I must say that I was surprised when I read this morning that István Csurka, novelist, playwright, and politician, had died. I didn’t even know that he was ill. After all, a few months ago György Dörner of Új Színház (New Theater) fame made him co-head of the theater. And only a few days ago he delivered a speech in Szeged defending his country’s honor at a time of “concentrated and coordinated” attacks against Hungary and its prime minister.
I met István Csurka only once in my life when he was twenty-one years old. He was already a published author, and his contemporaries considered him to be a very talented short story writer. About the evening I spent with Csurka and the other literary hopefuls I remember only that he drank an awful lot.
Shortly after that meeting I left Hungary, and I didn’t follow Csurka’s literary career after 1956. As it turned out, he became a celebrated playwright. Most likely he chose that genre because his strength lay in developing dialogue rather than in writing descriptive passages or creating psychological portraits.
Not long ago, I managed to get a volume of his short stories entitled Nász és pofon (Nuptial and a slap), and I must say that I found his short stories mediocre at best. Gáspár Miklós Tamás (TGM or Gazsi to his friends) wrote an obituary in HVG in which he described Csurka’s literary talents: “When his plays were being staged in Hungarian theaters nobody really thought of him as a great playwright, most likely not even he himself…. He was talented but not outstandingly so. However, he managed to bring out the most of what he had.”
In the 1960s and 1970s he lived the life of a fairly successful novelist and playwright. He evinced no revolutionary spirit. That was the situation until 1985 when he was one of the organizers of a gathering of forty-five leading intellectuals at a camp site in Monor. This group represented the full spectrum of Hungarian political opinions, from urbanites to populists. Two years later, in 1987, he became one of the founders of Magyar Demokrata Fórum.Csurka’s political career had its twists and turns. In 1956 he was active in the student movement and as a result he spent six months in a labor camp. It was most likely there that he agreed to work for the Hungarian secret service in exchange for his freedom. All this came to light only in the 1990s. Csurka at this point wrote a “confession” in which he claimed that during his association with the Ministry of Interior he never reported on anyone although he met weekly with “his keeper,” as the officer in charge was called. That’s highly unlikely.
Soon enough, however, it became obvious that Csurka’s ideas were a far cry from those of the prime minister and MDF party chairman, József Antall. In 1992-1993 these differences came to the surface when Csurka published an article entitled “Some thoughts on the change of regime and the new program of MDF.” The contents of this article were described by József Debreczeni, biographer of József Antall, as “manifest Nazi ideology.” And yet as I read Csurka’s piece I was struck by how far Hungarian political thought has shifted to the right since that time. What sounded outrageous in 1993 is today one of the tenets of Fidesz’s ideology. According to Csurka “there was no change of regime” in 1989-1990. What does Viktor Orbán say? Something very similar. He repeated many times that democracy arrived in 2010 only with the second Orbán government.
Csurka’s pamphlet was also a frontal attack on the Jews whom he considered to be “the chief enemies of the nation.” Admittedly, Viktor Orbán is not openly anti-semitic, but he has sometimes made carefully coded negative references to the Jewish influence on the Hungarian psyche. Whether this is only a political ploy in his battle with Jobbik for voters doesn’t really matter.Csurka devoted a large part of his article to the question of “national interest.” In his opinion no one should dictate to Hungarians. “What should happen in this country is what we want.” Doesn’t this also sound familiar? “Magyarország should be magyar ország.” No one, whether from Moscow or from Brussels, will give Hungary orders, says Orbán. Csurka insisted on total independence or “sovereignty,” as Orbán likes to call it. Csurka also demanded “cleaning out the Hungarian Radio and Hungarian Television … if necessary with the help of the police.” Viktor Orbán already during his first term in office allowed István Csurka–by then the party chairman of a new radical party called Magyar Élet és Igazság Pártja or MIÉP (Party of Hungarian Life and Truth)–to do just that. They got rid of everybody who, to Csurka’s mind, were not serving Hungary’s “national interest.” The second time around Orbán, with his two-thirds parliamentary majority, embarked on a much more thorough cleansing of the public media.
The uproar outside and to a certain extent inside of MDF was so great that in 1993 József Antall was pretty much forced to get rid of Csurka. No problem; Csurka immediately started a party of his own (MIÉP). It turned out that Csurka’s message resonated and that he had a fairly large following. In fact, by 1998 the party was strong enough to have parliamentary representation. At the end of this period the MIÉP caucus dutifully supported the Fidesz-Smallholder government. It was thanks to Csurka that the Fidesz minority government managed to stay in power.
In 2002 Csurka still roused 200,000 of his followers for a huge demonstration. He even hung on to his voter base. Yet, because of the large turnout MIÉP didn’t reach the magic 5% necessary for parliamentary representation.
MIÉP had lost its momentum. In 2006 MIÉP ran together with Jobbik, but the ticket managed to get only 2.5% of the votes. After Jobbik discovered that antisemitism wasn’t enough to move large masses of voters, the party leadership hit upon the widespread anti-Roma sentiment in Hungary. The rest of the story is only too well known.
A good Csurka caricature
By 2010 Csurka became an ardent supporter of Fidesz and Viktor Orbán. He even campaigned for Orbán and his party. The ideologies had begun to converge. But “converge” is perhaps the wrong word. Csurka remained steadfast; Orbán moved farther to the right.