The Ethnic Conception of Culture in Hungary
(In: Culture Europe, published by the Culture Europe Association, Nr. 38, 12/2002:
Special Issue: Populist Right, Far Right and Culture), Paris.
In a context of economic crisis and privatisations, the cultural policy led by Victor Orban’s Government stirred old demons – anti-Semitism, racism – and deeply divided society between „real Hungarians“ and the others.
As he celebrated his victory in the evening of May 1998, Prime Minister Victor Orban declared that the Hungarian nation did not cover the population living in Hungary and that he was the Prime Minister of the Hungarian nation as a whole. His words, stamped with the history of past centuries, still sound explosive to this day in Hungary. They served as a guideline to the political and cultural action of Mr. Orban’s Government for four years.
Mr. Orban’s remark refers to the fact that since 1989-90 Hungary has been facing the most violent cultural conflict in ist history, and it reflects his trying to ‚heal’ the ‚ailing’ national identity. Pursuant to centuries of foreign oppression, the Hungarian have built an identity mostly based on victim behaviour and on the image they had of their enemy. After the Berlin wall fell and Russian troops withdrew, that attitude became out-of-date. In the meantime, culture had weakened although it had been the oppressed country’s most important focus of identification for centuries, and it had been an area where resistance was found to be the most active during the „soft dictatorship“: on the one hand the State neglected the culture after the financial crisis in the public sector, on the other hand privatising measures and neo-liberal tendencies triggered ist globalisation.
The „Great Hungary“ ideal
In that context some said that cultural policy could not stop being a bearer of values, that the State was responsible for the culture and that they could not let go of that responsibility. Some people wished that the whole Hungarian population „changed its state of mind“ for the sake of the nation’s cultural future, even appealing to those living in areas belonging to Hungary before the Treaty of Trianon (1920). On the night of his election victory, Mr. Orban made his the will to get their intellectual revenge to re-enliven the ideal of great Hungarian Nation-State that disappeared in the Middle-Ages.
He also adressed the issue of racism because a great number of people
who did not feel concerned by the globalisation process stepped back with
an anti-Semitic attitude. That anti-Semitism, a traditionally conservative
attitude in Hungary that marked a revival avec the fall of communism, fed
in the mid-90’s on the new image of the enemy – the „pro-globalisation
people“, and found ist heightened expression in the idea that the „Jews“
were „pro-globalisation“. The „patriotic“ logic gave rise to images of
foreign enemies: first there was „global Judaism“, with which the „nation’s
traitors“ collaborated, than the United States, because they are the source
of globalisation, and finally Europe, because it wanted to level out certain
characteristics of the Hungarian culture during the unification process.
The Orban Government asserted the unity of the Hungarian culture, thus
ist homogenous character. Outside and inside communication of the nation’s
cultural marketing department were designed by the Government in accordance
with that political and cultural objective. Outside communications were
designed so as to give the world a different image of Hungary away from
prevailing clichés (piroschka and paprika). They often were combined to
a beauty-focused image of the past. New clichés, often considered as authentic,
have developed as the Western population is misinformed about countries
applying to become EU members. As regards inside communications espesially
on the occasion of the Millennium celebration, efforts were made thanks
to the combined action of politicians, patriotic intelligentsia and the
Christian Church of Hungary to ask for Hungarian and Christian culture,
and to foster it on the one hand through symbolic political addresses in
the right-wing public media and the press working in the sphere of the
Government, and on the other Hand through calls for tenders targeted towards
the organisation of the festivities. Thus every single detail of marketing
has been harmonised accordingly as in an antire work of art. From the political
elite’s dress code and the choice of architectural style of new buildings
to rhetoric and „historical-cultural booklets“ asserting that the Hungarian
race is that of the chosen one (thank to ist unique DNA), everithing converges
towards emphasising the unity-driven character that is specific and immanent
In the name of nationalism and Christianity
The amphasis lying more and more on the „national“ and „Christian“ aspect, the anti-Semitist sentiment grew all the more as those concepts traditionally imply the negation of the „Jews“ in the Hungarian traditional thinking. Moreover, the longing for homogenisation led to minimise the differences and to neglect fears, which stem from ambivalences. Unfounded historical notions led to the sublimation of the national ideal, and thus to the alteration of history. An insufficient consideration of the past induced the concealment of guilt, and the transformation of ancestral history into a myth led, on the one hand, to the bautifying of the provincial character instead of the preservation of the authentic, and on the other hand to the rejection of what has an urban and cosmopolitan aspect, thus to the rejection of different ways of thinking.
During the four years that the Orban Government was in power, the ethnic conception of culture led to a paradoxical situation: on the one hand the Government managed to integrate the Hungarian people living outside the national borders to the Hungarian nation, making them „true Hungarians“, even administratively speaking (pursuant to the law on the national status, they are entitled to the Hungarian citizenship and are given a passport), on the other hand that idea stemming from a racist concept was extended so that about half of the population living inside the borders was excluded from that evolution. All the individuals who expressed moral or political reservations were qualified as „non-Hungarian“ and even „sub-human“, and were forced to retreat into a cultural ghetto. The country is now experiencing two parallel cultures fighting hard and clashing very violently at times.
Since April 2002 a Social Liberal coalition government representing „the other Hungarian society“ has been in power. However, it does not have alternative visions and does not seem to dare address the ethnic conception of culture. Those all too well-meaning counter-measures are wearing thin in a co-existence lacking concepts.
Dispite the process of European unification, the domain of culture remains
untouchable because it comes under each Ministry of Home Affairs according
to the rules and regulations. However, as an ethnic conception of culture
leads to paternalism, to cultural cleansing, to exclusion as well as to
conflict, it is not compatible with the founding ideas of the EU, of an
economic, cultural, political community bearing moral values.