Austria vs. Hungary: A personal reflection by S.K.

For his eightieth birthday, the famous journalist Paul Lendvai received the gift of a book publication from the Hungarian public. This book, about which I have read, but have not seen, or read it, is supposedly a summary of the difference between Austria and Hungary. The subject is large and interesting and the author is a highly respected, well-seasoned, liberal gentleman of the old school: reason prevails over passion, and opinion without ideology. A man after my own heart.

Lendvai has spent forty years in the forefront of the Austrian political press, has written in almost every newspaper and magazine. He is a frequent contributor to the Hungarian press and television news as well.

What gave me the cause to write this today was however, not him, but the subject of his present book; The Austrian secret. Ever since I first set foot on the land of Austria, this subject occupied me as well. Particularly the question why is Austria such a rich and happy place as opposed to the larger and better-endowed Hungary, that is a downtrodden and bitter country.

I visited Austria the first time in 1971. After the long and humiliating examination at the hands of the Hungarian border guards on the way out, as the train crossed slowly into Austria I felt the world has changed completely. The then still poor villages around the border looked like jewel boxes in comparison. Their clean and cheerful appearance could not have been more different from their drab and gloomy Hungarian counterparts. In the next two weeks I spent time in Vienna and traveled around the province of Lower Austria and wherever I went I found the same thing: every street, every building, every flower bed was beautifully maintained, lovingly cared for and the people were quietly cheerful and self-confident. The proof of good taste and sunny disposition was obvious everywhere.

I have visited Austria countless times since and the nagging of the same question, albeit not to the same degree, has hounded me ever since.

The Soviet occupiers left Austria in 1955. The country was slow in recovering its previous self in the next few years, but by 1971 at the time of my first visit they were wealthier and more advanced than at the time of the Anschluss, in 1938, when the disaster started.

Hungary had an additional 36 years to go under the Soviet occupation. While Vienna has escaped the war relatively unscathed, Budapest was demolished to a large degree, and it was repaired and cleaned up more, or less by 1956 when it was demolished again in the revolution and its aftermath.

Today Austria is smaller by about ten thousand square kilometers, and by about 1.7 million in population. The GDP however is $328.5 billion in Austria and 156.2 billion in Hungary. The per capita GDP is 43.5 thousand in Austria and 15.5 thousand in Hungary. But even starker is the trend: the Austrian is climbing and the Hungarian is declining.

The long and inescapable association between the two countries has led to a certain mutual, if grudging appreciation and also to obvious and also subliminal cultural bonds. The Austrians and Hungarians speak of each other as “brothers-in-law,” as if they were saying that the bond between them is that of family, but not a very close one and in any case, it was by somebody else’s choice not their own and not by blood.

At last the Soviet occupation of Hungary ended in 1991 and the country had received the signal to start upward and forward. All, especially the Austrians, extended a lot of goodwill, but almost instantly the internal squabbles began and the initial impetus was lost in the usual Hungarian obsessions. We can say by now that the opportunity was lost.

When on another visit I crossed the border again in 2002 it occurred to me that there were endless sunflower fields on both sides of the border and, for the first time, I couldn’t help noticing that somehow the flowers were bigger, nicer, more rich on the Hungarian side than on the Austrian. It appeared that the fortunes had turned. I didn’t hesitate to tell this to my companions. They were laughing derisively.

There was a time when the Hungarian education system was better and more comprehensive than the Austrian. Today the difference is similar to that of the GDP. The Austrian children are growing up to be fluent in languages, in Hungary hardly anyone speaks a serviceable second language. The Hungarian school system is in the process of disintegration. Since the change of the system a new generation grew up that has no capacity, nor the necessary knowledge to think and to make judgments on their own. In the countryside the number of segregated elementary schools is increasing.

Is it any wonder, therefore, that the Austrians are easily understanding their place in the world and in Europe, while the Hungarians are sulking and protesting their lot in the international environment, demanding better treatment than they deserve and sinking ever deeper into irrationality.

There is a famous characteristic of the Austrian temperament, a national “emblem” of personality, which they call Gemütlichkeit. It is the inclination to be fun, good-natured; a national jollity. Now this is the last thing the Hungarians could be accused of.

