How the past is used and abused in Hungary

The inspiration for today's blog comes from a radio program (MR1) called "Disputa" that I listened to yesterday. Since it was Easter, yesterday's program was about famous historical events that happened over the holidays. It started with the thirteenth century murder of the "king" of the Kumans, who a few years earlier had become (together with his people) a refugee in Hungary, in the town of Pest on Easter Sunday. The program ended with Ferenc Deák's famous Easter Letter (1865) that gave an opening to the Habsburgs to begin negotiations for a "deal" called the Compromise of 1867 that established the dual monarchy.

For me perhaps the most interesting segment was on the suicide of István Széchenyi on April 8, Easter Sunday in 1860. For anyone interested in Széchenyi there are several books in English. The best is George Barany's Stephen Széchenyi and the Awakening of Hungarian Nationalism, 1791-1841 (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1968). Unfortunately, Barany never wrote the second volume that would have completed the biography. Another book in English is György Spira's A Hungarian Count in the Revolution of 1848 (Budapest: Akadémia, 1974), but as is clear from the title the book's subject is rather narrow. The book, unfortunately available only in Hungarian, that is most important from my point of view here because it deals with Széchenyi's last years and his suicide is Domokos Kosáry's Széchenyi Döblingben (Budapest: Magvető, 1981).

First, a very brief summary of Széchenyi's life and importance in Hungarian history. He was born in Vienna in 1791 and his mother tongue was actually German. He learned Hungarian later in life. Both he and his father, Ferenc, were ardent patriots. Father Ferenc donated his very large libray to the nation and thus established the national library today named after him. The son offered a whole year of his income to establish the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. He became involved in politics and was a member of the Hungarian Diet. He was a member of the government that was formed in 1848; within months, after the imperial court ordered the dissolution of the Hungarian parliament and government, he had a mental breakdown that forced him to spend the remainder of his life in an asylum near Vienna.

It is customary to juxtapose Széchenyi and Lajos Kossuth. Széchenyi the reformer, the man who believed in "considered progress" vs. Kossuth the revolutionary. This is an oversimplification, but in the afterlives of these two men the conservatives adopted Széchenyi as their idol while the left embraced Kossuth.

During the Horthy regime a Széchenyi cult developed and flourished. But once the communists came into power everything was called Kossuth, including the Muscovite communists' radio station during the second world war. In 1948 the government established the Kossuth Prize as the greatest honor bestowed on people considered to be tops in their chosen professions. Széchenyi was pretty well forgotten although even his adversary Kossuth called him the "greatest Hungarian." In 1990, however, during the moderate right government of József Antall, a Széchenyi Prize was introduced. Nowadays about as many Széchenyi prizes are given out yearly as Kossuth prizes. In my opinion far too many. I really wonder how many Kossuth and Széchenyi prize holders are alive today. A thousand? I wouldn't be surprised.

The Széchenyi Prize was just the beginning of his resurrection as the nation's preeminent modern figure. The Széchenyi cult blossomed during the Orbán government, most clearly evident when in 2000 the government came out with its Széchenyi Plan. On paper the plan sounded grandiose but, according to those who are more familiar with the details than I am, government propaganda inflated its significance. One can read about it here: It was supposed to be a kind of internal convergence program. The government planned to invest a relatively modest 400 billion forints to develop certain segments of the economy. Especially favored were smaller businesses and tourism. There was some talk of building more super highways but nothing really materialized on that front. The money came in the form of grants, not loans. As a result, the opposition claimed, the grantees who received millions were those who were "close to the fire."

But the government didn't stop here in promoting its ties to Széchenyi. It gave billions for a movie about István Széchenyi's life called Hídember. It is very difficult to translate this title because, if I really think about it, it doesn't make much sense. Híd means bridge, ember means man/person. Yes, it is true that it was Széchenyi's idea to build a bridge across the Danube between Buda and Pest, but  it's hard to imagine calling the very accomplished Széchenyi simply "the bridge man." The movie's opening was scheduled for just before the elections of 2002, undoubtedly to boost the Fidesz campaign. The script was written by the well-respected Géza Bereményi, and Széchenyi was played by Károly Eperjesi, apparently an excellent actor. (He is, however, a man with a mission based on such confused religious beliefs as that the Virgin Mary was the first Christian or that Hungary is the fifteenth station of the cross. He was a speaker at the Fidesz Congress in March 2006 where he presented his confused theories that, according to some theologians, border on the heretical.)

The first problem with the movie was its huge budget, underwritten by the Orbán government. In April of 2001, Ildikó Lendvai, even then the head of the MSZP caucus, spoke in parliament about its cost–more than the combined cost of all other movies produced that year in Hungary. MSZP demanded that the head of Mafilm, in charge of the production, be fired. The second problem was Eperjesi's religiosity. He simply refused to play the role as long as Széchenyi was portrayed in the film as having committed suicide. He claimed that Széchenyi was a religious Catholic who couldn't have committed suicide in the first place. But if he had, the church wouldn't have given him a Christian burial. The most respected Hungarian historian Domokos Kosáry (1913-2007), an expert on Széchenyi, had agreed to serve as an advisor to the movie. But once the film makers gave in to Eperjesi's demand and changed the ending (and history) to portray Széchenyi as the victim of murder, Kosáry refused to allow his name to be associated with the project.

So this is how history can play a role in today's politics. It can be used, and unfortunately too often is used, as a pawn in the game of politics. Poor Széchenyi is perhaps the most spectacular victim of this tug of war between left and right. And those who use history so shamelessly often themselves are totally ignorant of history. Let's take Széchenyi. Széchenyi believed that Hungary should not secede from Austria. He was against overzealous nationalism and an intolerant attitude toward the nationalities who made up more than half of historical Hungary. And who decided to monopolize him? Those who are the most nationalistic elements in today's Hungary. Those who are euroskeptics. Those who managed to have bad relations with the neighbors. Those who put decals of Greater Hungary on their cars. Széchenyi must be turning in his grave.