As usual, there are plenty of topics one could write about but I decided to focus today on the tendency in Hungary to mix politics and the arts. This tendency has been apparent for some time, but lately there are signs that Fidesz has been making a concerted effort to divide the country’s artistic and intellectual elite.
Ever since the 2006 local elections, when Fidesz won in practically all the larger cities and towns, there has been a systematic reshaping of local cultural institutions. The most obvious was the hiring of new theater directors. I couldn’t understand then or even now why theaters are so important to Fidesz. What did they want to achieve by having their own men as theater directors?
On the national level there was a more spontaneous movement among writers and artists to gather in separate groups. Because of ideological differences, formerly single organizations serving writers, newspapermen, or artists split into liberal and conservative or more precisely pro-SZDSZ/MSZP and pro-Fidesz factions. If one looks at the list of members of some of these organizations one immediately knows who stands where politically.
About a year ago I started a folder that I called “Kulturkampf.” I was inspired by a report by Deutschlandradio with the same title. According to the German report by Stephen Ozsváth, in 2010 alone 17,000 people were sacked in the cultural sphere. Géza Szőcs, the new undersecretary in charge of cultural affairs, openly talked about “a necessary purge.” At that time Die Zeit also wrote about the adverse effect of the anti-gay and anti-Semitic atmosphere that Fidesz created after April-May 2010.
Since then most of the theaters outside of Budapest have been taken over by Fidesz loyalists who also make sure that only Fidesz loyalists are hired by the company. Naturally, it is very difficult to prove this systematic purging of political undesirables, but a few days ago a documented case came to the surface. Since then the case has received considerable attention.
Thanks to local investigative journalists, it became known that in Eger the committee on culture and tourism prepared a list of undesirables in the city’s cultural life. On April 18 a local Internet newspaper, Egri Ügyek, received the minutes of a meeting held last September at which one of the city fathers suggested that in order to make the life of the committee easier a list of forbidden persons should be prepared. Otherwise, the problem they had just experienced can easily recur: the program was already printed when it turned out that one of the invited actors, József Székhelyi, “was not welcome by the inhabitants of the city.” In the opinion of Mrs. László Orosz, the chairman of the committee, in this case the city council had to act to prevent the appearance of the person the local residents objected to. Because of this “mishap” the committee decided to prepare a list. The next day Egri Ügyek came out with another case: a local actress was first asked to appear in a production but a few days later was told that she was no longer wanted. Moreover, the person who was responsible for inviting her was told that he might lose his job if he insists.
The theater in Eger
Stop, another online publication, got national coverage for this story when on April 19 it reported the details of Eger’s list of undesirables. A member of the committee denied the existence of such a list. “Naturally there is no such list in Eger. The reference to a list in the minutes was uttered in jest.” At this point MTI came into the picture and from there the story went to all the major Hungarian newspapers.
One would have thought that the incident in Eger wouldn’t have much traction after a few days. Such cases, however, normally illustrate an attitude that permeates the city’s political leadership. Of the nineteen council members in Eger, by the way, thirteen are Fidesz-KDNP, two Jobbik, two MSZP, one LMP, and one independent.
About a week went by when Stop received a tape that had been recorded at the aforementioned meeting of the committee on culture and tourism. As it turned out, the minutes were not a verbatim transcript. What one can hear on the tape is actually much worse than the written description of it.
According to the tape recording, a fairly heated discussion ensued over József Székhelyi’s appearance in Eger. According to one of the participants, just because “everybody says that Székhelyi is a filthy Jew of SZDSZ sympathies” he is still a good actor who is fantastic at reciting Villon.
The chairman of the committee on culture and tourism, Mrs. László Orosz, didn’t even know who Székhelyi was although the actor has had important roles in at least fifty films and has received several prizes. Stop also found out that Mrs. Orosz in civilian life is a teacher.
The scandal was growing and growing, and at last the Fidesz mayor of Eger had to say something. László Habis expressed his open-mindedness in artistic matters. He now finds “the stigmatization of members of the cultural sphere unacceptable and absurd.” He also promised an investigation of the meeting of the committee on culture and tourism. It is unlikely that there will be serious consequences of the incident. It is also very unlikely that the selection of artists on political grounds will come to a stop. But at least we now have proof of what’s going on in some councils when it comes to the cultural life of their cities.