“My war with nationalism”

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Hungarian historiography of the last few decades has been of very high quality, Hellenbart points to the paucity of historical references in the Hungarian media.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.

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Sandor
Guest
This subject is very close to my heart. Therefore, I must say that the author as well as you are both still more charitable to the “Hungarian Ethos” than it actually deserves. The facts “on the ground” are actually much more dire than what the expose depicts. The average Hungarian has no other traffic with history than those cheap, propaganda cliches fabricated for mass-consumption, mostly around the turn of the century. The artificial mythology of Gaal Moses and his ilk forged this artifice, still in effect to this day. But further inculcate this garbage the high and low art as well. Just to give you one example, there is our great opera Bank Ban. The story conventional in the sense that the wife of the hero is dishonored. But who is doing that? not a bad guy, a villain, oh no! It is done by foreigners! They come to us to do political as well as sexual damage! And the moral is the same as the one MIEP is still using today: “Why don’t they leave us alone to ourselves!?” Further darkening the general picture is the fact that most Hungarians, based on scanty and often mistaken half-facts, vindicate themselves… Read more »
Hank
Guest
“Today some of our greatest authors, Kertesz, Nadas, Konrad, at all, mostly live in Germany, because in effect, they cannot countenance this ludicrous parochialism.” Yes, Hungarians tend to be very parochial, with all the resulting nationalism, foolishness and petty mindedness. In that sense I fully agree with all of the above. But I don’t like the venomous tone of Sandor’s comments. Let’s not be parochial ourselves in this: this is not at all an exclusive Hungarian phenomenon. You find it all over, from the Balkans via Central Europe to Germany (neo-nazism and violent incidents against foreigners are so common there that they are hardly being reported on any more), the Netherlands (besides its tolerance, it is also home to a growing wave of intolerance from traditional Dutch people as well as from small but radical islamic groups), Italy, Brittain etc. etc. And let’s not forget the States with its rednecks and protestant fundamentalists. Maybe it is easier to ignore if you live in an international circle of writers and artists and intellectuals in Berlin, Amsterdam, New York, and London, but it is all there nevertheless. It comes and goes in waves, and obviously in times of crisis the wave is… Read more »
Sophist
Guest

“…as Harvard began to grant higher degrees in the late eighteenth century, people started to call it “Harvard University.””
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harvard_College

Sophist
Guest

Eva,
“You can be a stickler”
Admitted, but there is an important point here. As I understand it there were two times when Hungary was in the vanguard of western civilisation, the scientists of
the 2Oth century, and the Calvinist educationalists of the 17th. I suspect the founding of Pazmány Peter was in part response to the Calvinist instituitions previously established in Eastern Hungary. Harvard itself was a Calvinist foundation, so there is no sense of Hungary being behind, but both New England and Transylvania being caught up in the same culture war.

whoever
Guest

In my opinion Hungary’s “time in the sun” was the post-Trianon generation of writers and artists, many of whom originated from beyond Hungary’s reduced borders, and the communist-supported footballers of the 50s and 60s. Plus whoever invented the Hurka Gyurka adverts. Pure genius, that.

Sophist
Guest

Eva “I don’t know how proud Hungary can be of their achievements”
11 ethnic Hungarians have won science Nobel prizes. Two were Jewish and effected by the numerus clausus: Wigner and Denés. Three were Jewish and not effected: Harsányi, Oláh and Hevesy. Three were not Jewish: Lénárd, Szent-Györgyi and Békésy.
Perhaps Hungary can be least proud of Barány, Zsigmondy and Polányi who were not educated in Hungary.

