Tag Archives: Hungarian Academy of Sciences

Eradicating György Lukács’s heritage

György (Georg) Lukács (1885-1971), the Hungarian Marxist philosopher, might be controversial, but he was an important figure in twentieth-century western philosophy. Because of his life-long affiliation with the communist movement of the Soviet variety, however, the two far-right parties, Fidesz and Jobbik, have been doing their best to obliterate his name from the country’s collective memory.

These two parties found a willing accomplice in this task in József Pálinkás, president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences between 2008 and 2014. Pálinkás, who earlier was a member of the first Orbán government and later a Fidesz member of parliament, is one of those who find any remaining vestiges of liberalism or socialism in Hungary abhorrent. He is no friend of the United States either. As soon as Fidesz won the national election and a few months later the municipal election in Budapest, Pálinkás’s first act was to start a campaign to remove FDR’s name from the public square where the Academy’s building stands. That move launched a frenzy of street renaming, with the removal of all those names the Fidesz and Jobbik city leaders found suspect. It was the Pálinkás-led Academy that eventually came to the help of those hapless mayors who couldn’t, for example, decide on their own whether a street could retain the name “Peace” or “Constitution.”

It was just a question of time before Pálinkás and his right-leaning friends in the Academy would find something very wrong with Lukács, who had left his library and manuscripts to the Academy. The understanding was that the collection would remain intact in the apartment in which he and his wife lived for decades. The apartment didn’t belong to Lukács; he rented it from the municipality. So, after his death, it was the Academy that paid the rent on the apartment, which was open to researchers from all over the world who were interested in Lukács’s work. After 2010, however, it was becoming clear that the government wanted to put an end to this arrangement. A group of philosophers who once upon a time were close to Lukács were harassed and accused of misappropriating research funds. Rumors circulated that the Academy wants to break up the collection and close the Lukács memorial center.

Apparently, a decision on the matter was reached during Pálinkás’s tenure, i.e., before 2014, but it was handed down only in March 2016. By that time the Academy had a new president, László Lovász, a Hungarian mathematician best known for his work in combinatorics. Unlike his two predecessors who were committed to the ideology of the right, Lovász tries to be politically neutral, no easy task in Hungary today.

Just as predicted, it was decided that the collection will be broken up, with the books eventually being moved to a library that hasn’t been built yet and the manuscripts being moved to the archives of the Academy. Those who would like to save the collection as it is now received help from the International Lukács Association with headquarters in Germany. Soon enough 3,500 signatures were collected worldwide to support the effort. At the moment the fate of the collection hangs in the balance.

The Lukács library and archives are not the only Lukács-related institutions that have been under fire. Jobbik politicians who have been active in eradicating Lukács’s name from Hungarian history decided to go to court, arguing that the György Lukács Foundation bears Lukács’s name illegally. When the Academy’s Historical Institute was instructed to rule on the question of forbidden street names, Lukács’s name was on the list. Therefore, the suit contended, no foundation can bear his name either. The judge in charge was at a loss, but at least he had the good sense to turn to László Lovász, president of the Academy. Until then Lovász had said nothing about the Lukács case, for which he was criticized. But once, at the request of the court, he had to take a stand, he opted to defend Lukács. He emphasized Lukács’s place in the history of philosophy and stressed the indispensability of nurturing his intellectual heritage. The foundation serves this purpose. If it were deprived of the name of the philosopher, it would lose the very rationale for its existence. The court accepted his opinion and ruled against Jobbik. You can imagine what the anti-Semitic kuruc.info had to say upon hearing the news. Lukács, the author wrote, was “a Jewish Marxist philosopher” and the judge’s ruling was an example of “anti-Hungarianism.”

