As the whole world knows, Hungary and Europe this winter mark the anniversaries of two great cataclysmic events – the first fighting of the 1914–18 war and the final fighting of the Second World War. One hundred years ago Hungarian troops in the Habsburg Army were holding fast in what became the longest siege of the war at Przemyśl. It lasted 133 days and ended in a Russian victory in March 1915. Seventy years ago the siege of Budapest was in full force. German and Arrow Cross troops still controlled the city, but it was surrounded by the Red Army. The outcome of the siege was no less certain than the outcome of the war itself.
Nazi Germany and its allies would be defeated; the Soviet Union would liberate and conquer Eastern and Central Europe. Unlike in Western Europe that year, there was not much distinction in the Eastern half of the continent between liberation and conquest. In the familiar saying, the Poles and Czechs received as a gift what the Hungarians received as a punishment.
If one stands back and considers Hungary during the period 1914 to 1989 as the history of a family, then it consists of conscription into the Army, multiple injuries, dispossession of estates, bitter family quarrels, bouts of mental illness, fratricide, the loss of the family home, kidnapping by bandits, torture at their hands, a long period of imprisonment with hard labour, transfer into the care of a guardian corruptly administering the bankrupt estate, and finally a release into a bewildering and almost foreign world. Only the democratic intermezzo of 1945-47 and the Revolution of 1956, doomed that they were, interrupt this catalogue of woe to give the victim some sense of seizing back his own identity and pride.
We devote a great deal of space in this issue to the most acute and dreadful phase of this patient history – the period March 1944 to April 1945. It covers the German invasion and occupation (disguised to be sure, by the cooperation of organs of the Hungarian state), the period of outright Nazi and Arrow Cross dictatorship, the Holocaust, the Russian invasion, the siege of Budapest, and defeat in a bad war in which the Hungarian nation itself was a reluctant conscript.
Magda Németh, János Horváth and Árpád Kadarkay all give harrowing accounts of how the tornado of war tore through Hungary and their lives exposing them to terrible brutalities and fears that the generation between 1867 and 1914 believed had been left behind in an uncivilised past. Miklós Radnóti, Gyula Illyés and János Pilinszky evoke those same horrors in stark and crystalline poetry. These personal accounts and their re-ordering in the poetic imagination represent the countless beatings, shootings, rapes, humiliations and murders that ordinary people suffered that year in Hungary and elsewhere in Central Europe.
To read them is to feel sorrow for their sufferings, admiration for their acts of heroic resistance, and a desire that they should receive both justice and commemoration. Those victims who were themselves victimisers – Dr Kadarkay gives an almost comic account of a terrified German throwing off his uniform and donning the clothes of a hitherto despised peasant to escape – rightly had to expect justice in a harsh form. Some, not all, received it after the war’s end. All the innocent, however, deserve to be remembered and commemorated without distinction. Exactly how is a matter for candid but respectful discussion. Amnesia is not an option either morally or practically.
For the past lives on in current debates – and in ways that go deeper than debate. Though 1944–45 was the period of most intense conflict and suffering, the long communist despotism from 1947 to 1989 left a deeper legacy in the habits and minds of Hungarians that still distort the nation’s life. Visible examples of this malign inheritance were economic passivity, malinvestment (in enterprises without a market), and a massive foreign indebtedness – the largest in Central Europe in 1989 – that Hungarians will be repaying for many decades.
This particular legacy has morphed under democracy into what Péter Ákos Bod identifies in his article as a legacy of corruption that, according to surveys of foreign investors, grew under Socialist governments and has continued to the present day. It is a significant obstacle both to productive and needed foreign investment and to domestic entrepreneurship. It may be the single biggest domestic problem facing the Orbán government. Nor is it simply a domestic problem since it is currently one theme in the symphony of discord between Hungary and the United States.
Serious though it is, Hungarians (maybe over-influenced by their history) are in danger of taking this discord perhaps too seriously. So, too, are Americans. Senator John McCain’s outburst attacking the Orbán government as dictatorial and leaning strategically towards Putin’s Russia did not even rise to the level of being wrong. It was simply silly – Hungary ended a year of three democratic elections with a virtual festival of unrestrained anti-government protests and the country’s obligations to NATO and the EU have been scrupulously fulfilled. And it came, unfortunately, at the very moment when the two countries seemed to be moving back towards a more cordial style of disagreement, if not complete amity. A bracing douche of cold realism all round is needed.
That is provided in this issue by Géza Jeszenszky, who patiently reminds us that Hungary has fulfilled its obligations to NATO and the EU, that Russia has over- reached itself and is proving to be less of a power and less of a threat than it seemed, that a perfectly sensible economic outreach to the East is not the same thing as a strategic re-orientation to it, and that radical right ideas of an anti- Westernisation Hungary are a cultural and geopolitical fantasy.
Such a reminder is necessary. But there is more to life than geopolitical fantasy. Christie Davies in this issue reminds us that blondes are not less intelligent than other women. And the Gabor sisters remind us that Hungarian blondes are more intelligent than most other blondes.
The proof of this? They had more fun.
Allow me to close this short sketch of a century, then, with this thought from my friend and colleague, Gyula Kodolányi: Was there not flowing through all these decades a force to which women perhaps have a more natural access? Somewhere deep, as an ignored secret, life was living its course, a current under the sorrows and crises that fed the everyday vitality and creativity of so many in Hungary and Central Europe. It is far from exhausted.