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A Bridge between East and West?

The image of Hungary projected in this book shows Hungarians as they evolved from nomadic horsemen to a nation which threw off the shackles of Communism in last year in a belated victory of their October Revolution of 1956.

As John F. Kennedy extolled that event: "October 23, 1956, was a day that will forever live in the annals of free men and free nations. It was a day of courage, conscience and triumph. No other day since history began has shown more clearly the eternal unquenchability of man's desire to be free, whatever the odds against success, whatever sacrifice required."

Looking back at that history, Hungary's struggles have often been extolled in the West, but-sadly-she has seldom been aided in her proverbial role as "the Bastion of Christendom," and a "vanguard of liberty."

From her achievements, Hungary has profited little or nothing - an injustice that has been keenly felt and eloquently commented on by Hungarian writers. In an essay entitled Between East and West the historian Viktor Padányi wrote:

We were bled white in fighting against the East rather than siding with it - and what did we get as reward? When the Slavs coveted our land, historic Hungary was dismembered with Western assistance at Trianon in 1920. The Slavs and Pravo-Slav Rumanians mattered more in the eyes of Western statesmen than all our deeds and sacrifices and the moral justification of our existence... Following World War II we have been punished anew and thrown mercilessly into the claws of Soviet Russian imperialism.

All this despite our contributions to culture and mankind. Our Semmelweis saved countless millions of mothers all over the world. The geometry of Bolyai, the inventions of Loránd Eötvös in the field of geophysics, the music of Liszt, Kodály and Bartók, the masterpieces of Munkácsy, the works of our Nobel prize laureates, our performances in sport that outclassed many major countries are on the peaks of mankind's achievements. Although our fight for independence had made our nation the revered symbol of world liberty in Kossuth's time, the West does not seem to care about our fate. Considering this indifference we have to realize more than ever that we stand utterly abandoned and are terribly alone in Europe. Yes, we are alone We have been carrying this burden of loneliness for more than a millennium and under the weight of this almost unbearable heritage many of our Greats uttered their cries of anguish...

The tone of Padányi's emotional remarks may be overly subjective and easily dismissed as another example of the Magyars' habitual lament - a cultural trait that can be self-defeating. Yet, even the essay's title shows the undeniable duality of the Hungarian soul, recognized by others before and since.

Hungary's greatest poet, Sándor Petfi, also lamented about the isolation of the Magyars, calling his people the most orphaned nation in the world in his poem Life or Death.

And though I were another nation's son

I would help this people, I hereby,

for they are deserted, the most forsaken

people of all the world under the sky.

However, it was Endre Ady, the foremost Hungarian poet of this century, who hammered on this East-West duality with the passion of an apocalyptic soul. Some of his poems seem to suggest an arbitrary escape from the Occident Ady's works are rich in symbolism - a peculiar Eastern trait of the Magyars - although his works were also strongly influenced by the new ideas he had acquired during a long stay in Paris.

Among Hungarian statesmen, the great reformer of the Magyar way of life, Count István Széchenyi-a professed Anglophile - chose Kelet népe (People of the East) as the title of his first political book.

Recognizing this duality of the Magyar soul, Zoltán Kodály wrote:

The Hungarian culture is an eternal struggle between our ancient tradition and Western culture. We will find peace within ourselves when our culture matches the height of Western culture, but borrowing from the latter only what is absolutely necessary.


Then Kodály asks whether "Janus-faced Hungary" - facing two opposite directions at the same time - can develop "one soul possessing a single will?" To this he promptly answers: "We should be a bridge between East and West. Such a bridge would lend us weight in the Danubian Basin, because only in this way could we in all sincerity meet the peoples to whom we have been tied by a common historical fate for a thousand years: the Slovaks, the Croats,. the Rumanians."

Endre Ady in one of his poems sang about the unity of Magyars, Slovaks and Rumanians saying, "Sorrow felt by Rumanians, Magyars and Slavs will remain a common sorrow." Another great poet of this century, Attila József, warned that, "We must settle our common problems, finally, this task is imperative - and it is not a little one."

