The Kossuth cult and the Orbán syndrome

It is a long weekend in Hungary, and that means that practically nothing happens on the political front. In fact, darned little happens on any front. Newspapers aren't published, normal television programming is suspended, and therefore a news junkie like me has plenty of time for other things–like reading. There are a fair number of books I bought but haven't yet managed to read. From my "to do" pile I opted for a slim volume: Sándor Kopátsy's Az Orbán jelenség (The Orbán syndrome). It's true that the book was written in 2002, right after Fidesz lost the elections, yet I thought that it might be worth taking a look at, if for nothing else but to see what kind of picture of Viktor Orbán was in circulation in those days.

As for Kopátsy. I encountered him only once, way back in 2000 when he wrote an opinion piece in Magyar Hírlap, then still a liberal paper. Kopátsy, an economist by training, was talking about–what else–Trianon. In the article was a sentence that led me to believe that the author knew very little history. Kopátsy admitted that most Hungarians enthusiastically greeted the outbreak of a war "in which Hungary had no vital interest. We had no business being in Serbia." His conclusion was that Hungary was dragged into the war by Austria against its own interests. I decided to write an article which I entitled "Let's Look at the Map." In it I tried to explain to Mr. Kopátsy that it was precisely the Hungarian half of the Habsburg Monarchy that felt and was threatened by a constantly growing Serbia. Thus, let's not blame Austria for the war.

The book about Orbán is easy reading, and it took me less than two hours to finish it. The author, a self-described "left-liberal," claims to have always stood on the side of social democracy against the dark forces of clericalism and the right. As for his assessment of Viktor Orbán, it is a strange mixture of admiration and admonition. Kopátsy considered him to be an exceptionally able politician but condemned him for allying himself and his party with clerical reaction. Although there are some thought-provoking passages in the book, there are many questionable observations as well. Put it this way, the book is not the best introduction to Viktor Orbán. As for Kopátsy, the socialist of yesterday, he seems to be a great admirer of Orbán and his "revolution" today.

However, there was one thing that caught my attention already in the preface. Kopátsy spends a great deal of his book comparing Viktor Orbán to Lajos Kossuth, whose "influence on subsequent events was tragic." Since I also have serious reservations about the Hungarian Kossuth cult, I decided to look around in my library for something that would help put Kossuth's role in a proper perspective. Then I remembered András Gerő's Képzelt történelem (Imagined history). In it Gerő talks about the symbols of nationalism which he calls–I think quite appropriately–"national religion" (nemzetvallás). If we think of the Hungarian national anthem it is really a prayer. National flags were imitations of church flags, and by 1848 the expression "the God of Hungarians" appeared in Sándor Petőfi's Nemzeti dal (Song of the Nation). Just as religions have their own special days, the national religion must also have dates of special importance. By now Hungary has three such national holidays, and which one is emphasized depends on the political ideology of the government in power. Currently, August 20th, St. Stephen's Day, has the honors. According to Gerő, even the "altar" of the nation exists. In Hungary that is Hero's Square (Hősök tere). And finally, "no national religion can be without its own hero. The question in the nineteenth century was who should be the Messiah, the Hero, the father of the nation." 

And it is here that Gerő arrives at an examination of the cult of Lajos Kossuth. It is a pretty dense historical treatise with ample references, and therefore here I can mention only the most striking descriptions of the development of the cult. Kossuth in a famous speech in 1840 "connected the business of bourgeois reforms with his own person." He made it clear that the country's fate depended on him. István Széchenyi, his political opponent, said at the time that "Kossuth placed himself on such a high pedestal that he cannot remain there." But Kossuth from that time on was one with the nation. He was the voice of the Hungarians. By 1849 people called him "the Moses of the Hungarians." The peasants, who had just received their freedom, kept talking about Kossuth as their "father." During 1848-49 he discovered that he was an excellent, charismatic speaker. He was a populist blessed with an unusual power of persuasion. In 1849, after the declaration of independence which he wrote by his own hand, he also became "the founder of the modern Hungarian nation."

If he was the Moses of Hungarians or "the Nation's Messiah" (Mór Jókai) he could also name the "Judas of the Nation," because "he can tell who or what is good or bad." After 1867, although Kossuth himself was in exile, his cult at home flourished and "he took care that his myth would be further strengthened." All his life he insisted on being called "governor" and demanded "unquestioned respect of his authority."

If we take a look at the personality and political career of Viktor Orbán we may discover a number of striking similarities to Kossuth. Orbán is certain that he is the embodiment of the nation. He is also certain that all who don't share his vision of the future are traitors. He is–or perhaps better put used to be–an excellent speaker who can move crowds. Some of his admirers look upon him as the Messiah of Hungary who will lead them out of a twenty-year-long wilderness. Some go so far as to kiss his hand, as an old lady did at one of the rallies. He himself likes to use biblical language and at least one time talked about himself as the Messiah who is asking the disciples to spread the good news.

Yet I don't think that an Orbán cult similar to the Kossuth cult will develop in Hungary. Kossuth's "luck" was that after a brief period, in spite of feverish activity in exile, he never again was in the middle of political action. A shooting star that disappeared. Only the memories remained. Since Kossuth was not actively involved in politics and was far away from home, he really couldn't discredit himself. Orbán on the other hand is doing a splendid job of it at the moment. 

 

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Johnny Boy
Guest

What about the Eva S. Balogh syndrome?
It is already classified, see:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wishful_thinking

Paul
Guest

How old are you, ‘Johnny’?

