Tag Archives: Ottoman Empire

Gábor Bethlen, Prince of Transylvania and a Muslim Europe

A friend called my attention to an interesting article written by Gellért Rajcsányi, one of the editors of mandiner.hu. The young right-of-center journalist gave a title that must have been shocking to Hungarian readers: “Gábor Bethlen urged a Muslim conquest of Europe.” Bethlen, prince of Transylvania (1613-1629), is one of the revered heroes of Hungary. He is considered to be a man who brought prosperity and cultural flowering to the province and who was also an extraordinarily skillful diplomat. He managed to achieve relative independence for Transylvania, wedged between the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires.

What do Hungarian school children learn about Gábor Bethlen? Practically nothing. It is easy to summarize the information provided about this perhaps most famous Transylvanian prince in the history textbook for grade 10 students. We learn that Bethlen, who “acquired the throne with the assistance of Turkish troops, had to take into consideration the requirements of Istanbul if he didn’t want his country to find itself between two fires.” Another few sentences deal with Bethlen’s involvement in the Thirty Years War against Ferdinand II, king of Hungary, his initial successes and his subsequent failures, which forced him to sue for peace (Peace of Nikolsburg/Mikulov, December 31, 1621).

The larger part of Rajcsányi’s article is a transcription of a very long letter written by Gábor Bethlen to János Rimay, Transylvanian ambassador to the Porte. The letter was written on April 11, 1621, in the middle of Bethlen’s anti-Habsburg military campaign when “more and more of Bethlen’s supporters were turning away from him” and he was forced to renounce the Hungarian crown that had been offered to him earlier.

The letter Rajcsányi published had appeared earlier in the blog “Kitalált Újkor” (Invented Modern Times). According to the author of the post, in the 1830s József Tunyogi Csapó (1789-1858), a member of the Hungarian National Academy, published all of the ambassadorial instructions of Bethlen with the exception of this incriminating one. It was discovered only recently by Sándor Papp, a historian of Hungarian-Ottoman relations at the University of Szeged.

It seems that even the conservative but until now pro-Fidesz members of the Hungarian media have become tired of the anti-refugee propaganda which endlessly repeats the great Hungarian historical sacrifices in holding back Muslim terror from Western Europe. Although this may have been true before the Battle of Mohács (1526), the picture after that date is anything but clear. Rajcsák somewhat sarcastically remarks that 150 years after Mohács “Hungary needed the contemporary international NATO forces” to get rid of the Turks, who by that time were comfortably settled in the country. All the while “such great Hungarian heroes as Imre Thököly (1657-1705), whose statue is still on Heroes’ Square, and his friends, typically in Turkish pay, did their best to hinder the armies of Christian Europe while they sacked and robbed their homeland.” Besides Thököly, there are others whose historical assessment needs correction. Clearly, Rajcsák thinks that Bethlen is one of those.

Gábor Bethlen’s statue on Heroes’ Square

Rajcsák compares this 1621 letter to a conspiracy theory concocted by today’s Hungarian far right. In such a modern transcript this document would be proof that “the Protocols of the Grand Lodge of György ‘Dark Force’ Soros” are planning the Islamization of Christian Europe. Perhaps, says Rajcsák, it would be time “to do something with our pro-kuruc/anti-labanc historiography and educational system.” On the meaning of the words “kuruc” and “labanc,” take a look at a post I wrote titled “A distorted past haunts Hungarians.”

Ágnes R. Várkonyi, professor emerita of ELTE and member of the Academy, complained recently about the lack of research on Bethlen’s diplomatic efforts. It was only lately that historians discovered that Bethlen’s great plan was the creation of a Central European Confederation that would have included Bohemia, Moravia and, Croatia.” So far, so good, but in order to achieve this goal Bethlen, as this document proves, was soliciting a Ottoman military occupation of the whole area and beyond.

Bethlen through his ambassador suggested to the Sultan (hatalmas Császár/great emperor) that he move his troops to Belgrade and from there to Nagykanizsa, on the border between the Turkish occupied territories and Royal Hungary, all the way to Graz. He emphasized that it would take only four or five days to reach Graz from Kanizsa. It is easy terrain and food is plentiful in Styria and other neighboring provinces of Austria. From there it would be easy to reach Italy and march as far as Milan (Mediolanum), which at that time was ruled by the Spanish Habsburgs. Milan would allow the Ottomans to fight against Spain both on land and on sea.

