The following 1977 essay by Gyula Illyés, Hungary’s major writer of the mid to late 20th century, on the disenfranchisement of national minorities is a remarkable document and an exposition of ideas. Speaking of these communities representing universal values everywhere in the world, and on the chances of remedying their wrongs, is a work of great erudition, drawing on a treasury of cultural references. Each sentence is incandescent with the outspoken yet restrained passion of the lyrical poet, at times striking with the concision of free verse but infallibly shining with objective clarity.

The decision to speak up in this matter and the choice of the when and how put Illyés in a set of serious dilemmas. Yet to speak up was imperative, for two reasons: the grave worsening of the situation of nearly two million ethnic Hungarians in Romania on the one hand, raising concerns in the West as well, and the morally unacceptable deep silence surrounding it in Kádár’s Hungary on the other. In one of his earlier writings on the same topic Illyés, who had been torn by this problem for quite some time, says there are three basic questions to consider when sharing one’s thoughts:1 “where, to whom, and why”.

In the era the essay was published, it was particularly difficult to publicly address these questions. Why? Similar situations of culture-based political conflicts, which are deeply embedded psychologically and offer an excellent platform to power games, have existed since the age of national awakening, in sometimes more, sometimes less explicit forms all over Europe (with a few exceptions), and still exist today. That is why bringing this issue up from the outside, notably from Hungary, might have provoked retaliation against the vulnerable Hungarian group in Romania and other neighbouring countries, and hostile disinformation campaigns leading to discrediting the cause. Thus public discussion, whose purpose in a democracy should be to facilitate clarification, could easily become counterproductive. Unlike now, in the times of the Soviet empire it was unimaginable for the parties concerned to even raise such questions; the power system of the empire precluded the manifestation of open conflicts between member states. So where, to whom, and why should one tell what is intolerable and where, from whom and in what way can one seek remedy to the age-long problems, producing ever-hopeless situations?

It should be noted that in 1970, seven years before the original publication of In Answer…, Illyés had already asked these questions, notably in Népszabadság, the Communist Party’s daily, in an exposition on the same subject published in three installments. The way he put what he had to say may seem unnecessarily circumventious to today’s readers but at the time it certainly pushed public speech to its limits. There were some, he writes with feigned ingenuity, “who expressed, once again, their doubts: is the acoustics of our every-day public life strong enough to allow a nation-wide open discussion of these problems of historical gravity? Am I under an illusion as to the limits of expressing thoughts, especially in matters ‘affecting our lot’?”2

In 1977, Illyés chose “hammering”. “It is an ancient belief that persistently looking a lion in the eye will make him flunk”, he says, meaning that despite all constraints, the force of the public might still help. He made no attempt to analyse the constrained space in which the current political establishment was allowed to move by Moscow; he accepted it as being immovable, like anyone else those days. To bet on the fall of the “system” then would have been irrational, if not downright insane. He did criticise, however, the ideology, and rather severely at that. But he did it only on the platform of ideas because, as he unmistakably put it, “even socialists who examined the nationality issue expected its practical solution to come from a chain of such interdependencies that the mere idea required, if not Old Testament Messianism, at least New Testament millenialism”. In other words, the achievement of Communist thought in this respect has been hitherto irrelevant to the world of realia, and as such, can hardly be a remedy for the problems highlighted by Illyés. Therefore, the way out must and can be sought not in wishful thinking about a future never to come, thereby relieving one from the burden of real action, but in the present. And to do so the wall of silence (and reticence) has to be broken down first.

Then and there, behind the Iron Curtain, there was hardly anyone but Illyés who could undertake such a task; and even he was tormented by doubts. What was it that finally pushed the balance towards speaking up? First and foremost, the life and work of the speaker himself. His vast poetic and literary oeuvre had long placed him in the front rank of 20th-century Hungarian literature; he maintained a wide network of intellectual connections stretching all over Europe, particularly in France and was close to receive the Nobel Prize in 1965, 1966 and 1979. He was a leftist from after the First World War, with a deep sociological interest manifested in powerful works that strongly connected him to many of his fellow-writers. He always stood by the poor and the oppressed, at all times strived for quality, remained open to authentic intellectual and human achievements from elsewhere, and was faithful to friendships and alliances based on the same values. It is no coincidence that at historically decisive moments, when history opened possibilities for Hungarian democracy between 1945 and 1948, and in 1956, he took an active role in politics.

He was thus well-known and popular at home and abroad as well. The regime that reconsolidated itself after the Hungarian Revolution and advertised itself as being progressive, was time and again able to limit his opportunities to express his views but could not finally compel him to silence. For reasons of its own political legitimacy, it did not want to do so, either. His funeral in April 1983 was tantamount to a political demonstration. An agent of the interior intelligence department stated in his report, quite true to the facts, that “some 12,000–15,000 people attended [the funeral], about 50–60 per cent of whom were young people; many came in organised groups from schools in Budapest and the country. Prominent members of antagonistic and ‘dissident’ groups and a few representatives of émigrés from the West were also present.”3 Naturally, the other side was there too: to keep up appearances and smoothen ruffles in the public mood, many members of the state and party leadership elite attended, including the Head of State.

