Europe, Nations and Modernity Edited by Atsuko Ichijo Palgrave Macmillan, 2011 (pp. 158-182) The Ferry-Country between East and West: Debates on Modernity and Europe in Hungary András Kovács, Anikó Horváth, Zsuzsanna Vidra Introduction


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Europe, Nations and Modernity

Edited by Atsuko Ichijo

Palgrave Macmillan, 2011 (pp. 158-182)

The Ferry-Country between East and West: Debates on Modernity and Europe in Hungary
András Kovács, Anikó Horváth, Zsuzsanna Vidra
The debates on Hungary’s role and position in Europe began with the nation-state building process in the 19th century, and – with varying degrees of intensity – continued throughout the 20th century. The overwhelming majority of these debates had a “top-down” approach with strong normative expectations and with clear and often explicitly outlined ideological-political commitments and legacies. From the outset, these debates were inseparably intertwined with the debates on the modernization of the country. The positions taken on the focal subject of these controversies – the position of Hungary on a symbolic map of Europe – expressed the views of the participants on the debates about desirability and feasibility of the modernization of the country, and about the possible and acceptable ways of changing the country’s face from “traditional” to “modern”. Therefore, in this chapter, the two major topics of our project – views on European identity and modernization – will appear interconnected.

The text is organized along the ruptures that occurred in the political, economic and social organization of Hungary in the past two centuries and which marked significant turning points in academic research and public discourse from the point of view of our main topics – European identities and multiple modernities:

1. The rapid industrial modernization of Hungary in the period of the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy (after 1867);

2. The period when the Austro-Hungarian Empire fell apart and as a result of the Peace Treaty of Versailles/Trianon (1920) two-thirds of historical Hungary were annexed by the neighboring states and a large proportion of ethnic Hungarians became citizens of other countries;

3. The period after 1948 when – excluding the short democratic interlude in the immediate post Second World War years – Hungary became part of the Soviet bloc;

4. The period when, staring with the late 1980s, democratic changes occurred both within Hungary and in the other countries of the Soviet block. These changes culminated in the overthrowing of the communist rule between 1989 and 1992, events after which accession of Hungary to the European Union became a political reality.

Throughout this chapter, wherever it was possible, the main actors and the academic disciplines that engaged in these debates were singled out. However, when looking at actors, the particularities of the Hungarian situation need to be kept in mind: In most of these time periods academic research was normative and prescriptive, and – instead of trying to “deconstruct” the dominant discourses of the period – it rather crystallized along certain ideas about what exactly politicians and intellectuals should do in order to change the political realities of their time.

Part I: European identity construction and maintenance in Hungary

I. The period before WWI

The first fierce debates on modernity broke out in the second quarter of the 19th century in Hungary. After the disastrous outcome for the country of the Napoleonic wars, and the first experiences young and enlightened aristocrats had in the West, a whole series of economic and political analyses and action plans were published. All of these dealt with the reasons for the backwardness of the country and the ways the modernity gap between Hungary and Western Europe could be filled. In a period of nation building, following the French example, all participants in the modernity debate wanted to establish a modern nation state. However, at the same time, they realized that nearly all the prerequisite conditions were missing – unified territory, functioning state administration, linguistically homogeneous population, sovereignty, capital, market and wage labor based economy, and a strong bourgeoisie. A term to reflect this reality was coined by Count István Széchenyi1, “Hungary does not exist, but it will." Nevertheless, the question as how modern Hungary should come into being created fierce debates and sharp political conflicts. The radical liberal camp around Lajos Kossuth2 represented an optimistic and evolutionist view by stating that after the establishment of an independent, citizenship based civic state the economic and social modernization of the country would take place automatically, though they acknowledged that effective state support was needed for the emergence of a new modern middle class. The moderate group, represented eminently by Széchenyi, doubted that the secession from the Empire would facilitate the case for modernity, thus they questioned whether or not independence and sovereignty were necessarily part and parcel of the process of modernization. Their other main concern was that they didn’t consider “Hungarians” well-suited for coping with the rules of modernity, and, therefore, they were afraid that a radical reform would bring non-Hungarian ethnics in key positions into the country’s economy and political life. In this debate Széchenyi formulated an argument that became a recurrent topic in all debates of the next century: He stated that Hungarians represent a “people of the East”, and that they were essentially Asiatic people, with traits that were not compatible with Western rationality. Therefore, modernization could only be successful if it was slow enough, and achieved a gradual transformation of the original Hungarian national character. Thus, the main conflict in Hungary’s modernization was formulated as a tension between a modernizing, enlightened minority, representing rational Western European norms, and a backward feudal majority – “the people of the East”.

