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The Hungarian character

We shall find it easier to understand the history and civilization of the Hungarians, if we look at first at some interesting traits of their national character.

The Hungarians who settled in the Carpathian basin represented a composite, multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi4ingual nation. This complexity was the result of prolonged contacts of varying intensity with many European and Asian races and cultures during the centuries of their migrations. The Proto-Hungarians had also come under the influence of several ephemeral nomadic "empires" and had remained for periods of various lengths "submerged" in these empires. During these periods they were usually referred to by foreigners by the name of the leading, most aggressive segments of the "empire" in question: Turks, Khazars etc. The amazing fact is, however, that after each such period of national an6nymity they always emerged again, stronger in numbers, enriched in culture and language, their national identity seemingly strengthened by the experience of "submersion."

It is logical, therefore, to assume that the Proto-Hungarians developed a durable and strong national identity at the earliest stage of their migrations. The original tribal group, which had set out on these migrations during the last millennium B.C., must have formed a viable nucleus for the future nation.

This heterogeneous racial and cultural structure, superimposed on a millennia-old national identity, had provided the Hungarians with certain recognizable national characteristics, some of which may seem to be of a contrasting nature. These vastly different features have, during the last thirteen centuries of their Central-European existence, mellowed into a surprisingly rich, colourful but harmonious national character.

Though elusive and hard to define, this national character exists without visible physical racial characteristics. Magyars do not belong to any particular race, they do not present any noticeable religious, political or social conformity – in fact, and the very diversity in these fields seems to be one of the typical characteristics of this people. The definition of their national ‘ethos" is therefore a very complex task. For one thing, Hungarians are usually too emotional to be able to form impartial judgments of themselves while foreigners are rarely familiar enough with their culture and history to form valid conclusions.

The answer to this question requires a compromise solution, similar to the answer to their origins. The nation’s multi-ethnic origin suggests a synthesis of many deep-rooted qualities. No single epithet will adequately describe a Hungarian and those who only see one particular aspect of the many faces of their character will be just as wrong as those who insist that they are descendants of one single ("pure") race. Thus the basic traits of the national character can be traced back to the original "donors", the racial components, from which those qualities may have originated.

The Hungarians inherited from their Turkic-Turanian-Onogur components their organizing talent in military ‘and political matters. These talents enabled them to resettle and reorganize their previously nomadic tribes in Central Europe, to create a western, Christian state and to maintain it for thirteen centuries among hostile nations. Akin to this military talent is their emotional heroism and mercurial instability.

These aggressive qualities are tempered by the legacy of their Nordic Balto-Finno-Ugrian ancestors. These peaceful, fishing– hunting-pastoral (later agricultural) tribes bequeathed to the present-day Hungarians the basic structure of their language along with their taste for a placid, agricultural existence and pastoral occupations. The love of the native soil is so deep– rooted that even the best "assimilated" Hungarian migrants treasure a handful of soil of their native country among their cherished souvenirs. Magyar folksongs present an endless display of nostalgic expressions of the love of the soil and native environment.

These two, seemingly contrasting features combine to present interesting attitude of the Hungarian soldiers on the battlefield. They can fight well when they are defending the frontiers of their own country, protecting, as it were, their own homes and families. Aggressive campaigns beyond the country’s frontiers have, however, rarely inspired Hungarian soldiers to heroic deeds. The greatest Hungarian general, John Hunyadi suffered his only two defeats during campaigns far from the frontiers of the country.

The well-known artistic talent of the people is the synthetic product of Central-Asian (Turkic-Avar-Scythian) influence in folklore and folkmusic, Finno-Ugrian heritage in folk poetry and Mesopotamian-Iranian-Caucasian (Sumerian?) contacts (e.g. interest in mathematics, science, decorative folk-art, certain types of folk music, etc.). Their Caucasian heritage manifests itself also in their preference for intellectual interests, such as literature, art, music, chess and discussion.

They’re conservative moral philosophy, respect for women, elders and ancestors, is a legacy of their gentle Ugrian ancestors. The pre-Christian religion of the Magyars also reflects the mentality of their northern forebears it was a monotheistic, monogamous, family-centered, ancestor-worshipping creed.