He himself, who would attack the Habsburgs from the north, would need only 30,000 Ottoman and 15,000 Tatar troops, which in his estimation would be sufficient to penetrate as far as Passau and Bavaria where he would camp and take hold of the Danube River. Bethlen hoped that even Ferdinand II could be captured in Vienna, surrounded by Hungarian-Turkish and Tatar troops. Thus Ferdinand’s realm would be a Turkish protectorate, just like Transylvania was. The sultan would be able “to buy not just one fort as his father did in Eger but a whole kingdom.”

We see no sign of the legendary Polish-Hungarian friendship in this letter because Bethlen is envisaging a massive attack on Poland by at least 100,000 Tatars, reinforced by 40,000 Turks, who would “burn, rob terribly the country all summer and fall.” The only concession Bethlen wanted to secure from the Ottomans was that the Porte “would promise that the territories of the Hungarian Crown wouldn’t be in any way altered.” If these promises are kept “we will serve the great emperor joyfully … just as Transylvania has been securely under the wings of his greatness ever since King János [Szapolyai (1487-1540)].” Soon enough, other countries would join the Ottoman Empire and thus “the whole of Europe would belong to the all-mighty emperor.”

Finally, Bethlen reminds the Porte that “we could have made peace with the Germans but, because we didn’t want to break our promises to the almighty sultan, we suffered incredible dangers in order not to violate the trust of His Mightiness.”

The letter is so specific and detailed that it is very difficult not to take it at face value. I agree with Rajcsányi that it would be time to start rectifying the misinterpretations of historical facts committed over the centuries.

January 7, 2017

How did Calvinism survive in Hungary?

Foreigners are always surprised when I tell them that I am not a Catholic. People who are only superficially acquainted with Hungary assume that, just like in Poland, every Hungarian is a Catholic. These same people would be surprised to learn that in the second half of the sixteenth century about 80% of the country’s population was Protestant–mostly Calvinists and to a lesser extent Lutherans. The situation was the same in Poland, where 90% of the nobles who were members of the sejm, the Polish parliament, were Protestants. But then came the counter-reformation, which in Poland’s case was so successful that, according to the latest statistics, 87.5% of the population declare themselves to be Catholic. The rest either refuse to answer or claim to be non-believers.

In Hungary the situation is different, due mostly to the semi-independent Transylvanian Principality (1570-1711) and the Ottoman occupation of the central parts of the Kingdom of Hungary (1541-1699). In the principality, the elected princes were either converts to Calvinism, as in the case of János Zsigmond, the first prince of Transylvania (1565-1571), or were already born as Calvinists and were therefore promoters of freedom of religion. In the case of the Ottoman-held territories, Catholic aristocratic families fled north or west into so-called Royal Hungary, and therefore their former serfs could follow their own religious inclinations. Just to give you an idea of how widespread the Calvinist and Lutheran denominations were, the great Hungarian churchman Péter Pázmány (1570-1637), the towering figure of the Hungarian counter-reformation, was born into a Calvinist family in 1570. He converted to Catholicism while attending a Catholic school in Kolozsvár/Cluj.

Martin Luther’s teachings reached Hungary very early. Luther’s famous Ninety-Five Theses were published in 1517, and two or three years later his teaching spread to those Hungarian towns that were inhabited largely by German-speaking people.

From 1540 on, however, the teachings of John Calvin became much more popular, especially in the villages. The changes in religious affiliation came about in an ad hoc fashion. In the early days individual parish priests attracted to the reform movement began to change the liturgy, slightly or more substantially. They began conducting services in Hungarian. Depictions of saints were painted over in white, in keeping with the puritanism of Calvinists. And when there was no priest ready to change his religion, wandering preachers went from village to village to spread the teachings of the new Protestant churches. Initially these people were ordinary tradesmen without much education, but soon enough highly educated men who had returned from western universities began working as missionaries. One of the early foreign-educated preachers was Mihály Sztárai (d. 1575?), who was active on both sides of the Dráva River. He established 120 Protestant congregations in Baranya County and in Slavonia (the northern part of Croatia) between 1544 and 1551. It was most likely under his influence that my ancestors became first (perhaps) Lutherans and later Calvinists. At the time the dividing line wasn’t that clear.

During the seventeenth century the Catholic Habsburgs used drastic measures against Calvinist and Lutheran ministers, and pressure was exerted on aristocratic families to convert to Catholicism. Once that was accomplished, the Crown used the principle of “cuius regio, eius religio” (whose land it is decides the religion), which was an alien concept in Hungarian constitutional law. Thus masses of common folk were returned to the fold. Until the majority of the inhabitants became Catholic again.

