Home > Hungarian Nationalism: History and contemporary situation
Hungarian Nationalism: History and contemporary situationby Open-Publishing - Thursday 24 December 2009
As everywhere in Europe, in Hungary, the Nation was created based on the romantic idea starting growing in importance during the 19th century, that is to say „one people, one nation”. This created a nationalist stream in the political life of the country which managed to create an independent state. At first we will define how nationalism is created and analyse the forms under which Hungarian nationalism is present or can appear in society (myths, symbols) then we will see what role is played on it by political parties of all horizons and what its influence in the political scene of the country is.
In the beginning of the 18th century, Hungary was part of the Austrian Empire, a multi-ethnic empire situated in Central Europe. Even in the Hungarian part of the Empire, many other ethnic groups were presents; the most important were the Serbs, the Croats, the Romanians, or the Slovaks. An important Hungarian liberal movement developed in the middle of the 18th century, its main figures were István Széchenyi, József Eötvös, Ferenc Deák, Lajos Kossuth and Lajos Batthyány. This period started in 1820 when the Austrian emperor was forced to convene the diet. Reforms were intended in order to reduce a few privileges of the nobility, but it was quite unsuccessful. Nevertheless, a few reforms of national character were passed. The language got unified, through literary works, and became the official language of Hungary. This oppressed a bit more the other ethnic groups present on the territory. The autonomy of Hungary was proclaimed in March 1848. Romanians and Croats who felt disadvantaged by the new nationalist policies and supported by the Habsbourg’s power attacked Hungary. A war followed and its result was a Hungarian defeat, a strict repression coming from the power from Vienna and the instauration of German as a unique language, denying all the Hungarian rights. In the following years, the habsbourg power got considerably weakened and in 1867, the Compromise was created. It created a dual monarchy, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, with Vienna and Budapest as capitals.
The next important point, a sort of “key point” in modern Hungarian history, is the 1st world war. Hungary, part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire was defeated, and as a consequence of the Trianon treaty lost 2/3 of his territory (Fig 1). The government of the Empire was worried about the growing nationalist feeling of the Serbs and the war was according to them, needed. The nationalist feelings everywhere in Europe and in the Ottoman Empire were manipulated and inhibited by the Europeans powers like Germany, France and Great Britain in order for each of them to get more influence. Until the Second World War, Nationalism was one of the most important topics in Hungarian politics, and under the very right wing regime of Miklós Horthy, the main goals were to recover the losses that followed the Treaty of Trianon. The alliances with Germany and Italy were proved to be successful in this revisionist perspective of recovery of territory and, since during the Second World War the Vienna Awards (fig 2) gave back to Hungary a few territories. It is important to notice that in most of the areas lost because of Trianon, Hungarians were an ethnic minority. Hungary got back to his post Trianon situation in 1945 at the end of the war. During the socialist regime, nationalism was not emphasized, because the ideology gave more important to internationalism, and to a united working class around the world. Like what Marx and Engels said: “Workers of the world, unite!”. But it was still an ideological theory that didn’t get much importance in the socialist years, just nationalist feelings got a bit weaker. And to recover the Trianon losses implies more bloody wars, which was not needed.
Now we need to focus on the contemporary post regime change Hungarian nationalism, which concerns us more directly and which is present in everyday life under different forms.
Nationalism is related to national identity. There had been a need of Hungarian nationalism to create a Hungarian identity, as it is the case for most of the countries. In order to create a national identity, you need to create first a nation, that is to say to unite people around a core of things, that are considered to be common between them, and around which they are the constituting their common identity. The nation is an entity delimited by a territory, in which people can share most of the time a common culture, a common history, common origins and a common language. A nation is distinct from the individual and has sovereignty, making a nation-state. This is the romantic concept of the nation taking its deepest origins from the enlightenment period but which got importance during the 19th century in Europe. As the American writer and thinker Albert Weisbord says it „The State must have definite territorial boundaries. If there is no private property and war, there can be no State; if there is no State, there can be no “nation.” The State is no the product of the “nation,” the “nation” is the product of the State. In other words, the “nation” must not only have a common kindred base but be composed of both rulers and ruled bound together by blood ties and having a common language, heritage, tradition, culture, and sets of customs.”
