Tag Archives: József Pálinkás

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

Who are the chosen ones? The use of historical names in today’s Hungary

As soon as Viktor Orbán triumphantly returned as prime minister, this time with a two-thirds majority, the new administration began to obliterate those street names that honored people who could be associated with the Kádár regime or the Soviet Union. Actually, by this time not too many such street names had survived; most of the objectionable ones had been changed already in the early 1990s. They overlooked a few, though. For example, in 1993 I was surprised to see that in Pécs there was still a Zója utca, named after Zoya Kosmodemayanskaya, the famous partisan, who posthumously became a Hero of the Soviet Union. In fact, it is still called Zója utca. I don’t know how the watchful Fidesz municipal administration missed this short street. Moreover, even Fidesz initially overlooked Marx utca, a mistake that was remedied in 2012 when it was renamed Albert Wass utca after the man who was sentenced to death in absentia for war crimes by a Romanian court after World War II.

You may recall that the government eventually turned to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences for guidance about which street names could be tolerated and which could not. Confusion reigned in city halls as diligent officials pondered whether Béke (Peace), Alkotmány (Constitution), and Szabadság (Freedom) could be left alone or had to be changed.

Moszkva tér fell victim to a name change, as did Roosevelt tér. The idea of renaming Roosevelt Square, I’m almost certain, came from the highest echelons of Fidesz. If I had to guess, I would point to László Kövér as the man who was most bothered by having a square named after FDR, whom he most likely blamed, unjustly by the way, for Hungary’s ending up behind the iron curtain. The odium of starting the procedure fell to József Pálinkás, at the time president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, which happened to be located on Roosevelt Square. It’s outrageous, Pálinkás announced, that the square doesn’t bear the name of the Academy’s founder, István Széchenyi. Mind you, just to complicate matters, two streets north of the Academy there was already a Széchenyi utca.

The removal of Roosevelt’s name from one of the nicest spots in downtown Budapest was an unfriendly gesture toward the United States. It couldn’t be interpreted any other way. But it also carried a larger political message: the United States, which had been an ally of the Soviet Union, was not a friend of Hungary, just as the Soviet troops were not its liberators. Such an interpretation, however, left Hungary squarely on the side of Nazi Germany.

When we thought that at last the frenzy of street name changes had died down, the Christian Democrats, who don’t seem to have enough on their plate, realized that there are still some buildings that were named after the wrong people. After weeks of wrangling, it was decided that the famous Ságvári Gymnasium in Szeged must change its name. As a student, Endre Ságvári (1913-1944) became interested in Marxism. First he was a member of the Hungarian Social Democratic Party, and later, in 1940, he joined the illegal communist party. During the war he organized anti-war rallies, and after the German occupation he was one of the few who tried to organize a resistance movement against the Germans. He was tracked down by the authorities, and on July 27 he was surrounded by four gendarmes, on whom he pulled a gun. He wounded three of them. After throwing his gun away, he ran out of the building but was mortally wounded by one of the gendarmes. One of the four gendarmes also died later in the hospital.

Sagvar utca

In 1959 one of the gendarmes was condemned to death for Ságvári’s murder, but in 2006 the Supreme Court annulled the verdict, claiming that the gendarmes acted legally. The decision created a huge debate because, in this case, the Hungarian state, despite German occupation, must have functioned as a sovereign country, which today the Orbán government hotly disputes. Surely, one can’t have it both ways.

There were only two people in the whole of Hungary who, weapon in hand, turned against those who tried to arrest them: Endre Ságvári and Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinszky, a member of parliament, who waited with a pistol when members of the Gestapo came to arrest him. Scores of streets, hospitals, and schools are named after Bajcsy-Zsilinszky, but Ságvári has been deemed an ordinary criminal.

Fine, one could say, Ságvári’s case is debatable. But a dormitory named after Gyula Ortutay (1910-1978), a well-known ethnographer who was minister of religion and education between 1947 and 1950, must also be renamed. Ortutay’s political career after that date was minimal. He played some role in a politically insignificant Patriotic People’s Front and was a member of the so-called Presidential Council, a body whose members represented trade unions, various nationalities, and parties that had existed before the introduction of the one-party system. Ortutay was a member of the Smallholders’ Party before 1948. I really wonder how far this government’s zealous anti-communists are planning to go.

On the other hand, the regime has no problems with the dozens and dozens of Catholic schools named after Ottokár Prohászka (1858-1927), bishop of Székesfehérvár from 1905 until his death. He is known for his vicious anti-Semitism. In his book Zsidókérdés Magyarországon (The Jewish question in Hungary), János Gyurgyák described Prohászka’s influence as “tragic for Hungarian intellectual and political life.” Hungarian anti-Semitism in the twentieth century cannot be understood without referencing Prohászka. But, I guess, it is perfectly acceptable to use him as a model for future generations. I would be curious to know what these schools’ administrators and teachers tell their students about Ottokár Prohászka.

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.”