Sunday, 10 June 2012

The rehabilitation of the far right in Hungary 1: Horthy and the thirties

One can make a good case for valuing a writer by his or her writing rather than by their opinions. I have tried to make that case myself in the case of, say, Kipling, much as Auden wrote in In Memory of W.B. Yeats:

Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and the innocent,
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,

Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives;
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honours at their feet.

Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.

It is, generally, anathema to ban writers for their inconvenient political views. I write 'inconvenient' aware that what might be a moral disgrace to one side might be a form of shining virtue on the other. It was in this way that some of the finest Hungarian poets of the post-war years were banned for what the state called 'bourgeois individualism'.  

For some states, at certain times, it has seemed convenient to ban material that might carry the wrong sort of message. There were right things to say and wrong things to say, and if it wasn't right then it was probably wrong.  But the message in poetry and literary fiction is not always easy to read. In literature, and the arts as a whole, the charge of bourgeois individualism related to an implied ideology rather than to something as clear as a 'message'. It was not what was said, but a wrong way of thinking and feeling. It called for re-education, possibly prison.

But the reverse position also applies in such societies. It is not a matter of banning alone but of introducing politically convenient material, not just into the market but into the educational system as an object of approved study. This is not be on literary grounds but because the work so introduced supports the desired ideology and, beyond that, encourages a certain climate.

Literary value in either case is a secondary consideration. Or rather, literary value is determined in terms of social value, or political convenience.


Since the election of the Fidesz government in 2010 Hungary has been determined to turn the political clock back to the thirties. Fidesz currently has no credible left-wing opposition, its only true opposition being the fascist party, Jobbik, that represents the third biggest power in parliament.  Jobbik's programme is as fascist as you can find in Europe. Its members would be very happy sitting next to Greece's Golden Dawn, possibly even to the right of it. Jobbik is rabidly xenophobic, anti-Semitic, anti-Roma and has at various times had uniformed and armed militia.

Fidesz claims to be a centre-right party but uses Jobbik as a cover for its own extreme right tendencies. In any case the two parties can meet in their admiration of the Hungary of the thirties. Hungary's problems with the EU and the IMF are reasonably well known. The EU objects to elements of Fidesz's new constitution and the IMF is withholding money. Every second week Fidesz claims the crisis is over, then it all begins again. It's like old-fashioned operetta and would be very funny if the country were not suffering the consequences.

Fidesz's first political aim has, throughout, been the neutralisation of left wing or liberal opposition and to take over the legal and cultural apparatus of the country. It has gone about this in various ways, ways about which I have written before. The point of the exercise is, I believe, to re-orientate the country's own idea of itself and to set it on a base that puts national pride at the top of the agenda. But what are the objects of this national pride?

An idealised version of the Hungary of the thirties is one of them. The love affair with the thirties is demonstrated in various ways, most clearly in the drive to rehabilitate the figure of Admiral Horthy. Wikipedia has a relatively kind article on him though of course the right in Hungary feels even kinder, regarding him as a hero, depicting him in painting as the figure of righteousnesserecting statues to him, naming squares after him, with an occasional protest

It isn't so much Horthy's precise position on the right wing spectrum that is at stake: it is the symbolic value of the political rehabilitation that is of real importance. It is as if Spain had decided to fetishise Franco or if Portugal rehabilitated Salazar. 

The act marks, and is intended to mark, a sea change, a turning of the tide. For many it is a fearsome and highly significant tide...

More tomorrow

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