On a bright morning in early June, Janos Rainer was taking his daughter’s pet parrot to the vet when he received a call that could change, if not Hungary’s modern history, then how it is written and taught. “Have you heard the news?” his colleague asked as the parrot chirped noisily in the back. “The Institute is over.”
Until that moment, Mr Rainer had been unaware of government plans to fold the 1956 Institute, the historical research centre he directed and which is dedicated to the Hungarian uprising against the Soviet Union, into a body close to the government of Viktor Orban, Hungary’s conservative premier.
Without consulting Mr Rainer, Mr Orban signed a government decree to incorporate the 1956 Institute into the Veritas Historical Research Institute and Archive, created by the government five years ago and which critics say promotes a version of history that favours Mr Orban’s agenda. The Veritas institute is administered by the government, which has a big role in both appointing its leadership and setting its research priorities.
The change in control at the 1956 Institute follows a decision late last year to relocate a statue of Imre Nagy, who was the premier during the shortlived revolution of 1956. Nagy, who was executed and buried in a mass grave for his decision to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact, is considered one of the most significant figures in modern Hungarian history. His reburial in 1989 in Budapest was a milestone in the collapse of communism in Hungary and the eastern bloc. The 1956 Institute was founded the following day.
Critics say the decisions are part of a wider trend of controlling researchers, stifling academic freedom and limiting public dissent. They say they are also part of the creation of a narrative that portrays Hungary as a victim in the 20th century of the Nazis and the Soviets, but which is now standing up for itself under the leadership of an authentic patriot.
The move of the statue “symbolises and demonstrates [Mr Orban’s] intent to create, recreate, construct and reconstruct his own story,” says Mr Rainer.
The Hungarian government denies it is trying to shape the way that history is written. In a blog post, government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs characterised the 1956 Institute’s absorption by Veritas as “a minor administrative change to make research more efficient by integrating related fields into the same structure”.
With just 10 employees, the institute had been part of the national library. All of the historians resigned before the handover, except one, who said he would “test” the new structure. After three weeks with Veritas, he also quit.
A Veritas spokesman says that it would have let the academics research “with full and unchanged independence” and denied the claim that their function was to produce a version of history hewing to a government narrative.
The spokesman says that there is a need to revisit the version of history that was told during the communist regime, adding that the historians at Veritas strive to “provide nuance on data and perspectives that have been false for decades . . . History is by no means a fossilised finished process.”
The controversy over the 1956 Institute is in line with a vision Mr Orban spelt out last summer. Speaking at a summer festival in Transylvania, organised by his party and its local partners, Mr Orban said his victory in elections that year which brought him a fourth term as premier had given his administration “nothing short of a mandate to build a new era”.
“An era is a special and characteristic cultural reality . . . a spiritual order, a kind of prevailing mood, perhaps even taste — a form of attitude . . . determined by cultural trends, collective beliefs and social customs,” he said. “This is now the task we are faced with: we must embed the political system in a cultural era.”
Mr Orban has kept his word. Since the speech, the government has effectively forced the Central European University, founded by billionaire Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros in 1991, to relocate the bulk of its activities to Vienna, the Austrian capital. (It can still issue Hungarian degrees, but many of its local and international students are attracted by the US degrees.) The government stopped accrediting courses in gender studies, which was only taught at one university outside of CEU. In November, ownership of almost 500 media outlets, mainly run by government-friendly businessmen, passed to a new non-profit media foundation run by a publisher loyal to Mr Orban.
Then in July, the government increased its control over the country’s premier research body, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences — a decision that was taken despite opposition from its administrators and employees, including some of its 3,000 researchers. A joint group of top academics from Poland, Austria and Germany condemned the change in control, saying it “infringes upon the internationally applied and accepted principles of academic freedom and the self-governance of scientific institutions”.
The government insists the change is intended to improve the efficiency of the research. “Every government moves in the direction of saying, ‘we’re paying you a lot of money, what do we get for this?’” says Gyorgy Schopflin, an outgoing MEP from Mr Orban’s Fidesz party. “They try to maintain or establish better control over research . . . a certain amount of research can be guided in that way, some can’t.”
Academy leaders have balked at the criticism. “It is about having the power to control us,” says one senior member of the Academy’s administration. “It is exactly the same when you think of the government’s intention to have a say in the politically important acts in history.”
The takeover of the 1956 Institute came on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the reburial of Nagy in June 1989. On that day, Mr Orban, then a student who later won a Soros scholarship, was catapulted to fame after he made a speech in Budapest’s Heroes’ Square, in which he called on the Soviets to remove their tanks and demanded free elections.
Mr Orban, then a 26-year-old spokesman for his newly-founded party, said that Nagy, even though he was a communist, “identified himself with the wishes of the Hungarian nation to put an end to the communist taboos, blind obedience to the Russian empire and the dictatorship of a single party”.
