19 November 2018

Remembrance, All Souls and Heroes – Editorial Note

"Memory and culture are therefore the key themes running through this issue. We wrote in the previous Review that we would restore the balance between the cultural and the purely political in later issues. It is neither possible nor desirable, of course, to omit the purely political in any review of contemporary European life. Later pages will show that we give politics its due: György Schöpflin and Ryszard Legutko examine the malice, ideology and bad faith that lay behind the criticism of Hungary (and the empty threat to punish the country by removing its vote in European Union institutions) by a progressive majority in the European Parliament."

All Souls Day is a day of remembrance throughout the Christian world. Since much of the Christian world today is the post-Christian world, it is not marked as faithfully as it was even in the recent past. It is still celebrated, however, and in Hungary the celebrations go deeper and have more resonance than in most other European countries, as I found earlier this month when Hungarian friends invited me to join them in their visit to, as it happens, the family grave of one of our authors in this issue, Gyula Illyés.

Attending the observance of All Souls was a deeply impressive experience, as it must be every year. Whole families visit the graves of their parents and grandparents, recent and long departed, in large numbers. They place candles on their graves and say prayers for their souls. Wreaths are laid at monuments that collectively commemorate those Hungarians who died far away in battle or in captivity and now lie in unknown graves. Large cemeteries and hundreds of mourners are illuminated in the cold autumn air by thousands of burning candles placed before the headstones and statuary that mark the final resting place of those who travelled ahead of us. Though prayers are said and stories recalling the dead are told, the atmosphere is one of quiet reverence. As Thomas Gray wrote in his much-anthologised elegy in a country churchyard: “And all the air a solemn stillness holds.”

Such observances are significant and indeed necessary in the life of a nation or of a civilisation. As Burke wrote famously in his Reflections: “Society is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are dead and those who are to be born.” It is the living who have to nurture and protect this partnership until they in turn pass on that duty to the next generation. If All Souls Day is celebrated more devoutly in Hungary than in most other European countries, that does not signify Hungary remains more religiously observant than its neighbours. Though my own observation is that Christian observance here seems to be rising slightly and a recent international Pew survey showed belief in God is more common throughout Europe than public debate would suggest Hungary seems to be somewhere around the median level of indifferentism. What the distinctive observance of All Souls illustrates is the undoubted fact that Hungarians retain a stronger sense of patriotic attachment than most others. They see their country not as a place where a Darwinian struggle between individuals and groups determines all but as Burke’s partnership of all classes and all generations. And every year this partnership is re-affirmed.

All Souls Day, however, is not the only or this year even the major festival of remembrance. For November the 11th in 2018 marked the centenary of the end of the First World War when the guns stopped firing “on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” after the greatest carnage in European history. The Great War, as it used to be called before the 1939–45 sequel, was the original sin of European civilisation, akin to slavery in the United States, leading to the chaos and horrors that marked the last century almost to the end. The ceremonies of peace and reconciliation that marked this centenary, notably in France and Britain, were solemn and powerful ones and, along with the popular documentaries that accompanied them, they were a tribute to the lost lives and promise of the millions of ordinary Europeans, mainly soldiers but civilians too in this first “People’s War”, who perished and were now being resurrected in our memories. Charles Moore, writing in the London Daily Telegraph, points out the significance of this for the younger generations:

 

Clare Hayns, the chaplain of Christ Church, Oxford, points out that the word “remember” means to put together “things that have been wrenched apart”. A member is another word for a limb. Through memory, a shattered soldier can be metaphorically re-limbed. To put together the past is an act of intellectual and emotional value, both for an individual and a civilisation.

 

These memories carry a particular pain for Hungarians, however. Of the six great empires contending for supremacy in 1914–1918, Hungary was perhaps the least responsible for the carnage. It was dragged along by the chariots of others. Yet it was Hungary that suffered the greatest loss of territory and population at Versailles and Trianon. Those wounds were not salved by the Second World War, however, but rather made more painful by the ambiguities of its role in 1944–45 – which meant a loss of reputation too – and the forty-six year Soviet occupation that followed. Though 1956 restored the country’s reputation as Hungarians fought a gallant battle for their own independence and for the wider liberty of mankind against totalitarianism, the wounds have not fully healed since Hungarian communities in other countries suffer from restrictions on their cultural identies in education and language use.

Memory and culture are therefore the key themes running through this issue. We wrote in the previous Review that we would restore the balance between the cultural and the purely political in later issues. It is neither possible nor desirable, of course, to omit the purely political in any review of contemporary European life. Later pages will show that we give politics its due: György Schöpflin and Ryszard Legutko examine the malice, ideology and bad faith that lay behind the criticism of Hungary (and the empty threat to punish the country by removing its vote in European Union institutions) by a progressive majority in the European Parliament. László Csaba assents, with qualifications, to the criticism of Hungary’s slow economic progress after 1989 levelled in a new book by our own regular economic commentator, Péter Ákos Memory and culture are therefore the key themes running through this issue. We wrote in the previous Review that we would restore the balance between the cultural and the purely political in later issues. It is neither possible nor desirable, of course, to omit the purely political in any review of contemporary European life. Later pages will show that we give politics its due: György Schöpflin and Ryszard Legutko examine the malice, ideology and bad faith that lay behind the criticism of Hungary (and the empty threat to punish the country by removing its vote in European Union institutions) by a progressive majority in the European Parliament. László Csaba assents, with qualifications, to the criticism of Hungary’s slow economic progress after 1989 levelled in a new book by our own regular economic commentator, Péter Ákos Bod, former Governor of the Central Bank of Hungary. And Tamás Magyarics delivers a magisterial analysis of the career of Richard Nixon who, despite his psychological flaws and constitutional offenses, nonetheless laid the foundation for Ronald Reagan’s successful strategy for victory in the Cold War by bringing the Communist Chinese government into a de facto alliance with the West.