If needed, in order to strengthen the national feeling, myths are somewhat added to history, a few historical events are exaggerated or modified in order to sound more unifying or appealing. For example, in France between 1870 and 1914, that is to say from the end of the Franco Prussian war and the bloody repression of the Commune de Paris until the beginning of the first world war, the national feeling was developed based upon an exacerbation of historical myths and anecdotes, like Vercingétorix the Gaul who resisted the Roman Empire army of Caesar or even Jeanne d’Arc who became a martyr of the one hundred years war against England, after hearing the voce of god telling her to fight the English enemy. We can notice spiritual and xenophobic references in those myths, very likely to be used by right wing oriented politicians. That is the case for example of Ernest Renan, French philosopher who gave a famous conference on the idea of nation, in which he said: “The nation, like the individual, is the culmination of a long past of endeavours, sacrifice, and devotion. Of all cults, that of the ancestors is the most legitimate, for the ancestors have made us what we are. A heroic past, great men, glory (by which I understand genuine glory, this is the social capital upon which one bases a national idea (…) the essential element of a nation is that all its individuals must have many things in common but it must also have forgotten many things. Every French citizen must have forgotten the night of St. Bartholemew and the massacres in the thirteenth century in the South.”. Karl Deutsch (in "Nationalism and its alternatives") suggested that a nation is "a group of people united by a mistaken view about the past and a hatred of their neighbours.", which is not really wrong when we see what consequences nationalism had in History (total fusion of national interests with ruling class interests in order to establish their power, generating wars, colonization…).
But let us go back to what is specifically interesting us, nationalism in Hungary. Hungarian nationalism is very much similar to other European nationalisms and follows the same logic as described previously.
The Hungarian identity is partly based on history, and in Hungarian history as well myths were somehow created in order to give birth to a stronger nationalist feeling, especially because a few points needed to retrace the origin of the Hungarians were missing. Hungarian history had not been invented, but there were blurry areas in it for which certainties were created. For example, the Landtaking certainly took place, but no one is able to say precisely how many people came when and why they did came, what happened before the landtaking is subject to many interpretations, Idolatry of sovereigns like King Matthias based on folk tales gives a certain image of the King but might be not exactly the reality, for a long time it was commonly believed that Hungarians are the descendants of the feared Attila the Hun (and even now in Hungary this is a fashionable version of history very popular among nationalist people), we can even mention the fantasy linguistics relating the Hungarian language to ancient prestigious languages like Sumerian or Hun language, and that way relating those people genetically. Recent fantasy theories even pretend that Hungarians come from the star Sirius… Imagination and fantasy were present, and a few facts were obviously too ludicrous and therefore happened to be wrong.
Also symbols are needed to unite people, and most of the time for each state there is a flag, a coat of arms and an anthem. Those three main symbols are interesting and vary according to the country. In Hungary for example, the flag made its first appearance during the 1848 revolution but was only adopted after the compromise. It is a tricolour flag, inspired of the French flag supposed to represent the French revolutionary ideas, as for many other tricolour flags in the world. There is sometimes the coat of arms on it. The coat of arms in interesting and somehow is an anachronism. Most of the symbols in it are taken from the middle ages and are not representative of any republican ideals. The crown of Saint Stephen is the most troubling example. On the left there are the stripes of the Árpád dynasty and on the right the double cross is a religious symbol. The anthem “himnusz” is also interesting as it is a prayer to God. An unofficial anthem called “szózat” is also often used and is an ode to the greatness of the country. In most of the countries the anthem emphasized the supposed greatness of the nation. Hungary has no motto.
Symbols can also be subject to polemic, according to the way they were used in the past. That is to say their meaning is not eternal, and can change as times goes by. In Hungary, many symbols were used by authoritarian nationalist powers basing their policy on some kind of race hierarchy in the 20th century. The Árpád stripes flag is very commonly used by right wing nationalists because of many reasons : they are a “light” version of the forbidden flag of the arrowed cross party, the Hungarian Nazi party during the second world war, but also because it represents Hungary from the pre-Trianon period when it was still a very important power in Europe, whatever what the situation is now. The love for one’s motherland, language, culture, literature and historical development, in the respect and brotherhood with other peoples has no connection with this second type of reactionary nationalism which is self centred, full of isolationist, anti-foreign and sectarianist national prejudices.
We can commonly see nowadays in Hungary an expansion of this revengeful nationalist feeling taking a greater Hungary as an illusionary plan for the future. This leads us to make an assessment of the years since the regime change to try to understand why there is such a regain in exacerbated nationalist feelings.
Since the regime change, two streams are dominating the political life. The political forces that were until 1990 qualified of democratic, split with on one side the reforming social-democrats, who encouraged a mutation of the political structures but happened to turn into a social-liberal stream, and on the other side the more radical right wing traditional forces, rejecting any “leftist” policy. With the confusion generated by the policies lead by supposed “socialist” governments that are actually neo-liberal and populist discourses of the right and far right sounding even more leftist than what is supposed to come from a socialist’s mouth, the political issues are confused and political life seems to be behind a smokescreen. This opens the way for the most ultra-rightist political groups, surfing on the nationalist wave to unite people around them. For them, the cause of all the suffering of Hungarian people is the weakening of the Hungarian national identity created by the fact it joined the EU and by the fault of the minorities.
