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The Politics of Memory

Against Viktor Orbán’s gaming of history
A series of metal beams reach into the sky. Seen from below.

Born in 1969 in Budapest, Gábor Schein is the author of ten books of poetry, five novels, and four children’s books. Schein’s is a poetry of witness: not only as the descendent of survivors but as a witness of Hungarian society post-1989 and its abrupt transformations. His verse delineates the corruption and cynicism, the grittiness of Budapest and its strange urban beauty, and, in this millennium, a nebulous, but ever-encroaching illiberalism. In his novel Autobiographies of an Angel, he weaves together, with ironical lyricism, two disparate Jewish lives in European history marked by disguise and compromised survival, relating incidents generally ignored in Hungarian literature, such as, for example, the antisemitic riots following the 1956 Revolution.

In a small central European nation such as Hungary, the politics of memory can be a subject of contention, if not indeed hotly contested. In the following essay, Schein delineates the main features of the politics of memory as practiced by the government of Viktor Orbán—elected by a landslide in 2010 and in power ever since. The collective memory-work that Schein practices through his writing is, it must be said, the polar opposite of the politics of memory as envisioned by the current regime.

Ottilie Mulzet

Monuments and memorials, museums and heritage sites, textbooks, theater, state speeches—such are the elements out of which a common national memory is spun. In an authoritarian regime like Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, the mechanisms of commemoration are manipulated by the strong hand of state power to create an overbearing and sovereign narrative in which the weight of the past is deployed to justify current policies. This is not a new phenomenon in Hungary. The communist regime played similar games with history from 1948 until its rule was disrupted by the 1956 Revolution. But no one has played it as brazenly as Orbán.

What are the main components of Orbán’s politics of memory? In the first place, Hungary is viewed, alongside Poland, as one of two decisive state-creating nations in Central Europe, and thus deserving of unconditional respect. Hungary is said to have been, in every age, a nation-state, even before the modern concept of the nation-state existed, and even when, within the historical Kingdom of Hungary, Hungarians did not exceed 50 percent of the population. The role other ethnicities played in forming the Hungarian state is strenuously denied. As for the Romany, who have been living here for many centuries, they are not even seen as part of the political nation, are not granted historical memory, are deprived of museums and ignored in textbooks. In the view of the current regime, they merely form the nation’s greatest social burden.

We do not reflect enough on forgetting, considering the important role it plays in shaping national memory. 

Moreover, in every age, Hungarians fought for their own independence, in a struggle that was not supported by either the West or the East. The West is particularly condemned for its hypocrisy, for its promised and unrealized alliance during the 1956 Revolution, and worse, its alleged support, motivated solely by self-interest, in the post-1989 era, when, it is claimed, the greater part of the Hungarian industry and banking sector ended up in Western hands. Nor were Hungarian interests ever upheld by the country’s political left wing—socialists, social democrats, civil radicals—who form one homogenous mass, labeled as communist. Rather, they are internal enemies, traitors whose goal is the downfall of the country and whose coming to power would spell the death of the nation, the future of which is embodied solely in the person of Viktor Orbán, who was granted by the grace of God to his beloved nation, the Hungarians.

While Hungary is Central Europe’s oldest and most glorious nation, its history is also a history of grievance. The nation’s greatest trauma is the Treaty of Trianon in 1920, a pain keenly felt by Hungarians even today; a historical wound that still bleeds, must be urgently addressed, even as treatment remains impossible under present political conditions, given that Hungary remains a member state of the European Union. Indeed, Hungary is the eternal victim. It never caused injury to anyone and has no reason for self-criticism, which, in any case, would only weaken the nation. This even applies to the Hungarian Holocaust, in which—to state the facts—six hundred thousand Jews were murdered. In the view of the current regime, Nazi Germany is entirely responsible for all these deaths, and Hungarian politicians are entirely innocent, even those who passed antisemitic laws and the Hungarian gendarmes who implemented them.

Needless to say, history is only made by heroic men. Women’s magnificent historical role is to bear children. These who does not fulfil this wonderful mission misapprehend the essence of womanhood and misapprehend why they were created by God.

The above assertions, forming a rudimentary narrative, have been drummed into the heads of common people through the unveiling of monuments, new lessons in textbooks, state-funded films, speeches delivered on state holidays. They are also fixed in the Fundamental Law, Hungary’s new constitution, which was sanctified by Orbán in 2011, one of his regime’s first acts. This false narrative based on false assertions is supported by the Hungarian Catholic and Calvinist churches, the two largest in the country. It echoes from the regime’s press rooms, newspapers, television stations, radio broadcasters, and websites. Whoever dares to publicly express a different opinion will find themselves the subject of harassment. And what is the strangest of all is that the political opposition has not been able to put forward a convincing counternarrative, as it has no clear, self-critical historical identity.

