I’m taking a break from economics and politics and will turn to popular history.
There are a couple of monthly magazines dealing with history in Hungary: Rubicon and História. Both are edited by well respected historians and the short articles are written by experts in their fields. Both have been in existence for a long time. Rubicon’s first issue came out in 1990 and História has been in existence since 1979. Both are edited around specific topics; Rubicon often opts for topics that are being discussed in current political discourse. For instance, its last two issues examine aspects of the Horthy regime. The most recent has several articles on Kuno Klebelsberg, minister of education between 1922-1931, whose portrait appears on the magazine cover. The issue before that deals with the life and role of István Horthy, son of Miklós Horthy, governor of Hungary between 1920 and 1944. István Horthy became deputy governor in 1942 but died shortly thereafter in a flying accident in the Soviet Union.
Today, drawing from the latest Rubicon, I’ll spend some time on two men whom I’ve had occasion to write about before. First, Ignác Romsics, the foremost historian of the first decade of the Horthy regime, the Bethlen period, and the author of a recent biography of the former prime minister. And second, Kuno Klebelsberg, minister of education in Bethlen’s cabinet. Although there were a lot of personnel changes during Bethlen’s tenure (1921-1931), Klebelsberg’s position was secure despite his many critics, especially from the far right who found him not a good enough Hungarian. After all, his paternal ancestors were German, even though the first Klebelsberg arrived in Hungary in the sixteenth century.
A few days ago I wrote about the Ignác Romsics-András Gerő debate over the former’s alleged antisemitism. After reading this short article I was struck by Romsics’s conservatism as well as his seeming identification with his subject matter. István Földesi, whose answer to Romsics’s article on Trianon and the Holocaust was discussed on Hungarian Spectrum, called my attention to a recent article on Romsics. The author, Péter Sólyom, points out that Romsics’s problem as a historian is that he hides his own assessment of the era he discusses. Thus, says Sólyom, the reader can attach his own interpretation to Romsics’s text, an interpretation that might not correspond to the author’s own.
I found a very good example in the first few sentences of Romsics’s introductory article to the issue on Klebelsberg. According to him, “the three outstanding [kiemelkedő] personalities in building the new Hungary were Miklós Horthy who organized the army, István Bethlen the statesman, and Klebelsberg who was responsible for cultural and education policies.” The single adjective “outstanding” blurs the vast differences between Horthy, whose ideas were pretty close to the far right, and Bethlen and Klebelsberg, both deeply conservative men. Was Horthy truly outstanding in organizing an army that turned out to be a breeding ground for far-right extremists? Can Horthy’s achievements be compared to those of István Bethlen?
One gets even more perplexed when one reads that under Bethlen’s guidance “within a few years the equality of the citizens before the law was restored” (helyreállt az állampolgári egyenlőség). But was it? After all, the numerus clausus was still in force although “its enforcement was made less stringent because of international pressure.” Romsics explains that the law “restricted the number of Jewish students in institutions of higher learning from 30% before the war to 8%.” This might be factually correct, but mentioning the pre-war figure may give rise to the suspicion that this rather superfluous piece of information serves a hidden agenda. Of course, I might be wrong, but wouldn’t it have been more proper to say that any kind of quota based on race or religion is incompatible with democracy and the equality of citizens?
Romsics provides some figures about Kuno Klebelsberg’s achievements, which are in many ways impressive. By the second half of the 1920s Klebelsberg’s ministry received 9-10% of the total budget. Half of this amount was spent on public education. By way of comparison, between 1890 and 1914 the same ministry received only 2-5% of the budget and only 20-30% of that amount was spent on educating the lower strata of society. As a result of the expanded public education the percentage of the population who were illiterate dropped significantly, from 15% to 7%.
Of course, Klebelsberg also held some thoroughly unacceptable ideas about Hungarian intellectual superiority over the neighboring nations and the former nationalities of Greater Hungary, which Romsics ignores.
At the end of the article Romsics summarizes the views of Klebelsberg and Bethlen on the link between education and democracy. “Klebelsberg agreed with Bethlen that before the introduction of political democracy the people must be raised culturally and intellectually because otherwise the result of universal and secret electoral law will not be democracy but chaos and demagoguery. And naturally for them the improvements in the universities, the establishment of Hungarian institutions abroad, and the new scholarship system was a politically conscious goal.” In awarding scholarships the goal was “to refresh the historical elite first and foremost with the children of the Christian Hungarian middle class.” What does Romsics think of all this? Does he agree with them? After all, he seems to have a very high opinion of both Bethlen and Klebelsberg.
When it comes to the overall assessment of the collaboration of István Bethlen and Kuno Klebelsberg Romsics states that “as far as the harmonization of the values of the past and the demands of the present even today it is exemplary and well worth imitating.”
It seems, therefore, that this deeply conservative and undemocratic regime that came into being through the joint effort of Bethlen and Klebelsberg “is exemplary.” Is this what Romsics really wants to say? Does he think through what he is saying or is he in too much of a hurry to knock off as many articles and studies as possible? I think that is worth pondering. Especially by Romsics himself.