Hungarian pessimism: Who and why?

Gallup WorldPoll conducted a survey in 120 countries wanting to know what each country's citizens think of the future and their place in it. Gallup used for this particular survey the Cantril Self-Anchoring Scale named after its inventor, Hadley Cantril (1965). It consists of the following:

"Please imagine a ladder with steps numbered from zero at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time? (ladder-present) On which step do you think you will stand about five years from now? (ladder-future)"

The first time Gallup conducted such a survey in Hungary was in 1993 when Hungarians proved to be a very pessimistic lot. On a ladder that had nine rungs, 39% of the adult population placed themselves on the three lowest steps, but it was somewhat promising that only 20% of those asked thought that in five years' time their situation would not improve.

Today the situation is much worse. Although the size of the group that considers itself on the lower rungs of the ladder (four steps out of eleven) is about the same as it was in 1993 (40%), those who think that their life is not going to improve has grown to 47%! The future is hopeless for almost half of the population. Thus Hungary ended up in 117th place out of 120. Only in Zimbabwe, Haiti and Burundi are the people more pessimistic than in Hungary, but let's keep in mind that in Zimbabwe the GDP/person (figuring purchasing power) is $200, in Haiti $1,400, in Burundi $400, and in Hungary $20,500!!!  Something is wrong here, isn't it?

The other day András Gerő, the witty historian I referred to earlier, had a few things to say about Hungarians' self-image and their attitude toward their own history. Life has been terrible, is terrible, will be terrible but somehow Hungarians themselves are in no way responsible for this state of affairs. It is always someone else who is responsible for the hard life of the nation. He brought up the Hungarian national anthem, which is nothing but a litany of complaints. The anthem is the first stanza of a long poem written by Ferenc Kölcsy in 1823. Here is a literal translation of the poem by László Körössy (2003):

O Lord, bless the Hungarian
With your grace and bounty
Extend over it your guarding arm
During strife with its enemies
Long torn by ill fate
Bring upon it a time of relief
This nation has suffered for all sins
Of the past and of the future!

You brought our ancestors up
Over the Carpathians' holy peaks
By You was won a beautiful homeland
For Bendeguz's sons
And wherever flow the rivers of
The Tisza and the Danube
Arpad our hero's descendants
Will root and bloom.

For us on the plains of the Kuns
You ripened the wheat
In the grape fields of Tokaj
You dripped sweet nectar
Our flag you often planted
On the wild Turk's earthworks
And under Matyas' grave army whimpered
Vienna's "proud fort."

Alas, but for our sins
Anger gathered in Your bosom
And You struck with Your lightning
From Your thundering clouds
Now the plundering Mongols' arrows
You swarmed over us
Then the Turks' slave yoke
We took upon our shoulders.

How often came from the mouths
Of Osman's barbarian nation
Over the corpses of our defeated army
A victory song!
How often did your own son agress
My homeland, upon your breast,
And you became because of your own sons
Your own sons' funeral urn!

The fugitive hid, and towards him
The sword reached into his cave
Looking everywhere he could not find
His home in his homeland
Climbs the mountain, descends the valley
Sadness and despair his companions
Sea of blood beneath his feet
Ocean of flame above.

Castle stood, now a heap of stones
Happiness and joy fluttered,
Groans of death, weeping
Now sound in their place.
And Ah! Freedom does not bloom
From the blood of the dead,
Torturous slavery's tears fall
From the burning eyes of the orphans!

Pity, O Lord, the Hungarians
Who are tossed by waves of danger
Extend over it your guarding arm
On the sea of its misery
Long torn by ill fate
Bring upon it a time of relief
They who have suffered for all sins
Of the past and of the future!

In this poem, said Gerő, one can find the whole national psyche that has been reinforced over the centuries. It often happens when people sing the last two lines of the national anthem that some of them, especially women, begin to cry. In my childhood the national anthem was sung at the end of every church service, so I had plenty of opportunity to watch the reaction. In the round-table discussion where Gerő talked about this tendency to self-pity and to a self-image as victim, the right-wing participant began to list all the complaints: Hungary is in terrible shape, twenty years have been wasted, especially the last eight. The more optimistic participants, including Gerő, tried to set the story straight. The change of regime was successful and there have been a lot of improvements. Of course, not everything is perfect but there is no country in the world, no regime that can be considered a paradise. Let's be more realistic. After all, Hungary is a success story. Nazi Germany is gone, the Soviet Union disappeared, and Hungary still exists and is free. It belongs to a democratic camp, it belongs to the European Union and NATO.

