Tag Archives: Kulturkampf

The “miracle piano” and the Hungarian entrepreneurial spirit

January 22 was designated the Day of Hungarian Culture in 1989. Why January 22? Because it was on that day in 1823 that Ferenc Kölcsey (1790-1838) wrote the final version of his poem “Hymn” (Himnusz), which became the lyrics of the Hungarian national anthem composed by Ferenc Erkel (1810-1893) in 1844.

This year the event was used by employees of cultural organizations, libraries, archives, and related organizations to express their dissatisfaction with the Orbán government’s cultural policies. As we have discussed earlier, education and culture (unless, as the prime minister suggested, sports are part of culture) don’t enjoy governmental support. In fact, with each passing year cultural and educational institutions receive less money. The organizers gathered in front of the National Academy of Sciences, moved on to the Museum of Folklore, from where they went to the ministry of human resources to turn in a petition for higher wages and greater financial resources for education and culture. It was a nice idea, but only a few hundred people showed up. As formerly enthusiastic participants of these demonstrations now believe, too many small demonstrations are actually counterproductive.

The other event that was scheduled to coincide with the Day of Hungarian Culture was the long-awaited public unveiling of the “miracle piano,” a Hungarian invention described by Reuters as a “space-age piano.” A four-man team developed the new piano conceived by Gergely Bogányi, a Hungarian pianist. The piano bears his name. Some experts are enthusiastic about the sound of the “Boganyi” and there seems to be some interest in the Hungarian invention, but no buyer as yet. The piano was financed mostly by money coming from the European Union (New Széchenyi Terv) that gave the developers 217 million forints. The Hungarian National Bank contributed another 60 million. Apparently the four men put 75 million into the project from their own pockets.

Considering the financial involvement of the Hungarian government, it was predictable that Viktor Orbán would deliver a speech in the Ferenc Liszt Academy. In preparation for his arrival the police closed off two whole streets for a day and a half. The prime minister has always been paranoid, but lately his paranoia has become outright pathological.

In the speech he “with due modesty but with pride” pointed out the number of “cultural sanctuaries” that his government either built or renovated. What he neglected to mention was that all of the projects, like the Ferenc Liszt Academy where the gala performance took place, were financed with EU money. He described culture as “the thread that weaves together parts of the nation that drifted to or were torn away to different parts of the globe.” Somehow he must talk about the unification of the nation across borders. A space-age piano is good enough reason.

According to Orbán, “in this miracle piano there is everything that characterizes the Hungarians: ceaseless entrepreneurial spirit, inventiveness, a restlessness of the Hungarian spirit that strives for perfection and is never satisfied with what exists at the present.” I guess all that with “due modesty.”

The Boganyi piano

The Boganyi piano

Most of the speech was the usual fluff, but there were a couple of sentences that were particularly objectionable. He talked about “our greatest scientists, Ede Teller, Jenő Wigner or János Neumann who were born and went to school in Budapest but somehow (valahogy) could not make good use of their knowledge in Hungary.” Somehow? All three were of Jewish background and all three left Hungary in the 1920s. They ended up first in Germany and later, after Hitler’s rise to power, came to the United States. Their reasons for leaving Hungary were diverse, but they were a combination of the anti-Jewish numerus clausus law that severely limited the number of Jewish students in Hungarian universities, the general anti-Semitism prevalent in Hungary, and the superiority of German universities over Hungarian institutions. This constellation of reasons for young people to leave Hungary is not so different today. A lot of Hungarian Jews don’t feel at home in Orbán’s Hungary, and if a bright Hungarian student has the choice, he/she will choose a British, American, or German university over the domestic fare.

It is one thing to build or renovate concert halls, museums, or theaters, and another matter to have a cultural policy that fairly distributes resources among worthy recipients: writers, musicians, filmmakers, and artists. What is going on in Hungary is a “Kulturkampf” that aims at, on the one hand, rewriting the history of all facets of cultural endeavor and, on the other, creating a set of favored contemporary writers and artists. A good example of the latter is the establishment of a new academy of the arts that is now enshrined in the constitution itself. Its members are recruited from a group of artists in sympathy with the current regime and, as a gift for their loyalty, they receive generous annuities. As for the rewriting of the history of Hungarian literature, we have seen many cases where extreme right-wing writers of modest talents are dredged up from the period between the two world wars and elevated to the ranks of the Hungarian literary greats.

Just the other day I heard an incredible story from György Konrád, the well-known writer. He and his family live near Tapolca, a town in Veszprém County. Konrád often visits a small local library named after János Batsányi, a poet and philosopher, who was born in Tapolca in 1763. He was a radical who was an admirer of the French revolution and later of Napoleon, whom he followed to Paris. After the emperor’s fall he was taken back to Vienna and thrown into jail. He is considered to be one of the most radical representatives of the ideas of the Enlightenment in Hungary.