Sandor
Guest

As it happens, Barany and Polanyi both are Jewish. And many of the others were not educated in Hungary either.
Kertesz was not subject to the Numerus Clausus. (he had “better fish to fry”)

Odin's lost eye
Guest
A lot of the problems stem from isolation. The average Hungarian is a charming but annoying person, often cleaver but as thick as two short planks, intellectually bright but bigoted, learned but ignorant, happy but gloomy. Even their National Anthem (the Hymnus) which is a ‘Funeral Dirge’ when compared with the Italian ‘Fratelli d’Italia’ (Inno di Mameli) which was written at about the same time and under similar circumstances. It shows just how introspective the Hungarian is. The Hungarian knows little about the outside world, some of the more adventurous take their holidays on the Adriatic coast. Some, a few, have worked in other lands Some, like our good hostess of this blog, got out whilst the going was good or were forced out, and have made their homes and lives in other lands where the peoples have a more diverse origins. The motto of the land, where our hostess now lives, is ‘E pluribus unum’ –from many one-. Every day she rubs shoulders with all colours, race, creeds and proclivities The Hungarian however can be compared to “Confucius’s frog” the one that lived at the bottom of a well and thought it was the whole world. Why are they… Read more »
Matt L
Guest
Dear Eva, Thanks for another thoughtful post on Hungarian History. I agree, the Hungarian historiography of the last twenty or even thirty years has been of the highest quality. And certainly, references to Hungarian history in pop culture are superficial at best, and chauvinist at worst. But I would argue that the same is true of the United States. I teach history at a state university in the upper Midwest. The bulk of the classes we teach in our department are Western Civ and US history. These undergraduates are pretty benighted in terms of their historical knowledge of the US and have larger blind spots when it comes to the rest of the world. This despite a renaissance in social history and history pedagogy at the secondary level over the last fifteen years. I am not so sure the problems in contemporary Hungary are all that rooted in history. I would agree with several of the posters above, Hungarians need to get out more and lighten up a little bit. Once the Magyars start studying abroad in large numbers and maybe go on vacation to Spain or something, they’ll realize that they live in a nice corner of Europe. Sure,… Read more »
Sophist
Guest

Eva,
“I bet my bottom dollar that if they stayed in Hungary there wouldn’t have received the Nobel Prize. For such achievement, especially in chemistry, physics, or medicine, one needs money.”
Well certainly you need well funded research. George Marx’s “voice of the Martians” makes a somewhat paradoxical claim about the relationship between secondary schools and universities in Hungary: that the lack of universities in Hungary actually led to the development of the “Martians”, because in the prestigious secondary schools they were exposed to teaching talent that, in normal circumstances, would have been in Universities.

