The dangers of being a historian in Orbán’s Hungary

Something extraordinary happened yesterday. László Tüske, director of Hungary’s National Library, launched disciplinary action against János M. Rainer, head of the Institute for the History of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution (’56 Institute), and three of his colleagues. Two were charged with making their views public on the factually inaccurate billboards used to advertise the sixtieth anniversary extravaganza staged by Viktor Orbán’s court historian, Mária Schmidt. This was the by now infamous case in which a fourteen-year-old boy who was one of the “pesti srácok” (urchins of Pest) was misidentified. A third was charged with complaining about photoshopped images used in the anniversary celebration. The fourth was charged with behaving improperly during Viktor Orbán’s speech on October 23.

Before I return to the story of this boy, let me say a few words about the ’56 Institute. It was officially established in June 1989 as a private foundation with very limited resources. In the mid-1990s the institute’s financial problems were seemingly solved when it became a publicly supported institution. Its financial security, however, was dependent on the whims of governments. As soon as Fidesz and the Smallholders won the election in 1998, the promised 60 million forints for the coming year was reduced to 6 million, largely because the right-wing government’s views on the events of 1956 differed radically from those of the majority of historians inside and outside the ’56 Institute. The Institute survived the four lean years and kept publishing literally hundreds of first-rate books on the revolution and related subjects. After the change of government in 2002 the Institute again received proper funding. But then Viktor Orbán returned, and this time he was ready to abolish the Institute altogether. At the last minute a compromise was reached, and the Institute was placed under the supervision of the National Library. Its historians became employees of the library.

Last November I wrote a post titled “An inveterate liar: Mária Schmidt’s celebrated freedom fighter.” You may recall that the Orbán government’s new “take” on the 1956 Revolution is that the only heroes of the revolution were those urchins and adults who actually fought against the Soviet troops on the streets. All others, including disillusioned party functionaries, journalists, intellectuals, and students, played a minimal role. Their presence didn’t make a substantial difference in the course of the events. So, for the sixtieth anniversary, new heroes had to be found from the groups of street urchins.

An actor with unlimited imagination came forth who created a hero of himself. He even found proof: a photo that appeared in Time Magazine at the time. Mária Schmidt, the organizer of the ’56 Memorial Year, was delighted. Giant billboards covered the country with this photo, and the boy depicted was identified as László Dózsa, an actor of modest talents. There was only one problem: the boy on the photo was not Dózsa but Pál Pruck, whose family came forth and proved, at least to my satisfaction, with family photos that it was indeed their father plastered and falsely identified all over the country. Both Dózsa and Mária Schmidt insisted that they were right and the Prucks were lying. Schmidt was especially adamant.

Since Schmidt didn’t let go, the “controversy” went on for weeks. During the debate contemporary pictures of both Pruck and Dózsa were displayed, and it was obvious that the boy in the Time Magazine photo was Pál Pruck. I suspect that Dózsa himself also knew that the boy in the photo was someone else. It is pretty difficult to mistake oneself for someone else regardless of the number of years that have gone by. For example, I found a picture of myself in the company of three of my classmates on Fortepan.hu, a fabulous collection of old photographs turned in by volunteers. I was unaware of the existence of this photograph, taken by someone without our knowledge. I had no difficulty identifying myself and my classmates. I was 16 at the time, Dózsa was 14 in 1956. Yet Schmidt in her usual shrill manner kept insisting and insisting, even when the facts were staring her in the face. As far as I’m concerned, she made a fool of herself. And now she’s making an even greater fool of herself by instructing the director of the Hungarian National Library to discipline the historians who “dared” question her judgment.

From left to right: László Eörsi, János M. Rainer, Réka Sárközy, and Krisztián Ungváry

While I could care less that Mária Schmidt is making a fool of herself, I do mind very much that Hungary has by now become a country where historians are “disciplined” for making their views public. This is another low in the history of Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal state.”

János M. Rainer’s sin was that he placed an interview on his Facebook page in which he explained that no one from Schmidt’s committee had asked the opinion of the historians of the Institute about the decorations Dózsa received in recognition of his role in the revolutionary events. Dózsa did receive all sorts of state decorations for his alleged heroism, but according to László Eörsi, the second disciplined historian, none of his stories could be verified. Eörsi was in fact quite diplomatic when he called Dózsa’s stories unverifiable. I, who went through the events, find them figments of his imagination. His stories are simply not believable. A third historian who was disciplined is Réka Sárközy, whose specialty is film history. She talked to 168.hu about her reservations over how the committee in charge of the memorial year was falsifying original photos. Obviously, expressing her opinions on “photoshopping” was also forbidden. Krisztián Ungváry’s specialty is not the revolutionary events of 1956, and his case is not connected to Dózsa. He was punished because on October 23, 2016 he whistled during Viktor Orbán’s speech. As he said, “I went there as a historian to demonstrate against the falsification of history.”

