Századvég, the think tank that was established by László Kövér and Viktor Orbán when they were still students. As I mentioned earlier, Népszabadság was sold recently to somebody who might be a front man for Tamás Fellegi, former minister of national development who had financial interests in the world of the media before he embarked on a political career. The paper was owned by Ringier, a Swiss company that wanted to merge with the German Axel Springer, which owns a large number of provincial papers in Hungary. Although in many European countries the merger was approved with no strings attached, the Hungarian government set up an obstacle to the merger. The merger could be approved only if Ringier first sells its stake in Népszabadság.

Fidesz hasn’t been so active online. Most of the online newspapers are relatively independent. What keeps the party away from the Internet? Vásárhelyi suspects that it is too free a medium and that it doesn’t comport with Fidesz’s ideas of control. Surely, they don’t want to risk being attacked by hundreds and hundreds of commenters. Index, howeveris owned by Zoltán Spéder, a billionaire with Fidesz sympathies. After 2006 it was Index that led the attack on Ferenc Gyurcsány and the government. Vásárhelyi predicts that Index will turn openly right sometime before the election.

The scene is depressing. There is no way to turn things around without the departure of this government. And even then it will require very strong resolve on the part of the new government to stop the flow of public money to Fidesz media oligarchs. The task seems enormous to me.

Mária Vásárhelyi: An open letter to Mrs. Annette Lantos

vasarhelyi mariaMária Vásárhelyi is a sociologist whose main interest is the state of the media. She is the daughter of Miklós Vásárhelyi (1917-2001) who served as the press secretary of the second Imre Nagy government. As a result he and his family, including the three-year-old Mária, were deported together with Imre Nagy and his family to Snagov, Romania. Miklós Vásárhelyi received a five-year sentence for his activities during the 1956 Revolution. I should add that Mária Vásárhelyi is one of my favorite publicists in Hungary.

* * *

Dear Mrs. Lantos,

Although we have not met personally, your late husband and my late father, Miklós Vásárhelyi, used to hold each other in high esteem; therefore I take the liberty to write this letter to you.

The tie between your husband and my father was not only based on common historical experience and mutual personal sympathy; they also shared some values that were manifest in moral and political issues that both of them found crucially important. And both of them bravely took a stance whenever they saw those values endangered. Among these principles the idea of freedom was of primary importance, as well as the representation of human rights, or responsibility for the situation of the minorities and the oppressed. Both fought in the Hungarian armed resistance against the fascist occupation; they worked to bring down the state socialist dictatorship; they stood up for the rights of Hungarian communities beyond the borders; and also spoke out after the democratic transformation, when racist and anti-Semitic views came to the fore on the political scene.

As far as I remember, among Hungarians living abroad, your husband was the first to protest when István Csurka’s anti-Semitic pamphlet “Some Thoughts” was published. He also raised his voice in 2007 when the Slovak Parliament reaffirmed the infamous Beneš Decrees. Your husband was most determined in his condemnation of the establishment of the Hungarian Guard, an anti-Roma and anti-Semitic organization, whose purpose was to intimidate and publicly humiliate the minorities in Hungary. To my knowledge, when he last met Viktor Orbán he made a point of expressing his dismay about how several politicians from Fidesz gave support to the foundation and activities of the Hungarian Guard, with Fidesz as a party not distancing itself unambiguously from that paramilitary organization.

The deep, principled understanding and mutual appreciation between your husband and my father was testified to by the speech Tom Lantos made in the House of Representatives on October 6, 2005, in which he emphasized my father’s “significant contribution to the cause of freedom and democracy,” as someone “who played a critically important role before and during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, and again in the 1970s and 1980s, in the struggle to transform Hungary from a one-party communist state into a multi-party democracy.”

