Hungarian pessimism

It's legendary. Hungary leads the pack in all of Europe, perhaps even in the world. Especially if one considers the relative economic well being of most of the country's citizens. This pessimism is nothing new. A 1991 piece in The New York Times entitled "Hungarians Are Thriving, Gloomily" reported that "Poll after poll shows this nation to be the gloomiest in Eastern Europe–more unhappy and more fearful about the future than neighboring countries where unemployment is twice as high, inflation is about to surge back into the double digits and nationalist extremists are whipping up old hatreds." The author also quoted Jozsef Antall who in an earlier interview had said, "A Hungarian will always see the worst. It comes in part from a peasant mentality, which will never predict a good harvest." Antall continued, "Just as there is American optimism, which is the motor of American life, so Hungarians have a tendency to be pessimistic. Every renewal in our history was always born in pessimism. Even our anthem is pessimistic."

Whatever the cause, people today in countries nearby Hungary with much lower standards of living are  more optimistic than the Hungarians. Hungarians bemoan the fact that they have always been the losers of history. All those horrible happenings: the Mongol hordes, Mohács, the Turkish occupation, Habsburg rule, Trianon, two lost wars, 1956. Should I continue? Poland certainly hasn't been luckier than Hungary in modern times. In fact, Poland disappeared from the map after 1795 and yet the Poles always believed that Poland would be reborn one day.

The 1970s and 1980s was one of the few times that Hungarians felt economically superior to some of its neighbors (which, of course, is not the same as feeling optimistic). Hungary was doing well in the sense that living standards were on the rise while in Poland, for instance, eventually there were only empty shelves in the stores. Then Hungarians were self-satisfied and made ugly jokes at the expense of their Polish "brothers." Just think of the Polish saying: "Polak-Węgier dwa bratanki – i do szabli, i do szklanki!" Oh, yes, every Pole knows the saying, including the Polish guy who worked on my roof when he found out my country of origin. But in those days of relative Hungarian plenty Polish-Hungarian brotherhood was forgotten. The saying in Hungary was–and I have to quote in Hungarian because of a word play–"keresztek helyett inkább búzát kellene vetniük." In rough translation, instead of crossing themselves they should work.

Well, now Hungarians think that Poles are doing splendidly while they are the nation that is the worst off, and not just in Europe. Of course, they are wrong. There is a severe financial and economic crisis the world over. But Hungarian politicians keep harping on the theme that the economic problems Hungary is experiencing are unique to Hungary. Certainly Hungary was the first country in the region to be in trouble because of the very high government and private indebtedness and it was the first to receive IMF and World Bank assistance. But just look around the region now. It seems that sooner or later all countries will be in pretty much the same boat. Romania is now trying to get some IMF loans and Slovakia, a country always brought up as a shining example of fiscal management, may end up in a serious recession due to its heavy reliance on the auto industry.

Yesterday I was asked by József Orosz, anchorman of Kontra (KlubRádió), to comment on the Hungarian doomsday attitude toward the economic crisis. He brought up some examples. A former minister in the Medgyessy government announced a few days ago that "Hungary is already in intensive care but not yet dead." Here are some Hungarian headlines of late: "The situation is worse than in October" (Index). "The German chancellor is reminded of the second world war" (Hírszerző). "Crisis: According to Bajnai amputation is necessary" (Hírszerző). "We are sitting on a timebomb of bloody social strife" (Hírszerző). "Hope is not in sight" (Heti Válasz). As opposed to generally more optimistic headlines in English and American papers. One of my favorites (Bloomberg) cited Jeremy Grantham, known as a "perma-bear," who nonetheless in a March 4 commentary entitled "Reinvesting When Terrified" urged a "shift to stocks before 'rigor mortis' sets in." And it was not the economy he was describing as dead; it was the investor. To quote a bit more from his commentary: "Every decline will enhance the beauty of cash until . . . 'terminal paralysis' sets in. Those who were over invested will be catatonic and just sit and pray. Those few who look brilliant, oozing cash, will not want to easily give up their brilliance. So almost everyone is watching and waiting with their inertia beginning to set like concrete. Typically, those with a lot of cash will miss a very large chunk of the market recovery." In brief, a call to action.

