Arpad von Klimo. Nation, Konfession, Geschichte: Zur nationalen Geschichtskultur Ungarns im europÖ¤ischen Kontext (1860-1948). Munich: R. Oldenbourg Verlag, 2003. 453 S. EUR 59.80 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-486-56746-5.
Reviewed by Mario Fenyo (Bowie State University, Department of History and Government)
Published on HABSBURG (June, 2004)
Hungary is in Europe, After All
Hungary is in Europe, After All
If we must come up with a label, it may be said that Klimo's study falls within the genre of the history of ideas; but it is too wide-ranging to be labeled anything in particular. In fact, it is even more wide-ranging than the title and subtitle indicate. It is wide-ranging with regard to the time-frame, particularly if we note that one of the starting points is March 1848 rather than 1860, and the concluding chapter explains how that year--1848--remained a rallying point both for the state-socialist (Klimo's term) regime and its opposition, well past 1948, down to 1989. In fact, an entire section is devoted to Sandor Petofi, who died on the battlefield in 1849, and another section to Count Istvan Szechenyi, whose public life, although he died in 1860, had ended by the time the revolution of 1848 broke out.
The work is wide-ranging in a spatial sense as well. As the title does indicate, Hungary is not discussed in isolation, but in a European context, sometimes with a nod to comparative history. The comparisons or parallels come quite naturally, to the point where the reader may not even be aware that the focus is Hungary, and Europe the framework. Only in the last segments of the work--World War II and its aftermath--does the "European context" seem to fall by the wayside.
Furthermore, the work is wide-ranging because of its choice of topics. The subjects listed in the title are comprehensive enough by themselves. Indeed, "nation" and "history" are all-inclusive concepts, and "religion" and "historicism" (my translation of Geschichtskultur) come close. It may come as a surprise, therefore, that the work is nonetheless focused, once we are able to identify the specific topics.
These topics include, as mentioned above, the celebration of March 1848, that is, the beginning of the revolution and of the struggle for independence. A related topic is the cult of the figure of Sandor Petofi, the epitome of the romantic poet and a national hero, in every sense of the word. At least according to a popular Hungarian encyclopedia quoted by Klimo, he was the greatest Hungarian poet of the 19th century and the one best known to the outside world.
The date 1860, given in the title, refers to the beginning of the official cult of Saint Stephen and of his "right hand", the religious relic. Indeed, August 20, Saint Stephen's day, vies with March 15 for the official or unofficial title of national holiday, both a function of religion and of the regime's ideological orientation. In 1891, August 20 became a national holiday, or the national holiday. In 1905, with the participation of 30,000 visitors and residents, Saint Stephen's basilica, the construction of which spanned half a century, was dedicated and became the "cathedral" of Budapest (p. 126). The monument to Saint Stephen on the other side of the Danube, in Buda, the planning of which took forty years, was likewise completed in 1906--indeed, the design has become a fixture on Hungarian postage stamps--partly as an endeavor to save the land from the "Calvinists and the Jews" (p. 109).
Other topics include the celebration of May 1, beginning in 1890, alongside the founding of the Socialist Party of Hungary. The workers' movement acquired greater legitimacy thanks to its historical grounding, for instance with references to Gyorgy Dozsa, the petty noble leader of the peasant uprising of 1515, and Ignac Martinovics, the Hungarian Jacobin at the time of the French Revolution.
The Millennium of 1896 came partly in response to the celebration of Mayday: it celebrated patriotism and the occupation of the land by Hungarians moving in from the Asian heartland, about a thousand years earlier. Another monument, which by now has become a landmark and the focal point of great national celebrations (for instance, the reburial of the martyr of the 1956 revolution, Imre Nagy), was erected to celebrate that so-called anniversary. In a way, so were the subway line which runs underneath the Andrassy Avenue, the first in Europe, and the concomitant world fair.
The process of magyarization of names, begun in 1880, may also be reckoned as part of the celebration of ethnic origins. It came as somewhat of surprise to me that, in spite of the career advantages a Hungarian name might confer, the average number of applications for Hungarian-sounding surnames in the 1890s was only about 800 (my own father included in the count) per year. Perhaps the explanation lies in the fact that, while the process clearly benefited persons of Jewish extraction (anti-Semitism--at least according to Klimo--became serious in Hungary, beginning in 1883) members of other ethnic groups--Slovaks, Romanians, South Slavs, etc.--seldom took up the offer. They abstained perhaps because they were proud of their own ethnic ancestry, but also because Hungarian-speakers had opportunities to make a career, without bothering to change their name. Incidentally, the ratio of those who spoke Hungarian as their mother tongue in Budapest increased from about 50% in 1850 to 86% in 1910.
Although the alleged date of the arrival of the Hungarians--896 A. D./C.E.--was chosen rather arbitrarily, as Klimo points out, it acquired a life of its own in history books written by Hungarians and non-Hungarians alike. Indeed, as the title indicates, one of the dimensions of the book is the cult of the nation or, better said, of nationalism itself. The book also refers to the erection of statues and other monuments dedicated to national heroes and, occasionally, to their removal or destruction (see pertinent statistics on p. 229). Once again, Petofi is in the limelight, by virtue of the March 15 celebration held at the foot of his statue. One might add, however, that there is plenty of room for an expansion of the study of monuments and national heroes (see, for instance, the work of Gyorgy Csepeli).
