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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Conclusion: Paths to modernity

It was pointed out in the introduction that the themes of ‘Europe’ and ‘modernization’ were very much intermingled in public and intellectual debates: the modernization of Hungary has been largely envisioned as adopting and following the European models.

The debates on modernization and modernity were always triggered by political conflicts and framed in a political context. However, the main question behind the debates has remained unchanged through the last two centuries: Where is the place of a relatively underdeveloped – or to say, not fully modern – country in the modern world represented by the Western part of the old continent, usually called in the language of symbolic geography “Europe”? This was the question that appeared in a historicized and politicized form in every phase of the debate, usually associated with questions about the historical reasons for the perceived underdevelopment, and about ways of overcoming it without endangering the historically developed economic, social and cultural integrity of the country or the nation.
In the whole period under investigation, nearly all important participants in the debate departed from a strongly normative view of modernity that they considered to be materialized in the economic, social and political system of France and England. But only a very few “enlightened rationalists” thought that Hungarian development could take the same route – perhaps with a certain time-lag – as the Western part of the continent and arrive at the same form and level of modernity. There were at least four problem areas where the Western pattern of modernization did not seem to be adaptable and, therefore, other alternatives had to be formulated and discussed: the role and function of the traditional historical elites in the process of modernization and in the modernized economic and social structure; the problems of late nation-building, national independence and sovereignty; the place and status of national and ethnic minorities; and the consequences of Hungary’s position in the European political order of the modernization of the country.

In the first half of the 19th century the participants in the modernization debate realized that the traditional historical elites, partly because of their feudal traits, were not able to carry out the economic modernization of the country. They were afraid that after the introduction of modernizing political reforms – abolishment of serfdom and other features of feudal economy, introduction of legal equality, liberal parliamentarism etc. – the ethnically non-Hungarian groups, such as Germans and Jews, would assume a leading role and the corresponding leading positions in the modern spheres of economic life. This is why one of the main themes of the debate between the moderate (István Széchenyi) and radical (József Eötvös, Lajos Kossuth) supporters of the reform was how they should react to this situation and how quick the pace of modernization should be. The other main subject of the fierce political debates was whether national independence had to be considered as precondition and part and parcel of modernization of the country.

After the establishment of the dual Austro-Hungarian monarchy the topic of national independence, sovereignty and the problem of the national minorities became the focal issue of the controversies. The main question was whether a modern political nation can exist without full sovereignty, and the concept of the citizenship-based political nation can be sustained despite the aspirations of the country’s minorities to achieve stronger collective rights, autonomy and, eventually, secession (minorities made ca. 50 per cent of the total population). It was widely discussed that a drastic pressure towards assimilation, or rather the widening of minority rights, would better serve this purpose. (Jászi 1918)
In the interwar period, after having lost two-thirds of Hungary’s former territory, the revision of the peace treaties became the main political concern. It was obvious that this purpose could be achieved only with the support of powerful allies. The search for these allies, the deliberations of the different possibilities was discussed regularly in terms of symbolic geography: Where does Hungary belong in Europe on the basis of its historical past? Is the country part of the modern West? Or is it closer to the upcoming fascist bloc of Italy and Germany, or, perhaps, to the group of smaller countries between the pincers of the Nazi and Soviet dictatorships? (Teleki 1931, Bethlen 1933, Hóman-Szekfű 1939)

After the first three decades of Communist dictatorship, when academic and political debates on questions of modernity and Europe were not possible, in the last period of the old system it was the symbolic geography debate that restarted first (Szűcs 1981, Rév 1984, Konrád 1988, Kende 1993, Bojtár 1993). The mainly historical discussion on the regions of Europe aimed to prove that on the basis of its historical development, its modern features and cultural traditions, the place of Hungary would not be in that part of the continent which was then under Soviet rule. Thus, the modernity argument served again the purpose of repositioning the country in the symbolic European space.

After the fall of the Communist system, debates and speculations on the modernization of the country were reborn with high intensity. The post-communist era was considered to be a “new chance” for the country to finally catch up with the West. The Euro-Atlantic integration with the eventual EU membership was the political manifestation of this modernization offer. The political and intellectual debates focused on whether the country would be able to take the opportunity or – hindered by its historical legacies – would fail. Many of the discourses on modernization and Europe were of a very general nature concentrating purely on the problem of applying “the European model”, whatever its actual meanings could be. There were, nonetheless, more concrete issues discussed in the framework of modernization as well, such as that of the minorities (mainly ethnic Hungarian minorities living in the neighboring countries) and nationalism. Regarding the question of nationalism, one of the important points of reflection was whether there is now a more ‘citoyen’ type middle-class that is considered to be a prerequisite for creating the modern, political concept of the nation. Growing social inequalities were also pointed out in this Europeanization/modernization process as a potential danger for failing the “modernization project”. Basically all public arenas, including economy, public services and the state, as well as political life itself were discussed from the point of view of their closeness or distance from being modern and European. Modernization was, thus, perceived as applying the European model. Most of the issues discussed reached back to previous periods, thus many of the arguments were the re-embodiment of the age-old dilemmas facing the country. (Fehér 1999 Heller 1999, Vajda 1999, Rostoványi 2000, Balázs 2001)

Though explicit debates on multiple modernities did not take place in past decades in Hungary, the issue of modernization of the country having taken a different path than that of the European West occurred in every debate about the country’s place in Europe. As we pointed out above, the Europe debate in Hungary is actually a modernity debate in which substantial concepts known from straight-line modernity theories had been revised in concrete contexts. The answers to the question: “In which sense are we, Hungarians, Europeans?” can be considered as competing modernity projects of different actors, triggered by the deviation of Hungarian development from European development.

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1 Count István Széchenyi (1791–1860) was a politician, theorist and writer, leading reformist in the pre-revolutionary period and member of the first revolutionary government in 1848. Traditionally loyal to the Habsburg dynasty, after the republican turn he resigned.

2 Lajos Kossuth (1802–1894) was a lawyer, journalist, politician and the political leader of the revolution in 1848-1849 in Hungary. After the failure of the revolution he lived in emigration until his death.

3 Documents on Kossuth’s plan about the Danubian Confederation see in Gábor Pajkossy ed. Az 1862. évi Duna-Konföderációs tervezet dokumentumai, in: Századok, 2002, 937-957, on Teleki see Gyurgyák 56-57

4 On the further development of this idea see Nina Bakisian, Oscar Jaszi in Exile: Danubian Europe Reconsidered , Hungarian Studies 9/1-2 (1994) Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest

5 See Gyula Juhász, Magyarország helye és feladata Közép-Kelet Európában, in Uralkodó eszmék Magyarországon, Budapest: 1983. p. 83-107

6 Szűcs’s study was first published in 1980 as a samizdat article in a volume edited in the memory of the political scientist István Bibó. It was then re-published in 1981 in one of the prestigious Hungarian historical journals of that time, Historical Review (Történelmi Szemle), and it was also printed as a separate volume in 1983. The ideas developed by Szűcs had a strong echo in the Western world, and the article was quickly translated into French, German, and English. In Western Europe it was published for the first time in Paris in 1985, with an introduction by Fernand Braudel.

7 On the Europe-debate of public intellectuals see works of Milan Kundera, György Konrád, Timothy Garton Ash, Peter Kende, Endre Bojtár, and others.

8 The Euro-Atlantic integration, joining the NATO, was perceived as the first step and pre-condition for EU integration.

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