[Table of Contents] [Previous] [Next] [HMK Home] Stephen Borsody: The Hungarians: A Divided Nation

* 15

The Past as an Obstacle to Danubian Reconciliation: Introduction

Istvan Deak

Central and Eastern European nationalism first arose in the late eighteenth century under the multiple impact of the Enlightenment, early Romanticism, and the Jacobin revolution. As a result of these influences, national elites in the region began discarding Latin and German as the languages of official and scholarly communication, replacing these cosmopolitan languages with reformed versions of the local vernacular. At the same time, the long process of social, administrative, economic, and political modernization was begun.

In the Carpathian Basin, the dominant Hungarian nobility gradually transformed itself from a feudal corporation into a national elite; it also began to Magyarize Hungary's cities, long inhabited by non-Hungarian elements, mostly Germans. At the same time, the peasants were co-opted, at least in theory, into the body of the nation as fullfledged citizens. Membership into the "natio Hungarica" had once meant simple identification, irrespective of one's mother tongue, with the group interests of the country's ruling elite. Now membership in the Hungarian nation required ready identification with the political, cultural, and linguistic goals of the Hungarian national leadership.

By the 1840s, Hungarian had become the official language of Hungary (if not yet in the Habsburg-administered Transylvania), whereas the languages of the other nationalities-spoken at that time still by

The Past as an Obstacle to Danubian Reconciliation 297

more than half of the country's population-were treated as tolerated local dialects. Thus, such modern Marxist-Leninist states as Romania and Czechoslovakia, or rather Slovakia, are merely reviving the practice of nineteenth-century liberal nationalism when they claim that all of the inhabitants of their country are Romanians or Slovaks, respectively, even though some of these "Romanians" and "Slovaks" speak a different language. It was also not today's Slovak and Romanian Communist historians who started the practice of calling nearly every important figure in their countries' pasts a "Slovak" or a "Romanian," irrespective of his or her self-identification and mother tongue.

The early nineteenth-century Hungarian national revival proved to be contagious in the Danube region, and by 1848 Hungarian nationalism was confronted with the awakened vigorous nationalism of the Serbs, Croats, Romanians, and Slovaks. In this respect, the Revolution of 1848 was a genuine watershed. Before that year liberal nationalists confidently expected the simultaneous triumph and harmonious cooperation of all national movements. The revolution taught them otherwise. It became clear that ethnic boundaries and national goals were hopelessly intermingled in the region, and simultaneous outbursts of lofty patriotic idealism could not but lead to bloodshed.

Peace in Central Europe was restored by the non-national Habsburg army, whose German, Slavic, Romanian, and even Hungarian soldiers understood, however obscurely, that a supranationalistic idea had to override-or at least supplement-national considerations if the peoples of the Danube region were to live and prosper. That idea was embodied in the Habsburg emperor-king, as well as the Pax Austriaca.

The Austrian peace could not last forever. Conflicting national claims had gravely weakened the Monarchy's political structure well before its demise. In fact, after the Compromise of 1867, only the Austrian half of the Monarchy was a true multinational empire; the Hungarian half had (with the exception of Croatia-Slavonia) become a typical European nation-state, with one dominant nationality claiming to embody the nation and to have the right to determine the policies of the state. World War I brought a complete reversal in the political fortunes


of the nations in the Danube region and with it, a diligent rewriting of history. The same elementary student in Transylvania, who in 1918 had been told that the Hungarians were a race of heroes and the Romanians a race of cunning cowards, was taught precisely the opposite in 1919. The interwar period and World War II saw a fatal exacerbation of nationalist radicalism and aggressiveness, ending with the extermination or expulsion of the two great Kulturvolker of Eastern Europe, the Germans and the Jews, and the decimation of several other ethnic groups. Small wonder that communism in Eastern Europe was greeted with relief even by some among those who otherwise did not sympathize with Communist ideas. Now, it seemed, universal reconciliation would become possible under the aegis of a new, more humane ideology.

The conditions were indeed favorable. All of Eastern Europe was in ruins; the old ruling classes had been badly discredited, and communism seemed to offer the prospect of true equality not only among social classes but also among impoverished nations. Yet it soon became clear that some nations were definitely more equal than others. By the end of the war, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Romania managed to join the ranks of the victors, the Yugoslavs with some justification, but the others more through diplomacy and obfuscation of their largely collaborationist wartime behavior. The Hungarians, on the other hand, came out of the war as absolute losers.

