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An uprising twice suppressed

Laszlo F. Földenyi writes on the peculiar Hungarian tradition of commemoration by not remembering.

In 1852, Miklos Barabas, one of the greatest and best-known Hungarian painters of the nineteenth century, created a full-length portrait. The man he painted is, to use an expression by the German writer Heinrich von Kleist, like a "young god". Overwhelming in its dimensions alone (243 ×163 cm), the picture that brings to mind Ingre's rendering of Napoleon shows a hero. His radiant features display all the characteristics associated with heroes in the Christian cultural sphere, bespeaking physical and mental greatness, as well as courage, magnanimity and moral steadfastness.

In other words, what one sees on the large-format canvas is an ideal. Barabas had painted heroes in idealized poses before: Kossuth, for example, the hero of the war of independence against the Austrians who was forced to emigrate in 1849; Petöfi, butchered by the Russians summoned by the Austrians; Batthyanyi, the prime minister of independent Hungary executed by the Austrians in 1849; and Szechenyi, who lost his mind over the fiascos of Hungarian history and took his own life in Döbling.

Miklos Barabas, Portrait of Emperor Franz Joseph. Hungarian National Museum, Budapest

In this painting however, Miklos Barabas was portraying not a figure from Hungarian history, but Emperor Franz Joseph I. The man who bloodily put down the Hungarian uprising and liberation struggle, who set a violent Russian army on the Hungarians, who was responsible for the deaths of Petöfi and Batthyanyi, who in the autumn of 1849 had thirteen generals executed, covered Hungary with gallows and forced thousands to flee, including many of Barabas' friends. There were also those he drove mad – like the great, tragic Hungarian poet Mihaly Vörösmarty, of whom Barabas created a portrait (also idealized) in 1857, two years after Vörösmarty's death.

What was going through Barabas' mind while he painted Franz Joseph as a young god? We need not speculate. For a Viennese painter, such an approach would have been entirely natural. But Miklos Barabas was not Austrian. On the contrary, he was decidedly proud of his Magyar identity. And yet he painted this picture. Nothing in the portrait of Franz Joseph points to what this ruler represented for Hungarians in 1852 – in the same way as Barabas' portrait of Vorosmarty bears no suggestion that this poet took leave of his senses over the fate suffered by the Hungarians at Franz Joseph's hand. Suffice it to say that three years after the end of the struggle for freedom, people were portraying it in this way.

I do not wish to be one-sided: It is common knowledge that Barabas held the victims of Hungarian history in high esteem to the very end. But in his assessment of the balance of power in 1852, he was also aware of the reality of the situation. Or does "reality" not exist as such, does it only come into being as the result of such decisions, becoming what is known as reality as a result of this peculiar bending of memory? With his gesture, in any case, Barabas anticipated the Austro-Hungarian compromise of 1867, when a large section of the Hungarian nation similarly decided in favour of amnesia and, instead of remembering, fled into forgetting. Or to be more precise, practised a form of commemoration based on not remembering.

This is Hungary's peculiar version of a culture of memory. Not a unique or isolated phenomenon in our history. A reference to the revolution of 1956 illustrates this amply. As in 1848, writers and artists were instrumental in inciting the uprising. Among them was the major Hungarian writer Laszlo Nemeth, one of the cleverest men of the 20th century. After the Russians' bloody suppression of the uprising, he was beside himself with despair and had the idea that one Hungarian writer should commit suicide every month as a protest. Miklos Meszöly, the first person to whom he mentioned this proposal, and who told me the story, replied: "You go first!"

Nemeth shied away from suicide. Instead of killing himself, he later became involved in literary politics and in 1959 travelled to the Soviet Union with an official writers' delegation. Although initially reluctant to go, he later allowed himself to be persuaded and once there proposed a toast in honour of the Soviet Union – an act he did not tire of defending on his return home. His subsequent statements bore no trace of an appeal to suicide. And while Tibor Dery, Istvan Eörsi and other writers were in prison, and while Miklos Meszöly went into inner emigration, Nemeth repeatedly acknowledged the greatness of Soviet Union. Let me add: like Miklos Barabas, Laszlo Nemeth too was a major artist. He is by no means a traitor. On the contrary – like Barabas, he too always honestly bore the interests of Magyar culture in mind. But for some reason, he too chose the path of not remembering.

