Hungarians and their attitude toward their own history

In an interview with Pécsi Stop, an Internet newspaper, Krisztián Ungváry said something in passing about the interconnection between history and politics. He brought up the example of the Rákóczi Rebellion (1703–1711). For the most part the interpretation of this failed war of independence is of no great interest to ordinary citizens. Yet when we hear the words “kuruc” and “labanc,” the contemporary descriptions of the patriots as opposed to those who stood by Vienna, history enters the vocabulary of everyday politics.

I talked about the “kurucok” who fought the “labancok” in an article entitled “A distorted past haunts Hungarians.” These two words are bandied about in Hungary practically daily. There is the notorious neo-Nazi Internet site that calls itself “kuruc.info.” Surely, the editors are convinced that they stand for true Hungarian values and for patriotism. Even the Hungarian prime minister turns to the kuruc/labanc comparison. In his formulation, his government stands on the side of the nation and thus conducts a kuruc foreign policy while he calls his political opponents traitors, “labancok.”

I recently read a book that was written six years ago, but the data Mária Vásárhelyi, a sociologist, gathered over the years and presented in this book about Hungarians’ views on their own history is still timely. The book is entitled Csalóka emlékezet (Deceptive memory). The overarching feeling of Hungarians toward their history is that it has been a continuous story of victimization of the country by others. Over the centuries Hungary was often abandoned by the great powers, and the country’s failures are mostly due to outside forces. Past greatness is exaggerated and Hungary’s weight on the world stage overemphasized.  For example, according to one poll 58% of adult Hungarians are certain that “without Hungary there is no Europe” and about 50% think that “Europe ought to be grateful to Hungary.” An overwhelming majority are convinced that during the past century Europe let Hungary down time and time again.

Very few Hungarians doubt that Hungary has always been part of Europe, and by Europe they understand Western Europe. But we know from research done by Jenő Szűcs in the 1970s and 1980s that even early Hungarian development was different from the western type. The region has features that separate it from the regions both to its west and to its east.

This is also the conclusion Thomas Schmid of Die Welt came to by looking at the Hungary of today. In an opinion piece entitled “Unsere traurige Ahnungslosigkeit von Europa” he points out that Western Europeans don’t know much about the countries of Eastern Europe. As for Hungary, he talks about the resentments of Hungarians, “resentments that spring from [former] traumas,” including Trianon. Although “we should not accept these resentments … we must understand that they are there.” And they will be there for a long time. “Europe is not united,” he warns.

Distorted Viewby Cathlon / Flickr

Distorted View by Cathlon / Flickr

So, while Western Europeans sense that East or Central Europe is different because of the region’s historical development, Hungarians themselves seem to be blissfully ignorant of this fact. 95% of the adult population look upon Hungary as the very center of Europe; the proof is the map of the continent.

Considering that so many people have definite opinions about the course of Hungarian history, it is amazing how little they know about the most often talked about topics like Trianon or the Horthy regime. Only 29% of those asked could identify the year that the Treaty of Trianon was signed; 42% couldn’t even guess. When it came to the Horthy period, only 11% could remember the dates of the beginning and the end of Miklós Horthy’s governorship.

But let’s return to the territories lost as a result of the Treaty of Trianon. Sociologists asked which cities that belong to the successor states have a Hungarian majority. The answers identified twenty-four such cities, but in fact there is only one where there is a slight Hungarian majority and that is Marosvásárhely/ Târgu Mureș (52.4%). The two most often mentioned cities were Kassa/Košice and Kolozsvár/Cluj when actually in Kassa the size of the Hungarian speaking population is only 12.6% and in Kolozsvár 22.8%. Irredentist impulses are aided by politicians, starting with József Antall who kept talking about 15 million Hungarians in the Carpathian Basin; this number by now is firmly planted in the minds of the population. Naturally, few people would bother to look at the recent census numbers to realize that this number is no longer accurate.

As for Hungary’s participation in World War II, three major interpretations are currently in circulation. The first, supported by 47% of the population, blames Hungary’s allies for dragging [belesodorták] her into the conflict. This theory is held by the more conservative elements. The second opinion holds that Hungary was an ally of Nazi Germany and thus entered the war on its own volition. This second interpretation is favored by the more liberal people. Only 8% of the population think that Hungary entered the war in order to ensure the possession of territories regained as a result of German and Italian arbitration.