In the light of these facts I am certain you will understand why I find it so important to write to you about the House of Fates, on whose International Consultative Board you were invited to be a member. I am convinced that this institution, rather than serving its officially proclaimed aim of keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive and drawing the public’s attention to the tragedy of child victims, would serve the falsification of history, the politically motivated expropriation of historical memory, and purposes of party propaganda. The policies of the Orbán administration during the past few years, and its ambivalent (to put it mildly) relations with the extreme right; its policy of ignoring the growth of anti-Semitism in Hungary; as well as all that we know about the project so far – its contents, the circumstances of its establishment, the name itself, the location selected and the deadline chosen for its construction, the person in charge, the choice of the trustees – tend to suggest that the real purpose of the new European Educational Center is to downplay whatever responsibility Hungary had for the Holocaust and to mend the damaged international reputation of the current right-wing government.

During the past few years there have been more and more acts of desecration of Jewish symbols, prayer houses, cemeteries, and attacks on individuals whom the attackers took to be Jewish. A series of international and Hungarian sociological surveys give evidence of an extraordinary growth of anti-Semitism within Hungarian society; at least one fourth of the population openly declares it has anti-Semitic views, and many more people are simply prejudiced against the Jews. Everyday anti-Semitic discourse (zsidózás) is quite common in the streets and other public spaces. The same surveys make it clear that while the economic crisis played a role in the increased number of these occurrences, its effect has been boosted in the right-wing and extreme-right political context. Meanwhile, according to comparative research conducted in nine EU member states, it is Hungary where people of Jewish descent feel the most threatened. In 2012, 91% of the members of the Hungarian Jewish community said anti-Semitism had recently worsened to a smaller or larger degree; it is the largest portion among the countries surveyed. During five years, the number of those who consider anti-Semitism a serious social problem has nearly doubled. I am, of course, aware of the fact that anti-Semitism has become more widespread in most European countries, but it is still revealing that while only 11% of the Jewish community in the United Kingdom thinks of anti-Semitism as “a very big problem,” in Hungary 49% hold this view. In the UK 18% of those identifying themselves as Jews have contemplated emigration because of “not feeling safe as Jews”, while in Hungary this ratio is 48%.

I also believe that Viktor Orbán and his party are heavily responsible for the growth of anti-Semitism in Hungary. The Hungarian government’s reputation is rapidly worsening in the eyes of the democratic world, and this is largely due to their particular responses to ever-growing racism and anti-Semitism as well as some of their decisions concerning personal appointments and cultural policy, which gave fuel to such vicious emotions. Falsification of Hungary’s history, whitewashing the crimes of the Horthy era, elevating well-known anti-Semites (public figures, politicians, writers) to the national pantheon, while throwing mud at brave and honest left-wing and liberal patriots, are all features of the current government’s cultural and heritage policies. Parts of the media, which this government supports morally or financially (in direct and indirect ways), are full of overt and covert racist or anti-Semitic statements. Several of the figureheads of the pro-government press openly incite hatred against homosexuals, Jews, and the Roma. In the first rows of the so-called “Peace Marches,” demonstrations organized to prove that there is mass support behind Fidesz’s policies, there are well-known anti-Semites. One of the leaders of the quasi-NGO responsible for these marches used to be a founder and intellectual leader of the Hungarian Guard; another one, an emblematic figure in Fidesz, is a journalist whose work can be legally criticized as anti-Semitic, according to a court ruling. Still another leading figure of the Fidesz-related media can justly be called the father of Holocaust relativization in Hungary.

The government uses doublespeak. On the one hand, the deputy prime minister at the conference of the Tom Lantos Institute, Hungary’s ambassador at the United Nations, or, most recently, the President of the Republic, have used words of humanism and solidarity commemorating the victims of the Holocaust and admitting in unambiguous language that the Hungarian state and public administration bore responsibility for the murder of 600,000 of our Jewish compatriots. On the other hand, the government itself and government institutions have made countless gestures to the far right, relativizing the Holocaust, and denying that the Hungarian state apparatus was responsible to any degree.

