Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is moving to introduce compulsory military training in schools. It is a grim reminder of the country's totalitarian past that has raised fears of 'idealogical indoctrination.'
Marching in step, shooting practice, hand grenade training, watching patriotic propaganda films, flag salutes and commemorating war heroes were part of everyday life during the communist era in Eastern Europe. Such practices are a cornerstone of military education in totalitarian states. After the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, the communist-bloc countries in central and southeastern Europe silently abolished their notorious defense training. This was one of the region's few education reform measures for which such a clear social consensus existed.
Now, however, compulsory military training is being reintroduced in Hungarian schools for children and teens. The Ministry of Human Capacities - a sort of superministry for social affairs, education, youth, family, health, culture and sport - and the Ministry of Defense were instructed by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban last month to develop a patriotic homeland defense school ducation program by the end of the year to foster patriotism and defense readiness.
'We are talking about an attitude towards life'
According to Deputy State Secretary for Education in the Ministry of Human Capacities Zoltan Maruzsa, it is not a matter of teaching a specific course, but instead, an overall concept which is to be incorporated into the nation's basic education plan for schools and taught in all subjects.
"We are talking about an attitude towards life that already exists in history and geography classes and can also be seen in music and physical education," he told the pro-government newspaper Magyar Idok last week, adding it is important the education system conveys a responsibility and commitment to defense and patriotism.
Teachers' union representatives, education experts and political scientists expressed their dismay over the project in Hungarian media, warning of the "militarization of schools." In an interview with DW, Janos Szudi, an expert in education policy who is active in Pedagogusok Szkaszervezetenek (PSZ), an educators' union, accused the government of reinstating the worst traditions of communist education policy.
"We used to learn shooting and grenade throwing at school, which was - and is - a mistake," he said. "Just as then, the state now wants more and more educational goals to be set. First we had programs for a moral and ethical education, now a patriotic military education - and the government generally wants to educate the whole country according to its own ideas."
'Remilitarization of Hungary'
Peter Kreko, a political scientist and director of the liberal Political Capital Policy Research and Consulting Institute, said the government education program serves two objectives: "On the one hand, it is an explicit remilitarization of Hungary after the abolition of compulsory military service in 2004. On the other hand, the government has made it clear that patriotic aspects in education are just as important as conveying knowledge. That is why the Hungarian education system has - in a dangerous way - become an arena for ideological indoctrination."
But Agoston Mraz, a political scientist and director of the pro-government Nezopont Institute in Budapest, finds these allegations absurd, saying the Orban government has neither "militant nor totalitarian intentions."
"It is indeed a fact that the patriotic education program of the government is not particularly compatible with a liberal and an individualistic orientation of the state," said Mraz, who pointed out that some of Hungary's neighbors like Ukraine and Austria still have compulsory military service.
Furthermore, he said, the United States government is pushing NATO members to boost their military spending. "With that in mind, the government's intention is perhaps more understandable," said Mraz.
Gun ranges at schools?
Orban has indeed been pushing for military expansion in Hungary and for a general increase of military readiness through calls for more "patriotic physical education" ideals in schools. Until now, he has ruled out the reinstatement of compulsory military service, but last autumn he proposed the creation of volunteer units in all 197 Hungarian counties, in what is envisioned as a type of national guard with some 20,000 soldiers. The move would double the size of Hungary's military.
The Hungarian government had already been mulling the introduction of shooting lessons for students and building gun ranges at schools several months prior to Orban's announcement. Since 2005, the Ministry of Defense has been offering volunteer military training courses as part of its "Soldier School" program. After the election victory of Orban and his Fidesz party in the spring of 2010, the program was massively expanded. Hungary's law enforcement authorities are now encouraging older students to train with a newly-created border police unit to patrol the country's southern border for illegal immigrants.
Young people in Hungary, however, do not seem to be entirely won over by the new military and patriotic sentiment. Despite large-scale advertising campaigns, neither the military nor the border police have so far been able to fill recruitment quotas.