One final observation based on data presented by Vásárhelyi about acceptance of the regime change in 1989-1990. There is general dissatisfaction with the way Hungary handled the political change. Close to 40% of the people don’t think there was real change either because the former elite kept power in its own hands or because the communists were not excluded from future participation in political life. But what is more frightening is that 53% of those asked are convinced that “Hungary today still serves the interests of foreign powers,” 55% think that “Hungarian interests still don’t come into full play in Hungary,” and 59% believe that “real regime change will take place in Hungary only when all that belongs to Hungarians is in Hungarian hands.” Finally, 39% percent believe that “”those who live in Hungary but who are not considered Hungarians have too great an economic and political influence.” Only 38% believe that this is untrue while 23% have no opinion. I assume I don’t have to elaborate on the meaning of this finding.

So, Viktor Orbán knows what he is doing. He is appealing to the worst instincts of Hungarians that stem from their distorted view of Hungary’s past and present. Hungary, the victim, wants to turn inward because today just as in the past foreigners take advantage of Hungarians. These foreign elements must be fought off to ensure that Hungarian interests are protected. Orbán pretty well follows this course. The results, alas, amply prove that this distorted Hungarian view leads straight to economic and social disaster.

50 comments

  1. “So, Viktor Orbán knows what he is doing. He is appealing to the worst instincts of Hungarians that stem from their distorted view of Hungary’s past and present. Hungary, the victim, wants to turn inward because today just as in the past foreigners take advantage of Hungarians. ”

    Well, it’s working on some people.

    Here’s an interesting site. It’s a collection of comments from ‘ordinary people’ left on Viktor Orban’s Facebook page. Sample comment: “[Orban] is a dear, intelligent genius. Quite simply, he’s Hungary’s first person. Come on, brave Hungarians!”

    https://www.facebook.com/pages/Orbán-Viktor-hozzászólásai/566653250031347

  2. Krisztian Ungvary replied to Matolcsy’s riposte today.

    http://hvg.hu/velemeny/20130205_Ungvary_Krisztian_valasz_Matolcsynak

    He clarified that Matyas Matolcsy was related to Gyorgy Matolcsy, but was not his uncle.
    (Perhaps he read Eva’s blog…)

    Ungvary demands, on the other hand, that Matolcsy acknowledge that Matyas Matolcsy played a crucial role in the financial holocaust in Hungary, the robbing of the Jewish population of their assets and livelihood BEFORE the German occupation in 1944, by formulating several pieces of legislation to this effect.

  3. Can the Hungarians escape from this deep trap?
    Will it be eternal?

    Some can emigrate. The rest is in this eternal hell I guess unless there is hope for national psychotherapy.

  4. An :
    “But let’s return to the territories lost as a result of the Treaty of Trianon. Sociologists asked which cities that belong to the successor states have a Hungarian majority.”
    This question, strictly speaking, is not about history, if they asked about the current Hungarian population across the borders (which is probably very different than what it was at the time of Trianon).
    This question is more about knowledge of current affairs, and the media and politics have a lot larger role in shaping these perceptions than long-forgotten history classes. I was in high school more than 20 years ago…. even if they were teaching us anything “current” of that time, that information is way outdated by now.

    ” current Hungarian population across the borders (which is probably very different than what it was at the time of Trianon).”

    Duh.

    After Trianon many HU villages where bulldozed, people relocated, speaking HU became ILLEGAL, jobs from HU’s taken, separate but less equal opportunities for same – after ninety years of out migration…

    YES. The HU population IS different now. My family is from “Trens” – we were ousted post haste.

    Why don’t you just say American Indians never had a majority because today they account for 1% of the US population.

    nuff said.

  5. @Imre re bulldozing. You are mistaken. After Trianon no one was bulldozing Hungarian villages. It was during the last years of the Ceausescu regime and if I recall properly the process was stopped.

    After the Romanian occupation of the territories after 1918-1919 most Hungarian officials and their families simply left Romania. They were not ousted but because they refused to swear allegiance to the Romanian state many left for post-Trianon Hungary on their own volition.

