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Today’s Hungary and the Weimar Republic

It was only a few weeks ago that I complained about the difficulties I have been encountering with the Hungarian adjective “polgári” (bourgeois), and as a result a lively discussion on the subject developed among the readers of Hungarian Spectrum. Shortly thereafter Ferenc Kőszeg, one of the very few Hungarians who as a member of the democratic opposition of the 1980s fought against the one-party system, wrote an opinion piece titled “A polgár szó jelentéséhez” (To the meaning of the word ‘polgár’). The article was prompted by Sándor Révész’s article in Népszabadság, “A polgári hazugság” (The bourgeois lie). We should recall that in 1995 the party leadership decided to add “Magyar Polgári Párt” to the original name “Fidesz,” and thus the official name of the party became Fidesz Magyar Polgári Párt.

Kőszeg claims that the origins of the adjective “polgári” can be found in the vocabulary of German communists during the Weimar Republic. They were the ones who labelled parties other than themselves and the left-wing social democrats (who formed their own party in 1917) “bürgerliche Parteien.” The term meant that these parties “behind their liberal, conservative or christian democratic disguises” wanted to maintain a bourgeois class rule. By calling itself a “polgári párt,” Fidesz expropriated a communist term to distinguish itself from the socialists and liberals. Kőszeg rightly remarks in the article that “besides German and Hungarian, this expression makes no sense in any other foreign language.”

As so often happens, I read something one day and the next day in another book on an entirely different topic I discover a common thread. This is what happened when I picked up a book of essays by András Nyerges published recently. Nyerges is a fountain of knowledge about Hungarian intellectual history in the Horthy era. He combed all the important newspapers and came up with a wealth of material on the political attitudes of important intellectuals. Some politically quite embarrassing for later greats of Hungarian literature.

This particular book of essays has the intriguing title “Makó szomszédja Jeruzsálem” (Makó is the neighbor of Jerusalem). There is a very old saying in Hungarian that something is as far as “Makó from Jerusalem,” meaning very far. So, Nyerges’s title indicates that, despite the common belief that two entities are so remote from one another that they cannot be compared, there are sometimes many similarities that make them less distant than most of us believe. In one of the essays that inspired the title for the book, Nyerges writes about the Weimar Republic in the early 1930s, just before Hitler’s rise to power. He finds striking similarities between the politics of the German national socialists and the politics of Fidesz. This essay, it should be noted, was written in 2009–that is, before the national election that gave practically unlimited power to Viktor Orbán’s party.

Nyerges briefly discusses the birth of the labels “bürgerliche Demokratie” and “bürgerliche Parteien,” but he doesn’t linger over this point. His main focus is the Weimar Republic’s bad reputation as the harbinger of Hitler’s rise to power. Most Hungarian intellectuals called him an alarmist when he drew parallels between the Weimar Republic and the Hungarian political scene in 2009. Here, in this essay, Nyerges brings up examples of the behavior of the German national socialists in the Reichstag from 1931-1932 and compares it to the Fidesz strategy in 2008 and 2009.

Nyerges is dealing with two periods that resemble each other insofar as both followed a worldwide economic crisis. In the early 1930s the German chancellor, Heinrich Brünning, rightly or wrongly introduced an austerity program that made his government exceedingly unpopular. Hitler’s national socialists took advantage of the situation and introduced new, unorthodox parliamentary politics, including marching out of the parliament if the vote went against them. When they were asked to submit amendments, they refused to cooperate in any way and instead demanded the dissolution of parliament. Hitler denied that the world economic crisis had anything to do with the economic plight of Germany. It was, he maintained, due solely to “the incompetent political leaders who don’t care about the interests of the people.” At one point Hermann Göring announced in parliament that “Brünning is a traitor because he formed a coalition with the socialists.” Hitler in 1932 declared that “not only people of Jewish ancestry cannot be considered German but also those who are not national socialists.” Reading these lines, one is reminded of Fidesz’s policies while in opposition.

Populism

Nyerges quotes a letter of Hitler to Brünning in which he wrote: “when we legally take over the reins of government, then we will decide what is legal.” This is exactly what has happened in Hungary since 2010. The Hungarian parliament in which until recently Fidesz had a two-thirds majority rewrote all the laws they found not to their liking.