It will be removed soon

But that’s not the end of the Lukács story. Lukács still has a statue in a park in District XIII, where the socialist party is very strong. Right-wing politicians have been eyeing the statue for some time. The Fidesz-KDNP candidate for district mayor actually campaigned on the issue in 2014. If he becomes mayor, he said, Lukács will go. When that came to naught, local Jobbik leaders asked the socialist mayor to remove the statue, which he naturally refused to do. In fact, these Jobbik politicians were knocking on the wrong door because the land on which the statue stands is under the jurisdiction of the Budapest Municipal Council. Here they naturally had a much better chance. Mayor István Tarlós loves removing names of political undesirables. Marcell Tokody, Jobbik member of the Budapest City Council, proposed removing the statue to make space for a new St. Stephen statue for the 980th anniversary of St. Stephen’s death, obviously a very important anniversary. Of course, the overwhelmingly Fidesz City Council voted for it with enthusiasm: 19 city fathers supported Jobbik’s proposal, and three members–two from the Demokratikus Koalíció and one from MSZP–voted against it. One member abstained.

At this point, the socialist mayor of District XIII asked István Tarlós to allow the statue to be erected on soil that belongs to the District. Tarlós pointed out that it is not his decision but that of the City Council. He added, however, that he would not support such a move “because of [Lukács’s] oeuvre [munkásság],” as if Tarlós had the slightest notion of Lukács’s oeuvre. So, kuruc.info didn’t have to worry that District XIII will provide a place for “a rat’s statue.” Actually, Lukács wasn’t the only “rat.” Kuruc.info also included in this category Árpád Göncz, the beloved first president of the Third Republic (1900-2000). This whole sorry story tells us a lot about the state of Hungary at the moment.

March 25, 2017

Members of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences speak out while its president is quiet

On October 10 I published an open letter by 28 members of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences to László Lovász, its president. They expressed their “concern about the antidemocratic processes that have been taking place in Hungary in the last few years, especially the threat to freedom of the press.” They were troubled by the transformation of public radio and television into propaganda outlets and the makeover of Origo into a government mouthpiece. The final impetus for writing the letter was the shuttering of Népszabadság on October 8. They asked Lovász to “see to it as soon as possible that the leadership of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences initiates a discussion about committing itself to launching scholarly investigations as well as conducting debates concerning these urgent issues facing Hungarian society.” Within days the number of signatories had grown to over 160.

Prior to the appearance of this letter, several so-called outside members of the Academy, scientists in foreign countries, resigned. Again, the last straw was the closure of Népszabadság. The first outside member who resigned was Thomas Jovin, head of the molecular biology department at the Max-Planck Institute in Göttingen. He was followed by the Hungarian-born Stevan Harnad, professor of psychology at the Université du Québec à Montréal and professor of cognitive science at the University of Southampton; Israel Pecht, a biologist from Israel; and Torsten N. Wiesel, a Swedish Nobel laureate in neurophysiology.

The public may never have known about these resignations were it not for Stevan Harnad’s special relation to Hungary. He made sure that his and his fellow scientists’ resignations wouldn’t remain a secret. In the last two weeks the Hungarian media has been full of articles about the large number of academicians who are demanding the academy’s involvement in the defense of democratic values which, in their opinion, are being trampled on by the Orbán government.

Among recent presidents of the academy Lovász is perhaps the most distinguished. He is known worldwide as an accomplished mathematician. He is also highly thought of as a man of integrity. As one of his fellow academicians said, in the past to become the president of the academy was a great honor but, with Lovász, it is he who brings honor to the institution.

I’m certain that the political developments of the last six years are not to Lovász’s liking. While his two predecessors, E. Szilveszter Vizi (2002-2008) and József Pálinkás (2008-2014), had strong ties to Fidesz, Lovász tries to maintain a neutral position vis-à-vis the current regime. He heads an enormous organization that is totally dependent on the goodwill of the powers that be.

