Guardian of tradition

Admittedly, I have not been living in Hungary for half a century and therefore it is not surprising that I am not really familiar with the Hungarian word "hagyományőrző" (guardian of tradition). Of course, I know what it means. Kind of. I know the strict meaning of the word, but it took me a little while to find out–thanks to the internet it is not a terribly difficult task anymore–in what context this word is used nowadays. I wanted to know "the modern history" of the word. I began by going through the archives of several daily newpapers. The early instances were related to folk dance groups or the military, occasionally to the cultivation of ethnic customs. But as time went on, the word began to be associated more and more with nationalistic traditions of dubious authenticity. These "traditionist" groups show a bizarre fascination with the earliest Hungarian past, times of the pagan era. They dress in what they imagine to be authentic garbs of the ninth and tenth centuries, use a bow and arrow, and imitate the fighting methods of the marauding Hungarians who ravaged western Europe from time to time until Otto I, Duke of Saxony, beat the heck out of them near Augsburg in 955. Some of these strangely dressed characters can be seen in demonstrations organized by the far right.

Fortunately these nationalistic traditionists are not too numerous. Kind of lunatic fringe, one could say. But, at the same time, it is worrisome that one can find more and more civic organizations whose name contains the word "hagyományőrző." Moreover, a recent event further widened the notion of "tradition" which is worth "preserving." In a Catholic high school in Budakeszi, near Budapest, a history teacher who also served as vice principal was a "guardian of tradition." He posed in an SS uniform at an outing with his students; earlier he wrote an enthusiastic history of a Hungarian SS division which also included a CD of SS fighting songs. One of the Hungarian daily papers, the Social Democratic Népszava, got wind of this juicy story. The newspaper reporter interviewed the principal who found absolutely nothing wrong with his teacher’s activities: the teacher was "a guardian of tradition." But what tradition, for Pete’s sake, asked the reporter. Well, "tradition." Perfectly all right! Well, the Catholic school board didn’t agree with the principal and four days later the teacher was removed from his position as vice principal and a day later he resigned as a teacher of history.

All’s well that ends well, but there must a terrible confusion in certain heads about the past, about tradition, about Hitler, about the war, about the holocaust. And what is especially worrisome is that this happened in a school and that the teacher was teaching history. What kind of history could he possibly teach the children? A troubling question, especially if one has the suspicion that this is just the tip of the iceberg.

This brings me one of my favorite writers, the essayist, poet, and novelist András Nyerges whose most recent book (an account of his family’s plight during 1944-45) I am currently reading. I also love his short pieces which appear weekly–initially in Magyar Hírlap and later, when Magyar Hírlap was transformed by a new owner into a right-wing paper, in Élet és Irodalom and Népszava. Nyerges has a fantastic knowledge of Hungarian journalism and politics between the two world wars. When something like this history teacher’s case comes up, Nyerges can immediately recount those times when Nazi propaganda managed to spread in schools. In his latest piece he recalls that a certain Ime Györki, a social democratic member of parliament, complained on May 20, 1938 that "Nazi propaganda is invading the schools. Arrow Cross Party [the Hungarian Nazi party] propagandists–in front of the teachers, often with their assistance–recruit students into different right-wing organizations." The fretting member of parliament was practically laughed out of the House. Danger? Nazi danger? In schools? OK, I’m not worried about a Nazi takeover in Hungary, but I find the general right-wing propaganda in schools, especially parochial schools, troubling.