“The nation won’t do”: Tamás Bauer’s musings on the unification of the Hungarian nation

In today's Népszabadság Tamás Bauer, an economist, former member of parliament, and publicist, wrote an interesting piece on the Hungarian right's conception of the nation. He mostly argues against the ideas of János Gyurgyák, a historian of not exactly liberal views. His conclusion is that Viktor Orbán's notions about the concept of nation, mostly borrowed from Gyurgyák, are politically dangerous.

Bauer begins his essay by reminding his readers that a young Christian Democratic politician (and please keep in mind that the Hungarian Christian Democratic Party is a far cry from its West European variety) not long ago suggested that the subject of "patriotic education" be included in the basic curriculum. It was difficult to fathom what he meant. A subject called patriotism? So György Bolgár had a conversation with the young politician and inquired what he had in mind. After some probing questions the only thing he could come up with was that schools should organize trips to visit Hungarian inhabited areas in the neighboring countries. Thus, it seems, patriotism in his view includes territories that no longer belong to Hungary.

About the time that Gyurgyák's piece appeared at the end of May 2009, Orbán made a speech on the Hungarian side of the bridge between Esztergom and Štúrovo (Párkány) in which he made references to the Hungarian representatives of the whole Carpathian Basin. As if ethnic Hungarians elected to the European Parliament from Slovakia or Romania would represent Hungarian interests. Here Orbán wasn't talking about cultural affinity among Hungarians in the region; rather, he deemed all those who consider themselves Hungarian a "political entity." (The original "magyarság" is hard to translate.) Not surprisingly, the reaction in Slovakia and in Romania was instantaneous. Bauer dates the recent very strained Slovak-Hungarian relations to this speech.

The real question is what we are to understand by "nation." According to Gyurgyák it is "a linguistic-cultural unit that has absolutely nothing to do with borders." This is what defines the "concept of the unification of nations across borders." But this is clearly a spurious definition. Bauer brings up some examples by way of counterargument. At the moment there are four ministers who belong to the Hungarian minority in the Romanian cabinet. Or before the Romanian elections the RMDSZ, the Hungarian party in Romania, supported Klaus Walter Johannis, a Transylvanian Saxon, for president. So would Johannis, a member of the German nation, have been president of Romania? Surely not. Just as the four Hungarian ministers represent the interests of all Romanian citizens, not just the "nation" they themselves belong to.

Gyurgyák's shortest and most concise defintion of nation is that "the nation is common memory of the past and common plan for the future." The first part of the definition is acceptable according to Bauer but what can one do with the second? The plan for the future certainly cannot be the same in Romania, Serbia, Ukraine, or Slovakia. In these countries the Hungarian minorities together with the majority are planning a future within the borders of their country.

My own feeling is that even the first half of Gyurgyák's definition, that "the nation is common memory of the past," is wrong. After all, our "memory" of the past is shaped in part by what we learn in school, and the writing of history is a nationalistic undertaking, especially in this region. A hero of one country is the enemy of another. And even if a Hungarian child studied in a Hungarian school in one of the neighboring countries, he would be learning from textbooks written from the point of view of the majority.

Moreover, I believe that the memories and experiences of our lifetimes or the memories of our parents' lifetimes have a much greater impact on our thinking than school learning about the distant past. Therefore a person's mother tongue might be Hungarian but because most likely even the grandparents of those who are about thirty years old today were already born in Romania or in Czechoslovakia surely their experiences differ greatly from those who lived in the middle of the Hungarian Great Plains. It's enough to think of divided Germany. The East and West Germans lived in separate countries for only 40-45 years and yet everybody noticed very distinct differences in world view between the two groups, differences that are noticeable even today, twenty years later. Yet they belong to the same nation.

All these efforts to satisfy Hungarian nationalism by trying to give definitions of the nation as something entirely different from being citizens of a country are futile and in the final analysis dangerous because they raise the suspicion of the neighbors about some hidden Hungarian agenda. Especially when the agenda is not even so hidden. The kind of common political action Orbán was referring to in Esztergom is unacceptable to the neighbors.  

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Odin's lost eye
Professor you report in previous piece (Great discovery of the Hungarian left: Orbán is not a democratic politician) that *** “The conclusion was that ‘in essence the chairman of Fidesz wants to have a one-party system.’ At least this is how Népszava summarized his speech” ***. From what I have read in this and other blogs a one party state has always been on the cards. This dates back to the origins of FIDESZ in the ‘dormitory’. So this is no surprise. What is new, are the conclusions of this piece. Which is that Fidesz will expect that all (yes all) Hungarians (and those who speak Hungarian never mind their nationality –either by birth or by choice) will work exclusively for the benefit of Hungary and Hungarian interests, even if these actions are against the interests of the their chosen homeland. If you bring these two pieces together you get a picture of a one party state acting outside its own borders through persons whose only connection with that state is their ethnic origin. Although Fidesz is, like all parties, an alliance of people with widely diverse views, Orban Victor has established (with a few chums) absolute control over the… Read more »

I agree with you Eva.
I just want to correct a small error. Mr Klaus Johannis was very close to becoming prime minister of Romania, not president.


so if romania were to annex the remaining territory of hungary tomorrow, you would then declare that the hungarian nation no longer exists? did the polish nation completely cease to exist when the polish people were under occupation in the second world war? borders come and go, but a nation will last forever if it has the strength within itself.
no lines on a map make me any less a part of the hungarian nation, despite living outside its borders and being denied a hungarian passport. your arguments are flawed and reveal your deep hatred for hungary, its people and its culture. i hope you cry all night when jobbik beats your communist heroes in april.

John T

Paul – I’m sure the Serb nationalists had the same view and thought they were true patriots. But they still lost large parcels of land through their isolationism. Your last sentence is just plain daft – unfortunately the political choice in Hungary is various shades of crap. But if you want Hungary to be a country without friends, then cheer on Jobbik – thats fine by me.