With the Communist takeover of Eastern Europe between 1945 and 1948 came the need to rethink the past for yet another time. During the Stalin years, the Hungarians did this rethinking most energetically, engaging in an orgy of self-accusation without parallel anywhere in Central and Eastern Europe. Hungarian Stalinist historiography condemned the whole of the Hungarian past, excepting only a few "progressive" episodes like the Jacobin conspiracy of the early 1790s and the Revolution of 1848, and a few progressive individuals like Louis Kossuth, who had managed, from time to time, to rise above their own "class limitations." History was presented as an epic struggle between a vicious ruling class that included even rich peasants and a heroic but regularly defeated lower class; defeated, that is, until the Soviet liberation of 1945.

Soviet Stalinist historiography was always nationalist to a degree, extolling the virtues of great national leaders who resolutely fought the foreign invaders as well as disruptive domestic feudal elements.

The Past as an Obstacle to Danubian Reconciliation 299

When he praised such modernizing and centralizing tyrants as Aleksandr Nevsky, Ivan the Terrible, and Peter the Great, Stalin attempted to legitimize his own tyranny and that of his party bureaucracy. Hungarian Stalinist historiography also claimed to be patriotic, and it went to some length in praising the historic alliance between such great national leaders as Janos Hunyadi and Ferenc Rakoczi II on the one hand and the common people on the other. But, since Hungary could not boast many successful national leaders, and inasmuch as Hungary's kings had been foreigners at least since the sixteenth century, Hungarian historiography in the 1950s ended up being extremely critical of almost everybody in Hungarian history.

Hungary's neighbors never went to the same lengths of self-accusation, perhaps because they had emerged victorious from both world wars. Czech, Slovak, Romanian, or South Slav Stalinist textbook writers also dealt with the "historic guilt" of native exploiters, but, from the very start, these historians placed a great deal of the blame on the shoulders of foreigners. It seemed that "progressive" Romanian, Czech, Slovak, or South Slav forces had always waged a "resolute struggle" against the German, Austrian, Hungarian, or Ottoman oppressors. If the struggle failed, these historians explained, it was because the native nobility or bourgeoisie had betrayed the national cause. This meant, of course, that the native elites at least could have joined the common national struggle, which is a far cry from the Hungarian Stalinist claim of categorical hostility of interest between social classes.

Following the death of Stalin, a more radical national rehabilitation began in the East European countries. The number of historic native enemies and traitors grew smaller and smaller as more and more members of the historic elite were made to join the ranks of the "progressives." Concurrently, the "foreign" (including the Hungarian) exploiters of the Slovaks and Romanians were made to shoulder an ever-increasing part of the historical guilt.

It is remarkable, and perhaps a hopeful sign for the future, that at least one state in the region continues, officially at least, in the non-national tradition once cultivated, under a very different regime, by the Habsburg Monarchy. That state is Communist Yugoslavia. Theoretically, in its very "nationality," Yugoslav is a sort of denial of separate Serbian, Croatian, Slovene, and other nationalist claims. Genetically, despite its historical nationalist background, the regional


ethnic term "Yugoslav" stands close to the non-national term "Austrian" of the Habsburg past.

In Hungary, in Stalinist times, there was a complete subservience to all Marxist-Leninist tenets and commands of the Soviet Union. The peace treaties ending World War I and World War II were never criticized, and textbooks were careful not to mention the Hungarian names of cities that had been part of Hungary prior to 1918 but now belonged to other countries. The subservience to the commands of the Soviet Union went so far that the Hungarian textbooks referred to Sub-Carpathia (a Hungarian province until the end of World War I when it became annexed by Czechoslovakia, and since World War II, part of the Soviet Union) exclusively by its new Soviet name, TransCarpathia, as if the fact of Soviet annexation had physically lifted the province and carried it, from the Hungarian point of view, to the far side of the Carpathian Mountains.

