Hungary’s New Curriculum: Writing Wrongs?

Politics and literature clash over the ­government's ­sanction of authors linked to the country’s fascist past

Joszef Nyiro statue

A statue of controversial author Joszef Nyiro in Székelyzsomboron, Romania | Photo: Wikicommons

It is not uncommon in Hungarian living rooms to find the walls lined with bookshelves from floor to ceiling. Nor is it odd to find on those shelves a novel or two by the 20th-century Transylvanian writer József Nyirő.

Nyirő’s heroes are ordinary folk. In books such as Jezusfarago ember (The Jesus Carving Man, 1924) and Uz Bence (1933), their adventures unfold amid the villages and hills of the Hungarian-populated Szekely Land in the heart of Romanian Transylvania, a region severed from Hungary by the post-World War I Treaty of Trianon. They are stories, Nyirő’s fans say, that burst with magyar lelkiseg – Hungarian spirituality and soul – and are an important part of the national identity.


A national core curriculum

So far, so inoffensive. But the inclusion of Nyiro in Hungary’s new National Core Curriculum for high schools, and of fellow Transylvanians Albert Wass and Dezső Szabó, has opened a new front in the country’s ongoing culture wars. On one side are those for whom the three interwar writers are Hungarian patriots; on the other, those who view them as anti-Semitic fascists with no place in the state’s official literary canon.

The new curriculum is a central part of what the government, led by the conservative Fidesz party, calls a “fundamental reform” of all elements of the country’s education sector. Rózsa Hoffmann, Secretary of State for education and member of junior coalition partner the Christian Democrats, calls the revamp “modern and in line with the latest EU trends.”

Yet the curriculum, set to be implemented in September 2013, contains plenty of retro. According to Hoffmann herself, it represents a return to the old traditions and baseline standards of cultural literacy. Around 90 per cent of what high school teachers can teach will be fixed, providing the basis for a unified “cultural language” throughout Hungary.

The literature element includes hundreds of writers, among them the three Transylvanians, who, grouped together as a “national conservative school”, made the final cut after being omitted from a first draft. The controversy that followed has less to do with their literary prowess than with their political stripes.

Nyirő, a former Catholic priest, edited far-right newspapers during World War II and was a member of the wartime Hungarian parliament following the annexation of northern Transylvania in 1940. An admirer of Joseph Goebbels, he kept his seat even after the fascist Arrow Cross coup in October 1944 toppled Miklos Horthy, the regent who had ruled Hungary from 1920.

“Long live Adolf Hitler,” Nyirő told parliament on one occasion. Jews are “foreign to magyar lelkiseg,” he said, and liberal Jewish tradition “has infected many Hungarians and must disappear from Hungarian life.”

Both Wass, whose novels still sell well, and the essayist Szabó, had anti-Semitic strains in their work. Szabó would later become strongly anti-fascist, but Nyirő and Wass, both of whom fled Hungary at the end of the war, believed that America had made a fatal mistake in siding with the atheist Bolsheviks against Nazi Germany. Indeed, Wass is still considered a war criminal by Romania for his alleged role in atrocities during the annexation of northern Transylvania, charges he denied until his death in Florida in 1998.

Whether the works of such writers should be taught to high school students depends on what filter you view them through. Jewish-American author, Holocaust survivor, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, a native of northern Transylvania, renounced a state award given to him by Hungary in 2004 after hearing that Laszlo Kover, co-founder of Fidesz and current speaker of the parliament, had attended a ceremony honouring Nyirő in late May. In a letter to Kover, Wiesel called Nyirő “a fascist ideologue.”

Kover replied in writing that post-war Allied generals had not deemed Nyirő a war criminal, fascist, or anti-Semite, and had refused to extradite him back to Hungary to stand trial. Nyirő deserves respect, the speaker said, not for his “tragically mistaken political activity, but for his body of literature”, in which “Nazi sentiments or anti-Semitism do not appear.”

Kover’s implication – that a distinction should be made between the quality or content of a writer’s works and his or her philosophical, ideological, or political views – has become a hot topic of Hungarian debate.

“A literary work is not ‘an object’ that is independent from its author,” says Peter Rado of Expanzio Human, an education policy consultancy in Budapest. “It is interpreted in the light of the whole personality of the person. Great writers with controversial views, be they conservative, liberal, or leftist, can be exciting raw material for discussion and free interpretation in the classroom. These are very different, though, from anti-Semitism, which is not a legitimate value.”

Quality should be the key criterion for inclusion in a curriculum, according to Laszlo Arato, president of the Hungarian Language and Literature Teachers Association. The literary bona fides of American poet Ezra Pound or German poet Gottfried Benn go unquestioned, he says, despite their having been linked with fascist parties.

Arato does not believe the Transylvanian writers make the grade but says his judgment is strictly literary. If the curriculum represents baseline national knowledge, he says, “it should contain only the greatest works of the greatest writers. Nyirő, Wass, and [Dezső] Szabó do not belong in that category.”


Literature as a political weapon

But even if they lack literary gravitas, Nyirő and Wass retain an appeal for many Hungarians, especially those with connections to Hungarian communities in Transylvania. Both writers were banned during the decades of communism, but many bought their books illicitly in second-hand shops in the 1950s. Their works, accessibly written and rich with anti-communist sentiment, portray lives in the post-Trianon “lost lands” in a way that resonates with the Hungarian psyche. To curriculum critics, politicians are using the education system to play to these sentiments.

“What we are dealing with in the curriculum is political intention, definitely not a scientific discussion about literary merit,” says Rado, the education consultant.

The insertion of Nyirő, Wass, and Szabó in the final version was announced with great fanfare (although Hoffmann, the education secretary, would more discreetly reveal that they would not be compulsory). According to many political analysts, Fidesz played up the decision to win votes from Jobbik.

“The government has been trying to steal the symbolic and ideological proposals of Jobbik for two years now,” says Andras Biro Nagy of Policy Solutions, a political research and consulting house in Budapest. He notes several such gestures: the naming of a Budapest square after Albert Wass, the removal from outside Parliament of a statue of Mihaly Karolyi, the left-leaning post-World War I prime minister, or compulsory school visits to parts of Romania, Slovakia, Serbia, and Ukraine that were part of Hungary prior to the Treaty of Trianon. Lately, statues of the interwar authoritarian ruler Horthy, who made a pragmatic alliance with Nazi Germany to win back the pre-Trianon territories, have begun popping up in provincial towns and villages, a phenomenon many say Fidesz has been conspicuously quiet on, even tacitly sympathetic toward.


‘Unlikely to be required reading’

“The purpose of the strategy is clear,” Biro Nagy says. “They want to defend the border between Fidesz and Jobbik voters. Polls are showing that hundreds of thousands are hovering between the two parties. They appear to have calculated that they have more to lose on the far right than to win in the centre.”

How teachers will approach figures such as Nyirő and Wass in the classroom is unclear. While the Core Curriculum has become law, school-specific “framework curricula” drawn from the roster of authors are not yet set. The controversial Transylvanians are unlikely to be required reading.

Laszlo Arato, a high school teacher himself, predicts that most of his peers, faced with an overloaded curriculum, will ignore them, giving a nod to the national conservative school’s existence but little else.

“Teachers who want to be loyal to the government will be happy to teach them, but most won’t,” Arato says. “Some will teach them in a critical way, which I think is fine. I have already taught Albert Wass as a popular best-seller writer, and may do so again just to show students why he is not so valuable.”

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