Another typical quality of the Hungarians is their ability to assimilate foreigners and integrate themselves into other nations. This two-way flexibility is an attribute acquired during the migrations. The hard core of the nation formed a magnetic nucleus attracting and assimilating smaller foreign groups, thus increasing the nation during its progress. During the XVIIIth and XIXth centuries the numbers of the Magyars increased ninefold, mainly through assimilation. On the other hand, it is a well-known fact that Hungarians make excellent settlers in any country. Though they are proud of their ethnic heritage and share it prodigally with anyone interested, they form no cultural ghettoes and inter-marry freely with any ethnic group.

Honor – personal and national – is a cardinal virtue in their moral spectrum. Keeping one’s given word is an obligation over–riding all other considerations, including political expediency. This is why the Hungarians never changed sides during international conflicts, however advantageous it may have been to do so.

There are, of course, many negative aspects of the Hungarian character. The proverbial Magyar dissension and their lack of perseverance are probably the legacy of those Turkic tribes which frequently formed short-lived nomadic empires bent on the conquest of the world and soon in collapse for no apparent reason. The dreamy, unrealistic optimism, the expectation of miracles is, perhaps, a tradition handed over by the stargazing poets of Mesopotamia. The Hungarians’ volatile temper – easily aroused, easily pacified – their periodical complacency and smug conservatism also point to Mesopotamian sources.

Their proverbial love of freedom and independence often hardens into rugged individualism, which rejects guidance or discipline, military or political. Only leaders with great personal appeal can unite them for any considerable length of time. When formal rejection of an authoritarian rule is not possible – though given half a chance they would rise against it – their resistance finds verbal expression in the form of political satirical humor –probably a Hungarian invention.

Another national vice, their excessive pride – a Turkic legacy – causes them to look down upon those they consider "inferior", whether other Magyars or foreigners, such as national Minorities.

All these qualities have a common denominator, a basic attitude toward life and mankind. When searching for such a quality, the Hungarians like calling themselves the "Defenders of Christian Europe’ for having fought the eastern and southern pagan aggressors for a thousand years. Such religious altruism is hardly an immanent characteristic of these formerly pagan nomads. Nor did they choose this role out of proselytic fervor in order to "expiate" their former pagan aggressiveness. This task was rather imposed upon them by their unfortunate geographical situation. It is true that they did fight with stubborn gallantry for centuries in the gateway of Christian Europe. It is also a fact that on many occasions these powerful aggressors offered to the Hungarians an alliance against the West, which had treated them with selfish cynicism anyhow. The Hungarians, as a nation always rejected these approaches, not because of their mythical mission as the "bastion of Christianity", but because the moral and social ideology of the Mongols and Turks was alien to their conservative morality and freedom-loving individualism.

Thus their ‘militant Christianism" must have deeper roots in the national character. When searching for this fundamental quality, one is struck by a symbolic coincidence. The little tribe which, during the long centuries of migrations, formed the nucleus of the future nation, called itself "Megyeri" – "Magyar" Both particles of this word mean "MAN" – in Ugrian and Turkic respectively. This word seems to point, in a symbolic way, to their basic quality: humanism.

Humanism, under its definition expressed by the philosophers of the Renaissance (the Hungarians’ favorite period), is a reaction against religious or secular doctrines which tend to subordinate men to abstract concepts of a philosophical, political or social nature. Humanism attaches primary importance to man, to his faculties and well being. It is a social attitude as well: respect for one’s fellow-human is compatible with the concern for one’s well-being.

The Hungarians’ humanism is based on the racial, cultural, moral and social concepts inherited from their ancestors in Asia and Europe. Therefore we may justly call their particular philosophy Euro-Asian humanism.

How does this basic attitude reveal itself in Hungarian history and civilization?

Hungarians have always been known for their thirst for knowledge: an important humanistic attribute. Their attitude towards foreign cultures has always been that of sympathetic curiosity: they accepted their inspiration and adapted them to their own tastes. The proverbial Hungarian hospitality is akin to this cultural curiosity. They are probably the only western nation, which truly loves foreigners and treats them with the old– fashioned respect only found among more primitive Asian tribes. It is respect for foreigners was codified by the founder of Christian Hungary, King St. Stephen, who admonished his son to welcome foreigners " . . . because the nation of one language is weak . . ." .He and his successors welcomed immigrants of all nationalities, including pagan refugees fleeing from the Mongol invasion, Jews fleeing from German pogroms (medieval and modern), Slavs and Vlachs escaping from Turkish domination, Poles escaping from Russian and German invaders etc..

