István Csurka (1934-2012)

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.”

Csurka3

Csurka in 1969 (Nász és pofon)

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.

Csurka1

Csurka as we mostly remember him

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.

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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.

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Paul
Guest

Éva – in the second to last para I think you mean 2006.

Adam
Guest

I thought Tamás Gáspár Miklós was the most disgusting in HVG, using a persons death to verbally spit on him in almost every way imaginable and to top it off he called him a fascist. You are free to do so but not when the guy just died.
Halottakról vagy jót vagy semmit.
But this I somehow find more repulsing. The fact that Csurka died is seen only as an opportunity to attack Orban. I mean this is low. And then I don’t even mention parts like:
“Csurka’s pamphlet was also a frontal attack on the Jews” – no it was not. It were the Jews who launched a frontal attack against Csurka and MDF. This is probably one of the reasons why he became anti-semitic later. But he didn’t start out that way.
The quote of József Debreczeni is once again disgusting to bring up on such an occasion, not to mention that this exact quote was considered so outrageous even at the time that Debreczeni was expelled from MDF for this exact sentence. Maybe that fact is also important to know.

Paul
Guest

If someone is a fascist and/or an anti-Semite, they are as much one on the day they die and the day after, as they were the day before.
It’s not polite or goods manners? Well it’s not particularly polite or good manners to wish harm to soeone because of their race or religion either.
I’d rather be rude than a racist Jew hater. And I’m glad there’s one less of those in the world.

Öcsi
Guest
Member
@Ocsi Click! Most of the English speaking readers probably don’t know Csurka’s opus from 1992. It was a big ~13,000 word (30+ pages) “Mein Kampf” style manifesto. I couldn’t find any English translations of it, but Debreczeny was right. It’s an anti-Semite nationalistic cliche galore – Muscovite communist Jews, SZDSZ, IMF, bankers, “Hungarian’s ability to recognize enemies”, Trianon, the whole nine yards. Additionally, since at this time the members were fleeing the MDF, the government party by then, a large part of the text is devoted to blame everything on earth for it. Sounds familiar? Csurka was essentially the father of the post communist anti-Semitism in Hungary. In a way it let genie out of the bottle by showing that “see we can do it now openly”. But all this is understandable by some since it was “obvious” that the Jews attacked Csurka and the MDF. Isn’t it always the same story? All went well for 2 years and he suddenly had a revelation. Right. I received another shorter pamphlet (6 pages) about 3 weeks ago also written by him. Nothing changed compared to the one 20 years ago. Freedom fight against Jews, IMF, bankers, the world against the Hungarians,… Read more »
Gabriella
Guest

Adam: I thought Tamás Gáspár Miklós was the most disgusting in HVG, using a persons death to verbally spit on him in almost every way imaginable and to top it off he called him a fascist. You are free to do so but not when the guy just died.
Halottakról vagy jót vagy semmit.
Oh, please. Ji have plenty to say about Hitler, and Csurka. There are all those, where there is nothing good to say. Csurka is one of them

enuff
Guest

Now I can read what he was all about.
Thanks, Eva for the article.

Mouse
Guest

Paul “I’d rather be rude than a racist Jew hater. And I’m glad there’s one less of those in the world.”
Well said. One of the issues I have with civilisation Hungarian style is the idea that somehow manners or at least the appearance of manners is given such a high value. Challenging someones position living or dead on anti semitic or anti roma comments is something we should all do no matter how uncomfortable it makes people.

Törpefejű
Guest

The only literary text I ever read by Csurka was a short story entitled “Protest Song” – a respectable solid citizen smells someone repeatedly farting on a bus, and assumes it’s a hippy-like youth. “Go sing your protest song somewhere else” he says, and the two men nearly come to blows before the hippy’s stop comes up. At that point, the solid citizen turns around and sees the real culprit, a senile old man bulbitating in the seat behind him.
Pehaps this is the best way to remember Csurka – as gusts of foul wind.
In any event, I should also add yet another installation to the “atrocity exhibition” (cf. J.G. Ballard) that is contemporary Hungary. That is to say, the recent declaration by the Writers’ Union that the true representatives of the Hungarian literary world (largely the second-raters, with the sad exception of Zsuzsa Rakovszky) were standing up against the foreign attacks by the Hungarians who made their reputations abroad…. True, the Writers’ Union has been an organisation largely ignored ever since the best authors left over the anti-semitic maunderings of Kornel Dobrentei, but it’s worrying nonetheless.

