A distorted past haunts Hungarians

A few days ago an article appeared in HVG about the teaching of Hungarian history. The author rightly pointed out that it has been flawed for a very long time. I agree. Hungarians have a warped view of their country’s past.

The teaching of Hungarian history has been and still is, at least on the high school level, characterized by paranoia, a paranoia that instills defensive nationalism. Ironically, this nationalistic historical view became even more ingrained after the communist (and presumably internationalist) takeover. In 1951 the Rákosi regime published a book that had been written during the war years by a Stalinist quasi-historian, Aladár Mód. The title of the work is telling: Four Hundred Years of Struggle for Hungarian Independence. The book was a monster in more than one way. It was over 600 pages long and it was taught to high school students during their four years of studies. I learned history from it. Which meant that I knew no Hungarian history to speak of.

According to this view the greatest tragedy that befell Hungary was the Habsburg ascension to the Hungarian throne (1526). From there on Hungarians constantly fought for their independence. Even the serfs joined the ranks of the rebels of Ferenc Rákóczi II because of their burning desire for independence! Of course, I’m being sarcastic, but I would like to point out the totally unhistorical nature of this approach.

Kuruc-labanc encounter /  Wikimedia Commons

Kuruc-labanc encounter / Wikimedia Commons

It was at this time that even radio stations were named after Sándor Petőfi and Lajos Kossuth. Movie theaters as well. The first paper forints had pictures of Petőfi, Kossuth, and Ferenc Rákóczi II in addition to the 16th-century peasant leader György Dózsa. Movies made at this time and later on extolled the clever Hungarian historical heroes and contrasted them with the effete foreigners. The article in HVG notes that some of these films from the 1950s dealing with historical topics are still favorites of Hungarian viewers. And what are these films about? Their favorite themes are fictive stories about Hungarian heroes from the time of the Rákóczi Rebellion when Rákóczi’s men, the kurucok, fought the soldiers on the Habsburg side whom the Hungarians called labancok. The etymology of these words is murky. The former might have something to do with the Dózsa peasant uprising where those who eventually attacked the houses of the rich and famous were called together for a crusade against the Turks. Hence the Latin crux or cross. Labanc may have something to do with the wigs worn by the Austrian military leaders.

Why do I spend time on all this? Because Viktor Orbán often turns to the nationalistic pap that was shown in movies and on television in his childhood for inspiration. Since in Hungarian lore “kuruc” means patriot and “labanc” traitor, it is not surprising that the prime minister called opposition politicians who criticize him “labancok.” And the far-right website most likely run by prominent members of Jobbik is called kurucinfo.

Another favorite historical theme from the 1950s and 1960s was that Hungary was an Austrian colony. Of course, this was utter nonsense but it stuck, especially in the minds of those who, for example, carried the sign at the head of the Peace March last January declaring that “we will not be a colony.”

In this historical view there is only black and white. Good and evil. Here there are only good Hungarians and bad foreigners. Also missing are those non-Hungarians who made up more than half of Hungary’s population. In historical novels or movies about the Turkish wars there were only brave Hungarians fighting against the Turks at the border fortresses, as if only Hungarians were “defending Europe from the infidel.” But the truth is that there were many Croats and Serbs in those fortresses. And Vienna was defended by an international force led by a Pole that began the final expulsion of the Ottoman forces from Hungary. I bet that not too many Hungarians know that at that time the Hungarians of Imre Thököly’s army fought on the side of the Turks instead of rushing to aid Vienna.

One of the greatest rulers of the Austrian Empire who was also Queen of Hungary was Maria Theresa. Yet after World War II her statue was removed from Heroes Square. And the real hero of the final expulsion of the Turks from Hungarian territory was not a Hungarian but Charles V, Duke of Lorraine, brother-in-law of Emperor Leopold, but his name has been long forgotten in Hungary.

