Tag Archives: Carpathian Basin

Church and State in Orbán’s Hungary

Let me return briefly to Hódmezővásárhely because, since we left this Fidesz stronghold, the city has acquired a special significance. Péter Márki-Zay’s decision to stand as an independent against the Fidesz candidate for the post of mayor has had a greater impact than a local campaign in a provincial town of Hódmezővásárhely’s size would warrant.

As an offshoot of this seemingly ordinary local election, a national discourse on the role of the churches in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary has emerged. The relation between church and state has been seriously out of kilter in Hungary, an allegedly secular state, for some time. People simply needed a catalyst to begin challenging the incredible amount of taxpayer money that is being spent on churches, not just in Hungary but in the whole Carpathian Basin. And, perhaps more importantly, to ask how appropriate it is to sell the churches’ good will for hard cash. Márki-Zay’s parish priest provided this catalyst.

We knew from the beginning that Márki-Zay is a religious Catholic. Given his close association with the church, he certainly wasn’t expecting what he got from László Németh, whom he calls Father Laci. As Father László promised, on Sunday he delivered a short speech to the congregation in which he made it clear that his flock must vote for the Fidesz candidate because “not since World War II have the Hungarian churches, not just the Catholic Church, had such opportunities as they are getting now—in education, healthcare, social services, publications, and the list goes on. In Hódmezővásárhely we already have the money in our bank account; we are just starting construction of a third Catholic church in town. People knowing all this, knowing the facts, can make the right decision regarding whom they will vote for when they enter the voting booth.” Many people in the congregation were shocked and disgusted, especially because of the implication of the speech: the Orbán government had bought the Hungarian Catholic Church lock, stock, and barrel. Márki-Zay wasn’t expecting “all the hate and evil which erupted in the last ten days.” He and his friends apparently prayed at a Eucharistic Adoration last night for Father Laci, who must be having a hard time after his performance on Sunday.

György Gábor, an expert on the philosophy of religion, has a devastating opinion of Father László’s attitude toward his own religion and his church. “He put a price on the teachings of Jesus. The first person who valorized the teachings of Jesus was Judas; he asked for thirty pieces of silver for the betrayal of him.” In Hódmezővásárhely, as Father László revealed, there is a symbiosis of church and state that is the result of a dirty financial deal.

Let’s take a look at a few recent cases of large sums of money showered on the churches. Defense Minister István Simicskó and Undersecretary Miklós Soltész, who is in charge of state-church relations, just announced a two billion forint grant to two Catholic gymnasiums in District XI. This is over and above the 2.5 billion that had already been dispersed among religious organizations, mostly Catholic, in the district. They explained that giving financial assistance to churches is especially necessary now that “Christian civilization and the lives of Europeans are threatened by other civilizations.” Simicskó added, quoting Carl von Clausewitz, that without faith one cannot have a strong army. We can ponder the meaning of this strange remark.

The same Miklós Soltész proudly talked the other day about the renovation of 5,500 churches in the Carpathian Basin on Hungarian taxpayer money over the last four years. I don’t know how many of these churches are in Hungary and how many in the neighboring countries. And of course, a lot of brand new churches have been built since Fidesz won the election in 2010. Not that Hungary is in dire need of new churches. We know from statistics that the number of regular churchgoers in Hungary is very small. For instance, from the article about Father László’s speech in his church we learned that there was such interest in the event that the number of attendees was about three times normal. As one of the parishioners said, the size of the congregation could be compared only to mass on Christmas Day. So, one cannot help wondering why Hódmezővásárhely needs another Catholic church.

I assume that the situation is no different with the Protestants, yet a number of new church buildings have been erected lately with generous government assistance. The Hungarian Reformed Church is especially favored. After all, Orbán is “református” and so is Zoltán Balog, whose ministry is in charge of church affairs.