This intention of downplaying Hungarian responsibility for the Holocaust is most apparent in the preamble of the Fundamental Law (Constitution), promulgated in 2011 under the Fidesz government, which states, “our country’s self-determination [was] lost on the nineteenth day of March 1944”. Which means that Germany as the occupying power must bear full responsibility for the deportation and wholesale murder of Hungarian Jewry. Apart from the fact that it was not an occupation in the international legal sense (the German armed forces did not occupy any Hungarian territories against the will of the Hungarian government), plenty of historical evidence and the testimonies of the survivors prove that the Hungarian authorities’ zeal and effectiveness in organizing the deportations shocked even the Germans, including high-level SS officers, while a significant part of the population watched the deportation of their fellow citizens with utmost indifference. The narrative that the government suggests through the text of the Fundamental Law is, therefore, an utter lie. Similarly, the planned 70th anniversary commemorations of the Holocaust are marked by an intention of falsification and lies – including the establishment of The House of Fates European Educational Center.

The name House of Fates is evidently an allusion to Nobel laureate Imre Kertész’s novel Fatelessness, but its message is quite the opposite. It suggests that being murdered in a concentration camp was the fate of those children, but, although they lived through it, the fate was not theirs. As Kertész writes, “if there is such a thing as fate, then freedom is not possible (…) if there is such a thing as freedom, then there is no fate (…) That is to say, then we ourselves are fate.” (English translation by Tim Wilkinson) This is how the main protagonist of the novel, Gyurka Köves, formulates the key to his own story, when he realizes that whatever happened to him was not his own fate, although he himself lived through it. The name House of Fates is not just a play on words but a complete misinterpretation of the essence of the Holocaust. And not just the name but also the site is a telling sign of the intellectual emptiness behind the lofty and bombastic use of the Holocaust as a political instrument. Holocaust researchers and survivors all agree that the Józsefváros Railway Station is not a symbolic site of deportation, and no children were taken from there to Auschwitz. The historian in charge of the project’s concept – who once happened to call the Horthy régime, which presided over the Hungarian Jews’ total deprivation of rights and exclusion, “a democracy until 1938” – is not a Holocaust expert. During the past 25 years, she has not produced any publications of scholarly merit on this subject but was at the center of quite a few scandals.

The plans that have been leaked out indicate that the central message of the Educational Center would not be the tragedy of innocent children but the rescuers, those brave and honorable citizens who put their lives at risk in their efforts to help and save their persecuted compatriots. Naturally, there should be monuments commemorating their bravery and sacrifice, but why must the plight of many thousands of murdered children be used for that purpose? This is the dishonest betrayal and political utilization of the child victims’ memory.

Dear Annette Lantos, living thousands of kilometers away from Hungary you may not be aware of all this. That is why I felt it was my duty to inform you of these issues and draw your attention to some aspects of the cause in support of which your late husband’s memory and your own name are being used. I ask you to reconsider whether you want to participate in the Consultative Board’s proceedings.

Respectfully yours,

Mária Vásárhely

Mária Vásárhelyi: The Renaissance of Homo Kádáricus

Today I will summarize an article by sociologist Mária Vásárhelyi that appeared a couple of days ago in Élet és Irodalom. The article is another attempt at defining the political order that has developed in Hungary in the last three and a half years.

There are at least three good reasons for making the gist of the article available on Hungarian Spectrum. First, because relatively few people can read it in the original. Second, because even those who can handle Hungarian might not be able to peruse it because ÉS is nowadays available only to subscribers. And third, because I hold Mária Vásárhelyi’s work in high regard. The media is the focus of her research, but in this article she talks about the pervasive influence of János Kádár’s regime. We must keep in mind that the Kádár era lasted more than a generation, to be precise 33 years.

She is the daughter of Miklós Vásárhelyi, a close associate of Imre Nagy who became the spokesman of the second Nagy government on November 1, 1956. When the Soviet troops began their offensive against the rebels on November 4, Vásárhelyi and his family, including his children, joined Imre Nagy and others in the Yugoslav Embassy and after November 23 in Romania. Eventually Vásárhelyi was sentenced to five years in jail.

So, Mária Vásárhelyi’s democratic credentials cannot be questioned. One can’t argue that she or her family was in any way associated with the Kádár regime and that thus she tries to minimize its responsibilities. I heard an interview with her some years back in which she described what it was like to be the daughter of “that Vásárhelyi.”

