Magyar Myth Makers

Hungary’s authoritarian government is rewriting the nation’s troubled past.

National symbol: the 'Holy Crown'. Bridgeman/National Museum BudapestIt may seem like a historian’s dream come true: history is now a priority of the government in Hungary. A committee of the Historical Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences decides which street names should be changed. The government led by Viktor Orbán recently established its own historical research institute, Veritas. It is so keen to erect a statue commemorating the German invasion of Hungary on March 19th, 1944 by its 70th anniversary that no costs are to be spared. The new penal code, in effect since July 2013, makes it punishable by up to a year in prison to say anything insulting about a medieval crown, turned into the symbol of the Hungarian republic. Yet this is no cause for celebration; historians need to object, as many in Hungary already do. The government is trying to manipulate history in order to establish continuity with the interwar authoritarian regime of Miklós Horthy and thereby gain popularity.

The government’s research institute will rewrite the nation’s history, according to its mandate: ‘to strengthen the ties of national belonging’ through shaping ‘national historical consciousness’. A taster of what this means comes from pronouncements by its director, Sándor Szakály, who maintains that the so-called ‘white terror’, which helped establish the Horthy regime (perpetrated by paramilitary gangs), was not unprovoked; that Hungarian Jews only suffered major losses after the German invasion; and that the massacre of Jews at Kamianets-Podilskyi in 1941 was merely a ‘police measure’ against illegal aliens. Borrowing from the terminology used in the interwar period, such a presentation camouflages scholarship in order to create a national myth. The paramilitary ‘justice’, without judges and trials, introduced after the collapse of the short-lived Bolshevik Republic of Councils, is seen as a justified ‘reaction’. The series of anti-Jewish laws, from that restricting the number of Jews at universities in 1920 to the four ‘Jewish laws’ passed between 1938-42 depriving Jews of their rights and introducing a racial definition of ‘Jew’ along Nazi lines; pogroms; and forced labour service for Jews, all introduced by the Hungarian government, are ignored in the new history. The ‘police measure’ refers to the deportation of close to 20,000 Jews on Hungarian government initiative. Many of the ‘illegal aliens’ deported in 1941 had always lived in Carpathian Ruthenia, which had been returned to Hungary as Hitler’s ally. They were dumped on the other side of the border in Ukraine, where most were killed. No wonder many dub Veritas a factory of lies.

According to a law enacted in 2011, streets cannot be named after people and concepts associated with ‘autocratic regimes’. Local councils wanted clarification over particular cases and the government delegated the decision to the Historical Institute of the Academy of Sciences. Its verdicts demonstrate why local humour nicknames Hungary ‘Absurdistan’. Streets cannot be named ‘partisan’, nor after the philosopher George Lukács and a long list of people, members of the illegal communist party in the 1920s and 1930s, who were imprisoned and murdered. ‘Peace,’ ‘progress’ and ‘republic’ survived the axe: in each case, ‘although the term became frequent during the communist dictatorship, its use cannot be prohibited according to the law, because that would suggest the term refers to an autocratic regime’.

While the entire period between the Second World War and 1990 is branded ‘a communist dictatorship’, Horthy’s anti-democratic regime, where the secret ballot was abolished and newspapers censored, is exonerated. The memorial statue of the German invasion must symbolise the official version of Hungarian blamelessness, its sovereignty lost to the Nazis. In reality Horthy continued in power, appointed the new government after the invasion and the authorities willingly cooperated in the deportation of Jews to death camps. Some go even further in changing the past: the municipality of Budapest sponsors the ‘Break-out’ tour, commemorating the ‘heroic defenders’ of Budapest in 1944-45, the German soldiers and their Arrow Cross (Hungarian Nazi party) allies, whose actions prolonged the siege of Budapest by the Red Army and led to the city suffering heavy casualties.

The rewriting does not stop at the recent past. The ‘Holy Crown’, a medieval object on display in the Hungarian parliament building (pictured above), has been turned into the symbol of the state, reviving an interwar tradition. Earlier conceived as St Stephen’s (the first Christian king of Hungary, who died in 1038), research has proven that the crown consists of two parts, probably joined at the end of the 12th century, of which one came from the Byzantine Empire and dates to the 1070s. Important for legitimising medieval kings, it conveyed a different message in the interwar period. Reference to the lands of the ‘Holy Crown’ meant the prewar Kingdom of Hungary and was used by the Horthy regime to buttress its claims to all the territories where the majority was non-Hungarian, ceded to neighbouring states by the Treaty of Trianon (1920).

While no prison sentence has yet been meted out for insulting the crown, historians have been put on trial and fined by the government- controlled judiciary. One of them was László Karsai (who recently won his appeal), for ‘insulting’ the Jobbik party by calling it neo-nazi. Openly anti-Roma and antisemitic, in July 2013 Jobbik lost its appeal to the European Court of Human Rights against a 2008 verdict (under a socialist government) that disbanded its paramilitary Hungarian Guard. Yet in March 2013 a judge claimed ‘scientific consensus’ that it is neither neo-nazi nor extreme right-wing. Today in Hungary the authorities apply a ‘scientific’ veneer to their politically manipulated past, all in the service of ‘national feelings’. Nationalism and history are natural bedfellows, but beware of their progeny.

Nora Berend teaches medieval history at the University of Cambridge.