At the turn of the century, this contraposition remained a substantial element of the debate on Hungary’s place in Europe. The rapid industrial modernization of the country in the period of the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy was, on the one hand, a success, but on the other hand, it also seemed to justify the anxieties of the former moderates. The country seemed to split into two parts; one developed and urbanized with Budapest as its center, and the other, an underdeveloped rural one with remnants of the feudal system and mentality. Additionally, in the modern segments of the economy and society assimilating non-Hungarian ethnics – mainly Germans and Jews – were highly overrepresented. This contributed to the rise of political anti-Semitism in the 1880s and the strengthening of ethnic nationalism – a defensive ideology of the ancient ruling elites still dominating the political scene. It is, therefore, little wonder, that the modernizers felt themselves to be in minority, and being the avant-garde of Europe in a half-Asiatic country. “Will I be able to break in at Dévény with new songs of the new times” wrote the famous Hungarian symbolist poet, Endre Ady, declaring that everything which is new and innovative in Hungary (as his poetry itself) comes from the West (Dévény is the place where the Danube enters Hungary from the West).

  1. Public intellectuals

An important characteristic of the early 1900s debate was its openly prescriptive and normative nature. Even the name of the literary journal where Ady’s poems and many of the writings of the modernizers were published was Nyugat – The Westa statement, claiming indirectly that the critique and the suggestions made for improvement were from this “western” standpoint. Hungary’s image as a “small, provincial, peripheral and powerless” nation was emphasized and juxtaposed to Western Europe’s “great nations”, especially the French and the English (Ignotus 1908). But, the aspirations of Hungarians to become modernized and developed – that is, part of the West – was also highlighted, with many authors arguing that as long as those aspirations existed, there was always hope. Endre Ady, who identified a deep internal divide within the population of Hungary, was more pessimistic. In his view, there was only a narrow strata of the population which was “modern”, “developed”, and “enlightened”, they were the ones who represented a fully westernized Hungary, but the masses – the majority – let themselves be swallowed by the “Eastern wilderness and emptiness” (Ady 1905).

The participants in the debate were deeply influenced by the writings of the historian, sociologist and politician, Oszkár Jászi. Jászi, editor-in-chief of the most important periodical of the radical modernizers, “A Huszadik Század” (The Twentieth Century), leader of the influential organization of the same group, “Társadalomtudományi Társaság” (Society for Social Sciences), and, later, the president of the radical democratic party (Civic Radical Party), presented the most comprehensive theory on the problems of the modernization of the country. Jászi radically criticized the state of affairs in contemporary Hungary, “Old Hungary”, as he called it, and presented a well formulated design for a future “New Hungary”. In his view the road to “liberal socialism” – an economic and social system of “law, freedom, justice, and human perfection” (Jászi 1918) that would eliminate the dark sides both of premodern feudalistic societies and Manchester capitalism – will lead to thorough reform of Hungarian society. As Hugh Seton-Watson put it:
"Jászi hoped that, if only the degenerate political class could be removed from power, land be distributed to the peasants, and the vote be given to all citizens, a new Hungary could arise in which one Magyar culture could coexist with many languages." (Hugh Seton-Watson 1977:167)
The first step on this road, according to Jászi, would be the creation of a self-conscious layer of “citoyens”, the subjects of the desired changes. The most interesting part of Jászi’s views is that he not only “corrected” uncritical adoption of the Western model by developing a non-Marxist socialist utopia, but that, in his views on modernization, the idea of a supra-national political unit – Danubian Confederation and a United States of Europe – played an important role.

2. Political thinkers

The idea of a confederation of the people on the territory of the Hungarian Kingdom had already been elaborated by the post-1849 liberal emigration. Kossuth and his circle realized that the nationalist minority policy of the revolutionary government in 1848 alienated the national minorities and drove them into the camp of the enemies of the revolution. As liberal nationalists they were afraid of dissolution of historical Hungary and, in the emigration they developed several blueprints about the possibilities to appease the minorities of the country in order to preserve state sovereignty and territorial unity. The most elaborated plan was that of Lajos Kossuth and László Teleki3 in which the authors went beyond their former position, and suggested that the full equality of individual rights must be supplemented by a series of collective group rights securing a certain level of territorial and cultural autonomy to the Croats, Serbs, and Romanians. Jászi went back to these plans during WWI, and in his book “On the future of the Monarchy, the fall of dualism and the Danubian United States” (Jászi 1918) presented the idea of an “Eastern Switzerland” - a confederation of the Hungarian, German, Polish, Czech and Serbo-Croat state. He considered this to be a step towards the establishment of a European United States, which could be the solution to all problems stemming from national particularism.4 Thus, very early and explicitly in Jászi’s work there appeared the idea that modernization and European unification were correlated.
II. the interbelic period (after WW I and before WW II).

