Yesterday I outlined the Orbán government’s attempt to return a few hundred square feet to its 1944 persona. The spot has symbolic significance for the politicians currently in power in Hungary because it is located in front of the House of the Homeland, as the parliament is known in Hungarian. The desire to stop the clock in one little segment of the world has an air of unreality to it. But that’s not all that seems to me to be doomed. An intellectual return to the 1930s through education seems just as much of a failing proposition.
Viktor Orbán asserted, even during the period between 1998 and 2002, that one of his favorite politicians is Count István Bethlen, prime minister of Hungary between 1921 and 1931. Although Bethlen was considered to be a moderate by Hungarian standards of the 1920s and 1930s, he was a thoroughly conservative man who didn’t really believe in democracy. In addition to Bethlen, Fidesz politicians praise Bethlen’s minister of education, Count Kunó Klebersberg (1921-1931).
Klebersberg’s greatest achievement was that he managed to convince his fellow politicians and the prime minister that Hungary, reduced in size and population, could be great only through intellectual achievements. “It is not the sword that will make Hungary great again,” he said. Indeed, given the very limited resources of the time Hungary on average spent 9-10% of its budget on education and culture compared to the pre-1914 period’s modest sums (2-5.5% of the budget).
This money was well spent. Within ten years many new schools were built, several new high schools were established, illiteracy decreased substantially, educational reforms were introduced, and plenty of money was spent on research. On the basis of these facts, one should have only praise for Klebersberg’s activities. But his ideology and the practices he insisted on are disturbing. The worldview that was spread in Hungarian schools in the 1920s and 1930s greatly influenced the ideology of the “Christian upper middle class” (in Hungarian the “keresztény úri középosztály), traces of which are detectable even today.
What was the essence of this ideology? Before the war Hungarian schools were not considered to be instruments of ideological orientation. After the war, under Klebersberg’s tutelage, ideological and political considerations took center stage. “National feelings” had to be nurtured and children were to be shielded from the harmful effects of internationalism. One of Klebersberg’s most important aims was the “re-Hungarization of the intelligentsia.” He made no secret of his view that re-Hungarization was necessary because the Hungarian intelligentsia had become “Judaized” in Hungary’s liberal period. Teaching became completely hungarocentric. The emphasis was on Hungarian literature, Hungarian history, and geography that included the study of the whole Carpathian Basin. The teaching of world history was greatly reduced in favor of “subjects of national knowledge” (nemzetismereti tárgyak).
As for worldview, schools were supposed to teach children to condemn the teaching of liberal democracy. They were taught a hatred of social democracy and the left in general. The denunciation of Mihály Károlyi was part and parcel of the curriculum. Teachers were supposed to educate children so they would grow up as model citizens and especially good Hungarians. Upright, hard working, resolute, morally upright with a “healthy Hungarian worldview.”
Although Klebersberg attended law school, he was interested in the humanities and the social sciences. When he became minister of education, he educated himself in the art of teaching and amassed a library of more than 3,000 volumes.
He spent considerable time developing the kind of educational system that would serve the needs of post-Trianon Hungary. He even came up with a new concept that he called “neo-nationalism.” In 1928 he published a volume of his speeches on the subject. What was neo-nationalism for Klebersberg? “The solidarity of positive, active, productive men. The holy collaboration of workers and creative men in the magnificent rebuilding of the ruined homeland. The conscious union against those who are overly critical and in general against those whose outlook is negative.” He quite openly admitted that his aim was to produce “a new Hungarian type.” Well, nothing is new under the sun. The communists in Russia wanted to produce a Soviet man who would be radically different from his predecessor and the Hungarian nationalists attempted the same, but in nationalist not internationalist garb.
Klebersberg’s ideal Hungarian is “a man who speaks and preaches little but who works hard and creates.” As Ervin Csizmadia, a Hungarian political scientist, points out, there are many similarities between Klebersberg’s and the current Hungarian government’s ideas. Orbán talks a lot about physical labor as the only real work. We hear from morning till night about the country that is in ruins and that must be rebuilt. Orbán and his fellow politicians are also very sensitive to criticism and have a few harsh words to say about “negative people” who are skeptical of their grandiose ideas about the glorious future that is just around the corner.
And naturally we mustn’t forget about Rózsa Hoffmann’s plans for educational reform. The stated aim is to develop “a national middle class.” What the authors of the new law on public education actually mean is that they want to produce a nationalistic middle class. They don’t dare add that they also want a “Christian” middle class because that would be considered anti-Semitic. But elsewhere they make it crystal clear that Christianity is an important ingredient of this Fidesz-KDNP ideology. All in all, if it depended on Viktor Orbán and Rózsa Hoffmann Hungarian educational principles would be very close to those Klebersberg had in mind. But what they forget is that 80-90 years have gone by since. Then only 1.1% of the population finished university and 3.6% high school. And of course there are the dramatic changes that have taken place in Hungarian society and the western world as a whole. Good luck, Rózsa Hoffmann!