The article’s title is “The Renaissance of Homo Kadaricus.” It is thus clear from the beginning that Vásárhelyi seeks the roots of the present political system in the Kádár era. She begins on an optimistic note. She is sure that Orbán’s system will collapse because “it is not viable economically, in social terms it is terribly unjust and morally depraved.”

Many analysts have tried to describe and explain the phenomenon of Orbanism. How it was possible that within three short years Orbán and his minions managed to undo the democratic achievements of the regime change that occurred between 1989 and 2010. Explanations naturally vary: the lack of a democratic tradition, centuries of foreign domination, or the lack of a robust middle class. Others argue that in Hungary right-wing influences, especially strong during the Horthy regime, made such an impression on the Hungarian psyche that a large, if not predominant, portion of Hungarian society sympathizes with the authoritarian regime of Viktor Orbán.

Mária Vásárhelyi, without doubting that all of these influences are important, sees “the largest role in Orbán’s successes in the reminiscences of the Kádár era and the anomalies of the regime change.”

Those who have studied the Kádár regime or who experienced it first hand know that on the surface the period between 1963 and 1985 was considered by many to be the golden age of Hungary’s twentieth-century history. Most people were totally satisfied with their lot and expected that every year they and their families would live better. There was a kind of unspoken arrangement by which the people didn’t poke their noses into politics and, in exchange, the party and the government made sure that their material yearnings would be more or less satisfied. Most people had no idea about the serious economic problems that existed already in the 1980s and, even if they did know about them, they didn’t think it was their business to get involved in any way. János Kádár and the others would take care of everything.

The overwhelming concern of most people was material, to which all else was subordinated: morals, compassion, democracy, freedom, human intercourse. They had little sympathy for the practically starving Poles or the oppressed Hungarians in Ceaușescu’s Romania. If they heard about the democratic opposition’s activities, they condemned them because, in their opinion, “they endangered the peace and order of Hungary” or because “they served the interests of the Great Powers.” Today’s Hungarians are to a great extent the products of this age and outlook.

Kadar 1959

János Kádár among his own, 1959

Vásárhelyi thinks that the Orbán regime’s Horthy cult is only an “eyewash” to keep those right-wingers whose vote is necessary to remain in power. Vásárhelyi is convinced that for the great majority of Hungarians the Horthy era means nothing. Some of them can’t even place it in time. Orbán’s real popularity lies in his success at being able to speak the language of the Everyman of the Kádár regime and his appeal to the selfishness of the middle classes that dread their loss of standing. Even “the nationalist rhetoric is no more than the mortar that helps to activate and organize these attitudes into a whole.”

I find Mária Vásárhelyi’s argument compelling–another piece of the puzzle that is the Orbán government.

Public opinion research in the Kádár regime

While Viktor Orbán is showing his compassionate side to the participants of the World Jewish Congress in Budapest I’m moving back for a day to the Kádár regime and its anomalies. One of the oddities not normally associated with one-party dictatorships was a center where sociologists studied public opinion. The work they produced wasn’t made public. Some of it was done at the behest of Magyar Rádió and Television (audience preferences). Other studies were commissioned by the Agitation and Propaganda Department (Agit-Prop) of MSZMP.

The Mass Communication Research Center (Tömegkommunkációs Kutatóközpont) was established in 1969 under the aegis of the Hungarian Radio. They wanted to know what the Hungarian public wanted. Considering that radio and television were a vital part of the everyday life of Hungarians in those days, it was essential that the authorities produce programs that met demands. Eventually, however, the competence of the research center was widened when the party realized that it might be to the advantage of the leadership to have a sense of the mood of the country. However, according to Mária Vásárhelyi, who is largely responsible for the fact that the material the Center produced didn’t perish, the people who worked in the Agit-Prop Department didn’t realize either the work’s value or its possible dangers. She has the feeling that few people ever bothered to look at the highly technical studies the Center produced.

The Center was closed in 1991 and part of its material eventually ended up in the Open Society Archives attached to the Central European University founded by financier George Soros. Currently 500 sociological studies and public opinion polls from the 1969-1991 period are available for study.