Yet as Ryszard Legutko points out in his indignant but coolly-reasoned article, politics at the European level increasingly bursts out from its own legally-defined sphere to intrude upon the spheres of culture, religion, morality and even sexuality where it speaks with assumed but dubious authority. “’European values’ have thus turned into demands of radical leftist social engineering”, he writes, against what the authors of the EP resolution call “outdated and conservative moral beliefs” such as conventional marriage and policies to strengthen the traditional family. The fact that these are matters reserved for national parliaments by the founding European treaties does not deter them. Nor that they are the profound moral beliefs of a majority or large plurality of Europeans.

If politics is to attack culture, however, then culture must be ready to defend itself against what are philistine as well as oppressive ideas. National governments will inevitably stake out a position at the bloody crossroads where culture and politics meet. But it is a minefield as well as a crossroads. In a free society cultural policy is necessarily limited. It must avoid censorship and use its patronage sparingly and creatively. In most Western societies, including Britain, the Left has managed to occupy and dominate the main official bodies that grant subsidies and commission plays, poems, novels and paintings for the last 40 years. That occupation must now be contested. It is not unreasonable to argue that in order to set right the imbalance of more than one generation, official arts appointments and cultural subsidies must for the moment be directed in a more conservative and patriotic direction but also in a more varied one. Apparatchiks must be replaced by talents and, when talents are found, allowed to find their own destinies. Giving them opportunities is the role of Maecenas.

It is our conviction, therefore, that in the main this battle must be fought primarily by artists and writers, philosophers and historians, and their cultivated audiences. Hence the stress on cultural memory and memories in this issue: Gordon McKechnie on rediscovering Prague with the grime removed; David Dusenbury on a Hungarian novel that finds Christ in a Roman prison yet does not find Him; Paul Sohár on Transylvanian poets and their poems; George Gömöri on three poems by Sándor Kányádi in translation; Norbet Haklik on the travels of Tariménes – in fact his friend Tamás Kabdebó – in the Afterlife; and in particular two articles (by Orsolya Pacsay-Tomassich and Botond Gaál) on two heroes of the twentieth century nightmares that the world has been commemorating this month.

One was a Danish diplomat serving at the United Nations who was probably murdered by the KGB for seeking to establish the truth of Soviet actions in Hungary in 1956 against the diplomatic indifference of the UN bureaucracy; the other a Hungarian soldier who was driven into exile because he placed himself and his troops between the Gestapo and Budapest’s Jews and saved several hundred thousand lives. Read about their sacrifice and reflect that in the darkest places some shine the light of bravery and truth. We should at least light a candle for them.

Perhaps this central theme is illustrated most clearly by an article, originally published 41 years ago, but for the first time in English now, by the internationally known poet Gyula Illyés. He takes up the challenge of the late 18th century prediction of Herder and the anxiety of the modern vatic poet Endre Ady that Hungarians would soon disappear from history as their language was spoken by fewer and fewer people. Ady’s anxiety was balanced, of course, by what a biographer of the Hungarian people called its “will to survive”. Illyés’s answer is put in context by Géza Antal Entz. He was perturbed by the growing persecution of Hungarian minorities in neighbouring countries, in particular but not solely in Romania, where Ceauşescu was pursuing a policy of forcible linguistic and cultural intergration of communities that had been moved wholesale from Hungary to Romania by the re-drawing of the maps in Versailles, only decades before. Illyés argued against the famous Hungarian pessimism on the solid grounds that Hungary had in fact survived all the gloomy forecasts of its foreign Cassandras and local doomsayers.

Was he right? For two decades national reconciliation and the defence of minority rights have been advancing in post-Communist Europe. Yet in the last few years these gains have been threatened and chipped away in Ukraine and, as György Csóti points out, in today’s Romania. It is worth noticing, however, that even in these cases the offenders cannot defend their actions openly and candidly. They are forced to be ashamed. Illyés might therefore offer the closing words of his essay – one that in 1977 attracted wide international attention – as an answer to the question that Herder asked and that Romania and Ukraine have now put back on the agenda:

 

The scrutiny of the past and the clarification of misunderstandings will open the way to this faith [in the future.] It will help, with facts, to scatter forever the gloomy prophecies of yesteryear. According to an ancient belief, one can make a lion backtrack by persistently staring in its eyes. I believe that a dawn is coming for humanity – through gazes that can tame beasts.

 

If the beasts are returning, we must steady our gaze. We will find that a happier course than mourning lost opportunities and dead souls.






HUNGARIAN REVIEW is published by BL Nonprofit Kft.
It is an affiliate of the bi-monthly journal Magyar Szemle, published since 1991
Publisher: Gyula Kodolányi
Editor-in-Chief: Gyula Kodolányi
Editorial Manager: Ildikó Geiger
Editorial office: Budapest, 1067, Eötvös u. 24., HUNGARY
E-mail: hungarianreview[at]hungarianreview[dot]com
Online edition: www.hungarianreview.com

Genereal terms and conditions