National symbols and their importance: The case of the coat-of arms and Hungary’s official holiday

It was in June 1990, shortly after the formation of the Antall government, that it became evident that the leading members of the governing parties were a great deal more conservative than had been suspected earlier. When critics of the Kádár regime were confronted with a one-party system, the differences between the left and the right didn’t seem as great as they in fact were. Once democracy arrived, however, it became apparent that the Hungarian left and right imagined the future very differently.

One of the very first clashes between the left and the right was over the coat-of-arms of the new democratic Hungarian Republic. There were two choices: one with and the other without the Holy Crown of St. Stephen. Originally, the idea was to hold a referendum on the issue. Even the date was fixed for January 7, 1990, but the referendum never materialized. Instead, parliament, in which the right-wing coalition parties had a 60% majority, decided the issue.

The liberals argued that since the coat-of-arms used by both the First Hungarian Republic (November 16-March 21, 1919) and the Second (1946-1949) were without the crown, the Third Republic should continue the tradition. They further argued that the same so-called Kossuth coat-of-arms should be reinstated, especially since the revolutionaries of 1956 used it as the unofficial designation of their cause. But then came some historians of heraldry who argued that such a thing as a Kossuth coat-of-arms simply didn’t exist. Admittedly, after the deposition of Franz Joseph I as king of Hungary on April 14, 1849, there wasn’t a single, accepted coat-of-arms of an independent Hungary. But the real issue in 1990 was not a heraldic one, and this historical sidenote moved the debate in the wrong direction. The real question was whether the new democratic Hungary would follow the admittedly scant republican tradition of the country or would return, even if only in a symbolic way, to the pre-1945 era.

The so-called Kossuth coat-of-arms

The so-called Kossuth coat-of-arms

In the end, to everybody’s surprise, the right-wing majority voted for the coat-of-arms adorned with the Holy Crown of St. Stephen. Viktor Orbán, who nowadays makes sure that the coat-of-arms is shown at every possible occasion and who during his first administration dragged the crown into the parliament building from the National Museum where, in my opinion, it belongs, voted against the crown. As did the whole Fidesz caucus.

Earlier, during the debate in 1991, György Spira, a well-known historian of 1848-1949, brought up another important consideration for eliminating the crown as a symbol of Hungarian statehood. The Crown of St. Stephen is not the symbol of the monarchy, as many people mistakenly believe, but of the country’s territorial integrity and unity which, Spira argued, might not be the best way to have good relations between Hungary and her neighbors.

The question of the coat-of-arms wasn’t the only retrograde decision of the Antall government’s first year in office. The other similarly unfortunate decision was to declare August 20 as the official state holiday of the land. Hungarian law distinguishes between state and national holidays. The state holiday is the official one. In addition, Hungary has two so-called national holidays: March 15, which commemorates the birth of modern parliamentary democracy, and October 23, which memorializes the outbreak of the 1956 revolution as well as the declaration of the Third Republic on the same day in 1989.

The most serious objection to this date is that August 20 is basically a religious holiday, celebrating the day of King Stephen’s canonization in 1083. In a secular state, especially one in which Catholicism is not the sole religion, the choice of a Catholic holiday as the state holiday was ill advised. Moreover, the history of the holiday didn’t bode well. After a lot of wrangling, Hungarian politicians at the end of the nineteenth century declared it a national holiday. However, it didn’t lose its religious aura until after World War I, when it became a national holiday in the sense that the religious aspects of the day retreated into the background and it instead became a symbol of Greater Hungary and irredentism.

And this is Viktor Orbán's own coat-of-arms. His office is the only entitled to us it

Viktor Orbán’s own coat-of-arms. His office is the only one that is entitled to use it

During the debate in parliament in March 1991, the conservatives argued for August 20 because, to their minds, the Day of St. Stephen best expressed the spirit of Hungarian statehood and the Hungarians’ joining the Christian community of European nations. Fidesz’s spokesman, Zsolt Németh, objected, just as politicians had a hundred years earlier, to the religious nature of the day. In Fidesz’s opinion at the time, it was only March 15 about which there was consensus. Miklós Szabó of SZDSZ, a historian, thought that over the years August 20 can easily be expropriated by every regime, including the socialist, which declared it to be the holiday of the first bread and the Stalinist constitution. March 15th in his opinion couldn’t fall victim to an anti-democratic regime. August 20 is the holiday of continuity but March 15 would be “a turn toward the future, the holiday of a new beginning.” The liberals lost out. We are left with a holiday named after a man who lived 1100 years ago and whose shadowy figure can be used to justify practically any cause. I do hope that perhaps one day Hungary will have a coat-of-arms without the crown and that March 15, the day of the birth of Hungarian democracy, will be the official holiday.

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August 21, 2015 5:18 am
OT: Important and insightful post about the hopelessness of gipsy education. Parochial schools (in Hungary these get the same, in certain cases actually more state subsidies as state-owned schools) operate as havens for the white middle class, while state managed schools end up with totally hopeless poor roma kids (and teachers also flee these hopeless schools too, maintaining a very quick race to the bottom). In other words this system is a great marketing tool for the “traditional” churches and it means that in rural areas everybody who is in any way able to go to highschool (as opposed to vocational middle schools, though most roma kids just stop going to any school at age 16) and then potentially to universities will be educated exclusively in parochial schools (outside Budapest). The “defence” of white middle class way of life (ie. against the nomadic, “Gipsy way of life”) is the single most important political issue of rural Hungary.Iit’s an absolutely existential issue: and Fidesz and the churches are a great partner in those efforts. They realized the problem and doing something about it.The left-wing never understood the importance of churches (even if Hungarians don’t attend masses they do appreciate the orderliness… Read more »
August 21, 2015 6:30 am

“the problem is solved” – but what does that mean in the long run for the Roma situation in Hungary? Will they get poorer and poorer, cut off from education and then without meaningful work – what will happen?
You can’t let them die from hunger or send them all to jail …

August 21, 2015 6:40 am

I was too slow to ad to my comment so I’ll start a new one:
Re Orbán’s (and Fidesz’) move to the right:
I still don’t get it – did he just one day “see the light” or was this a gradual moving away from Liberal ideas over the years?
Did he realise that being Liberal wouldn’t get him and his party into power?
There has probably already been a lot written about this – is there a good source (in English)?