Here is one example from the many. The prime minister is apparently a member of the Svábhegyi Református Gyülekezet (Reformed Congregation of Svábhegy), which received a new building seven years ago. Svábhegy/Swabian Hill is one of swankiest parts of Buda. But the congregation had larger plans. It wanted a church center, and its most famous parishioner promised to help. He kept his word. In December the Magyar Nemzeti Vagyonkezelő (Hungarian National Asset Management) purchased two lots adjacent to the church to the tune of almost 650 million forints. One was owned by the City of Budapest and the other by District XII. On the one was a workers’ hostel and on the other, two small apartment buildings. No problem. The workers were moved into another building somewhere in the city and the tenants were given new apartments elsewhere. The two lots, free of charge, will be at the disposal of the Hungarian Reformed Church for the Svábhegyi Református Központ for 50 years. I assume that the money for the construction of the center will also come from the taxpayers.

The church of the Reformed Congregation of Svábhegy

Finally, about a week ago Index reported that the government is launching a scholarship program for priests and ministers who will be serving communities in the Hungarian diaspora in the Carpathian Basin as well as in Western Europe and the Americas. Apparently there is a shortage of clerics who can serve Hungarian parishes abroad.

A member of Index’s staff questioned the constitutionality of this planned program. She quoted from the new Basic Laws’ Article VII(3), which states that “the State and religious communities shall operate separately. Religious communities shall be autonomous.” The trouble is that she overlooked Article VII(4), which reads: “The State and religious communities may cooperate to achieve community goals. At the request of the religious community, the National Assembly shall decide on such cooperation. The religious communities participating in such cooperation shall operate as established churches with regard to their participation in the fulfillment of tasks that serve to achieve community goals.” So, forget the unconstitutionality of launching a “clerical scholarship program.”

I might add that the 1989 Constitution read very differently. In it one cannot find the kind of loophole Fidesz put into its own constitution. Article 60(3) says that “The church and the State shall operate in separation in the Republic of Hungary.” No ifs, ands, or buts. Fidesz made sure that everything in the new constitution would serve its plans for reshaping Hungarian society from the ground up.

January 16, 2018

A new declaration of war: Justice for Hungary!

I had no intention of writing about Trianon today. The truth is that I had completely forgotten about the “Day of National Unity” until I began skimming the Hungarian media’s headlines this morning. Some of these headlines piqued my curiosity and prompted me to read further. What I found astounded me.

I assume that most people even vaguely familiar with the history of modern-day Hungary know that the Treaty of Trianon was the peace treaty between the by then independent Kingdom of Hungary and the Allied and Associated Powers. It was signed somewhat belatedly on June 4, 1920, almost two years after the end of World War I. The demand for a day of remembrance originally came from Jobbik, but it was promptly adopted by the new Orbán government.

My decision to read an assortment of articles on Trianon turned out to be wise because I found some real gems among them. From the interpretations there emerges a fascinating sociological and psychological portrait of the Fidesz regime. It’s not pretty, but it may help us to understand the thinking of Viktor Orbán’s propaganda machine. In light of the official government announcement by János Lázár, this particular Day of National Unity may be a turning point in the Orbán government’s handling of the Trianon issue.

The first problem is the false historical background these far-right, nationalistic authors present in their writings. The general thesis is that Hungary was the blameless victim of those nationalities that Hungary’s rulers allowed to settle in Hungary at various times over history. In their interpretation, the nationalities in pre-1918 Hungary had extensive rights, and their continued national existence was in no way threatened. In fact, it was the cursed liberalism of the Hungarian political elite that was responsible for the growing number of non-Hungarians at the expense of Hungarians. This statement, by the way, is erroneous.

In almost all these writings journalists and politicians portray present-day Hungary not terribly differently from the “victim” that was being torn apart by hostile neighbors in 1918-1919. At least one of the commentators, György Pilhál of Magyar Idők, who labels the members of the Little Entente hyenas, considers Hungary’s present neighbors just as antagonistic toward Hungarians as their people were 100 years ago. Hungary is still being besieged and unfairly treated, just as in the past.

