Tag Archives: Péter György

Caught in the cogs of the Orbán regime: The case of Péter György

It is amazing how shortsighted people can be when their hearts, for one reason or another, are set on a project. This is what happened to Péter György, aesthete and media researcher, who since 2000 has been the director of the Media Center at ELTE.

He never hid his suspicions of Viktor Orbán’s political designs and his contempt for the political system he built. He was the first person who publicly expressed his misgivings about Viktor Orbán’s less than transparent use of the money Fidesz received from the sale of a building the party had acquired from the Antall government. A video of that 1993 exchange is still available, in which the outraged young Orbán makes an impassioned defense of his reputation. As we learned later, by that time Orbán’s father had already received a sizable “loan” from the secret coffers of Fidesz. No one should doubt Viktor Orbán’s theatrical abilities.

Great was the surprise in April of this year when people discovered György’s name among the signatories on a statement endorsing the Orbán’s government’s plan to establish a museum quarters. Even a cursory look at the list of names, which includes a hockey player, reveals that most of the signatories are supporters of Fidesz and the government. What was Péter György doing in this group?

Soon enough György answered this question in several articles in Élet és Irodalom. For György, museums–all kinds of museums but especially museums of fine arts–are vitally important in spreading appreciation of the arts. In his opinion, the system of museums devised during the Kádár regime no longer reflects the modern role of museums. He admitted that after 2010 the Orbán government destroyed the existing structure without replacing it with something better. Yet he embraced the idea of a museum quarters, which originated with László Baán, the successful director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest. Among Baán’s accomplishments, the museum’s 2010 exhibition “From Botticelli to Titian” was visited by 231,000 people, which propelled the museum to seventh place in the western world in the number of visitors that year.

György became Baán’s chief adviser, which largely explains why he wholeheartedly endorsed the erection of seven new buildings in Budapest’s City Park, where demonstrations ever since February against the destruction of hundreds of trees “have become the symbol of political resistance.”

Gyorgy Peter

György’s initial mistake was that he refused to see any connection between Viktor Orbán’s pathological desire to move part of his government to the Castle District overlooking the city and the resulting necessity of moving the National Gallery elsewhere. György hates the plans for the Castle District, which will result in “emptying” the area of any meaning. The reconstructed buildings will be mere facades of a world that no longer exists. It will be a monstrosity, but, says György, that has nothing to do with the marvelous idea of having several museums all in the same place. György’s models are Berlin’s Museum Island and Washington, D.C.‘s Museum Mall, but what he forgets to add is that both developed over decades. In fact, Museum Island’s first building was erected in 1834 and the last in 1930. The same is true of Washington, where the buildings were erected between 1910 and 2003. Both developed in an organic and natural way.

György was so enamored with the idea that he even forgot about the unsavory way in which the Orbán government transgressed regulations to achieve its aims. Exceptions to building codes were approved, protests were ignored, and attempts at a referendum on the project were blocked. The government, I guess, thought that eventually the demonstrations would stop.

Moreover, György most likely didn’t even realize that he was repeating Viktor Orbán’s undemocratic arguments when he claimed that endless arguments over large city projects shouldn’t be allowed because that would only result in inaction. Nothing would be built if we listened to contrary voices. I hope György remembers the infamous speech Viktor Orbán made at the Kötcse Fidesz picnic in 2009 where he outlined his vision of a central political power as a great improvement over the endless political debates in a democratic political system. How much better it is to have a strong government party without real opposition.

In several of the articles in which he answered his critics György argued that his support of the Liget project has nothing to do with politics, even if it has a tangential connection to the Castle project he hates. Although he believes that Orbán is taking the country in the wrong direction, the Liget project is a monumental one, which will serve the country well. By now, however, it is impossible to separate the two issues. The presence of skinhead security guards who use undue force against the protesters while the police look on has created an entirely new situation. Something that started as an environmental movement has become political resistance to the Orbán government. György has been caught in the middle.

As Balázs Böcskei and Márton Vay pointed out in Népszabadság the other day, in Hungary “anyone who wants to go through with such a huge and worrisomely non-transparent investment has to count on participating in immeasurable corruption, and the indirect justification of a political thinking and cultural policy which in this situation means the unwanted support of illiberal democracy.” In brief, György, without ever wanting to, has ended up supporting the current regime. Moreover, the authors claimed, the whole project will have the same kind of shadow cast over it as the National Theater, whose construction during the first Orbán government was forced through just as is happening with the Liget Project. György didn’t answer this opinion piece, which was intended as an open letter, and instead called the authors’ attention to his earlier writings on the subject.

