I could have written the article published by Gyula Hellenbart that appeared in the April 10 issue of Élet és Irodalom's "Feuilleton" section. Or, at least, I agree wholeheartedly with his sentiments.
I must say that I wasn't familiar with Gyula Hellenbart's writings, most likely because he is a literary historian who left Hungary in 1956 for Germany. Having lived outside of Hungary for over 50 years, his way at looking at Hungary and Hungarian national identity is obviously different from the homegrown variety. In this article Hellenbart sets aside such obvious components of national identity as language or heritage. Instead, he concentrates on the way in which people's knowledge of history (or lack thereof) contributes to Hungarian societal attitudes. His overarching thesis is that national self-knowledge cannot exist without a critically parsed knowledge of history.
Although Hungarian historiography of the last few decades has been of very high quality, Hellenbart points to the paucity of historical references in the Hungarian media. And when they occur they are mostly untrue clichés. For example: Hungary as the "bastion of Christendom," the Golden Bull as "the first constitution of the Continent," and Hungary as a great power because "during the reign of Louis the Great three oceans washed the shores of the country." A lot of boasting, wishful thinking, half-truths or "outright fiction." All this supports the "ethnocentric bias" and makes it difficult for "the society to grow up." In brief, Hungarian society has not moved beyond the romanticism of the nineteenth century and continues to find in its statues, oils, and operas "a source of national glory that feeds its patriotism and its desire for prestige."
Of course, a stable national self-esteem is necessary but not the kind that is based on illusions. Hellenbart quotes himself from 1967. He wrote a piece in Új Látóhatár, an emigré monthly, in which he outlined the Hungarian refugees' response to the West. The Hungarian university students who found themselves in western Europe after 1956 were upset about how little the world knew about Hungary. But Hellenbart pointed out that people from other countries know very little about other people in general. The "world" knows just as little about Poland, Norway, Finland, or Romania. And what do Hungarians know about German or French history? Mighty little. Apparently, Hellenbart's compatriots didn't buy his argument. A reader from Zurich wrote a scathing critique of the piece. In his rebuttal he recounted an event that actually supported Hellenbart's conclusions. "During the spring of 1965 I saw, together with a friend from Hungary, the exhibition 'Les tresors des églises de France' in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. We went from room to room and admired the masterpieces of this fabulously rich exhibition. Then my friend exclaimed: 'Let's leave because it makes my blood boil!' 'But why'–I asked, surprised. 'Because it is only here that I see what we have lost, while everything these people built has survived.' " This obviously learned friend from Hungary truly believed that Hungarian culture of the Middle Ages equaled that of France or for that matter that of any western European country. The truth is that Hungary even then was an "underdeveloped" or "developing" nation. But there's always an excuse. If Hungarians go, let's say, to Versailles, they immediately start talking about the Mongols, the Turks, and the Habsburg oppression.
"We don't want to accept ourselves as we are. We don't want to understand that ever since Saint Stephen we have been at the periphery." Yes, this is difficult to swallow, especially when the Hungarian school system teaches Hungarian history in a vacuum and never subjects the country to international metrics. A few years ago a series was launched entitled "Hungarians in Europe" that, especially the first volume (Pál Engel, Beilleszkedés Európába a kezdetektől 1440-ig), made a valiant effort to put Hungary "in its place." But how many people read it? Not too many. I have also made efforts to offer a few sobering examples of Hungary's backwardness. I mentioned the economic historian György Ránki's witty remark: "The European Continent slants eastward." It didn't make a dent. I tried to ask: 'Why was not possible to establish a university in Hungary until the seventeenth century?" Why did the two earlier attempts fail? The first under the reign of Louis the Great "whose country was surrounded by three oceans." And the second under the reign of Matthias, the Renaissance king whose time is described as the golden age of Hungary.
At the same time Hungarians look down on some of their neighbors and have an especially low opinion of "American culture." Well, I'm not going to enter into cultural warfare. But let me give an example that may be a bit above the fray. Not long ago, an internet acquaintance belittled American history: "Let's face it. What is two hundred years! Hungary has been an important country for the last 1,100 years!" First I had to remind her that although the war of independence took place only at the end of the eighteenth century, the British settlers came to these shores four hundred years ago. I also reminded her that the Pilgrims arrived here in 1620 and sixteen years later established Harvard University. Hungary's first university was established in 1635, one year earlier. The discussion came to an abrupt halt.