Szálasi and Hungarism

Because there has been so much talk lately about the growth of the Hungarian radical right, about paramilitary organizations and the young and not so young waving Árpád-striped flags associated with the Arrow Cross movement, it may be time to say a few words about Ferenc Szálasi (1898-1946).

Perhaps no one will be surprised to discover that the man who came up with “Hungarism” wasn’t an ethnic  Hungarian. His original name was Szalosján. His fraternal ancestors came from Armenia and settled in Transylvania, but Szálasi was born in Kassa (today Kosice in Slovakia) where his father was a noncommissioned officer in the Austro-Hungarian army. On his mother's side he was of Slovak origin.

His father was a strict disciplinarian, and most likely it was he who decided that his son should follow a military career. As a young child he was sent to military academy in Wienerneustadt from which he graduated in 1915 with the rank of lieutenant. He was immediately sent to the front where he served to the bitter end, spending altogether 36 months in the war zone. What he did during the turbulent years of 1918-1919 is not known, save for the fact that he left Kassa/Kosice and moved to Budapest where he managed to get a job as a courier for the Ministry of Defense. In 1923 he was sent to General Staff College where he apparently excelled. After a two-year stint at the College he graduated in 1925, moved up the ladder to the rank of captain, and worked for the general staff until 1931.

His promising career ended abruptly when it was discovered that he was dabbling in politics, an activity forbidden to members of the military. He was transferred to a remote garrison somewhere in the provinces where he had plenty of time to “study” political theories. He apparently read Marx, Trotsky, Bebel, Lenin, and Kropotkin with such gusto that he could recite whole passages from their works. His “philosophy” was an amalgam of his readings and his own ideas. He apparently prided himself on “working out his theory all by himself” with the help of textbooks on history, ethnography, geography, Hungarian grammar, as well as the Old and New Testaments. (Miklós Lackó, Nyilasok, nemzeti szocialisták, p. 44). There is also reason to believe that Szálasi was under the strong influence of an army doctor friend of his, Henrik Péchy. Péchy was a clairvoyant and astrologist who wrote a prophetic world history based on mathematics. He predicted coming wars, revolutions, and events in general “with mathematical accuracy." (Ibid., p. 62)

What was Hungarism? Hard to tell. The book in which he outlined his ideas (The Way and Aim) explains: “Hungarism is an ideological system. It is the Hungarian practice of the nationalistic view of the world and the spirit of the age. It is neither Hitlerism nor fascism, nor anti-Semitism, but Hungarism.” Well, that is not much, and further excerpts would lead one to ask whether Szálasi was not a bit mad. Here are some samples from Hans Rogger and Eugen Weber’s The European Right: A Historical Profile: “Social Nationalism is life’s only genuine physics and biology. The true individual forms matter with his soul; his hand is but an instrument. And since this is so, the formed matter is not a value but a ware. Social Nationalism is therefore the nation’s biological physics and not its historical materialism.” Or (this time from Lackó, p. 234): "The East-Westerly orientation of our Fatherland broke down and died away with a shocking suddenness; and without transition it became the border interest-sphere of Europe’s Northern and Southern life-sphere.” As Nicholas Nagy-Talavera said in his book Green Shirts and Others: “Szálasi was superbly oblivious about such minor details as intelligibility.” No wonder that he got nowhere as a practical politician. His many parties’ failures attest to that. His briefly successful Arrow Cross party wasn’t really his creation;  some of his followers organized it while he was in jail.

As for what we can find out by wading through all this gibberish. (1) He was apparently genuinely concerned about the welfare of the broad, dispossessed lower classes. (2) He had a rather original plan for maintaining Hungarian supremacy in the Carpathian Basin. (3) His ideology lacked apocalyptic images or a call to violence or terror. Initially at least he wasn’t an anti-Semite but, again as Nagy-Talavera called him, “an a-Semite." Later he moved in the direction of outright anti-Semitism.