There are many other similarities between the two populist parties. The German national socialists had their men placed in important positions, including the judiciary. They claimed that half of the judges were either party members or sympathizers. When in October 1931 some incriminating documents were discovered from which the public learned that “in the event of Brünning’s fall, the SS troops would have been activated,” the prosecutor’s office delayed investigation. Meanwhile, Hitler talked about “socialist provocation” when it was clear that the authors of the documents were members of the party who received high positions after the takeover in 1933. Sounds all too familiar.

Although Nyerges is right in calling attention to the similar strategies and behavior of Hitler’s national socialists and Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz, most people would counter that the Hungarian situation is very different from the circumstances that existed in the Weimar Republic. Of course, this is true, but at the same time we can’t forget that Viktor Orbán managed to achieve almost total political control without the aid of any external catalyst. He had no Reichstag fire.

The Hungarian people are just lucky that Viktor Orbán turned out to be a less successful prime minister than he was a scheming, unscrupulous opposition leader. It is possible that his “reign” will be over soon and that the “shaman,” as Lajos Kósa called Orbán at one point in 2006 after the second lost election, will disappear forever except in history books as an example of a misguided and undemocratic politician who did not serve his country well.

Thanks to all of you

I think we can safely say that we are up and running with a more professional looking platform than before. I hope you have noticed some of the changes introduced by our very own computer guru, known to you as “Some1.” Without her, none the improvements would have been possible.

Let me list some of the changes you may or may not have noticed.

There are no longer two search buttons, just the most efficient one, Google Search. Over the last eight years Hungarian Spectrum has reflected the timeline of Hungarian politics. Searching through this material will help readers better understand current topics.

Now, on the sidebar, we can all see the number of people who follow HS via Facebook and Twitter. The number of posts over the years–currently more than 2,600–is displayed as well.

Also on the sidebar is the “Like HSPECTRUM” button. In a comment we asked satisfied readers to click on “Like.” So far only eight people have done so, while over 16,000 people have “liked” Hungary Today, a government financed internet news site. It’s time to ask again, this time in a more prominent place. Without measurable reader enthusiasm HS has no chance of being one of those blogs that make it to Google Alert.

A much more obvious change is the way Hungarian Spectrum now displays the posts that appear daily. On the opening page only the first 100 words of each article appear. To read the whole post one has to click on the “Read the rest” button. I am very pleased with this new feature because it allows people, especially newcomers to the site, to browse a range of topics. I’m also happy about the automatic visibility of comments at the end of each article. You no longer have to find the ” Comments” button, which tends to get lost among the tags. And talking about tags. “Some1″ created a sitemap for us which should help with Hungarian Spectrum‘s visibility on the Internet. We also added several new pages, some to comply with legal requirements, including “Contact,” “Privacy Policy,” and “Terms and Conditions.”

Finally, I would like to thank everyone who contributed to the cause. I truly appreciate your generosity and your vote of confidence. And we should all thank “Some1,” who has spent countless hours on this project.

The Putin visit a day after

Yesterday, shortly after the Putin-Orbán press conference ended, I summarized the events of the day and gave a brief account of what the two politicians had to say about their meeting. My immediate impression was that the winner of this encounter was Vladimir Putin. He received an invitation to a member state of the European Union where he has been a pariah ever since June 2014 and was treated well.

After forming his government in 2010, Viktor Orbán made no secret of his desire to have not only good economic relations with Russia but also close political ties. No country in the western alliance ever objected to trade relations with Russia, but Orbán’s political friendship with Russia has been watched with growing suspicion, especially after the events in Ukraine. During the last year or so Viktor Orbán has been busy trying to appease the European Union while hoping to get added benefits from Russia.

To his domestic critics Orbán’s performance yesterday was embarrassingly subservient. Attila Ara-Kovács, the foreign policy adviser to the Demokratikus Koalíció, described Putin as “a landlord” who came to look around his estate while Orbán the bailiff stood by, awaiting the master’s orders.

Putin’s visit to the cemetery has been drawing very strong criticism. Hungary seems to be in such a subordinate position to Russia that the government is unable to make the Russians change the objectionable word “counterrevolution.”  What happened yesterday was the humiliation of the nation, critics say. Barring the Hungarian media from the cemetery was also troubling.  Did the Russians insist on this? And if so, how could the Hungarian prime minister agree to such an arrangement?

The most substantive criticism of Orbán’s performance yesterday was his complete silence on Russian aggression against Ukraine. Two days after he visited Kiev he stood motionless next to Putin, who was “just rewriting the Minsk Agreement,” as István Szent-Iványi, former ambassador to Slovenia, aptly put it on ATV this morning.  Orbán’s message to the world was clear: “Hungary needs Russia.” That’s all he cares about.