Elemér Hankiss, a sociologist, published an opinion piece in HVG (September 29) in which he tried to compile a list of the kinds of people who see themselves as losers in the past and in the future. He starts by quoting G. B. Stern's well known aphorism: "Both optimists and pessimists contribute to our society. The optimist invents the airplane and the pessimist the parachute." Clever, but I am not sure whether it is appropriate to the problem at hand. First, Hankiss mentions the "mournful Hungarians" (búsmagyarok) who got stuck in the "suffering between the two pagans" mentality. The two pagans are the Turks and the Habsburgs. According to Hankiss the media and the educational system only reinforce this traditional suffering mindset. Second, there are those who are the losers of the regime change. Those who lost their jobs and now live either on public assistance or on a very small pension. Third, there are those who lost their jobs in the last year or so as a result of the economic crisis. The fourth group is made up of those who feel that they have not been appreciated. They have been working hard and yet they are just scraping by while there are those who suddenly became rich. Fifth, says Hankiss, there are those whom he calls "the closed minded." They need guidance which they find in particular ideologies, and they are full of fear because they don't quite understand what's going on around them. The sixth group consists of people who have blinkers on and who keep repeating that in the past twenty years nothing has happened. Especially nothing good. The country has been bought up by foreigners and disaster is awaiting the country and its people. Hankiss's seventh category is "people with a subject mentality." The kind who don't complain and quietly suffer injustice from "those above." Next he mentions those who believed that once the country joins "Europe" everything would be different and all their problems would be solved. Of course, that hasn't happened and now they are very disappointed. Then comes the "traveller" who visits the United States, England, France, or Germany and, arriving back home, finds the country wanting. Hankiss doesn't spare the "lazy ones" either who complain all the time without moving a finger. And finally, there are the cynical people who are happiest when life bears out their own low opinion of everything that surrounds them.

Unfortunately only very few people in Hungary know anything about this Gallup poll or have read Hankiss's piece, and therefore they don't realize that their complaints and self-pity put them in the company of the miserable populations of Zimbabwe, Haiti, and Burundi. Perhaps if they knew this they would stop complaining because, after all, even the mournful Hungarians must realize the ridiculousness of such a self-assessment.

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Mark
Guest
“Thus Hungary ended up in 117th place out of 120. Only in Zimbabwe, Haiti and Burundi are the people more pessimistic than in Hungary, but let’s keep in mind that in Zimbabwe the GDP/person (figuring purchasing power) is $200, in Haiti $1,400, in Burundi $400, and in Hungary $20,500!!! Something is wrong here, isn’t it?” Indeed it is. Very, very wrong. This is the kind of discrepancy that can’t really be explained by the facts that Zimbabwe and Burundi were surveyed by Gallup at different times, simple because of the size of the gap between where Hungary should be, and where it is. I would say that this kind of gap is a warning sign that this society was close to a social explosion. I think we can talk about apparent Hungarian “pessimism” and, it has been talked about a lot (I even found while working in the archives in Berlin the German ambassador to Budapest in the 1930s reporting back about the “depressive” nature of the Hungarian population). But this misses one of the key points about this survey, and I’d recommend reading Róbert Manchin’s initial presentation of its results on the Gallup website back in June: http://www.gallup.hu/Gallup/release/zimbabwe_090605.htm Manchin’s… Read more »
Sandor
Guest
I am inclined to suspect that the unrelenting fidesz propaganda has born some fruit after all. The population’s threshold for gullibility is very low, because there is no political education and there is no credible mainstream press. (But if there were they would not read it anyway.) If they are told for eight years that they are living ever worse and in fact they are not living better, if they are told that the country is going down the drain and it is not going visibly up, and if they are told that they are not just going to hell, but it IS hell, given enough sledge hummer effect they will believe it. After all, they were already pessimistic to begin with, not much persuasion was needed. As you are surveying this nation, you find them collectively sitting idly, (they would not even show up for elections), twiddling their thumbs, lamenting the the absence of the “strongman” who would, of course, yank the country out of this morass. What do they know how lethal all those strongmen were in years of yore? To boot, they have a very limited selection to choose their strongmen from: they can have a gay… Read more »
NWO
Guest