Of these three, the most detailed are his ideas about Hungarian supremacy in the Carpathian Basin. Szálasi’s Hungary encompassed the historic lands of the Holy Crown of St. Stephen, including Croatia, Slavonia, Dalmatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Within the non-Croatian part he wanted to grant the nationalities autonomous rights but only in territories where their majority was absolute or an overwhelming 80-90%. The non-Croatian part was to be called Magyarföld (Magyar Land) within which there would have been Ruténföld (Ruthenian Land) and Tótföld (Slovak Land). Today’s Burgenland (Austria) was to be called Nyugat Gyepű (March of Hungary) and Erdélyföld (Transylvanian Land). And there would have been the Horvát-Szlavonföld (Croatian-Slavonian Land). The whole area, instead of being known as Hungary, would have been called Kárpát-Duna-Nagy-Haza (Great Carpathian-Danubian Fatherland). However, the Hungarians’ supremacy within this Great Carpathian-Danubian Fatherland was never questioned. The only official language would have been Hungarian and the political leaders would all come from the Hungarian political elite. One more thing to keep in mind: this new state was to be established by the Hungarian Army, which would have enjoyed preeminence in order “to force the nations back to the shaken pillars of Religion, Patriotism and Discipline.” He planned an “industrialized, highly developed peasant state.” Hungarian society was to be classless. There would be three groups: the “peasants who support the nation,” the workers “who build the nation,” and the intelligentsia “who lead the nation.”

Some who studied Szálasi’s “ideology” claim that in comparison to other Hungarian national socialists he was actually quite moderate as far as the “Jewish question” was concerned. He felt that the Jews as a nation were “capable of founding a home,” and once they found it, they should leave Hungary. He was ready to let them take their property with them. However, he believed in the “Protocols of the Wise Men of Zion” and considered Jews to be the chief culprits of both capitalism and Marxism, which he often called Judeo-Bolshevism. In matters of religion he was a devout Christian but his Christianity was to be a Turanian (?) one and not a corrupted “Jewish version of Christianity.” He even came up with the idea that Jesus was of the “Godvanian race” (whatever this means), which is related to the Hungarian (Lackó, p. 54).

How this man ever achieved any fame and position is hard to fathom. He certainly had a following, and even his boss, Gyula Gömbös, minister of defense and later prime minister, predicted that one day he would be prime minister of Hungary. What a prediction!  But I don’t think that Gömbös, who died in 1936, could have envisaged the circumstances under which his prediction would become reality.

Tomorrow I will talk about Szálasi’s political career from his first attempt to establish a political party in 1935 to his disgraceful role in 1944-45 and his death sentence and execution for war crimes.

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Tom Beretvas
Guest

I am new to this blog, and I like the topics, and the style and the fact that it is written in good English.

Bill
Guest

Perhaps a Hungarian can explain it to me, but Szalasi’s story just reminds me why I am completely baffled by Hungarians’ (especially far-right Hungarians’) emphasis on ethnic and linguistic purity. From a genetic standpoint, there probably isn’t a more genetically diverse human ethnic group than the Hungarians – after invading the Carpathian Basin, they were subsequently invaded and occupied several times, always receiving a healthy dose of new genetic material each time. The Hungarians interbreeded with other ethnic groups to the point that very few of them resemble their Asian ancestors. The Hungarian language is the same way – astounding numbers of words have their origins in German, Turkish, Slavic languages, etc.
So, how can any Hungarian talk about ethnic or linguistic purity with a straight face? Why is it so important in this country, when anyone who’s read a history book can tell you exactly why the Hungarians’ “purity” is a load of bunk?

Adrian
Guest
Bill, “So, how can any Hungarian talk about ethnic or linguistic purity with a straight face? Why is it so important in this country, when anyone who’s read a history book can tell you exactly why the Hungarians’ “purity” is a load of bunk?” I think it’s unfair to describe this concern with ethnic purity as perculiarly Hungarian, I can’t think of any part of the world where there are not political organisations pursuing “purity” including the BNP inter alia in Britain, or the neo-nazi organisations in the USA. Language is significant in Hungary in a way that is not in the Anglosphere, where English came to dominate in the middle ages well before the idea of the nation-state became fully articulated. Hungarian was not the langauge of government in Hungary until 1848, compared to 1365 in England. Without intending to patronise a lot of the arguments about language in Hungary make better sense in a post-colonial context. Remember, Hungary was a Soviet colony until 1989. The problems with the far right in Hungary now is not the intelligibility of their arguments, which never seemed trouble the nazis etc. But: 1. A proportional representation system which could give the far… Read more »
John Hunyadi
Guest
Bill, I’m not a Hungarian but I’ve lived here for several years and I don’t see any emphasis on ethnic and linguistic purity. Maybe that is the case among the far right, but they are a tiny proportion of the population. What I can say is that the Hungarian national identity – at least relative to Western Europe – is founded more on the language than on other aspects of ethnic identity. The average Hungarian is well aware that many national heroes were of mixed ethnicity, but the fact that they spoke fluent Hungarian (or rather wrote in the language) is seem as sufficient for them to be regarded as true Hungarians, good examples being Zrinyi and Petofi. Indeed, a surprisingly large proportion of Hungarian national heroes were writers or poets. I disagree with your point about the Hungarian language. You focus just on one aspect of language – lexicon. Yes, around about half of the Hungarian word stock has been imported from Turkic (but not from Turkish to any great extent) and Slavic languages, from German, Latin and a handful of other languages. But most of this has been a feature of Hungarian for so long that only a… Read more »
Matt L.
Guest