Throughout the press conference he steadfastly supported the Russian position. Today’s editorial in Népszabadság on the Orbán-Putin encounter was titled “Shame.” What did the editorial board of the paper find shameful? The list is quite long. The “strong man of Europe” and “the living statue of bravery” listened while Putin accused the Ukrainians of starting the war and while he called the separatists “aided by Russian regulars armed to the teeth” simple miners and tractor drivers. Orbán didn’t move a muscle when Putin called on the Ukrainian soldiers encircled by Russian and separatist forces in Debaltseve to surrender. He didn’t mention the inviolability of territorial integrity and the sovereignty of a neighboring country. He said nothing about the concerns of the European Union or about the victims of the fighting. In brief, he behaved shamefully. Orbán chose Russia. The die is cast, says Népszabadság. 

What did Viktor Orbán get in exchange? Not much. Gas, which he would have gotten without all this humiliation from Russia, and scorn from the West. Since yesterday we learned that Hungary is paying $260 for 1,000m³, which is apparently higher than the open market price. At least he avoided signing a long-term contract which, given recent price volatility, would have been a particularly bad deal.

Unfortunately, we know almost nothing about what the two men discussed for two solid hours. It couldn’t have been the continued supply of Russian gas to Hungary because that was a done deal before yesterday’s meeting. Viktor Orbán himself admitted today when he talked to a group of journalists that what the deal needed was only the final nod from “the Indian chief.” It also looks as if negotiations about a new pipeline from Turkey to Hungary through Macedonia and Serbia are already underway. Orbán and Putin were completely alone without any of their aides. What did these two men talk about for that long?

Smiles all around

Smiles all around

Fellow politicians are suspicious. Especially since the Hungarian prime minister cannot be relied upon for an accurate account. Here is a case in point. Grzegorz Schetyna, the Polish foreign minister, gave an interview to a Polish radio station yesterday from which we learned that the week before Orbán went on and on about the absolute necessity of meeting Putin in person because of the extremely unfavorable terms of the present gas agreement. Well, today we know that not a word of Orbán’s lament to Schetyna was true. The meeting had nothing to do with a new gas contract.

Finally, another first can be recorded in the history of the Orbán administration. A few days ago Viktor Orbán called together the leaders of the five parliamentary delegations: Fidesz, Christian Democratic People’s Party, MSZP, Jobbik, and LMP. The meeting, of course, didn’t signify any change in the government’s attitude to the opposition, but it looked good. Today’s big news was that Viktor Orbán invited about 15 journalists who cover foreign affairs for a “background talk.” Gábor Horváth, who is the foreign editor of Népszabadság, had the distinct impression that such gatherings had been held earlier but without journalists from opposition papers.  Orbán talked for an hour and was ready to answer questions for another forty-five minutes. The prime minister called Russia “one of the most difficult partners” and claimed that “we would be worse off if we did not work with them.”

I for one wouldn’t take Orbán’s words about his difficult relations with Russia seriously. He seemed to be relaxed and happy on the same stage as Vladimir Putin. He looked as if he were basking in the limelight that he shared with the great man. Here was the president of a strong, important nation who didn’t pester him with checks and balances and democratic values.  Two weeks earlier he looked decidedly unhappy and annoyed when the chancellor of Germany somewhat undiplomatically announced that as far as she knows there is no such thing as illiberal democracy. Most likely he was humiliated and it showed. After he waved goodbye to Putin in front of the parliament building, Orbán and his close entourage looked extremely satisfied with their performance. It was a good day for Viktor Orbán. It started well and it ended well, as far as Viktor Orbán was concerned. Putin also seemed to be satisfied. Whether it was a good day for Hungary is another matter.

American rapprochement with Viktor Orbán’s Hungary?

While readers of Hungarian Spectrum continue to discuss the possible reasons for André Goodfriend’s departure, let me share one right-wing Hungarian reaction to the exit of the former chargé, István Lovas’s opinion piece in yesterday’s Magyar Hírlap titled “The Bell Change.”

One could devote a whole series of posts to István Lovas himself, from his brush with the law as a teenager to the open letter he wrote recently to Vladimir Putin in which he asked him to start a Hungarian-language “Russia Today” because the Russian propaganda television station is actually much better than BBC. Lovas lived in Canada, the United States, and Germany, where he worked for Radio Free Europe. He was considered to be a difficult man who caused a lot of turmoil in the Hungarian section of the organization.