From Stalinist subservience, the change to a sophisticated, liberal, and liberated historiography came rather drastically in Hungary in the 1960s. One of the results has been that while in the 1950s nationalism was taboo, now it is merely unfashionable among the best Hungarian historians. All of this has made for an often very reliable Hungarian historiography; its shortcomings are mainly in the realm of contemporary history, which is why it does not quite satisfy the public. Another reason for continued dissatisfaction is that the public in general has become increasingly nationalistic. Confronted, as they are in particular, with radical Romanian and Slovak nationalism, many Hungarians clamor for a radical nationalism of their own. Furthermore, a genuine Hungarian problem is the status of Hungarians living in Romania, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and the Soviet Union, a problem that is crying out for a frank debate.

Hungarians expect nationalism to come more from their historians than from their government. This is partly because their own government is not free, but also because Central and East European nationalism has always been profoundly historical; national claims, in many instances, are based on traditional rights and historical precedents. Furthermore, in Communist countries historians and intellectuals in general perform many public functions which in other countries are normally performed by political parties and pressure groups. Yet, in Hungary's case, even if the historians were willing to follow the popular trend, they would be restrained by the government

The Past as an Obstacle to Danubian Reconciliation 301

which is more reluctant to offend its socialist neighbors than the latter are to offend Hungary.

Is the nationality situation in the Danube region worse or better than it was, say, a half century ago? It is better if one considers the tone of official Communist pronouncements, the relative moderation of some governments (that of Hungary in particular), and the apolitical and non-nationalistic attitudes and tendencies among the younger generations. There is also, of course, the presence of the Soviet army as a peacekeeping force. But the Pax Sovienca, although a powerful restraint, is also an obstacle to genuine reconciliation in Eastern Europe. One might even argue that the readiness of the Soviet Union to use one Warsaw Pact country against another (as was the case of Romania and Czechoslovakia against Hungary in 1956, and of practically the entire Soviet bloc against Czechoslovakia in 1968) exacerbates national conflict. But even if this were not the case-and the Czechoslovak people probably do not resent their Polish or Hungarian neighbors for the invasion of 1968--there still remains the lack of candor in all interstate and international Communist party relations.

The absence of genuine diplomatic contacts and negotiations among the small socialist countries must perpetuate or even increase mutual resentment. There is, for instance, no bipartisan commission to revise and coordinate the history textbooks of neighboring countries, as has been the case between France and West Germany for several decades. The clash of historical interpretations and the mutual assignment of blame continues unchecked. And yet, the situation is far from hopeless. It is good to remember from time to time that much of the internecine hostility in Central and Eastern Europe has always been orchestrated from above, and that the peoples of the region have often been more tolerant of one another than their leaders have wanted them to be. Genuine international cooperation, even federation, are things that many millions of people in the region would certainly love to try.

Lajos Fur's essay on "Hungarian History as Taught by Hungary's Neighbors" (below) is a testimony to both the enduring success of nationalism in the Danube region and to the failure of Marxism-Leninism as an ideology imbued with internationalist spirit. Furthermore, the essay is a testimony to the manifest inability of Communist societies to create the much vaunted "new man," characterized,


among other things, by brotherly affection for his fellow Communists in other countries. The essay also sheds light on the several varieties of communism in the Danube region. On the one hand is a state like Romania, which is unable to provide its subjects with even a modicum of freedom and material comfort and therefore employs the timehonored political device of chauvinism as a substitute for bread and liberty. On the other hand is a state like Yugoslavia, able and willing to offer a relatively greater degree of freedom, and thus prosperity as well, to its citizens and seemingly for that reason ready to use nationalism only sparingly as a political weapon.

The extremist character of Romanian nationalism is very probably also caused by Romania's relative isolation and independence within the Soviet bloc; still it seems as if the degree of official nationalism stands in inverse proportion to the quality of life in a given country. Ironically, Romania and Hungary have been military and ideological allies for the last forty-odd years, first as satellites of Nazi Germany and then as satellites of the Soviet Union. Yet this fact is scarcely reflected in the Romanian schoolbooks' treatment of Hungarian history. On the other hand, Yugoslavia and Hungary have been outright political and military enemies during much of the Nazi and Stalinist periods. Yet the Yugoslav treatment of the Hungarian past and of relations between Hungarians and South Slavs is more judicious. The irony is compounded by the fact that, despite their formal alliance, the Romanian and Hungarian publics have been hostile to each other for several decades, while the Hungarian public has always tended to admire the Yugoslavs, their formal enemies.