Lovász has given quite a few newspaper interviews lately, explaining patiently that politics has no place within the walls of the academy. As he puts it, half the academicians support the government, the other half don’t. An open debate would do harm to the institution. He is convinced that his election by the members had nothing to do with politics. That may be so, but whether Lovász likes it or not, the election of the president of the academy is not a purely academic matter. For example, Pálinkás was chosen by the academicians because he was a member of the cabinet during the first Orbán administration (1998-2002) and they believed his presidency would benefit the academy financially and politically once Fidesz is in power again. After 2010 their prediction was amply fulfilled. According to Stevan Harnad, the government used Pálinkás as an instrument of political pressure.

László Lovász / Népszava, Photo: Gergő Tóth

László Lovász / Népszava, Photo: Gergő Tóth

The problem with Lovász’s argument about the non-political nature of the academy is that since it is a state institution, it is by definition political. Back in May Viktor Orbán was a speaker at the yearly general assembly of the academicians, accompanied by János Lázár and Zoltán Balog. I remember that some people objected at the time. They argued that politicians had no place at their gathering. And what Orbán had to say at the assembly was not at all reassuring to anyone who cares about the independence of the academy and the scientific community. He talked extensively about “the alliance of science and politics” and “the joint effort of the scientists searching for truth and the politicians who want to create a more just society.” He emphasized the common responsibility, the common challenges. He said, “We are chained together. We can progress only if we move in the same direction. Let’s not beat around the bush: the future, quality, good name of Hungarian science is a political matter. A national political (nemzetpolitikai) matter.”

The fact is that the academy has been the captive of the Hungarian state ever since 1948. Prior to 1945 the academy was largely independent financially. It was established through the generosity of István Széchenyi, György Károlyi, György Andrássy, and others. The academy’s library was a private gift of 30,000 volumes. The academy received gifts from wealthy noblemen throughout the nineteenth century. For example, the academy’s gorgeous building came from a 1858 gift of 80,000 forints. Private donations kept the academy going between 1919 and 1945 as well. At the end of the 1920s a very rich man willed his entire estate to the academy–cash, stock holdings, real estate, and agricultural land that produced a handsome yearly income for the institution. This source of funding disappeared due to inflation during and after the war and the nationalization of the academy’s real estate and land.

With the communist takeover the independence of the academy came to an end. It was completely reorganized along the lines of the Soviet model. In the 1950s and 1960s a network of research institutes was attached to the academy. Today 15,000 researchers are employed in these institutes, some of which necessarily touch upon politics. For example, there are institutes of political science, history, sociology, philosophy, linguistics, and several other workshops dealing with politically sensitive issues. Lovász claims that they are not political workshops in the strict sense of the word. The researchers do their work guided only by the principles of scientific inquiry. But a few years ago, under József Pálinkás,  the institute of philosophy was reorganized in such a way that certain philosophers were forcibly retired because the new director didn’t find their work useful or, rather, found their political views unacceptable. Scientific inquiry doesn’t always produce results that mesh with the views of the current Hungarian government. That’s why the Orbán government began establishing alternate research institutes of its own.

The storm at the academy is far from over. Lovász received a new letter lately, this time from Lajos Rakusz, former president of the Council of Research, Technology and Innovation. The letter was published in today’s Népszava. Rakusz accuses Lovász of remaining silent even as he witnesses the degradation of the Hungarian educational system. He reminds Lovász that he as a former employee of Microsoft should know that a country’s future depends on the acquired knowledge of its population. Yet less and less money is spent on education and research. Less money than the country could actually afford. As a result, Hungary’s competitiveness has been rapidly declining. Twenty-one years ago Hungary ranked 26th out of 140 in the Global Competitiveness Report published by the World Economic Forum. Today it is 63rd. The country is moving in the wrong direction, and it is incumbent on Lovász to raise his voice. “Your voice carries weight. But your silence is even weightier.” Harsh words. Moreover, Rakusz didn’t forget Orbán’s speech at the academy in May. “At this year’s general assembly the academicians applauded the prime minister when he declared that we, the government, and the academy ‘are chained together.’ Really? Does that deserve applause?” Lovász should respond, but can he?