Mark
There is a social and political crisis in Hungary, but let us not JUST blame the politicians. Hungarians wallow in self pity. Hungarians are by in large not committed to taking control of their lives (even the ones who are capable of it). This has always been the country of “nem lehet”.
At some point one needs to understand that the political culture is as much a function of the psychology of the population as vice versa. Just look at the Poles and the Romanians. Since 1990 neither country has neither been blessed with great Government, but the people seem to get by and somehow believe in their own abilities to succeed. In Poland, I think, part of this is anchored in their more optimistic faith in God, but it is also anchored in their own faith in themselves. In Hungary, if one believes in anything other than gloom and doom, everyone considers you naive and scorns you. No wonder the Gallip results. People who spend their lives feeling sorry for themselves deserve no better.

whoever
Guest
Surely the anatomy of pessimism described here only makes sense when contrasted with the self-satisfaction of the post-communist elite, caricatured in many minds as Janos Koka’s massive villa, or Ferenc Gyurcsany, and his business dealings. The conception of capitalism here appears to be that one can only succeed at the expense of others. This relies on a crude, moralistic interpretation of Marx, eschews any serious challenge to property relations – in fact, it is a philosophy mainly of the Right – yet it does reflect growing inequalities and the sense that a small number of people directly benefited from regime change at the expense of the majority. When one looks at the massively profitable Hungarian banking system – with the regime of high customer charges – one is forced to acknowledge that this pessimism has some basis in social and economic realities. But not that much. In order to correctly assess the significance of Hankiss’ categorisation – which, I am sure, contains much that is true – it would be necessary to mount an in-depth study of the richest people in the Hungary of 2009, and somehow draw from them their motivations and interpretations of economic and social life. This… Read more »
NWO
Guest
1) Degrees of satisfaction/happiness should not be correlated solely with economic success (as whoever seems to suggest). 2) Regardless, economic happiness should not be a function of relative position but absolute position. Should I be more satisfied if in a group of people I have 5 units when everyone else has no more than 5, or where I have 6 units but some others have 7 or 8 (of course this assume no inflation)? It should be the latter, but in Hungary it is definitely the former. In Hungary, envy is a poison. And the result is a population that lives on schandenfreude. 3)Finally, lets face it, people do not have good memories. Where is the happiness in the realization that (if you are a male)you no longer are required to waste a year or two of your life in the military? Where is the happiness that comes from having the right to leave the country any day you want (without a passport!). Where is the satisfaction from the right to complain about your government, and the right to dress up like a cheap nazi on weekends and march around with other like minded idiots or do whatever else you… Read more »
whoever
Guest

Yeah. Sure. I didn’t intend for it to be entirely reductionist. But there is something about the post-communist Filthy Rich – as rich people in Hungary flaunt their wealth. Most of them lack what I would call a social conscience, and regard themselves as uniquely talented and special, despite the some murky beginnings and some amount of inherited privilege.
We can’t hold a mirror to the discontented without reference to the values and attitudes held by the richest in Hungary. What amazes me, is how many snobs there are.
I do not think Hungary is a meritocracy. Few places are: but the social democratic countries of Western Europe and Scandinavia do not punish people for lack of life chances and lack of social capital in the same way that Hungary does.
A big indicator of this is the lack of adult education which is really a “second chance” for many working people.

Pistefka
Guest
There is bit of a misconception in some comments about how the people of other former communist countries are much more optimistic: “the (Polish) people seem to get by and somehow believe in their own abilities to succeed. In Poland, I think, part of this is anchored in their more optimistic faith in God, but it is also anchored in their own faith in themselves.” Which Poland is that? I don’t recognise it. Walk down the street or get on a train in Poland and try and find someone smiling. The Poles have a saying which sums up their attitude to economising on facial muscle wear and tear: “Co się śmiejesz jak głupi do sera.” (Why are you laughing like an idiot at cheese” The many Poles I have spoken to regarded themselves as eternally pessimistic, although this was perhaps more often attributed to the nation as a whole rather than to themselves personally. Poland is another country stuck between two unfriendly great powers – Russia and Germany. (Formerly three if you count the Habsburg Empire – which is frequently forgotten about!) They also have a rather downbeat national anthem: “Poland is not yet lost while we live.” The lyrics… Read more »
Mark
Guest

NWO: “No wonder the Gallip results. People who spend their lives feeling sorry for themselves deserve no better.”
I think we need to be more careful in making geographical comparisons. What is striking about this poll is not just the marked divergence between Hungary and its peers, but the dramatic nature of the deterioration of the public mood. Though this kind of polling suffers from a number of flaws the percentages are so dramatic that they are difficult to ignore. To give some context 3% of the population of the UK believe they are both at the bottom of the heap and their situation will not improve in the next five years, when a respected medical authority estimates that at least 5% of the population suffer from depression at any one time. For 34.2% of the population to fall into this category suggests something very wrong. Telling them that their problems are not serious or that they have to pull themselves together doesn’t really seem to me to be an adequate response.

