Of Statues and Traditions in Hungary.

Bucur, Maria, and Wingfield, Nancy M., eds. Staging the Past: The Politics of Commemoration in Habsburg Central Europe, 1848 to the Present. Indiana: Purdue University Press, 2001.

Essay discussed: “The Cult of March 15: Sustaining the Hungarian Myth of Revolution, 1849-1999″ by Alice Freifeld.

On March 15, 1848, a group of Hungarian liberal activists sat in a cafe in the wee hours of the morning. Their lecumbrious meeting ended with an agreement that the revolution would begin in the morning. A few hours later, some of these liberals began a kind of parade through the city, stopping at museums, universities, and eventually parliament and the next city over the river. At each stop, they would read a poem exhorting Hungarians to rise up and then a series of twelve points for creating a liberal government. That day, parliament agreed to one of the points, a free press, and about a month later the revolutionaries and government came to a compromise which closely resembled a constitutional monarchy. This revolution was brought on by the middle class and the crowd assembled on that March 15 was black with top hats.

Soon, a statue of Sador Petofi, a leader of that early revolution, was erected and the site of the statue became the ritual location at which the Hungarian political evolution could be measured each March 15 since then. During the next few years after the revolution, the liberals would have a meeting at the statue each year. Eventually, loud crowds of socialists began co-opting the liberals’ celebration, even creating competing events nearby. The socialists argued that the liberals were no longer espousing a revolution of the people, but were instead supporting the powerful and the status quo. Compared to the fervor of the socialists, the liberals appeared stale. In the years to come, the socialists took over March 15. By WWII, the statue of Petofi was used to stage a protest against the Hungarian alliance with the fascist axis powers by both liberals and socialists.

After WWII, the communists took over Hungary. The communists used March 15 as a state holiday, using it to prove that the revolution of 1848 had finally been completed. The communists greatly feared spontaneous crowd movements, and by staging officially organized street gatherings and by coopting the liberal revolution for their communist hierarchy, they sought to further neutralize any lingering political motives to seek freedom. During this time, some middle school children staged the old liberal pageant from the 1800’s, complete with the poem, twelve points, and going from station to station. These student groups were dispersed and oppressed by authorities.

After 1989, the Hungarian state continued to consider March 15 a holiday. However, most Hungarians could care less. School children are most familiar with the holiday due to teaching in class. The last 15 years have been marked by considerable apathy toward the Hungarian revolutionary tradition.

Although it was not discussed in the essay, perhaps the fervent mass protests in Hungary against their social democrat leader comes closest to continuing the tradition. Interestingly, this last spate of protests was by what could be considered a liberal crowd, coming closer to seeking political equality as opposed to an end-state material equality. These crowds demanded the resignation of their PM and even hijacked a tank. The resignation was not given and the crowds were calmed by their own official party leaders. Although we cannot predict how Hungarian politics will progress, it is possible to imagine the revolutionary tradition of March 15 continuing on both the right and the left.

Staging the Past has similar concerns as Earthly Powers and Sacred Causesby Michael Burleigh. In these two volumes, Burleigh discusses the clash of religion and politics in Western European history. However, he does not discuss politics and religion as two opposites, but as overlapping entities. As a result, he discusses the traditions, holidays, parades, and ceremonies related to political mass movements and how the parties and governments involved sought to legitimize their program through civic religion.

One Response to “Of Statues and Traditions in Hungary.”

  1. Ben says:

    One point of contemporary interest to Staging the Past, the Estonian statue crises of the last summer shows how statues and ceremonies will continue to mean a lot to the future of this Eastern/Central part of Europe. Although Poland made it to the headlines with the crises in deciding to clean all its Communist statues, the media and peoples across the region payed very much attention to what was happening (Finnish newspapers, for example, had entire page openings dedicated to discussing the crises, and it was on top in all radio and TV reporting).

    It is likely that statues and ceremonies will hold quite a prominent position in how politicians seek to reinvent the past or nationalize their states. A particularly intriguing factor will be the issue of Russian minorities and the newly nationalizing states along with a rising irridentist Russia.