Even his fiercest opponents recall the importance of the speeches made that day. “I could see a dictatorship blowing up in front of my eyes,” says Adam Michnik, a Polish former dissident who is the editor-in-chief of the independent Gazeta Wyborcza, who was present.
But critics say Mr Orban’s role in bringing about regime change has been exaggerated by the government. Other individuals also called on the government to send the Russians packing and hold free elections, they say, and point out that months before Mr Orban’s speech, the Soviet Union had already begun a partial withdrawal of troops.
Maria Schmidt, a high-profile historian close to Mr Orban, produced a concert in June to commemorate his speech 30 years earlier. The museum she leads, the House of Terror, which focuses on Hungary’s fascist and communist history, is overseeing a series of events throughout the year. It also paid more than €600,000 to a music festival to air clips of Mr Orban’s 1989 speech in between musical acts.
“They are trying to sell the idea that there is only one hero in the change of the regime — that [Mr Orban] single-handedly defeated communism and cut the iron curtain,” says Gabor Egry, director of the Budapest-based Institute of Political History. Adding that their version “is a very simple story, taken out of international context”.
A spokesman for the 21st Century Institute, which Ms Schmidt chairs, dismisses this criticism as “nonsense”, saying the video spent “a few seconds on the rallying cry ‘Russians, go home’. Nobody else had the courage to say it and in fact there were voices suggesting that ‘perhaps Orban went too far’. History proved him right and questioning it is nothing but spiteful revisionism,” he says.
The debate over history is also changing Budapest’s physical appearance. Since 1996, a Nagy statue has stood in a park adjacent to Hungary’s neo-gothic parliament building. Several days after Christmas last year, it was removed and placed in another square less than a kilometre away, as part of an overhaul of the area. In its place, a monument to victims of a shortlived communist regime in 1919, which had previously stood in that spot, is to be reinstalled.
Some Holocaust scholars say this is evidence of a broader effort to play down Hungary’s role in the murder and deportation of Jews to Nazi death camps — 437,000 Jews were deported after the Germans invaded in 1944.
In 2014, the Orban government erected a statue in central Budapest “to the victims of the German invasion of 1944”. Although some government figures emphasised Hungarian culpability in what happened to the country’s Jewish population, Mr Orban said it was a monument to all victims of the Nazis, including the 100,000 Hungarians, who were not Jewish, who also perished.
But critics say by portraying Hungary as innocent, it whitewashes the Hungarian role in deporting Jews, or in the pogroms, forced labour and deportations Jews faced even before the German occupation.
Similar accusations surfaced last year over plans for a second Holocaust museum, the House of Fates. It was meant to open this year to mark the 75th anniversary of the deportation of Hungarian Jews to Nazi death camps, but controversy over the make-up of its board delayed that.
Ms Schmidt was originally given responsibility for coming up with the concept for the museum but her involvement triggered an international outcry, and she was removed from the board. The museum’s building is ready, but “it’s not open because there is no content”, says Slomo Koves, leader of the Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregations, who appointed a new board of directors for the museum in May.
Next year, Hungary will mark 100 years since the Treaty of Trianon, which saw it lose almost two-thirds of its territory. The government is spending Ft5bn (nearly $17m) on a monument to Trianon that will face parliament. It will be a ramp made out of granite featuring 13,000 localities that were part of Hungary historically, accompanied by an eternal flame. In addition to Hungarian towns and cities, the list also includes places in modern-day Slovakia, Romania, Ukraine, Serbia, Croatia, Austria, Slovenia and Poland.
Marton Bekes, a historian at the House of Terror and editor of a rightwing history journal Commentary, says “the Hungarian government and particularly Mr Orban have a correct idea about the history of Hungary”, with a narrative focused on the loss of territory in the first half of the 20th century during the treaty of Trianon and occupation during the second half by the Germans and Soviets. “As we see the actual events in the world and in Europe now, we think that national independence and sovereignty of the state are the very best tools against the dark side of globalisation.”
Orban critics, however, are withering. His push to create institutions that forge a new national grand narrative about the past have been aimed at reinforcing a sense of collective victimhood, says Gergely Romsics, a historian and lecturer at Budapest’s ELTE university and a senior research fellow at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.
“This would legitimise a defiant stance towards western institutions on the one hand, and foster a national community on the basis of all groups having suffered at some point in history,” he says, alluding to Mr Orban’s regular clashes with Brussels in recent years.
Mr Romsics says that until the past year, he thought the efforts to create new historical institutes was designed to form a “parallel” of research bodies focused on topics of interest to the government, on the assumption that other researchers would be allowed to get on with their work. Now he is less sure.
“The new organisations appeared more often in the limelight, but it did not affect academic work directly,” he says. “Today, that could change.”
For his part, Mr Rainer says in the case of the 1956 Institute the shake-up had less to do with Nagy than with Mr Orban. “Imre Nagy is a talisman for Mr Orban because he is a symbol for the start of his political career . . . but now he wants to replace Nagy symbolically with himself,” says Mr Rainer.
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