László Németh, an important writer in recent times, actively reached out to Hungary's neighbors, traveling extensively in the successor states. "We live here in common destiny, without knowing much about each other" he wrote. "It is high time for us to mutually recognize that we are all foster brothers fed by the same breast."

Following his own advice, Németh learned the Serbo-Croatian,. Czech, Slovak and Rumanian languages, in addition to the major Western languages. The title of one of his best known essays, Most, ponte silta, is actually a repetition of the word "bridge" in three languages - Slavic, Latin and Finno-Ugric. Németh sought to accentuate the thousand-year old ties - bridges - between the Carpathian nations, professing that their peoples should freely share each other's spiritual and esthetic treasures. He himself reached into the works of South Slav, Czech and Rumanian authors to enrich his own writings - among them Híd a Drinán (Bridge over the Drina), based upon the novel Mostna Dranu by the Croatian Ivo Andric.

The seeds sown by Hungarian political writers of the past four decades are sprouting both in Hungary and in exile. Many exiled writers and historians - such as Alexander Gallus and the late Béla Kardos, an apostle of federalism, have embraced the idea of a federation, or rather confederation, in which, united, the Carpathian nations could secure their common survival and happiness once the red tide ebbs. Such concepts realize that the clock of history cannot be turned back to pre-Trianon conditions and that complete equality should prevail in a new union, if one can be established.

Despite the willingness of Hungarians "to settle our common affairs, finally," the attitude of Hungary's neighbors to do so remains a question mark.

While "old-time" Magyar nationalism - learning from the lessons of the past - has mellowed into tolerance, some of Hungary's neighbors are still indulging in their freshly tasted "new-time" nationalism. In the decades past millions of Hungarian minorities had the bitter experience of suffering the consequences of nationalist intolerance. Still, it is to be hoped that the new democracies emerging on the ruins of Communism in East-Central Europe will find the way to a genuine reconciliation in the years ahead.

* * *

Another reason why the Hungarians have an uphill task in pushing through even their soundest ideas lies in themselves. It is a paradox that while Magyars excel individually in many fields, they have so far been unable to pool their remarkable talents to promote the cause of Hungary effectively from abroad. Excessive individualism forms a barrier that makes it very hard to unite Hungarians for a single purpose, particularly one that requires dogged perseverance.

A deeper reason lies in still another characteristic of the Magyar people. An essay by Cecil Bognár published back in 1935 in the Budapesti Szemle (Budapest Review) titled A portrait of the Magyar character points out that the Magyars lack shrewdness, dissimulation, flattery, scheming and flexibility - traits that were bound to develop in other, usually smaller peoples who lived in a subordinate status for many centuries, and who needed them for survival. Some of these qualities are useful also in diplomacy and even more so in international propaganda.

"The Magyars," according to Bognár, 'are more adept at performing single, spectacular deeds than at conducting protracted activities with perseverance. They can prove themselves much better in open conflicts then in competitions that demand trickery, turn-abouts and quick adjustments to everchanging situations."

And, perhaps most importantly, so the analysis goes, the Magyars lack "the healthy instinct and practical sense of the Anglo-Saxons." The latter "have an innate ability to find ways out of critical situations and forge instant unity for achieving such a goal. Their rational, sober thinking has helped them achieve progress, adopt new ideas while instinctively preserving tradition on the road of unhurried progress."

The Magyars, the author points out, find it difficult to use the most practical ways and means of achieving their purpose. Their priorities are often clouded and they are inclined to attribute greater importance to nuances than to really important matters. They have a tendency to indulge in emotional thinking and ceremonies, and to find refuge in an irrational


world of dreams mainly concerned with the glories of the past. "The Magyars' activity tends to be irregular, similar to a passing ardor or to the sudden flare-up of a fire (szalmaláng) which soon dies down."

