In their own Words: György Csepeli on why foreigners cannot understand Hungarians' attachment to [their version] of history.
Photo: György Csepeli giving a TedXDanubia talk in 2018. Taken from a YouTube video
György Csepeli is a social psychologist and professor at Eötvös Loránd University (Elte), in the Faculty Of Social Sciences, Budapest. Together with Antal Örkény, he is the founder of the Ethnic and Minority Studies MA Program at Elte. In 2010 he finished a research project on the subject of the new authoritarian tendencies in Hungarian society. He spoke to the Hungarian International Press Association on 4th June, 2014. Below is the transcription of the first part of his address, with some Q&A. (Please note, he may not today cite the same socio-economic numbers about Hungary as he did then.) György Csepeli: Initially, I'd like to make three important statements. One, once when I was talking to a reporter, he warned me that he's not the history channel. I told him, I know this is not the history channel, but unfortunately, when you are in Hungary, you have to tune yourself as if it is the history channel, because in this country history has not passed at all. Every day, what you see is that some historical events come closer and closer than they have ever been. Today, to give you a good example, we are commemorating almost the 100th anniversary of the so-called Trianon Treaty. It is more than 90 years old, but if you talk to any Hungarian of an educated level, he will [speak to] you as if it happened yesterday. The Trianon trauma, and the other trauma, the Holocaust trauma, as they go away further and further in time, practically, in Heidiger's terms, they come closer and closer [in the memory] because here time is not the usual calender time, it's primordal time. The second statement, perhaps, unfortunately, five years ago, when the so-called …. revolution mistake happened, as a result of the elections, Hungary cannot [now] be considered as a democracy, at least not as a liberal democracy. It's a peoples' democracy. No one doubts it is supported by the people. Hitler was supported too, Horthy was supported, but this is not that sort of democracy which we used to learn about from textbooks. So this is not a criticism, it's just a fact. Therefore, when we are talking about right-wing movements and parties, we differentiate between the right-wing parties, left and Fidesz, which I don't really know how to characterise.
These are not parties in the sense of text-book parties, these are just tribes or traditions or competing factions. But the essence of [Hungarian] society, as in the book by Bálint Magyar, is a kind mafia state, which we are in. Therefore what is right, what is left, cannot be investigated from a normal political science point of view. Third, as a result of the transition, followed by the so-called miracle year, 1989, many of us, including myself, shared the illusion, or the hope, that Hungary would normalise itself and return to the road of western social development. And it turned out that it was a sad delusion.
The first 20 years of transition on the path of liberal democracy and modern capitalism are seemingly considered as a failure, because, now, in present day Hungary, not more than one million people are living as people live in western society. Nine million people are living as people in Africa or Bangladesh, or at least ….... [unclear]. So the European standard of middle class is just the privilege of one million. Therefore what we have is a huge inequality. Perhaps this hopelessness, stemming from the inequality can give an explanation [as to] why history has not [inaudible].
Florence La Bruyere: You say for most Hungarians, Trianon happened [as if it were] yesterday? I realise that, but why?
GyCs – Why? FlB: Yes, why? Why, for Hungarians, did Trianon happen yesterday?