Péter György is slowly acknowledging that his enthusiasm for a great artistic project carried him away, that he failed to take into account that behind this project stands an illiberal, dictatorial government. And that the museum quarters will probably end up like other large architectural projects of the government–hated or unfinished. It’s enough to think of the Memorial to the German Occupation or the House of Fates, which still stands empty.

Nonetheless, György remains loath to abandon the project. In an interview in today’s Magyar Narancs he admitted that “what is happening in the Liget is unacceptable to me. If you like, it is a reason for divorce.” But it seems that if the skinheads disappear, he is ready to continue work on the project. He still maintains that “if we held fast to democratic procedures … nothing would be built because there would always be somebody who doesn’t like it…. The problem is that Liget has become a symbol of the hatred toward the Orbán government.”

So, what next? By now György is convinced that no “professional debate” can be resumed “on the ruins of such a war,” and therefore he will wait it out and decide what to do next. He even acknowledges that the whole project might be scrapped. This “might be a political necessity … which would mean this project cannot be accomplished in the Fidesz-created, empty, culturally regressive and totally useless symbolic political space [which produced] the House of Fates, memorial on Szabadság Square, Hóman statue, [and] the totality of the Castle District.”

György is an intelligent man and someone who is intensely interested in politics. I don’t know how he allowed himself to be caught in the cogs of the Orbán political machinery. He should have known that Orbán has no concern for the arts, that György’s cherished project is only a vehicle for the power-driven prime minister to carve his name into the very architectural fabric of Budapest.

July 15, 2016

A compulsory course on the Holocaust at the Hungarian Catholic University

While the world is preoccupied with Greece and Viktor Orbán’s preparations to erect a fence along the Hungarian border with Serbia, I decided to focus today on the debate over Péter Pázmány Catholic University’s decision to introduce a compulsory course on the Holocaust. Until now there was only one compulsory course, “Introduction to the Catholic Faith,” which I understand, to put it mildly, is not taken seriously by the students. According to someone who is most likely a student at PPKE, as the university is known, “it is a joke,” a course in which everybody cheats.

President Szabolcs Szuromi and Ilan Mor at the press conference

President Szabolcs Szuromi and Ilan Mor at the press conference

On May 26 Szabolcs Szuromi, the president of PPKE, in the presence of Ilan Mor, Israeli ambassador to Hungary, held a press conference, which was disrupted by two “journalists” from Alfahír and Kurucinfo. The former is the semi-official internet site of Jobbik. Kurucinfo, the virulent anti-Semitic media outlet, needs no introduction. Both men fired all sorts of provocative questions at the president and the ambassador.

The reaction of the far right didn’t surprise anyone. They especially objected to the presence and role of Ambassador Mor and to the fact that two Israeli historians, Dina Porat and Raphael Vago, had been asked to prepare the syllabus for the course. Jobbegyenes (Straight Right) accused the Hungarian government of taking orders from the Israeli ambassador when it agreed to the removal of a sign referring to “the victims of Gaza” behind the Hungarian entrant at the Eurovision competition. Moreover, according to the author, it is not PPKE’s job to teach students about the Holocaust. They should have learned that in high school.

Zsolt Bayer’s reaction was also expected. In his opinion, there is just too much talk about the Holocaust. Practically every day there is a new book, a movie, or a theater performance. A few years ago he “thought that one couldn’t sink lower” when he read in Népszabadság that grandchildren of German war criminals, with the financial help of the European Union, had arrived in Budapest asking for forgiveness from elderly survivors. In Bayer’s opinion it was a perverse idea. The souls of these youngsters are “infected with guilt.” What is going on at PPKE is also a perversion. In fact, Bayer thinks PPKE’s decision was even worse than the grandchildren’s apology.

But there were critical remarks on the left as well. The most serious criticism came from Sándor Révész. He objected to the compulsory nature of the course and predicted that “within seconds” someone will suggest “a compulsory course on Trianon, on the communist dictatorship, on religious persecution,” and so on and so forth. In fact, Gábor Vona and Dóra Duró of Jobbik already sent a letter to the president of PPKE asking for the introduction of a course on the tragedy of Trianon.