The first question we must ask is whether one can take subject responses at all seriously; after all, Hungarians were living in a dictatorship and might not have been forthcoming. Sociologists who either worked there or who are familiar with the sociological methods used then claim that the results can be considered scientifically sound. Surely, there were taboo topics, like the Soviet troops in Hungary, multi-party political systems, and the nature of dictatorship, but the sociologists simply avoided such questions until the second half of the 1980s. At that point they even inquired about a possible political change in Hungary. By 1989, 70% of the population considered the rule of Mátyás Rákosi deleterious for Hungary while only 40% thought the same about the Horthy regime.

Here are a few interesting findings. First, as to Hungarians’ self-image. It is known that most ethnic groups have a favorable opinion of themselves. But, given all the talk about Hungarian pessimism, it might come as a surprise that “there was no sign of pessimism anywhere” in the 1970s. When asked to describe Hungarians they answered in positive terms: jovial people who like to drink and eat; they like parties; they are friendly and hospitable. They also like to work and are diligent. The respondents admitted that Hungarians tend to be jealous of one another and that they are selfish. The overwhelming majority of them didn’t want anything to do with politics.

In 1971 91% of those questioned were proud of being Hungarian. What were they proud of? That Hungary became a “beautiful industrial country from a formerly agrarian one.” That Hungary can boast “a world famous cuisine, musicians, and animal husbandry.” “Because no other country has such a beautiful history.” “We struggled for centuries until we reached this height. We even have a role in world politics.”

What were they not proud of? Hungary’s role in World War II (32%), the human failings of Hungarians (21%), those who left Hungary illegally (15%), 1956 (11.5%), the reactionary regimes of the past (8.1%), the mistakes after the liberation (7.5%), and finally, the territorial losses (5.0%).

It is somewhat surprising that the MSZMP’s Agit-Prop Department was interested in people’s views of Trianon. The question had to be formulated very carefully. Eventually it read: “The defeat suffered at the end of World War I in its way ended the crisis that pried open the framework of the multinational Hungarian state. Do you know about the Peace of Trianon and if yes what do you see as its cause?” It turned out that 61% of the adult population didn’t know what the Peace of Trianon was all about. Mind you, 44% of them didn’t know what the Warsaw Pact was while 21% had wrong information about it; 40% had no idea about the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance or Comecon either. 64% didn’t know what the words “nationalist/nationalism” were all about and 76% didn’t know the meaning of antisemitism. Oh, those were the days!

It is not true, despite Fidesz propaganda to the contrary, that during the Kádár period people didn’t even know that there were Hungarians living in the neighboring countries. An overwhelming majority did know. However, they didn’t consider them to be part of the nation. Many, especially people in their twenties, felt no kinship with them.

By 1985 the research center cut its ties to Magyar Rádió and changed its name to Magyar Közvéleménykutató Intézet (Hungarian Public Opinion Institute). Why did the Antall government decide to close it in 1991 and disperse its archives? According to Mária Vásárhelyi, there were at least two reasons. One was that the Antall government (1990-1993) was rapidly losing popularity and the Institute’s results reflected this uncomfortable political reality. The government might also have thought that its researchers were just a bunch of communists whose findings were influenced by their political views. In fact, if anything, the opposite was true. Because these people were in the forefront of sociological research, which itself was a taboo discipline in the socialist countries, most of them were close to the opposition forces of the late Kádár regime. The second reason was practical. The Institute occupied a very valuable building in downtown Pest which the state sold to a German bank. It was at this point that Mária Vásárhelyi rushed to Domokos Kosáry, president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, who being a historian immediately realized the value of the material gathered by the sociologists between 1969 and 1991. He was the one who rescued the material which otherwise would (at best) have ended up in a cellar.

By now all the material is digitized and researchers can study the dominant opinions of Hungarians during the last two decades of the Kádár regime. Historians claim that it is an invaluable collection that will help us understand not only the Kádár period but, perhaps even more, the present.

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.