Today’s post is inspired by the speech Professor János Kornai gave at the Széchenyi Academy of Literature and Arts. The occasion was an evening devoted to the great nineteenth-century statesman, István Széchenyi.
I will not repeat myself by relating details of István Széchenyi’s life and importance because three years ago I wrote a fairly lengthy piece about Széchenyi as the object of historical falsification. I focused on a movie made about Széchenyi’s life at the first Orbán government’s expense where the actor, influential in Fidesz circles, refused to play the part of a hero who commits suicide. No problem, the sponsor, i.e. the Hungarian government, obliged. The film ended with a lie: Széchenyi was murdered by the evil camarilla in Vienna.
István Széchenyi (1791-1860)
In my earlier post I mentioned that conservative governments usually develop a veritable Széchenyi cult while liberals and socialists cling to their hero, Lajos Kossuth. This has been the case all through the last hundred and fifty years, and allegedly Széchenyi is the idol of the present regime as well. But after reading János Kornai’s speech it becomes crystal clear that Viktor Orbán and his friends should be the last people on earth to even utter Széchenyi’s name. Because this government’s policies go against the very core of Széchenyi’s ideas about Hungary’s place in the world.
The title of Kornai’s lecture was “Meeting Széchenyi.” I must admit I often thought about translating some of Széchenyi’s famous sentences about Hungary as he saw it in the 1830s. But it would be a formidable task because the Hungarian language of almost two hundred years ago poses a real challenge. At times one needs to be very imaginative to figure out what certain words might mean. Professor Kornai collected quite a few typical Széchenyi quotations and perhaps one day I will translate them all and even more, but if I tried it today there would be nothing to post.
János Kornai assumes, correctly I think, that Széchenyi would feel quite comfortable after a while in our world. He was always terribly interested in technology and surely, says Kornai, Széchenyi would be fascinated by the Internet. He would read a few new books on economics, learn something about the present economic situation in the world and in Hungary, and he would be ready to listen to Kornai’s lecture. Moreover, Kornai thinks that Széchenyi would agree with most of what he has to say.
To begin with, István Széchenyi travelled widely in Europe and he was especially taken by the leading industrial state of the time, England. Therefore, he had a knowledge of the countries west of Hungary and was able to compare Hungary to them. And one had to be blind not to see how backward Hungary was in comparison. Here are two quotations I managed to translate this afternoon.
In his famous book Hitel (Credit, 1830) he wrote: “To brag about the defects and blemishes of the fatherland is the property of lowly and cowardly souls. But not to acknowledge them or perhaps even extol them as virtues–as something we often encounter–is the sign of blindness and ignorance.”
Or in his Diary, from 1832: “I used to be against the Turks but now I’m on their side because they want to become civilized. Only they don’t know how. The Hungarians are more ignorant. They imagine in their conceit to be superior to all other nations.”
The backwardness of Hungary in comparison to other western European countries is still a fact of life. In the last twenty-three years Hungarian GDP/person once reached a high of 51% that of Austria. Downtown Budapest would most likely delight Széchenyi but not the outskirts or some of the smaller towns, especially in the eastern part of the country. Széchenyi was especially fascinated by the development of what we call infrastructure today: bridges, railroads, navigable waterways. He would be upset to see that the construction of the Budapest metro is stalling, that building of new modern roads has slowed, and that buses, streetcars, and railroad cars are in terrible shape.
Széchenyi would also be very upset about the state of the Hungarian budget. He wrote in his Diary (1826): “I’m afraid Hungary will collapse financially. Even the worst managed estate or household can go on indefinitely and without hindrance as long as the sum of the expenses is smaller than the sum of earnings.” Poor Széchenyi if he woke up today and saw the state of fiscal affairs in Hungary.
Széchenyi also considered the educational level of a society an absolute priority. Here is another quotation from his Diary (1832): “It is said that money makes the English. Take away his money but leave his brains. Give the money to the Hungarian but let him remain ignorant. And all will remain the same. Indeed, money is the visible instrument of development but deep down invisibly it is the brain that works.” Or in Világ (Light, 1831): “Public intelligence is the only real strength. There is no greater power. It must be developed far and wide.” Somehow I don’t think that Széchenyi would be a great friend of the Fidesz boys or Rózsa Hoffmann who don’t seem to have a terribly high regard for learning. Although we all know that economic development and wide-based educational attainment go hand in hand, the current government is spending less on education and believes in a very small university-educated group on top. And that elite should busy themselves with engineering or computer science. Literature, history, economics, legal studies–not really important.
Orbán and his friends completely misunderstand the requirements of technologically advanced societies. They think that what Hungary needs is a large, uneducated work force. Teaching anything to the “masses” is a waste of money. I don’t think that we can even comprehend the long-lasting damage the Orbán government is inflicting on Hungarian society. Széchenyi would be outraged.
(To be continued)