Viktor Hulik’s sculpture of a sewer worker, Bratislava (Rudy Sulgan/Corbis)
On September 1, the Slovak parliament made it largely illegal for its citizens to use any language other than Slovak. The use of minority languages in “official” situations is now punishable by fines of up to €5,000 (US $7,270)—and possible offenses include:
a fireman responding in Hungarian to a call for help from a person in a burning building; a civil servant discussing job opportunities with an unemployed Roma in Romany; a German book club discussing a book in German without first introducing it in Slovak; a [train] conductor addressing a passenger in Hungarian on a train from Slovakia to Hungary; a radio station broadcasting in English without Slovak translation; failure to re-carve a 50-year-old grave marker [into Slovak]
(I know from experience that not even manhole covers in Slovakia are allowed to display the old Hungarian-language inscriptions.)
How these rules will be enforced in daily life is another matter; the law appears to rely, at least in part, on denunciations. It’s enough to scare public employees in Slovakia—including even doctors, teachers, postal workers, and railroad clerks—into self-censorship.
What accounts for this law, from a recently minted EU country no less? According to the Slovak government’s twisted reasoning, the law is designed to ensure that “no Slovak citizen…feels disadvantaged or discriminated against” because of the language she speaks. But its real impetus seems to be fears on the right about the country’s minority populations.
Yet these populations—including Hungarians, Rusyns, Roma, Czechs, and Germans—make up only 15 percent of Slovakia’s population and their numbers are steadily declining. Moreover, to meet the requirements for EU membership, which it was awarded in 2004, Slovakia was supposed to adopt more—not less—liberal policies toward its minorities. But Slovakia has swung to the right since it joined the EU; the Slovak National Party, known for its suspicion of the Hungarians and other minority groups, has been a member of the government since 2006.
What is certain is that the country’s ethnic minorities -Hungarians in particular—are frightened. The Hungarian community has already shrunk in recent decades from 30 to 11 percent of the total population, as a result of forced assimilation, urbanization, emigration, and, especially after World War II, deportation. The Beneš Decrees of 1945 turned Germans and Hungarians in Czechoslovakia into noncitizens and general pariahs. Ironically, these cruel decrees were revoked by the Communists after they came to power in 1948, but now a democratic government, made up of a coalition of ex-Communists, socialists, and super-nationalists, seems prepared to revive the ethnic hostilities that surfaced at the end of World War II.
Some observers speculate that the new language restrictions are designed to help right-wing parties in next year’s elections by reinforcing the notion that the ethnic situation at home—as well as deteriorating relations with Hungary—are threatening the country’s ethnic Slovak majority. If the right-wing coalition is victorious in next June’s parliamentary elections, the European Union will be further weakened by what its leaders like to describe as a “quarrel between two of its member states.” Strong international condemnation might persuade the Slovak government that linguistic diversity will enrich, not impoverish, the country.
The Hungarians. A Thousand Years Of Victory In Defeat. By Paul Lendvai (PrincetonNJ: Princeton University Press, 2003).Translated by Ann Major, xii + 572 pp.
A Concise History Of Hungary. By Miklos Molnár, (CambridgeUniversity Press, 2001)
Translated by Anna Magyar, 388 pp.
Requiem Pour un Empire Défunt. Destruction De l’Empire Austro-Hongrois. By François Fejtö (Éditions du Seuil, 1993), 467 pp.
Hungary has moved into yet another phase of its history by becoming a member of the EU. But the relationship between the dominant culture to the historic “nationalities” (i.e. Germans, Slovaks, Croats, Romanians, Jews, and Gypsies) is worthy of a most thorough inquiry. Tackling the challenge of modernizing the country’s history is akin to a delicate act of cleansing the rather fragile “Hungarian earthenware”, to cite Széchenyi, the great 19th century reformer.This is where Paul Lendvai’s The Hungarians splendidly excels over what has historically proved to be a most delicate hurdle.
On September 11, 1989, the Hungarian government opened its Western flood gates to East German refugees fleeing their homeland. A tidal wave ensued thereafter. Since then Hungarian historiography has worked at shedding its shadows of doctrine and dogma. Francois Fejtö, who had revealed the trial of Communist leader Laszlo Rajk in the 1940s, swept history’s stage for Hungary to open onto its post-communist era. In Requiem pour un empire défunt, Fejtö overturned the disdainful history of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy once taught to his compatriots when their country lay battered under the weight of Soviet domination and exploitation.
He was soon followed by Miklós Molnár, a fellow of the Institut universitaire des Hautes Études internationales de Genève, whose major work appears in English translation for the first time. Molnár upped the bar of quality and science in historiography by stripping Hungary’s past from its Romantic pride. Adhering to the parameters of liberal scholarship, his Concise History of Hungary provides a detailed and factual account of the Danubian nation. In the process, he steers clear of the legends and fabrications characteristic of far too many versions Hungarians worldwide hold of their homeland.