Leo
Guest

@Paul: I’d rather be rude than a racist Jew hater.
But it not a necessary choice, is it? Being rude makes one only resemble Orbán and his buddies. Like your friend Joey.
Csurka had a frightening aspect we see reflected in this poem by Zsuzsa Takács (translation: http://georgeszirtes.blogspot.com/2012/02/istvan-csurka-1934-2012.html). He was also something of a freak, a ridiculous man. At the same time he may have been an interesting play and story writer. As such one should try to appreciate him without prejudice.

Leo
Guest
Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Leo quoting Zsuzsa Takács:
How perfect it is, this hat,
hung on the copper hook next to my own.
It’s green but of a rather subtle shade,
the ribbon black, threaded through with gold.
How many terrible thoughts have brewed beneath it,
what thoughts have dashed themselves to death within it.
Surely it has passed from father to son.
The last sentence is most likely referring to Csurka’s father, Péter, who was a journalist in the 1930s and a man of the far right. So, it seems that young Csurka’s political views were formed early in life. And, by the way, Csurka was an anti-Semite all his life. It was a well known fact that when he was drunk which was often he delivered long anti-Semitic tirades in public. Once he even got into some trouble because of it.

Leo
Guest

Yes, but then she continues:
It disturbs me like some kind of family heirloom.
It’s rather tight but has been brushed to a shine
What suggests that she is not only thinking of the Csurka family. Who in Hungary does not have a brother, uncle or cousin like Csurka?
But it’s not in the genes.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Leo: “What suggests that she is not only thinking of the Csurka family.”
Yes, you are right. An old ideology “brushed to a shine.” The same old story.

Member
Adam: “Halottakról vagy jót vagy semmit.” {You should only say good things about the dead or nothing at all.] One of my favourite filmmaker is Elia Kazan (a Greek by birth, but a true American really). Kazan came to the lime light with his movies against anti-semitism, against racism and against union corruption. He had one of the most astonoushing career. He has discovered many actors, and created lasting art. He slipped up once, in 1952 and gave out the names of his communist comrades in 1952, hence many of them loosing their jobs and their livellihood. He had Oscars, Tony Awards and whatever anyone would wish for as an artist. You cannot argue with his art, but just like Csurka, he gave up his friends under pressure. Interestingly his supporter’s forgave Csurka for his informant past because there was something more appealing to them about him. One thing was stronger in Csurka than sucking up to the communists or the love of writing, his hatred of others, the Jews and gypsy. The comparison between Csurka and Kazan should start and end with the similar circumstance on informing on others to save your own skin. THere is no other comparison.… Read more »
Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Magyar Narancs’s obituary’s title is the line from László Hunyadi I quoted in connection with Stalin’s death: “Meghalt a cselszövő, dúl a rút viszály.”
http://magyarnarancs.hu/aszerk/meghalt-a-cselszovo-dul-a-rut-viszaly-78618

Vilmos
Guest

“Halottakról vagy jót vagy semmit”
An interesting piece by Glenn Greenwald related to this idea, though you have to get past a longish introductory bit about Reagan’s death to reach a more general point.
http://www.salon.com/2011/12/17/christohper_hitchens_and_the_protocol_for_public_figure_deaths/

Guest

Thank you for the article. Spot-on as usual.
Orbán, as you say, may or may not be anti-semitic himself, but he knows how to garner support by giving lip-service to any and all uncouth and uncivilised sentiments, if he thinks that’s what his audence wants to hear.
For instance, when he was a guest of Soros in New York in the early days of his budding political career, he wished his fellow Hungarian colleagues ‘a Jew-free goodnight!”

Wondercat
Guest

Szirtes comments that HUNGARIAN QUARTERLY is now in the hands of government supporters. Details? Anyone?