Amnesia as a survival remedy. Not remembering as a peculiar Hungarian version of remembrance. Visitors to Hungary quickly gain the impression that although there is a general interest in the past, in the wounds of the past, there also seems to be a general reluctance to look the past in the eye – as if everyone were oppressed by what they are absorbed with on a daily basis. Like an actual burden, the past weighs down on the people in Hungary. But not because it is so terrible and heavy, but because it is so inscrutably dense and chaotic. A lack of clarity, then, which is due in part to the fact that Hungary has always been at the intersection between the spheres of interest of various major powers (Turkey, Austria, Germany and Russia). And this geopolitical situation has largely prevented the emergence of a unified culture of memory.

As well as 1848 and 1956, we should not forget another important date which for us Hungarians, as for all the other European nations, is a year of anniversaries. Or to be more precise, of one anniversary in particular – the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in 2005. From Moscow to London, from Madrid to Warsaw, memorial ceremonies were held. And, of course, in Hungary. But here, unlike in most European countries, May 1945 is associated with several events at once.

Firstly, there is the fact of the end of the war, experienced by some Hungarians as a liberation, by others as a defeat, and by yet another (sizeable) group as both a liberation and the start of a new occupation. Secondly, there is the end of the semi-feudal, strongly right-wing, often even openly fascist system that held power in Hungary for a quarter of a century, doing so – and this is very important – without German support, sometimes actually anticipating the Germans in its radicalness. Thirdly, May 1945 marks the beginning of the Soviet occupation which sealed the country's fate for another 40 years. And fourthly, there is the final loss of the Hungarian territories (which had already been severed in 1919 and then gradually reclaimed or given back), something which now seems to be an unalterable fact, regardless of how many people still experience it as traumatic. And besides all this, there is one last question that must be addressed: for Hungary, which remained at Hitler's side until the very last, should the end of the war be seen as a victory or a defeat?

So what happened in 1945? In territorial terms, a large state (map) became a small state, an event that was both just and unjust. One occupying power was followed by another, something that felt both liberating and oppressive. Some of the oppressed themselves became oppressors, which is understandable but unacceptable. The majority of those trapped outside the new borders felt themselves to be victims and found no comfort in the fact that a considerable number of those who remained in the dismembered country also felt like hostages. And although the vast majority prefer to consider themselves victims, it is extremely unusual for the culture of memory to make a distinction between passive and active victim status (as Reinhart Koselleck has pointed out). For this could only happen when the Hungarians – as losers in the war – accepted that they shared responsibility for the disaster. A large section of the Hungarian nation experienced World War II as victims, but they were victims in a different sense than those who were oppressed under joint German and Hungarian rule, sent to war or driven to ruin. Can someone be a perpetrator and a victim at the same time? I think they can.

So what does it mean to commemorate such an anniversary? Friction, conflict between barely reconcilable interests. Dispute and discord. Not historical clarification but the marking out of ideological battlegrounds. In psychological terms, a mood resembling a civil war in which hostilities may ignite not just on two fronts but on three or four in the space of just a few seconds. In Hungarian history, memorial days are days of rage and hate. At the approach of any memorable date, the police in Budapest ready themselves days in advance, and in no time at all the capital is plunged into a state of emergency.

I began with Miklos Barabas. His case is relevant to this day, as March 15 is still a day not of celebration but rather of the impossibility of shared remembrance. Moreover, the idea of national independence in connection with 1848 usually evokes memories of the Treaty of Trianon, linking directly to thoughts of the dismemberment and betrayal of the nation, which in turn takes us straight to the present.

The same happens with regard to October 23 1956. For years, we have been witnessing absurd situations, as when former henchmen of the Communist rulers sling mud and even spit on those who were sentenced to death by the Communists after 1956 – based on the argument that it was precisely those who only escaped death by the skin of their teeth who were the real toadies and favourites of the Communists. This year sees the 50th anniversary of October 23 – but the mood of civil war can already be predicted. The civil war of remembrance. Hardly distinguishable from common hysteria. After all, memory too belongs to the field of psychology.

For the sake of truth, one should add that this is not something that began after the fall of the old order in 1989. Unofficial rallies and memorial ceremonies were organized on March 15 from the early 1970s, with the crowds always dispersed by the police, never without bloodshed. But even before World War II, this day often degenerated into bloody brawling. In fact, even before World War I. Not to mention that before the Austro-Hungarian compromise, this was the day of the national taboo: it goes without saying that the Austrians did not allow any acts of remembrance, and the Hungarians remembered by remaining silent – they remembered without commemoration. And concerning October 23 1956, until 1989, any form of official remembrance was forbidden, which did not stop many people from placing a lit candle in their window or visiting the cemetery where the martyrs of the revolution had been buried in mass graves – most of them face down, their hands bound with wire. The same cemetery where today, the October 23 memorial ceremony sees people of different persuasions and political affiliations attack each other, year after year, with an aggressiveness most unfitting for a cemetery.