Still, there were periods in Hungarian history when the Magyars' capacity for long term action reached astonishing proportions. The first protracted galvanizing of the entire nation's energy occurred after the Conquest when the Magyars adopted Christianity, thereby determining the future of the nation. Witness also the Rákóczi uprising which was able to hold Europe's greatest power at bay for eight years. The heroic War of Independence led by Kossuth is another example of protracted national effort that earned the world's admiration.

The past century also saw Hungarian literature and culture develop with a feverish intensity that lasted for decades. That was the era that produced Hungary's greatest poets and writers: Petfi, Arany, Vörösmarty, Jókai, Mikszáth and many others, and also great statesmen such as Széchenyi, Kossuth, Deák, Eötvös and Andrássy.

Such phenomena do show the capability for spectacular long term achievements, but the above assessment by Bognár of the Magyar character may be considered valid nevertheless.

Despite such innate handicaps, the people of Hungary, though suppressed and exploited for decades by Moscow, have been able to carve out for themselves an existence that has been the envy of the country's neighbors in the Soviet bloc. This fact is all the more striking, because Czechoslovakia, Rumania and Yugoslavia are more powerful and much richer in resources than twice defeated, mutilated Hungary. Yugoslavia and Rumania are not even under Soviet occupation.

In the historic year of 1989, it was Hungary which emerged as the leader in breaking down the Iron Curtain, and in making the first crack in the Berlin Wall by allowing East Germans free access to West Germany through Hungarian territory via Austria. It was Hungarians in Tnansylvania who triggered the revolution which ousted Rumania's tyrannical regime. Hungary's example served as an inspiration for other communist-dominated countries, and as a model for building democracy on the ruins of communism.

Intangible Hungarian statecraft is once again at work, proving that it had not been by chance that the Magyars prevailed as the leading nation in the Carpathian Basin for a millennium. The events of 1989-1990 also proved that the Magyars, a "nation without boundaries," did maintain their leadership despite the dismemberment of historic Hungary.

It has also become evident that her neighbors, such as Rumania and Yugoslavia, cannot match that statecraft and spirit that enabled the Magyars to survive against often impossible odds.

Whatever the case may be, one paramount but often overlooked fact must be kept in mind: Hungary occupies a central position in the Carpathian Basin and the 14.5 million or so Hungarians living within Hungary or as minorities in other states still represent an absolute majority in the area embraced by the Carpathians.

In addition, the 1.5 million Hungarians dispersed throughout the free world represent a vast, but so far hardly tapped reservoir (some say, "a secret weapon") for promoting Hungary's true national interests. With the passing of years, second and third generations have grown up, mostly as natives of Anglo-Saxon countries, who have imbibed Anglo-Saxon virtues of practical sense and perseverance.

These new generations, with their Western upbringing and Magyar heritage, are eminently predestined to step in and help the Hungarian cause both individually and collectively. Though many may not speak the language of their forefathers, the flame of Hungarian spirit must still be flickering in their hearts. After all, István Széchenyi, "a legnagyobb Magyar" ("the greatest Hungarian") could not speak Magyar well in his early youth nor did Ferenc Rákóczi II before he hoisted the flag of liberty for Hungary.

These new generations of Hungarians rooted in the West may help the Hungarian nation achieve her just aspirations and accomplish what a modern idol of their ancestral land, Béla Bartók, expressed with these words: "We want to realize a synthesis of East and West. Our origins and geographic location has predestined us to such a role, for Hungary is at the same time the westernmost point of the East and a bastion of the West."

Sándor Reményik:

To the Magyars of Transylvania:

Here in time's depths lurk many forms of death,

And much may come to pass; but none so clever

Lives under Heaven as can build a coffin

To bury us forever!

On poet-lips the tree of Magyar speech

Shall sprout anew in buds and branches vernal;

Indomitable force in floods shall sing:

"Our spirit lives eternal!"

From the poem "To the Magyars of Transylvania" by Sándor Reményik


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