Tünde
Guest
“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.” I can imagine, because that is no argument. Pilgrims founding Harvard were not “American”, but a colonizing people. America was not even a country at the time of Harvard’s founding, but colonies, and there was certainly no such thing as “American culture” then. Harvard is not evidence of an advanced American culture, but instead a result of hundreds of years of English and continental European advanced culture previously, much achieved while Hungary was undergoing various invasions. „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.” I really do not think these are „excuses”? Sztáray Zoltán, an editor of the Új Látóhatár and who also worked both at Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America, wrote of the pro-Czech bias at the American services, due he said to the large amount of literature that the Czechs had distributed to American and British elite universities. The knowledge of the Czechs (and the Romanians)… Read more »
whoever
Guest
Tünde’s argument isn’t very strong, and shows strains of victimhood. The reasons why the Czechs held moral high ground after the war was a combination of factors – mainly the sense that Britain had signed the country off to the Nazis too cheaply, with the added weight that in 1939, the Czech Republic was the only functioning democratic republic in the area, still operating according to post 1919 principles. My understanding is that Churchill himself had a lot of time for the Hungarians up until 1941, and was aware of the Trianon injustices: so the pro-Czech propaganda hadn’t affected people so much. What affected Hungary was that, with a few brave exceptions, it lined up on the side of the Axis powers, and, given this involvement in genocide, and invasion, deserved what it got. With Romania after the First World War, it was their use as an anti-Communist army which brought them tacit support from the Western powers. And I would have expected the Triple Alliance to have acted in an equally harsh way, should France and the UK been the losers in 1918, and with revolution fermenting throughout. It’s just realpolitik at the end of the day, something that,… Read more »
Sandor
Guest
My Dear Odins, (by he way you sounded splendid from the Met last Saturday,) you ask: “Finally I would like to ask our hostess, Mr Sophist and Mr Sandor what on earth does a person’s religion have to do with winning a Nobel Prize.? Judaism is a religion NOT a race, tribe, clan or sept!” I just found your question belatedly. Even under any normal circumstances your assumption of Jewishness being “just” a religion wouldn’t stand up. The history of the Jews is “rich” with contrary events. But under the Hungarian constellation it is outright absurd. For example, while the Brits had their blood-libel trial in the XII century, the Hungarians had their last one in 1883. It took until 1895 that the Hungarian parliament recognized at all that Jewishness was a religion, equal to the other religions, and even then the issue was decided by one single vote. But even Jews are somewhat undecided wether they are a religion, an ethnicity, or a “people.” These debates are going on forever and show no sign of getting anywhere near to any resolution. Is it therefore any surprise, if the majority society is relishing the ever-present opportunity to do the same… Read more »
Gábor
Guest
Tünde’s comment is quite typical, anyway almost every Hungarian have heard stories about the politicians of the successor states deceiving the statemen of the Great powers after WWI with ridiculous statments, employing decent or not so decent ladies in order to use their charm making the decision makers more favorable towrds their case etc. Not only the fact is interetsting that those myth and legends can withstand scinentific criticism quite well, but the existence of mirror myths and perceptions. Regarding the propaganda issue in the case of Romania the contemporary official documents prove that the Romanian governemtns were quite convinced that the Hunagrain propaganda was very effective at the Peace Conference in 1919-1920, reulting in heavy losses for Romania, at least compared to their rightful share. Even for the peace preparations during WWII the experts and politicians of the Foreign Minsitry, repsonsible for this task, had as a starting point, that their most important aim should be to counter the formidable Hungarian propaganda. (For example they were impressed and at the same time frightened by an allegedly existing collection of tags, 600000 pieces large.) I would say that this is a striking, althgough otherwise comprehensible fact. The effects of that… Read more »
Odin's lost eye
Guest
Mr Sandor, I will disagree with you. Judaism is a religion. The followers tend to come together to practice communal worship. In coming together in this way the participants from ‘communities’, not septs, clans, tribes or races, of people with similar (religious) interests. This is similar to communities of ‘nudists’ or ‘model engineers’ (to go from the ridiculous to the sublime). The problem for them is that they are to some extent identifiable. So are nudists by their suntan, but model engineers reside in sheds/workshops where they work in solitude, seldom emerging and gathering in any numbers except for exhibitions and when the E.U. annoys them with some crass legislation which then usually has to be shelved (like the European Directive on Metrication – which was sunk with ‘all hands’). Their religion tends to make them help their co-religionists within their community. It also gives them something similar to the ‘Protestant work ethic’ which says that to work is part of praise to the Almighty and the better you work the more you praise the Lord. I notice you raised the old gaff about ‘William of Norwich’ this was a put up job by the Benedictines in Norwich to get… Read more »
Sandor
Guest
Well, Odin’s, I am not willing to engage you in a debate about the “nature of Jews,” simply, because as a sportsmen I wouldn’t find it fair to do so, since I am a Jew and you are not. This would put you at a distinct disadvantage. Please do accept from me, a friend, that your perception of Jews is, shall we say, a bit too close to the stereotype. Jews do not “help” their coreligionists any more than the adherents of any other religion. They are just as divided, if not more, than any other group of people. But whatever is the nature of Jews, it must not serve as an excuse for the awful treatment they are receiving in today’s Hungary. Let’s face it: if someone is born in a certain country that confers citizenship and there is no way to deny that. This is the way of the world and no right-wing propaganda has any effect to the contrary. Religion, ethnicity, or political conviction has no role to play in that. You see, nobody ever inquires into the religion of the nazis, who in turn distinguish their opponents immediately as Jews, regardless, wether it is the case,… Read more »
Odin's lost eye
Guest
My dear Mr Sandor, I should have remembered your faith which I deduced from your knowledge and interest in enamels and jewellery. In my post I did use the word ‘tend’ meaning in this case ‘to be biased slightly towards’. I am sorry that you found it stereotypical but that is all I know (admission of ignorance is the beginning of enlightenment). The ‘community’ in which I live is made up of people with very similar (and to the outsider almost incomprehensible) interests. If one of us has a problem someone in that community will help out. You say *** “But whatever is the nature of Jews, it must not serve as an excuse for the awful treatment they are receiving in today’s Hungary” ***. This is exactly my point. I do not like it and will not allow it to go unchallenged. This piece is called ‘My war with nationalism’. When things go wrong and nationalism raises its ugly head, the nationalists and have to find a scapegoat, usually a minority, and blame them for all their ills. Unfortunately in Hungary this minority happens to be those of the Jewish faith. It could have been the Salvation Army (but… Read more »
whoever
Guest
Sandor, I expect I would agree with you in a most instances, but on the subject of Jewishness, there is no doubt that this is more than a religion. I suspect this means you are “relaxed” about your heritage – this is fine. But the disagreement is also reflected within the Jewish community itself. We can separate Jewish thought into two strands: Zionists and non-Zionists. Arguably, Zionism is a racial supremicist ideology – as close as Jews get to the ideas of fascism. For a view of the application and practise of Zionism, refer to the Gaza massacre in January, and the continued attacks on innocent Palestinians throughout the Occupied Territories. Secondly, if as an Anglican I would like to change to Islam or Catholicism, I can do. It might take me a year or 2, but I can do it. This is not an option with Jewishness, as the principle is based on a chosen people, geneological descendents of a tribe. Both these factors make defining Jewishness somewhat problematic; an issue frequently discussed in the fairly liberal Jewish community in the UK: I have to be honest, I don’t know if the tiny Jewish community in Hungary actually has… Read more »
Peter
Guest