Because of the ardent Catholicism of the House of Habsburg, Calvinism became a “Hungarian religion.” With it came an anti-establishment attitude. Hungarian Calvinists believed that they were second-class citizens, a persecuted minority, which they certainly were until Joseph II’s Toleration Act of 1781. This edict put an end to more than 100 years of religious persecution of non-Catholics. But even it imposed restrictions on Protestants. For example, their churches couldn’t have a steeple, and no gate of a Protestant church could open onto the street.

Hungarian Reformed Church with the typical Star of Calvin instead of the cross

Hungarian Reformed Church with the typical Star of Calvin instead of a cross

The number of Calvinists in Hungary today is difficult to ascertain because at census time the declaration of religion is voluntary. According to the 2011 census, 39% of Hungarians declared themselves to be Catholics, 11.6% Calvinists, 2.2% Lutherans, 16.7% non-religious, and 2.5% atheists. The number of Jews is practically impossible to determine because they are leery about declaring their Jewishness. They most likely can be found in the non-religious category.

This 11.6% translates into 1,622,000 people. In addition, there is a large number of Calvinists (almost all Hungarians) living in Transylvania. Of the 1,227,623 people who claim Hungarian ethnicity there are 600,000 Calvinists. In 2009 they became part of a single Hungarian Reformed Church.

Reading the official history of the Hungarian Reformed Church, I was struck by the pent-up resentment against the authorities who through the ages looked upon the church and its followers as second-class citizens. The Catholic church and the state lived in a symbiotic relationship which the Calvinist hierarchy couldn’t share, even during the interwar period when Miklós Horthy, the governor, was a Calvinist. They hoped to find some “redress of past injuries and great losses” which, they feel even today, they didn’t receive.

As for the present state of the Hungarian Reformed Church, I would say that they are still “trying to climb into the position of being a second-tier state religion,” as the official history claims about the interwar period. But they are on the losing side when the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP), which was described by Zsolt Semjén, its chairman, as “the political arm of the Catholic Church,” is in coalition with Fidesz. The centuries-old symbiosis between the secular power of the state and the Catholic Church is far too strong.

Here is one example. Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources, is a Calvinist minister. Prior to his appointment, the undersecretary in charge of church affairs was also a Calvinist. When Balog took over the ministry, Semjén insisted on the resignation of the Protestant undersecretary. Having two Calvinists in this ministry was unacceptable to the Catholic Church.

I don’t follow the affairs of the Hungarian Reformed Church very closely, but my impression is that its leaders are inclined to sympathize with the far right, or at least they tolerate the presence of such ministers as Lóránt Hegedűs, Jr. This anti-Semitic minister, whose wife is a member of Jobbik, has been delivering the most horrendous sermons, but the official church has been unable to muster enough courage to throw him out of the church. Or they may in fact sympathize with his ideas. It was only in October of this year that he was “disciplined” for such offenses as having no biblical message whatsoever in his objectionable sermon and for being “unprepared.”

Viktor Orbán’s claims of historical antecedents

Those of you who follow the Hungarian-language media on the refugee crisis and the Hungarian government’s response to it are most likely familiar with Viktor Orbán’s historical allusions to the Ottoman danger Hungary faced between the fifteenth and the seventeenth centuries. All Hungarian schoolchildren learn about the Hungarians’ heroic struggle against the Turkish invaders by which they saved Christian Europe from Islam. It is widely believed, again based on high school textbooks, that in that struggle Hungary was left to bear the burden alone. As recent and not so recent historical research has revealed, however, the events of those centuries are much more complex than this simplistic interpretation would suggest. In fact, the struggle against the Turkish invaders was a joint international enterprise.

Viktor Orbán at one point called himself the János Hunyadi of our times and on another occasion a knight of a border fortress (végvár). Hunyadi was an outstanding military leader of Romanian-Hungarian background whose armies were made up of fighting men from many areas in the region, including Serbian, Wallachian, and Albanian principalities. Hunyadi received help from as far as Bohemia and some of the German principalities. As for the myth of lonely warriors at the border fortresses between the Turkish-occupied parts of country and Royal Hungary, as the unoccupied western and northern parts of the country were called, it has pretty well been discarded as the result of recent research.