GyCs: It takes a long time to explain this for someone who is not Hungarian. Part of the problem is that culturally Trianon is very much alive. You cannot talk about Hungarian history or culture without taking into account that two-thirds of Hungarian territory does not belong to Hungary any more. For instance, when I talk to my students about [Ferenc] Rákóczi [a leader of the 1703 war of independence], who was born [near] Kassa, now Kosice [Slovakia]. Or Kelemen Mikes, who is probably one of the brightest Hungarian writers, he was born in Zágon, a village far distant in Transylvania. So, Transylvania, the present day Slovakia, Voivodina, these are, in a cultural sense, very much alive [for Hungarians]. That's one of the reasons. The second is that the Hungarians still have not got rid of this haunting memory of this trauma and suffering. Because, in a way, the Trianon trauma is linked to the Holocaust trauma, because, when some territories of Greater Hungary were returned, as a result of the alliance with Hitler, then the first act enacted was the anti-Jewish act. All the Jewish populations were [later] deported from the territories [to Nazi death camps] which were returned to Hungary Therefore, the restoration of the Trianon injustice was, on the one hand was a joy for the Hungarians, but was a [inaudible] for the Jews. Yet, in the Hungarian discourse, you don't find this kind of dialogue, which is very painful for both sides. But these two traumas have not been discussed or elaborated on, and they are traumas which still exist. Third: is just the closed nature of the Hungarian mind, which is alien from the perspective of the outsider. They cannot understand that from an outsiders' point of view seems irrational, even insane.
Runa Hellinger: Are Hungarians more inward looking than other people ? GyCs: Absolutely. And this is not just a psychological state, but a state that can be characterised by lack of knowledge of a foreign language. The Hungarian education system is so silly that the majority of young Hungarians do not speak a foreign language. Older Hungarians also do not know a foreign language, because my generation was taught Russian in school. I'm the happy exception, I learned Russian and enjoy it, but the majority of Hungarians did not learn Russian, of course. Practically, they did not learn any foreign language. Therefore now, according to sociological studies about 80% of Hungarians do not speak any foreign languages. Second is the mental state, the tendency to view ourselves as victims. This self victimisation can be found among Poles, among Serbs, so it's a more general East European way of self-estimation, but, in Hungary, this is very important. Take for example the Hungarian anthem: if you compare this to other anthems, the difference is startling. It's very sad, you should sing it at cemeteries, not on holidays. The national song is the same. So, our two major, audio-visual symbols annotate the sorrow and the complaints. One of my friends, András Gerő, a very good historian – you should invite him here - talks about Hungarian culture as a culture of complaint. So, this negative self-representation is embedded in our tradition, and comes from … it was described by Istvan Szechenyi, who is one of the greatest Hungarian thinkers of all time. So, this is a tradition which probably we won't get rid of it, because it's always better to look at yourself as a victim rather than someone who is responsible for anything. Kester Eddy: Might I suggest that this predominant view which you described here even affects liberals such as yourself? For example you talk about the loss of two-thirds of “Hungarian” territories. Yet, take Transylvania, for example. In historical Transylvania, as I'm sure you know better than me, in the 1910 census the largest ethnic group was Romanian. Therefore, wasn't Hungary more of an empire at that time, and you should refer to it as that? GyCs: It was not an empire. It was the Hungarian kingdom and this kingdom was suffering a huge wound from the Turkish invasion, and since then the kingdom has never recovered. What I've been characterising is a sense, a sense of loss. If you have pain, you cannot explain to me why you have a pain: there is an inability to communicate in emotional terms. So, human beings are somehow alien from each other.
KE: But Hungarians were a minority group in Transylvania. GyCs. You cannot understand what it means [to a Hungarian]: what does it mean that Kelemen Mikes was born in Zágon. The beauty of his language is so deep, and so flourishing, so fresh, I can compare it to …. [inaudible]. But this is just one example. It's the same with Kassa: you probably know Sándor Márai, he's not the best, but he's quite fashionable as a writer. He was born [near] Kassa. One of his best books is about his childhood, which he spent in Kassa. Of course, someone who doesn't know his memoirs cannot understand the Hungarian attachment to Kassa. KE: But what about the German attachment to, say Stettin, or Konigsberg? Germany lost all those territories after WW2. GyCs: Perhaps Konigsberg would be a good example, because .... [inaudible].
But, [even] from a German point of view, it cannot be compared to the significance of Márai. Every nation is sad in its own way. It cannot be explained, that is the message. If you treat a psychiatric patient, and if the patient comes to you and says he has two heads, you cannot say to him: well, count your heads, you only have one.