Liberal Nationalism in Hungary, 1988-1990

By Deme, Laszlo | East European Quarterly, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Liberal Nationalism in Hungary, 1988-1990


Deme, Laszlo, East European Quarterly


This paper will examine a few important aspects of resurgent Hungarian nationalism before and after the collapse of communism in Central Europe. It will concentrate on attempts to join the Hungarian national cause with individual rights, parliamentary democratic government, and a free economy. Liberal nationalism has been selected as the topic because prior to 1990 it had provided both the intellectual arsenal and emotional commitment to the struggle against communism and foreign domination. It also vitally influenced politics, foreign affairs and intellectual life in post-communist Hungary.

Contrary to widespread contemporary assumptions by the media, this writer does not believe that nationalism is an exclusively negative phenomenon, already outgrown by advanced Western nations and present only in formerly communist countries or in the "developing" Third World. Admittedly, after the concentration camps of racial extermination and various forms of recent ethnic cleansing, emphasis on the evil consequences of nationalist extremism seems justified. But we should remember that, depending on historical circumstances, nationalism can also be liberal, progressive and democratic and contribute to the self-realization of peoples. It can even sustain captive nations, as it did the French during the Second World War, or Central Europeans under Soviet domination and prepare them for liberation and reconstruction.

Although nationalism defies a brief all-inclusive definition, for the purposes of this article it will be considered primarily a state of mind, a sentiment, which unites a group of people with a common history, cultural traditions, institutions and language. Group loyalty, solidarity with co-nationals under foreign rule, devotion to country and its independence, desire for its prestige and possible expansion and potential hostility toward foreigners are also seen as important characteristics.(1)

Patriotism will not be used as a separate category because it is often indistinguishable from nationalism and emanates from the same emotional context and mind set. Moderate and defensive forms of nationalism which protect rather than invade individual and group rights, will be considered the positive manifestations of the nationalist world view and philosophy.

The idea of the Hungarian nation is aristocratic in origin. Medieval chroniclers considered the king and the nobility the nation, or defined it as "the totality of nobles whose ancestors were related to the Huns and came from Scythia."(2) Equating the nation with the nobility was further elaborated by a 16th century jurist, Istvan Werboczy, who claimed that the nobles, the descendants of the ninth century conquerors of the country, transferred their power to the Crown by electing St. Stephen (100-1038) as their king.(3) Through the centuries, the Crown of St. Stephen gradually evolved into a revered national symbol and the emblem of state sovereignty.

Beginning with the 1820's, the concept of limiting the nation to the nobility was successfully challenged by Hungarian writers, poets and essayists strongly influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment and the Great French Revolution.(4) Liberal reformers wanted to extend the rights held by the nobility to the people, abolish serfdom and change Hungary into a modern parliamentary state. Typical of this generation was the celebrated poet and author of the Hungarian national anthem, Ferenc Kolcsey (1790-1838) who was elected in 1832 to the national legislature on a platform of "country and progress."(5) At the Diet he argued most effectively that "liberty and property" should bind all members of society to the fatherland, a slogan that again seemed relevant in the late 1980's.(6)

Other less prominent authors urged Hungary to follow the example of the United States, endorsed women's rights and took a strong pro-Semitic stand. Peter Vajda, for example, wrote that the Jews as a people have always had a "stamp of nobility" and declared their "rights sacred before reason. …

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