Krisztián Ungváry says the politics of memory is about political utility

November 14, 2016


Translation of interview with Hungarian historian Krisztián Ungváry published under the title “It would be good for the entire country if MSZP would cease to exist” appearing in conservative op-ed portal on November 6th, 2016.

Translated by Justin Spike.

MSZP should have kicked Szófia Havas out of the party immediately for her comments on ‘56, but there’s not really any need for that party — Krisztián Ungváry said, who goes hard at Viktor Orbán’s October 23rd memory politics (which he himself heckled), and at Gyurcsány as well. Even Gábor Kuncze was not spared. The historian, who describes himself as right-wing and a Christian, told Mandiner he measures the Communists by the same standards as the Nazis, and he’s currently working on a portrait gallery of the German heroes who protected Budapest. He also thinks Imre Nagy was a hero, and not only the “Pesti srácok.” Here’s our interview.

Mandiner: “I’m open to debate and to looking into my own mistakes.” Who wrote that?

Krisztián Ungváry: I did.

Mandiner: Then was it really a good idea to choose the day of a national celebration to use your civil rights and heckle the prime minister?

KU: In this case it’s hard for me to see that I made a mistake since Viktor Orbán to my knowledge only makes public appearances on national holidays. I didn’t really have any other choice. They don’t invite me to such places where I’d be able to meet with him. But if they invited me as a guest, to Parliament let’s say, it would be a bad idea to bring a whistle in my mouth. I wouldn’t consider it appropriate. On the other hand, of course we can argue about whether it was proper to express my dissatisfaction by walking into other people’s comfort zones, but this dilemma interestingly didn’t come up before 2010 when prominent MSZP members celebrated the 23rd.

Mandiner: But because of cordons or other reasons, there weren’t crowds at those celebrations.

KU: There were at some, and I’m sure the heckling bothered them too. I wasn’t at any of Gyurcsány’s October 23rd celebrations, because I felt some cognitive dissonance in how the socialists celebrated 1956, but I was occasionally at the Budapest March 15th celebrations. The protesters against Gábor Demskzy certainly ruined my holidays too.

Mandiner: Then you know the feeling.

KU: Of course. I went to celebrate March 15 from the end of the ‘80s, it was always a powerful, exciting experience. A good part of the students from Rákóczi High School weren’t at home asleep in ‘87 – my classmates were arrested. Luckily I wasn’t. We have to acknowledge that today, the elevated feeling that used to characterize national celebrations has disappeared. It’s a disaster but a fact.

Mandiner: Disaster? Because you just caused the situation!

KU: You can’t accuse me of systematically working to destroy the elation of the celebration. Until now, no one ever heard me whistle in any kind of national celebration. This was the first time. Now I felt that it was the last straw, I had had enough. I didn’t ruin the event, the political main character did.

Mandiner: The left parties, Gyurcsány’s people, and Bolgár from Klubrádió all condemned Péter Juhász’s whistle demonstration ahead of time, saying it was a Fidesz-style move and wasn’t worthy…

KU: If Ferenc Gyurcsány is this country’s opposition- then it really is the end. I haven’t lived my life until now based on his direction, and I certainly won’t start now. I would note that his party is only one of many. The left-wing opposition has a lot of parties, but left-wing opposition hardly exists in Hungary. This was just demonstrated on the 23rd. Budapest proportionally has the highest number of consciously anti-government voters. If a substantial crowd were able to be drawn into the streets anywhere, it would be here. But what happened? We have to see that October 23rd, 2016 was a victory for Viktor Orbán. His followers filled Kossuth square. Those of us who were whistling might have numbered 500-1500. Jobbik didn’t know what to do, which is a separate tragedy: as long as I can’t whistle against Orbán together with a Jobbik protester, then it’s obvious that this government is locked firmly in place.