For many years Lovas was a devoted Fidesz man. He already held important positions in the first Orbán government (1998-2002). For years he worked for Magyar Nemzet, most recently as its Brussels correspondent, but a few months ago Lovas, along with a number of other Orbán stalwarts, lost his job. Mind you, the European Parliament had had enough of Lovas even before he was sacked by Magyar Nemzet, especially after he presented a bucket of artificial blood to Sophie in ‘t Veld, the Dutch liberal MEP. The bucket of blood was supposed to symbolize the Palestinian children who were victims of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Lovas, himself of Jewish descent, is a well-known anti-Semite.

After having lost his job at Magyar Nemzet and after Putin failed to respond to his plea for a Hungarian “Russia Today,” Lovas moved on. Gábor Széles, who owns Magyar Hírlap and EchoTV, offered him a job. Now he has a weekly political program called “Fault Lines” (Törésvonalak) on EchoTV, and he also writes opinion pieces for Széles’s newspaper.

So how does István Lovas see American-Hungarian relations in the wake of the arrival of Colleen Bell and the departure of André Goodfriend? To summarize his opinion in one sentence: from here on the United States and the Orbán government will be the best of friends.

According to Lovas, André Goodfriend was the darling of those lost liberals who have been wandering in the wilderness “ever since SZDSZ was thrown into the garbage heap of history.” They are still hoping that nothing will change. Originally they were certain that Goodfriend would run the embassy while the newly arrived ambassador would be its public face. Meanwhile, Goodfriend would continue visiting “left/neoliberal SZDSZ or MSZP politicians and intellectuals.”

These liberal hopes were dashed soon after Colleen Bell’s arrival. The new orientation was clear from day one. Bell went and laid a wreath at the statue of the unknown soldier on Heroes’ Square. She visited the Csángó Ball organized every year to celebrate a fairly mysterious group of Hungarians living in the Romanian region of Moldavia, speaking an old Hungarian dialect. These are important signs of the new American attitude toward things dear to the current government: fallen heroes and national minorities. Certainly, says Lovas, Goodfriend would never have been found in such places. Yet liberals don’t seem to have grasped the significance of all this. They think that more Hungarians will be banished from the United States and that Hungary will have to pay a high price for peace with the United States. Most likely, Orbán will have to compromise on Paks, on Russian-Hungarian relations in general, and/or will have to buy American helicopters.

But Lovas has bad news for them. There will be no more talk about corruption cases, and Hungary will pay no price whatsoever. Colleen Bell realized that Goodfriend’s methods had failed. Of course, Lovas is talking nonsense here. Even if Lovas is right about a change in U.S. policy, it was not Bell who decided on this new strategy but the United States government.

Lovas is certain that the change has already occurred. It is enough to look at the new website of the U.S. Embassy in Budapest. There are no more programs on tolerance, on Holocaust events, “all those things that are kicks in the groin of the Hungarian people and their elected government.” A drastic change occurred in U.S.-Hungarian relations which even such liberal-socialist diplomats as Péter Balázs, foreign minister in the Bajnai government, László Kovács, foreign minister under Gyula Horn, or András Simonyi, ambassador to Washington (2002-2010), couldn’t explain away.

This change couldn’t have taken place if Goodfriend had stayed or if the Orbán government had conducted “the kind of servile atlantist policy recommended by Géza Jeszenszky,” foreign minister under József Antall and ambassador to Washington during the first Orbán government. Jeszenszky, who just resigned as ambassador to Norway, had a long interview in which he expressed his deep disappointment with Viktor Orbán and his foreign policy, especially with his attitude toward the United States.

According to Lovas, what happened recently is a victory for Orbán’s foreign policy, a feat that “could be achieved only by the courage and tenacity” of the Hungarian prime minister. The United States government tried to mend its ways by sending someone to Budapest who is not worried about such things as tolerance or the Holocaust. From here on the Budapest embassy will function just as American embassies do in other capitals. The U.S. Embassy in Vienna, for example, does not report “breaking news” about the Anschluss.

Lovas might exaggerate, but something is going on. When was the last time that Viktor Orbán called together the whips of all political parties for a discussion on Hungarian foreign policy? As far as I know, never. As Magyar Nemzet put it, “Viktor Orbán asked for the support of the political parties in reaching the nation’s foreign policy goals.” Among the topics was the objective of “strengthening the American-Hungarian alliance.” Péter Szijjártó, who was of course present, claimed that “political relations with the United States are improving” and that the Orbán government “will take further steps toward the restoration of earlier economic, political, and military cooperation.”