And finally, one more example of the many national myths: the uniform passive resistance after the 1848-1849 revolution and war of independence and the importance and effectiveness of the Kossuth emigration. Neither is true. Actually there was no serious resistance, and there was even a certain amount of collaboration of Hungarian politicians with Vienna. After all, that was the only sensible thing to do given the international situation and Hungary’s weakness. As for the Kossuth emigration, it had practically no influence on domestic politics. And yet nationalistic historians as late as the 1970s insisted that before 1867, the year of the Compromise, Hungary had a choice: revolution or continuing Hungary’s subordination to Vienna. The historian György Szabad, the first speaker of the House (1990-1994), wrote a book with the title Hungary at a Crossroads. Crossroads? There was no choice.

How can historians change these ingrained reflexes? It will be difficult. After all, people in their forties, like Viktor Orbán, still think in terms of a colonized country and four hundred years of incessant struggle for independence. They divide people into kurucok and labancok. What is even more frightening is that both Orbán and Jobbik consider themselves kurucok. 

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Member

Dear Eva, not everything is a myth that we were taught.

Hungary did lose its independence in 1526, this is not a myth.

After the Turkish wars it became a Hapsburg colony with limited autonomy, didn’t it?

Maria Theresa was the queen of counter-reformation, censorship, wasn’t she?

ambator
Guest

While all the quoted examples are fully true, even if they are not necessarily the most glaring ones, the problem is much greater than the solution would be, in my opinion. This entire national navel-gazing could be eliminated in a few years, if the teachers of history would receive a decent curriculum and some guidance about what history actually is, and how it must be thought. That would take care of this poisonous problem in about 10-15 years.
The obstacle in the way of this solution lies in the fact that the teaching of history forever is in the hands of political hacks, instead of professionals. Politicos dictate the whole process, based on opportunistically perceived interests, and the profession is willingly kowtowing to their demands.
Nevertheless, interestingly, there is a large number of very respectable historians at least, that’s a mercy, only it is a mystery where on earth are they coming from, considering the circumstances.

P.I.Hidas
Guest

The kuruc bands often massacred Jews or robbed them. During the “liberation” of Buda the Buda Jews were robbed and killed by not the main army of Germans but kuruc units. The labanc units provide some protection for Jewish communities in western Hungary. After 1849 there was large scale collaboration. The Bach hussars were mainly Hungarian gentry folks.

ambator
Guest

No, Dear Tappanch. All three of your claims are mistaken.
Hungary didn’t loose her independence in 1526, the Turks only occupied Buda in 1541.
No, Hungary remained an independent country, under Habsburg rule, severely reduced in territory, fighting the Turks for 145 years, on and off. Also preserving limited independence in Transylvania.
The counterreformation has concluded approximately 100 years before Maria Terezia’s accession.
Need we have any examples better then these, to show how correct and how convincing Eva’s article is?

Miklos
Guest

“What is even more frightening is that both Orbán and Jobbik consider themselves kurucok.”
Then MSZP and DK are the labancok (traitors)? Ironic that you use the same stupid and simplified terminology in your blog.
As for the teaching of history in Hungary: It’s pretty much the same in the neighbouring countries (Romania, Slovakia, Czech R. etc). I don’t say it’s good. I just say Hungary is no different (no more nationalistic, antisemitic, antiroma etc etc) from any other country in Central Europe.

Member

@Hidas
There were no kuruc units at the siege of Buda in 1686. Thokoly’s kuruc troops supported the Turks. Most Jews were massacred by the Christian troops, German and Hungarian alike, some were spared for ransom. Read Isaac Schulhoff’s personal account on this.

Rakoczi’s kuruc troops killed and pillaged Jews in Moravia. They were also anti-Catholic.

Member

@ambator
The Turks permanently occupied Buda in 1541, indeed. But Hungary was torn into two camps (Szapolyai & Habsburg) and lost its independence and/or integrity in 1526.

I know wikipedia is not an authentic source to decide a debate, but let me quote it now:

“Maria Theresa regarded both the Jews and Protestants as dangerous to the state and actively tried to suppress them. The empress was probably the most anti-Semitic monarch of her time, having inherited the traditional prejudices of her ancestors and acquired new ones. This was a product of deep religious devotion and was not kept secret in her time. In 1777, she wrote of the Jews: “I know of no greater plague than this race, which on account of its deceit, usury and avarice is driving my subjects into beggary. Therefore as far as possible, the Jews are to be kept away and avoided.”

houswife77
Guest

Quote from EUROPA A HISTORY(NORMAN DAVIES) p.647 1996 Oxford Univ. Press
“Hungary liberated from the Turks, fell victim to the despotic designs of its Habsburg Liberators. In 1687 the 700 years old elective monarchy was abolished.” ….