According to the Index article on this disgraceful case, the director of the National Library did what he did because he felt it was the only way to defend the historians against Schmidt’s wrath. Schmidt’s original idea was to put an end to the very existence of the Institute by subordinating it to one of the institutes Schmidt herself runs. It even occurred to her that the Institute should be merged in some form or other with the Veritas Historical Institute, where the “truth,” according to Orbán, is being sought by mostly right-wing historians.

György Gábor, a philosopher and a former classmate of László Tüske, finds the director’s decision to work hand in hand with the powers that be “disgusting and unacceptable.” It reminds him of the years of the one-party system. I would go even further. In the last ten years of the Kádár regime such blatant interference in matters of history was uncommon. This “disciplinary action” reminds me more of the Rákosi regime’s favorite way of handling such cases. In less serious matters, party functionaries from the top of the pyramid all the way down to the lowly Pioneer leader demanded a public “self-criticism” for one’s perceived misdeeds. I guess if these four historians had humbled themselves and apologized to Mária Schmidt perhaps they could have saved themselves from disciplinary action. Instead, I understand, Krisztián Ungváry has already turned in a formal complaint against the ruling.

March 24, 2017
Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Canadian
Guest

Wow. I don’t know much about Réka Sárközy, but I have nothing but respect for the other 3 historians. And the government is treating them like children, because they dared say the Emperor has no clothes.

Melanie Zuben
Guest

“Those who control the past control the future”
– Orwell, 1984

Ferenc
Guest

“Those who con-troll the comments, troll our future” –Ferenc, 2017

wrfree
Guest

Absolutely. And I must add this from Mr. Orwell…

“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”

Magyarorszag now finds itself in menacing pincers as it tries to re-interpret the past.

Ferenc
Guest

This OV-Fidesz system is so anti-democratic and enormously disgusting. It beats djT&Co (still) by miles.
What are the disciplinary actions, taken against the historians? Hope they can and will go to court about the actions!

Regarding the 1956 events I like to bring to the attention a very impressive video I found last year, put together (in 2012) from original films made during the 1956.Oct.23 demonstration, which was the start of the Revolution:
http://embed.indavideo.hu/player/video/a532898aee?static=1&style=index
story behind it here: http://index.hu/tudomany/tortenelem/2016/10/26/1956-os_filmfelvetelek_oszk_varga_jajo/
I had read the book by Kopacsi before and knew things about the 1956 happenings from my stay in Hungary, but this video made a lasting impression on me and gave a much much better understanding of that famous demonstration.
I informed some people in Hungary about it, and even to them it was new, they hadn’t seen it before (while available since 2012 on index.hu online) and had the same feelings as me after having seen it.
THIS should be shown yearly before Oct.23 in every school in Hungary!!

Ferenc
Guest

A nagy nap (1956.Oct.23) 15 perce
http://index.hu/video/2012/10/22/15_perc_a_nagy_napbol/
strongly recommended addition: subtitles (still missing…..)

wrfree
Guest
Thanks. So this was happening when I was a child at the UN acting witness when the Russians visited sans ‘utlevels. And when they came they added insult to the grave injuries of the previous decades of turmoil. And those people didn’t have anything to do with the Revolution???? Talk about twisting the ‘record’. The country of course continues to pay the price as now a roadblock has emerged barring the past from being truly understood in perspective of what actually happened. Magyarorszag is an ‘old country’ but its memories are slowly being morphed and hijacked by exigencies of the present. The result here is that the country slowly and irredeemly will lose itself in a tangle of unknowing and the quest for truth a casualty in what appears as deliberate obfuscation. She will be a country forever not knowing itself. A land of lost and tainted memory. A stranger to itself and to all within its orbit. And to wander obliviously in such a state is a desperate and ugly fate. Tough occupation in the country today: historian. Looking ahead a caution for Central European/Hungarian analysts in the 23rd century: Identifying and pouring through the practice and results of… Read more »
webber
Guest

Also in Hun. academia – watch gender studies programs. ELTE is about to launch the first Gender Studies dept./undergrad. major ever in a Hungarian state univ., with the approval of the Hungarian Accreditation Board, and the government has attacked this heavily in the press and in Parliament. For some reason I cannot fathom, Fidesz people protesting have associated gender studies with transgender toilets (FYI: All toilets on trains in Hungary are transgender – anybody can use them regardless of gender. Come to think of it, our toilet at home is transgender… hmmm… must fix that!). As a result of Fidesz’s hysteria, the press has mentioned that gender studies has been offered as a minor in some other universities for more than two decades, generally in literature programs (at Debrecen the approach is taught in the English/American Studies Dept.). Nobody was bothered by this before – nobody in Fidesz, nobody anywhere. Now they are suddenly “shocked.” I would not at all be surprised if university teaching staff working in this field were fired – perhaps for other “rational” reasons.

webber
Guest

Also, the government has since increased its control over the Hungarian Accreditation Board with a law requiring that any new program must be approved by the Ministry, even before the board can make a decision about it. The law was not in place when ELTE submitted the gender studies plan, so the HAB had the right to make its decision without asking govt. That’s over now.

bimbi
Guest

In the reality of the fantasy world of Orban and his co-loonies of Fidesz everyone lies. Laszlo Dozsa lies, Maria Schmidt lies, Lazar lies, Habony lies, Orban lies and so objectivity, “reality” are replaced by a web of deceit, doubt, fabrication and dishonesty until fact becomes fiction, truth falsehood, news mere alternative facts.