Day after day, tougher and tougher nationalist small groups and militias were created, threatening openly Jews, roma people, foreigners, politicians, journalists, or everything that does not correspond to their ideal fantasy : a greater, white, catholic and ethnically pure Hungary (even though a few of them claim a return to the pre-Christian pagan traditions, characteristic of the European neo-rightist ideologies). Symbols of this neo-fascist ideology are more and more commonly seen in the streets : baseball caps of the arrowed cross party, Árpád flags, greater Hungary stickers on cars, t-shirts with allusions to a greater white Hungary, Pin’s, even Nazis symbols. Of course the majority of the people do not wear all this, but there is a spread of this phenomenon which is expanding and to any kind of people.
The popular layers of the society who are the most suffering the liberal policies of the government are politically migrating to the conservative and reactionary right wing, as a result of the prevailing disappointment and confusion. Unemployed people, pensioners and dropouts are more likely to being seduced by those fascistic nationalist ideas nowadays. They might not accept them, they still don’t condemn them. This is mainly spreading among young people, may they leave school early or finish university, their discourse is more and more radical and they show more proudly nationalist symbols. Even in the best universities of the country, we can hear calls for the overthrowing of the government, prejudices against minorities, calls for hatred towards the neighbouring countries or an affirmation of the absolute Christianity of Hungary. This right wing radicalisation is especially present in the History departments of the universities where often, the deeds of the Hungarian people and leaders are emphasized, the shoah is minimized, and the Trianon Treaty and the neighbouring people are accused of all the pains of Hungarians. It can be explained by the fact that the political conscience of the youth, who are more concerned by consumerism than politics, is awakened by those reactionary ideas, and unfortunately those ideas are becoming the base and the referential of a new generation of Hungarians.
The nationalist forces got stronger since 2006 and the leaked speech of the socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, from which they remember the sentence “we lied (…) we screwed it”. Demonstrations followed in front of the parliament, and the participants were mainly members of ultra right nationalist groups.
The main nationalist groups are
– MIEP (the party of Hungarian truth, justice and life), formed in 1993, its leader is Istvan Csurka, whose discourse is especially anti-Semitic.
– The movement of the youth of the 64 counties of the historical Hungary, formed by an ex MIEP.
– Jobbik, the most popular one, meaning “the right one”
They are all nostalgic of the Horthy period or more especially of the anti-Semitic leader Szálasi of the Nazi Arrowed cross party, their discourse is anti-Semitic, ultra nationalist and anti occidental.
The opportunity seems too good for the conservative leader of FIDESZ Orbán Viktor to use instrumentalism on the movement, not condemning it and trying to get favourable opinion from those ultra-rightists adding nationalism, populist demagogy and lies to its speeches, and getting along quite well with those formations. A strategy which seems to be working quite good especially with the crisis touching Hungary and the new betrayal of the so-called socialist political forces in their IMF-influenced anti-crisis plan. If national election were to be held right now, FIDESZ would get more than 75 percent of the votes, according to recent polls.
Those nationalist discourses and policies have already had and will have negative consequences on the neighbouring area, as we know that Serbia, Slovakia and also Romania are not saints on this point either. We can recall the diplomatic crisis with the Slovak neighbour where such nationalist trends are also fashionable. The Slovak police went to hit Hungarian football fans in Slovakia, and a few days later, an extremist rightist Hungarian group got arrested in Slovakia which made extremist groups go to close five border posts with Slovakia. The Slovak nationalist leader Ján Slota even mentioned once Slovak tanks in Budapest.
In Hungary, political manipulations, a dangerous nationalist agitation giving place to violence towards minorities and riots, and interethnic tensions in the surrounding area are a call for vigilance in this central Europe which after the regime change seems to be never ceasing to look in the rear-view mirror of history.
Hungarian nationalism had been very much comparable with other 19th century European nationalisms since its formation and for a long time. Its purpose was to create a unity of people behind an idea of nation. Whose interests were involved in this creation of a national identity at that time is not the issue, but since 1990 and the regime change, Hungarian nationalism seemed to have been manipulated by the new Hungarian democratic forces, who seem to have gone a little bit too far when we see that nationalist feelings now exacerbated in the worst way, with the general feeling of disappointment in this new democracy we can feel among many people, seem to be somehow one of the only things that can unite people in Hungary and in countries with similar history. Reassembling people around such values as race hierarchy, xenophobic attitudes, hatred of the other, revisionism and anti-Semitism is a dangerous thing but is growing in influence in Hungarian political life. With capitalism dividing people cultivating their differences, making them selfish and left-wing ideologies being held as responsible for the current bad situation, it seems to be unfortunately the logical continuation of the evolution of minds, to be attracted by these nationalist ideas.