Hungarian Writers’ Spat Betrays Struggle Between ‘Urbanism’ and ‘Populism’

By Michael Standaert

Published March 26, 2004, issue of March 26, 2004.
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In the past two weeks, more than 120 Hungarian writers have walked out on the Hungarian Writers’ Association in response to antisemitic statements made by one of the group’s executive members.

Among those resigning from the 1,200-member writer’s association, the largest and most influential in Hungary, were prominent writers Péter Esterházy, Péter Nadas and Gyorgy Konrad, a communist-era dissident and former president of the Berlin Academy of the Arts.

Last Friday, March 19, marked the 60th anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Hungary, which led to the expulsion and murder of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews in the Holocaust. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the communist regimes in Europe, observers believe that antisemitism has re-emerged in Hungary, a problem that is felt most strongly by the large Jewish community in Budapest, estimated to be at least 40,000. But the tension in this latest controversy can also be traced back to a split among Hungarian writers in the 1930s, one that was rooted in conflict over what direction the Hungarian state should take. On one side were the so-called “urbanist” writers, westward-leaning, city-dwelling reformers — many of whom were Jewish — while on the other side were the “populist” writers who identified more with the rural Hungarian experience, nationalism and folklore.

“Today it is not a social question but a pure ideological question,” said Gábor T. Szántó, Hungarian author and editor of the Jewish cultural and political monthly Szombat (Sabbath) who also handed in his resignation. “The populists have a perception of a disappearing of the Hungarian nation and they fear expansion of the E.U. and globalization. Most urbanist writers are pro-West, pro-modernization. The populist writers are traditionalist. The difference between them is mostly political.”

According to Szántó, the tensions began around Christmas last year when a drunk former punk musician named ‘Barango,’ employed by an avant-garde, underground radio station, said on-air that he would like to “kill all the Christians.” The statement was condemned in both leftist and rightist media, and the musician was eventually fired from the station.

But the controversy continued. A demonstration against the underground radio station was held in January. At the protest, an Israeli flag was burned, and the populist Hungarian writer Kornel Dobrentei made a number of coded references to the “bearded people,” according to Szántó. In previous months, Dobrentei frequently blamed Jews for a number of Hunagrian social problems on multiple radio programs.

“No one accepted or agreed with this,” said Szántó, referring to the statement by Barango. “But instead of dying down, the situation escalated as the rightist media used the comments to blame the political left, although the rightist media and the political right never condemn and apologize for their antisemitic statements, and although the man who made the brutal statement asked forgiveness several times in several forums.”

Following Dobrentei’s remarks, 25 members of the association drafted a letter to the group’s president, Marton Kalasz, asking that Dobrentei be removed from the executive leadership board and requesting that the association officially distance itself from such remarks. Kalasz and the board of executives rejected the call to oust Dorentei.

“The question was whether the official leaders of the writers club could separate themselves from this type of talk,” Szántó said. After a committee meeting failed to resolve the issue, 93 writers walked out. Last week the resignations grew to more than 120 when Dobrentei was awarded the “alternative” Kossuth Prize by the Union of Hungarian Writers, a small group made up of right-wing nationalist writers.

The original Kossuth Prize, named after the Hungarian hero of the revolution of 1848, is Hungary’s highest literary award. First delivered in 1948, the award has been criticized by the right as being associated with the communist regime, of which they often perceive Jews as having participated in as vengeance for the Holocaust. The alternative prize, conceived as an ironic counterweight, was created after the collapse of communism.

The conflict between the two groups of writers has grown even more bitter, according to Szántó, by the fact that the populist writers are not as widely translated into other European languages as the urbanists are.

“The urbanist writers are more accepted,” he said. “The Holocaust, as it became a universal symbol, was more accepted as a popular topic outside the country. Sometimes the populists feel the sufferings of the regular Hungarian people are not accepted by an international audience.”

According to Ha’aretz, at the rally in January against the underground radio station Dobrentei protested against what he called a “moral holocaust aimed at the Hungarian people,” which many understood to mean that the Hungarian Christian people were being marginalized in their own country by “the left” — communists, outsiders and Jews. The paper also reported that Dobrentei stated, “a minority wishes to force violently upon a people its imported culture, its material and political intentions and efforts.”

“They gave this prize to Dobrentei after his speech and defended and protected him against us,” said Szántó of the reasoning behind the walkout. “It was a symbolic statement that they accept what he was saying.”

In 1990, a similar incident of alleged antisemitism caused Nobel laureate Imre Kertész, who lives in Germany part of the time, to leave the Hungarian Writers’ Association along with a handful of other Jewish writers.

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