The meeting of the leaders of the parliamentary delegations  Source: MTI / Photo Gergely Botár

The meeting of the leaders of the parliamentary delegations convened by Viktor Orbán
Source: MTI / Photo Gergely Botár

I’m sure that we all want better relations between Hungary and the United States, but the question is at what price. The United States can’t close its eyes to Viktor Orbán’s blatant attacks on democracy, the media, human rights, and civil society. And then there is the timing of this alleged renewed love affair between Budapest and Washington. If true, and that’s a big if, it couldn’t have come at a worse time for Hungarian democracy–yes, liberal democracy. Just when Viktor Orbán’s support is dropping precipitously and when it looks as if he may lose his precious two-thirds majority in spite of all the billions of forints he promised from taxpayer money to the city of Veszprém to buy votes. When a large part of the hitherto slavish right-wing media at last decided to return to more critical and balanced journalism.

No, this is not the time to court Viktor Orbán. It would be a grave mistake. It is, in fact, time to be tough because the great leader is in trouble. Trouble abroad, trouble at home. Frans Timmermans, the first vice-president of the European Commission, in a speech to the European Parliament said the following without mentioning Viktor Orbán’s name: “We cannot let our societies imperceptibly slip back; we cannot allow illiberal logics to take hold. There is no such thing as an illiberal democracy…. We are keeping a close eye on all issues arising in Member States relating to the rule of law, and I will not hesitate to use the [EU Rule of Framework established last March] if required by the situation in a particular Member State.”

Panhandling

In order to expand the reach of Hungarian Spectrum and to make the blog more accessible to its readers, I have been thinking about making some changes, which unfortunately will cost money, both a one-time fee to make the changeover seamless and a yearly fee.

What will we get in return? For starters, an individual domain name that will allow Hungarian Spectrum to be more easily recognized by Google Alerts. Although I’m pleased with the success of the blog, I think it is vital that it reach as many people as possible. With the appearance of the state-sponsored Hungary Today, Hungarian Spectrum was unceremoniously dropped from Google Alerts.

In addition, we will be able to have many features of WordPress.com that either we never had or that disappeared. For instance, if we change to the paid version, nested comments will once again be available. And I will be able to get technical help if something goes wrong which, as you know, has been happening a lot lately.

I’m going to put up a PayPal button. With this button you can either make a one-time donation or opt for a monthly subscription. (You can pay with any recognized credit card.) This blog, I should emphasize, will remain open to everybody. Subscribers won’t get anything special, not even a tote bag.

Enough panhandling. It doesn’t come naturally to me. Suffice it to say that if you think this blog is worth supporting, I’ll make the changes. And I’ll be very grateful.

The Orbán government is at a loss: Which way to turn?

Today even Válasz had to admit that the Hungarian government’s PR stunt that followed the less than successful Merkel-Orbán meeting was a mistake. Referring to the false news about mega-investment,” Valóság, after an earlier glowing report, had to retreat and acknowledge that “there is no BMW, there is no new Mercedes factory and Fidesz doesn’t seem to be successful in the RTL Klub affair either. This wouldn’t be drama if the government had the guts to deny Vs.hu‘s news. But now we do have a small drama.”

I don’t know whether we can call it a drama, but that the Hungarian government’s already tarnished reputation now has an ugly rusty spot as well, that’s for sure. AFP picked up the news about the gigantic German investments that were agreed on during the meeting between the German chancellor and the Hungarian prime minister, but unlike András Kósa, the author of the Vs.hu article, AFP, before publishing the article, did go to the “spokesman for the Hungarian government [who] declined to comment.” Not did the spokesman not deny the story, as Válasz would have suggested, but he purposely spread the disinformation. That leaves me to believe that this PR stunt was concocted by the large communication team around the prime minister’s office.

What can one say about a government that engages in such cheap tricks? Keep in mind that the team around Viktor Orbán was handpicked by the prime minister himself. The members of this team are the ones who manage “communication,” which seems to be the most important aspect of politics for Viktor Orbán. He is like a salesman who has only one goal: to sell his wares regardless of their value or even utility.

