Even in the Kádár period Hungary had a few truly outstanding historians. One of these was György Ránki whose works on modern Hungarian and East European economic history, co-authored with Iván Berend, were groundbreaking. György Ránki is unfortunately no longer with us, but Iván Berend has been teaching history for the last fifteen years or so in California. Ránki himself spent years at Indiana University.
Anyway, Ránki said something that I find very true: "Europe is sloping downward from west to east." This is true in economic terms and consequently influences all facets of life. Whether we like it or not, Hungary is situated in a region that is less developed than the west. No historian has managed to give an adequate explanation for this phenomenon. Some historians tried to explain it by pointing to shifting trade routes, especially after the discovery of the Americas. One doesn't have to be a historian to debunk this hypothesis. Way before the late 15th century the West, including Spain and Italy, had a far more developed economic and cultural life than Eastern Europe. Another outstanding Hungarian historian, Jenő Szücs, a medievalist, divided the area we consider to be Eastern Europe into three regions: its western periphery (Austria, Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia, today's Slovenia), the central region (Hungary, today's Slovakia, and today's Poland), and the least developed eastern part: the Balkans, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, the eastern parts of Poland. The differences among these three have been substantial for at least a millennium. Another historian, Péter Hanák, whose works dealt mainly with the Habsburg Monarchy, pointed out that the western part of Hungary belonged to the Roman Empire (Pannonia) for a fairly long period, and the difference in development along the Danube that was the border is still noticeable. That is, western Hungary is better developed than the eastern parts. Even today, people half jokingly call the territories east of the Danube Hunnia and west of it Pannonia. Although there are some supernationalists in Hungary who think that the Hungarians are related to the Huns (they are not) and consider this alleged relationship a source of pride, let's face it, outside this circle the reputation of Attila and his Huns are not the best.
The differences between the western, central, and eastern regions of Eastern Europe persisted until the 1960s. Hungary, as Pál Tamás mentioned in an interview (Népszava), was somewhere "at the lower echelons of the central region," and even today Hungary is behind the Czech Republic and Slovenia. There was an interlude, the Kádár regime, when Hungary managed to get to the top of the heap mostly because Kádár from the mid-1960s on opened avenues toward the west and loosened the restraints of state socialism. By now, says Tamás, Hungary has simply reoccupied its traditional place in the region.
But if that is the case, why are Hungarians so dissatisfied? The answer is simple enough: the problem is the heritage of the Kádár regime when Hungarians felt that they were the leading country in the region. And in comparison to Czechoslovakia the citizens of Hungary could indeed feel superior. Okay, they were not as well off as the Austrians, but they were certainly better off and freer than the Czechs or the Slovaks. Immediately after the change of regime this relative advantage of Hungary was a great asset. Hungarians were more open to western economic penetration and western businessmen felt more at home in Hungary than elsewhere in the region. But this relative advantage disappeared once the other countries caught on. The Czechs, especially after they separated from the Slovaks, reoccupied their former leading role in the region. And the Hungarians keep comparing themselves to the other Eastern European countries and can't get over the fact that the Czechs and the Slovenes are ahead. What really hurts is that Slovakia, once part of Hungary and not even its most prosperous part, seems to be doing better than Hungary at the moment. However, what Hungarians don't seem to realize, or at least certain people don't want to realize, is that the rapid Slovak development in the last few years was due primarily to the appearance of several foreign auto companies. I was astonished to hear the other day that 25% of the Slovak GDP comes from the auto industry. I don't want to be a Cassandra, but I can pretty well predict what is going to happen in the next few years with the Slovak economy. Slovakia will most likely reoccupy its traditional place in the region.
Can Hungary catch up to Austria, the Czech Republic, and Slovenia? If the past is any indication most likely not, but it can improve its relative standing. This can be done, however, only with more openness toward the outside word and better education, including foreign language study. Hungarians have never been eager to embrace new ways. But let's hope that necessity will force Hungarians to change.