A transnational eye-opener on Hungary

Firebrand Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán takes pride in his country’s maverick position within the EU. Observers say his confrontational attitude reflects Hungary’s deep-seated isolationism and exceptionalism. However, a new book paints quite a different picture of modern and contemporary Hungary. A Global History of Hungary, 1869-2022 presents an open society interacting with other nations, mainly within Europe. The difference is a matter of perspective, according to one of the editors, Ferenc Laczó, Assistant Professor of History at UM’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

Writing a country’s history from a transnational perspective has become something of a trend in recent years. Following the success of Histoire mondiale de la France, published in 2017, a string of ‘world histories’ of specific countries have appeared on international bookshelves, including Spanish, Catalan, Dutch and Portuguese versions.

This year saw the publication of A Global History of Hungary, 1869-2022, a comprehensive and ambitious volume of 100 chapters written by 82 scholars from many disciplines. The starting point is a century and a half ago, when modern Hungarian culture and state institutions were created in a Eurocentric world experiencing the first wave of globalisation. The main themes range from world economy, political ideologies and types of rule to war and violence, migration, environment and diseases.

For a small country without a colonial past or well-funded scholarly institutions to fall back on, Hungary might seem an unlikely candidate for transnational historiography. Making it even more of a challenge, Ferenc Laczó explains, is that “much of Hungary’s historical consciousness is actually very Eurocentric”. Existing literature on the history of feminism, for example, compares the suffragettes in Hungary with the struggle for women’s rights in England and Germany, but has no references to their counterparts in Latin America. “Likewise, parallels have been drawn between the mass expulsions of Hungarians and Germans from various European countries after the Second World War, but we wanted to push our authors to reflect on what’s going on in India or the Middle East.”

Global awareness

For this reason, Ferenc Laczó and his fellow editor Bálint Varga set out to invent a detailed concept to retell modern Hungarian history in a global frame. “Fortunately, many scholars of my and more recent generations are aware of global historical approaches, so the book ended up producing itself and was much easier to edit than we had expected.”

This transnational approach has many benefits. First, it brings more nuance to debates about topical issues. “If I may generalise, Hungarians are having a hard time because, as we move to a new type of globalisation, both their outlook and their historical narratives have a clear European focus. Meanwhile, the Orbán regime is reorienting towards the east. We show that a very similar process unfolded in the early 20th century, when there was a strong push to brand Hungarians as Turanians, connected to the Turks and Central Asia. History can help us realise these precursors and that global connections are much more complex than political discourse might suggest.”

Third World sentiments

Secondly, this approach points up parallels with the Third World. Economically, Hungary is a semi-peripheral country: open and exposed, lacking the main resources or control over capital. As a result, all major global economic crises have had a devastating effect on Hungary. “It also clarifies, why, despite the Eurocentric discourses, Hungary can quite easily put itself in the position of decolonised countries; because it has a certain understanding of being the victim, being the excluded. Those colonial-type sentiments are actually very prominent in present-day Hungary. So in the periphery, there is this oscillation between feeling very European and the ability to identify with the Third World.”

A quick look at key global indicators brings us to a third advantage of a transnational approach. Many statistics show Hungary hovering around the global average. Whereas the Netherlands and France are close to the top, Hungary often ranks between 40th and 60th. Laczó stresses that a world history of such an average country produces new insights. “This is our next step: we’ve asked fellow historians from France, Spain, the Netherlands and Germany to sit together and discuss what the different volumes are adding to each other. We’ll be working on this in the coming year or two.”

No self-congratulation

Evidently, this transnational take does not go down well with Orbán’s nationalist agenda. “Supporters of the current regime believe in this specific, unique identity; that there is something essentially Hungarian. Our volume deconstructs that, so there’s a conflict. The book has had a very positive reception and it features on the bestseller list, but no state institution or state media has ever talked about us or invited us for an interview.” Besides, the book focuses on the complexities of Hungary’s historical context and refrains from singing the praises of its impact on the rest of the world. “This is something Orbán might dislike, because he constantly wants to pretend that Hungary is a very important player on the international stage.”

Nonetheless, Laczó thinks there is a chance that the prime minister will read the book, given his interest in Hungary’s place in the world and his reflex to think globally and find alternatives to Western Europe. He calls Orbán an unprincipled pragmatist and thinks that his balancing act between the EU and Russia is increasingly becoming untenable. Hungary’s strongman is under great pressure to toe the line when it comes to European opposition to Russia’s war on Ukraine.

“So far, he’s been unwilling to do this. But he’s in a bit of a trap at the moment and needs to make up his mind as to how far he wants to push his agenda of undermining European unity and have things both ways. I really can’t predict what his decision will be, but one thing looks clear: his whole foreign policy project has collapsed in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine.”

Finding the way back to the fold

Ferenc Laczó says that in the 2010s, the European Union was perfect for Orbán. “He enjoyed a lot of autonomy and nobody really bothered too much about what he was doing in Hungary. He received plenty of funds from Brussels and was generally seen as a mainstream politician who was perhaps a little too right-wing, but he was still in the European People’s Party.”

“So, everything was sweet for him; he felt he could do whatever he wanted in Hungary and basically managed to escalate so much that he almost became a kind of persona non grata in mainstream circles. From a Realpolitik point of view, this is very surprising, but I’ll gladly leave the analysis of this radicalisation process to future historians.”

Ferenc Laczó is assistant professor with tenure (UD1) in history. He teaches in the European Studies BA, MA and Minor programmes as well as at University College Maastricht.

Laczó has studied and held fellowships in Berlin, Bielefeld, Budapest, Los Angeles, Utrecht, Vienna and Washington, DC. He received his PhD from the Central European University in Budapest. His main research interests lie in political and intellectual history, modern and contemporary European and global history, the history of mass violence, and questions of history and memory.

Ferenc Laczó is the author of several books including Hungarian Jews in the Age of Genocide. An Intellectual History, 1929-1948 and the editor of several volumes and thematic journal issues. His writings have appeared in fifteen languages. Many of them are available via academia.edu.

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