So what does all this suggest? With a certain resignation I could even say that in Hungary, this fighting, this quasi-civil-war-like aggressiveness, is an appropriate and authentic expression of remembrance. Another feature of this phenomenon is that the euphoria always vanishes overnight, the enthusiasm evaporates. And what remains? Latent anger, repressed aggression. And the apathy and indifference that are part and parcel of such repression. This apathy and indifference cannot be separated from the enthusiasm of March 15 or October 23, that thirst for action that likes to see itself in a heroic "now or never" pose. The enthusiasm of the Hungarians is always short-lived. Foreigners see this as perhaps their most characteristic trait. Together with the way they cry at parties. And curse fate, bent over the table. At the end of the nineteenth century, several artists painted genre motifs showing people bent over the table in a pub, sobbing and cursing life (for example Jozsef Rippl-Ronai's painting "Inn at Pont-Aven", or in another setting in Mihaly Munkacsy's work "The Condemned Cell". To this day, these paintings are characteristic and accurate.

Jozsef Rippl-Ronai, Inn at Pont-Aven. Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest

But instead of entering the murky waters of the national character and the soul of the people, let us rather concentrate on Hungary's peculiar brand of communal national remembrance – this memory without remembering, the fact that in Hungarian history, strangely, the way memory works is by blocking out precisely that which is to be commemorated. I have already mentioned Miklos Barabas' painting of Emperor Franz Joseph. In technical terms, Barabas was certainly capable of painting a good portrait, but he reveals himself most strikingly where he wishes to disguise himself most.

Mihaly Munkacsy, The Condemned Cell. Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest

But this applies not only to painting and art. It is an expression of the peculiar deformation of Hungarian history. In 1867, just 18 years after the revolution was put down, the Austro-Hungarian compromise was greeted enthusiastically by the majority of the revolution's former leaders. And those wishing to cling to the ideas of 1848 were defamed by public opinion as troublemakers, some even subjected to public doubts about their mental state.

At the turn of the century, the now old Franz Joseph, who for most Hungarians was once identical with the devil, was unanimously respected in Hungary as a wise ruler, as the patron and father of the Hungarian people. Miklos Barabas' painting from 1852 anticipated what was to become a widespread belief. What in 1852 had been a historic lie could, by 1900, become a history-shaping force, appearing to the majority of the country as the truth. Remembering meant suppressing memory. In other words: the more deformed the memory, the more truthful it appeared.

This process can be traced throughout the last two centuries of Hungarian history. Miklos Horthy, too, began his rule in 1919 with bloody terror – but two decades later, the entire country considered him a wise leader and father of the nation, just like the Austrian emperor before him. And the same applies for life after the revolution of 1956. Janos Kadar began his rule with a bloody settling of scores, ordering hundreds of executions, not only bowing to Soviet pressure but also on the basis of his own convictions. But two decades later, he too had become the darling of the entire country. People spoke of him as if he were the father of the nation.

Yes, the father of the nation. In the case of all three rulers, the longing of the nation as a whole for a father manifests itself. But this longing is nourished and reinforced not so much by the lack of a father as by a failure to grow up, by a lack of independence. Or to be more precise, by a refusal to grow up, by fear and running away. As a result, although memory of the original situation does not cease, it becomes distorted and goes astray. In his book "Civilization And Its Discontents", Sigmund Freud points out that "the forgetting we are familiar with" does not involve "a destruction of the memory-trace - that is, its annihilation". Just because one seems to forget something, then, it does not vanish without a trace. On the contrary, he continues, "we have been inclined to take the opposite view, that in mental life nothing which has once been formed can perish – that everything is somehow preserved such that in suitable circumstances (when, for instance, regression goes back far enough) it can once more be brought to light."

This regression can also be observed in Hungary's culture of memory. Of course, the root of this problem is by no means purely psychological. No less important, if not of greater consequence, is the backwardness, one could even say the underdevelopment of civil society, which for centuries has left Hungary banished to the periphery of Europe, where it remains stuck to this day. One of the most striking symptoms of this backwardness is a lack of openness to dialogue, to discussion, to comparing points of view. And why is this openness important? In very simplified terms: because it is not friendly to aim for exclusivity, to strive for it, for total assertion of one's own point of view. Such behaviour spawns rage, frustration and a civil-war-like mentality.


The article originally appeared in German in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on January 7, 2006.

Laszlo F. Földenyi (1952) is an art theorist, literary scholar and essayist. He has worked as dramatic advisor at various theatres in Hungary, and translated works by contemporary playwrights into Hungarian. He is co-editor of a Hungarian edition of the works of Heinrich von Kleist.

Translation: Nicholas Grindell.

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