November 5, 2016

Open letter to Professor László Lovász, President of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences

Dear Professor Lovász,

academyWe the undersigned members and doctors of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences [HAS], representing a variety of world-views and academic interests, hereby wish to express our concern about the antidemocratic processes that have been taking place in Hungary in the last few years, especially the threat to freedom of the press. We consider it highly damaging to amend Hungary’s constitution to diminish the role of checks and balances that is normal in democratic states and to exploit the refugee crisis to arouse xenophobia.

In addition to the deep crisis in education, research and the health system, we are particularly troubled about the nationalization of the public media and their use as government mouthpieces, along with the liquidation of the existing independent press, as in the restructuring of Origo, and, in the last few days, the closure of Népszabadság.

We consider it important that, as a prominent embodiment and forum of our nation’s intellectual sphere, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences should be playing an investigative role as well as implementing substantive debate about these matters of concern for the whole of society. Our concerns are particularly reinforced by the letters that have been sent to the President of the Academy by external and honorary members in the last few days. The significance of the issues raised is underscored by the fact that these respected scholars, concerned for Hungary’s future, have elected to resign as members to protest the inaction on the part of our Academy.

We hence respectfully request that the President see to it as soon as possible that the leadership of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences initiates discussion toward committing itself to launching scholarly investigations as well as conducting debates concerning these urgent issues facing Hungarian society.

As our letter concerns important matters of public interest, we are simultaneously making it public.

Yours sincerely,

Ács Pál, literary historian, HAS Doctor
Bazsa György, physical chemist, HAS Doctor
Csányi Vilmos, ethologist, HAS Member
Erdélyi Ágnes, philosopher, HAS Doctor
Erős Ferenc, psychologist, HAS Doctor
Falus András, biologist, HAS Member
Ferge Zsuzsa, sociologist, HAS Member
Györfi László, mathematician, HAS Member
Jánossy András, physicist, HAS Member
Juhász István, mathematician, HAS Member
Kardos Julianna, chemist, HAS Doctor
Katona Gyula, mathematician, HAS Member
Kertesi Gábor, economist, HAS Doctor
Kertész János, physicist, HAS Member
Kornai András, mathematician, linguist, HAS Doctor
Krausz Tamás, historian, HAS Doctor
Laki Mihály, economist, HAS Doctor
Mellár Tamás, economist, HAS Doctor
Nagy László, biologist, HAS Member
Radnóti Sándor, philosopher of art, HAS Doctor
Sali Attila, mathematician, HAS Doctor
Sarkadi Balázs, biologist, HAS Member
Solymosi Frigyes, chemist, HAS Member
Somlai Péter, sociologist, HAS Doctor
Szalai Erzsébet, sociologist, HAS Doctor
Tóth Bálint, mathematician, HAS Doctor
Váradi András, biochemist, HAS Doctor
Vicsek Tamás, physicist, HAS Member

Economists of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences speak out against the central bank’s “foundations”

Today is a special day. This is the 3,000th post to appear on Hungarian Spectrum. I wrote my maiden piece on June 27, 2007. 

♦  ♦  ♦

A couple of days ago an article appeared in Bloomberg about a protest by “a group of prominent economists at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences concerning the Hungarian National Bank’s educational programs.” The criticism was directed at foundations set up to support the teaching of “alternative” economics.

In order to understand what this is all about, we have to go back to August 2014 when it came to light that the Hungarian National Bank had embarked on the purchase of valuable properties in Budapest and elsewhere: a castle-hotel for the pleasure of the employees of the bank and perhaps the most expensive office building in Budapest, the eight-story Eiffel Palace for €57.5 million. In addition, the National Bank set aside €28 million for the purchase of art works that included Titian’s “Mary with Child and Saint Paul.”

These purchases are nothing compared to the €700 million earmarked by the Hungarian National Bank from its profits for foundations to support the teaching of economics, outside of the regular channels of higher education. The Bank set up five such foundations named after Pallas Athena, the goddess of wisdom, courage, inspiration, civilization, law and justice, just warfare, mathematics, strength, strategy, the arts, crafts, and skill. A perfect description of Hungary today! The amount the National Bank allocated to teach economics is one and a half times more than the Hungarian government spends a year on higher education.