  6. @Imre: You are arguing with the wrong person. I was making the same point (the difference in the Hungarian population now and then) in response to several postings that went into details about the Hungarian population of Transylvanian cities today. I just did not want to emphasize this point and get into a mindless debate about the significance of past numbers today. This was clearly not the focus of the discussion anyway… it was Hungarians’ perceptions of their history.

  7. @Eva: Just a quick question: if you suddenly find yourself in a different country than the one you lived in, without moving anywhere, and rather than swearing allegiance to the new one, you decide to move…. do you really consider that to be your own volition?

    Also, I’m no historian, but it’s hard to believe that these people were not “encouraged” to make that decision in some way or another.

    I am really not saying that what happened about a 100 years ago should be shaping Hungarian thinking and politics today; Hungarians should stop bringing up their past grievances, and move on…. but comments that belittle these grievances are not helping to move on, either. They only put oil to the fire. If you have ever tried to explain a person who is unhappy about something why he has no reason to be unhappy… you see how well that works. It only makes the other side more agitated. A lot more effective message is to say that that, yes I do see why you are unhappy, I see why you think you were shortchanged.. but you know, life is not always fair and you need to move on.

  8. @An. Some really wouldn’t swear allegiance on principle. Others were government officials or employees of Hungarian state companies (for example, MÁV) and were sure to lose their jobs. But, I’m not expert on the Hungarian minorities. This is strictly not expulsion in the real sense of the word.

    I’ll tell you what I will ask Gábor Egry whose field is exactly the Hungarian minority in Romania between the two world wars to write something for us. Gábor is a reader and commentator of Hungarian Spectrum.

  9. Hi Éva!

    You say that with such certainty – bulldozing – I didn’t give a date – but pretty sure was also shortly after Trianon – source was a book I gave as a gift about HU history, so I’ll see if I can “footnote” it for you.

    Hi An!

    And of course I realize Hu was not the majority everywhere in the Nagy Magyarország, but only wanted to deepen the point bout using today’s number for yesterdays’.

    Warter under the bridge.

  10. Imre, just because you read this in some book it is not necessarily true. You are wrong there were no bulldozing in Romania shortly after the the signing of the Trianon treaty. Simply not true.

    1. OK, I’ll see if I can find the book and check the sources (and my memory)

      Hi Wolfe!

      Danzik/Gdansk is a lovely city.

  11. PS: Finally… HU’s are too hung up on the past, n the “it’s not our fault” for their own damn good – n politicians do prey on it – waiting for Trianon and other past events to unwind before you can move forward is not only naive but harmful.

    PPS: If I’m right, should, and can, HU change?

  12. All these discussions about things that happened almost a hundred years ago …

    Germany also lost territories, my father was born in the “Free Town of Danzig/Gdansk” – but he (and his siblings too) never complained and he was very happy with his Schwab wife and children …

    I’ve written about this before: When he visited Danzig long after WW2 he was surprised how the Polish people had rebuilt the city destroyed in the war and told everybody about it – just as I did when I visited the Polish booth at the tourism expo in Stuttgart.

    And, btw you can’t compare Südtirol with Erdely – they have a lot of Italian tourists now and live very well. Maybe that’s the reason why you don’t have many complaints there – just as with Alsace which Germany lost again to the French …

  13. wolfi :
    All these discussions about things that happened almost a hundred years ago …
    Germany also lost territories, my father was born in the “Free Town of Danzig/Gdansk” – but he (and his siblings too) never complained and he was very happy with his Schwab wife and children …
    I’ve written about this before: When he visited Danzig long after WW2 he was surprised how the Polish people had rebuilt the city destroyed in the war and told everybody about it – just as I did when I visited the Polish booth at the tourism expo in Stuttgart.
    And, btw you can’t compare Südtirol with Erdely – they have a lot of Italian tourists now and live very well. Maybe that’s the reason why you don’t have many complaints there – just as with Alsace which Germany lost again to the French …

    Well, I’d be careful making such statements IN Südtirol….Everytime I’ve been there for work I’ve been given a history lesson by one person or another and let me tell the hurt runs deep: the people telling me about the discrimination and injustices in the past wasn’t suffered by them, but by their parents and mostly grandparents, No, it wasn’t anything as extreme as Ceaucescu’s Romania, and yes, NOW they things are fantastic there, it’s one of the richest regions of Italy and anyone who wants to move there to work from another part of Italy must learn German. The ethnic Südtiroler today live a great life being able to navigate in both languages and cultures.