Mandiner: Just like your glasses? When you were struck on Kossuth square, opinions immediately began circulating that you used fake blood since your glasses didn’t even fall off, they stayed intact while you bled beneath them…

KU: I would have had to be Houdini or Rodolfo to perform this fake blood application without anyone noticing- all while in the crossfire of cameras. My injury is beside the point anyway. A lot of people were hit a lot harder than me that day. And they would have been beaten even more seriously had there not been press there, or had security not been so well organized, and if strangers hadn’t protected them as they did me.

Mandiner: Plainclothes police?

KU: I have no idea. The funny thing is, my father was there but I didn’t know about it.

Mandiner: Rudolf Ungváry was whistling too?

KU: Yes. Some guy didn’t dare to whistle and gave him his whistle. My dad, who is 80 years old, was standing up on a bench and would have been pretty easy to knock down from there, but strangers protected him too.

Mandiner: You might have expected that you would get a slap. You have a right to express your opinion at a Ferencváros football match too, but if you start to make fun of their fans, they’re probably going to hit you.

KU: The example is weak, because if a person goes to the Ferencváros stadium, he knows that he can count on beefy Ferencváros fans. Not to mention the fact that expression of political opinion isn’t usually the cause of fighting there. And let us add that I wasn’t whistling into anyone’s ear. There was plenty of space next to me. On the other hand, I didn’t expect that the audience during the national holiday would be composed like it was. It seemed like there would be a lot more Orbán hecklers than supporters. I hoped so, because not that long ago they really whistled down the prime minister at the MTK stadium. It didn’t turn out that way, however I think this shows that what I did was logically correct: it has happened in history that those in the tiny minority had the truth on their side.

Mandiner: It doesn’t make logical sense when you argue that someone can express their outrage if the speaker says something outrageous, since you went with a distributed whistle, specifically to disturb the event as part of a pre-planned action.

KU: You wouldn’t have been able to write out the contents of Viktor Orbán’s speech beforehand? I am sure that you would have. It doesn’t take much imagination. On the other hand, the person whose government promoted the former secret police director, the same director who manipulated Imre Nagy’s reburial in his time, that person shouldn’t be surprised that I’m not curious what else the government is going to do. And so I whistle. Shame! But not on me.

Mandiner: A former III/II (Hungarian political police during communist times) agent shouldn’t be able to work? Where would you draw the line?

KU: I’m not opposed to former officers being employed in democracy, with one condition: it should be known what they did in the previous system in internal enforcement, what kinds of strings they pulled. Until we know who the agents were, they can influence public life at any time today. Especially considering that those who were public figures then are probably the same today. These two together don’t really sit well with me.

Mandiner: Is that the straw that broke the camel’s back for you?

KU: Not only that. It started when a highly esteemed university professor friend of mine, to my great surprise, gave a presentation at an opposition party event about the problems with the politics of memory. It drew my attention to our responsibility as public figures to serve. On Saturday the 22nd I went to Vörösmarty square. I ran into the wife of a colleague of mine, who I highly respect, who said they were going the next day to protest. I decided that I would go too.

Mandiner: So you weren’t joining Péter Juhász’s action?

KU: I didn’t even know about it! I brought my own whistle, and believe it or not, I only realized on the square that there had been a political call for it. When they started yelling at me on the square that I was a drug addict, I didn’t understand. ‘Do you think I’m going to pull a joint out of the pocket of my Szekler jacket?’ I asked the screamer, who was by then being mocked by Orbán supporters. At first there wasn’t much tension.

Mandiner: But then there was, and you got hit. You wrote, “we should debate with arguments,” which sounds good, but is whistling an argument?

KU: It’s not an argument, it’s true, but I didn’t only whistle. I told the people flocking around me in one sentence what kind of outrage was taking place on the square. The case of the agent, the promotion of the former secret police director, the scandalous nature of the remembrance, and the fact that the prime minister compares Brussels to Moscow. I don’t have a problem with Viktor Orbán as a private person, and I haven’t usually gone out to whistle against his leadership. It’s true that I could have gone out because of the helicopter story or the MNB cases too. But I went to this protest as a historian, against the lying memory politics.

