Comparison of the number of statues commemorating the most prominent Hungarian figures of the 20th century serves as a measure of public remembrance. Such publicly funded monuments allow many conclusions to be drawn about the intellectual and spiritual state of a nation.
They reveal those lines of tradition that continue to serve a purpose and be valid in the present day in the eyes of their supporters. Of course it is only possible to speak here of those bearers of traditions who are largely positively remembered, because otherwise it is not possible for such a tribute to them to be financed by the state or local authorities. Below I will discuss the statues that have been publicly financed since the change of regime.
The figureheads of public remembrance in Hungary naturally tend to be those of the 20th century. An overview of the statues erected since the change of regime presents the following picture: in the whole country there are only four statues, in relatively insignificant locations, of the important political scientist István Bibó, whereas 49 monuments have been put up in honour of the writer Albert Wass.
There is only one statue of István Bethlen, the liberal-conservative prime minister between 1922 and 1930 who managed to consolidate Hungary following the First World War, while there are three statues of his predecessor and notorious antisemite Pál Teleki, two of the regent Miklós Horthy, four of writer Sándor Márai and 14 of the former communist functionary and symbolic figure of the 1956 Uprising, Imre Nagy.
Wass is the clear leader on the list; not only is he represented across the country but he can also lay claim to the most prominent positions.
The country’s most popular politician probably remains communist leader János Kádár, who presided over Hungary from 1956 to 1988. He was identified by 42 per cent of those canvassed as the “best politician of the 20th century” in an opinion poll in 2006. That popularity is based to a considerable extent on a subsequent decline in the standard of living compared to the Kádár period for large sections of the population, but (fortunately) it is not reflected in statues of him.
According to another survey from 2006, Imre Nagy is the politician of the 20th century who is the least disliked. However, that is not sufficient for there to be consensus about his person. Nagy remained a communist until his death. He was sentenced and executed by hanging after the uprising for his courage and refusal to bend. His name only became synonymous with the uprising retrospectively. The assessment of Nagy as a person differs markedly from the assessment of his political views.
With regard to positive figures, in the first decade after the change of regime there was only broad consensus about one person, István Bibó. That is particularly interesting because Bibó has since disappeared off the public’s radar almost entirely.
He was one of the most important Hungarian political thinkers of the past century. His books about political hysteria and the Jewish question in the country have been translated into several languages. He is among the few from the Christian middle class who addressed the majority Hungarian society’s responsibility for national antisemitism.
Bibó personally saved Jews from deportation in 1944. He only just escaped execution for his involvement in the 1956 Uprising. His life shows no trace of moral weakness. Those aspects of his life and his person should highly recommend him as a symbolic figure of national politics.
Bibó had special characteristics that contributed to an upswing in his being remembered. He had always advocated the “third way”, namely state socialism not dominated by the Soviet Union. Those ideas are not foreign to many liberals with a radical left-wing past. The same is true of those on the right who always fundamentally rejected capitalism. Bibó’s political home, the National Peasants’ Party, was composed of some politicians who were racist and some who were supporters of the Communist Party. In other words Bibó was remembered by both the left and right of the political spectrum.
The left-wing intelligentsia, which did the most to remember him, benefitted from any kind of anti-communism having been alien to Bibó. His remark that it should be written on his gravestone that in a political sense he “lived” between 1945 and 1947 shows a certain bias, because even that period, though Bibó wrote his most important works in those years, was from a political point of view already a dictatorship in disguise.
However, it is precisely that lack of anti-communism that has made Bibó a figure lacking topicality in the past decades. The legitimate desire for anti-communist models could not be fulfilled by Nagy and many other victims of the communist suppression because they themselves were communists.
István Bethlen played a positive role both during his watch as prime minister between 1921 and 1932 and afterwards as an advisor to Horthy. He put a brake on the activities of the far-right paramilitary squad, stabilised the currency and increased Hungary’s political room for manoeuvre. Despite being conservative and not a philosemite, he was badmouthed by his opponents from the start as a “liberal” and “friend of the Jews”.
As a staunch anti-fascist he had a moderating effect on Horthy and took part in the secret ceasefire talks with the Allied powers in 1943 and 1944. He managed to escape the persecution of the Gestapo but not that of the Soviet secret service – he died in Moscow in jail. In the view of Hungary’s authoritative historians, he was the country’s most important prime minister in the 20th century. Those circumstances predestined him to be a central symbolic figure in the new Hungary.
The writer Sándor Márai, who is also esteemed in Germany, is a similarly positive figure. He decisively rejected both fascism and communism. In his diaries he condemned Hungarian antisemitism in the strongest terms. After 1945 he chose to emigrate. Despite his literary success, which was even greater abroad than in Hungary, he did not become established as a symbolic figure.
The first attempt of those on the right to make a political symbol of a new figure concerned Pál Teleki. The distinguished geographer was prime minister of Hungary in 1920-1921 and 1939-1941 and was recognised to a moderate degree even in the last decades of the communist dictatorship because of his pro-British attitude. However, the fact that he only appeared to posterity as an anti-fascist because he saw the Germans as an even greater racist threat than the Jews could not be discussed at that time. Since Teleki was a fervent antisemite and several anti-Jewish laws are closely associated with his name, it is not possible at present for him to be publicly honoured (aside from two statues in out-of-the-way locations).