Ovidiu
Guest

—Orbán is certain that he is the embodiment of the nation.
Then he is to stay in power for life because a
nation can not fall, it is unthinkable.
For such a lofty goal any means is allowed.

Jano
Guest
I think in terms of political thinking, we really belong to the east where people need a cultivated leader or a Tzar daddy (Cár atyuska). In todays Hungary, two man have such a Cult, OV and GYF. Some posts before there was a list of the traits of such a leader. They both fit all the points. They even both had the hand kissing thing (yes, GYF too). I think in planet Hungary, this is called charisma. About Kossuth. There is no way to tell what would have happened, if we had won so I’d rather not comment on that. He isn’t one of my favorite either, especially for fleeing the country with the budget and letting poor Görgey getting all the blame. On the other hand after the revolution, he traveled all around the world giving speeches and fighting for the Hungarian cause which is a big plus in my eyes. That’s the reason there are Kossuth squares and streets in many big cities of the world. “it was precisely the Hungarian half of the Habsburg Monarchy that felt and was threatened by a constantly growing Serbia.” With all due respect I’m rather confused by this. While Serbia’s nationalist… Read more »
Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Jano: “”it was precisely the Hungarian half of the Habsburg Monarchy that felt and was threatened by a constantly growing Serbia.” With all due respect I’m rather confused by this. While Serbia’s nationalist development was certainly threatening the Hungarian interests too, implying that the Austrians didn’t care doesn’t seem accurate.”
I’m not implying anything of the sort. I’m simply saying that if the Habsburg Empire didn’t include Hungary then Austria wouldn’t have been too worried about Serbian nationalism. It was Hungary that had about 1.5 million Serbs living within its borders.

PKS
Guest

Dear Eva, is it possible to get in touch with you by email?

Kirsten
Guest

Eva, perhaps the question is very odd and only testifies how uninformed I am, but would also Lajos Kossuth have adopted the idea of an embodiment of the nation in the Holy Crown? I understand he was an ardent nationalist but being connected with 1848 it still should have some more “modern” aspects…?

Paul
Guest
I hesitate to question your views, Éva, as you are the historian. But the (English) histories of the first world war I’ve read are pretty consistent in attributing everything to Austria (rather than Austria-Hungary). Their view is that the decision to use the Ferdinand shooting as an excuse to declare war on Serbia was driven by purely Austrian politics and motivations. My, admittedly imperfect, understanding is that Austria was a declining power, but still thought of itself as one of the ‘Great Powers’ (or at least thought it should be seen as one), and was eager to do anything that might re-establish itself as a country to be taken seriously by the other powers (no matter how daft that action might seem to others and/or in retrospect). The fact that Serbians lived in the Hungarian part of the Austrian Empire didn’t necessarily make it a Hungarian issue. To the Austrians it was just a part of their Empire that happened to be Hungary. Hungarians may have seen the post-Compromise situation as a partnership (or at least today’s historians and politicians may like to view it that way), but I’m pretty sure that the Austrians didn’t see it like that. I’m… Read more »
MERSEKELTmindig
Guest

Kossuth was not a hero, but a person who bitterly opposed Ferenc Deak, the real hero.
Deak was a genius. He lamented on the break up of Hungary, and tried to establish peace with all ethnic groups. The work was beyond the skill of any human.
Trianon happened, and another Deak idea was ignored.
But the bad things are happening again in Budapest, Pecs….
http://antifa-hungary.blogspot.com/
all decent citizens should unite to stabilize Hungary along a reasonable and enlightened policy.

Johnny Boy
Guest

http://hirszerzo.hu/belfold/20110615_BKV_alstom_metro
“Metrókocsik: a BKV megkapta a 30 milliárdos bankgaranciát”
Come on Eva, continue lying about how BKV won’t get the money back.
But nobody will hear it.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

JB: “Come on Eva, continue lying about how BKV won’t get the money back. But nobody will hear it.”
What I said that the contract is not void. In fact, just now I heard in the news that Tarlós is sure that the city will be able to come to an understanding with Alstom. You may remember that you were rejoicing that Budapest got rid of Alstom. It didn’t.

Johnny Boy
Guest

And you said BKV will not receive any money.
Yet you lie about it again.
You are hopeless.
And yes the contract is void. It does not keep Tarlós from trying to renew if it they want. But they probably won’t as Alstom has no chance to fix the errors that are listed on 110 pages by NKH.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

JB: “And yes the contract is void.” If it is void why do they still have to negotiate?

Member

I’m not following the details but this seems like a good opportunity to BP to squeeze out a hefty price break from the frogs if they don’t want to loose the business.

Paul
Guest
Kirsten – Kossuth and his actions/beliefs (and all the subsequent writings about him, etc) are a minefield of confusion. The simple ‘national hero’ one sees so often depicted in the many Kossuth squares, roads and monuments in Hungary is a cultural/political construct, bearing little relationship to history. I don’t pretend to be an expert on him or his actions and motivations, but it doesn’t take much reading of modern works on Kossuth to discover that his views and intentions were nothing like as simple or as ‘pure’ as they are often portrayed today. For a start, his initial aim was not for a Hungary entirely free and independent, but one self-governing within the Hapsburg empire. Home rule, rather than true independence. (Rather ironically, much like the eventual Compromise two decades later.) Secondly, his views and aspirations changed quite dramatically as the war progressed. Initially, for instance, the concerns of the ‘minorities’ didn’t seem to enter into his plans, but later (too late, unfortunately), he started taking them seriously and attempted to modify the aims of the war to take them into account. And then there is the whole ‘later’ history of Kossuth as a somewhat bitter exile trying to influence… Read more »
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