The Hungarian Crown: a mountain out of a molehill

The Hungarian opposition can’t be beaten when it comes to scandal-mongering. The latest is the few sentences Ferenc Gurcsány uttered to Angela Merkel about the Hungarian crown, which at the moment is displayed in the Hungarian parliament building.

After World War II the Holy Crown of St. Stephen ended up in American hands, and it was housed at Fort Knox until 1978 when it was returned to Hungary. The Hungarian government then displayed the crown in the National Museum where it stayed until 2000, when the Orbán government, not without huge protest from the opposition, moved it to the parliament building. A rather odd move in a republic. At the same time, the right of center parliamentary majority voted for the enactment of the so-called Holy Crown Act, which, among other things, stated that "the Holy Crown lives as the symbol of the continuity of the Hungarian state and the embodiment of its independence in the consciousness of the nation and in the tradition of Hungarian common law." Please read it carefully. The act doesn’t say that the crown is the symbol and embodiment of the Hungarian state and its independence. It simply says that it lives as such in the consciousness of the nation and its common law tradition. This distinction will become important later in the discussion.

As in everything else, the right and the left hold entirely different views of the place of the Hungarian crown in modern Hungary. The people of Hungary generally respect the crown as a symbolic reminder of the nation’s successful survival through a millennium of turbulent central European history, but they are deeply divided over the conservative political movement’s efforts to claim specific powers for the crown. What are these specific powers?

In the early days the crown was simply the symbol of royal power "by the grace of God." Later, when the barons were often stronger than the king himself, the crown became the symbol not just of the king but also of the "nation," which in those days meant only the nobility. After the sixteenth century no king was legitimate unless the crown was placed on his head. Later on, the crown also became the symbol of the territories that belonged to the Holy Crown, including Croatia and Slovakia. After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, when Hungary was left as a kingdom without a king, the crown received further significance. For example, court decisions were made "in the name of the Holy Crown."

So, let us return to Ferenc Gyurcsány’s remarks. The prime minister uttered only a few sentences on the topic. Word for word: "The truth is that I greatly disapprove of the crown’s presence here. In my opinion, this parliament is the republic’s parliament, and there was no reason to bring the symbol of royalty here. The right-wing government made the decision to bring it here–Prime Minister Orbán. We don’t want to take it away because it would not be very nice that it is brought here and then taken away. So, we decided to leave it here."

Well, one can imagine what the reaction was to this on the other side. This time the attacker was Péter Harrach, a member of Orbán’s cabinet. Actually, Harrach was originally a member of the Christian Democratic party which was not strong enough to get into parliament on its own and, just like the MDF in 1998, entered parliament under the umbrella of the Fidesz. Last year, the Christian Democrats formed a caucus of their own because this way the opposition could get more positions in the different committees. The Christian Democrats’ leader, Zsolt Semjén, who actually finished divinity school, is singularly lacking in the Christian spirit. Harrach likewise.

Harrach is beside himself. I heard him say today on the radio that he is upset about two things. One is the prime minister’s ignorance because, as we all know, says Harrach, the crown is not the symbol of royalty, as the prime minister claimed, but "the embodiment of the unity of the nation and the continuity of statehood." He did add that a lot of people don’t know this, but this is what the Holy Crown Act says. The other problem is, according to Harrach, that this was said to a foreigner. Even "if this foreigner is an ally," the prime minister of the country cannot say such a thing. Harrach considered this the worst sin a politician could commit. Worse than a faux-pas in a public speech or something he would utter privately. Harrach continued: "Today when one should strengthen the nation’s unity and the national consciousness, it is irresponsible to make a statement which undermines the national consciousness, contains factual errors, and endangers the nation’s unity."

So, here we are. The crown is not a symbol of royalty, but the embodiment of national unity according to Harrach and the Fidesz as well, because the whole incident and Harrach’s comments immediately made it to the party’s homepage. Harrach rather shamelessly twisted the meaning of the original wording: it is one thing to "live in the consciousness of the nation as the symbol of unity and continuity" and another to be "the symbol of unity and continuity." Not even Orbán tried to invest the crown with such powers.

As for the future of the crown. A group of historians was asked to form a committee to investigate the best place for this very valuable and beautiful relic. They mentioned the Royal Castle in the old medieval town, splendidly situated on a hill overlooking the Danube. Some parts of the Royal Castle that were badly damanged in World War II have been restored, but not the whole. In the next two or three years, thanks to European Union subsidies, the restoration of the Castle will be completed. My feeling is that the Crown will find its final resting place there.