What were these communication wizards thinking? Surely they had to realize that sooner or later reporters will ask these companies about their alleged plans and the truth will be revealed. Indeed, Mercedes and BMW have already denied the leaked information about their plans to build factories in Hungary, and this morning we learned from the Siemens spokesman that Siemens is no longer active in industries connected to nuclear energy and therefore the news about their involvement with the Paks Nuclear Power Plant is untrue. As far as the helicopters are concerned, apparently no decision has been made. It is possible that after the meeting Airbus, the French-German company reported to have won the contract, might not be the favorite.

I can only hope that the story of this ruse will reach Angela Merkel’s office, not that I have any doubt about her assessment of the Hungarian prime minister’s character. In any case, the Orbán government’s courting of Germany as a counterbalance to the United States did not work out to Orbán’s satisfaction. Of course, he himself is partly to blame for the fiasco with his public defense of “illiberal democracy.” Even Gábor G. Fodor, a right-wing “strategic director” of Századvég, a Fidesz think tank, said that Viktor Orbán made a mistake when he openly defended his vision of “illiberal democracy.” In fact, he went so far as to say that “this debate cannot be won,” especially not before a western audience. If this absolutely devoted Orbán fan considers the prime minister’s defense of his ideology to have been a mistake, then, believe me, the mistake was a big one.

So, here we are. After all the effort the government put into good relations with Germany, it looks as if Angela Merkel was not convinced. So, where to go from here? There seems to be a serious attempt at improving U.S.-Hungarian relations. This effort was prompted by the long-awaited arrival of the new U.S. ambassador, Colleen Bell, who shortly after her arrival began a round of visits and attended to a number of official duties. Her first trip was to Csaba Hende, minister of defense, which was reported by Hungary Today, a  newly launched, thinly disguised government propaganda internet site. The news of her visit was coupled with the announcement of Hungary’s plans to purchase a new helicopter fleet. The fleet will consist of 30 helicopters that will cost 551 million euros. Discussing the helicopters and Colleen Bell’s visit in the same article was no coincidence. Most likely, the Hungarian government wants to give the impression that there is a possibility that the helicopters will be purchased from the United States.

Even more telling is the paean on the Hungarian government’s website to “successful Hungarian-U.S. economic cooperation.” The occasion was the opening of Alcoa’s “expanded wheels manufacturing plant in Hungary.” It is, if I understand it correctly, an expansion of facilities that have been in place ever since 1996. The construction cost $13 million, and it will create 35 new permanent jobs. The facility was officially opened by Colleen Bell and Péter Szijjártó. Szijjártó was effusive: “with Alcoa’s new investment, a new chapter has opened in the success story of Hungarian-U.S. economic cooperation.” We also learned that the Hungarian government “granted one billon forints for the project.”

Photo by Márton Kovács

Photo by Márton Kovács

Bell, for her part, appealed to Hungarian pride by reminding her hosts that, although Alcoa has existed for 125 years, “this is not very long in terms of Hungary’s 1000-year-old history, but for the United States, a 125-year period covers half of its existence.” Music to Hungarian ears. Of course, she also promised that in the future she will work hard to create new opportunities for both U.S. and Hungarian businesses and to further improve their cooperation. The mayor of Székesfehérvár, the city where the Alcoa factory is located, announced that the wheels of buses in the city will gradually be replaced with Alcoa products.

I somehow doubt that courting the United States in this manner will make Washington forget about the anti-American rhetoric of  pro-government papers or the incredible performance of the Orbán government in connection with the U.S. banning of Hungarian nationals because of corruption charges. Somehow I have the feeling that courting the United States without changing government policies will be just as unsuccessful as Orbán’s earlier efforts in Germany.

And one final note. Today Orbán announced that the fate of cheaper utility costs depends on his successful negotiation with Vladimir Putin on the price of gas and oil to Hungary. If he is unsuccessful, the current low utility rates cannot be maintained. The message? The Hungarian people should support his Russia policy. If not, their utility bills will rise again. Let me add that the team that came up with the idea of reducing utility prices hit a gold mine. The Orbán government’s popularity in 2012 was even lower than it is now. Yet a year and a half later the popularity of the party and the government soared. For Orbán utility rates are terribly important, and therefore I suspect that he will do everything in his power to strike a deal with Putin. The question is at what price.

Attila József’s “My Homeland” translated by Sándor Kerekes

You may recall that a few days ago I wrote that I couldn’t find an English translation of Attila József’s well-known poem “Hazám” (My homeland). My comment inspired our friend “Sándor” (Sándor Kerekes) to try his own hand at a translation.