Both of these accounts tend to converge onto a common avowal. The rebirth of Hungary in the 19th century would not have been accomplished without the romantic history built upon its fallen heroes, a history compiled during that very century. So has it occurred that the Romanticized epic of the Hungarian saga itself is now part of its history. Aligned with this insight, Molnár and Fejtö both chose to re-evaluate the tale of the country’s victimization under the rule of Austria’s house of Habsburg.
Building upon their revisionist accomplishments, Paul Lendvai has taken the next logical step. As a distinguished journalist and editor-in-chief of the Europäische Rundschau, he understands that neither fact nor ideology alone completely molds a nation’s identity, let alone its history. In Lendvai’s brew, identity arises through the will of its people—or, as the case was for Hungary, its peoples.
Countless pages of The Hungarians describe the popular leaders who once held, and still sway, the nation’s flame in the Magyar imagination. Although nationalism may serve the politician, it fails the scientist. The reader is thus quickly led to understand that from the folk basis out of which Lendvai spins the nation’s history emerges not an ideal Hungary, but the natio Hungarica. For countless great Hungarians, such as Miklós Zrinyi, King Mathias Corvinus, Lajos Kossuth and John von Neumann—from Serb, Romanian, Slovak and Jewish backgrounds, respectively—“belonged to the political nation of Hungary which was not an ethnic but a juridico-political category”. (127)
To citizens of today’s Hungary, this may be but a vision of the past. Where it very much persists is in the minds of its émigrés and offspring. Still, it is the only vision through which current leaders may coherently venture when claiming to speak for the diaspora of 15 million Magyars. Whether this number “has to be revised” (506) or not, Lendvai’s foremost object is to show that the process of ‘Magyarization’ in the 19th century, i.e. establishing Hungarian as the official language and projecting it over its historic territory, consisted of a desperate screening out of its own asymmetrical ethnic dominance. After the cataclysm of the Ottoman invasion and occupation, Magyar was only enacted the country’s official language over Latin in 1844 at a time of great uncertainty regarding its demographic preeminence.
Propelled by a sense of injustice, the 19th century Hungarians successfully and dramatically recreated a new nation. Yet it is important to beware of shorttemporal cuts when considering history. So it is that Lendvai painstakingly argues that the accomplishment of the Hungarians could not have materialized without the complicity of the nationalities spread throughout their lands. But by obscuring the ties between the nation and the nationalities, a propensity marshalling the thoughts of even such a maverick revolutionary as Lajos Kossuth, the process of Magyarization ended up spelling the territorial demise of historic Magyarorszag, firstin 1920 and then, once and for all, in 1947.
Lendvai does not yearn for his readers to shed tears for what could have been. Thanks to his fluid prose, elegantly rendered into English by Ann Major, many readers may even overlook the pivotal nature of chapter 26: “Total Blindness: The Hungarian Sense of Mission and the Nationalities”. His loving renditions of folk tales and inspired quotes from the country’s host of great authors and poets soften the critical stakes waged by his work—as if with a lover’s words of comfort that separation will bring newfound prosperity.
Some Hungarian readers of Christian faith may observe that Lendvai’s natio Hungarica is substantially Jewish. Let there be no illusions: this is where his remarkable book fills a gapping lack. There has been scant discussion, and only suggestive analyses, of the role the Jews played in Hungarian industry and culture since the emancipation act of 1849 had first granted them equal rights.
Regarding István Bibós’s testimonial “On the Jewish Question”, Lendvai writes “it is still the best contribution to this topic, not least because it is not written by a Jew, a Communist or a Socialist, but by a progressive bourgeois thinker.” (416, ft. 18) Taken inversely, this statement powerfully stands for the author of The Hungarians:Lendvai’s book could only have been written by a Jewish Hungarian-Austrian émigré. Despite the myth breaking, his eloquent account files the author comfortably among the great raconteurs of the Hungarian saga.
It is doubtful whether a Hungarian Gentile could have asserted with such transparency that “the ‘demographic revolution’, in favor of Magyars [in the 19th century], would have been impossible without the mass of Jewish assimilants.”(330) Apart from the factual justification for this claim, the author also spends considerable time demonstrating how the “symbiosis” (328) of the Central European Jews with the Magyars surpassed even that forged with the Germans.