Hungarian statesmen frequently fell prey to the intrigues and machinations of international diplomacy. Though efficient organisers in military and political matters, their naive faith in human goodness and credulous innocence left them defenseless against the wily methods of their Machiavellian opponents. Their vitality, optimism and flexibility assured their survival, but their guileless diplomacy always prevented them from playing an important role in Europe. The outspoken Magyar writer, Dezsö Szabó once said: "We Hungarians have been the greatest suckers in the world".

Their softhearted humanism is well illustrated by their behavior in wars. They are incapable of using guerilla tactics, kill unsuspecting or trapped enemies. (Hungary is probably the only. country in Europe which produced no effective armed ‘Resistance" during World War II). They cannot use terror methods, retaliations against civilians and other inhuman methods of warfare. The lower half of the Hungarian Crown was given to the Hungarian King by a Greek emperor, because the Magyar troops had treated their Greek prisoners humanely.

The social structure of the nation has also been based on humanitarian principles. Being human, it was of course, characterized by fragmentation into classes, though not "feudal’ in the western sense of the term, but it possessed a great degree of vertical mobility. Promotion from the lower class to the higher was denied to no one. Peasants of Magyar or other nationality often rose to the highest offices

Folk music art and folklore present remarkably humanistic characteristics. The Magyar folk poet is a down-to-earth realist: His imagination is tinged with earthly colors. Flowers, trees, domestic animals, the sky, the rivers and his crops interpret his basic emotions. His beloved is a ‘turtle dove" and when he is separated from her, he envies the birds that are free to fly to their mates. When he leaves his village, nature itself weeps with him; the dust of the road spins his protective cloak and the stars pity his sorrow. His religion is anthropomorphic: the Child Jesus is the little prince of the shepherds, the Holy Virgin is the mother of all Magyars. The Saviour (" if only He had been born in Hungary . . . ") and Saint Peter visit the Great Plain and talk to the outlaws there. Death holds no terror for him, it is nature’s destiny: the crop dies when ripe. He believes in immortality and resurrection – but he would prefer to be awakened by his girl’s kisses instead of the archangel’s trumpet. He is no mystic: secrets of the afterlife do not interest him. At any rate, Heaven cannot be as beautiful as Hungary, so there is no hurry to get there…

Even religion seems to offer many examples of Hungarian humanism. Among the 40 Hungarians canonized by the Catholic Church (and one canonized by the Buddhist faith) there are no mystics: they were all practical men and women, martyrs, Fighting priests, soldiers, kings, and hard-working women. Even Princess Margaret chose the lowly tasks of a scullery maid in a convent as her sacrifice for Hungary’s liberation from the Mongols in the XVIIIth century – in an age when mysticism and prayer seemed to be the straightest way to Heaven.

* * *

The Hungarians have never built pyramids, ruled slave empires, and conquered new worlds. They are a proud, strange and lonely people. They live in the Carpathian basin and just about everywhere else, engaged in all possible (and some impossible) occupations. No two Hungarians are alike, and yet the magnetism of their diversity seems to bring them together: they seem to be united by their differences. When they meet, they greet each other like longlost brothers, laugh, dream and sing together for a while, then discover some of the innumerable, specially Hungarian differences and go their own, lonely ways, working and dreaming (they are very good at both): fourteen million Don Quixotes in search of new windmills to fight.

It is said that all Australians claim to be equal some even more equal than the others. Hungarians are all different and each one claims to be more different than the others are. They deny having common characteristics – yet they all present the same attitude towards life and things beyond. – One is inclined to believe the American saying: "Hungarian is not a nationality, it is a way of life."

They believe in God. They also believe in miracles, in beautifully useless ideals, but first of all they have unlimited faith in themselves. They love women, music, poetry, romantic history (their own), pure mathematics, applied humor, sumptuous dresses, dignified or fiery dances, melancholic music – but most of all their unique language, a flowery relic of bygone ages with its strange mixture of oriental color and nordic majesty.

They have survived at the crossroads of history where more numerous nations had perished. Strangers came by the millions to join them and to die for them, attracted by that strange magic which is Hungary. They have survived and with them have survived a unique, complex culture, the synthesis of ancient Euro-Asian humanism and modem, western Christianity.

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