What counts, is that citing or denying historic grievances do not count in the EU of 2012 anymore. Not nations, not countries but economic areas call the tunes in Europe these days.

Sackhoes Contributor
Guest

I may disagree with some of Ms Balogh’s points, but I agree with her main point: Hungarian history needs a more balanced treatment, more analysis. It also should be freed from politics and politicians, who hold it hostage to their benefit.

Member
The question is how did we and up with that one hundred thousand on the first peace march, crawling behind a well known anti-Semite, holding signs that support those who destroy their own future and protesting those who want to help them. Of course a lot has to do with the history teaching in Hungary. There was one sign that said something like “Hungary = 1000 years, EU = 20 years”. Why does a 20 year old group (since Maastricht I guess) dictate to the great Hungarian nation of 1000 years? Yeah, the wisdom shows .. The original article also mentioned a few other interesting facts. Obviously the peace marcher crowd who protested the foreign bankers had no idea that one of the national icons, the Chain Bridge in Budapest, was fully financed by foreign bankers (one third Jewish). And the money to finance those border fortresses against the Turks were also financed from abroad. This is a recurring theme in this blog. How did we end with so many clueless people who are not only ignorant but has absolutely no desire to learn? I believe this inflated fake heroism of the Hungarians in the history books actually re-enforces the… Read more »
Jano
Guest

Mutt:”Obviously the peace marcher crowd who protested the foreign bankers had no idea that one of the national icons, the Chain Bridge in Budapest, was fully financed by foreign bankers (one third Jewish).”

More importantly they have no idea that in the past years every single infrastructure investment was built on EU money…

gardonista
Guest

Miklos :
As for the teaching of history in Hungary: It’s pretty much the same in the neighbouring countries (Romania, Slovakia, Czech R. etc). I don’t say it’s good. I just say Hungary is no different (no more nationalistic, antisemitic, antiroma etc etc) from any other country in Central Europe.

Is this something to be proud of? Western Europe considers all these countries a waste of time, and the rest of the world could care less about backwaters like Hungary, or Romania or whatever.

It’s a regional problem, but my community is Hungarian. We can do better.

Turkmenbasi
Guest

An important and implicit aim of the ‘kuruc ideology’ pursued by Fidesz is to provide a PR cover for Hungarian oligarchs to squeeze out foreign business interests, as they are ‘better and truely representing the interests of Hungary after all’.

Simicska is all too happy to orchastrate this new strategy, just look at his steps in the energy sector (MOL, EOn etc.)

Fidesz caucus this week has again rejected the motion by LMP to open up the communist-era secret service archives, thus effectively blocking the country’s ability to face its own history. It is not only Fidesz bigwigs who fear the consequences.

So-called right-wing oligarchs, like Csányi, Töröcskei and Járai had all collaborated. You can imagine what would happen if their bolshevik activist past came to the limelight. The whole phoney kuruc ideology would collapse overnight!

