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Constructing a new past in Hungary

An interview with Gábor Egry, chief director at the Institute of Political History in Budapest. Interviewer: Simone Benazzo.

July 12, 2017 - Simone Benazzo - Interviews


SIMONE BENAZZO: How do you evaluate the current politics of memory of Fidesz’s government?

GÁBOR EGRY: In the first five years of Mr. Orbán’s second term as head of the government, there was a consistent politics of memory. In the last year and a half, there have been signs of this policy losing its coherence and dissolving into private enterprises of some “memory entrepreneurs”,namely officials that are committed to spreading a specific and often selective idea of national history. Good examples include Mária Schmidt, the head of the museum of terror and the foundation for Central and Eastern European history and László L. Simon, a politician within  Fidesz’s government, member of Parliament and former State Secretary for different ministries.

During Fidesz’s first term there was an attempt to issue new legal regulations so as to constitutionalise a history and also to establish a research infrastructure in the service of this politics of memory. Now, the most visible results of the policy are the huge reconstructions in Budapest and the consequent plans to erect different monuments. This is a very important shift of the focus which also reduces the coherence of memory politics. Nevertheless, what the latter really aims at is to construct a non-existent Hungarian past that could serve as a point of continuity for the present regime in Hungary, a point located somewhere in the period before the end of the Second World War.

Which kind of practical implementations has the government proposed? Which legal measures has Fidesz adopted to carry out their politics of memory?

The first such law was implemented in 2010 and is referred to as a national unity law. It is an act that commemorates the Trianon Treaty, which reduced Hungary’s territory to one third of what it was under Habsburgs’ rule at the end of the First World War. As this treaty was signed on June 4th, this date was chosen as the “day of national unity”. Local governments are required to organise their own commemorative events.

The second change involved the Preamble of the new Constitution, the so-called “national creed”, which makes references to the country’s past. Its most important element is the notion of the discontinuity of the Hungarian constitutional life and, thus, of the Hungarian national existence. It stipulates that the period until the election of 2010 was disorderly and did not fulfil the criteria for authentic national existence. Only with the elections of 2010, did the real emergence of the Hungarian nation take place.

There has been a series of important secondary legislation. The most notable one was a new law that bans certain street names, although the final say regarding this goes to the Academy of Sciences. Generally, it bans the reference to organisations, persons or institutions, or symbols, which are associated with the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century and it followed a campaign for the removal of some street names. The result is quite entertaining, because in Budapest the most important public spaces have been purged of any of these names, while in countryside towns, which actually voted heavily for the right, one can find those streets that kept the name they had before the change of the government, such as the heroes of the Communist movement. It is likely that people in these more rural areas are less upset with such issues and they wanted to spare all of the fuss of introducing new street names, such as changing official documents.

Moreover, we should also mention the first amendment to the new Constitution. It states not only that the Communist state and its satellite organisations were criminal, but that all the legal successors of these organisations are criminal too. In addition, it stipulates the nationalisation of certain private archives. These provisions frame the current politics of memory discursively, although in legal forms.

There are two additional aspects. The reconstruction of buildings in Budapest that I mentioned earlier and the establishment of a few historical institutes that are dedicated to this new politics of memory. For instance, the Veritas Institute, dedicated to the history of the change of regime, and the Commission of National Memory, which was modelled on the Polish IPN. Moreover, one can mention symbolic legislation, such as the new law on system of dedication, which re-establishes such historical orders as the Saint-Stephen order that ceased to exist after the First World War, as well as abolishing some important post-1989 orders, such as the Imre Nagy order, dedicated to the memory of Imre Nagy.

How has the current government depicted the Communist past?

In legal sense it has been erased from the history. This also means that not even its lasting consequences can be discussed in the public realm. The establishment of the Committee of National Memory, as well as a series of research projects funded by the government, and the research going on in the Veritas Institute, are all focusing on developing the narrative of this period in the sense of the classical totalitarianism. On the one hand, this narrative postulates that in this period there was no room free from state intervention while, on the other hand, the regime was the creation of only a little selected group, who abused the society. In this narrative, society was just a victim of the regime. For example, new government research dealing with rural history is now focusing on collectivisation and on the victimhood of the peasantry. There is also an element of relativism in this research. The research on redistributive justice after the Second World War, the so-called people’s tribunals, is aiming to include the history of people’s tribunals into the history of Communist show trials in order to show that they were precursors of the Communist trials and not part of the general wave of retributive justice that stretched over Europe starting from the last months of war. Overall, there is a very narrow focus of history, which emphasises the institution of oppression, mainly state-legitimised violence, the judiciary, and also the state security system, while research on broader understanding of both politics and society is not initiated by the government institutions. Only historical professionals are attempting to research these more contextual elements.

We have been talking about the actions that create it. However, what are the main features of this politics of memory?

Overall, the main purpose is to write an authentic history of the nation while erasing all parts of the national history that challenge the claim that this government is the sole authentic representative of the Hungarian nation. Therefore, there is a debate on whether the period right after the end of the Second World War was a preliminary phase of Stalinisation or a real attempt at democracy. This politics of memory wants to create an historical continuity with that moment, when Hungarian constitutional life ceased to exist because of the German occupation. It also wants to relativise the importance of the change of regime in 1990 in order to connect the 2010 elections with the restoration of national history and, in doing so, bring back the nation to its true historical direction. There are also two important sub-plots. The first one is the problem of the Holocaust and, in broader terms, the anti-Jewish legislation that started very much before the Holocaust happened in Hungary. It belongs to the legacy of the Horthy regime that, on the one hand, the government wants to embrace and, on the other hand, fears to embrace because of all the implications of the anti-Jewish measures it implemented. There has been an attempt to put all the responsibilities for the Holocaust on the German occupiers. It is in this sense a very revisionist understanding of the Holocaust that has developed in Hungary. And the second sub-plot is a reconsideration of the 1956 revolution. This is necessary, mainly because the 1956 revolution is embedded into the legitimacy of the post-1989 regime to such an extent that it cannot be wholly erased from history.

