Tag Archives: László Lovász

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

Bálint Hóman is rehabilitated

Among the best-known Hungarian historians of the twentieth century were “Hóman-Szekfű.” The two last names grew together, something like Ilf-Petrov or Gilbert and Sullivan. They were the authors of a monumental eight-volume history of Hungary, published between 1928 and 1941. The first three volumes were written by the renowned medievalist Bálint Hóman (1885-1951), the other four by Gyula Szekfű (1883-1955). The last volume contains a detailed index. Although Hóman-Szekfű is available online today, I’m still thrilled that I managed to buy a set in the late sixties in Budapest.

Both men studied history at the University of Budapest, at about the same time, and both eventually taught at the same university. But the two men had very different ideas about Hungary’s place in the world before 1918. Hóman was more of a “kuruc” who favored an independent Hungary, while Szekfű was more of a “labanc,” a supporter of the liberal Hungarian governments loyal to the constitutional structure that came into being in 1867. After World War I Szekfű’s sympathies lay with Great Britain and the United States while Hóman became increasingly pro-German.

Bálint Hóman might have been a good historian, but as a politician he failed miserably and eventually ended up serving a life sentence for his political beliefs. In 1930 he accepted the position of minister of education in the Gömbös and Darányi governments (1932-1938) and later in the Teleki, Bárdossy, and Kállay governments (1939-1942). After the declaration of war he stood by his strong belief that Hungary’s place was on Germany’s side and disapproved of the Hungarian government’s timid steps to make a separate peace with the Allies. Hóman remained a member of parliament even after October 15, 1944 and then, with Ferenc Szálasi and the Arrow Cross leaders, fled to the West. He was captured by the Americans in Germany and sent back to Hungary. In 1946 the people’s court sentenced him to life imprisonment. One of the charges against him was signing the declaration of war against the Soviet Union. He died in prison in 1951.

Ever since the regime change first Hóman’s son and after his death a collateral relative worked assiduously to annul the verdict of the people’s court, whose proceedings admittedly left a great deal to be desired by normal judicial standards. We don’t know all of the charges that the people’s court brought against him. But the court that considered his rehabilitation and that ultimately, on March 6th of this year, declared Hóman innocent seems to have concentrated only on his participation in the June 26, 1941 cabinet meeting that decided on war against the Soviet Union. That is, however, unlikely to have been the only charge originally brought against him. Otherwise, all of the members of Bárdossy’s cabinet should have ended up in jail. But of the nine people present at the cabinet meeting, which included Prime Minister László Bárdossy, it was only Bárdossy, Hóman, and Lajos Reményi-Schneller who were found guilty by the people’s courts. All of the others, with the exception of Ferenc Keresztes-Fischer who subsequently lived in emigration, died of natural causes in the 1950s and 1960s in Hungary. One of them, a chemist, actually became a full member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in 1946. And so we must assume that the guilty verdict rendered against Hóman in 1946 couldn’t have been based only on his being present at that crucial cabinet meeting.

Homan

Besides concentrating exclusively on his role as a cabinet member, the court in the retrial heard evidence from only one side of the political spectrum. The sole “historical expert” was Gábor Ujváry, a historian working for the Veritas Historical Research Institute. Ujváry’s expert opinion on the events of 1941-42 reflected the views of the right. Here are a few examples. Hungary’s declaration of war against the Soviet Union came after the bombing of Kassa/Košice, a city that belonged to Hungary at the time. To this day it remains a mystery which country’s planes dropped 29 bombs on the city. Ujváry seems to be pretty certain that they were Soviet planes, which had been sent to bomb the Slovak city of Presov/Eperjes but got lost and ended up 36 km. away. In the Kádár regime it was more or less accepted that they were German planes because the German military wanted to force the somewhat unwilling Hungarian government to enter the war on the German side. This version was based on the testimony of Colonel Ádám Krúdy, the commander in charge of the Košice airport, who reported to Bárdossy that the planes had yellow stripes painted on their wings and fuselages, which identified them as planes belonging to the Axis powers.

Ujváry also claimed that only a falsified version of the transcript of the actual cabinet meeting is available, and thus Hóman’s “intentions” cannot be ascertained. It is possible, the prosecutor suggested, that he was faced with a fait accompli. Moreover, he continued, basing his argument on the historian’s expert testimony, “in those days one had two bad choices: either Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union.”

Gyula Juhász, a respected historian who wrote during the Kádár period, had a different take on the cabinet meeting. In his book on the foreign policy of the Teleki government, he noted that Bárdossy had indeed falsified the transcript in order to minimize his own responsibility and that he left out those parts that contained comments that were against the declaration of war. Juhász nonetheless claims to have known that Ferenc Keresztes-Fischer spoke several times against the proposal and that he was supported by József Varga and Dániel Bánffy, while Bálint Hóman, Lajos Reményi-Schneller, and Károly Bartha “enthusiastically supported” the declaration of war.

The events that led to Hungary’s decision to join the war on the side of Germany against the Soviet Union remain murky, and determining culpability in such circumstances is always a difficult proposition. I therefore think that calling just one expert witness from the Veritas Institute was unacceptable. The court should have gotten another historian with a possibly different interpretation of the events. I also found it odd that the prosecutor spoke as if he were the lawyer for the defense. Overturning the verdict of one questionable trial by means of another is no remedy.

By now everybody assumes that Hóman will also be reinstated as a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. However, László Lovász, the well-known mathematician and currently president of the Academy, said in a recent interview that if a group of academicians brings the question to the floor and if there is a vote, “the Academy must distance itself from the ideas promulgated by Hóman.” Historian Mária M. Kovács goes even further. She quotes from the Academy’s ethical codex, which states that the Academy demands from its members “the utmost respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Given Hóman’s rabid anti-Semitism, his eligibility is questionable, she argues. After all, he had a hand in the formulation of the first anti-Jewish law, which he himself sponsored in the parliament. When one of his fellow ministers, Andor Lázár, minister of justice, expressed his disapproval of the proposed law, Hóman called for his resignation. A month before the German occupation he demanded the deportation of all Hungarians of Jewish origin. In brief, she contends, he is not qualified to be a member of the Academy.

Sándor Révész of Népszabadság, a day after the court had rehabilitated Hóman, wrote that his proponents on the government side want to restore Hóman’s honor by this decision, but that can be done only with “the restoration of the honor of Nazi Germany, Hitler, the leaders of the Arrow Cross and mass murderers.” Right now there certainly seems to be an attempt to forget about Hóman’s real sins.