Heroes, Kings and Saints

Foto: Peter Župník

The official celebration of the new constitution of Hungary kicked off in Buda Castle at the National Gallery, the former residence of Hungarian Kings. The government has ordered a special exhibition with one hundred artworks and relics representing a thousand years of Hungarian statehood starting with St Stephen of Hungary to hold our ancestors as a shield against cynicism, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán declared in his opening speech. The director of the National Gallery did not attend. He had sent in his resignation on December 31st before the new constitution went into effect on New Year’’s Day.

Several artists, actors, politicians, and cultural players loyal to Orbán’’s party did attend though, and were also able to marvel at the fifteen new paintings ordered for the occasion to commemorate historical events from the more recent past, among them the self-referential signing of the constitution that provided the reason for the show.

The fifteen new paintings will also serve as illustrations for the festive, leather-bound edition of the new constitution. The artist in charge of WWI applied bright layers for a cavalry attack of Hungarian hussars resembling a Sunday outing in the country rather than a bloodbath. My grandfather, who was an officer of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, could surely tell you a treasure trove of stories that created the context for the scars and bulletholes marking his body. The fact that you can’’t see the enemy on the picture might lure the audience into a discourse on just who your real enemy might be, apart from the muse.

My favourite painting though, is another cavalry attack that deals with a more recent subject chosen by the presidentially appointed curator. The cavalry attack of the police on the opposition rally of October 2006 will surely stand the test of time. The artist revisits the theme of Saint George, the dragon-slayer, only this time the dragon stands in the background behind the cordon, merely as an audience. In its place we find the Princess being stabbed by the lance of a mounted police. It might be a titilating little detail for connoisseurs, that Saint George is the patron saint of the Hungarian police.

The opening of the exhibition entitled “HEROES, KINGS, SAINTS” was heightened by the Prime Minister’s announcement calling the new constitution “the reestablishment of the Hungarian state, that would make him one of the new founders of Hungary, and me one of the new witnesses to history in the making.

The celebrating crowd proceeded to the Operaball at the heart of the city, where they were met by another crowd, only this one a lot less cheerful. Tens of thousands of people were standing in front of the Opera House calling for Mr Orbán and his government to step down, using words of more prosaic nature. One of the banners you could make out in the front was a seemingly outdated New Year’’s greeting that read: Happy New 1984!

The word Republic was cut from the name of the country as it now stands in the constitution, which is no longer called a constitution, but The Fundamental Law of Hungary. The constant renaming of things by Fidesz brought back a twelve-year-old joke born exactly on 1 January 2000, when under Orbán’’s first government, the Hungarian state celebrated its 1000th anniversary. The Holy Crown of St Stephen was moved from the National Museum to the Parliament and placed under the historic dome to be closer to the centre of events. “’More than a republic, less than a kingdom.”, as the street interpreted the event, which sounded funny at the time.

I will not dwell much on the protest, which was reported in detail by over a hundred newspapers around the world from the Christian Science Monitor to the New York Times. I would only like to note, that the celebration of the constitution ended much less festively than it began. Orbán and his guests could not leave through the front door. One police officer reportedly warned a Fidesz politician leaving the Opera House to avoid the main street, or the crowd would tear him apart. It may be a consolation for Mr Orbán, that St Stephen, back in his day, had to face riots on a different scale when introducing Christianity to the pagan Hungarians.

History is the opiate of Central European people. It is not a hobby-horse but an addiction. As if it were something that could compensate for all of our losses. That explains the exhibition in the National Gallery. But for the first time in a long while, it looks as if people couldn’’t care less. They are more concerned about whether the country will go bankrupt if the PM doesn’’t make a deal with the IMF. They are afraid that the government will freeze their accounts. Some people are moving their money to Austria. Are they hysterical or well-informed? People ask many questions .

It’’s amazing how, in the last action-packed 20 months, Fidesz has managed to transform the country and Hungary’’s image in the world. It has been the first democratically elected government that has actually had enough power to make the necessary reforms and set the country on the right course. Also, it has been the first government in a long while that had a vision of who we are and where we’’re going. I have to admit, I had never seen so many happy Hungarian faces as when they won the elections in April 2010.

So how did they manage in 20 months to turn half of the country and the whole international press against themselves? How come they’’re accused of dictatorial tendencies, even by conservative Western media, when all they wanted to do was to purge the country of the remnants of communist dictatorship? How come the reputation of my country has never been less appealing since the Hungarian raids on Europe in the 10th century?

