Sunday, May 17, 2015

Rise of the Magyar: Hungary's Aspiring Role in Middle Europe


Overlooking the Danube River and Parliament from the Presidential Palace.

I recently returned from a trip abroad hosted by the American Council of Young Political Leaders.  It is a State Department funded program that promotes international understanding and the exchange of ideas among the rising generation of political figures.  For our exchange, a significant portion of our trip was spent in Hungary, known as Magyar, in the local tongue.

A 1000 Year Summary of Hungarian History

Hungary is a nation with a long and proud history.  The Magyar tribe conquered and settled the Carpathian basin around 896 AD.  The pagan tribe acquiesced to Christianity under the zealous sword of its quick tempered leader Gejza in the 900's.  Following Gejza's death, his son Stephen was coronated as the first monarch of Hungary on Christmas Day 1000 AD.   In the 1200's, Mongols invaded the area and killed or deported as slaves one million Hungarians (1/3rd of the population).  This experience lead to the widespread construction of stone castles for defense.  In the 1500's, Ottoman Turks swept the country with 100,000 troops.  Half of Hungary was defeated and dominated by the Turks for 150 years.  Following the defeat, the other half of the country was absorbed into Habsburg dominions with Transylvania breaking off as an independent state.

Overlooking the town center of Eger, Hungary from the top of Eger Castle.

After the Turks were pushed out of the country, nearly all of Hungary was placed under rule of the Habsburgs.  However, oppressive rule lead to an independence revolution in 1848 and ultimately lead to the a dual monarchy with Budapest becoming the second capitol of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  This event opened the door for the construction of the beautiful cityscape we see today in Budapest.

Entering the Pest side of Budapest from Liberty Bridge.

Hungary was an ally of Germany in World War I and their defeat meant the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  It also meant the subdivision of its lands and the country was winnowed from a population of 20 million to a territory of just 8 million.  This arbitrary map drawing means that millions of Hungarians today live outside of Hungary's borders in neighboring countries.

Hungary also allied with Germany in WWII but was occupied as an untrustworthy ally.  German occupation in the last year of the war meant the extermination of most of it's Jewish population.  However, unlike other European states where Jewry suffered complete extermination, there remains in Budapest an indigenous population of Jews that survived the war.

Monuments memorializing the terror of Nazi and Communist occupation of Hungary.

Following WWII, Russian tanks rolled into Hungary and occupied the country.  The people rose up against communist cruelty in a 1956 revolution, but the revolution was crushed with brute force by the Soviets.  Yet, out of necessity, the Soviets loosened their tight grip to give Hungarian more freedom than was experienced in other countries occupied by the Soviets.  Ultimately, the anti-communist movement rose, the Soviet Union collapsed, and the last Russian soldier left Hungary in the early 1990s.

Hungary Today

Today Hungary is a democracy populated by several political parties.  The governing party is the Fidesz which is conservative in its ideology and is populated by the Founding Fathers of the post-communist era.  We met with many Fidesz members of parliament and the ministers of the cabinet.  We also met with the Socialist Party (old communists), the Christian Democrat People's Party (center-left), and a 'Green' Party member.  The President of Hungary is a controversial figure who often makes remarks that offend the sensibilities of the European Union and United States.

The Legislative Chamber of Parliament in Budapest.

Given it's history, Hungary finds itself in a precarious position.  A tiny country of 10 million people, it is unluckily situated between the aggressive Russian bear and the dominating German eagle.  One of our hosts shared the adage: The Germans and the Russians kill each other; and when they are not, they kill everyone else.  Such experience underscores all of Hungarian geopolitics in the region.  They are in an existential struggle for survival in a dangerous world.  This struggle means making some unlikely alliances.  For instance, Hungary flirts with Russia because Russia controls 80% of its energy supply.  It is compelled to interact with its former oppressor out of economic necessity.  Such circumstances mean that its EU and US partners are not very satisfied with Hungary's positions in regards to Russia.  While most Western Nations are boycotting or sanctioning current Russian aggression, Hungary has taken a less stern position.