Mandiner: Not against another historian who was responsible for running this year’s ‘56 events? You’ve been battling with Mária Schmidt for a long time…

KU: We aren’t battling. She’s not professional competition for me, she never wrote anything anywhere about my work. At most, she gave short-tempered instead of reasonable responses to my criticism of the institution she directs. That, however, was more than 12 years ago. Since then she declares that it isn’t permitted to talk to me. But as the director of the country’s most visible museum, she should be able to bear criticism and strive for dialogue.

Mandiner: One of her merits, for example, is that she directs the most visible museum, correct?

KU: I see it differently, but it doesn’t matter. My problem isn’t with Mária Schmidt concerning the commemoration. She’s in a service role here, and is carrying out her given tasks like a craftsman. If somebody makes orthopaedic shoes for someone who orders them, that person isn’t at fault, but the person who orders orthopaedic shoes for a healthy foot is. Viktor Orbán is the one who ordered this sexy event series for a ton of public money, and the result has engulfed the city’s public spaces.

Mandiner: They focused the campaign on the Pesti Srácok, who really were heroes. What is your problem with this?

KU: I wouldn’t have even gone to protest just because of them, their role is essential: Tibor Déry called them holy boys, Time Magazine chose the Pesti Srác as the person of the year. But the revolution didn’t only need them. It needed Déry, the Petőfi circle, it needed Imre Nagy, it needed the workers’ councils, it needed the whole Hungarian nation. But in this year’s memorialization, they retouched everything in the history of ‘56 that isn’t sellable based on their current image.

Mandiner: That’s politics. Ten years ago, the Gyurcsány government focused the 50th anniversary on Imre Nagy.

KU: Of course, the politics of memory is about political utility. I don’t even expect the government to act with the composure of an MTA department, but they spent a suspicious HUF 50 million on the (commemorative anthem-tran.).  Regarding the Gyurcsány government, their narrative was a lie as well. This was routine to the Socialists. László Kovács decided in ‘89 that they would simultaneously represent the heritage of Imre Nagy and János Kádár. How is that even possible? One finished off the other. Katalin Szili came forward at that time too, saying if they would be willing to apologize to MSZP, then they too would apologize. It’s a pretty confusing thought. Who should apologize? Whoever would apologize hardly had a chance to do so, since they were hanged. That you could “sin” against MSZP was by itself a scandalous proposition. Today it would be a huge mistake to forget what the left really was in ‘56. And I must also note, that that’s why the Socialists didn’t try to completely retouch the image of the Pesti Srác in the public consciousness in 2006. In fact, they really tried to be consensual, which was demonstrated when it turned out that their official 1956 memorial hadn’t won the favor of the 1956 organizations, and so they built another one for them on the Buda side. It’s another issue that this didn’t solve the problem of their lack of credibility.

Mandiner: The focus placed on the Pesti Srácok can’t be criticized just for this. They didn’t come from a conservative, upper-class world.

KU: But what was revealed about them during this memorial year? Nothing.

Mandiner: An anniversary is not for historical education, it’s a celebration. You need heroes for that, and they really are heroes.

KU: Yes, it’s just that memory politics is like oil distillation. There are the so-called historical facts, from which they make reference books with footnotes. From those, they distill a more comprehensible, scientific education book. From that comes the politician’s speech, and in the end, the billboard. This doesn’t happen here. They’re putting heads on clothes with Photoshop…

Mandiner: What do you mean?