August 21, 2015 8:23 am
@wolfi Orban realized (A) that most Hungarians are socially conservative (and this isn’t gonna change anytime soon) so many of the symbolic policies he wanted to use (post-1990 the Hungarian left never had symbolic ideas, so leftists let this fundamentally important domain to be owned by Orban) were naturally right-wing, or had more connection to the right-wing (ie. it’s relatively easy to re-use the Horthy symbolic compared to invent totally new symbols) AND (B) Orban and the people around him convinced themselves that the enfeebled, liberal, effeminate West is going down. Tthey slowly subscribed to the the Dugin-style ideology of Gyula Tellér, László Bogár etc. and learned that they can take advantage of the EU without any repercussions whatsoever (ie. the EU is indeed weak politically as compared to Putin who will turn of the tap if he doesn’t like something). Also there are some pragmatic issues to consider. For any organization there is a value in stability and discipline and hierarchy — these were always underestimated by liberals. If you want to lead a politically stable organization it’s natural that right-wing, conservative people will find it more natural to work in an hierarchical organization. Liberals self-selected themselves not to… Read more »
August 21, 2015 9:56 am

gergelyk, maybe you’re right there:

In a democratically underdeveloped country (see, I said it …) like Hungary “people will find it more natural to work in an hierarchical organization” – but just look at Germany where the Socialist, the Greens and the (relatively left) Liberals aka FDP are/were in government successfully for many years.

So how many years might it take for Hungary to turn into a real democracy – or will we see a return to autocrat systems like Putin’s in Europe – and all over the world?
Many right wing people speculate about this and see the end of the hated Liberal/Left EU even – though I’m more optimistic there.

And I’m really proud that we Schwabs not only elected Green mayors in every university town (even our capital Stuttgart) but also have a Green prime minister in a Green/Red coalition.

August 21, 2015 8:43 am

Re Szt. Korona: my Hungarian friends (educated and well-travelled) see the crown as a symbol, not of ‘Greater Hungary’, but of the continuance of the nation for over 1000 years. So they have no problem with it.

August 21, 2015 10:41 am

20th August 2015 – the “official state holiday”. Sit back and watch this 10 min. video . Forget about the firework. This is the way how we celebrated it with one of the Fidesz’s emerging star Mr. Mate Kocsis.

August 21, 2015 12:10 pm

Our young ones just told us that the fireworks in Budapest were very, very mediocre – not to be compared with a Fourth of July celebration in a small US city, more like what you would expect at a private birthday party.
If they’d known this before they would have come to us yesterday already …
Does anyone know who got the job – maybe Orbán’s son in law – the lighting expert?

August 21, 2015 1:35 pm

It was 20 minutes of red, white and green ‘chrysanthemums’ and some that made popping noises. The best thing was that it was only 20 minutes long.

August 21, 2015 2:14 pm

It was quite poor. And they had a song from Matyas Kiralyi (the rock opera) about ‘fighting the enemy’ all the way through the fireworks, which was noisier than the fireworks.

Worst was the lack of organised food, drink or entertainment on the Danube banks. Lots and lots of people just looked bored and fed up. There were a few stalls selling useless things like jam (!) and one tent selling beer which had run out. Luckily, lots of Roma were selling beer and pretzels on the street from boxes!

August 21, 2015 1:59 pm

I disagree, I do not detect a conservative majority in Hungary.
They are a minority.
The silent majority is not conservative, but scared of the aggressive minority of the Orban rule,
The silent majority has no legal protection, and remains a scapegoat in the Orban system.
The question is, why are not all Hungarians free in 2015?

August 21, 2015 3:13 pm

A bit OT:
Just saw that after the big holiday the Forint fell to almost 315 per 1 € – what’s going on?

Is it the Chinese economy problem? The $ also fell, now you get almost 1.14 $ instead of 1.11 for 1 €.

Of course when we visited my wife’s relatives in the USA in 2011 the € was worth 1.50 $ – oh how we did shop …

August 21, 2015 3:35 pm

Interesting history of these Hungarian icons. Thanks for the analysis, Éva!

As for the fireworks yesterday, I was too lazy to go outside, so I thought I’d watch them online. I went to the live broadcast of the M1 station, and I couldn’t believe what they were showing: a news correspondent on the scene who was reporting live on the fireworks as they were going on. Who in their right mind would be interested in watching THAT instead of simply watching the show itself live? He was talking about the amount of fireworks that were being used, the security that was involved, and other pointless things…. It was so completely idiotic.

The Duna TV stream showed the actual fireworks show itself, but all the different, clashing styles of music they played interspersed with poetry left me feeling underwhelmed. Can’t we just enjoy a light show without all the extra fru-fru business?

Penny Oswalt
August 21, 2015 5:21 pm

Eva, I somewhat understand the Coat of Arms, my question is? What were King Stephen Coat of Arms including colors and symbols? If the red,green and white colors of the Hungary’s flag was adopted within the last hundred years, is it King Stephen I our first king of Hungary colors? And if so, why does Italy and us (Hungary) share the same flag colors. Educate me, I do not mind criticism nor correction.