Since the fall of communism in 1990, there has been an ongoing historiographical debate on what the 30-40 days of the revolution really were. There are different readings. Nonetheless, the consensus among the majority of historians tends to admit that, beyond the national tenet of this revolution (or uprising), there were socio-political demands. These social goals of the revolution were definitely not aimed at restoring the Horthy regime or establishing some kind of capitalism. It was a third way rather than a fully socialist attempt. For the current government though, 1956 is important solely as a sign of Hungarian national heroism, in line with this tradition of Hungarians being ferocious fighters for their freedom and liberty. The idea that in such a moment the Hungarian society wanted something different, something leftist, is problematic for them because, according to their reading of Hungarian history, the political left was always on the margins of the nation at best, and its ideas could never define the national history. In a nutshell, these are two sub-plots that both infuse the “construction war”.

Do you think that the politics of memory fits within a broader political project?

Yes, in two ways. This imaginary legacy to which Fidesz refers in its narrative of the present-day Hungary is a period of time, when a type of communitarian organic rightist nationalism with a social face, combined with the idea of social reforms, had emerged. This is the period when the Hungarian government started to develop, beginning with Gyula Gömbös and continuing with Béla Imrédy and Pál Teleki. They were aiming not just at stabilising a system, but at implementing show reforms in line with Christian social thinking and often infused with anti-Semitism as well. The basic assumption of this programme was that the nation is an organic entity. Everyone in the nation has their own role and duty to fulfil in order to work for the common well-being of the nation. And there is a certain group within the nation that is destined to lead this organisation, because they are aware of the necessities of the system and they are the ones who have the right ideas to devise and realise such a programme. Many ideological elements, but also certain policy elements, of the present government resemble the reforms that were adopted in the 1930s, for example in social policy or education, or the dominant corporativism.

There is another factor, which is less visible if one is not familiar with Hungarian contemporary history. The whole concept of history that this politics of memory revolves around represents this organic concept of the nation, at least in relation to the recent trend in historiography. The most important element is the idea of the unity of the nation in its history, which translates into a unified nation. A logical following from these premises is that a unified nation needs to have a united history. And, since the end of the Second World War, Hungarians have lived in different countries. Therefore, it is impossible to write a unified national history, as this would include the social developments in Romania and the minority politics in any of the South-Slavic states and the cultural developments in Czechoslovakia and later Slovakia, which would not be part of such a great national history as we imagine. Bluntly, there has been no unified political history of Hungary since 1918. The concept of history the current government subscribes to is very well reflected in the Preamble on National Unity, which shows the permanent suffering of all Hungarians, because of the dissolution of Hungary since the Trianon Treaty. In my opinion, they think that this is the way that Hungary could have a united history, a history that every Hungarian shares. If we are suffering due to Trianon, we have a common history, a history of common suffering. Nothing else matters in this sense, because it is what unites us. That way Hungary becomes a martyred nation again. This view not only treats Hungary as a constructed group, but also treats history as constructed. This is how in Hungary many historians understand the postmodern turn in historiography. They see it as a kind of Lego. Postmodernists say that history is just a Lego: we can take whatever we want from the past and combine very different elements to create our own narrative. The outcome is a very caricaturist understanding of constructed history. In keeping with this theory there have long been political counterparts to this politics of memory (mainly within the liberal party), and some of the liberal politicians openly admitted that they understood history this way. Therefore, for example, they claimed that there was no need to establish the order dedicated to the memory of Imre Nagy. They believed there was no necessity to commemorate people, as history is always just a human construction. Fidesz profited from this void.

A final note on the Trianon Treaty. How did it become a trauma for Hungarians as a collective?

The Trianon Treaty is the point when the nation had vanished, so it is also elevated to the more important symbolic level, both in commemoration during national days and as a permanent reference. This treaty is always referred to as a kind of national trauma for Hungarians, but it only emerged as a trauma because people universally referred to as such decades later. It is now accepted by the majority of society as a trauma, in a period, where no one still lives that could speak of their experience of the dissolution of Hungary and what happened afterwards. Hungarians had very different experiences back then and not necessarily experiences of victimhood and oppression in the successor states. Also, the presumed solidarity of the Hungarians living in Hungary with the Hungarian minority in that period was just imaginary. If one reads the experiences of the Hungarians that travelled to Hungary during the interwar period, one will learn a lot about the rejection of these people. There was no such a thing as a common uniform experience of Trianon that could be understood as a traumatic one. The concept of a cultural trauma is instrumental to grasp this phenomenon. It postulates that traumas can be developed by a consciously-mediated effort that political actors conduct in the public sphere. Via the reiteration of certain messages, they can practically educate the population to the idea that there was something that was traumatic for them. The so-called trauma of Trianon is rather this kind of cultural trauma, it is not based on memory of personal experience passed down through the family. It is instead a newly-created image of what happened to Hungarians in Trianon. It is easier to mediate this cultural trauma now, as there is no personal nor family memory that could contradict this narrative. This is also represented in this legislation. 

Gábor Egry is chief director at the Institute of Political History in Budapest.

Simone Benazzo is an alumnus of the College of Europe. Until March 2017 he worked as editor-in-chief for the Western Balkans at East Journal (an Italian magazine). He has written for many Italian outlets, including Pagina 99, The Towner and Prismo. His main academic interests are memory politics, Islamophobia, and populisms and nationalisms in the post-socialist space.

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