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Trouble at home

October 12, 2011

Many Hungarian artists and intellectuals say they are facing censorship, racism and anti-Semitism at home. Their concerns formed the basis of a podium discussion at the Beethovenfest, hosted in part by Deutsche Welle.

Participants in the podium discussion "Whither Hungary?" (right to left: Journalist Michael Kluth, Publizist Peter Spary, Cultural Scholar Magdalena Marsovszky, Journalist Robert Schwartz, Publizist Paul Lendvai, Conductor Ivan Fischer, Romani Rose). Photo: Zoran Arbutina
"Whither Hungary?" was the name of a discussion panel in BonnImage: DW

"We, as freedom-loving artists, see with great concern to what degree ostracism, aggression against minorities and intolerance are increasing in Hungary and in Europe." That's the opening of an appeal published in January 2011 by leading Hungarian artists and intellectuals, including pianist Andras Schiff and conductor Adam Fischer.

The petition, which its authors also presented in Brussels, drew attention in Hungary and throughout Europe. Criticism has especially targeted Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his Fidesz Party. Since Orban entered office in May 2010, opponents have charged him with ignoring democratic principles and fomenting homophobia, anti-Semitism and racism targeting the Roma people. Artists themselves also say that they have been affected negatively.

"Freedom of speech and expression are being restricted more and more," the petition's authors wrote.

Social responsibility

Conductor Ivan Fischer, head of the Budapest Festival Orchestra and brother of conductor Adam Fischer, blames the developments on the national delusions that have taken hold in Hungary. Fischer said that dreams of unrealistic goals have led them to forget reality, and that's where the role of artists is important because they work in the service of truth.

Magdalena Marsovszky, a lecturer in cultural studies in Fulda who was born in Budapest, cited a danger in the "drug of nationalism."

"A belief in the nation, in folklore and in the unity of the people" is dominating public discourse in Hungary as part of a process of "ethnic and cultural nationalism" promoted from the top down, she said.

Asking why

Austrian publicist Paul Lendvai, also born in Budapest, believes that the cause of the political turn to the right and the reigning nationalism in Hungary lies in the lack of prosperity that has followed the country's democratization.

The newly passed press law is leading to censorship in the Hungarian media landscape and cutting off free expression, said German television journalist Michael Kluth, who travels regularly in Hungary and has made a number of documentaries about the country. The media is being synchronized, Kluth added.

Anti-Roma Racism

The right-wing party Jobbik, which openly espouses anti-Roma positions in politics, won 17 percent of the votes in the last election.

One consequence of strengthening the ethnically-defined social group known in Hungary as "Magyaren" is the ostricization of those that don't belong to the group - overwhelmingly the members of the Roma minority, warned Romani Rose, Head of the Central Council of German Roma and Sinti People. She sees evidence that harassment and attacks directed at Roma and Sinti are now part of daily life in Hungary.

But the Roma are inescapably bound up with Hungarian culture and identity, stressed Ivan Fischer, who is also Principal Conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington. Numerous composers including Johannes Brahms to Franz Liszt who drew from traditional Roma music are proof.

Everything's normal?

Peter Spary, President of the German-Hungarian Society, has a different take on the situation in the country. He emphasized that Hungarians freely and democratically voted in May 2010, even granting Viktor Orban a two-thirds majority in parliament. In his view, it was a reaction to the previous socialist government that dissolved in a swamp of corruption and cronyism.

"Orban's election is a return to reason," Spary said.

Janos Can Togay, Director of the Collegium Hungaricum in Berlin agreed, describing Hungary as a democratic state that adheres to the principle of rule of law. Hungarians are a responsible people, even if not everything is perhaps not ideal at home, he said.

The country is new to democratic rule, having undergone a revolution in 1989 after decades of Communist dictatorship.

"Democracy is a learning process, and it's dynamic. Democratic traditions in Hungary were never flawless, and since 1989, Hungary has been trying to learn how to deal with democracy," Togay added, noting that culture plays an important role in that process by exploring freedoms and expanding horizons.

Playing by the rules

For Ivan Fischer, the central task of art and the artist is to fight against the consolidation of political power.

"An artist cannot become an opportunist because then he loses his credibility," Fischer said.

But it's often another question just how well authorities can deal with artists' criticism of political systems.

"Politicians who cannot bear criticism are dangerous because they are so full of their own ideas that they would rather silence their opponents. You have to play by the rules. Art criticizes, and politicians have to take it," said the Budapest-born conductor.

Author: Zoran Arbutina / gsw
Editor: Rick Fulker

(von l. nach r.: Journalist Michael Kluth, Publizist Peter Spary, Kulturwissenschaftlerin Magdalena Marsovszky, Journalist Robert Schwartz, Publizist Paul Lendvai, Dirigent Ivan Fischer, Romani Rose) Photo: Zoran Arbutina
Journalist Michael Kluth, author Peter Spary, cultural scholar Magdalena Marsovszky, journalist Robert Schwartz, author Paul Lendvai, conductor Ivan Fischer, Romani RoseImage: DW
Romani Rose Photo: Zoran Arbutina
Romani RoseImage: DW
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor OrbanImage: AP