August 20: the official Hungarian national holiday

There are three national holidays in Hungary, but August 20 is the "highest of the highest." At least since the spring of 1990, when the newly elected parliament settled the issue. The choice was between August 20, the name day of Saint Stephen, and March 15, which commemorates the 1848-49 revolution and the war of independence. The former symbolizes Hungarian statehood, the beginning of the nation, while the latter is considered to be the launch of the modern era and parliamentary democracy. The third holiday, not in contention for top billing, is a new one: October 23, the start of those "thirteen days that shook the world" in 1956.

The government that was formed in the spring of 1990 under the premiership of József Antall was a coalition of right of center parties, and they had a majority in parliament. It was the government party who championed for August 20, while the liberals (the SZDSZ) and the socialists (MSZP) preferred March 15th. A similar division between right and left was evident when it came to the question of what should be the official coat of arms. The right thought it should be the old coat of arms, used before 1945, that was capped by the crown of St. Stephen. The left opted for the so-called Kossuth coat of arms, which didn’t picture the crown. The SZDSZ and the MSZP argued, I think rightly, that Hungary is a republic and not a kingdom, so the crown should not be part of the coat of arms. But they didn’t have the majority in parliament and hence they lost. March 15th lost out, and the coat of arms has the crown of St. Stephen, which wasn’t even his, won.

I think that it is quite obvious that the fight over August 20th versus March 15th wasn’t idle political bickering. It shows a significant difference in outlook between the Hungarian right and left. The right believes that nation, statehood, and tradition is more important, while the left thinks that modernity, equality, and republic has greater significance. One looks backward, the other forward.

Péter Boross, a member of Antall’s government and after Antall’s death the prime minister of Hungary for a few months, returned to the political scene after quite a few years of retirement. The MDF, which in 1990 was the largest political party, has shrunk to practically nothing. The "horrible membership," as Antall called his party’s composition, has split in at least three ways. The extreme right followed István Csurka and organized a new party, the MIÉP; others on the right abandoned the party a couple of years ago and joined the Fidesz. Only a handful of people, including Péter Boross, stuck with the moderate right of center core led by Ibolya Dávid. To everybody’s surprise, the MDF led by Dávid managed to become a parliamentary party by reaching the magic 5% of the popular votes. No MDF candidate won a seat in his or her own right, but the party managed to get eleven seats on the basis of the 5% of the votes. Boross’s name was high enough on the list for him to get a seat in parliament.

In many ways, Boross is a sympathetic person. He is a moderate man. He has nothing but scorn for extremism, be that right or left. His knowledge of Hungarian history is admirable and I, as a historian, should rejoice that someone who went to law school and later was involved in hotel management knows so much history. However, occasionally I wish that Boross would stop talking about history. He cannot get off the topic and, unfortunately, his historical views are very one-sided. He believes that Hungary before 1918 was a wonderful and perfect democracy. This, of course, is far from the truth.

Today, Napkelte (Sunrise) invited Boross for a talk. Not at all surprising. I would do the same if I were the person who decides on who should be invited on August 20th. Perfect choice: we can hear all about St. Stephen, the crown, the republic, the kingdom, and so forth. We could hear this morning that it is absolutely ridiculous to call today’s Hungary the "third republic" because the "first republic" of Mihály Károlyi was not a republic in the true sense of the word. When the old regime was reestablished in 1920, it was decided that Hungary should be a kingdom. No king, but a kingdom. In 1945 the "second" republic was declared, but Boross doesn’t recognize this either. Thus, says he, it is ridiculous to call today’s Hungary "the third republic." He stopped here, but considering what he said later about the crown you almost had the feeling that he wouldn’t mind the reestablishment of the monarchy.

I am not against a constitutional monarchy. Perhaps Otto Habsburg would be a better head of state than László Sólyom, but I am somewhat disappointed that this is the best the Hungarian right can come up with.