KU: I mean that often only the identity card photos of the heroes survived. You need a whole body for a billboard, so they Photoshopped their heads onto bodies. They often didn’t even ensure that their clothing be somewhat credible. For example, they put the faces of gypsy heroes onto bodies with bourgeois civilian coats, while in reality they surely never wore such a thing. If only they had asked someone who knows! Not even us, the ‘56 Institute, but somebody else who really understands this. They didn’t do it because this didn’t interest them. Nor did checking out who appeared in the pictures. They failed. But that was no problem for them, because the point was merely for the supposed Imre Nagy narrative not to be in the public consciousness. The reason I call this narrative “supposed” is because I presently don’t know of anyone within the history profession in Hungary who presents 1956 as a primarily left-wing reform communist movement of intellectuals. This is a false accusation on the part of the government, and serves to terrorize the science of history.

Mandiner: There aren’t only billboards of the Pesti Srácok. There’s one of István Angyal too.

KU: That’s the only one. There are around 30 of Gergely Pongrácz. But everyone would easily be able to identify with István Angyal. He went to Auschwitz, he had a communist period in his life, and then he got fed up. This is just the figure who was a victim of both Nazi and communist terror, you couldn’t find anyone better in the spirit of the theory of totalitarianism. Additionally, he was an amazingly brave person, and the rebels all loved and respected him. He fought for Hungarian freedom and gave his life for it. The deflation of the Jobbik camp is of course not as suitable as Gergely Pongrácz…

Mandiner: And if they are already narratives? What do you say about Szófia Havas’ narrative? 1956 as an anti-Jewish pogrom by freed Nazis and organized by the CIA…

KU: If there is a reason the whole country would be better off if MSZP disappeared, that’s it, among others. Statements like that. Szófia Havas isn’t even the only one like that in the party.

Mandiner: We haven’t heard any other socialists make a similar statement in that spirit.

KU: Maybe no one else has stated it like this, but if we take a look: who just became their Chairman of the Board? János Barabás. There really isn’t any special function for a party like this in Hungarian public life. Apart from that, while they still exist, everyone just looks at them and then votes with even greater pleasure for Viktor Orbán.

Mandiner: We do have a couple of liberal intellectuals. János Széky mentioned drugged Sierra Leone child soldiers in connection with the Pesti Srácok, and Árpád W. Tóta also referred to them as child soldiers. Hearing this, any Fidesz supporter, no matter how disillusioned, will run screaming back to Viktor Orbán.

KU: The parallel isn’t fair. Szófia Havas said unacceptable things, not as an independent intellectual, but in an attempt to wash away the filth of her own party and family. In the case of W. Tóta or Széky, I don’t know about anything to suggest that their goal would be the reduction of responsibility of their family.

Mandiner: Tóta once wrote that his family wasn’t on the side of the revolution.

KU: But he didn’t say things like Kádár and Imre Nagy were the same. He didn’t make propaganda denying communist crimes either. It is, however, a totally legitimate proposition to wonder whether I would allow my child to stand up against the tanks. I wouldn’t let my own do it, that’s for sure. To analyze the political motivations of the boys fighting in the street is also legitimate. It’s legitimate if someone speaks out against the portrayal of Péter Mansfeld as a conscious democrat and professed right-wing patriot.

Mandiner: No one says such a thing.

KU: Of course they do. The narrative exists according to which these children went into the streets based on political values. While there was a lot of boyish spontaneity in the whole thing, they didn’t have a political concept. They had the least to lose, from a sociological perspective. They come from simpler, less educated groups. So it is a legitimate endeavor to show the revolutionaries from a different side.

Mandiner: In the case of Mansfeld, W. Tóta says he would have been arrested in even the most liberal western democracy because it was a matter of common law, and Tóta would only say of the judgement that “they went a little overboard.” In such a case where they execute an 18 year old for his role in ‘56 and charging him with organizing against the people’s democratic order…Is this legitimate?

KU: Péter Mansfeld was executed because in the end it was determined that it wasn’t just joking and boyish pranks that they committed, but real militant organization. He was executed, therefore, because he didn’t break. In that, his case is similar to that of Imre Nagy. W. Tóta’s stupidity only reflects himself. It doesn’t increase his own credibility, but the whole thing isn’t really worth talking about. The case of Szófia Havas is a different story. She is a person of the party, that party whose past, in the case of ‘56, is not clean as a whistle, to put it nicely.

