THE BIRTH OF A NEW HUNGARIAN PAST: THE HISTORY TEXTBOOKS ARRIVE
2020. június 25. csütörtök, 20:19
It was about 30 years ago that a four-volume semi-popular history of Hungary was published under the title Magyarok Európában (Hungarians in Europe). The first volume of the series was written by Pál Engel, a medievalist and archivist, who died far too young in 2001. The idea behind the undertaking was to abandon the Hungarocentric portrayal of the country and instead to treat it as part of Europe. Engel called his own introductory volume to the series Integration into Europe from the beginnings until 1440. Although many years have gone by since I read Engel’s volume, I kept thinking of it as I read with growing unease about the new history and literature textbooks for grade five and grade nine students.
A few months before his death, Engel wrote an article on self-destructive nationalism as manifested by the hopelessly ill-informed history that began to spread during the second half of the 1990s, mostly written by amateurs who dabbled in history and linguistics. I wonder what he would think had he lived long enough to see how low Hungarian civilization has sunk in the last 20 years. In his introductory volume to Magyarok Európában, he spent a few pages on the origins of the Hungarians. He categorically stated that “the Finno-Ugric origin is a fact that no linguist questions, although a not insignificant minority doubts its validity.” And now this minority has taken over the education of Hungarian youth.
The Association of History Teachers published a quick analysis of the four history textbooks written for grade 5 and grade 9 students. Why four? Because there is an A and B version of each. All four were written by Péter Borhegyi, a teacher at the Mihály Fazekas Elementary School and Gymnasium, and György Szabados, director of the László Gyula Institute-Magyarságkutató Intézet, who, outfitted in his white shirt and black peasant vest, strikes me as a typical right-winger. Listening to him mouthing off about cosmopolitans on this short video only reinforces that feeling.
How did we end up like this? Easily. In an autocracy, the autocrat and his enablers can force their manias on the whole population. No one can stop Viktor Orbán from building one hundred football stadiums if that is what he wants. Miklós Kásler, if Viktor Orbán gives his blessing to the project, can find people who are ready to rewrite history and indoctrinate a generation of students to accept his maniacal belief in the alleged relations of Huns and Hungarians.
The analysis of the Association of History Teachers is written from the point of view of the teachers who are supposed to make sure that the amount of factual knowledge presented in these new textbooks can be successfully transmitted to the students. Since, thank God, I don’t have to teach from these books, I concentrated on a couple of historically questionable details.
The first 100 or so pages of the fifth-grade textbook are devoted to the ancient world (Egypt, Greece, and Rome), followed by a short chapter on Israel and the Old Testament. A long chapter covers Christianity, the history of the Catholic church, and the papacy and medieval Europe. At which point we arrive at the most dubious part of the textbook. It is here that the alleged Hun-Hungarian relation is presented without discussion or counterargument. I think it is worth quoting the exact wording. “According to our ancient legends, Hungarians are related to the Huns…. But linguists list Hungarian as a Finno-Ugric language…. The archaeologists cannot say anything definitive about the origins of the Hungarian people because, on the basis of the objects found in those graves, we can’t determine what language people spoke.” Thus, our best sources are legends written down centuries after the events. These legends become facts that no linguist, archaeologist, or historian can refute.
The arrival of the Hungarians, a “reconstructed painting” in grade 5 history book
The authors are absolutely fascinated by the clothing the men and women of the period wore as well as by their horsemanship and weaponry. The textbook’s account of the manner of fighting is very detailed, and Hungarians are described as brave and fierce soldiers who kept Europe in awe and fear. To maintain this image, the textbook glosses over anything that might show Hungarians in a lesser light. It neglects, for example, to tell us the real reason for the Hungarian tribes’ move westward, eventually ending up west of the Carpathians. They were running away from the Pechenegs, a Turkic people living in Central Asia.
There is also a tendency to portray the tribes that gathered in their new “country” as forming a full-fledged state and a “grand principality.” In fact, the book talks about Álmos, Árpád, Géza, and István (before he became king in 1000) as “grand princes.” This is a concept with which Hungarian historiography is unfamiliar.
Early Hungarian history, in both the grade 5 and the grade 9 textbooks, is a retelling of the story recounted by medieval chronicles written hundreds of years after the fact. As far as Szabados and Borhegyi are concerned, none of the work of historians, archaeologists, and linguists who dealt with the subject of early Hungarian history is worth a nickel. All that effort spent on research has been a waste of time. We ought to trust the legends, which are the true chroniclers of early Hungarian history. The legends, which explain to youngsters what it means to be a true Hungarian who, let me repeat, kept (and perhaps should still keep) Europe in awe and fear.