Tradition versus History: the Hungarian Version

24. novembris, 2009

The extreme right Movement for a Better Hungary (Jobbik) has been busy revising the legitimacy of Hungary's current borders (along with the borders of several neighbouring countries), now it has decided to take a deeper stab at history. In September this year, the party published an English article on its website, claiming to unmask a conspiracy by 'foreign linguists' that has lasted for more than a hundred years. The conspiracy in question concerns, in the party's view, the very origins of the Hungarian nation. The main point that Jobbik's ideologues are trying to make is that in the nineteenth century, German linguists in the pay of the Habsburgs intentionally undermined the tradition Hungarian vision of national origins, and invented the idea that Hungarians are a Finno-Ugric group. "Before, Hungarians had an altogether different view about their own origin. They held that they were the descendants of Hun-Scythian ancestors."

The arguments used to discredit the generally accepted theory of the Finno-Ugric origins of Hungarian language are both ridiculous and familiar: “they [the Habsburgs] commissioned foreign linguists to construct a fake narrative that was alien to the native notion of history”. The purpose was, according to Jobbik, “to break national resistance by depriving the nation of its traditional views of history”. One could have dismissed the whole story as a hopeless farce, were it not for the sad similarity of the arguments used by Jobbik and those used by ‘nationally minded’ practitioners of memory politics all over Eastern, Central and South-Eastern Europe.

Arguments such as the wrong national origin of historians or linguists (‘foreign linguists’) or the assumed existence of a ‘native notion’ of history may sound totally ridiculous to professional historians educated at most Western universities. What is the relevance of a historian’s ethnicity to the content of his/ her theories? And what is a ‘native notion’ of history anyway? Can the history of ancient Rome be written only by classical Romans? That would disqualify all historians writing after 476, wouldn’t it? And on what grounds can a ‘traditional view of history’, if proven factually wrong, be held as more important than the scholarly (researched) version of historical events?

But this is not how the practitioners of national memory politics reason in many cases. To them, History is not a branch of Social Sciences (or even Humanities) but a repository of memories and myths from which ideological messages can be extracted at convenient moments. While doing this, many of them would deny the same right to appropriation of history by groups not associated with nation states. Condescending remarks made about branches such as Women’s History and Queer History by conservative historians and their colleagues in political circles would be too many to count.

The national memory experts from Jobbik, however, go a step further. Not only do they tacitly admit (through the formulations used in their ‘unmasking’ article) that a ‘traditional’ national view of history is more valid than international academic research results. They are also set to disseminate their view of history and its usages throughout Hungarian society. From the same article we can learn that ” Jobbik supports the establishment of new university departments and other civic workshops devoted to the research of the history and the origin of Hungarians. It calls for the establishment of a new institution dedicated solely to the research of the ancient history of Hungarians. Jobbik also calls for the revision of textbooks of the elementary and high schools, in order to let children and young people getting acquainted with the true history of their ancestors.”

One can only wonder what a ‘civic workshop devoted to the research of history’ is. A scholarly-minded branch of Jobbik’s Hungarian Guard perhaps? It remains to hope that Jobbik’s colleagues in the Balkans, in Russia and in the BNP will not take over and spread the practice of civic history workshops. Otherwise, within a generation we may find the history of Europe revised beyond recognition.

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