Well, a few days ago Konrád paid a visit to the library and what did he find? The library was renamed the Elemér Vass Library. Elemér Vass was a relatively minor painter about whom few people know anything, while everybody who ever went to high school can recite Batsányi’s warning to the Hungarian nobility:  “Cast your eyes toward Paris!” Perhaps it was the Enlightenment that bothered the local potentates. Hungarian libraries, it seems, are not meant to enlighten but to indoctrinate.

The first draft of a “party program” of the Hungarian democratic opposition. Part II

Yesterday when I left off I was talking about the opposition’s concern over the very low Hungarian birthrate, which is resulting in a steadily aging population. At the moment the Orbán government is discussing a scheme by which every woman over the age of 18 who gives birth to her first child would receive a sizable amount of money–the most often heard figure is 300,000 forints–in addition to a flexible scheduling of the subsidies already given to women after childbirth. Most people don’t think that this scheme would make families rush to have children given the current economic situation. As I mentioned, the democratic opposition doesn’t have any better ideas on the subject except that they want to put an end to the current unfair distinction between legally married and unmarried couples who have children. In addition, they promise to put an end to child hunger.

Naturally, they pay a great deal of attention to the welfare of the large population over the age of 65. They promise not only to raise pensions to match the rate of inflation; they also plan to reintroduce a “premium” that would be indexed to economic growth. They make a renewed promise of free public transportation to everyone over the age of 65. They would also again allow pensioners to work while drawing their pensions and would allow people to work beyond the retirement age. Out of these promises the only one I object to is free public transportation for everybody over the age of 65. I think that forcible retirement is untenable in a democratic society and that in certain professions it is outright injurious to the public interest. I am thinking of judges and university professors, for example.

The next topic of the provisional party program is healthcare, and I must say that it is one of the weakest points of the program. Here we have only vague generalities. I understand, however, from a television interview that the hospitals would remain in state hands and that the new government would stick with a single centralized state insurance system. Only yesterday I was listening to an interview with Erzsébet Pusztai (earlier MDF, now a member of Lajos Bokros’s conservative party) who was won over to the idea of privatizing healthcare. What does she mean by that? Basically, that doctors would be the owners of their own practices. Having doctors as state employees guarantees failure, she contends. I tend to agree with her. Therefore I don’t expect any great positive change in the quality of Hungarian healthcare as a result of a change of government. In the first place there is no money to raise salaries and, even if they did, the problem lies not only with low salaries but with attitudes.

The MSZP and Együtt 2014-PM negotiating team / MTI, Photo Lajos Soós

The MSZP and Együtt 2014-PM negotiating teams / MTI, Photo Lajos Soós

Naturally, the democratic opposition wants to put an end to the Kulturkampf introduced by the Orbán government and they make all sorts of promises of state subsidies to make culture readily available. As for the state of the media and the media law, which they surely want to change, they said nothing about MTV, MR, and Duna TV. I’m afraid that these organizations would need a complete change of personnel; otherwise the new government will end up with a far-right state media of low quality.

The Internet wasn’t left off the list either. They promise to pay special attention to making broadband available everywhere in the country and to encourage Internet usage and computer literacy.

These two parties at least don’t want to take away the voting rights of the new Hungarian citizens from Romania, Ukraine, and Serbia. The reason I didn’t include Slovakia here is that Slovakia introduced legislation that forbids dual citizenship and therefore there were very few people who applied for Hungarian citizenship and, if they did, it was in secret. I personally wouldn’t support that right and from what I read on the subject a lot of people would vote along with me on that issue. The document does make special mention of the democratic forces’ opposition “to the use of  the Hungarian minorities in the neighboring countries as instruments of Hungarian political parties,” but as long as voting rights are ensured there is no way of preventing party politics from spilling over the borders. On that issue, I’m with Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Demokratikus Koalíció.

Finally, the democratic opposition pledges its support of European values and Euro-Atlantic cooperation. They realize the changing nature of the European Union, but Hungarian national interests must be protected in cooperation with and not against the European Union. Hungary wants to be a partner in the building of a stronger and better European Union.

* * *

Commentators, on the whole, responded positively to the beneficial effects of the joint declarations and the parties’ willingness to work together. Most of them think that once the first step toward an electoral alliance is taken the number of undecided voters will drop and support for the opposition will increase.

In addition to this document the opposition came out with another one that deals with the nomination of MP candidates. I will spend some time on that document in the future, but until then suffice it to say that this particular document pretty well ensures that there will be a single common party list, which is an absolute prerequisite for any success against Fidesz at the next election.

Breaking News: Sándor Csányi, CEO of OTP, the largest Hungarian bank and the premier holder of Forex mortgages, dumped almost 2 million shares yesterday, allegedly to invest in his other businesses. OTP stock has been under pressure recently as a result of rumors about a new government scheme to help the approximately 100,000 people who are currently incapable of repaying their Forex loans. This generous assistance would come at the expense of the banks. Since details of the plan are unavailable, we don’t know how large a haircut the banks would have to take, but the hit might be substantial. I guess that Csányi, who by the way has been a big supporter of the prime minister, decided to bail while he still had some equity left. In the wake of his mega-sale (and I assume that sooner or later we’ll find out who was on the other side of that block trade–again, rumors are flying), OTP stock lost about 9% today.