Illyés therefore could anticipate that his voice would be resounding in 1977; perhaps as thunderous as the trumpet calls that shattered the walls of Jericho, as he himself put it, contemplating this task in an earlier writing. But what made the task at hand particularly difficult was not just the current status quo in politics and power; he had to dismantle mental walls at home too. Mental barriers that seem curiously fashionable and powerful in the wider world once more today. Illyés assessed the situation as follows:

Why is it, really, that so many people, even in progressive circles, remain indifferent to the national issue? […] Because even though it is brutally present and may jeopardise the future, they think it is obsolete. […] I myself had nurtured this view for quite some time. […] But reality woke me to my error. Because if we keep on gauging the gravity of social issues – and quite rightly so – based on the magnitude of masses that are pushed into conditions unworthy of human dignity – materially and otherwise –  should they remain unsolved, in many places of the world the national issue will pop up among the burning problems of our age. Just as the nationality issue, stemming from the same root.

His final conclusion, an ethical one, runs thus:

The nationalist violates rights (other peoples’ rights, for selfish gains); the patriot protects them (not specifically those of his own people but of Man, of Humanity).4

In his essay, Illyés addresses all this. Examining the historical context of the emergence of modern European nations, he draws an inventory of the problems that in all probability posed an inexorable threat to millions of Hungarians who, as a result of the dismemberment of the state of the Hungarian nation – which already in the 19th century was organised into a national community – in the wake of the two World Wars, found themselves in the status of national minority, threatened not just in their rightful interests but in their mere chance to survive.

The essay appeared in two parts, in December 1977 and January 1978, in the Christmas and New Year issues of Magyar Nemzet, a daily newspaper of national circulation advertised as the forum of the party’s post-1962 “policy of national alliance”, whose readership consisted mainly of intellectuals. On the level of facts, the essay’s critical edge is chiefly aimed at the blatant excesses of the Ceauşescu regime afflicting Transylvanian Hungarians. But in a more subdued manner, using tactful wording, it also touches upon the inhumane spirit of the Beneš Decrees issued in 1945, which deprived ethnic Hungarians in Czechoslovakia, as well as ethnic Germans, of their basic civic and human rights based on the principle of collective guilt.

The gist of the problem is that modern nation states, out of necessity as it were, strive for linguistic and cultural homogenisation. Despite its liberal set-up, the “young” Hungarian nation state, which in the last third of the 19th century underwent a dynamic phase of development in many respects, was no exception. Nor were successor states of the former Austro-Hungarian Monarchy created by the peace treaty ending the First World War. Even though they promised otherwise, they were formed not as alliances of the peoples and nations living in their respective territories but according to exclusive political programmes of nation-building of their own majority ethnic groups. The instruments of power applied to realise these programmes were new, different from those of the 19th century; totalitarian regimes would later fine-tune them beyond “perfection”.

Romania has defined itself as a unified nation-state ever since its constitution of 1923; from an ethnic point of view, it made huge progress of homogenisation in the last eighty years. Its programme is still the same today, in 2018, a quarter century after the Fall of the Berlin Wall – only the environment changed internationally and at home. Czechoslovakia made endeavours in the same direction, accelerated by the anti-German, anti-Hungarian regulations of the Beneš Decrees. Their authors wished to take the fortuitous opportunity to create a unified nation state as regards language and cultural traditions, in the spirit of vae victis.

Following in a long tradition of political history, Ceauşescu launched the homogenisation of society on an ethnic basis. To this effect, he started an economic policy that focused on developing the heavy industry (from the 1960s) and aimed at self-sufficiency, and used it as a means to shift the ethnic proportions of Transylvanian cities with Hungarian or German majorities in favour of the ethnic Romanian majority. The then enormous labour needs of heavy industry triggered an intra-national migration that was purposefully controlled. This was a spectacular element in ousting ethnic Hungarians from both their social and symbolic positions, synergically enhanced by education, employment and other policies. This tendency reached dramatic proportions in the 1970s, in tandem with a sharp fall in Romanian living standards – a more or less predictable result of two decades of an absurd economic policy.

Although the centrally managed media kept silent on the matter, there was a growing awareness of this development all over Hungary, thanks to the hundreds of thousands of individuals crossing the Hungarian–Romanian border to and fro per year. Many of these people had immediate or extended family ties in Hungary, thus giving cause for anxiety to their relatives in the mainland. In the period preceding the appearance of the Illyés article, two so far loyal functionaries of Hungarian ethnicity – Károly Király, first secretary of the Romanian Communist Party in Covasna County and Lajos Takács, international lawyer and university professor – put forward highly critical memorandums on the regime’s policy towards Hungarians. At first, they tried to advocate changes on internal forums but having met with obvious rejection, they addressed letters of protest to the international public through the covert cooperation of Hungarian intellectuals with good contacts in the Western press. The centrally controlled Hungarian media evidently ignored these protests by leading Romanian–Hungarian politicians – as it had no other choice, being part of the same monolythic power system as Romania. The Hungarian public however was up-to-date concerning the affair, thanks to news coming through the already slackening Iron Curtain, and also from widely listened Western radio broadcasts, especially Radio Free Europe, BBC and Voice of America.

