The Hungarians: History Makes a Comeback

By Stone, Norman | The National Interest, Summer 1994 | Go to article overview

The Hungarians: History Makes a Comeback

Stone, Norman, The National Interest

THE HISTORY OF Central Europe is a notoriously difficult subject. It lacks definition, it is endlessly complicated, much is unknown, and it generates battles. Part at least of the motivation of communists in 1945 was to get away from all that history. However, it has got the better of them. History matters, fairly obviously, more than poor old political science.

Hungary, for instance, appears to be undergoing a return of interesting historical patterns involving her internal divisions, and her relationship with the West. She has, to her friend's dismay, recently returned one-time Communists--now called socialists--as the largest party. As I write, it is not clear what will happen: a coalition of former Communists with uneasily allied parties, as in Poland, or a coalition of anticommunists. In the short term, this is a bad result. It means that the "Red Bourgeoisie"--the nomenklatura privatizers, who just laid hands on the State's property at dirt-cheap prices, and the old bureaucrats or the people who already in the 1980s had shabby deals outside--are back, and as the British commentator Jonathan Sunley has said, this means bad things. The old system of clients-and-patrons, which developed under communism everywhere, will be back. The effect will be to weaken the State's foundations. Some of this can be ascribed to communism and communists. Hungary in her pre-communist past was not a corrupt country; with all her faults, she maintained the rule of law until 1944.

On the other hand, there is that ineffable Central European political tradition, in which the good guys split into innumerable squabbling parties, and that, in part, explains what has just happened in Hungary. A solid phalanx of former Communists constituted an interest group, supported by the many others who felt cheated by the outcome of 1989--by the flashy rip-off Westerners, the inflation, and the obvious cold-shoulder delivered over Hungary's application to join NATO and the Common Market--can drive into a divided opposition. The one reasonably hopeful sign is that, if this happens, the opposition itself will begin to cohere, and set up what has always been missing in Hungary's past: a united conservative movement, with mass support.

Hungarians are world-beaters at many things, but particularly at pessimism. They invented the expression, "My country, bad or worse"; they will tell you that they have not won a war for the better part of a thousand years. A strain of doom and gloom goes through their literature, and the history of the country supports it.

Hungary's modern history gives few grounds for optimism. In 1920, having fought to the very end with Germany against the world, Hungary lost about two-thirds of her area, and became in effect a great metropolis, Budapest, attached to a sort of large golf course. She was occupied by Hitler in 1944, and then by Stalin in 1945. In theory, all of this might have meant a complete collapse of national confidence. However, Hungary is a very strange country, important way beyond what might be warranted by her size. It is a measure of the extraordinary strength of the nation that the emigrants resulting from these experiences--millions of them, world-wide--have hit the Western world with great force. In England and Scotland they have established themselves in the professions and in much else, in such a way that they almost constitute a freemasonry: although the competition from the seventeenth-century Huguenots is quite severe, theirs may count as the most successful emigration, ever. For this is a country that has produced more Nobel Prize winners than Japan. Hungarians can be quite resentful if you say of their civilization that it amounts to "Hollywood and the Bomb" (or in terms of personalities, from Alexander Korda and Zsa Zsa Gabor to Edward Teller and John Von Neumann). But it is certainly true that, from showbusiness to theoretical physics, Hungarians have made a more powerful mark than any other country in Central Europe. …

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