I heard an interview on Napkelte (MTV) yesterday morning. The reporter was interviewing a well known economist. Her very first sentences went something like this: "A few weeks ago you said that this recession would end by the middle of the year. What are you saying now?" The poor economist tried to explain that the situation changes from day to day and that it is difficult to predict the future. But that didn't satisfy our reporter who kept outlining the worst possible scenarios. When the economist tried to give a somewhat more nuanced picture, she contradicted him and tried to prove that the situation was dire. One could see that she was very frustrated when she didn't get an answer about the immediate economic collapse of the country.

Okay, one could say: this is just a not too bright reporter who doesn't know much about economics or finance. Or the headlines are simply sensation-seeking. But what about the chairman of the Hungarian National Bank who announced yesterday that the country is in such trouble that it can sink to the bottom of the ocean? In fact, the water is up to "our noses." András Simor, the chairman, almost daily (except during his vacation last week when the country was sinking!) makes some such horrific pronouncement and then seems to be surprised that the Hungarian forint is not doing well. The chairman of the central bank has to be very careful what he says and Simor ought to know that. So why is he saying these things? Inexperience? Ill will? Habit? Hard to say. His predecessor, a former minister in the Orbán government, certainly knew what he was doing. But Simor?

Then there are those economists. Economics the dismal science as Thomas Carlyle called it. It may be dismal, but it isn't a hard science with confirming or falsifying experiments. There are economic theories, different economic schools, different beliefs, but Hungarian economists expound their own remedies as the gospel truth. András Gerő, the historian, rightly pointed out that it would be appropriate for these economists to preface their theories with "in my opinion." However, they do not. The economists of the Reform Alliance are certain that their remedy is the only appropriate one while Lajos Bokros is convinced that his "shock therapy" will be the salvation of the country. Lately he has been making the rounds from television station to television station, proudly announcing that he has just returned from Ukraine where he was obviously invited to fix up the Ukrainian economy. Good luck! His supporters point to the splendid results he achieved in Slovakia. But what will happen if in the next quarter Slovakia will also be in recession? Then what will they say about Lajos Bokros? That his remedies didn't work in the long run? Or that the Slovak government did something that mitigated the results achieved by the Slovak Bokros package? If Lajos Bokros is the key to solving the world's economic and financial crisis then maybe he should be invited to the United States where all the problems started and everything would be okay in a jiffy.

Hungary is not unique and at the moment not even as badly off as some other countries. However, all this negativism can be destructive, creating an adverse feedback loop. A weakening economy and a pessimistic population can become mutually reinforcing. I'm neither an economist nor a medical doctor but I know that in both fields optimism is a critical component of recovery. In the United States and in Canada people who perhaps are hit harder by the financial and economic crisis than are the Hungarians remain by and large optimistic at the same time they are scared. They know that this deep recession will end, even though they don't know when. And some, following the lead of Obama, believe that the downturn provides an opportunity for fresh ideas, new beginnings, a revitalization of American business and society. Who will start a campaign in Hungary to change people's attitudes? 