Hitler was Austrian by birth and by upbringing. Austria has its own inglorious racist tradition that hasn’t passed completely. Yet it has a healthy system of minorities, and recognizes the official language status of its Italian, Slovenian, Croatian and Hungarian minorities. There is a Nationalist party, but it had only fleeting success in election and is defeated for now. Hungary has only one substantial minority, the Gypsies, but there is no official policy to recognize them, no language policy for any minorities and society is increasingly gravitating towards accepting, if not demanding, discrimination. In fact, discrimination is the unofficial policy of the right-wing parties and one of the most effective vote getters for them. Hungary is a “house divided” now along racist lines.

In Transparency International’s corruption index, Austria is on the 12th place (with a score of 8.1), while Hungary is the 47th (score: 5.1). In the comparison Hungary is a much more corrupt place than Austria. Correspondingly, the population is much more cynical and more disillusioned than the Austrians are.

Austria is justifiably proud of its cultural heritage: Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mahler and the countless other artistic and literary creators and creations of their past gives them a quiet, but unshakable self-confidence. Hungary also has a comparable, albeit shorter, cultural history, art and science of the world greatly benefited from the Hungarian’s contributions, and yet, all that is not enough to buck up their self-esteem without reaching for all kinds of irrational boosterism.

So, my advice to you is: go and see the beautiful Austria. Also, go and see the beautiful Hungary, preferably, before the Hungarians ruin it completely.

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isti
Guest

“Also, go and see the beautiful Hungary, preferably, before the Hungarians ruin it completely.”
An interesting article, though that last sentence is disturbing. Perhaps you could use a little “Gemütlichkeit” – because the tone of your article is quite to the contrary.
You will likely argue that your negative outlook on the future of Hungary is somehow ‘true’ and based on facts, which in its pessimism, is inherently against the spirit of Gemütlichkeit. As this G-word, the Austrian national spirit – or perhaps method of life, is a self-fulfilling prophecy, so is its opposite.
I know plenty of inspiring, wonderful, Hungarians.

Sandor
Guest

Oh yes! I also know a few. They are living mostly in Vienna, some of them in New York and in Toronto.
I haven’t committed myself to practice gemutlichkeit, only to mention it.
My outlook is not negative, only subjective. If you wish to claim that Hungary is a barrel of laughs, (and not a butt of laughs), by all means, be my guest.
As far as truth is concerned, I don’t believe in its existence: something may be a fact, or it may not be so, but either can be the “truth” in anyone’s perception. For the truth you need faith, that can make anything to be a truth. I am not interested in that, my preference is for facts.
This is why your qualification for gemutlichkeit is mistaken. It is not a prophecy at all, it is a long-standing national tradition.

Adam LeBor
Guest

You write: “Since the change of the system a new generation grew up that has no capacity, nor the necessary knowledge to think and to make judgments on their own.”
This is an interesting, even provocative, observation. What is your evidence for this – and if this is happening, does it partly account for the success of the far-right among young people, looking for instant, easy answers to difficult and complicated questions.
(PS – your blog is excellent)

Sophist
Guest
Adam, “does it partly account for the success of the far-right among young people” When I came to Hungary in the early nineties my immediate impression of Hungarians was that they were very well educated. They had a broad general knowledge and were cultured in the sense that they both valued culture and knew what constituted culture: i.e they had the necessary knowledge to make judgements on their own. But their actual thinking was quite limited. They couldn’t describe what made something valuable; they couldn’t tell me why is this a good book, or why is this an important event in history, or why this is beneficial practice. Nor could they rationally defend these values if challenged – we still see this all the time on this blog and others. Has that changed with the system change? Well, the two most important things that have affected education are the demographic dip, and the decline in the relative status of teachers. The absolute decline in student numbers led to schools being closed, and their students passed on to other schools. It is not the better schools that have closed but the poorer schools, so one of the consequences of the demographic… Read more »
Sandor
Guest

Adam, I like to be provocative. (Although I admit, this time it wasn’t my intention.)
And yes, you are giving your own answer to your own question correctly; that is what I had in mind.
Thanks for the compliment.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Adam LeBor: “(PS – your blog is excellent)”
I’m glad you like the blog. I have started it a little over two years ago and I’m happy to say that it has a large readership. Larger than I have ever imagined. I usually write six days a week and usually leave out Mondays but our friend S.K. agreed to fill in here and there.