Mandiner: The news soon came out that the Socialists are considering an ethics investigation against Szófia Havas.

KU: Ethics investigation? After a statement like this? There’s only one possibility at a time like this: to step down immediately. She should have done what Gábor Kuncze should have done as Minister of the Interior, when his underling, the memorable Mrs. József Császár, issued the document that said the ÁVH didn’t abuse detainees. Kuncze couldn’t have done anything else than run to Mrs. Császár and scream, “Get out of here!” With great difficulty he didn’t kick her down the stairs, but he wouldn’t ever let her back. Or if he didn’t do it, because Mrs. Császár knew a lot of secrets, he should have resigned himself. The case of Szófia Havas is the same kind of outrage. Ethics investigation? The only sane reaction to what she said would be, goodbye, leave immediately. But Havas dishonoring the revolution isn’t an excuse for the government making it one-sided. The revolution wasn’t only by the Pesti Srácok, and it actually wasn’t even 13 days.

Mandiner: So November 4th is just a simplified date?

KU: It’s a date that is important because of the countrywide execution of the Soviet attack, but it took more than half a year for the Kádár regime to really get organized.

Mandiner: It is common to mention May 1st.

KU: Yes, but even by then they hadn’t managed to occupy the entire country. They only started teaching Russian in September, for example. Everyone shutting up and starting Russian class only became a reality a year after the revolution broke out. There was a dual power in the country for almost three months, the workers’ councils still existed. They are completely left out of the current commemoration, because they are connected to the left. But the whole country can be proud of them. They spontaneously, voluntarily took over the factories, operated them, and organized what was necessary on site. They were capable of self management, even on a left-wing basis. This is an enormous social event indeed. In this respect, 1956 was one of the last flare-ups of left-wing thought. The last was Prague, 1968, when they still thought something could be workable and left-wing at the same time.

Mandiner: A naive thought.

KU: It’s no surprise that, as a right-wing person, that’s my personal opinion too.

Mandiner: What do you think of Imre Nagy as a “right-wing person?” Is he a hero or not? Muscovite Bolshevik, informer, collective farming bureaucrat, and then a drifting revolutionary prime minister. Did he redeem himself by not asking for mercy in the end?

KU: As a Christian I can’t say anything to this other than yes. There is no unforgivable sin. Especially if someone dies a martyr’s death. Jesus told the thief that they would be together in paradise if he would repent of his sins.

Mandiner: Could it be that Imre Nagy knew that Kádár would have him killed one way or another? He knew the system, he operated it for a long time.

KU: No. Even those tried along with him who repented their sins avoided the gallows. He could have stayed alive if he’d wanted to.:

Mandiner: He had had a few heart attacks. He might have suspected that he might not last very long- there’s this argument to refute his heroic image.

KU: If we can choose whether we die tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, which do we choose? The day after tomorrow, of course. Imre Nagy had stamina, you could see it in his trial. It would be an ugly thing to deny him this. The basic problem in the Imre Nagy discourse is that the historical background isn’t accounted for. He wasn’t born into the ranks of the Christian Democrats People’s Party, nor was he a founder of Fidesz. His path came from his socialization, which is understandable considering the background. Yes, he was a Muscovite and a Bolshevik, he was even recruited by the NKVD, like everyone who returned home from Moscow. It is worth examining how he made use of his latitude for discretion. Rákosi was a Muscovite, too, and then an informer, for example. You can look at how many intrigues he authored, and how many people he tried to send to the gallows. There are volumes about how many people’s blood he had on his hands. It has not been demonstrated, however, that Imre Nagy deliberately harmed anyone in his reports. The two men’s habits were entirely different, something the whole country could feel. It wasn’t by chance that they demanded Imre Nagy into the government 60 years ago. Considering he was a communist, he made quite a lot of use of his discretion.