The case of regent Miklós Horthy is similar. On the one hand he can be considered a more moderate politician than Teleki but on the other hand he bears heavy responsibility, for example with the declaration of war against the Soviet Union. Although the former prime minister of the right-wing governing party and several of his ministers were present at his reburial in 1993 as “private persons”, to date efforts to establish a public monument to him in Budapest have been rejected. That situation may change. It is clear to everyone, however, that it is no longer just a question of Horthy but the revaluation of an entire historical era. The symbolic reassessment of the period between 1920 and 1944 is already taking place in several areas and the suitable person to express that has already been found.
Albert Wass, the clear winner in this list of individuals, embodies the Kingdom of Hungary like none other. It is worth comparing his life with that of Márai. Both were born shortly after 1900 and both had established a literary career before 1945, whereby Márai was considerably better known. Márai committed suicide in 1989.
Wass died in 1998 and experienced the success of his works in Hungary. Márai described the Horthy period as a “caricature”, while for Wass the same period, which until 1940 he could admittedly only observe from Transylvania (which belonged to Romania until that point), was an idyll.
Unlike Márai, Wass fought on the eastern front in an occupying division deployed against partisans, which later was always a great source of pride to him. He never raised questions in that connection nor can criticism of the antisemitic measures of the period be found in his writings. On the contrary, following the ghettoisation of Jews in Transylvania he published a piece with the telling title Land Occupation of the Rats. That story is an allegory but in the given context an interpretation other than the equation of the Jews with the rats is hardly credible.
At around the same time Márai wrote in his diary directly about these events but in an utterly different tone. The following comment from the diary concerning the same period and the same situation is illustrative of that: “It is shameful to live. It is shameful to walk in the sun.”
The Romanian authorities sought to prosecute Wass in 1945 for alleged war crimes, which have not been precisely established to this date (and which are not connected to his military service). Like Márai, Wass went into exile, yet in contrast to Márai he maintained various connections with Hungarian far-right emigrants. Although the places of birth of both authors from 1920 (with a short interruption during the re-annexations after 1938) were no longer in Hungary, they did not take the same approach to that state of affairs, although both wrote movingly about the re-annexation of their respective home regions after 1938.
Márai dealt in his works not only with the “Hungarian questions of fate” (the expression used to refer to the post-Trianon situation) because he was far too much a European and individualist for that. Yet Márai never left any doubts that the Hungarian language was an essential part of his world.
By contrast, in most of his works Wass expressed pain at the personal loss of his home (Transylvania) and only allows his national perspective to be valid. He gave a lot of space to Romanian and Soviet crimes but kept silent about anything for which the Hungarian governments could be blamed. His literary work is pervaded by national clichés. Even in exile he took the position that the revision of the borders should occur on a historical rather than an ethnic basis and demanded the re-annexation of the whole of Transylvania.
Wass is currently the most popular figure of contemporary history: his statues are personally inaugurated by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and President Pál Schmitt, elected by the Fidesz majority, used a Wass quotation in his first speech in office. Libraries are named after Wass across the country and his books are on the bestseller lists.
It would, however, be too simplistic to explain his popularity with his antisemitism and his incorrigibility. It is far more the case that his person stands for an allowed lack of reflection. All those on the right can identify with Wass, providing they do not reflect (which can also be said of most voters in some other Eastern European countries).
Those who see the Trianon peace treaty of 1920 as an injustice, those who want to show solidarity with Hungarian victims of nationalist aggression in the neighbouring states, those who have not yet given up fantasies of Hungary as a great power and those who are genuine Nazis and antisemites can reach a compromise with Wass. The other individuals named have the flaw of seeing things in a more complex way and of having condemned antisemitism, which disqualifies them as allies in the eyes of many on the right.
Treatment of the only living Hungarian Nobel Prize winner, Imre Kertész, is indicative of the new climate. During the communist dictatorship he was merely a “tolerated” person who accepted no compromises with the regime. Kertész has said that it was only the communist dictatorship that allowed him to find language to speak about Auschwitz. Indeed he regarded that dictatorship as a continuation of Auschwitz. Communism can hardly be condemned in stronger terms.
However, anyone assuming that Kertész can now count on recognition among those on the Hungarian right is mistaken. In the right-wing press he was either not spoken about or denigrated even after he was awarded the Nobel Prize. The only exception is the small cultural monthly magazine Kommentár, which lists Kertész among the 50 most important Hungarian conservative authors of the 20th century.
It is indicative of the way in which he is treated that the newspapers and magazines close to Fidesz – Magyar Nemzet, Demokrata, Heti Válasz and Magyar Hírlap – have never published an interview with him, although they constantly favour former communists who joined Fidesz in time. And indeed Kertész’s work would not be compatible with the historical lies of those papers.
The problem with that process is that in itself a reassessment of the period before 1944, which in Germany too is sometimes referred to sweepingly as “Horthy fascism”, is much needed. The Horthy period was at most highly authoritarian and not fascist. Parliament existed and the parties and certain political interest groups had a considerable influence on events, with Horthy very rarely intervening in politics.
That a person who one-sidedly represents the worst traditions of that period was chosen as a politically symbolic figure is a fatal development of the right-wing political culture of remembering.
– Historian Krisztián Ungváry, 41, studied history and German in Budapest, Jena and Freiburg. Currently he works as a researcher at the Institute for the History of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution in Budapest. His fields of specialism include the history of the Second World War, the Hungarian Holocaust, the expulsion of the Germans of Hungary and the Hungarian state security past. Ungváry’s best-known book is Battle for Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II, published in Hungarian, German and English.