Eva D
Guest

Hi Eva – do you remember me – I was your debating partner on the Hungary list in 1994-ish. I just read an article by you in the Népszabadság. Amazed I was and looked up your blog.I actually agree with your post about Csurka. But still surprised I remember you talking about the pre-45 period as something to aspire to get back, and this is exactly the Orbán ambitions (as per changing Kossuth square to 1944 image minus Attila József.
I am, as a still (non-neoliberal) socialist do wonder what you think of the Hungarian feeble attempts to fight Orban and the (other) fascists.
by the way we live in Hungary in the last 6+ years.

Eva D
Guest

p.s. sorry about all the mainly grammatical mistakes above, I couldn’t figure out how to edit.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Eva D: “But still surprised I remember you talking about the pre-45 period as something to aspire to get back.”
Eva, I’m sure that you are mistaken. I was never in favor of going back to the Horthy regime. I have a very bad opinion of the whole whole political system that came into being after 1919.

Member

hear-and-now: “when [Orban] was a guest of Soros in New York in the early days of his budding political career, he wished his fellow Hungarian colleagues ‘a Jew-free goodnight!” I am sceptic about this one. Is this word of mouth or someone has actually witnessed this? It is hard for me to believe that while you are guest of Soros you would say such thing.
Th problem with Orban is that nobody really knows what he believes in. His indifference is what makes him someone who I would not trust with even dog-sitting. He says one thing but supports other (“do not believe what I say [to be elected]’). He only takes stands for things that provides him benefits, not for things that morally right.

Jano
Guest
“Halottról jót vagy semmit” This is actually a mistranslation of the latin sententia which means “Halottról igazat vagy semmit” (The truth or nothing about the deceased). So no we don’t have to say good things about Csurka when we take a look at his life. He was truly an anti-semite, he founded the post-communist far right tradition in Hungary and I don’t even think he had a fully sane mind in the last decade of his life (or even before). He was also a huge hypocrite with his anti-communism, his III/III involvement is pretty obvious, there is indeed not much to be praised about his political career. On the other hand, his playwright career is a completely independent issue and only the future can tell if he created anything lasting or not. Of course as always, when Eva hates somebody she tries to put every single aspect of that person in the worst possible light, so I don’t give her personal ‘mediocre’ at best evaluation too much credit (neither does the far-left-anarchist-green and god only knows what else TGM’s opinion carry too much weight.) My ardent liberal Jewish literaturist (how to translate irodalmár??) friend has always told me that it’s… Read more »
Member

If you speak Hungarian, the Doglott Aknak (Dead Mines) Csurka’s probably most famous play, is available on YouTube for free. It’s probably the best version, from 1982 with Ferencz Kallai and Tamas Major in the Jozsef Katona Theatre.



Janos Kadar also saw it, I think in this very theatre. Rumors say he was laughing his ass off that’s why the play could remain in the theatre.
The plot in short: in the psychiatric ward a communist and a reactionist are in the same room. Both are having nervous breakdown. The two enemies both claim to be the victims of the history.

An
Guest

@Jano: Hmm…. he may or may not have been a good writer, unfortunately, his political legacy for Hungary is far more influential than his literary contribution. Just theoretically, if Hitler had actually been a good painter, would our judgement of him and his role in history be very different?

Jano
Guest

An: I totally agree with the first sentence. I wish he hadn’t started doing politics ever…
The other question about Hitler. His role in history, no. Him as a person, no. I don’t exactly know who I’m paraphrasing here but, the ‘artist dies at the moment of creation and the piece of art starts living his own life’.
I certainly wouldn’t burn an ingenious Hitler painting while I’d be more than happy to burn a Hitler portrait. I hope this answers your question. (I understand if you disagree, I could certainly see reasons why.)
Mutt: Thank you so so much for the link, Kállai is brilliant!

Member

Just for the record. Dolfi was a house painter. That’s what the joke is in comparison to Leonardo.

An
Guest
Member

Merde. You’re right! Where did I get this house painter idea? His works go for 50k US a pop. They are probably good investments.

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