Objective history can only exalt the truths enshrined within myths by breaking a few of its own. History’s undercurrents are too fierce, too unconscious, for satisfied self-righteousness to be the lingering residue left in the wake of reading its literary productions. Lendvai goes on to add an article to this law of critical faith: “with myth-making also comes the myth of treason-making. While there may be no lack of traitors in history, there is also no lack of traitor making in history, with the latter not always, and perhaps, seldom, overlapping with historical facts.” (242) Since Trianon and the end of WWII, domestic folk history has too often painted the nationalities with traitor’s tones.
The urgency of myth-breaking applies perhaps most to recent history, resulting in two important corrections. Hungarian communism, a culmination of sorts of the peasantry’s centuries-long squalid servitude under the nation’s feudal lords, cannot be evaluated outside of the loss incurred to national sovereignty by the Soviet occupation. Only a fiercely anti-communist rendition of history can claim that Hungary’s post-1946 version was sui generis. Likewise, Hungarian history has often single-handedly recorded the ire of Christian Hungarians faulting Hungarian Jews for the doings of Mátyás Rákosi, Stalin’s man of Terror in Buda from 1947-1956. Lendvai explains away the idea that ethnic background has any relation to brutal dictatorships, but only by painfully seeking to answer why the freedom fighters among the second generation of Hungarian communists turned to tyranny and terror when they haplessly assumed power.
It is a truism that ethnic resentment cannot be erased merely through the brush of a historical determinist stroke. One must not forget that for a vanquished nation, the aftermath of war invariably overflows with suffering and a yearning for retribution. In turn, the horror of the two 20th century world wars could only have been followed by an aftermath steeped in social terror and collective pathology.
In apposition to his detailed character portrayals, Lendvai’s general method is anchored in pattern identification. He proceeds by the formal excavation of repeated event patterns as a more accurate means to deciphering a nation’s distinctive features. The subtitle to his work, “A Thousand Years of Victory in Defeat”, also projects into the future. The “thousand years” refers to Hungarian statehood as proclaimed by Stephen 1st, the act by which the kingdom was affiliated to Rome’s Catholic tutelage. Until then, from the Caucasus to the Carpathian basin, the Magyars had struggled through shifting political and religious alliances.
As a deeper undercurrent, the historical pattern of “victory in defeat” is the folk song to the nation’s survival. Lendvai’s is not the portrait of a victimized nation, though the plaintiff poignancy of a Rom’s violin may be overhead in the background. In the footsteps of Fejtö, such refusal owes principally to its author’s full-scale revisionism of the Habsburg Compromise: “If the political, economic and financial facts are viewed objectively, it has to be admitted that the Hungarians were less victims than beneficiaries during this period of their history.”(287) Defeat in 1848-1849, led to fusion in 1867. Defeat in 1956, led to the emergence of Goulash Communism in the 1970s.
Indeed, this pattern has solidified into the rational ground from which the modern day Hungarian heroic character strides forward. In the past it had aroused the passion of the nationalities to partake in the Magyars’ struggle. As far as into the ranks of the famous thirteen generals of the 1848 honvéd army, brutally executed in Arad on Feldzeugmeister Haynau’s orders, the nationalities helped make the Nation. Among these would-be martyrs, one could find “a German of Austrian origin, a German-Austrian, two Hungarian-Germans, a Croat, a Serb from the Bánát and two Hungarians of Armenian origin.” (240)
While anyone could become Hungarian in the 19th century even without mastering the language properly —this was the case of composer Franz Liszt—official recognition of one’s own ethnicity was harder to achieve. Lendvai will surely spark many objections by asserting that:
“[in] contrast to the representation of national romanticism, Hungarian historians of our time, such as Domokos Kosáry, emphasize that the radicalization of these nationalities was not the result of Vienna’s policies, Pan-Slavism or rabble-rousing foreign agents. These ethnic groups, in their own social and political development, had reached a similar level of national feeling and national assertion as the Hungarians, but Kossuth and most of the authoritarian Hungarian politicians were unwilling to accept their demands.” (224)
Regardless, it stands that this “blindness”, or rather blindspot, to history’s cunning would eventually solidify into the blow to shatter the Hungarian earthenware.
It is history’s destiny to stare helplessly as the past’s effect on facts have them act no differently on our minds and bodies than do fictions. In his loving rendering of Hungary’s troubled saga, Lendvai has shown us how our knowledge and memory are a tangle of both threads. His demand on readers is to stretch their reasoning powers so as to represent these threads singularly as they intertwine. Therein lies his great achievement: Lendvai is an educator. The only blood and sole battlefield his work condones are set in a classroom of inquiry and debate.
No power, no country and no president may be excused from scorching the earth anew. Vengeance is the only child of such wanton destruction; from it, students never emerge. As Hungary prepares for a new era as a member of the European Union—and not, one would hope, as a disruptive American vassal—Fejtö, Molnár, and Lendvai stand out as our pointers and signals.