Culture, censorship, and the Hungarian National Theater

Every time foreign critics claim that the Hungarian media is not entirely free government officials are outraged and immediately ask them to point to just one occasion when censorship was used to prevent the free expression of opinion. Well, from here on the supporters of the Orbán regime can no longer boast about their “tolerance” toward contrary opinions. And it doesn’t have to be political opinion that the regime doesn’t tolerate. It can even be artistic. After all, political dominance in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary seems to be going hand in hand with ascendancy in the cultural sphere.

I covered the ongoing “Kulturkampf” through two events. First, there was the disgraceful charade that took place at the Hungarian National Theater which ensured that the government’s favorite, who considers the National Theater a depository of national values, got the job. More on the subject can be found in the post entitled “Kulturkampf is called ‘Kulturkampf’ in Hungarian too.” A few days later I highlighted another government coup in the field of culture. A right-wing gathering of writers and artists are receiving practically exclusive financial support from the Orbán government. To add insult to injury the government appointed György Fekete, whose commitment to democracy can be seriously questioned, president of this artistic academy. Fekete made it clear that literature and art will have to be in the service of national values. “Echoes of Hungary’s communist past” I called that particular post.

Since the values of the new director of the National Theater, Attila Vidnyánszky, are very close to the heart of the current political leaders, one ought not to be surprised about what happened on Magyar Rádió. Péter Esterházy, the well known Hungarian writer, was asked by the Rádió to contribute once a month to the station’s program called Trend-idők (Trend Times). He was supposed to give advice on cultural events–to call attention to a new book or an exhibition worth visiting. The last time he was the guest of the radio station he suggested a posthumously published volume by Szilárd Rubin, a book by Józsed Keresztesi on Rubin, several exhibitions organized by the Petőfi Irodalmi Múzeum (Petőfi Literary Museum), and finally he urged people to see the last few productions staged by Róbert Alföldi.

That was too much for the servile leadership of the Hungarian public radio station. Esterházy’s positive assessment of the productions of the Hungarian National Theater under the directorship of Alföldi couldn’t be tolerated. They simply left out his remarks about the theater productions.

Esterházy’s answer was an article that will come out tomorrow in Élet és Irodalom. In it he writes that the last time something like that happened to him was in 1981, in the Kádár regime, but he added that by 1986 he could openly complain about it. “Today I don’t want to live in either 1981 or 1986. I lived in those days once, and it was enough. The Regime of National Cooperation as Kádár-splotch [kádármaszat]; I wouldn’t want to national-cooperate this way.”

This story gives me an opportunity to talk a little bit about the history of the National Theater. A few days ago Attila Vidnyánszky, the incoming director, called the National Theater “a sacred place.” For Alföldi, on the other hand, the National Theater is simply a venue where one can produce good or bad plays. There is, in fact, nothing terribly special about this particular National Theater. There are many “national theaters” in the country: one in Pécs, another in Miskolc, and a third in Szeged, just to mention a few that come to mind.

The theater was originally called Pesti Magyar Színház (Hungarian Theater of Pest) and was supported by the County of Pest. It was called Magyar Színház because all the other theaters in Pest and Buda were German-language theaters. When the theater opened its doors in 1837 Hungarian speakers were in still in the minority, a little over 30% of the combined population of the two cities. Basically Pest and Buda were German cities until the 1880s.

Originally the National Theater (normally called in Hungarian simply “a Nemzeti”) was situated at the corner of Múzeum kőrút and Rákóczi Street, right across from the Hotel Astoria, where it remained until 1908. The company “temporarily” moved into the former Népszínház (Volkstheater) on Blaha Lujza Square, where it stayed until 1963 when there were plans to build a new permanent building to house the National Theater.  Nothing came of it, and for more than thirty years the members of the theater had to move every few years from one building to another. That was the case until the mid-1990s when at last the foundation for a new theater was dug on Erzsébet Square. At this point Viktor Orbán won the election and immediately halted work on the building. He threw out the plans approved by an international jury and everything began from scratch. Months went by as they looked for a different location. The theater was eventually sited in District X close to the Rákóczi Bridge. As for the architect? The new government official in charge of the project without any competition gave the job to the architect who designed his own house, a woman who had never designed a theater before.

According to architects the design is unfortunate. Some ordinary folks find it hideous and bizarre. According to Wikipedia, “the building in its outward appearance gives the notion of a ship that is swaying on the Danube.”

National Theater

I may also add that the building was erected in record time. Just a little over a year. The hurry was dictated by political considerations. Viktor Orbán and Fidesz politicians found it very important to stage the first production, Imre Madách’s play The Tragedy of Man, before the elections. And indeed, it was on March 15, 2002, that the theater opened to the public.

On April 7 Orbán lost the first round of elections and the second one on April 21. The National Theater’s charm wasn’t enough.