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New school book highlights premier's role in history

Daniel Nolan, BudapestSeptember 7, 2016

Hungary's new state-sanctioned history textbook paints a flattering picture of Viktor Orban. The inclusion of an anti-integration speech the premier gave angers historians, reports Daniel Nolan from Budapest.

Viktor Orban (middle) in a photo in a new Hungarian school textbook
Image: DW/D.Nolan

A new school history book that includes a speech by Prime Minister Viktor Orban on the migrant crisis sparked controversy in Hungary as the country's children went back to school this week. Orban is portrayed very positively in "History Eight," which covers the historical period of 1945 to the present day, and features him in several texts and photographs, including one of a meeting with Pope John Paul II. The politician is also described as "a foundational figure for modern Hungary."

However, the most contentious section of the book, which many eighth-grade history students have already received, asks: "Why do you think Western states with former colonies have a different attitude to immigrants?"

By way of an answer, "History Eight" cites a speech Orban gave to the European Parliament last year: "We have to understand those countries for which this is a problem. As former colonizers, they were always familiar with the imperialist mindset, according to which it is natural that masses from the former colonies arrive in their countries. They are prepared for that, they live with it, they have a culture of this. Hungary was never such a country, it will never become such a country … We uphold the fact that Hungary's homogeneity of culture, mindset, civilizational habits are values. We think this is important, and do not wish to sacrifice it."

'Former colonizers have different attitudes'

In three follow-up questions, 14-year-old history students are asked: "Why do former colonizers have a different attitude to immigration?", "What does "homogenic" mean?" and "How homogenous do you think Hungary is?"

Agnes Kunhalmi, Hungary's parliamentary cultural committee chairwoman, and a Socialist Party MP, said: "We are at the point in this autocracy where Orban is featured in a schoolbook along with his opinion on migrants. What kind of government writes its own political hate campaign into a history schoolbook?" she asked.

Two pages of the textbook with pictures that show Viktor Orban
The textbook includes a photo of Viktor Orban meeting Pope John Paul II (bottom left)Image: DW/D.Nolan

German politicians Angela Merkel and Horst Seehofer also appear in the context of the migrant crisis. Authors had been instructed to include Orban in the book, however, it is its tone and a perceived lack of neutrality that has brought derision from the teaching community and sparked debate over what constitutes history.

Laszlo Miklosi, chairman of Hungary's Independent Association of History Teachers, asked "can we call current events, such as an Orban speech on migration, history? Every new book contains errors … but this edition is the most problematic to date, raising questions regarding both principles and editing, as well as what we can call history.

"This book has root faults that are more than superficial," Miklosi added. "But the tone of representation matters a lot. Its photographs feature Orban as an active, positive person inaugurating a bridge or being received by the pope, putting him above party politics. Meanwhile, his adversary [former prime minister Ferenc] Gyurcsany is a passive partisan actor, pictured in front of his own party logo. Gyurcsany is described as a former player in the 1990s privatizations, while no clues on Orban's background are offered. This representation is very biased," Miklosi said.

New curriculum

The book's publisher Jozsef Kaposi defended the book's content. Kaposi said Orban's inclusion had been necessary, as his government changed the curriculum in 2012 to include a 1945-present course.

According to Orban's government the new curriculum "changed the frontiers of historical eras and … introduced a new framework to align to this." The same year, school textbooks were also standardized and teachers' were limited to using only two government-approved books per subject per year.

Peter Bencsik, the co-writer of a similar history book for eighth grade students, said: "I honestly fail to understand why it is dictatorial if someone who is still alive is included in a history textbook. We have known ever since the new curriculum was released in 2012 that Orban, as well as other prime ministers of the past … would be mandatory names to learn."

The cover of the new history textbook
The new book accompanies a new curriculum established by Orban's government in 2012Image: DW/D.Nolan

The new book's representation of the concepts of left- and right-wing have also proved contentious. In "History Eight," students learn that "the political right-wing's most important feature is conservatism, while that of the left-wing is radicalism.

"Nowadays," the book adds, "the left usually professes to be liberal or socialist, but social sensitivity can also be a feature of the right-wing. What is certain is that conservative politicians take into account the most important aspects of national ideals, past achievements and accumulated values. Radical political groups tend to disparage the values of the past," according to "History Eight."

Publisher Kaposi played down the importance of these passages, saying the "concepts of left and right are not really applicable today: They are 19th century concepts, and - let's not forget - these texts are for 14-year-olds."

Since regaining power in 2010, Orban, who began his political career as a liberal, has declared Hungary an "illiberal democracy" amid accusations of eroding Hungary's democratic checks and balances. With the lack of a credible opposition party, the teaching profession has become arguably the most vocal opponents of Orban's regime building, ending the last school year with strikes and mass protests over his education policies, under the umbrella of the Tanitanek ("I Would Teach") movement.

Viktor Orban
Orban's current term as prime minister began in 2010Image: T. Charlier/AFP/Getty Images

Orban has so far failed to comment on the controversy enveloping the new school year, while government officials did not respond to requests for comment from Deutsche Welle.

"This phenomenon is a strong reminder of Orban's vision for this country, as well as the kind of intimidation that currently exists in government circles," Kunhalmi said.