Brum
Guest
I work in Vienna and live in Budapest (and I am neither Austrian nor Hungarian). Every week I find it more difficult to get out of the train at Keleti. The dirt, chaos, poverty, desperation (or whatever is the opposite to Gemütlichkeit) is increasingly blunt. Although, I have good Hungarian friends and bundle of pleasant reasons to stay in Budapest, the depressing impressions are harder to ignore that just a few years ago. An explanatory hypothesis: it is down to politics. Whereas, in Hungary the ‘us’ and ‘them’ division is internal (socialist vs. nationalists?) in Austria it is primarily ‘us Austrians’ vs. ‘them rest of the world’. During the interwar period, Austria experienced a low-intensity civil war between right and left (with the equivalents of Jobbik’s Magyar Gardas shooting at each other in Vienna every now and then). Then came two occupations, followed by the corporatist proportional democracy (which is set to be born in the Nazi concentration camps). After the WWII, the red and black parties faced the thread of the Soviet takeover. They made workable arrangements to cooperate with each other and this helped to navigate Austria through volatile world of the last 64 years. You can say… Read more »
Mark
Guest
“So, my advice to you is: go and see the beautiful Austria. Also, go and see the beautiful Hungary, preferably, before the Hungarians ruin it completely.” I think this is perhaps a little unfair. Austria in a strange way benefited from being on the front line of the cold war, while Hungary suffered. In the post-war years Soviet occupation of the eastern part of the country and anti-Communism provided a glue that forced the Red and Black political traditions to co-operate in order to restore and then maintain Austrian independence. This political co-operation has brought – helped by the legacy of the Nazi war economy which modernised the country’s economic structures and allowed it to grow as part of western Europe from 1950s – stability and prosperity. It did come with a cost – stifling consensus, and the burying of the Nazi past, and the toleration of racist sentiment in some parts of the country (in the last week the issue of the refusal of villages in Carinthia, despite both Austria’s treaty obligations and its constitutions, to allow bi-lingual signs in both Slovene and German has been in the news). Right-populist parties far from being defeated have almost 30% of… Read more »
isti
Guest

Sandor: “Oh yes! I also know a few. They are living mostly in Vienna, some of them in New York and in Toronto.”
This is also quite cynical – as the wonderful Hungarians I know aren’t limited to the diaspora.
However in my experience, cities with larger Hungarian communities – both in north America and Europe – experience extreme divisions too (though on a smaller scale than in Hungary of course). These are generational and political differences, as they are in Hungary.
I’m sure if your were to check the minutes of Magyar Haz meetings worldwide, you would find this.

Sandor
Guest

Actually isti, it is not the case.
I have some experience and some hearsay about the circumstances of the New York and Toronto Hungarian Houses.
The expat Hungarians and by this I mean the Hungarian Houses and the institutional immigrant organizations, are invariably right wing hotbeds of idiocy and intolerance.
Those expats with different views and convictions are either disinterested or expelled, but eventually disengaged from them.
In Toronto, where I live, the House has a minuscule 200 or so active membership, almost completely homogeneous and virulently right wing. This is a minuscule fraction only of the forty thousand Hungarians living in the vicinity.
They do infighting, for sure, but that is not about politics. In their right wing politics they are as solidly homogeneous as a granite rock.

Psz
Guest

Eva, “well-seasoned, liberal gentleman of the old school…” I lived in Austria for two years but I have never heard of Mr. Lendvai until recently and from such Hungarian publications as Népszabadság and Népszava. Could you tell us what Mr. Lendvai did in Hungary *before* he emigrated to Austria? (Which I assume must have been in the late 1950’s.)

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

PSz and Paul Lendvai. I wasn’t the author of that particular piece. S.K. helped me out that day. So it was his line but Paul Lendvai is actually quite well known in Austria. He left Hungary after the revolution. He was a journalist on assignment in Poland. He never returned. He wrote several books in German which were translated into other languages and lately into Hungarian as well. Check him out in Google. There is quite a bit of info on him.

Psz
Guest

I have checked him out… He was apparently a high ranking political officer with the ÁVH (State Security) during the worst years of the Stalinist era. Chief of indoctrination and propaganda in fact at one of the most trusted ÁVH border regiments in Szombathely. Participated in the ‘anti clerical campaign,’ conducted interrogations, used torture or the threat of torture. He remained a personal friend of János Kádár and György Aczél after he moved to Austria. Returned frequently to Hungary throughout the Soviet era. He was in fact the only western journalist allowed to interview top apparatchiks. WOW! Not exactly the “well-seasoned, liberal gentleman of the old school” S. K. wrote about, is he? Does S. K. ever answer comments?

