This one wasn’t exactly without incident either. The usual things: eggs and rocks at Budapest mayor Gábor Demszky, men around him with black umbrellas. Not because it rained, but because they were supposed to shield him from the egg yolks, tomatoes, rocks and such. Antal Rogán, Fidesz mayor of District V where these incidents took place, offered some advice: he suggested to Demszky that in the future he should give his speech not in front of the statue of Sándor Petőfi but somewhere–how shall I say, less public. What an incredible answer to the egg throwing mobs’ behavior! A day or two before, Rogán had different ideas: he wanted to introduce greater sanctions on rioters, but by today he had changed his tune. No modification of the law is necessary. I guess somebody told him the facts of life. Everything is perfect as it is and Demszky should hide.
The afternoon proceeded as usual: first, a big Fidesz gathering. About 30,000 people listened to Viktor Orbán’s speech. Later the official celebrations took place in the new concert hall (Palace of Arts) where Ferenc Gyurcsány made a speech. Out in the streets a drunken mob incited by speeches of right-radical leaders threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at the police, turned garbage cans upside down, and set fires. About 500 people started off to "storm" the Palace of Arts, but as soon as they saw the massive police force most of them disappeared. In an hour and a half it was all over.
Historical occasions prompt politicians to send political messages by evoking the past. These attempts are usually clumsy and often result in outright historical distortions. Or, if the politician’s speech actually reflects real historical events, he gets into political trouble. This is what happened to Ferenc Gyurcsány a year ago when he invoked history. He rightly pointed out in his speech that the Hungarian revolution of 1848 was not decided on the streets but in the Diet (parliament, if you like). This was supposed to be a message to Orbán and his friends, who in those days threatened to bring down a democratically elected government by mass demonstrations.
The reaction was predictable. Sándor Csoóri, a poet who played an important role in the change of regime but who since then moved to the far right, was outraged that Gyurcsány dared to "lecture on what really happened on March 15, 1848." Then he proceeded to tell his version. According to him, it was on the streets where the youths of March forced the authorities to abolish censorship, not in the Diet in session in Pozsony (Bratislava). It wasn’t in parliament that Petőfi recited his famous poem. It was on the street, in front of the National Museum. The list of the twelve demands was not presented to the king by the delegates. Csoóri finished thus: "According to the prime minister it may be possible that March 15th exists only in our pathological imagination."
However, Gyurcsány was right and Csoóri wrong. Csoóri is not alone. I would say 99% percent of Hungarians over the age of fourteen share Csoóri’s image of the outbreak of the revolution on March 15, 1848. Without going into unnecessary details, the revolution wasn’t really a revolution but a peaceful transition from absolutism to parliamentary democracy through the elected representatives of the "nation," which then meant only the nobility. I may add that Petőfi didn’t recite anything in front of the National Museum and the list of twelve demands was not written by the young "revolutionaries" but by responsible politicians at the urging of people like Kossuth, Deák, and Batthyány. The whole program of the Party of Opposition was approved by both Houses of the Diet on March 14, a day before the so-called revolution. It is true that on March 15, when the news of the outbreak of revolution in Vienna reached Pest, the young radical leaders decided to exercise their political rights, but nothing really changed on that day. One couldn’t make a revolution in Pest because the center of power was not Pest but Pozsony and Vienna. The petition put together in Pest didn’t even get to Pozsony until March 19th. By that time there was a Hungarian government headed by Lajos Batthyány. Moreover, the appointment of Batthyány as prime minister was approved by the nádor (a kind of viceroy of the emperor). All the important reforms were also approved in an orderly legitimate fashion without any pressure from the streets in April (hence the April Laws). Yet poor Gyurcsány got into trouble when he tried to draw parallels between 1848 and 2007.
Yesterday Viktor Orbán turned to 1848, and I must say that the quotation he picked was most unfortunate. Its meaning will be discussed for some time, I’m sure. Commentators already wonder who is writing Orbán’s speeches. Is it possible, they ask, that it is still Zsolt Bayer, a demagogue journalist, if you can call him that? They discovered that the unfortunate reference to a line from Sándor Petőfi’s diary that "the honorable viceroy’s office became pale and started to tremble" appeared not so long ago in one of Bayer’s writings. Orbán equated the trembling viceroy’s office with the present government. To add insult to injury, one of his deputies, Lajos Kósa, added that it was really interesting that the head of the viceroy’s office was also called Ferenc. Ferenc Zichy. The viceroy’s office (helytartótanács, or in Latin consilium regium locumtenentiale Hungaricum) was the administrative body by which Vienna governed the country. To compare the Hungarian government to the arm of a foreign power is quite something. The next question is: who is this power? The European Union? The United States? Russia? As usual, Orbán leaves room for the imagination. Perhaps some antisemitic hungarist radicals may even think it means Israel.
While Orbán talked about the trembling viceroy’s office, Gyurcsány sadly commented that although 160 years have gone by, the original aims of 1848–that is modernization and the creation of a prosperous middle class–are still not achieved. Hungarians continue to struggle with these questions. He ended his speech by admitting that the majority of the country is still not ready to go ahead with the steps necessary to create a modern, prosperous, forward looking country. It was on this downbeat note that the day ended.