So, at least for a day, let’s put aside the current political situation in Hungary and turn to a half Hungarian-half Romanian genius, Attila József (1905-1937). Just to give you an idea of his place in Hungarian literature, April 11, the date of his birth, has been the Day of Hungarian Poetry since 1968.

Here I will not recount the vicissitudes of his life, which was marked by poverty and mental illness. A short biography is available on the English-language Wikipedia. Instead, I will reminisce about my own introduction to his poetry.

Jozsef attila fenykepAttila József’s poetry was not widely read until the communist takeover, when the regime promoted him as a “proletarian poet.” It is true that he was a member of the illegal communist party for a short time, but soon enough he left the movement, disillusioned. Naturally, the literary historians of the Rákosi period mentioned neither his abandonment of the communist ideology nor his involvement with psychoanalysis, which was a forbidden discipline at the time.

The first time I encountered an Attila József poem was in grade seven, right after the nationalization of all parochial schools. I was assigned to recite his poem “Mama” at a school function. From that time on, Attila József’s poetry increasingly became an integral part of our intellectual lives, all through high school and university.

It must have been in the second year at the University of Budapest (ELTE) that the Department of Hungarian Literature organized an excursion of sorts to visit the many places in Budapest that could be connected to Attila József. The most memorable was the apartment house where he was born: Gát utca 3 in District IX. Of course, we received the usual spiel about the poverty of the proletariat before the communist takeover, but the problem was that people still lived in the same cramped apartments with a toilet at the end of the corridor. Nothing had changed at Gát utca 3 since Attila József’s childhood.

One final memory. During one of my visits to Hungary in the late 1960s I had an opportunity to visit the Attila József collection at the Petőfi Irodalmi Múzeum. An old college friend of mine, a literary historian, was an associate of the museum specifically working on the poet’s literary heritage. Thus she had access to all the precious manuscripts collected there. It was quite an experience to hold some of those papers and see the original corrections penned by the poet.

And here is Sándor Kerekes’s translation of “Hazám” followed by the original Hungarian.

 

MY HOMELAND

1
At night I was walking homebound,
I felt as velvety noises sway,
In ventilating, soft warmness
The jasmins applauded away,

great, sleepy jungle was my soul
and people slept on the streets. It hit me,
whence from my mind, and my tongue
originates and will feed me,

the community that is husband
to this drunken, seductive
mother nature, or in gloomy

work places cursing there,
or ruminate here in the deep lair
of the night: the national squalor.

2
A thousand endemics waging,
the frequent baby deaths,
orphanage and premature aging,
dementia, single birth, and stark

sin, suicide, the spirit’s inertia,
all doubtfully hopes to be redeemed,
will not be enough to prove:
it is high time to be liberated!

And in the company of
an adept community to
talk over hundreds of our troubles.

Under the spell of violence
so they rue those legislators,
as our beautiful race perish!

3
The landlord, for whom to the hernia
tree trunks and corn were lifted,
orders clearings opened with pickaxes,
destroying village and homestead.

And who protected his doomed home,
the caring, bold, striving man,
they mean to coral, like cattle,
To elect some wise parliamentarian.

Skittish are feathers on gendarmes’ hats
they smile and they guarantee,
to prescribe who the delegate be,

“openly,” decides, who, for a thousand years
was bound like a sheaf,
is either furtive, or follows orders.

4
Our lords were not slothful, nor dumb
to defend their lands against us
and staggered a million and a half
of our people to the US.

His heart sunk, his legs trembled,
on snarling waves he drifted away,
remembering and vomiting,
like drowning sin into wine one day.

One thought he was hearing cow bells
And his mate understood well
he is too dumb to send money home.

Our past is all jammed up together,
and as besett wayferers,
the new world will receive us.

5
The wage of the worker isn’t more
than what he fought for to score,
just enough for soup and bread
and for wine to make drunken roar.

The country doesn’t ask, wherefore
they let to gather hostilities
and why they don’t support for the workers’
interest the industries.

Weaver girl dreams of sweetmeats,
she knows nothing about cartels.
And on Saturday they slip in her hand

her pay and the penalty deducted:
chuckling the change: that’s all
you worked for, not nothing after all.

6
The rich is frightened by the poor
And the poor fears the rich.
Wile fear is governing us
and not fleeting hope’s pitch.

Wouldn’t grant rights to the peasant
He who eats the peasant’s bread
and the labourer dries yellow as straw,
but to raise demands  he dread.

