Politics and literature clash in a controversy over the government’s sanction of authors linked to the country’s fascist past.by Peter Murphy 6 July 2012
BUDAPEST | It is not uncommon in Hungarian living rooms to find the walls lined with bookshelves from floor to ceiling. Nor is it odd to find on those shelves a novel or two by the 20th-century Transylvanian writer Jozsef Nyiro.
Nyiro’s heroes are ordinary folk. In books such as Jezusfarago ember (The Jesus Carving Man, 1924) and Uz Bence (1933), their adventures unfold amid the villages and hills of the Hungarian-populated Szekely Land in the heart of Romanian Transylvania, a region severed from Hungary by the post-World War I Treaty of Trianon. They are stories, Nyiro’s fans say, that burst with magyar lelkiseg – Hungarian spirituality and soul – and are an important part of the national identity.
So far, so inoffensive. But the inclusion of Nyiro in Hungary's new National Core Curriculum for high schools, and of fellow Transylvanians Albert Wass and Deszo Szabo, has opened a new front in the country’s ongoing culture wars. On one side are those for whom the three interwar writers are Hungarian patriots; on the other, those who view them as anti-Semitic fascists with no place in the state's official literary canon.
The new curriculum is a central part of what the government, led by the conservative Fidesz party, calls a “fundamental reform” of all elements of the country’s education sector. Rozsa Hoffmann, secretary of state for education and member of junior coalition partner the Christian Democrats, calls the revamp “modern and in line with the latest EU trends.” To Andras Nyiri – formerly a leader of the Hungarian Association of Independent Teachers, now an education consultant and a member of the Network for Freedom of Education, one of several groups that have sprung up in opposition to the changes – it’s a “nightmarish centralized system with a strange retro-Hungary image that prioritizes a ‘national middle class.’ ”
The curriculum, set to be implemented in September 2013, contains plenty of retro. According to Hoffmann herself, it represents a return to the old traditions and baseline standards of cultural literacy. Around 90 percent of what high school teachers can teach will be fixed, providing the basis for a unified “cultural language” throughout Hungary.
The literature element includes hundreds of writers, among them the three Transylvanians, who, grouped together as a “national conservative school,” made the final cut after being omitted from a first draft. The controversy over their inclusion has less to do with the authors’ literary prowess than with their political stripes.
Nyiro, a former Catholic priest, edited far-right propaganda newspapers during World War II and was a member of the wartime Hungarian parliament following the annexation of northern Transylvania in 1940. An admirer of Joseph Goebbels, he kept his seat even after the fascist Arrow Cross coup in October 1944 toppled Miklos Horthy, the regent who had ruled Hungary from 1920.
“Long live Adolf Hitler,” Nyiro told parliament on one occasion. Jews are “foreign to magyar lelkiseg,” he said, and liberal Jewish tradition “has infected many Hungarians and must disappear from Hungarian life.”
Both Wass, whose novels still sell well, and Szabo, an essayist regarded by many as a brilliant talent, had significant anti-Semitic strains in their work. Szabo would later become strongly anti-fascist, but Nyiro and Wass, both of whom fled Hungary at the end of the war, believed until their deaths that America had made a fatal mistake in siding with the atheist Bolsheviks against Nazi Germany. Wass is still considered a war criminal by Romania for his alleged role in atrocities during the annexation of northern Transylvania, charges he denied until his death in Florida in 1998.
Kover replied in writing that postwar Allied generals had not deemed Nyiro a war criminal, fascist, or anti-Semite, and had refused to extradite him back to Hungary to stand trial. Nyiro deserves respect, the speaker said, not for his “tragically mistaken political activity, but for his body of literature,” in which “Nazi sentiments or anti-Semitism do not appear.”
Kover’s implication – that a distinction should be made between the quality or content of a writer’s works and his or her philosophical, ideological, or political views – has become a hot topic of Hungarian debate.
“A literary work is not an ‘object’ that is independent from its author,” says Peter Rado of Expanzio Human, an education policy consultancy in Budapest. “It is interpreted in the light of the whole personality of the person. This doesn't mean that a person’s politics discredit a literary work, even if his political views are questionable. Great writers with controversial views, be they conservative, liberal, or leftist, can be exciting raw material for discussion and free interpretation in the classroom. These are very different, though, from anti-Semitism, which is not a legitimate value.”
Quality should be the key criterion for inclusion in a curriculum, according to Laszlo Arato, president of the Hungarian Language and Literature Teachers Association. The literary bona fides of American poet Ezra Pound or German essayist Gottfried Benn go unquestioned, he says, despite their having been linked with fascist parties. Two other Hungarian writers of that era, poet Lorinc Szabo and essayist Laszlo Nemeth, are regarded as eminences in spite of some anti-Semitic or pro-fascist references in their works or statements.