Révész also found PPKE’s decision to introduce such a course problematic because it is a well-known fact that the Catholic Church still venerates Ottokár Prohászka (1858-1927), bishop of Székesfehérvár, who was a rabid anti-Semite and the ideological precursor of Hungarism, the Hungarian version of Nazism. Révész called attention to the fact that the Hungarian Catholic Church published a collection of Prohászka’s most savage anti-Semitic writings titled My anti-Semitism in 1942. “Is PPKE ready to reevaluate the opus of Ottokár Prohászka in connection with the Holocaust?” asked Révész.

There is criticism coming from historians as well. László Karsai, a historian who has written extensively on the Holocaust, finds it strange that two Israeli scholars were invited to prepare the syllabus when there are many Hungarians qualified to do the job. Moreover, Karsai finds the syllabus as well as the readings wanting. Some books on the reading list are of inferior quality. If he had children at PPKE, he wouldn’t advise them to take the course–not that they would have a choice. He added, however, that “it is an interesting experiment that might generate some lively discussions.”

Péter György, professor at ELTE, just announced that they themselves have been thinking about creating three one-semester courses that all students of the Faculty of Arts would have to take: the cultural history of racism, social theory, and the philosophy of science.  In the course on the cultural history of racism students would also study about the Holocaust. The members of the faculty realize, I think, that something went very wrong at the university since a large portion of the Jobbik leadership graduated from ELTE with a degree in history. Although they don’t want to meddle in the worldview of students, they believe that they should be able to fend off blind prejudice and racism. György admitted that “radicalism” is a very serious problem at ELTE and “the university has no other antidote than arming the students with the necessary knowledge.” He was very pleased when he heard about PPKE’s decision and he, unlike Révész, trusts the faculty of the university to face the past honestly.

It was Elek Tokfalvi, one of my favorite publicists, who was truly enthusiastic about the course. In his opinion, what happened in Hungary was unique in the history of the Holocaust because the Hungarian Jewish community’s destruction began after all the others’ had already ended. Therefore, studying the Hungarian Holocaust is warranted. Tokfalvi looks upon PPKE’s decision to introduce a course on the Holocaust as a “moral redemption” after decades of the undisturbed spread of anti-liberalism, anti-capitalism, ethnic superiority. “Therefore, it deserves praise.” In his opinion, other universities should follow PPKE’s example.” Perhaps it would also be beneficial to teach basic values that would “counterbalance the anti-Semitism of university graduates.” The same idea that Péter György is advocating.

One thing is certain. It s not enough to introduce a course on the Holocaust. As long as people like the economist Katalin Botos give lectures like the one available in part on YouTube, no change in attitudes can be expected.

It might also be a good idea if György Fodor, dean of the Divinity School, and others would take a more critical look at Ottokár Prohászka and the Catholic Church’s attitudes past and present concerning anti-Semitism and racism because, for the most part, the church leaders did very little, or nothing.

“House of Fates”: What does it mean?

For a number of years I have been bothered by the English translation of Imre Kertész’s Nobel Prize winning book, Fatelessness. There is no such word in English as “fateless” or “fatelessness.” Mind you, before Kertész’s novel appeared in 1975 there was no such word in Hungarian either. I decided to take a look at the German translation and  “fatelessness” reappeared there too: “Roman eines Schicksallosen,” says the German title page. At this point I had to turn to Duden: “not marked by a certain fate in a special way.” I must say that it didn’t help me a lot.

The Hungarian word “sors” (fate), just as its English equivalent, has several meanings. Perhaps the English word “lot” is the closest to the core meaning of the Hungarian “sors.” A man can say at the end of his life: this is what my life was all about, this is what I achieved, this was my lot. That’s what he got from life, this is how things worked out, this is what happened to him over the years. But surely, what happens to the hero of the novel is not fate in the normal sense of the word unless a person believes in some divine predestination. What happened to the fifteen-year-old György Köves was something unexpected and inexplicable. He was removed from his surroundings, deprived of his freedom and will. By being dragged away and taken to Buchenwald, he was removed from a very different lot that was until then taken for granted by him and his family. It was a break in his life. In fact, Kertész is quite explicit about this: “It wasn’t my lot but it was I who lived through it.” (my translation)

fate

Interestingly enough, no one to my knowledge spent much time on the meaning of the word “sorstalanság” (fatelessness), the title of the original Hungarian book. But now that the Orbán government decided to erect a new memorial to the children who were victims of the Holocaust the meaning of the word has come up and become a topic of controversy. The people entrusted with the establishment of this memorial decided to name it the House of Fates (Sorsok Háza). It will be located in the old, by now unused, railroad station of Josephstadt (Józsefváros). I wrote about the hurried decision to renovate the old station and make it suitable for a museum. As soon as the public found out that the exhibit will bear the name “House of Fates” there were objections. They pointed out that it wasn’t fate that was responsible for the destruction of the Hungarian Jewry but people who ordered the deportation, and the same was true of the 200,000 Hungarians who took an active part in this atrocity.

