“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” William Faulkner’s words (from his 1951 novel, Requiem for a Nun) have been quoted and misquoted endlessly, most recently by Barack Obama in his 2008 presidential campaign, to describe the persistence of racial antagonisms in American life and, in particular, in Faulkner’s home region, the American Deep South. Yet as several articles in this issue suggest, the same words apply at least as powerfully to modern Hungary – though to political and national antagonisms rather than to racial ones. Ever since Béla Kun’s Communist dictatorship and Horthy’s “white terror” that succeeded it, Hungarian society has been distorted by persistent divisions that have given rise to left–right cycles of repression and revenge.
These were kept largely under control between 1920 and 1944 (though the underlying social divisions were left untreated and festering). But the Second World War; the German invasion and occupation of March 1944; the outright German coup that installed the genocidal Arrow-Cross regime; the murder of two-thirds of Hungarian Jews; the siege of Budapest; the “liberation” of Hungary by a Red Army that was given license by Stalin to rape and steal; the slow Communist coup between 1945 and 1947 (brilliantly recounted by Anne Applebaum in her new book, Iron Curtain) under the patronage of that Army; the High Stalinist years under Rákosi with churches, literary societies, the Boy Scouts and all civil society absorbed by the State; the Revolution of 1956 and its brutal suppression by the Soviets and their local counterparts; and the long seduction of Hungarians by a Kádár regime that gave them goulash and weekend passes in return for quiescence – all these ensured that division and mutual hatred would be the inheritance of Hungarian democracy in 1989.
To ask whether Left or Right perpetrated the greater crimes is pointless for several reasons, including that some perpetrators committed crimes from both sides. One of the first steps that the Hungarian Stalinists in the Red Army’s baggage train took on arrival was to seize the membership lists of the Arrow-Cross and to offer all but its leading members a choice: sign a secret admission of guilt in return for a communist party card or face trial. None of the Communist regime’s subsequent show trials – with a few exceptions, e.g. that of Szálasi – had much to do with justice, except coincidentally. And when democracy arrived belatedly in 1989, a decision was reached across Central and Eastern Europe to subordinate justice yet again, this time to social peace. So there have been no treason trials, no equivalents to de-Nazification, no “Truth and Reconciliation” commissions, no cathartic exorcism of the fratricidal past.
Even today Hungarians pass in the street men and women who tortured them or their parents and grandparents. Some are receiving state pensions. A recent post-communist prime minister had been a voluntary member of the militia that hunted down the revolutionaries of 1956. The nomenklatura of the Kádár years metamorphosed smoothly into the oligarchic entrepreneurs and social liberals of the new market democracy. All these concessions were probably necessary for Hungary’s peaceful transition to a stable democratic future. But they also undermine the moral claims of democracy, put a question mark against the economic success of all entrepreneurs and thus against the idea of market justice, and ensure that past historical crimes, unexorcised, return continually to haunt the nation. The controversy over the monument to the victims of the German occupation, discussed in our previous issue, will not be the last.
Much of this issue is thus devoted to Hungary’s twentieth century. Géza Jeszenszky returns to review two powerful accounts of the long meandering journey from Horthy to democracy. One is a memoir of a Hungarian noble family’s extraordinary changes of fortune throughout that period; another is a novel telling how three young men from the same village lived three different lives. Each of these four lives – three fictional, one the real life of Károly Farkas – was a picaresque journey through Purgatory. And at least one of them was a life that could be told in different ways, as either a respectable bourgeois or as a heroic proletarian, depending on political necessity of the moment. Yet, as Molnár and Pirandello both knew in advance, that would not be uncommon in an age of political upheaval. Jeszenszky himself concludes optimistically that though few lives in those times had a happy ending, Hungary’s national story reached one in 1989. We shall see.
Yet the world that gradually disintegrated after the Nazi–Soviet Pact fell far short of Purgatory. Péter Ákos Bod points out in his article on economic transitions that, even in the post-1929 days of the great depression, Hungary had a rising market economy that compared reasonably well with its Austrian neighbour. David Pryce- Jones – the son of a Welsh literary father and a Hungarian heiress – powerfully evokes one aspect of it, the Hungary of great estates, as he recalls his parents’ marriage and their idyllic family life in the second half of the 1930s. It was a life of shooting parties, balls, family loyalties, a cultivated life taken for granted, civilised conversation, and wit (“buy to the sound of cannons, sell to the sound of violins”).
A vanished world? Surely the phrase should be a banished world. Hitler and his auxiliaries banished it. But it departed in style: David’s mother-in-law received the news that her horse had won the Hungarian Derby along with the papers that allowed her to emigrate without being ruined. And it didn’t lose without a fight. Gyula Kodolányi publishes a series of extracts from the diaries and memoirs of statesmen, soldiers, writers (and of those who loved them), who experienced and resisted the German occupation of 1944. Most of them in this mosaic of history behaved well in one way or another – Bajcsy-Zsilinszky shooting it out with the Gestapo before he ran out of ammunition, was wounded, captured and executed.
Others, as we know, behaved less well, some shamefully, some murderously. As Kodolányi demonstrates in this selection, however, the impulse behind these crimes came ultimately from Nazidom and Germany. Without the ideological influence and practical subversion of a well-organised machine of political and military warfare run from Berlin, the history of Hungary in the 1940s would have been very different – and surely better and more civilised. That larger truth does not exonerate a single traitor, murderer, or common criminal. But it should make us careful in attributing historical responsibility.