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Psz: “I have checked him out… He was apparently a high ranking political officer with the ÁVH (State Security) during the worst years of the Stalinist era. Chief of indoctrination and propaganda in fact at one of the most trusted ÁVH border regiments in Szombathely.”
This is very unlikely. There are people who are specilizing in smear campaigns. In fact he was jailed in 1953. Szombathely? He was born in Budapest and lived there until 1957 when he left Hungary.

Psz
Guest

And why would anyone want to smear a “well-seasoned, liberal gentleman of the old school,” Eva? Who were by the way either interned or killed in the Rákosi (Stalinist) era when Mr. Lendvai thrived. Was he jailed? So was Kádár and what does that prove? Before and after he was jailed his articles were published in Szabad Nép and only top cadres’ articles were published in Stalinist papers and he came and went freely between Austria and Hungary when ordinary “dissidents” were arrested and jailed as soon as they set foot on Hungarian soil if they for some foolish reason such as homesickness returned home. Or how do you explain the extraordinary trust *Politburo members* such as culture czar Aczél and Kádár himself had in him *after* his ‘defection?’ Wouldn’t you say it’s highly unusual? Not to mention the books and eyewitness testimonies that describe some of his ÁVO activities that anyone who takes your advice and ‘checks him out on Google’ can easily find.

Mark
Guest
Psz: “Who were by the way either interned or killed in the Rákosi (Stalinist) era when Mr. Lendvai thrived.” Actually you may not know this – but Lendvai was interned under Rákosi in 1953. His biography isn’t secret, and he’s written an autobiography that is widely available in a number of languages – and has never been challenged by anyone reputable. I’ve heard these smears before and, as far as I can see, they are merely spread because Lendvai happens to be left-of-centre, an emigre, Jewish, and not shy of expressing his opinions on the Hungarian right in the Austrian press. No-one has ever produced the slightest bit of proof to support them; the specific allegations are based on repeated and unfounded rumour (and if you look at their “substance” pretty implausible rumour). And, the rumour about his “position” in the border guard you’ve exaggerated anyway. I’m happy to criticise Lendvai on the basis of what he writes in print (and have done), but I think we can all do without people repeating what seem to be manufactured lies. As for his interviews with Hungarian leaders. Well, that’s not so strange really. He was head of the eastern European division… Read more »
Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Mark to Psz: “Psz: “Who were by the way either interned or killed in the Rákosi (Stalinist) era when Mr. Lendvai thrived.” Actually you may not know this – but Lendvai was interned under Rákosi in 1953.”
Mark, if Psz didn’t know before he should have known after I told him so. His answer was that it doesn’t matter, after all Kádár was also in jail. I think that you and I are wasting our breaths. Psz made up his mind that Lendvai was in the service of the AVO. Period. It’s not worth spending more time trying to convince him otherwise.

Psz
Guest
@Mark: “Lendvai was interned under Rákosi in 1953” Interned is concentration camp such as Dunapentele (“Stalintown”) or Királymajor or Kistarcsa. Lendvai was, according to himself, arrested on suspicion of ‘Trotskyism’ and interrogated although no one has ever corroborated his claims. But let’s assume he was jailed. If he would have been *interned* he wouldn’t be alive today, aged 80, in excellent health, I guarantee. “he’s written an autobiography” And why would he ever lie, right? “No-one has ever produced the slightest bit of proof” How about Lendvai himself to start with? He has admitted that he was a member of the Hungarian KGB although he never mentions “ÁVÓ.” But he writes that he was a member of ‘internal state security’ which *is ÁVÓ. “implausible rumour” He was a frequent contributor and *editor* to the Communist Party’s flagship medium Népszava and you say it’s implausible that he was an apparatchik… You must be kidding. “And, the rumour about his “position” in the border guard” Not border guard *ÁVÓ commissar in a high security area* (határsáv) that ordinary Hungarians weren’t even allowed to enter. “As for his interviews with Hungarian leaders… not so strange really” *Extremely strange.* He was a felon by… Read more »
Eva S. Balogh
Guest

PSz: “It was actually Lendvai himself that convinced me, Eva, since he himself openly admits it. (a „belső karhatalom”-nál voltam „katona…”)”
Where does he say that “himself”? The Jobbik’s webpage certainly does, giving the source a book published in the United States by someone I have never heard of.

delwar
Guest

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