Szechenyi and Posterity: Changing Perceptions about Szechenyi in the 19th and 20th Centuries

By Vermes, Gabor | East European Quarterly, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview

Szechenyi and Posterity: Changing Perceptions about Szechenyi in the 19th and 20th Centuries


Vermes, Gabor, East European Quarterly


The study of history may be the ultimate in the art of conjuring tricks. We look into the past as if through a window, and we may then realize that beyond what we see of the past, the window-pane, mirror-like, reflects our own image as well. Therefore, our descriptions and judgments about the past say as much about ourselves as they do about the past itself.

No person in Hungarian history has been interpreted and reinterpreted as frequently as Count Istvain Szechenyi has, in wildly divergent responses to wildly divergent needs of an ever-changing present. Why such frequency and, one may ask, why such passion when it comes to the "greatest Hungarian," to use Kossuth's much-repeated phrase?

Gyula Szekfu characterized Szechenyi as the "highest peak of our national life."(1) For that very reason, Szekfu claimed, each epoch in Hungarian history is obligated to explore its own deepest problems and relate them to Szechenyi's writings. Implied here is a belief that Szechenyi is relevant, not in specific, of course, but in the more profound sense of offering moral and patriotic guidance. Actually, Szekfu's high praise is relatively modest in comparison to the effusive, sometimes embarrassingly effusive, accolades affixed to Szechenyi. Personally, I like Sandor Karacsony's brief statement the best, because it captures Szechenyi's legacy deceptively simply but most effectively. "He has made us into what we are..."(2) reads Karacsony, referring to Szechenyi's role as the initiator of Hungary's transformation from a backward feudal country into a civilized, Western-oriented one.

I do not believe that anyone could quarrel with this statement, because Szechenyi's role as the great initiator is undisputed. But clear as his historical significance may be, the question should still be asked: what exactly did he want Hungarians to be, and what exactly have Hungarians ended up being? This question, open at both ends, allows for a broad range of subjective interpretations. Szechenyi stood apart from political parties, and the scope of his activities and writings is enormous. Consequently, one could pick and choose among his multiple messages, which may then be used as sources of inspiration or rationalization for a variety of often conflicting positions and activities. Szechenyi was in turn hailed by liberals, conservatives, and fascists; even the communist jumped on the bandwagon after they had passed through their sour phase of Stalinist dogmatism.

What is then, or is there, a true Szechenyi? Luckily, history denies us the false assurances of finality, but clearly, if history has any validity at all, we can and must separate approximations from distortions. This paper is dedicated to that end.

Szechenyi's interpreters may be grouped in three categories: adulators, appropriators, and analyzers. The adulators gush over everything, or almost everything, Szechenyi had ever done. The appropriators have an a priori agenda, and they use, or in extreme cases abuse, Szechenyi in order to promote that agenda. Finally, the analyzers are able to step back and assess multiple nuances in their search for the "true" Szechenyi. Naturally, these categories are not always clear-cut. There may be a great deal of overlap. One work may contain all or some of these elements, or a given historian may use alternate approaches at different times. Nevertheless, there are certain patterns indicating that the ways Szechenyi has been viewed in successive periods of Hungarian history has served specific purposes. In a brief paper I am unable to cover all interpretations of this interesting and complicated man. Zoltan Varga wrote a book about them, and listed 339 entries for the period between 1851 and 1918 alone.

Before I embark on discussing these patterns, a few general comments are in order. First, authors' insistence on their objectivity is in inverse ratio to their sober analysis of Szechenyi. Of those I have examined, Zsigmond Kemeny, Miksa Falk, and Gyula Szekfu made that claim. …

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