  14. Sunt roman — adica din ROMANIA – nu stiu prea bine engleza si nu ma pot exprima decat in romaneste dar , totusi imi voi spune si eu parerea —Am trait 30 de ani in Transilvania , in Sibiu , am invatzat ceva istorie , chiar daca pe vremea lui Ceausescu, am fost militar dar va spun –DACA , DOAMNE FERESTE , AR FI CEVA SA INCEAPA INTRE ROMANI SI UNGURI — AR FI MAI RAU DECAT CE-A FOST INTRE SARBI SI CROATZI SAU INTRE SARBI SI ALBANEZI !!!!. IAR ORBAN , PENTRU MINE , E UN NENOROCIT , LA FEL CA SI PUIU’ DE CATZEA , BASESCU PE NUMELE LUI , CARE CICA E PRESEDINTELE ROMANIEI !!!.Sper ca cineva va v-a traduce aceste cuvinte !.

  15. Hi Lupi,

    You are correct on both counts – Hungarian/Romanian relations and Vic.

    A few years ago we went to ‘Csíksomlyói búcsú’ in late May – this is where up to 500,000 Hungarians migrate to Érdély every year. Well we travelled in a nice Hungarian tour bus, and the driver knew we would be stopped so he drove slowly – which made for a long ride.

    Still, 3 times he was stopped for ‘speeding’ – he had to pay the fine on the spot, and we had to wait 20 minutes each time (the police officers just leaned against their car, and did nothing but puff way on their cigs until they gave us the go ahead).

    In no way were we speeding, in fact if we where speeding then the police should have nabbed the steady stream of cars blowing by us with little regard to oncoming traffic.

    My previous comment was hearsay, this is first hand and indicative of relations.

    If this is how ‘the law’ in Romania works today, I can only imagine what it was like 90 years ago.

  16. Re police in Romania and Erdély:

    Has anybody seen the movie “Kalandorok” with Rudolf Péter (of Üvegtigris fame …) ? We got it as a present on DVD with English subtitles.

    It’s so funny and sad at the same time – the people in Erdély and the Gypsies – and the beautiful landscape …

  17. Eva S. Balogh :
    @An. Some really wouldn’t swear allegiance on principle. Others were government officials or employees of Hungarian state companies (for example, MÁV) and were sure to lose their jobs. But, I’m not expert on the Hungarian minorities. This is strictly not expulsion in the real sense of the word.
    I’ll tell you what I will ask Gábor Egry whose field is exactly the Hungarian minority in Romania between the two world wars to write something for us. Gábor is a reader and commentator of Hungarian Spectrum.

    I’m terribly sorry for being late with this intervention, but at least it has the advantage that even at the moment I’m working in a Romanian archive partly on this very topic.

    First, something about the state of the field:
    There is only one monograph dediacted to the subject of migartion to Hungary from the successor states between 1918 and 1924, István Mócsy’s book. It covers not only the extent of migration, but also its impact on society and politics and concludes that the displaced middle-calss exerted important influence on the emergence of revisionist and rightsit organizations. There were some more recent studies published on related topics (emigré administrative bodies, refugee organizations and theri activity during the twenties and thierties, refugees of the railways, reopatriation from a calvinist parish etc.) But Mócsy remains – and not undeservedly – the ultimate authority on this issue.

    We have similarly thin coverage of the events of the transition itself. Apart from some memoires, most works were written from a macro-political perspective, which in some cases – like the works of Ernő Raffay and Olivér Fráter simply narrate the political events of 1918-1919, both internal and external ones and complement it with a Transylvanian political history, always twisted in order to show the perfideous nature of Romanians and emphasize Hungarian suffereing. Unfortunately Romanian works are not of much use either, although huge volumes were published, these too often are only document publications, or too often subordinate local events to a great narrative of either national unification or class war. Even if Romanian publishers made accessible a lot of documents, theye were always reluctant to interpret and critique these sources. However, at least local studies started to appear, on Subotica/Szabadka, KOmarno/Komárom, Nové Zámky/Érsekújvár, Máytusföld (a micro-region in southern Slovakia, Targu Mures/Marosvásárhely, Odorhei Secuiesc/Székelyudvarhely. As one can see regarding the different countries these are still very scattered.