They had a plan which didn’’t work out, and now they’re improvising. They say one thing one day and then another, which makes the forint dive to record lows and investors dump Hungarian assets. Something happens when people see the Prime Minister say something and the next minute their money is worth less in their pockets.

I couldn’’t have been more wrong, when, in the late nineties, shortly after the first Fidesz government won the elections, I told a friend that we were on the road to becoming a boring little Central-European welfare-state much like neighbouring Austria. Soon after, the good neighbour went bananas with her extreme right and the EU briefly suspended ties with her. About the same time, Hungarian economy started its long and steady dive from its pole position in the region to its present day Mariana Trench.

There seems to be little doubt that Hungary will continue to feed the news on a regular basis so long as she cannot find her place in Europe. Or until Europe cannot find a place for her. To understand how my country has fallen from grace and gone from the first to become nearly the last in the region one needs to look at the unique path she took during the Cold War.

Hungary was not meant to be part of the Eastern Bloc. Stalin did not consider her in plans drawing up a Slavic brotherhood of satellite states as a buffer zone. Under Khruschev in the fifties, they were close to letting her go along with Austria and Hungarians expressed their passion for independence in 1956 by staging the biggest armed conflict the Soviet Union ever had to face in post-war Europe.

Sadly, by then, revolutions were considered passé in Western Europe, and the USA cared more for the Status Quo than for the desperate attempt of the freedom-loving Hungarians. Consequently, after the disillusionment and a many years of terror, Hungary was ready to comply with the new situation. In time the country managed to develop the most successful black economy in the Eastern Bloc, with free-market traits and a better human rights record than any of its friendly neighbours.

In line with the obvious lies, she created a livable alternative nicknamed the Happiest Barrack in the camp that made Hungary the poster child of Socialism. Other countries, which were technically police states, had less trouble parting with their past after 1989, because radical changes were unavoidable and there was nothing to cry over. Hungary, with its pseudo-democratic Goulash Communism, seemed to make the switch smoothly. It was not clear immediately, that some of the old hands, due to their connections and capital, would become the new oligarchs, and the new hands, in order to be able to compete, would avail themselves of the same techniques as their predecessors. There was a working model, which stemmed from a lifestyle of successful survivalism in the Cold War. Under the free-trade camouflage, the old system had secretly continued to thrive with its many little doors to get around the rules.

Hungary once again could not get over its former glory, and we are not talking about the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When she looks in the mirror closely, even after two decades of market economy, she can still see the Human Face of Communism with its flexible morals, under the table deals, and a system of privileges that continue to haunt the nation especially in times of crisis.

We got our freedom and democracy not as a result of our fabulous resistance, but because the Soviet Union had collapsed under its own weight. The revolution we did have was lost. The people who made it either died or left the country. We had to start from scratch. But Hungarians did not have to fight in 1989. The real crowd took to the streets only when everything was already decided. The people, as a whole, never knew what the freedom of press meant for them until they thought it was taken away last year. The crowd on the street today is a real crowd representing a large part of society that is becoming more and more self-conscious politically.

By changing everything they could lay their hands on, Fidesz made Hungarians more aware of what they were missing. There has been a series of protests all through 2011, with each one drawing a bigger crowd than the previous. Having Orbán on the other side made civil society grow stronger every day. Hungarians now practice democracy in action. If Orbán were to step down tomorrow, all these civic groups could disappear at once. Orbán is playing a major role in transforming Hungarian society, even if at first glance, it seems to be the other way round. Also, if the EU were to step in tomorrow to save the forint or our liberties as such, we would lose again the chance to create the democracy we deserve and take our future into our own hands. Perhaps the protest’’s most remarkable moment was when the crowd started to warm up to the riot police by chanting we are with you, which seemed a bit desperate or at least confusing to many spectators. But then again, you may also interpret it as a gesture of solidarity, which was certainly rarely present for past decades. All this probably would have never happened if it hadn’’t been for the Opera Ball on the other side of the street.

In the eighties everything was simple. Time stood still, the rules were clear. Freedom of speech was scarce and rare, travels were few and far between, dictators were real dictators, the secret police was no secret, we were all unimportant and often happy. The people in power, the collaborators with the occupying forces – they were the bad guys. The people marching down the streets with their fists in the air, that was us –  the good guys… and one of us who went into politics is now the democratically elected prime minister of the country that is a member of the European Union. A fairy tale indeed. A fairly tale ended. Let’’s move on.

The article has appeared in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and The New York Times.