Almost every year since 2007 I have devoted a post to Hungary’s most important national holiday, August 20, the day that, at least in Hungary, is devoted to the veneration of St. Stephen, the first crowned head of the country. I searched in vain for Stephen’s name under this date on the website catholic.org. I discovered that the Catholic Church celebrates the feast day of St. Stephen on August 16. Hungarians, however, chose August 20 because it was on that date that King István/Stephen I was canonized in 1083.
August 20 as a national holiday has gone through some interesting metamorphoses. After the communist takeover, it remained a national holiday but was named “the day of the new bread.” A few years later the government decided to publish the new Stalinist constitution on that day, and therefore between 1950 and 1989 it was called the Day of the Constitution. Somehow the idea of bread kneaded from newly milled flour appealed to Hungarians, and to this day a special loaf of bread is baked for the occasion, called “bread of the country.” As of last year, another loaf is being made in the city of Szolnok, called “bread of the Carpathian Basin.” Hungarians are expanding their horizons. The chief of the baking team in Szolnok will be from Sfântu Gheorghe/Sepsiszentgyörgy (Romania). He will be assisted by bakers from Senta/Zenta (Serbia), Berehove/Beregszász (Ukraine), Komárom (Hungary), and the Polish city of Tarnów. They will use water from Berehove, yeast from Senta, potatoes from Komárom, and salt from Praid/Parajd (Romania). The loaf will weigh 300 kg. and will be baked in the largest “Szekler oven” in Central Europe.
In the past I covered this day by telling readers about the paucity of contemporary sources we have for the first couple of centuries of Hungarian history after the settlement in the Carpathian Basin and the limitations this poses to historians of the period. Pál Engel (1938-2000), a historian of the Middle Ages, wrote that a Hungarian historian’s situation in this respect can be compared to a British historian who would have to tackle the history of England without the existence of the Public Record Office. One has to be very careful not to create an imagined or “untruthful history,” as Nóra Berend, professor of medieval history at the University of Cambridge, said in an interview she gave to Népszava today. Unfortunately, all nations are full of myths and dubious interpretations of historical sources, which from the eleventh century are meager indeed.
Népszava was the only publication that turned to a historian for information about the time of St. Stephen. Others reported on the government’s intentions to provide the “correct” interpretation of this holiday. Perhaps the most outrageous among these are the “instructions” that were given to the staff of Hungarian embassies for guidance about the proper way of informing their guests of the Hungarian government’s position on the migration issue. The text of “Communication messages for August 20” found its way to Magyar Nemzet.
It is customary for each embassy to give a reception on August 20, to which the ambassador invites members of the diplomatic corps and representatives of the host government. Unfortunately, many officials and diplomats are on holiday in August. But the few people who show up will be subjected to Hungarian government propaganda. The main point Hungarian diplomats are supposed to emphasize is that “Hungary has always had to fight hard for its existence” because there was always a real danger that certain people “want to place the country into foreign hands.” Until now no one has succeeded in doing so, but now that danger is real. The diplomats should point out that we are at a junction when “we will have to choose between the Hungary of St. Stephen and those who attack our culture.” The diplomats are also supposed to call attention to the fact that already in the age of St. Stephen Hungary had domestic enemies who “wanted to make the country part of other empires,” and the situation is not at all different now. At this point, the Hungarian diplomat is supposed to note that George Soros would like to see “foreigners invade our homeland.” People in the service of the American billionaire want to destroy the Hungary of St. Stephen. “They are ready” and therefore “we must be ready too.”
András Kósa, the author of the article, when he got to the point about the internal enemies in St. Stephen’s Hungary, jokingly added in parentheses: “Does Koppány know about this?” And now let’s return to Nóra Berend’s interview, in which she brought up the story of Koppány as an example of a story that may not be true.
If you go to the Wikipedia English-language entry on Koppány, you will be struck by all the question marks concerning this relative of Stephen, who in accordance with the traditional principle of seniority claimed the throne. Stephen’s father Géza, however, following the Christian law of primogeniture, designated his son as his successor. Koppány, who was ruling over the area of today’s Zala and Somogy counties, revolted against Stephen, who defeated him. On Stephen’s order, Koppány’s body was quartered and its parts hung over the walls of Esztergom, Veszprém, Győr, and Gyulafehérvár/Alba Iulia. In today’s interpretation, this was not just a battle between two members of the ruling house. It was a decisive struggle between Christianity and the old pagan ways. The outcome of this battle really made Hungary part of Europe. This was the interpretation proposed by György Győrffy in his 670-page book on King Stephen and his Creation (1977). As adviser to the Hungarian rock opera Stephen, the King, he further emphasized the point. Largely because of the popularity of the rock opera, this is the accepted popular interpretation of the encounter between Stephen and Koppány.
Kósa is right. By no stretch of the imagination can Koppány be called a “foreign agent.” Moreover, Nóra Berend has very serious doubts about many details of the story of Koppány’s encounter with Stephen. As she points out in the interview, the main source of information about the event comes from the fourteenth century, which is very late. This chronicle doesn’t mention Koppány’s religion at all. There were two or three pagan rebellions during Stephen’s reign, but they are not associated with Koppány. Moreover, the story of Koppány’s body’ being quartered by order of Stephen is suspicious since, according to Berend, quartering didn’t exist before the thirteenth century. All in all, the whole account is most likely the result of efforts to create a coherent story from extremely meager facts at the disposal of historians.
The question is whether it matters what today’s children learn about Koppány’s religion and his struggle with Stephen. I’m sure that a lot of people would say it matters not at all. But, unfortunately, this is not the case. A few years ago there were serious discussions in right-wing circles bemoaning the fact that Stephen won that battle and thus ruined the original ethnicity and purity of pagan Hungarians. And paganism is staging a comeback. Take, for example, the annual gathering called Kurultaj, a three-day affair organized by the Hungarian-Turanian Foundation, where, among other things, shamans perform marriage ceremonies pagan style. These gatherings attract larger and larger crowds every year. The modern pagan and native faith movement in Central and Eastern Europe has a sizable literature by now. So, what the struggle between Stephen and Koppány was all about does matter.