CarlosD
Guest
I would hope that Hungarians are taught about some of their greatest achievements. These are the writers, artists, scientists, photographers, cinematographers and architects who contributed (and are sometimes under noticed) to world culture. In that area Hungary has done more than many small nations and should be proud. Of course it’s sad that many of them felt they had to leave Hungary because of oppressive governments and poor prospects but still, Hungary educated and produced them. I would hope that soon Hungary will turn to an education that is less about ancient wars and myths and more to it’s real accomplishments like Kertesz, Moholy-Nagy, Moricz and Teller. I feel that sometimes you have to remember the positive and that is rarely in the realm of politics…anywhere. Idealizing past defeats and glorious lost wars is bad history but having said that I’m not sure if ignoring very real defeats will ever be possible for a small and essentially vulnerable nation. Hungary had been invaded by several foreign powers in the past century alone. Is it surprising that paranoia is easy to teach? Or that Orban touches a cord with many Hungarians? Because like it or not he does. I don’t say… Read more »
Guest
London Calling! I believe some (most!) of Hungary’s current problems with prominent Anti-Semitism and Racism are due to the ‘climate’ – social, educational and political. ambator is right when he says it will take 10-15 years to reduce the ‘navel-gazing’. If I understand him correctly this is one of the facets of the ‘humanity diamond’ which will take many years before the right ‘climate’ exists for a decent society in Hungary – one that is inclusive and respects all ALL Hungarians as equals. And history is a very important facet. Others are: Education (holistically); a responsible – and representative – Parliament; promotion of honesty and integrity; suppression of the social ‘cancers’ (we know what they are on here); and much more ‘International Trust’. Eva says: “The teaching of Hungarian history has been and still is, at least on the high school level, characterized by paranoia, a paranoia that instills defensive nationalism.” I believe the implicit message is that History is the fundamental underlying ‘foundation stone’ of a decent society – a decent ‘climate’ in Hungary today. Hungary continues this ‘defensive nationalism’ (as shown by Miklos’ comparison with (his understanding) of co-offenders – the ‘others-do-it-so-that’s-all-right-then’ defence) with its refusal to face… Read more »
Guest

sorry – my quote from Marcus Garvey above should have been in quotes

LwiiH
Guest

tappanch :
Dear Eva, not everything is a myth that we were taught.
Hungary did lose its independence in 1526, this is not a myth.
After the Turkish wars it became a Hapsburg colony with limited autonomy, didn’t it?
Maria Theresa was the queen of counter-reformation, censorship, wasn’t she?

All great fiction contains an ample dose of reality… Look at Dan Brown’s success 😉

Breki
Guest
Dear Eva, the Danko Radio is only a new tool in Fidesz’s efforts to spread government propaganda (during breaks). Segmentation is the key marketing term here. They hope to get access to voters, whom they think they don’t already control or have access to (although you may note that the news sections of formally independent commercial, music radio stations, be that Jazzy or whatever, are supplied mostly by Magyar Hirlap and Magyar Nemzet). History is an interesting concept. Since the readers here (mostly) are not historians (including yours truly), you may once also tell us about the different conceptions of history and studying history. Those having grown up in Hungary (including our current leaders) think – mistakenly – that history is only a collection of dates and textual items about the lives of leaders (these days they would be called politicians or celebrities), made digestibale through a narrative effectively provided by politicians (according to their ideology). In other words, there is a general thinking that “everyone should know about 1526 or 1848 or 1914”, as if knowing the dates and a couple of sentences (as provided by the books written by current ideologues) about these years would mean something —… Read more »
Guest

Breki,

I really had to laugh right now – because that “factual geneaology of the house of …” was also an important part of our “history education” in the German gymnasium, only of course it was about the Prussian emperors and the Schwab kings …

However it seems I forgot most of it – I don’t even remember the names of our Schwab kings!

Einstein (of course …) is said to have been asked one numerical fact once – and of course he didn’t know it and said: I know where to look this up – that’s enough!

As you wrote, the understanding of concepts like equality, human rights, separation of powers etc is much more important but I don’t know enough about the quality of education, whether it’s German, Hungarian or whatever …

PS: We didn’t watch that documentary about Hungary on Arte – much too depressing probably.

Jano
Guest
“Is this something to be proud of? Western Europe considers all these countries a waste of time, and the rest of the world could care less about backwaters like Hungary, or Romania or whatever.” Well, I’m sure every country has its myths to some extent. I once talked to a Brit who claimed that the world should have been more grateful for the British empire which brought civilization to barbarians. I’m sure, Indians and other colonials would beg to differ. In the US, you find plenty of examples too, for example how the war of 1812 lives in the public conscience is plain ridiculous, they even have it on license plates! I haven’t lived in more countries but I’m pretty sure that history is idealized to some extent everywhere. I also beg to differ on some of Eva’s points. I think you should actually read a current Hungarian high school history book, (like e.g the Herber-Martos-Moss-Tisza series). I read many back in the days, but for example none of them overemphasized Hungarian heroism during the Great Turkish war. I kind of liked that period and I absolutely remember learning about John Sobieski and the liberation was described as achieved by… Read more »
Jano
Guest

P.S. When I said you should take a look at current high school history textbooks, I meant it serious, I feel like we are discussing the subject based on preconceptions about what might be taught in the Hungarian High Schools without actually looking at it. Of course, what the teachers might add as an extra material is a completely different issue.

