I always get upset when on national holidays politicians feel compelled to talk about the relevance of historical events for our own time, especially for the political struggle of the day. For instance, we heard from Tibor Navracsics on the eve of March 15, the great Hungarian holiday, that the situation today is exactly the same as it was in 1848 and 1956. On both occasions Hungarians fought for their independence and for a "polgári" Hungary.
In 1848, at least in its initial phase, there was no question of independence. Even the "radicals" of Pest demanded only a government responsible to parliament that would convene yearly in Pest (and not in Pozsony/Bratislava), equality before the law, a national home army, the end to serfdom, taxes for all (before 1848 nobles didn't pay taxes), and a national bank. Nowhere was there any mention of independence from Vienna. Admittedly, they did want a "polgári" Hungary in the sense that they wanted to transform a regime led by the nobility and its attendant feudal economy into a modern middle-class-led government.
In the case of 1956 there was a lot of emphasis on the withdrawal of the Soviet troops and even a withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact but there was no mention of the restoration of a "bourgeois" as opposed to the socialist regime. The initial impulse was for a reform of the existing socialist order. One can describe the situation with a later phrase: the Hungarians wanted socialism with a human face. Thus, contrary to Navracsics's reading of history, Hungarians didn't fight for independence in 1848 and didn't fight for a "polgári" country in 1956.
At least Fidesz no longer claims that the 1848 revolution was decided on the streets as they did when they desperately wanted to oust the Gyurcsány government. Three years ago, on March 15, 2007, while Ferenc Gyurcsány was making his speech, far-right demonstrators were setting garbage cans on fire and throwing rocks at the police; they demanded the removal of the democratically elected government. Fidesz lent its tacit support to these demonstrators. Gyurcsány pointed out in his speech, however, that the fate of the 1848 revolution was decided not on the streets but in parliament. In fact, the reforms were voted on by the Hungarian Diet in the early morning hours of March 15, 1848, and therefore the peaceful demonstrations that took place in Pest late in the day had no influence whatsoever on the course of events. I remember that at the time Zsolt Bayer, the far-right journalist who obviously didn't remember his high school history too well, was outraged at the prime minister's speech. We all know, he retorted, that the revolution started and was further fueled in Pest. The fact is that Ferenc Gyurcsány was right. In fact, the holiday should really be on April 11–as it was for a long time–and not on March 15 because it was on that day that the so-called April Laws were signed by the king. With them Hungary began its journey toward modernization and democracy.
Now that Fidesz is confident of victory on April 11 (what an uncanny coincidence) Viktor Orbán no longer wants street demonstrations or disturbances of any sort. Therefore Fidesz's important man, Lajos Kósa, suddenly discovered the historical truth: the achievements of 1848 were decided in parliament and not on the streets. This historical truth, it should be noted, goes against what the ordinary Hungarian conjures up in his mind when he thinks about the 1848 revolution. He knows nothing about the Pozsony/Bratislava Diet, the king, laws and signatures. For the Hungarian population at large the iconic image of 1848 is Sándor Petőfi, the twenty-three-year-old poet, standing in front of the National Museum reciting his famous poem: "Rise Hungarians, the Fatherland is calling!" As it turns out, even that is wrong. Petőfi didn't recite the poem in front of the Museum. It was a famous actor of the day. But both had beards!
Fidesz's change of heart as far as the events of 1848 are concerned is interesting indeed. Three years ago it was a revolution somewhat similar to the French events of 1789 while today it is a peaceful parliamentary reform movement sanctioned by the king. In Orbán's speech there wasn't much about 1848 but a lot about today. His "revolution" will take place on April 11 when the Hungarian people will vote, and he gave precise instructions about how to do it. According to one of the provisions of the complicated Hungarian electoral law the voter receives two ballots. On one he is to vote for an individual candidate; on the other he is supposed to choose a party. Orbán is obviously afraid that Fidesz voters will split their ballots between Fidesz and Jobbik. So he urged them to cast both ballots for Fidesz.
His other historical reference was to the "helytartótanács" (consilium regium locumtenentiale Hungaricum) that was created in 1723 as an arm of the Viennese government. At the head of this "governor general's office" was the nádor who was normally a Habsburg archduke. Initially the office was situated in Pozsony/Bratislava, then the capital of Hungary, but in 1786 it was moved to Buda. The "helytartótanács" was universally hated and considered to be the symbol of foreign oppression by the Hungarian patriots. In 2008 Orbán already came up with a quotation from Sándor Petőfi's diary in which Petőfi claimed that the members of the governor general's office "were pale and were trembling" ("a helytartótanács sápadt vala és reszketni méltoztatott") and equated the hated foreign body with the democratically elected Hungarian government. The reaction in the left-liberal media was understandably negative, and one might have thought that Orbán under the present circumstances wouldn't repeat this shopworn comparison. But no, he repeated it, adding that there are only 27 days left and the members of the "helytartótanács" should start packing. Why is it necessary to use such language? Why does he have to talk about the "helytartótanács" and the upcoming revolution? To appease the far right within his own electoral base. According to pollsters about 300,000 Fidesz voters sympathize with Jobbik and might vote for Gábor Vona's party. These words were directed toward them. They should stick with Fidesz because it is just as tough and revolutionary as Jobbik is. We will see how effective this strategy is.