Romanian nationalism and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Slovak nationalism are extreme cases, as Lajos Fur's essay reveals. But even in Communist countries like Yugoslavia or Hungary where relative political moderation prevails, history textbooks are unable to tackle with sincerity the delicate questions of ethnic relations so as to advance the cause of Danubian reconciliation. There is a certain lack of candor even in the case of independent Yugoslavia, a condition dictated at least in part by the requirements of Marxist-Leninist ideology. For, Communist ideology does claim that the triumph of communism inevitably places relations between nations on a loftier level, free of artificially created hatreds of bourgeois imperialism. Thus, if chauvinism raises its ugly head, it can only be due to a conscious or unconscious misinterpretation of the teachings of Marxism-Leninism.

The Past as an Obstacle to Danubian Reconciliation 303

The fact of the matter is that few people in Eastern Europe, even in governmental circles, believe in Marxism-Leninism, while most East Europeans sincerely believe in the moral and spiritual primacy of their nationality, or at least in the justice of their national grievance. The balance in history textbooks is definitely tilting toward the triumph of nationalist sentiments, while it continues to be necessary to camouflage these sentiments with the slogans of official Marxist internationalist ideology. Take, for example, the ever more aggressively voiced Romanian argument that in the history of their nation nearly everyone, from princes and boyar landowners down to landless peasants, has always fought for progress and national unification. Such a claim flies directly in the face of the Marxist thesis about irreconcilable antagonisms between the exploiters and the exploited. The Romanian textbooks solve the dilemma by claiming that the exploiters of the Romanian nation were foreigners - Austrians, Hungarians, Ottomans, or Russians - whereas the freedom fighters were invariably of Romanian stock.

To be sure, the present Communist regimes of the Danube region inherited a rich nationalist tradition. Furthermore, the nationalism of the Communist history textbooks discussed by Lajos Fur is, on the whole, less radical than that of interwar regimes. But it is also true that no earlier regime in Central and Eastern Europe was as badly entangled in conflicting ideological pretensions as are the Communist regimes today.

Hungarian History as Taught by

Hungary's Neighbors by Lajos Fur *

(*This edited English version is an abbreviated adaptation of the Hungarian original.)

Under the impact of forces that shaped the Danube region's history, the Hungarians became a dispersed nation, with almost every third Hungarian living beyond the boundaries of Hungary today. Some of them live in faraway lands, scattered all over the globe. But, most of these Hungarians live just across the borders of Hungary proper. They did not move; the boundaries of the Danube states have moved. How


is Hungarian history taught to the children of these Hungarian national minorities?

This review deals with Hungarian-language textbooks in use in grade schools and middle schools in neighboring Romania, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia; those in Soviet Carpatho-Ukraine are referred to only perfunctorily (however, for some details, see Annex II in Chapter 10, above). Furthermore, our review is limited to Hungarian history from the mid-fifteenth century, selectively covering only events of major importance. Ancient and medieval history is thus excluded. It should be briefly noted, however, that interpretations of those earlier periods of the past are sources of some of the most appalling romantic illusions and nationalist falsifications. Views pertaining to the very distant past feed much of the antagonism among the Danube peoples today. It suffices to point out the emotional conflicts stirred up by the theory of Daco-Romanian continuity1 or by the recently invented theories of Slovak ethnogenesis.2 The purpose of these and other highly speculative interpretations is simply to deny the Hungarians their rightful place and role in the history of the Danube region.3

Leaving aside disputes about the remote and often obscure past, what follows are views taught by Hungary's neighbors on Hungarian history of more recent and better documented times.

The fifteenth century ushered in momentous upheavals in the history of the Danube region. The Moslem Turks were pitting their might against the Christian forces of the European continent, while the Habsburgs, on their way to Central European hegemony, were aspiring to the Czech and Hungarian thrones. Central and southeastern Europe became the battlefield of conflicts between powers more tenacious and merciless than those of earlier times. The medieval Hungarian state stood up to the pressures of the mounting crisis better than the other countries of the region. In fact, in the era of the Hunyadis, Hungary reached such heights of success that it appeared as if it were able to overcome both its internal and external problems. What do the Hungarian-language textbooks of the neighboring states teach about this era of Hungarian history?