Viktor Orbán is certainly no János Hunyadi (1406-1456), who as a son of the fifteenth century didn’t even look upon himself as a Hungarian. He was a nobleman who served at the pleasure of four Hungarian kings who hailed from Luxemburg, Austria, and Poland. His father was a Wallachian nobleman who, at the invitation of King Sigismund, moved to the Hungarian court. Most of his battles took place in Serbia, even Bulgaria, and his troops came from all over Central and Southeast Europe. He and others didn’t fight primarily for Christianity but against the Ottoman Empire, which was gobbling up territories frightfully close to the Kingdom of Hungary. Hunyadi’s name will, of course, be forever associated with the Battle of Belgrade (1456), which kept the Ottoman advance at bay for over fifty years.

From a historiographical point of view Orbán’s reference to the knights of the border fortresses is much more interesting because new research has shown that our understanding of those skirmishes has been all wrong. Let me summarize briefly what an average Hungarian learns in high school about these knights. Abandoned by the world for 150 years, these brave Hungarians single-handedly fought the Ottoman troops, who otherwise would have easily occupied Vienna. Because of their sacrifice, they saved Europe from the Ottomans and Islam. This is the view that Orbán cherishes. I don’t even blame him, because this is the generally accepted interpretation of the 150 years of Ottoman occupation of the large, central portion of Hungary.

The first misconception is about the immediate consequences of the Battle of Mohács (1526). The battle itself didn’t mean the occupation of most of the country, although we are prone to look at it this way. It took another twenty years for the Turks to occupy Buda (1541), Székesfehérvár, and Esztergom (1543), at which point Europe became alarmed. The Turks were about 200 km from Vienna.

Hungarian historiography until very recently claimed that Vienna left Hungary languishing, giving the country no aid, either material or military. However, recent research in the archives of Vienna and Bratislava, the capital of Hungary after Mohács, shows that large amounts of money were given not only by the Crown but also by individual provinces of the Habsburg Empire. A system had developed by which provinces closest to the border fortresses were responsible for financing them. So, Lower Austria was responsible for the defense of Győr, and the Croatian fortresses were the responsibilities of Carinthia and Steiermark. As Géza Pálffy, a young historian, says, “In the survival of Hungary in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Habsburgs had an essential historical role…. We are talking about a mutual dependence that served the interests of both Hungary and the Habsburgs. And we know that the stakes were high … the goal of the Turks was the occupation of the whole country.”

In the past, historians liked to portray Hungary as a “buffer state,” but nowadays experts of the period prefer the designation “bulwark.” As Pálffy explains, “I am part of a bulwark while a buffer zone is a territory outside of me.” For King Matthias (1458-1490) Bosnia was a buffer state. He occupied it and kept soldiers there, but he was not the ruler of Bosnia. “But Ferdinand was the legitimate king of Hungary, and therefore for him and his successors Hungary wasn’t a buffer state or a colony. It was part of their monarchy.”

Some people may ask how it is possible that historians only recently discovered the documents that prove that Hungary received heavy subsidies from the rest of the Habsburg lands between the 1540s and 1690. The answer is simple. Hungarian historians now have unlimited access to Austrian and Slovak archives, which are treasure troves of documents for that period.

Viktor Orbán’s current policies do not, contrary to his claims, resemble the country’s responses to the Ottoman advance. In fact, if anything, just the opposite is true. In both cases international cooperation ruled the day and served the interests of both Hungary and the rest of Central Europe.

The Hungarian Reformed Church and the extreme right

I don’t want to bore readers with a history of Protestantism in Hungary, but I often find that at least in the United States people are surprised to learn that there is a sizable Protestant minority in Hungary. They are convinced that all of East-Central Europe is Catholic.

We have only estimates on religious affiliation of the current Hungarian population, but these estimates indicate that about 20% of Hungarians were at least baptized in a Protestant church. About 17% are Calvinists (Magyar Református Egyház) and 3% are Lutherans (Magyar Evangélikus Egyház).

I’m sure that people will also be surprised to hear that at the end of the sixteenth century 80-90% of the inhabitants of historic Hungary were Protestant. And Hungary was not alone in the region: Poland, now the most Catholic country in the area, was solidly Protestant. Ninety percent of the members of the Polish parliament, the szejm, were Protestants. Such a rapid spread of the teachings of Martin Luther (1483-1564) and John Calvin (1509-1564) in this particular part of Europe was indicative of serious societal and political upheavals and general dissatisfaction with the status quo. The new faith was spread by itinerant preachers, both Calvinists and Lutherans. At the time the two branches of early Protestantism were not separated. It was only in 1567 that the Calvinist and the Lutheran churches went their separate ways.