Moreover, Pilhál continues, cataloging Hungarian woes, before Trianon there was the Mongol devastation in 1241, the Battle of Mohács in 1524 which signaled the beginning of 150 years of Ottoman rule, and the surrender at Világos in 1849 after a lost war of independence. Pilhál ends this greatly distorted historical summary with the following remarkable words: “Do you want to flood this mutilated, blood-soaked remainder of the homeland with migrants? No, No, Never!” Thus, the migrant question today is being elevated to the level of the most significant dates in Hungarian history. Just as Hungarians had to face the Mongols, the Turks, and the hostile Austrians and Russians, now if they don’t stand fast they might end up being victims of the onslaught of migrants, which would be the equivalent of a second Trianon.

György Pilhál’s son Tamás, who works as a journalist for Pesti Srácok, also wrote an opinion piece that in some ways is even more interesting than his father’s. He also has some harsh words for members of the Little Entente, but in his eyes the real perpetrators were the allies. “The West, with capital letters, cut our hands and feet and threw us among to-this-day antagonistic neighbors that had been fattened by our body parts.” These new neighbors hate the Hungarians because they know that they were conceived in sin and received their territories as a result of unforgivable injustice. Therefore, they don’t feel secure within their own borders. They are not really robbers or thieves, “they are only fencers of stolen goods.” The real criminals obviously are the western powers. “The West is Trianon itself. They have never apologized, they have never tried to rectify their sins and lessen the damage.”

How can Hungary regain its former position as a mid-sized power in Europe? Just as the historian of the Trianon Museum suggested, Hungarians must “repopulate the Carpathian Basin.” Well, he used a more amorous, untranslatable expression “szeressük vissza Magyarországot!” which more or less means getting Hungary back by love-making. This is not a very different formulation from the one Szilárd Németh, Fidesz vice-chairman, uttered a while back, according to which the world belongs to the nation that populates it. So, the only way of getting back Hungary’s former glory is through “the modification of the national scale.” And the horizon is not the “mock borders” of Trianon but at least the confines of the Carpathian Basin.

The third piece is by István Stefka. His ideas might strike readers as outright bizarre, but he fervently believes everything he says. It was about a week ago that I saw him on a television program where three other journalists, including a conservative one, tried to convince him in vain that his theories are untenable. He too sees a second Trianon coming through the activities of George Soros, who is “the Béla Kun, György Lukács, Oszkár Jászi, and Mihály Károlyi combined, who with his civic organizations wants to ruin the country.” Hungary 27 years ago regained its sovereignty, but “now not with weapons, but with scheming, lies, ignominy, hard financial influence, and paying off internal enemies” Soros and like-minded people want to take away Hungary’s mastery over its own affairs. If the Hungarian socialists and left-liberals don’t stand by the people and follow Soros and Co., “they can no longer be considered part of the nation.” In that case, they are also working toward the destruction of Hungary.

Let me now turn to a more official source: the second most important man in the Orbán government, János Lázár. In a speech yesterday he sent the following message to Brussels: “It’s time for our neighbors and the leaders of Europe to acknowledge and adjust their policies accordingly: the Hungarian nation is the victim of Trianon and not its originator and perpetrator.” It is unacceptable that the only thing the leaders of the neighboring countries can say is that it’s time for the Hungarians to get over their old grievances. “The Hungarian nation should receive if not material at least moral reparations for the greatest injustice in world history.” He added that “we don’t want any change of the borders and especially not ethnic tension … new wars in Europe … but that doesn’t mean that we will tolerate the provocations, the repeated violations of our national sensibility for another 100 years. Yes, we can say even now: “Justice for Hungary!” which was the cry for revision after 1929.

