A distorted past haunts Hungarians

A few days ago an article appeared in HVG about the teaching of Hungarian history. The author rightly pointed out that it has been flawed for a very long time. I agree. Hungarians have a warped view of their country’s past.

The teaching of Hungarian history has been and still is, at least on the high school level, characterized by paranoia, a paranoia that instills defensive nationalism. Ironically, this nationalistic historical view became even more ingrained after the communist (and presumably internationalist) takeover. In 1951 the Rákosi regime published a book that had been written during the war years by a Stalinist quasi-historian, Aladár Mód. The title of the work is telling:Four Hundred Years of Struggle for Hungarian Independence. The book was a monster in more than one way. It was over 600 pages long and it was taught to high school students during their four years of studies. I learned history from it. Which meant that I knew no Hungarian history to speak of.

According to this view the greatest tragedy that befell Hungary was the Habsburg ascension to the Hungarian throne (1526). From there on Hungarians constantly fought for their independence. Even the serfs joined the ranks of the rebels of Ferenc Rákóczi II because of their burning desire for independence! Of course, I’m being sarcastic, but I would like to point out the totally unhistorical nature of this approach.

Kuruc-labanc encounter /  Wikimedia CommonsKuruc-labanc encounter / Wikimedia Commons

It was at this time that even radio stations were named after Sándor Petőfi and Lajos Kossuth. Movie theaters as well. The first paper forints had pictures of Petőfi, Kossuth, and Ferenc Rákóczi II in addition to the 16th-century peasant leader György Dózsa. Movies made at this time and later on extolled the clever Hungarian historical heroes and contrasted them with the effete foreigners. The article in HVG notes that some of these films from the 1950s dealing with historical topics are still favorites of Hungarian viewers. And what are these films about? Their favorite themes are fictive stories about Hungarian heroes from the time of the Rákóczi Rebellion when Rákóczi’s men, the kurucok, fought the soldiers on the Habsburg side whom the Hungarians called labancok. The etymology of these words is murky. The former might have something to do with the Dózsa peasant uprising where those who eventually attacked the houses of the rich and famous were called together for a crusade against the Turks. Hence the Latin crux or cross. Labanc may have something to do with the wigs worn by the Austrian military leaders.

Why do I spend time on all this? Because Viktor Orbán often turns to the nationalistic pap that was shown in movies and on television in his childhood for inspiration. Since in Hungarian lore “kuruc” means patriot and “labanc” traitor, it is not surprising that the prime minister called opposition politicians who criticize him “labancok.” And the far-right website most likely run by prominent members of Jobbik is called kurucinfo.

Another favorite historical theme from the 1950s and 1960s was that Hungary was an Austrian colony. Of course, this was utter nonsense but it stuck, especially in the minds of those who, for example, carried the sign at the head of the Peace March last January declaring that “we will not be a colony.”

In this historical view there is only black and white. Good and evil. Here there are only good Hungarians and bad foreigners. Also missing are those non-Hungarians who made up more than half of Hungary’s population. In historical novels or movies about the Turkish wars there were only brave Hungarians fighting against the Turks at the border fortresses, as if only Hungarians were “defending Europe from the infidel.” But the truth is that there were many Croats and Serbs in those fortresses. And Vienna was defended by an international force led by a Pole that began the final expulsion of the Ottoman forces from Hungary. I bet that not too many Hungarians know that at that time the Hungarians of Imre Thököly’s army fought on the side of the Turks instead of rushing to aid Vienna.

One of the greatest rulers of the Austrian Empire who was also Queen of Hungary was Maria Theresa. Yet after World War II her statue was removed from Heroes Square. And the real hero of the final expulsion of the Turks from Hungarian territory was not a Hungarian but Charles V, Duke of Lorraine, brother-in-law of Emperor Leopold, but his name has been long forgotten in Hungary.

And finally, one more example of the many national myths: the uniform passive resistance after the 1848-1849 revolution and war of independence and the importance and effectiveness of the Kossuth emigration. Neither is true. Actually there was no serious resistance, and there was even a certain amount of collaboration of Hungarian politicians with Vienna. After all, that was the only sensible thing to do given the international situation and Hungary’s weakness. As for the Kossuth emigration, it had practically no influence on domestic politics. And yet nationalistic historians as late as the 1970s insisted that before 1867, the year of the Compromise, Hungary had a choice: revolution or continuing Hungary’s subordination to Vienna. The historian György Szabad, the first speaker of the House (1990-1994), wrote a book with the title Hungary at a Crossroads. Crossroads? There was no choice.

How can historians change these ingrained reflexes? It will be difficult. After all, people in their forties, like Viktor Orbán, still think in terms of a colonized country and four hundred years of incessant struggle for independence. They divide people into kurucok and labancok. What is even more frightening is that both Orbán and Jobbik consider themselves kurucok. 

By:Hungarian Spectrum

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