One could ask how it was possible that while the Counter-Reformation managed to completely eradicate Protestantism in Poland, in Hungary the Catholics were less successful. Despite the efforts of the Catholic Habsburg dynasty, large pockets of Protestantism remained. In fact, the answer is quite simple: during the sixteenth century historic Hungary was divided into three separate entities. A smaller part in the north, an area called Royal Hungary, remained in Habsburg hands while Transylvania became nominally independent, only paying tribute to the Ottoman Empire. The rest, a large chunk of today’s Hungary, was occupied by the Turks who had no interest in converting the population to Islam. It didn’t matter to them whether the infidel was a Catholic or a Protestant.

magyar reformatus egyhazAfter the expulsion of the Turks Vienna tried to reconvert Protestants, and they often used rather brutal methods to make Protestant worship impossible. The Protestant communities were beleaguered and persecuted; Calvinists in particular came to represent the true Hungarian spirit against Catholic dominance in the Habsburg Empire. And that differentiation of Calvinist and Catholic Hungarians didn’t end with the Compromise of 1867. Voters in Calvinist areas were more apt to vote for the Party of Independence. Given this history, one shouldn’t be terribly surprised that today’s Hungarian Reformed Church is even more nationalistic than the Catholic Church.

While I’m not surprised by the Church’s nationalism, I am surprised about their right-wing rhetoric. I gained the impression from my readings and also from personal experience that Protestantism at one time was more enlightened than the official line of the Catholic Church. Less bigoted, more open-minded. What I see now is a shift of Hungarian Calvinist leaders toward the extreme right while the Catholic leaders are just deeply conservative and wholehearted supporters of the current government party.

Perhaps my views are influenced by the prominent political roles played by church leaders as László Tőkés, who gained worldwide fame as a key player in the events that eventually led to the Romanian “revolution” and the removal and execution of Nicolae Ceaușescu. Nominally he is considered to be a Fidesz man, but in fact his ideology puts him to the very right edge of the Fidesz spectrum where the differences between Fidesz and Jobbik are blurred. The other person who is much more obviously a man of the extreme right, in fact an outright neo-Nazi, is Lóránt Hegedűs. He has been in the limelight for at least fifteen years and his views should be unacceptable to the church by any standards. His own wife is a member of the Jobbik parliamentary delegation. Yet the Reformed Church refuses to expel him from the church. There were attempts but no final resolution.

In 2007 Gusztáv Bölcskei, the clerical president of the Synod of the Hungarian Reformed Church and the bishop of Debrecen, tried to remove him but failed in an internal legal procedure. Then came the erection of a Horthy statue, but Bölcskei himself was guilty of having too tender feelings toward Hungary’s governor between 1920 and 1944. Bölcskei unveiled a plaque of Horthy in Debrecen. It seems that the Church either can’t or doesn’t want to act.

The latest upheaval in Hegedűs’s church in the heart of Budapest again prompted calls to do something with Hegedűs. It was in early November that Horthy’s bust was unveiled and placed close to the entrance to be seen by all passers-by. This time the church leaders promised real action. A serious investigation of the case was going to take place, they promised. Attila Jakab, who often writes on church affairs, predicted more than a month ago that most likely nothing will happen because if Hegedűs is considered to be guilty of political activities Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources, will also have to be investigated. After all, Balog is also in politics. On paper he suspended his religious activities and can’t use his title “minister” (lelkész), a status that allows him to conduct religious services only occasionally and only by special request. But, in fact, Balog regularly holds services in his old church.

Jakab turned out to be right. Nothing will happen to Hegedűs but not because of Balog’s services in his old church but because the Hungarian Calvinist Church doesn’t really want to pursue the case. A few days ago Index reported that György Horváth, who is the legal counsel to the Hungarian Reformed Church, resigned his position in disgust because the diocesan court refused to take up the case, claiming a conflict of interest.

Horváth suggested expelling Hegedűs from the Hungarian Reformed Church. This was not the first time that Horváth recommended such an action, but each time the members of this particular diocesan court refused to hear the case. After his third attempt, Horváth had had enough. He announced that he “will not assist in this opportunistic practice.” He claimed that the church leadership is afraid of Jobbik and that members of the court are worried that their names might appear on kuruc.info, the virulently anti-Semitic neo-Nazi internet site.

This is not the end of the story. The case will be transferred to another diocesan court. But don’t hold your breath. The same thing happened in the earlier investigations as well. Clearly, the Hungarian Reformed Church refuses to deal with the problem and in my opinion not only because they are afraid of Jobbik. Rather, because they sympathize with this clearly neo-Nazi party. This is a sorry end to a church with a glorious past of fighting for freedom of religion and suffering persecution over the centuries. It is a real shame.