In August 2014 Matolcsy made the following announcement: “We are creating a faculty of economics and finance at Kecskemét College, a faculty of finance in Marosvásárhely/Târgu Mureș (Romania), a doctoral school in the Buda Castle, and an intermediate financial training center in Pest.” The reason? “The already obsolete doctrines and mistakes of the neo-liberal school of economics continue to dominate Hungarian education in economics and finance.”

Pallas Athena by Charles-Marie Sarrabezolles

Pallas Athena by Charles-Marie Sarrabezolles

It is these five foundations that the Academy’s Committee on Economics finds objectionable. The Committee summarized its objections under nine headings. They consider the sum the National Bank spent on the Pallas Athena foundations public money. Hence it should be under the jurisdiction of the government, specifically the undersecretary responsible for higher education. There is no outside control of the foundations, and their activities and spending lack transparency.

These foundations, as was clearly stated when they were established, promulgate one specific economic dogma. This violates the principle of academic freedom and endangers the autonomy of the institutions that are supported by these foundations. The new institutions generously endowed by the Pallas Athena foundations will create asymmetry and tension. These new programs don’t have to meet the requirements of the Hungarian Accreditation Committee. These new “universities” will also have a negative impact on the currently functioning Ph.D. programs. The Hungarian National Bank boasts the “largest Ph.D. program” in the country even though it doesn’t have a graduate school. The foundations try to attract students by offering them stipends that surpass the salaries of associate professors with decades of teaching experience and academic achievements. In one of the institutions chosen to offer the Hungarian National Bank’s program, they accepted 62 Ph.D. candidates in a rather minor subfield of economics.

György Matolcsy’s reaction to the Academy’s committee was belligerent. “The Hungarian National Bank rejects the untrue statements by the Academy’s Committee on Economics and will take the necessary legal steps.” Instead of refuting the allegedly untrue accusations, Matolcsy attacked some of the members of the committee. He specifically mentioned those who have been publicly critical of the Hungarian National Bank. He singled out Péter Mihályi, who as editor of Acta Oeconomica receives a financial contribution from the National Bank; Lajos Bokros, who criticized the nationalization of the Budapest Stock Exchange; and Júlia Király, former vice-president of the Hungarian National Bank, who considered the bank’s loan program for small- and medium-size businesses economically harmful. Of course, he didn’t mention Attila Chickán, also a member of the committee, who served as finance minister in Viktor Orbán’s first government. Moreover, as far as I know, there are thirty economists on the committee. Surely, they couldn’t all have been critics of Matolcsy and his bank because he would definitely have mentioned them.

I might add that Transparency International Magyarország has been trying for more than a year to find answers to the Pallas Athena foundations’ finances. The managing director of TI has been bombarding the National Bank with inquiries about these mysterious foundations, to no avail. Világgazdaság, a Hungarian daily newspaper that focuses on the economy, eventually went to court to receive information about the foundations. The court ruled in favor of Világgazdaság, but that didn’t inspire Matolcsy to give details of the financial dealings of three of his foundations: Domus Animae, Domus Concordiae, and Domus Scientiae. These foundations are supposed to finance building construction for the future “economic universities.” Matolcsy claims that “the money [used for these foundations] has nothing to do with the budget. The taxpayers didn’t have to pay an extra penny for them. The central bank is spending its own money, which was created by profit made on two-week deposits.”

Matolcsy’s shady dealings serve several purposes. One is to take public money from the common budget and hide it for who knows what purpose. At the same time he is strangling academic freedom by building “alternative institutions” unfettered by public scrutiny. Since Matolcsy thinks that mainstream economists in the country–and that means practically all respected experts–are wrong, and since he cannot get rid of them, he will build parallel economics departments that will teach his unorthodox economic theories. Just as the Orbán government needs an alternative Holocaust Museum, an alternative academy of artists, and an alternative historical institute, it also needs a new set of economists who will be the high priests of unorthodoxy.

