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Akos Kertesz
Akos KerteszImage: picture alliance / dpa

Hungary's culture war

March 28, 2012

Cultural policy in Hungary has been led astray. Critical artists and intellectuals are suffering under the regime's nationalistic and anti-Semitic tendencies and many are leaving the country.


In the end, the man who had survived the Holocaust and Stalinism in his home country could only see one option: exile.

At the beginning of March, the 79-year-old Hungarian-Jewish author Akos Kertesz applied for asylum in Canada. In an American-Hungarian weekly newspaper he made his position clear: "It was a very difficult decision for me to make because the Hungarian language is my life. Hungary is my birth country, my home. I hope that I can one day to return to a democratic, tolerant and humane Hungary." Since then the writer has remained silent.

An EU country where the political climate forces artists to emigrate? The case of Akos Kertesz has made waves in Hungary but also in other countries. Kertesz' literary colleague living in Berlin, Gyorgy Dalos, has on the one hand called it a "tragic, isolated case," while on the other had it is "representative of the high level of hysteria which dominates Hungarian politics and culture."

Over the course of the last few years, Akos Kertesz has suffered under the increasing nationalistic and anti-Semitic tendencies in Hungary. In August 2011, he launched an enraged polemic, collectively accusing Hungary of lying about its own guilt in the Holocaust. In the ensuing article - controversial even among his friends and like-minded people - he wrote:

"The Hungarian is genetically subjugated. He happily wallows in the slurry of dictators, grunts, swallows the muck and disavows the fact that one would kill him. He will not learn, not work, he can only begrudge others, and when he is given the opportunity, he kills anyone who achieves anything through work, study or innovation."

Critique as treason?

Drastic words. But they are not actually far away from how many Hungarians see themselves, with a dose of self-irony and alongside many positive traits - namely, the supposed disposition towards malevolence and apathy.

Nevertheless, the article provoked an enraged outcry from conservatives and right-wing extremists and the topic dominated the media for weeks. Kertesz subsequently withdrew the majority of the incriminating paragraphs relating to "genetically subjugated" Hungarians.

Then the city of Budapest withdrew his honorary citizenship. The stripping of state awards was discussed and the far-right party, Jobbik, the second biggest political power in the country, called for the writer to be prosecuted for treason.

Kertesz held out for five long months. According to some reports, he was repeatedly verbally and physically threatened via post, telephone, on the street and in a public spa. After his departure, commentators from press organizations sympathetic to the government published vicious comments about him.

"If the government were rational thinkers, then they would have written a letter to Kertesz calling for his return to Hungary," said Gyorgy Dalos. "But they won't do that."

Ideological revamp

The case of Kertesz is one of biggest cultural and political scandals since late April 2010 when Viktor Orban and his party, the Hungarian Civic Union which, in alliance with the Christian Democratic People's Party, won the election with a two-thirds majority.

But it is not the only scandal. Orban has allowed Hungary to be politically and ideologically reformed. The government elite have been largely replaced. In the culture sector, reforms were mainly targeted at the pluralistic urban intellectuals in Budapest and the independent cultural institutions outside of the capital.

Since their election victory, Orban and his party have openly propagandized their intention to reduce the public influence of those they label "left-wing liberals." The restructuring of publicly owned media and media laws at the end of 2010 were the most significant moves to this end.

According to changes in the law, journalists working in publicly-owned media are now obliged to produce balanced articles which strengthen Hungary's national identity.

Nascent racism

Even campaigns against critical statements from artists have repeatedly been stoked with tacit approval from the government. Just as disturbing as the case of Akos Kertesz was that of pianist Andras Schiff in January 2011. In a letter to the Washington Post he expressed his concerns about the increase in racism, anti-Romanyism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia and chauvinism in Hungary.

Well-known far-right publicist Zsolt Bayer, a friend of Orban's, wrote in response that Schiff was an intellectual descendent of Hungarian-Jewish Bolsheviks from the period after World War I and suggested through numerous innuendos that it was unfortunate that not all representatives of this group were eliminated.

Sometimes it's simply enough to be gay. Robert Alfoldi, director of Budapest's National Theater, has long been derided in right-wing and far-right media for being openly homosexual. On multiple occasions, members of the political majority have, in parliamentary sessions, labeled his productions "unchristian" and "un-Hungarian" and demanded he be removed from his post.

Members of the far-right party Jobbik often refer to him condescendingly as "Roberta" but none of the other parliamentarians speak up in his defense.

'Destruction, not war'

The biggest cultural scandal in Orban's Hungary occurred in early 2011 when the state started investigating leading Hungarian philosophers, including 82-year-old Agnes Heller, who has been one of Eastern Europe's leading thinkers for decades.

Heller and the other philosophers were accused of embezzling state research funds. Though the accusations quickly went up in smoke, state-loyal media carried out a smear campaign against the "leftist philosophers" and "opinion distorters," declaring them guilty.

"Many of my friends are leaving Hungary. I go to good-bye parties nearly every week," said Budapest-based art critic Anna Balint. "Some leave because they can no longer make a living; others just have a general sense of hopelessness. Those who are critical are quickly accused of betraying the father land, of embezzlement, or some other absurd crime."

Such claims annoy Geza Szocs, the state secretary of culture. "The intellectuals and artists who heap criticism of the Orban regime simply don't want to accept that their situation has changed and that they are no longer the poet laureates and court philosophers," he said.

For writer Gyorgy Dalos, the situation is clear. "I wouldn't use the word cultural war for the cultural policies of the Orban regime," he said. "It's not a war; it's destruction. They're only interested in power and filling as many positions as possible. They're not interested in culture, literature, film, theater - they're not even snobs."

Author: Keno Verseck / hw
Editor: Kate Bowen

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