It has to be pointed out again that the damage that this regime has done to the Hungarian political psyche is severe, deep and probably long-lasting. Of course, it has worked before – the intense and widely-diffused anti-Semitism of the start of the century blossomed in the 1930s into the ghastly anti-Semitic laws enacted by the State which led to the rounding-up, the detention, the confiscation of property and the wagons rolling north bearing their burden to a fate that had nothing to do with us Hungarians at all…

These historians of the 1956 Institute have eyes to see the past and the present and to read the message written there. Each of them needs our praise and our support in the defense of the vestiges of truth and clarity that remain. Brave people who speak for us all!

ambator
Member
For the sake of better understanding I would point out that these wranglings happened last October-November, it just became publicly known recently. In answering to György Gábor lengthy comments I suggested that the only reasonable reaction to such unjustifiable abuse is a court action. However, next morning, this morning, one of the historians concerned joined the discussion: ”János Rainer-Micsinyei Kedves Barátaim, köszönöm a szolidaritás megnyilvánulásait, és az érdeklődést. Csak egy dologhoz szólnék, lásd itt fentebb. Hogy perre visszük-e. Nem visszük, mert ahogy Máté-Tóth András pontosan rámutatott, az írásbeli figyelmeztetés nem fegyelmi. Nincs tárgyalás, fellebbezés sincsen. Ez az igazgató joga, de bekerül a személyi anyagba. Egyébként valamennyien, külön-külön írásos panasszal fordultunk a főigazgatóhoz az ügyben, én pl. tavaly november 14-én. Válasz még nem érkezett.” In rough translation: ”My dear friends, thanks for the solidarity and the interest. I would only address one thing, see above. Are we planning to take the matter to the courts. No, we won’t, because as András Maté-Tóth correctly pointed out, the warning is not a reprimand, not disciplinary action. There is no discussion, no appeal. This is within the power of the Director, and it becomes part of our personal files. By the way we all… Read more »
bimbi
Guest

@ambator, 6:44 a.m.

Thanks for the clarification. There is a difference, maybe, between the issuance of a warning (but what is the other half of it? – Do it again and you are fired?) and the launching of “disciplinary action” as reported at the start of the blog, but perhaps not much. Either way, it appears action was taken to appease the all-seeing goddess Maria Schmidt. It still seems pretty stupid and then if you think about it, just plain sickening.

wrfree
Guest

Re: ‘all-seeing goddess Maria Schmidt’

And arguably like a determined Livia, Empress of Rome, who was driven to mold what ‘history’ was to be for her time and the future.

Joe Simon
Guest

Years ago I visited the Institute housed in a run down apartment building occupying two rooms. I even suggested then that the Institute should be part of a university for better exposure. So moving to the National Library must have been welcome by the members.
Still, the government should leave history to the historians.

Reality Check
Guest

Welcomed the move? Yeah right, because academics care more about accomodations than free speech.

F Lobont
Guest

I am fully supportive of these honest historians who refuse to play servile lip service to the illiberal cause of the regime and criticize such mystifications of history. Free-spirited historians, philosphers and other intellectuals should unite against the intensifying unleashing of alternative facts and post-truths

Martin O Heisler
Guest
Greatly concerned about the dual tendencies in some regimes (a) deny morally deplorable events in their countries’ past, and (b) to try to recast history in ways congenial to their current governments, ten years ago I launched a collaborative publication to call attention to such intellectually and politically indefensible behavior: It appeared under my editorship as The Politics of History in Comparaive Perspective — published as a volume of The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (Volume 617, May 2008). These tendencies have not only not abated in the past decade but have become more common, blatant, and sinister. They are causing grave harm to not only the quest for factually based accounts of the past but to democracy and human dignity. It is clear that scholars must redouble their efforts to confront falsifications of history aimed at serving the interests of current political forces and to shine a light on the intentions of those engaging in and fostering such nefarious lies. With that end, I shall return to the battle against the increasingly brazen falsifiers and purveyors of “alternative facts,” wherever they are, by launching a call for concerted scholarly research, writing and publication. in… Read more »
Observer
Guest

Martin OH

Tnx These regimes have many common features, see G. Orwell. My short version of your elaborate comment is:
Orban’s fascist regime takes shape.

trackback

[…] rest of the story is at http://hungarianspectrum.org/2017/03/24/the-dangers-of-being-a-historian-in-orbans-hungary/  The blog post is written by someone who was 16 at the time of the Revolution, and lived through […]

Ferenc
Guest

A recent interesting long (40min) interview with Krisztián Ungváry, one of the historians in the post: http://hirtv.hu/alinda/ungvary-krisztian-1391212

Mihai Ciubotaru
Guest

It has nothing to do with the theme of the debate but as a Romanian I can not help noticing the creativity of Hungarian historians..

wpDiscuz