The period immediately after the end of the war was a time of turmoil, with many leading intellectuals and politicians attempting to come up with a viable geopolitical strategy both for Hungary and the whole region. The Austro-Hungarian Empire fell apart and the many nationalities that formerly lived in the Empire struggled to establish their own nation states. Thus, the tone of the contemporary writings was very different from previous or later publications: For a while nothing seemed yet carved in stone in terms of borders and the status quo. The authors hoped that the public dialog they initiated might still change the rules of the game. This is why the debate assumed much larger proportions than in the early 1900s.

  1. Public intellectuals and political thinkers

After the Peace Treaty of Versailles/Trianon in 1920 – when two-thirds of historical Hungary was annexed by the neighboring states, and a large proportion of ethnic Hungarians became citizens of other countries – the Europe debate started to narrow down and crystallize into a few dominant “schools of thought”. The main concern of the participants in the debate was whether a revision of the peace treaties could be achieved.

The mainstream unequivocally demanded a revision of the new borders. However, it was clear for all actors that a renegotiation of the post-WWI agreements would only be possible if it was backed by influential European powers. Consequently, the debate turned on the possibilities of different political alliances – but very often in historicized terms and in the context of the discussion of the regions of Europe. Some leading “revisionists” saw Hungary as historically part of Western Europe, but betrayed by it. Following the rise of fascist Italy and Germany, they supported collaboration with them, arguing that this alliance fits Hungary’s modernity and European modernity, and, at the same time stems from the demands of a new European political order. (Gyáni 2002).

There was another influential group of opinion makers, who were rightly afraid of the emerging new European powers, but at the same time did not share the views of those who hoped that the Western countries would support Hungarian claims. This group was inclined to revitalize different ideas on Central-Europe or “Zwischeneurope” as a large geopolitical unit. Some conservative thinkers argued that Hungary was always an integral part of developed Europe, being its furthest bastion to the East. According to these authors, who silently supported the idea of reestablishing the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, the existing differences in economic and cultural development between Western Europe and Hungary were the results of the Ottoman occupation, which was a sacrifice Hungary and Hungarians made in order to protect the rest of Western Europe (Hóman & Szekfű 1939). As István Bibó, renowned political thinker who ironically called this the “Hungarian (and regional) method” of history writing summarized this position:

“If Hungarians would not have bled to death when protecting Europe from Ottoman occupation, then the Hungarian population would not have thinned out to the extent that it did, and then other ethnic groups would not have had settled on Hungarian territory. As a result, Europe would be unforgivably ungrateful if it would divide historical Hungarian territories along the ethnic boundaries that came into existence due to these battles against the Turks.” (Bibó 1946)

  1. Historians and the emergence of comparative historical research

Another group of academics and intellectuals, who agreed that a large geopolitical unit between Nazi Germany and the Communist Soviet Union would facilitate the preservation of sovereignty and independence of the smaller states in the region, cherished federalist and confederalist ideas. A great number of essays and political blueprints were published supporting the establishment of a larger state conglomerate under different labels such as “Danube Europe”, “Carpathian Europe” etc.5 (Juhász 1983). These authors did not give up the idea of European-ness of Hungary, but they stressed the specifics of the Central-European region, that differentiates it from Russia and the Eastern Balkan. However, many of them saw the role and mission of Hungary in representing the developed Europe in “East-Central Europe” and thus they were inclined to maintain the idea of Hungarian supremacy.

Partly as a result of these debates there was a growing interest to conduct comparative historical research on the region’s nations: In 1940, the Carpathian-European Circle was organized by the Hungarian Historical Association. In 1941 a special research institute (the Teleki Institute) was founded, and in 1943 the journal Revue d’Histoire Comparée was launched as a place where findings of comparative research could be published (Kosáry 1983).

Thus, in this period again, the debate about the modernity of Hungary continued in the framework of a debate on the country’s position on the symbolic map of Europe. With the exception of some racist ideologues who insisted that Hungarians have always been the “people of the East” and, consequently, substantially alien to everything “Western”, all participants in the Europe debate in the 1930s stressed the country’s modern features, though they were inclined toward a “regionalization” of modernity. However, while contemplating the feasibility of a supra-national political unit, most of them remained captives to the idea of Hungarian supremacy which they believed realizable in the framework of a federal or confederated Eastern or East-Central or Central Europe.

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