This does not mean that this rudimentary narrative propagated by the regime has a stable structure. Unstable, it is best comprehended not from the perspective of memory but from the perspective of forgetting. For forgetting is not the opposite of memory but one of its threads. It is the same work but completed on the other side. We do not reflect enough on forgetting, considering the important role it plays in shaping national memory. This is no accident.

It is enough to note the names of the officers involved in the Revolution of 1848, who were Polish, German, Austrian, Slovak, Armenian, and French—with Hungarians in the minority. If we were to stroll today through any Hungarian city, it would be enough to look at the nameplates on the houses, to open up the class registers in schools, for anyone to see that the nation is formed by a wide swath of ethnic groups. If anyone ever wished to believe that the West always harbored only harmful intentions toward Hungary, they would have to walk through Hungarian cities with closed eyes—cities in which the historical centers were built during the time of the Austrian-Hungarian monarchy; this person would have to forget about modern public administration and educational systems and almost everything about modern Hungarian literature because every significant work drew inspiration from Western European literature; and they would also have to dismiss all the Hungarians who migrated to Western Europe or the United States.

Of course, as a believer in Viktor Orbán, they would not ask why the Hungarian government grants so many tax benefits to foreign investors, or why Hungarian businesses receive them only if they belong to Viktor Orbán’s family or his network of close connections. They would have to forget that in the first decades of the twentieth century, there were strong unions in Hungary, unlike today, and that there were adequate retirement schemes and a thriving culture of blue-collar work; and finally they would have to forget that the communist regime of the 1960s and 1970s—now termed a dictatorship—pushed through many emancipatory programs: illiteracy was liquidated, nurseries and schools were built, women took on more prominent roles, it was inexpensive to buy books or to go to the theater. And yet the majority of Hungarians recall the rule of János Kádár—who oversaw executions and mass imprisonment following the 1956 Revolution—with fond nostalgia even though there is no “official” memory of him; as a communist dictator there could never be.

Finally, to deny the responsibility of Hungary in the Holocaust: anyone who wishes to believe that the rounding up of the entire population of provincial Hungarian Jews and placing them into cattle cars could have occurred within a few weeks without the involvement of the Hungarian political elite and Hungarian state authorities, who had earlier instituted antisemitic laws and a multitude of statutes depriving Jews of their rights, would have to not only renounce a sound mind, but any kind of moral sense whatsoever.

Active forgetting has long had a role in European politics of memory. Nietzsche was the first to see this. In his early essay The Abuses and Uses of History for Life, he observed that if history is not a natural phenomenon but something we construct, then world history cannot constitute the law of the world itself. The life force is “dark, driving, insatiable, self-desiring.” There is space here for memory and forgetting as well. Nietzsche felt that political erasure would only be possible when forgetting itself must be forgotten. “For it should be made quite clear how unjust the existence of something or other is, a right, a caste, a dynasty, for example, and how this thing merits destruction. For when its past is analyzed critically, then we grasp with a knife at its roots and go cruelly beyond all reverence.”

We are in need of a memory that makes us aware how our own memory can only be completed by the historical memory of others.

I recalled Nietzsche’s words recently, when, in conversation with a younger Austrian woman who had been born and had lived in Mistelbach, I mentioned that my grandmother and my mother had—to my own immense luck—been deported to the Mistelbach labor camp in 1944, rather than to Auschwitz, where the other freight cars in the train were headed. If they had stepped into any one of the other freight cars on that train, I would not have been born. I was surprised by her response: she had absolutely no idea that Jews had been held in a labor camp in her hometown, in Mistelbach. She had no idea that Jews had been working in the surrounding fields and factories. No one had ever told her.

Traces disappear; they are made to disappear. But there always remains a trace of memory, there always remains someone who does not let things be, who dares to ask questions—as I did in this case. Whoever wishes to abolish forgetting would have to create a new language, would have to tear down the old cities and build new ones in their place, would have to purge the libraries, would have to prevent the passing of time, to prevent its becoming history.

But this is impossible: just as we are unable to predict how long the past will endure, how long words will preserve the meaning they once carried, and how large the gaps in the resumes of the regime cadres will grow until we begin to ask questions. What is required is a faculty of critical memory that does not wish to erase the roots of the past because it knows that if it does there will be nothing left to learn from. A memory that does not merely tolerate the exemplary heroes, but the frail ones as well, because a common history is not only a history of glory but the history of shame as well. We are in need of a memory that does not exclude but accepts. A memory open and capable of understanding what we thought we understood from a new, unexpected point of view. We are in need of a memory that makes us aware how our own memory can only be completed by the historical memory of others, as much as it can become complete within tattered, changing time. It is not the “blind force of the real” that we need, but the greatest amount of critical understanding we are able to muster.