    As for the main sources on the migration phenomenon apart from the interwar literature – doubious in its origin itself – the former Országos Menekültügyi Hivatal (National Office of Refugees) published a booklet when it ceased working and it gives most of the figures still used in the literature. Mócsy also based his investigation on this sources, but he tried to confront it with other figures (for example the migarzion figures of the first census after WWI) and made an important revision, that still did not alter the picture of mass emiigration/movement/displacement. There are at leats two problems with the widely cited figures (apart from the third one, that almost no one refers to the corrections made by Mócsy). Firstly, the OMH was an institution of mixed origins, it also serevd the aim of covert operations – that’s why Petrichevich Horváth Emil, someone who belonged to Bethlen István’s personal network followed Bethlen at its head. Thus, it is not clear how far they were covering their traces, how far their activity served propaganda puproses etc. Secondly, it was set up in 1920 so after the first two waves of migration was over and it had to collect data on a population that already arrived to Hungary. Furthermore, it is not clear how they categorized the refugees, how they controlled the data and information, how they distinguished those who arrived before the occupation of those territiores but later claimed to have been expelled etc. Just to illustrate the porblems such inconsistencies cause let’s consider that according to the OMH statistics more public officials, public servants and public employees left Transylvana than they figured in official statistics for 1918! The number is so high that even the potential merger of the public officials and adminsitartive personnel with employees of state companies (railways, iron works etc.) could not explain it. Especially as most of the latter category remained in Romania. (Personally I suspect that aopart from not checking the exact date of moveemnt, they simply registered pensioners and family dependents according to the family head’s occupation.)

    But not only the numbers are supicious – at least regarding Transylvania, and this is the second point I would like to make, but local histories of the transition also contradict the claim of a wipe out of Hungatians from the state services. So far what I have discovered is the importance of local circumstances and a basic staibility at the lower levels of the administration. Not even a refusal to take the oath meant automatically firing from one’s position. In the registers of state officials I have seen fropm the early twenties it is not uncommon to find people how initially refuse the oath and only took it after the peace treaty was concluded. Lingustic skills were also not quite important at least at the initial phase of the Romanian authority, Hungarians who could not speak Romanian even a decade later were kept in public services in great numbers.

    In some cases the lack of apsiring and qualified Romanians was the reason behind such situations, like in Nagy-Küküllő/Tarnava Mare county, where the county administration refused to take the oath, but they were kept in their position – Romanians were installed only in a few leading positions – and the chief notary of the county – the highest ranking official after the departure of the deputy lord lieutenant – kept a busy official correspondence with the authorities – in Hungarian. Other notable cases of such continuty are Caras-Severin/Krassó-Szörény, Timis/Temes, Brasov/Brassó. In this latter in a decade only a few Romanian county officials were installed! (Although here the bulk of administrative personnel was Saxon.)
    In some cases higher authorities honestly admitted that without retining the qualifed employees of public services they would not be able to run them. Like the Regional Post Director from Timisoara, when a Romanian official demanded the lay off of the Swabian-Hungarian postmaster from Resita/Resica. The regional director estomated in a letter that at least one decade is needed to educate and practice Romanians in order to be capable to run a post office. All in all it seems that even as late as in 1934-1935 (in some cases still in 1937-1938) minority personnel was proportinally present in the administration, at least at its lower levels. (Villages notaries, lower ecehlons of city halls etc.) However, even if officials who started their carreer before 1918 were not lacking, this time the majority of Hungarians belonged to younger generations.

    But until someone makes either a wide scale comparative study of local transitions or a critical assesment of Petrichevich’s and Mócs’y figures only one thing can be stated with soem certainty: local transitions contradict the general assumption of a mass emigration of middle class and we have some other reason to doubt the statistics.

Comments are closed.