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I couldn’t agree more. I think it is telling that all around the world a fairy tale ends with: “And they lived happily ever after,” but no so in Hungary. What is the final sentence in a Hungarian fairy tale? What do they tell Hungarian infants about their futures and their perspectives? “And they lived happily ever after….until they died.” A downbeat outlook seems very much to be part of Hungarian culture from the very beginning. I’m afraid that also makes this very hard, if not impossible, to change. Even though a cocktail of traditional pessimism and American go-get-it-done optimism would probably result in the most realistic approach to live, the universe and everything. It is the same in this crisis. Sure, it is a really serious thing, but it is ridicilous to suggest that Hungary is fundamentally worse off then its neighbours. Life is much tougher in Ukrain, Serbia, BiH. Why do you think two million young able bodied Poles and 1.5 million dito Romanians left their countries over the past decade to go and work in Western Europe? (just imagine that a comparable 500.000 young Hungarians would have left, would would that have said about the economy here?… Read more »
Eva- I think you are conflating two different things here. First, you are correct to point out that Hungarians are more morose and negative than other people in general. This is not a new trait. Even in the 1980s when Hungarians lived on the whole better than people in other communist states, there was a higher gegree of negativity and, relatedly, suicide. This continued into the early 1990s, when Hungary was certainly developing in a better way than most of the other former Warsaw Pact countries. It is undeniable this attitude to life poisons the culture, damages the politics and makes the quality of life worse for all. Having said that, second, even the paranoid man has reason at times to be paranoid, and despite your efforts to show otherwise, things are worse, FAR WORSE currently in Hungary than in Poland or Slovakia or Cz Republic. This is not to say things are perfect in those countries, but the depth of issues facing Hungary are more severe, the policy choices for remedying the problems are less appetizing and for anything to bear fruit will take much longer (years!) than is the case for the problems in the other countries in… Read more »
Odin's lost eye
There was I sitting and all around me was gloom and despair. “Cheer up” I said to my self “Things could be worse”. So I cheered up and sure enough things got worse! I saw this once along side another notice which said “Transferring to the new factory is liken changing cabins on the Titanic” and “The floggings will continue until moral improves!” These might sum up the Hungarian attitude to life, the universe and everything else Actually I suspect that there is an answer to the diversity and quantity of schools of economic theories. It lies in ‘Chaos Theory’ and contains weird things like ‘Lorenz –Strange- attractors’, ‘Mandelbrot sets and fractals as well as Self Organised Criticality’. What fun, the schools of economic theories are like as Kipling says ‘There are a thousand different ways of translating tribal lays (legends/stories) and every Bl***y one of them is right (or wrong) –take your choice! I am just reading a book by Paul Lendvai called ‘The Hungarians (a 1000 years of victory in defeat)’. In both his Forward to the English version (the book was written in German) and his original preface, he like stated that because of their language the… Read more »
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Ive met some hungarians in ny that say hungary is and always was miserable.

Begleitservice Düsseldorf

Always was miserable? I´ve no problem with hungarians.

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I´ve no problem with hungarians too!

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Not hungarian people, but the country is miserable; poor, broken down, no spirit.

Sie sucht Ihn

I like the Country , i was there for a few days. Warming and nice people




Articles like this one really help me in understanding my Hungarian husband’s pessimistic, doomsday outlook on so many things. At least I know it’s not just him, but his entire culture. He’s been in the U.S. now for nearly twelve years, but has not adopted any amount of optimism, or even realism, in my opinion. He worries excessively about everything and always predicts and over-prepares for the worst, and often highly unlikely, outcomes. Oh well…I try to be patient and understanding!


I also met some Hungarian but they were all absolutely nice people.
And like its said in the article: “Hungarians are … more unhappy and more fearful about the future…” they are in “good” company. If you take a look to the west, most people are fearful (especially the Germans).

Pásztor Szilárd

Hungarian pessimism is very deeply rooted in the learned behavior under the communist regime. It probably takes more generations to get rid of it.

john alexander

I am from Austria , styria , its near hungary . I know some of them and there are all nice . Really harwarming and freindly people. I also study with some of them at the TU Graz .

elizabeth kiss

Hungarians are the most pessimistic people on the face of the earth. I can say this as I not only have Hungarian roots but have lived in Hungary for many years now. While there are many nice Hungarians,there are even more rude and unfriendly ones, and the pessimism and poor outlook on everything is awful. From the smallest things to big and important things… comments like ” well, this is what it is, this is what we have to love, what can you do?”, all said with a perpetual frown is enough to drive a normal person screaming through the streets after a while.


I am from Graz . I study on the KF University and their are many Hungarians – Really nice people


Hungary is beautiful, but I agree the people are sometimes quite pessimistic. However I still love the country and also the capital Budapest.