It is clear that the name of the new museum was inspired by Imre Kertész’s book, but the people who decided to choose it most likely didn’t understand Kertész’s meaning. Sors/sorstalan (Fate/fateless; Schicksal/Schicksallos) are opposites, but if you don’t understand the meaning of the title of the novel then it is certain that you will err when picking its opposite. And hence the controversy that followed the announcement. György C. Kálmán, a literary historian, argues that labeling the murder of children as “their lot” is to make it sound normal and natural. It shows insensitivity and crassness. It is all wrong.

Péter György, a literary critic, argues along similar lines. If someone is deprived of his freedom to change his fate he is no longer the master of his own life. This is what Kertész calls “sorstalanság.” An exhibit, says György, that focuses on the years that led to the Holocaust cannot be labeled something that inevitably led to these children’s fate. To follow one’s fate means free will, and no one can say that these children willingly chose death as their fate.

Kálmán and György talk about the unfortunate name of the new museum. Others have different and perhaps more weighty objections. First of all, there is great suspicion about Mária Schmidt’s involvement in the project due to her rather peculiar interpretation of the war years and the Holocaust. Schmidt is obviously trying to show her openness by approaching Hungarian Jewish intellectuals asking for their help. We don’t know how many people got letters and what they answered. But we do know that György Konrád, the well-known Hungarian writer, received one. Moreover, we also know what he had to say to her since Konrád made his answer public.

Dear Mária,

I find it difficult to free myself of the suspicion that this hurried organization of an exhibit is not so much about the 100,000 murdered Jewish children but rather about the current Hungarian government. If this government spends such a large amount of money in memory of these children, I would suggest that this amount be spent instead on the feeding of starving Hungarian children who live today.

If you would like to have my personal contribution to the enlightenment of Hungarian school children, please suggest my autobiographical book, Elutazás és hazatérés (Going Away and Returning/in the official English edition A Guest in My Own Country: A Hungarian Life), in which I describe my experiences as an eleven-year-old in historical context.

I read this book for Magyar Rádió and it was broadcast several times. The book is still available and therefore the teachers can easily obtain it.

Sincerely yours,

György Konrád

A few days later Mazsihisz (Magyarországi Zsidó Hitközségek Szövetsége), the association of Jewish religious communities, also expressed its misgivings about the project. Apparently, Mazsihisz as well as other people who were supposed to have some say in the project still don’t have any idea about Schmidt’s plans. András Heisler, president of Mazsihisz, did write to Schmidt. In his letter he emphasized the necessity of an exhibit that shows the road to the Holocaust as opposed to including only events that took place after the German occupation of Hungary on March 19, 1944. As of December 20, there was still no answer from Schmidt. However, in her letter to those intellectuals whom she approached she mentioned “an opportunity for everybody to attend the meeting to express their opinions, give advice and suggestions in four or five minutes.” No wonder that Konrád said no to this kind invitation. In any case, Mazsihisz would like to have public control over the conception, the realization, and the finances of the exhibit.

Finally, József Schweitzer, retired chief rabbi of Hungary, also expressed his serious reservations. He wrote a letter to Schmidt, a copy of which was sent to Népszava. He objected to the venue because this particular “railway station was not connected to the mass deportations of the Hungarian Jewry.” He suggested the renovation of the synagogue on Rumbach Sebestyén utca which is in very bad shape and its use for the memorial exhibit. Schweitzer also thought that the renovation of this synagogue would cost a great deal less, and he joined Konrád in suggesting that the rest be given to children who live in poverty.

I’m afraid that the House of Fates will be as controversial if not even more so after it opens its doors sometime in April of next year. Schmidt and the government she represents have very definite ideas about what they want and what they don’t want. They certainly don’t want an exhibit that exposes the responsibility of the Hungarian government and those 200,000 people who actively worked on the deportation of more than 600,000 people within a couple of months.