Hungary also sees itself as a budding force in the region.  In one of our conversations, it was explained to us that, outside of Germany, Europe seems to lack strong leadership from other countries.  They also envision a new 'Middle Europe' that includes Hungary as a prominent voice.  The terms 'Eastern' and 'Central' have become pejorative terms in European parlance.  Thus, a rebranding of the region appears to be taking place as Hungary works to position itself in a place of strength.

Symbolic Eagle and Gate at the Presidential Palace in Budapest.

This quest for self-determination, independence, and relevance hearkens back to its conquest of the Carpathian valley, its overthrow of the Turks, its rebellion against the Habsburgs, and its revulsion against Soviet Communism.

This indomitable attitude also comes with a backdrop of strong nationalistic and patriarchal perspectives in Hungarian culture.  Indeed, one of the local folks we met humorously quipped: "Welcome to our racist, xenophobic, chauvinistic country!"  The Gypsie, or Roma, populations in Hungary are held in low esteem by ethnic Hungarians.  High poverty and low education make this an entrenched class that requires enormous public resources.  Currently the government is working on education efforts to break the cycle of poverty that has pervaded this group for decades.  The ethnic Hungarians are resentful of the social woes afflicting the Gypsies but see no other humane way of dealing with the problem.

Paintings commemorating the reconciliation between the Monarchy and Parliament.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the role of women in society, Hungarian culture, in my opinion, has missed the mark.  Women are treated as subservient to men in the public sphere.  During one of our meetings with a top official, our host asked that the women in our delegation sit on either side of him while the men sat across from him at the table.  The men of our delegation conversed with our host while the women in our delegation remained silent.  From our delegation's perspective, it appeared our seating arrangement meant that our host intended to only discuss matters with the men while being adorned with women on either side.

The role of women is also illustrated in cultural icons.  In the Presidential Palace there stands two female statues.  On one side is the representation of an innocent virgin with her eyes downcast who is walking into the woods.  On the other side is a the voluptuous representation of this girl emerged from the woods no longer a virgin but as a 'full' women.

Later, I inquired again as to the meaning since I thought something might have been lost in translation to English.  I asked about the meaning of the girl emerging from the woods as a full woman.  Did it mean that she had reached her child bearing years and represented the figure of potential motherhood and the future hope for Hungarian posterity?  Or, was this simply the glorification of a woman loosing her virtue? My hosts clarified that it represented a woman being able to enjoy and provide for all the comforts that a grown woman can provide her male counterparts.  In this case, apparently, as an object of sexual gratification and desire.

Such a symbolic perspective happens to show up in Hungarian demographics.  With a birthrate among the lowest anywhere in the world, ethnic Hungarians' focus on sexual comfort over reproduction has put their population into decline.  Without a change in course, in the next three decades there will be few Hungarians left to keep the lights on in the country.

Hungarian Parliament building in Budapest.

Nevertheless, this demographic reality combined with an ethos of independence may be spurring the Hungarians to stand up and fight against fading into oblivion.  There is solidarity in the country for their expatriated countrymen in neighboring lands.  They are very concerned about their border Ukraine and Russian aggression toward neighbors who were former members of the Soviet Union.  Since every crises brings opportunity, the Hungarians seem to view current world events as their moment to assert their voice and rise as a regional power.  Their current President often expresses strong nationalistic rhetoric with visions of a resurgent Hungary.  A people with an eye toward the future have hope.  A people with hope in the future have children.  

Whether Hungary is successful in its effort to obtain and project regional power remains to be seen.  In the meantime, expect more geopolitical intrigue as Russian aggression becomes more blatant and Hungarian resolve intensifies.  The stakes are high for this small but potent country.  If it plays its diplomatic cards right, and also starts breeding, it may just achieve what it is seeking.                                      


  

              

1 comment:

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