As a relatively minor theme, Klimo informs the reader about the cult of Arpad, credited with leading the Hungarians from the Asian or Ukrainian steppes into Hungary, and even the cult of Attila. The latter, who is probably unrelated to any Hungarian alive or dead, and who is viewed by some as the prototype of the terrorist leader, the "scourge of God," became a source of inspiration to a million Hungarians who named their male child after him. Thus there evolved a cult of both Arpad and Attila, neither one listed in the calendar of saints.
The role of May 1 and of the socialist movements over the past hundred and fifteen years becomes another leitmotiv. One may note, however, that for many Hungarians the archetype of the Hungarian, descendant of the original "stock", was the peasant, including the Szekely peasant of Transylvania, rather than the proletarian. Ironically, while nationalists and chauvinists of the first half of the 20th century extolled the peasant as the "true Hungarian", they also conspired to keep him or her landless and miserable, for the most part.
Religion is another one of the main dimensions of Klimo's book. For instance, the success of Petofi--and of the other "greatest" poet of the 19th century, Janos Arany--is explained in part by their Protestant background. The importance of a denominational perspective, particularly the division between Catholic and Protestant, may have been somewhat exaggerated by Klimo.
The book was certainly not intended as a general history of Hungary, but it is possible to read it and understand it given no more than a cursory familiarity with the history of Eastern or East-Central Europe. For general information, the author relies heavily on the more comprehensive works of Ignac Romsics, Gabor Gyani, Thomas Sakmyster, Jeno Gergely and a few others. This is not to say that the book does not engage in extensive original research, based on primary sources. The bibliography alone extends to 30 pages, and lists almost a thousand titles.
It should be clear, by now, that the book was a most worthwhile undertaking, which must have taken years to complete. This undertaking is only enhanced by what, for want of a better word, I would call balance. Of course, "balance" may just be a code-word for the fact that I happen to agree with most of its findings. On the other hand, it may be simply that the author is convincing enough to impose on me many of his assessments, in those instances where I was lacking in knowledge or conviction; I suspect, the persuasiveness that worked on me is likely to work on others. The next paragraph offers an example both of balance or fairness and of Klimo's powers of persuasion.
The historiographical tendency over the last 15 years in Hungary, with some notable exception, has been to downplay the contributions of the state socialist regime, or even to dismiss it altogether, deemphasizing the role of socialist ideology (whereas American and Hungarian-American authors, even since the end of the Cold War, often insist on referring to the regime since 1948 as the Communist regime and to its ideology as the Communist ideology), or even deny that there is such a thing as a working class. Klimo makes an effort to redress the balance. For instance, the Republic of Councils of 1919 is not viewed as an anomaly, and Bela Kun is not a monster (the historical monsters are those--the Stalinists--who killed Kun).
Rather oddly, Klimo points out the parallels between the lives of Matyas Rakosi, the Stalinist dictator, and Jozsef Mindszenthy, the man who became the Primate of Hungary and a near saint. Both were from marginalized ethnic groups--Rakosi of Jewish background and Mindszenthy of German-Swabian ancestry. They were born in the same year, 1892. Both were imprisoned and persecuted, by the extreme left (a questionable designation, to be sure) as well as by the extreme right.
Indeed, Klimo's work is well worth reading and using. It is full of factual information, which may or may not be well-known. The interpretation is as objective and scientific as a work in the social sciences can be expected to be. If we must criticize, we can point out that the selection of topics and sub-topics sometimes appears arbitrary. Why are certain themes emphasized at the expense of others? We could critique the illustrations, which are too few and of poor quality. We could critique the typographical errors (inevitable when dealing with Hungarian names and titles), or the geography--why is Lipotvaros located "south" of downtown?
All this, however, would amount to nit-picking. If a recommendation is warranted, I would certainly recommend that the book be translated into at least English and Hungarian.
. Gyorgy Csepeli, National Identity in Contemporary Hungary (East European Monographs 466; Atlantic Studies in Society and Change 91, Boulder, Col. et al.: Social Science Monographs, 1997).
. Peter Gunst, A magyar tortenetiras tortenete [The history of Hungarian historiography], (Debrecen: Csokonai, 1995), pp. 163-64.
. Jeno Gergely's works on the Catholic church; Gabor Gyani and Gyorgy Kover, Magyarorszag tarsadalomtortenete a reformkortol a masodik vilaghaboruig [The social history of Hungary from the age of reform to World War II] (Budapest: Osiris, 1998); Ignac Romsics, Magyarorszag tortenete a XX. szazadban (Budapest: Osiris, 1999), English edition Hungary in the Twentieth Century (Budapest: Corvina, 1999), listed in footnotes, but not in the bibliography; Thomas Sakmyster, Hungary's Admiral on Horseback: Miklos Horthy, 1918-1944 (East European Monographs 396, Boulder, Col.: East European Monographs, 1994).
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Mario Fenyo. Review of von Klimo, Arpad, Nation, Konfession, Geschichte: Zur nationalen Geschichtskultur Ungarns im europÖ¤ischen Kontext (1860-1948).
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Copyright © 2004 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.