Interesting post and an interesting gloss on Szálasi. I think Adrian is onto something when he points out the universal appeal of “purity” to right wing nationalist groups. Its tough to define a nation in positive terms, so sometimes its easier to just marginalize people you disagree with by saying their “impure” or “parasites on the healthy body of the nation.” The Hungarian right is not unique in this respect and you see it in anti-immigrant rhetoric by politicians in the USA.
I would critique Adrian’s comment about Hungarian language obsession being part of its experience as a Soviet Colony. The relationship between the Soviet Union and the people’s republics was different in terms of the power dynamics and the duration. You could make a stronger post colonial argument for a place like Kazakhstan.
Besides, fixations about the uniqueness of the Hungarian language and fears of “national death” (nemzetihál) go back to the mid 1800s and early 1900s. Themes of national death and rebirth are a prominent part Endre Ady poetry and journalism, for example. So even without the neo-fascist symbols and rhetoric, politicians are pushing some longstanding political and cultural buttons.

Adrian
Guest
Matt L, “I would critique Adrian’s comment about Hungarian language obsession being part of its experience as a Soviet Colony.” OK, my comment could be read like this, for the sake of brevity I emphasised the end point of Hungary’s struggle for political independence rather than the beginning. Yes, it was not as ‘soviet’ colony that its language obsession arose, but certainly as an Austrian one. In 1784, Joseph II tried to change the administrative language in Hungary from Latin to German: “The language decree created a wave of public indignation in Hungary against German customs and institutions in general and correspondingly an upsurge in national sentiments. These began to express themselves among the educated in Magyar, rather than in German, French, or Latin…. …Thus the main impact of the language decree was not the short-range opposition to a transitory measure but the lasting influence on the rise of nationalism, in particular in regard to the Croats and Vlachs. The language issue came to the fore here as a twofold movement, which merged soon in the same stream of resistance against the government. The support of Latin by the Croatian estates was directed less against German than against Magyar nationalism.… Read more »
Sandor
Guest
I am inclined to disagree with all these pseudo-scholarly explanations, every one of which seems to be just too “nice.” In the absence of real accomplishments, for the present day Hungarian not much else is available to distinguish himself, but the language. They often mention all those famous Hungarians who reached fame and fortune, invariably and intentionally neglecting the fact that most of them reached fame abroad. In the meantime, the local quality of life, education and development is in steady decline. Finally there is nothing left but the mindless nationalism. And that, as we know from Dr. Johnson, the last refuge of the scoundrel. Is the language a hodgepodge of languages? Well, not really. Although it has a large proportion of foreign content, it is by no means as much as English has for instance. Particularly not because in the XIXth century there was an artificial movement to renew the language and it equipped the dictionary with a massive infusion of words and expressions that rejuvenated and updated it for contemporary use. None of this inventory of “modern” language was subject to foreign influence. The Hungarians are suffering from permanent but increasing identity crisis. During the Soviet occupation (but… Read more »
Adrian
Guest

Sandor,
“I am inclined to disagree with all these pseudo-scholarly explanations, every one of which seems to be just too “nice.”
Which pseudo-scholarly explanations? For what? What do you mean by ‘nice’?
Eva,
“First, I would like to tell that I agree with Sandor 100%.”
Agree with what?

Sandor
Guest

Adrian, if you don’t understand the references, perhaps, you should read the preceding comments. There you will find the answer to your otherwise completely senseless questions.

Adrian
Guest

Sandor,
“I am inclined to disagree with all these pseudo-scholarly explanations, every one of which seems to be just too “nice.”
‘these’ would seem to refer to Matt’s and my discussions of the importance of language in Hungarian and other nationalisms. ‘these’ could also refer to Szalasi’s theories. The reference in your post doesn’t make it clear which. So I don’t see why my request for clarification is ‘completely senseless’.
I try to follow the debate on this blog, poor referencing and personal abuse doesn’t make it easy.

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