Whoever: it’d be advisable to do a bit of research before writing on some issues, lest you reveal how deeply ignorant and prejudiced you are. You can convert to Judaism as you can convert to Islam or Catholicism. King David’s mother, Ruth the Moabite, from whose line the Messiah is supposed to come, was a convert. However, Whoever, I don’t think you’d be interested in converting…
You seem to have an internet connection; how about researching on a subject before writing about it?

Sandor
Guest

I am afraid, I must side with Peter.
There is an endless list of converted Jews. The most prominent in my eyes was Cardinal Lustiger, archbishop of Paris, who just passed away recently and who was the most splendid human being possible. I could also mention the great poet Radnoti, British prime minister Disraeli, French prime minister Pierre Mendes-France, or the many scions of the Polanyi family.
Zionism has nothing to do with race. It is the state “reson” of Israel and as it was not racially motivated in 1946, when the establishment of the state was first advocated, so it is not motivated by anything else than the survival of Israel today. Ahmadinajad thinks it otherwise, and so do you.
“Defining Jewishness” is not problematic at all. It only depends on who is doing the defining. The Hungarian nazis have never hesitated about the definition, neither then, nor now.
But let us not mistake definition with threshold. The Jews have the right to set a threshold to determine what they are willing to do for the practice and for the observance. No outsider has the same right.

whoever
Guest

Peter is right – it’s possible to convert to Judaism – that was my mistake. I apologise – not because I was being prejudiced – which is a faulty accusation – but because it distracts from my argument. Which is about the innocent people killed by Israel, systematically, the apartheid system installed by Israel, unfairly, and the racist ideology which underpins these actions, demonstrably.
Support for Israel undermines any stated commitment to social justice – and begs the question… if Judaism is “simply” a religion, then wouldn’t a State based on a religion be an extremely regressive institution? This is opposed to left-wing principles!
Who converted to where is of limited interest to me – but I have to say that Disraeli was a Jew who converted to Christianity. Not the other way round.

Godot
Guest

The dentist in one Seinfeld episode converted to Judaism, so he could tell Jewish jokes and talk about Jews as “our people”.
Of course it’s easy for Seinfeld and Larry David to make fun of this. The same coming from a goy would be offensive.
Here’s a “famous” convert for you: Tom Arnold (aka. Mr. Roseanne).
If you ask me, I find religions profoundly stupid, divisive and obsolete, with an amazing staying power among the large number of dimwits of this planet. Judaism is no exception, it’s one of the worst.

Knowledge
Guest

Please read the detailed biography of Nobel prize winners. It is not true that the majority of them had jewish ethnic backround.

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