Mandiner: Is this how we act toward Nazis too? Are there Nazis who use their discretion well?

KU: That’s exactly how we act, yes. I’m working right now on a portrait gallery of German heroes that protected Budapest..

Mandiner: Wow! Will Krisztián Ungváry be the hero of the Hungarian National Front? Will you raise your shield on the “Day of Honor”?

KU: It truly will be a funny situation when my haters will have to decide between curiosity and disgust when they pick up my book. Anyway, it was partly like this before, Előd Novák referred to me when he proposed a bill in Parliament about the “Day of Honor.” So naturally, we have to look at the background with the Nazis too. With the Hungarian extreme right as well. There we have Miklós Mester, for example. He’s not a Nazi, but a member of the Imrédy-style Hungarian Renewal Party and the Secretary of State for the Sztójay government. If I would be able to use my political latitude half as well as he did his, I would be satisfied with myself. He saved droves of people, he was a right-wing anti-fascist. It’s not as if a person has control over the whole truth from birth. We have to develop among frailties, answer to concrete situations, and it’s worthwhile to judge people based on their deeds and with the knowledge of how they used their latitude for discretion.

Mandiner: How much latitude for discretion does Krisztián Ungváry have? The left lacks leadership, and you are a known opposition figure. What do you do if your name ends up being cast?

KU: If I had had such ambitions, I could have been the candidate of any left-wing party at any time in the last 15 years. I don’t have any such ambition. The left, in its current condition, is unsuitable for any person of sound mind. Plus, I’m not a leftist, so the question is meaningless to me.

Mandiner: You don’t support Gyurcsány either, like your father did?

KU: My father didn’t support him either. He was so naive that he went to an event to speak at which Ferenc Gyurcsány was the main attraction, but he wasn’t a Gyurcsány flag-waver, and since that time he hasn’t shown up at DK events either.

Mandiner: Then you’ll keep whistling and going to street demonstrations?

KU: I don’t think street politics are permanently in my future. I was only there to whistle because I’ve had enough. The fall of the government depends less on the noise of whistles than on the international situation. As long as the country can be financed mostly for free, then Caligula’s horse can remain in the prime ministership, let alone an experienced, professional politician like Viktor Orbán, who has used the opportunity to bring everyone and everything possible into his orbit. It’s a shame actually that without a normal opposition there is no parliamentary control, just as without independent media.

Mandiner: You didn’t do a tour of the establishment or independent media after you got slapped in the face. Didn’t they contact you?

KU: Everyone contacted me, but I didn’t want the story to be about me. The injury wasn’t even serious and the issue is more important than me. Do you know who were the only ones who didn’t try to contact me? The state television broadcaster and the pro-government media. But I would have given an interview specifically to them. I would have been glad if the state television had acted like a public service since they operate on my tax money as well. We can say that Magyar Idők is also living largely off of taxpayer money. They didn’t contact me either. I don’t think we really need to speculate on why not.

Mandiner: Isn’t Jobbik just starting to be the “normal opposition” you just mentioned? The rollback of the residency bonds, for example, is a tangible success for Vona.

KU: It will be difficult to talk about this until it turns out where that Neo-Nazi gang is headed, even if the vast majority of Jobbik voters aren’t actually Neo-Nazis, or if a significant number of them aren’t even radical, just fed up. In any case it will be difficult for Gábor Vona to say, sorry kids, Albert Wass isn’t really the greatest Hungarian writer. Still, as long as Jobbik is unable to cooperate with other parts of the opposition, this government can’t be changed.

Mandiner: Should Vona have his picture taken with Gyurcsány?

KU: No. But Jobbik, DK and Socialist supporters protesting against Orbán together without hitting each other is a basic condition of the overthrow of Fidesz. This, however, is still unimaginable.