Arato does not believe the Transylvanian writers make the grade but says his judgment is strictly literary. If the curriculum represents baseline national knowledge, he says, “it should contain only the greatest works of the greatest writers. Nyiro, Wass, and [Dezso] Szabo do not belong in that category.”
Despite their lack of literary gravitas, Nyiro and Wass retain an appeal for many Hungarians, especially those with family connections to or sympathies with Hungarian communities in Transylvania. Both writers were banned during the decades of communism, but there are plenty of pensioners who remember buying their books illicitly in secondhand shops in the 1950s. Their works, accessibly written and rich with anti-communist sentiment, portray lives in the post-Trianon “lost lands” in a way that resonates with the Hungarian psyche and experience. To curriculum critics, politicians are using the education system to play to these sentiments.
“What we are dealing with in the curriculum is political intention, definitely not a scientific discussion about literary merit,” Rado, the education consultant, says. “The inclusion of these authors serves nothing else but the delivery of political-ideological expectations.”
The Transylvanian trio’s route to the curriculum was largely paved by historian Mihaly Takaro. A member of the Cecile Tormay Association – named for another anti-communist author – Takaro has written two books about Albert Wass and delivered lectures at meetings of Jobbik, the radical nationalist party that finished third in 2010’s parliamentary elections. Furious at the composition of the first draft curriculum, Takaro launched a media campaign to include Wass, Tormay, playwright Ferenc Herczeg, poet Istvan Sinka, and other writers he called “national conservatives,” urging teachers to lobby the Education Ministry.
The insertion of Nyiro, Wass, and Szabo in the final version was announced with great fanfare (although Hoffmann, the education secretary, would subsequently, and more discreetly, reveal that teaching them would not be compulsory). According to many political analysts, Fidesz played up the decision in a bid to win votes from Jobbik.
“The government has been trying to steal the symbolic and ideological proposals of Jobbik for two years now,” says Andras Biro Nagy of Policy Solutions, a political research and consulting house in Budapest. He notes several such gestures: the naming of a Budapest square for Albert Wass; the removal from outside parliament of a statue of Mihaly Karolyi, the left-leaning post-World War I prime minister; compulsory school visits to parts of Romania, Slovakia, Serbia, and Ukraine that were part of Hungary prior to the Treaty of Trianon. All were proposed by Jobbik in its 2010 election manifesto. Lately, statues of the interwar authoritarian ruler Horthy, who made a pragmatic alliance with Nazi Germany in order to win back the pre-Trianon territories, have begun popping up in provincial towns and villages, a phenomenon many say Fidesz has been conspicuously quiet on, even tacitly sympathetic toward.
“The purpose of the strategy is clear,” Biro Nagy says. “They want to defend the border between Fidesz and Jobbik voters. Polls are showing that several hundreds of thousands of people are hovering between the two parties, so Fidesz is trying its best not to lose them to Jobbik. They appear to have calculated that they have more to lose on the far right than to win in the center.”
The need to outflank Jobbik could also explain the circus over a failed campaign to transport Jozsef Nyiro’s ashes from Spain, where he died in 1953, to his hometown of Odorheiu Secuiesc (Szekelyudvarhely to its ethnic Hungarian majority), which caused an ugly diplomatic spat. Bucharest refused entry to the train carrying Nyiro’s remains, and Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta denounced the attempt to honor “a person who, according to all international assessments, conducted far-right, anti-Semitic activities.” Fidesz’s Kover, who had traveled to the Transylvanian town for the abortive 27 May reburial, said denying Nyiro the opportunity to rest in his native land was “unfriendly, uncivilized, and barbaric behavior.” Ponta requested an official apology from Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orban, in vain.
How teachers will approach figures such as Nyiro and Wass in the classroom is unclear. While the Core Curriculum has passed into law, school-specific “framework curricula” drawn from the state’s authorial roster have not yet been decreed. The controversial Transylvanians are unlikely to be required reading.
Laszlo Arato, a high school teacher himself, predicts that most of his peers, faced with an overloaded curriculum that leaves little time to cover much of anything in depth, will ignore them, giving a nod to the national conservative school’s existence but little else.
“Teachers who want to be loyal to the government, or those whose views are close to those of Jobbik, will be happy to teach them, but most won’t,” Arato says. “Some will teach them in a critical way, which I think is fine. I have already taught Albert Wass as a popular best-seller writer, and may do again just to show students why he is not so valuable.”