I strongly suspect that these new words were not born in the heat of a fiery nationalistic speech. The Orbán government seems to have decided to open another front in its war against Europe, this time for a reinterpretation of the Treaty of Trianon. This is a serious turn of events that may not bode well for peace in the region.

June 4, 2017

Learning history in Orbán’s Hungary

The new school year began yesterday and with it an entirely new system as far as textbook distribution is concerned. As you most likely know, a couple of years ago all schools were nationalized and put under the authority of one monstrous organization called Klebelsberg Intézményfenntartó Központ (KLIK), named after Kunó Klebelsberg, minister of education between 1922 and 1931. Critics predicted the failure of such a centralized system where KLIK was to be the employer of about 150,000 teachers. They were right. It was a disaster, which even Zoltán Balog, who is in charge of education, had to admit. The head of KLIK was sacked and right now the government is in the midst of a “reorganization” of KLIK.

One of the important demands of Rózsa Hoffmann, former undersecretary in charge of education, was a reduction in the number of textbooks teachers can choose from. Indeed, as of this year, teachers can only pick one out of two. The textbook publishing industry was also nationalized, so government control over education became all embracing. The new textbooks appeared on the market only a few days ago and therefore each teacher had to decide within a couple of days which one she will use. At the same time a number of “experimental” textbooks were written and introduced in 150 schools picked by the ministry.

Since the “experimental” textbooks have been available for only a few days, critics haven’t had time yet to find all the objectionable passages in them. According to some, at first glance these textbooks are “problematic” in pedagogical terms and reflect “an anti-modernization world view.” There are just too many “political-ideological” messages. One history book spends far too much time on the injustices of Trianon, which only adds to the self-pity of the current generation instilled by the nationalism of the current regime. Others looked at a book on literature (grade 7) that reflects the authors’ distaste for our modern market economy and expresses antagonistic feelings toward life in western countries. For example, to eat hamburgers, visit Disneyland, watch MTV or CNN  means to be satisfied with a lower level of culture.

The same grade 7 textbook is full of anti-American sentiments. In it one can read that “we ought to be proud that according to sociologists for the average Hungarian person the most important value is logical thinking while in the eyes of the Americans this is the least valued trait.” Hungarian medieval poetry that praises war and Petőfi’s calls for struggle can be explained by our “biological roots.”

After reading a few of these critical articles I decided to take a look at a grade 10 history book, one of the experimental textbooks available online. The book covers the period between the age of discovery (15-16th centuries) and 1848. It didn’t take me long to find some glaring problems with the book.

tortenelem 10

At the beginning the students are told–thank God–that they don’t have to learn absolutely every fact in the book but that the concepts that appear in boldface are very important. So, I decided to see how our author deals with some basic concepts. Since anti-Semitism is a topic we encounter a lot nowadays, I decided to start there. To my great surprise, the word appeared only twice in the textbook. Both times as a concept of the utmost importance. But nowhere in the book do we find a definition of the term.

My second search was for the word “nationalism.” That initially looked more promising. The word “nationalism” was mentioned eleven times, but I found no instance that dealt with the concept per se. On page 131 the student learns that after the French revolution there was a new interpretation of the historical nation (nobility) and that it was the “national idea” (nemzeti eszme) or “nationalism.” Proponents of the movement desired national renewal. They tried to form a common national identity and made efforts to discover the national past. So, what does this young man or woman learn? Nationalism is a good thing! Not a word about the negative connotations of the term.

The most controversial discussion of nationalism occurs in connection with the “nationality question” in the so-called reform period, i.e. the last twenty years or so prior to the 1848 revolution. The Hungarian “reform forces” greatly feared the Pan-Slav ideology supported by Russia and were frightened by Gottfried Herder’s vision of the Hungarian language disappearing in the sea of Slavic people. (Pan-Slavism is not explained anywhere in the book.) Therefore, the Hungarian reform generation paid a great deal of attention to the Hungarian language and culture. At the same time they wanted to be sure Hungarians maintained their political primacy in the Carpathian Basin, to which they felt entitled by their 1,000-year history of statehood. Hungarians were able to establish a viable state (államalkotó nemzet) while the others–Slovaks, Romanians, Ruthenians–were not. Rights and privileges were to be extended to all regardless of nationality. This Hungarian concept of nation was based on the definition of the term in the French Encyclopédie. What the authors neglect to mention is that the famous encyclopedia was published between 1751 and 1772, that is before the French revolution. What was a viable way to unify the people of France was no longer true in Eastern Europe.

