A new history for Hungary

Interview with the historian Gábor Egry on the government’s projects to change and reinvent Hungary’s past including Budapest’s architectural layout

Gábor Egry, director of the Institute for Political Studies in Budapest, is an expert in Hungarian nationalism. He has studied minorities and government policies related to how history is passed on.

Interview with the historian Gábor Egry on the government’s projects to change and reinvent Hungary’s past including Budapest’s architectural layout

Hungarian historian Gábor Egry is one of the most lucid observers of the manipulations of Hungary’s leaders. Director of the Institute of Political Studies in Budapest, he has spent many years studying the countless faces of Hungarian nationalism, examining first the minorities in neighbouring countries and then the government policies to reshape the nations’ historical memory.

I’d like to begin exactly with these policies, the concrete measures introduced by the Orbán government since 2010 to promote its own historical narrative for the country?

We can identify two distinct phases. Orbán’s second mandate (from 2010-2014) was characterized by the introduction of regulations designed to constitutionalize a particular historical narrative, also through the establishment of research institutes at the service of this memory policy, such as the evocatively named Veritas Institute. The most striking example was that of the new Preamble to the Constitution approved by parliament, the so-called “national credo”. It establishes that Hungarian national sovereignty was interrupted in 1944 with the Nazi invasion, and restored only in 1990, putting a parenthesis around the entire socialist experience. Other constitutional amendments decreed that the communist state and its satellite institutions were to be considered comparable with criminal organisations, as were also their successors. In keeping with this approach, a series of secondary laws were approved that prohibited the naming of roads and streets after any character, organization or institution linked to the communist period. The result was that many streets were renamed. Beginning with the third mandate (2014-2018), attention shifted more towards the alteration of the urban landscape, especially that of the capital. Imposing reconstructions in the centre of the Budapest and a variety of grand monuments were commissioned as part of an extensive urban restyling operation.

Two months ago the statue of Imre Nagy, the hero of the anti-Soviet revolution of 1956, was removed from one of Budapest’s main squares

A complete reappraisal of the ’56 revolution is being implemented. In short, the facts are that Imre Nagy was made Prime Minister; he tried to enact reforms that were unpopular with Moscow and even declared Hungary’s international neutrality. A few weeks later, the Soviet armies invaded the country, putting down the revolt and reinstating a pro-Soviet administration. Agy was kidnapped, imprisoned and put to death two years later. The rewriting of the facts concerning the autumn of ’56 is necessary to the government because the memory of those events is written much too deeply into the legitimacy of the post ‘89 period for them to be easily removed. Immediately after independence a debate erupted concerning the significance of those 30-40 epoch-changing days. While there were different interpretations, the majority of historians agree that behind the nationalist face of that insurrection, social issues were a driving force. The revolt was an attempt to bring about a sort of “third way”, which was nonetheless socialist. But what is important for this current government is only the aspect of national heroism in that insurrection, the idea that Hungarians have always fought fiercely for their freedom and the evidence of this in their opposition to those Soviet tanks in 1956. The idea that the protestors wanted something different, “something left-wing” can only be problematic for the current political leadership because according to their vision of our history, the left has always been on the margins of the nation. They have sought to suggest that being progressive is equivalent to being anti-Hungarian.

How is the socialist period (1948 to 1990) described today in Hungary?

As a foreign occupation, supported in part by fifth columnists within the country. In legal terms it has been erased from history as I mentioned earlier. This means that also its long-lasting consequences are to be ignored: according to such a logic the government therefore has carte blanche to modify the country’s institutions to its own liking, by simply branding their condition as an unwanted legacy of communism. In purely historiographical terms, institutes and projects financed by the state, such as the Committee for the National Memory, are dedicated to depicting the communist period as a classic case of totalitarianism. On one hand, it is claimed that in that period there was no space free from state intervention. On the other hand, the idea is promoted that the regime was only the product of a minority that was able to exploit a defenceless society that is presented merely as a victim. They study the repressive institutions, the legitimization of state violence, the judicial power and the security apparatus, but there is no wider reflection on the politics and society during that historical period. On a symbolic level, it is as if communism doesn’t deserve to belong to national history. The lack of this public discussion is particularly convenient for the authorities: it enables them to manipulate the past, adapting it to their propaganda needs at any given moment.

This airbrushing out of history is evidently one way to discredit the progressive and liberal messages proposed today, especially from Brussels, representing them as intrinsically alien to Hungarian values. What is the aim of this type of historical narrative?

The ultimate aim, in my opinion, is literally to rewrite national history, purifying it of any aspect that could contest the idea that this government is the only legitimate representative of the nation. The memory policy that I mentioned above intends to recreate a Hungarian past that never existed in order to establish a continuity between an undefined moment in national history, situated some time before the Second World War, and the current regime in power in Hungary. Moreover, it aims to relativize the importance of the political regime change in 1990 in order to present the 2010 elections (the beginning of Orbán’s unopposed dominion, following the grey mandate of 1998-2002) as the true restoration of national history, the moment in which Hungarians began once more to march proudly in their natural historic direction. But there’s more. The false past put forward by the Fidesz party aims to connect today’s Hungary with a historic period in which Hungarian politics was dominated by messages with an emphasis on community, based on a certain ultra-conservative form of nationalism. In interwar Hungary, governed with an iron fist by admiral Miklós Horthy, the leaders wanted not only to administer a system of government but also to implement reforms inspired by Christian social thought – and infused with anti-Semitism. Their founding idea was that the nation was an organic entity and that each of its members had a role and a duty to work for the collective good of the nation. To me there is a clear affinity with recent measures such as the “Slave Law”, which enables employers to demand up to 400 hours of overtime from their employees, who may have to wait for up to three years to be paid for it. Furthermore, the rulers during the interwar years were moved by the conviction that they were the incarnation of the social group destined to lead this nation, insofar as they were aware of the organizational necessities and equipped with innate know-how to implement radical social reforms. In this respect, the similarity between the current government and that of the interwar years is not only expressed through ideological affinities, but also through actual policies. Some measures in the fields of social or education policy, such as the corporatism that has prevailed until today, date back precisely to that period, the 1930s. And if the nation is organic and undifferentiated, there is just one logical consequence: a united nation must have a clear and unambiguous history, and this government is creating precisely that.

To conclude, many Israeli publications have detected anti-Semitic traits in the crusade launched by Orbán against financier and philanthropist George Soros. Is this also an aspect that is linked to the past?

The holocaust is problematic for today’s Hungary. The anti-Semitic legislation was introduced in our country well before the arrival of the Nazis, and today many attempt to gloss over this particularly shameful truth. Anti-Semitism is a legacy of the Horthy regime, the regime that the government wants to rehabilitate. For this reason there is an attempt, albeit grotesque, to present the holocaust as the exclusive responsibility of the Germans, a historic interpretation that is purely revisionist.


This article is also published in the March/April issue of eastwest.

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