"The Turks endangered equally the Serbs, Hungarians, and Romanians, therefore these three neighboring peoples struggled against them with combined forces," declares one of the Yugoslav textbooks.

The Past as an Obstacle to Danubian Reconciliation 305

It is followed by appreciation of Janos Hunyadi. He is considered as belonging to all three peoples, with emphasis on his uncertain ethnic ancestry: "Already as a young man he had fought as a mercenary and later as the commander of mercenaries against the Turks in Serbia . . . soon obtained large estates in the Banat and Transylvania and also received high offices in Hungary."4 This is true. However, the Banat, Transylvania, and Hungary are dealt with as if they were three wholly distinct countries, although they were integral parts of the kingdom of Hungary.

The Transylvanian student in Romania is taught something else about Janos Hunyadi:

In those difficult times, an individual of great merit became quite famous. His name was Janos (Jancu) and he was the son of a Romanian tribal leader.... On account of his brave deeds, the Hungarian king gave him many estates as well as the castle of Vajdahunyad. The boy learned how to handle weapons in Italy. When he returned to Transylvania he understood how great a danger was the Turkish oppression for the Romanians and the other peoples living in this part of Europe. After he had quickly demonstrated his military skills and leadership capacity . . . he was elected as the voivode of Transylvania.... He maintained close and friendly ties with the rulers of Wallachia and Moldavia. They too were endangered by the destruction caused by the Turks and it was possible to contain the Turkish danger only collectively, along the entire length of the Danube. Hunyadi successfully destroyed that Turkish army which penetrated into Transylvania. Also, when the Turks overran Wallachia, he rushed to help the Romanians there and was victorious in a great battle fought at the Jalomita River. . . . The Turks then realized that the Romanians represented a great force, while united under the command of a heroic ruler. . . . Thus, the combined forces of the Transylvanian, Wallachian, and Moldavian Romanians, under the leadership of Janos Hunyadi, defended the freedom of our people and that of all the peoples of Europe. Hunyadi died soon after this victory and was buried in the church of Alba Julia, with the following inscription on his headstone: "The light of the world has gone out."5

One should add that the previous edition (1966) of the same textbook mentioned that, in addition to the office of "voivode," Hunyadi also held the title of "Governor of Hungary"; and that Hunyadi's bravery inspired the Romanians, Hungarians, and the other Danube peoples, who then stood as "a living wall" to block the advance of the Turks.6 However, two years later (1968) the same textbook spoke


of the peoples of the "three Romanian countries" only, namely Transylvania, Moldavia, and Wallachia.

The student studying in a Hungarian-language school in Czechoslovakia learns precious little about Janos Hunyadi. The textbook speaks of Hungary's "inner anarchy" which "provided an outstanding opportunity" for the Turks to attack the Hungarian kingdom. Janos Hunyadi is identified as "the great nemesis of the Turks," who "temporarily stopped the Turkish conquest of Hungary." The second half of the same sentence already deals with his son, Matthias Corvinus, Hungary's king, with similar laconic pithiness.

Matthias Corvinus was one of the greatest rulers of the Danube region and one of the better known rulers of Europe's Renaissance era. He receives no proper recognition by the Slovak textbookexcept that, under his rule, "the Slovaks, Czechs, Serbs, and Romanians fought together with the Hungarians," and that, in his famous Black Army, there were many Czech and Slovak Hussites, as well as Serbs and Romanians. The Slovak text lists his victories against the Turks, but stresses the renewed "inner anarchy" in Hungary after his death.7 Attention is paid to the outstanding cultural accomplishments of his age, but under the curious heading: "Humanism and Renaissance in Hungary, Bohemia, and Slovakia." In fact, Slovakia, as such, did not exist at that time; it was part of Hungary.

The Slovak textbook discusses the concurrent spread of the Czech Hussite movement in Hungary. By limiting it to the territory of present Slovakia, the text creates the impression as if this significant progressive movement of Central Europe had been an exclusively Czech and Slovak national affair.8 In fact, the teachings of Jan Hus transcended linguistic and national boundaries, providing plenty of work for the inquisitors of the Catholic church everywhere in Hungary, not only among Slovaks.

 [Table of Contents] [Previous] [Next] [HMK Home] Stephen Borsody: The Hungarians: A Divided Nation