January 24, 2016

Let’s purify the language: Orbán’s new institute

I’m not sure that I will be able to come up with a complete list of new institutes the Orbán government has established in four years, but to the best of my recollection there were at least six. The most notorious is the Veritas Historical Institute headed by Sándor Szakály, whose name became known even abroad in the last few months in connection with his opinions on the Holocaust. But the institution that is supposed to study the change of regime of 1989-1990 is just as outrageous because Viktor Orbán named Zoltán Bíró, a right-winger active on Echo TV, as its head. I can well imagine what kinds of publications Bíró’s crew will come out with. Then there is a new institute studying the national strategy of the country. It is headed by Jenő Szász, the favorite Szekler politician of  János Kövér. After Szász became a burden for Orbán and László Tőkés, he was compensated with a research institute of his own in Budapest. What he and his colleagues are doing besides receiving handsome salaries, no one knows. And we mustn’t forget about the Committee on National Remembrance whose job, as far as I can see, will be to mete out punishments for sins committed during the Kádár period.

There are also institutions set up as parallel organizations to already existing ones but designed to represent the political right and to reward pro-government members of the intellectual elite. New organizations represent right-leaning actors, writers, and artists.

On February 28 the government announced the creation of a Hungarian Language Strategical Institute. The new institute will open its doors on April Fool’s Day, a fact that was not missed by the great majority of linguists who are baffled by the whole idea. I might add that the new institute, just like Veritas, will be supervised by Viktor Orbán’s right-hand man János Lázár. Lázár is the government’s jack of all trades: he supervises historical studies and linguistics, and he is rapidly becoming an expert on the Holocaust.

I have always been interested in language. At one point I was even toying with the idea of becoming a linguist–at least until I encountered some members of ELTE’s Department of the Hungarian Language. In any case, I usually pay attention to what’s going on in the field and know that there is a huge divide between those who consider themselves “real” linguists and those who are called “language cultivators” (nyelvművelők). The former consider language a living organ that changes constantly over time and that needs no conscious cultivation. The cultivators are enemies of foreign words and their adoption; they are convinced that the language is under siege by modern technology; they are certain that the Hungarian vocabulary is shrinking; they want to change speaking habits to conform to the “right rules” even if the majority of the population uses a different set of rules.

Language cultivation was a favorite pastime during the Kádár regime. Lajos Lőrincze was the high priest of the series “Édes anyanyelvünk” (Our sweet mother tongue). In the last twenty-five years, however, the cultivator linguists had to take a back seat to those who are convinced that the best thing is to leave language alone.

Naturally Viktor Orbán sympathizes with the language cultivators and bemoans foreign influences on our sweet mother tongue. In fact, already during his first term as prime minister he declared war on foreign words on store fronts. A decree was enacted that would have required store owners to change certain words in their stores’ names. But Orbán left and with him the idea, and the decree, died a quiet death. Now he is reviving an old idea on an even grander scale.


Reactions to the establishment of the Hungarian Language Strategical Institute are almost uniformly negative, with the notable exception of Géza Balázs, a professor of linguistics at ELTE who seems to be an ardent “language cultivator.” Even the usually servile József Pálinkás, president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, is no fan of the idea. Margit Fehér, a journalist working for The Wall Street Journal who wrote an article about this latest brain child of Viktor Orbán, asked Pálinkás for his opinion on the institute. To my great surprise he sent the following answer back to Fehér: “To me, the government decree means that the 20-strong institute will operate not as a home for scientific research but as a central bureau of the Prime Minister’s Office which coordinates the preparation of materials to be written at the government’s order for its decision on the language policy and language cultivation.” Pálinkás went even further when he stated that “It’s hard to draw a parallel between an institute that functions as a state office and an institute that conducts scientific research.” It seems as if Pálinkás is getting fed up with Orbán’s government taking over more and more functions that were previously under the jurisdiction of the Academy.