These protests took place when Illyés put his thoughts on paper. To what avail? That is to be our next question. In Romania, of course nothing changed, in fact the situation – as we now know – got increasingly worse in the following twelve years. Other Communist countries, like Czechoslovakia led by Husák who came to power in 1968 with Soviet help –, took no notice of Illyés’ article. The Romanian government took time to react. After five months, it finally came forward with primitive ideological accusations cooked up in the vile kitchens of state security, so characteristic of the regime, and launched a diplomatic campaign aggravated by declarations of the head of state. In the meantime the article attracted a great deal of public attention in the West through leading organs of the press. People from the international press and news agencies – Neue Zürcher Zeitung, AP, Reuters, Le Monde, The New York Times, just to name a few – queued before the author’s door wanting to interview him, as well as Western diplomats and members of the US Congress and Senate.

This unprecedented international attention gave some hope to the Hungarian public, and especially the well-informed Transylvanian public (that is, to Hungarians in Romania), that they were not alone in their defencelessness after all. For instance, on 5 February 1978, Gyula Illyés made the following entry in his diary: “The attention is already huge. The radios are listened to in Transylvania, too. I believe the outcome can only be good. At least Hungarians get a few drops of hope; at least some small light is shed on the fingers of the raving Romanian garrotters hitherto operating in the dark.” But five days later, following a meeting with the editor-in-chief of Magyar Nemzet, the paper that published his article, he wrote this: “The press hasn’t produced anything like it in the past twenty or thirty years: it’s both independent and successful. Still, from high places [to the editor-in-chief]: ‘no more campaign!’ Now of all times when official steps could be ventured – on the ground of inner tensions. But here – we dread that all ‘Hungarian’ matters will be labelled chauvinistic.”

The follow-up: Illyés’ article is printed in an omnibus volume of collected essays on similar topics titled Szellem és erőszak (Spirit and Violence) in 30,000 copies, but the political leadership bans its circulation. Even the author is not allowed to own a copy; a few months later, he is given thirty marked copies as a “special favour”. The underlying argument of the Communist authorities behind the scenes: the contents hurt the system of interests of Soviet imperial politics. From the 1960s on, Romania, which had pursued a Stalinistic internal policy all along, very shrewdly capitalised on its geopolitical situation and re-defined its external policy, gradually distancing itself from the actual Soviet stance, at least on the surface. Moscow had less and less energy to keep refractory satellites in check. Essentially, it was in its best interest not to allow tensions to manifest in public. With respect to national minorities, it had no interest whatsoever to interfere, lest this might give cause to the re-opening of Romanian claims concerning Bessarabia, annexed by the Red Army in 1940. Let me quote from a letter by János Berecz, the then chief official responsible for the Hungarian Communist Party’s foreign policy matters. It was written just weeks before the Illyés article went to print, as guidelines to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and is quite illustrative of the scope of action of official Hungarian politics at the time: “in the light of the situation of ethnic Hungarians living in neighbouring socialist countries, we cannot stand by the nationality policy of any of our neighbours. We cannot back their stance outlined below. At the same time we must also distance ourselves from Western claims, even if on the level of details, they may contain actual facts and findings.”5

The writer and the regime played on different chess boards. It was still possible for Kádár’s Hungarian Communist Party (HSWP) to ignore the public in this matter, and deal with it in an off-hand manner; however, changes were to come in that regard, too. Yet the story of the Illyés essay did not end here. The auhor had several copies of the little pocket edition smuggled to the West. One of these reached the hands of the Munich publisher of émigré books, József Molnár, who produced a perfect replica in several thousand copies. Thus the book was spread widely back home by Hungarians travelling in the West. Another clandestine edition was published by the underground opposition publisher AB in Budapest. Thus Spirit and Violence started a political fermentation, at first only under the surface – the stunning turnout of crowds at the funeral which included a Roman Catholic service by a banned bishop, was already proof of that. In a decade, the same circle of intellectuals whose members had been present at the funeral, and were termed as “prominent members of antagonistic and ‘dissident’ groups” in the report of the interior intelligence department quoted earlier, were to form the front line of movements that were to uproot the regime in 1987–90.

As far as the Hungarian minorities are concerned, the story still goes on with little improvement. The questions brought up by Illyés and the answers he gave to them in this essay and on many other occasions are as relevant today as they were then; and not just here in our region, but also in Europe – one has only to think of the present debates on the European Union –, and in fact in any place of the world, under any constellation.

Translation by Orsolya Németh


1 Szakvizsgán – nacionalizmusból [Special examination in nationalism].

2 Op. cit.


4 Op. cit.

5 György Földes, Kádár János külpolitikája és nemzetközi tárgyalásai 1956–1988 [The Foreign Policy and International Negotiations of János Kádár, 1956–1988], Volume I, Kádár János külpolitikája [The Foreign Policy of János Kádár], Budapest, Napvilág Publishing House, 2015, p. 226, note 122.

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