After this brief discussion, the authors move on to interpretations of Hungarian nationality problems in the first half of the nineteenth century. “Central-European, non-Hungarian historiography unanimously consider the Hungarian language laws of this period as ‘Magyarization’. However, nowadays Hungarian historians present a more complex, more layered study of the question. It recognizes that there were abuses, but the political forces urged a liberal handling of the nationality question.”

I’m trying to imagine myself as a studious fourteen- or fifteen-year-old acquiring a basic knowledge of Hungarian history. What kind of a picture would I get of the history of my own country? By and large a very positive one. I would learn that Hungarians are superior to others living in the Carpathian Basin because they had the ability to establish a state. And that this would entitle them to have political primacy within the historic borders of Hungary. I would learn that non-Hungarian historians are prejudiced against the Hungarians and that in the past Hungarian historians were far too hard on the Hungarian political elite. Lately, I would come to understand, a much more balanced view is emerging that shows liberal tolerance toward the nationalities.

I just heard that István Hiller (MSZP), former minister of education,  is launching a kind of alternative curriculum called “School of Reasoning” (Gondolkodás iskolája). It will be a series of video lectures given by outstanding teachers who donate their time to the project. I think it is a capital idea, and next week when the project begins I will be one of those listening to the lectures on modern history. It will be interesting to compare these lectures to the experimental textbooks.

How not to win friends and influence people: Viktor Orbán

I’m sure that Viktor Orbán never read Dale Carnegie’s famous self-help book How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) that has sold more than 18 million copies in the last 78 years. In fact, I fear that his own anti-Carnegie principles will ensure that he will eventually be hated by everyone, with the exception of the “hard-core” who think he walks on water.

One of the chapters in Dale Carnegie’s book speaks about the virtues of leaders, specifically “how to change people without giving offense or arousing resentment.” Among the principal virtues Carnegie mentions are qualities that Viktor Orbán totally lacks. He suggests that a good leader should talk about his own mistakes before criticizing the other person. Orbán and self-criticism? Carnegie also suggests that if a leader is wrong he should admit it “quickly and emphatically.” Or another piece of advice: “Be sympathetic with the other person’s ideas and desires.” Or “show respect for the other person’s opinions.” All these are alien concepts to the prime minister of Hungary. In fact, he does just the opposite of everything that Carnegie thought was necessary for a successful leader.

Take, for example, the erection of the ill-fated Archangel Gabriel monument. Regardless of how much criticism he receives, regardless of how many historians and art historians tell him that the concept is historically and artistically inaccurate, he plows ahead with it. Yesterday the Hungarian Academy of Sciences organized a conference on the issue; their condemnation was unanimous.

Or there is the decision to extend the capacity of the Paks nuclear power plant. As Bernadett Szél (LMP member of parliament) continues to dig into the details of the planned expansion it is becoming obvious that no serious feasibility studies were done before Orbán hurriedly signed the contract with Russia. But that is perhaps the least of the problems Paks is causing Hungary. Orbán’s newly found friendship with Vladimir Putin has led him to regard Ukraine as a potential trophy not only for Putin but for himself as well.

First, he tried to ignore the issue of Russian aggression in the Crimea, but since Hungary happens to be situated in a region that borders on Ukraine, Orbán had to line up, however reluctantly, with Hungary’s neighbors. He decided, however, to make a claim of his own–though for people, not land.