Over the dale of a thousand years,
On his back the vagabond’s bag
walks away the people’s son.

He searches for an underling’s job,
Instead of strafing the grave
where his father is resting.

7
And yet, as Magyar, and as fugitive,
My soul cries startled on –
sweet Homeland, take me in your heart,
let me be your faithful son!

Let twaddle he the clumsy bear
on a chain – I must not go along!
I am a poet – tell your prosecutor
To leave my pen alone!

You gave peasants to oceans,
give humanity to humans.
Give Hungarianness to Hungarians,

So we won’t be the colony of Germans.
Let me write beauty and the good – to me
give my happier song!

May 1937

HAZÁM

1
Az éjjel hazafelé mentem,
éreztem, bársony nesz inog,
a szellõzködõ, lágy melegben
tapsikolnak a jázminok,

nagy, álmos dzsungel volt a lelkem
s háltak az uccán. Rám csapott,
amibõl eszméltem, nyelvem
származik s táplálkozni fog,

a közösség, amely e részeg
ölbecsaló anyatermészet
férfitársaként él, komor

munkahelyeken káromkodva,
vagy itt töpreng az éj nagy odva
mélyén: a nemzeti nyomor.

2
Ezernyi fajta népbetegség,
szapora csecsemõhalál,
árvaság, korai öregség,
elmebaj, egyke és sivár

bûn, öngyilkosság, lelki restség,
mely, hitetlen, csodára vár,
nem elegendõ, hogy kitessék:
föl kéne szabadulni már!

S a hozzáértõ dolgozó
nép gyülekezetében
hányni-vetni meg száz bajunk.

Az erõszak bûvöletében
mint bánja sor törvényhozó,
hogy mint pusztul el szép fajunk!

3
A földesúr, akinek sérvig
emeltek tönköt, gabonát,
csákányosokkal puszta tért nyit,
szétveret falut és tanyát.

S a gondra bátor, okos férfit,
ki védte menthetlen honát,
mint állatot terelni értik,
hogy válasszon bölcs honatyát.

Cicáznak a szép csendõrtollak,
mosolyognak és szavatolnak,
megírják, ki lesz a követ,

hisz „nyiltan” dönt, ki ezer éve
magával kötve mint a kéve,
sunyít vagy parancsot követ.

4
Sok urunk nem volt rest, se kába,
birtokát óvni ellenünk
s kitántorgott Amerikába
másfél millió emberünk.

Szíve szorult, rezgett a lába,
acsargó habon tovatûnt,
emlékezõen és okádva,
mint aki borba fojt be bûnt.

Volt, aki úgy vélte, kolomp szól
s társa, ki tudta, ily bolondtól
pénzt eztán se lát a család.

Multunk mind össze van torlódva
s mint szorongó kivándorlókra,
ránk is úgy vár az új világ.

5
A munkásnak nem több a bére,
mint amit maga kicsikart,
levesre telik és kenyérre
s fröccsre, hogy csináljon ricsajt.

Az ország nem kérdi, mivégre
engedik meggyûlni a bajt
s mért nem a munkás védelmére
gyámolítják a gyáripart.

Szövõlány cukros ételekrõl
álmodik, nem tud kartelekrõl.
S ha szombaton kezébe nyomják

a pénzt s a büntetést levonják:
kuncog a krajcár: ennyiért
dolgoztál, nem épp semmiért.

6
Retteg a szegénytõl a gazdag
s a gazdagtól fél a szegény.
Fortélyos félelem igazgat
minket s nem csalóka remény.

Nem adna jogot a parasztnak,
ki rág a paraszt kenyerén
s a summás sárgul, mint az asztag,
de követelni nem serény.

Ezer esztendõ távolából,
hátán kis batyuval, kilábol
a népségbõl a nép fia.

Hol lehet altiszt, azt kutatja,
holott a sírt, hol nyugszik atyja,
kellene megbotoznia.

7
S mégis, magyarnak számkivetve,
lelkem sikoltva megriad –
édes Hazám, fogadj szivedbe,
hadd legyek hûséges fiad!

Totyogjon, aki buksi medve
láncon – nekem ezt nem szabad!
Költõ vagyok – szólj ügyészedre,
ki ne tépje a tollamat!

Adtál földmívest a tengernek,
adj emberséget az embernek.
Adj magyarságot a magyarnak,

hogy mi ne legyünk német gyarmat.
Hadd írjak szépet, jót – nekem
add meg boldogabb énekem!

1937. május