NWO
Guest
To both Pistetka and Mark: I accept your comments. I think also I said as much that I was grossly generalizing. That sometimes seem to me the nature of this form of dialogue. I also did not mean to deny the depth of the problems in Hungary or that somehow Poland has transformed into the new America. Nevertheless, there is something fundamentally tiresome of being around people and in a society where the general trend is to feel sorry for oneself. Mark, as you know, even in the mid 1990s when Hungary by almost any measure of economic progress and political freedom was well ahead of most of its peer countries in the region, the people on the whole expressed more pessimistic views of the future and were generally more neagtive about life. This has also been reflected in both net birth rates and suicide levels in Hu as compared to other countries. Even in those days (the mid 1990s) and even more so today, envy and a lack of trust are defining characteristics of commercial life. In the business world, if one compares the ability to “do deals” in these various countries in the region, it becomes clear that… Read more »
Sophist
Guest
Mark, “To give some context 3% of the population of the UK believe they are both at the bottom of the heap and their situation will not improve in the next five years, when a respected medical authority estimates that at least 5% of the population suffer from depression at any one time. For 34.2% of the population to fall into this category suggests something very wrong” I not sure that you intended to suggest that a third of the Hungarian population has suffered clinical depression, if so I find this a very hard statistic to take at face value. Likewise the the significance of pessimism, Hungarians may say pessimistic things but perhaps because this what they feel is expected of them. (Vice-versa Americans often seem unrealistically optimistic.) The assumptions that underlie the way Hungarians live their lives indicate something else. I have some personal experience of depression, and found it difficult to get out of bed, let alone carry out my work responsibilities or plan and invest for the future. Yet all around me I see Hungarians, building and furnishing homes, starting businesses, having babies, and trying to forge careers for themselves. Apart from a declining number of disgruntled… Read more »
Mark
Guest
NWO: “Nevertheless, there is something fundamentally tiresome of being around people and in a society where the general trend is to feel sorry for oneself.” I do agree, but then (said with my tongue firmly in my cheek) I am an individualistic Anglo-Saxon who has always believed that if I have a problem it is a better use of my energy to solve it through my own efforts, rather than complain about it (though it is important to remember than I have this belief because I come from a society where the political system has been stable, things generally work, and it is a very rich society, which offers those with ability and application considerable opportunities – though my fellow citizens are not beyond a bit of groundless complaining when the mood takes them either!). However, and this is said absolutely seriously, the patterns of behaviour we see in Hungary are not without rational explanation or historical roots. Rightly or wrongly, large sections of Hungarian society have experienced the past hundred years (with the partial exception of the peak years of Kádárism) as a continuous trauma. Objectively dreadful things have happened to Hungary – whether Hungary’s experience has been worse… Read more »
Mark
Guest

Sophist: “I not sure that you intended to suggest that a third of the Hungarian population has suffered clinical depression”
Not at all – what I am saying is that this is an extreme statistic when one is confronted with any kind of realistic reading of the international comparison in Gallup’s table. It is a sign that something is very, very wrong, and the figures are simply too great for this to be due to the “normal” error inherent in conducting the surveys. I don’t think you can viably say that this is a result of normal “pessimism” simply because of the huge changes in the raw figures since 2000 that Manchin draws our attention to. What it is telling us is that the current economic/political crisis is placing Hungarian society under huge pressure, and – for whatever reason – far more pressure than we are seeing in directly comparable European societies. If this survey is even half-correct (and it accords with my experience, if not with yours) this pressure is going to come to the surface sooner or later. There is nothing to that it need take a directly political form.

Sophist
Guest

Mark,
“What it is telling us is that the current economic/political crisis is placing Hungarian society under huge pressure, and – for whatever reason – far more pressure than we are seeing in directly comparable European societies”
I don’t have the knowledge to judge the significance of the statistics, and judging on past performance I would be willing to take your word for it. But I would expect to see other correlating statistics. Has there been any equivalent spikes in unemployment, suicide, fertility, marriage, business failure, application rates to further education, alcohol or drug abuse, etc. that can’t be explained by the global recession?

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