In the same speech I wrote about yesterday, he spoke briefly about Hungarian foreign policy. Here is a translation of the relevant part.

We will continue our policy of the Eastern Opening; we will strengthen our economic presence in the Carpathian Basin. This is in the interest of Hungary as well as of the neighboring countries and the European Union. This strengthening of regional economic relations is not in opposition to a resolute national policy [nemzetpolitika]. The question of the Hungarian minorities has not been solved since the end of World War II. We consider the Hungarian question a European affair. Hungarians of the Carpathian Basin deserve dual citizenship, communal rights, and autonomy. This is our view, which we will represent on international forums. The Hungarian question is especially timely because of the 200,000 strong Hungarian community in Ukraine whose members must receive dual citizenship, the entirety of communal rights [ közösségi jogok], and the possibility of  self-government [önigazgatás]. This is our expectation for the new Ukraine currently under reconstruction that otherwise enjoys our sympathy and assistance in the work of the creation of a democratic Ukraine.

Not exactly a friendly gesture toward a neighbor that is in great peril at the moment because of Russian aggression. As if Hungary would like to take advantage of the troubled waters for its own gains. Apparently, according to a leaked foreign ministry document, “Fidesz with its own national policy [nemzetpolitika]–even at the price of ‘fertile chaos’–is striving for a change in the status quo.” If there is one thing the European Union and the United States are worried about, it is ethnic strife in Eastern Europe. And Hungary just took a rather aggressive step in this direction.

The Hungarian ambassador to Kiev was immediately summoned to the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry. He was told in no uncertain terms that such a step “is not conducive to the de-escalation and stabilization of the situation.” The spokesman for the ministry noted that “certain aspects of [Hungarian] national policy were criticized by Hungary’s partners in the European Union.”

The Ukrainian reaction was expected. Donald Tusk’s response, however, was more of a surprise given the normally warm relations between Poland and Hungary. Both Tusk’s party and Fidesz belong to the same conservative People’s Party, and usually Orbán receives a lot of help in Strasbourg from Polish members of EP. But this time the Polish prime minister was anything but sympathetic. “I am sorry to say this but I consider the statement made by Prime Minister Orbán as unfortunate.” And he continued: “Today, when we witness the Russian efforts of Ukraine’s partition such a statement must raise concern. We need to be careful that in no way, whether intentional or not, it should sound as backing the actions of pro-Russian separatists.” He added that the Polish government will make sure that none of its neighbors threatens the integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine.

Donald Tusk and Viktor Orbán / Photo Barna Burger

Donald Tusk and Viktor Orbán on May 5, 2014 / Photo Barna Burger

In cases like this it is Foreign Minister János Martonyi who comes to the rescue. According to Martonyi, Orbán’s words were misinterpreted. Orbán invoked “self governance” not autonomy. But if you read my translation carefully, you can see that he talked about both self-governance and autonomy in the Carpathian Basin. Martonyi tried to explain that self-government and autonomy are actually “cultural autonomy in Hungarian.” No, they are not. Cultural autonomy exists in Subcarpathian Ukraine already. There are Hungarian schools, Hungarian associations, Hungarian theaters.

Naturally, the opposition made hay out of these careless sentences of Orbán. Ferenc Gyurcsány recalled a sentence from the farewell letter of Prime Minister Pál Teleki to Miklós Horthy before he committed suicide. In April 1941 Hungary agreed to let German troops through Hungary in order to attack Yugoslavia with whom Hungary had just signed a pact of eternal friendship. In that letter Teleki told the Governor: “We became body snatchers!” On Facebook Gyurcsány asks Orbán whether he is playing the role of a body snatcher in these hard days in Ukraine.

Martonyi might have tempered Orbán’s harsh words but Orbán himself did not. He announced this afternoon that he simply reiterated the Hungarian government’s “long-standing views on the Hungarian minorities.” As far as he is concerned, the case is closed.