I managed to find an old article by Géza Balázs from 2011 entitled “A sketch of a possible language strategy” which may be the rationale for this institute. He talks at length about “the erosion of the language,” especially in the field of science where access to all material is a fundamental human right. I’m pretty sure that the use of English terms, especially in computer science, irritates Balázs and his fellow language cultivators. In the past, he argues, it was all right to let the language develop organically, but in our fast-moving world with all these rapid changes we cannot be lackadaisical about the state of our language.

Although Margit Fehér quotes only Ádám Nádasdy’s opinions in her English-language article, she notes that “most linguists received news of the government decree with raised eyebrows and disapproval.” Even the official Institute of Linguistics of the Hungarian Academy immediately launched a website where they collected opinions on the new institute and newspaper articles dealing with the subject. They all seem to be negative. Of course, this latest Orbán move reminds everybody of Stalin and his dabbling in linguistics in the 1950s. As Nádasdy said, “the government may decide what it is willing to dish money out for, but that doesn’t make it linguistics. We are not the Soviet Union of the 1930s, where Stalin decided what makes science and what not.”

Finally, let me do a little advertisement for Ádám Nádasdy. A few years ago he delivered a lecture on how language changes at the Mindentudás Egyeteme (university of all knowledge). It is a pleasure to listen to him because he is an excellent lecturer. After his lecture you will understand his strong opinions on “language cultivation.”

Looking backward: Historical complexity and political simplification

A couple of days ago I mentioned that three historians who are attached to the Institute of History of the Hungarian Academy of Science were entrusted with deciding the fate of persons and concepts that can possibly be connected to dictatorial regimes of the twentieth century. The other day the long awaited list was made public and was met with a mix of fury and derision. By today well known historians, members of the Academy, are calling the list and its creators a disgrace to the historical profession.

Almost a month before the appearance of the infamous list András Gerő, whose specialty is the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, rang the alarm bell and predicted that nothing good would come from this enterprise because the text of the law is imprecise and because whoever wrote it has no clue about the complexity of life and thus of history.

I will summarize Gerő’s main objections. The full text of the the law can be read here, but the key sentence is that “the name of no person can be used anywhere (institutions, media organs, public places) who played a leading role in the establishment, formation, and maintenance of twentieth-century dictatorial regimes or such expression or name of an organ that can be directly related with such a regime.”

The first problem is that the law itself is sloppily formulated. On the one hand it talks about dictatorial regimes (rendszerek) in the plural when it comes to persons whereas, when talking about organizations and concepts, it uses the singular (rendszer). So, how many dictatorial regimes are we talking about? Gerő rightly states that there were three such regimes in Hungary in the twentieth century. The Soviet Republic of 1919, the 1944-45 Arrow Cross regime, and the communist regime between 1949 and 1989. The text of the preamble to the bill provides a clue to the lawmakers’ thinking. Here they talk about “dictatorships” but add that “first and foremost” they are thinking of  the communist dictatorship and the 1919 Soviet Republic lasting 133 days. Thus, the emphasis is on dictatorships of the left.

Why does any lawmaker think that such a piece of legislation is necessary in the first place? The reason is that “our streets and institutions should bear names that are worthy of the ideals of a democratic country.” However, Gerő points out, it is not only dictatorship that is opposed to the ideals of a democratic state. What if the equality of citizens is terminated in a perfectly legitimate and democratic manner? The reference here is to the Horthy regime’s anti-Jewish laws. “Without equality of citizens there is no rule of rule (jogállam).” Gerő comes to the conclusion that perhaps the lawmakers are not really familiar with the meaning of the rule of law.