Clean Up Hungary
Guest

Hungary’s best days started with Ferenc Deak and ended with him.
99% of the history lessons should deal with him.
The rest can be covered in 1% of the time.
I would go even further.
Rename Hungary to Deakland.

Member

BREAKING NEWS
The Klubradio talks about Eva and the post about the Rogan speech! Tune in now!

Member
One very dreadful aspect of this distorted nationalism is that it isolates and “ghettoises” Hungary. Outside Hungary, there were (and are) only envious enemies, and for some strange reason all our neighbours hate us (except perhaps the Austrians, who merely look down on us). Tóta W. Árpád in his usually acid post a few days ago (http://hvg.hu/w/20121128_A_magyarok_istenere ) put it very well (in my doubly non-native translation): “the problem with naïve nationalism is the same as with “World of Warcraft”: what in a stupid little subculture counts as a gigantic “achievement” or “level up”, doesn’t mean a thing for girls or for grown-ups”. I can’t help thinking of a comment by a Hungarian reader to a very critical article in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (http://www.nzz.ch/aktuell/international/antisemitismus-macht-ungarns-juden-zu-schaffen-1.17469384 ) a few months ago . The article was about the rise of Anti-Semitism in Hungary, and this Ms Kovács, in somewhat clumsy German, sang the usual song about an international conspiracy against poor Hungary. “Do you know who Horthy was?”, she asked. “Do you know who Attila the Hun was? Or St Stephen?” In other words: You should know the Hungarian history, the Hungarian “patriotic” version of it, because it offers something like a… Read more »
Paul
Guest

Interesting comments – which I haven’t yet had time to read properly!

But, in the meantime, something entirely OT:

My wife liked a Facebook post about Törőcsik Mari’s 77th birthday, so it appeared on my FB. Whilst idly trying to translate it in my head, I realised that ‘lájk’, as in “Lájk, ha boldog születésnapot kívánsz neki!” meant ‘like’.

Language evolution in progress! (Not one for the purists though.)

Arany II
Guest
the first page of the updated history lesson book should hold petofi1’s remarks: Petofi1 December 5, 2012 at 12:30 am | #16 Quote Real PR : The small antisemitic attacks are perhaps not the problem. The task is to unite the people against all immoral acts in the society. The bad administration, the oppressive police, the high food prices, the impossible real estate market, poor medical service…. These approach can unite the people, and all will work happily in the reformed Hungary. You forget the raw truth of the matter: the culture is rooted in cheating, lying, sleight-of-hand, con artistry, greed, etc. Everyone is waiting to move up the food chain any way they can. Proof of the pudding: why hasn’t any government taken the necessary steps to stop government corruption? Because they in turn will do the same. Anti-corruption laws and procedures are full of loopholes. Cheating & lying are at the heart of the reality. Look at the doings of the Catholic Church. Why haven’t they spoken out on any one of ten different situations: the Csatary case; the Garda activities; the systematic deconstruction of Democracy; the theft of pension moneys? Oh, I hear someone say the Church… Read more »
Member

My in-laws have a “Nota” channel (in a village in eastern Hungary). You should see their faces when they skip over it while they are channel surfing. Yuck!

By the way good gipsy bands can play anything you want. We were in place in BP once. It was a farewell party for an American colleague. The band leader came up to our table asking what to play (oh, I hate that). So I explained what the occasion is and suddenly I added “she is from Scotland originally”. Big smile … and the gipsy band started to play “Scotland the Brave”…

@Arany 2nd Do you want a Dr. title? Why are you copying other people’s posts?

Csaba
Guest

Nice to see you all attacking Hungary and Hungarian history, you are all a bunch of patriots, aren’t you?

If you hate it and us so much, why don’t you leave?
“Petofi” (something like Shlomo would be better suited for this Hungarian hater) can always move to Israel, while the rest of you can freely go somewhere else.

Don’t you have anything better to do than ridicule and insult Hungarian history?

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