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.
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.
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.