Today I began my day by reading Attila Ara-Kovács’s latest article in Magyar Narancs where he has a column, “Diplomáciai jegyzetek” (Diplomatic notes). Ara-Kovács is originally from Transylvania. He was born in Nagyvárad/Oradea and graduated from the Babeş-Bólyai University in Kolozsvár/Cluj. He was among those who began the first Hungarian-Romanian samizdat publication entitled Ellenpontok (Counterpoints). He has been living in Hungary since 1983 where he joined the handful of dissidents who voiced their opposition to the one-party system. It was this group that eventually established SZDSZ (Szabad Demokraták Szövetsége). Ara-Kovács became the party’s foreign policy expert.
Ara-Kovács latest article, “The trap of silence or the aftermath of the Nyirő affair,” deals with the Nyirő affair but not in the sense that most people approach the subject. He is hunting for the underlying issues that inevitably led to this embarrassing affair that was politely described by President János Áder as a “malheur diplomatique.”
Well, this diplomatic misfortune stirred up, at least abroad, some history that Hungarians would like to forget: Miklós Horthy as Hitler’s ally, Hungary as the country that stood by Nazi Germany to the bitter end, Hungarian antisemitism, the unbelievably speedy elimination of 400,000 Hungarian Jews. And all this “dirty laundry” is now being dragged out and spread around on the pages of German, French, and English newspapers. This is the last thing either the country or Viktor Orbán’s government needed.
How did János Kövér and others, including the poet Géza Szőcs, himself a Transylvanian, end up taking part in an affair which with a little more knowledge of József Nyirő’s literary qualities and his politics could have easily been avoided? Ara-Kovács finds the answer in the “directed cultural policy” of the post 1945 period. The leadership, especially during the Kádár period, found it embarrassing to talk honestly about the Hungarian far right’s misdeeds. They were also incapable of making a distinction between value and worthlessness, and they were incapable of admitting that even among the best literary talents there were some who made horrible mistakes. There were indeed Hungarian writers active during the Kádár regime whose past was not exactly spotless: László Németh, Lőrinc Szabó, János Kodolányi, for example. In their cases the regime simply forbade any mention of their political activities in the 1930s and 1940s. Others were labelled not quite normal, like Dezső Szabó or József Erdélyi, or were ignored, like Kálmán Sértő and István Sinka (who posthumously received the Kossuth Prize in 1990 and now Hungarian Jewish organizations demand his removal from the curriculum). József Nyirő belonged to the forgotten category. And now all this, because of László Kövér’s attempt to rebury Nyirő, came out of the “national cesspool.”
Twentieth-century Hungarian history may have taught people that forgetting is the best remedy for sleepless nights, but such silence has its pitfalls. The skeleton of Nyirő fell out of the closet and that skeleton reminds us that for such silence one sooner or later will have to pay. If the literary historians had assigned Nyirő his proper place in the history of Hungarian literature and if the politicians in charge of cultural policy didn’t look upon his past as nonexistent, then the right radicals and neo-Nazis of today couldn’t have made “first a martyr and later a clown” out of him.
In his article Ara-Kovács brings up the story of Hitler’s Mein Kampf in Hungary. The book was translated into Hungarian in the 1930s but it was an expurgated version. The editors left out everything that even “the not so delicate political taste” of the Horthy regime couldn’t tolerate. After 1945 this edited version was banned. In the 1990s Hungarian right radicals illegally republished that old translation of Mein Kampf. So today, if a young person is interested in reading Hitler’s famous book, he will be reading only an edited version that gives a much more favorable picture of the dictator than the original German. It would be time to publish a critical edition of Mein Kampf.
A writer who has done a lot to bring to light the political past of some of the Hungarian writers is András Nyerges, who for years wrote a column called “Színrebontás” (Color Separation) in various dailies and eventually in ÉS. Nyerges has a phenomenal knowledge of the right-wing or outright Nazi press between the two world wars. And while he was diligently reading these old newspapers in the Széchenyi Library he found names of contributors that surprised him greatly. People who followed Nyerges’s revelations learned about the ugly spots on some of the most famous Hungarian writers, even those who were loyal followers of the Rákosi and Kádár regimes. For example, Péter Veres. But Nyerges wrote about József Nyirő as well. The article was eventually published in a collected volume, Rendes ország, kétféle történelem. 113 színrebontás (Decent country, two kinds of history. 113 color separations). From the article we learn that there was a debate over Nyirő’s political role already in 1989 on the occasion of the centennial of the writer’s birth. The argument of Nyirő’s supporters sounds familiar: Nyirő “didn’t serve national socialism with his pen, only with his mere presence.” But this presence was steadfast. According to György Oláh, editor-in-chief of Egyedül Vagyunk, a far-right newspaper, among the radical writers many of them got “”burned by democratic-Marxist ideas.” The only exceptions were Albert Wass and József Nyirő in addition to Antal Práger, the actor.
It is time to face facts, and therefore I was pleased to hear that a conference was held on the role of Horthy and the nature of the Horthy regime today. But conferences are not enough. A balanced and truthful history of the recent past must start in the schools. In the last twenty-two years the Hungarian school system was incapable of fulfilling this duty and I very much doubt that the Orbán government has any intention of righting this wrong. On the contrary, they are doing their best to falsify history.