Listed by Epicantus / Daria Nepriakhina

Listed by Epicantus / Daria Nepriakhina / Flickr

But, Gerő says, ignorance has its consequences. On the preliminary list were such names as Béla Kun and Tibor Szamuely, who was personally responsible for political murders during the 1919 communist interlude. Their roles in the establishment and maintenance of a dictatorship are indisputable. But Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels also appeared on the list. They were included because of their role in laying the foundation for the later Soviet regime. Since both died years before 1917, we have no idea what they would have thought of the kind of dictatorship that was established in Soviet Russia. And if Marx and Engels are blacklisted, why don’t we put Prime Minister Pál Teleki, who played a leading role in the enactment of Hungary’s anti-Jewish laws, on the same list? And if we can connect Marx and Engels with the Muscovite Mátyás Rákosi, we should certainly link the name of Bishop Ottokár Prohászka, who is considered to be the theoretician of Ferenc Szálasi’s Hungarism, with the Holocaust.

One must also should keep in mind that people might change their views over their lifetimes. Either because they genuinely had a change of heart or because they responded to a changing situation. As an example Gerő brings up Gyula Szekfű (1883-1955), the historian. His extremely influential book written in 1920, Három nemzedék: Egy hanyatló kor története (Three generations: History of a declining age), blamed the liberals of the dual monarchy for the misfortunes that befell Hungary after World War I. This book played an important role in justifying István Bethlen’s counterrevolutionary regime. Later he moved farther to the left and after 1945 he even praised Stalin’s accomplishments and the Soviet regime. From 1953 he became a member of parliament and in the last two years of his life a member of the Presidium. There’s no question that he helped maintain the communist dictatorship. Right now a street bears his name in Budapest’s District IV. Should he be banned? According to the law, if we take it seriously, yes, he should be.

The other person Gerő mentions is János Szentágothai, the famous Hungarian medical researcher. He was also a member of parliament and later a member of the Presidium during the Kádár regime. Between 1977 and 1985 he was the president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences which was a political post. After 1990 he was again a member of parliament as an MDF member. Again, he should be banned but naturally he won’t be.

The third person is Béla Kovács, secretary-general of the Smallholders party, whom the Soviets exiled to the Gulag on February 25, 1947. In 2000, during the first Orbán administration, the government made February 25 a day of remembrance for the victims of communism. In 2002 Kovács’s statue was unveiled on Kossuth Square. Kovács became a member of Imre Nagy’s cabinet, but in 1958 he became a member of the pseudo-parliament of the early Kádár regime. He should also be banned according to a strict interpretation of the law.

The drafters of the law added that if and when there is any question concerning eligibility the case must be referred to the historians of the Academy. But if one reads the law carefully, it doesn’t allow for any doubt. The choice is either black or white, yes or no. Historians should know full well that life and therefore history is not that simple, and therefore they should not have accepted the job. Unfortunately, they did. The historians “should have told the government that this task cannot be accomplished in the spirit of academic correctness.”

They accepted the job despite the fact that Attila Pók, one of the three historians who took part in this disgraceful exercise, admitted that the law doesn’t allow for any shading or for a scientific approach and that the law was not thought through.

The government passed the buck to the Academy and the historians passed it back to the government. They excused their own participation by emphasizing that theirs was not the final word. They acted only in an advisory capacity.

The concern is growing in historical circles that “by participating in this political game they risked their academic credibility.”  As historian Gábor Gyáni said, “the historians found themselves in such an absurd situation that they had to explain why concepts like “freedom” or “republic” are not directly related to dictatorships. But at the same time they fell into such traps as declaring Maxim Gorky or Vladimir Mayakovsky supporters of a dictatorship. The former, after the assassination of Sergei Kirov in December 1934, was placed under “secret” house arrest. There were rumors that his sudden death wasn’t an accident. Mayakovsky by the late 1920s became increasingly disillusioned with the course the Soviet Union was taking and committed suicide.

Life is not as simple as Fidesz politicos imagine or as even well-known Hungarian historians think. And what if one day historians associate Viktor Orbán and the members of his government with the destruction of democracy in Hungary and with building an authoritarian regime with the assistance of a neo-Nazi party? It could easily happen.