Author: Catherine Bellamy
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 11/04/2003
It is not customary to spout “cheers” when taking the first sip of beer from a pint in Hungary. Instead tradition dictates that the bottom of the glass is whacked on the table, to be followed by the saying, “Vesszen Haynau!” Sitting in the trendy Franz Liszt Square on my first night in Budapest, I learned why: at the end of the Hungarian Revolution on the 6th of October 1849, the Austrians – victorious in war – executed thirteen Hungarian Generals in Arad (which today is part of Romania) and the Hungarian Prime Minister in Buda. After the execution by hanging – explained to me as a very humiliating sort of death for a military officer – the Austrians, led by their general called Haynau, cheered with beer. That was when Hungarians made an oath not to cheer with beer for 150 years. The date passed in 1999 but the tradition lives on, and Hungarians do not cheer, and instead say: “Death to Haynau!”
It is not only defeat at the hands of the Austrians that is ingrained in the Hungarian daily discourse. Not unlike the Poles, Hungarians seem to have been kicked around by everyone, the Germans, the Russians, the list goes on and on. And the reminders are everywhere. After finishing my beer in Franz Liszt Square, I walked by the Jewish ghetto. The synagogue is stunning and bright yellow – a stark contrast from what was happening in the early 1940s to ½ million Jews. The apparent tumultuous history left me with an unsettling feeling of claustrophobia. I could almost feel the hangover of communism in the air. As an Hungarian said to me, “Animal Farm?!? You cannot begin to appreciate Animal Farm the way that we loved Animal Farm.”
My first impressions of Budapest were of a bleak (rain or no rain), dirty and empty city. Maybe it is because I learned about the Holocaust and Soviet occupation at a young age, or that I was obsessed by Eastern European literature throughout college. Or maybe because when going into shops, I was often confronted with frowns and un-pleasantries. Was it because I am a foreigner? That service with a smile has not caught on since the fall of the
USSR? I can understand how elements of the city led it to be referred to as the Paris of Central Europe – the architecture is impressive and almost every corner has a coffee shop. (I must have gained about 5 pounds from the real whipped cream on the hot chocolate. I grew up on coolwhip and after sampling the Hungarian cream, I asked a friend what was wrong with the cream. She laughed, and said it was real). Yet, despite the tasty coffee, something seemed initially un-welcoming about the city. The buildings are almost too imposing, too stark. And besides a few nightclubs, the city seems barren at night.
Fortunately, the friend I was visiting introduced me to some of her Hungarian friends, who are extremely bright and witty. The universities produce brilliant engineers and economists, but for obvious reasons, open political debate is relatively new. After hours of discussion with my new companions, I began to comprehend the platforms of the political parties – beyond the accepted wisdom of joining the EU – as something like this: the liberals (who believe in the promotion of big business, human rights, and the influx of multinational companies) joined forces with the socialists (a more moderate party encompassing many of former Communists, arguably the most argent capitalists or neo-liberals) to defeat the conservative alliance (the champion of pro-nationalist ideologies, including the 3 million that live outside Hungary, pro-labour policies, and small businesses). It is almost as if the political discourse has not yet had time to mature, and each party is picking concepts or terms from the Western tree of poli-sci class. Fierce political disagreements during the last elections damaged many friendships and relations within families, though no one seemed to be able to explain why this election, why now. The strong desire to develop and progress is palpable, and yet a deep cynicism remains regarding putting too much faith in any system or political leaders. Of course, the corruption adds to the pressure – a problem that any society must face, but with the history of the Soviet repression it is more difficult to tackle.
In a recent opinion piece in the Financial Times, authors Matthew Olex-Szcztowski and Jacek Rostowski highlighted that the recent growth and improved equity of the Central European economies are substantially better than the numbers indicate – which often fail to account for the shadow economy. “The Central European accession countries are more prosperous, productive and politically stable, and thus better investment targets, than the databases usually indicate. Yet the western press is all too ready to echo the woeful themes that are repeated in the eight’s own lugubrious media.” Part of the reason stems from the leadership’s unfamiliarity with the new economic system, and its reluctance to wholeheartedly accept everything Western and new. Yet, the dedication to education and advancement by the younger generations will eventually become clear to the new European partners and the outside world.
The heavy sense of history – repression, war, and loss – that I felt in Budapest did not fade. However, I did begin to see more of the beauty of the city. I explored the old section of Buda, which has an fabulous view of the Danube and, in my opinion the most sublime parliament building in Europe, and Margaret Island, full of the infamous Hungarian baths. And I went to the museum of photography – and realized that Hungarians have a lot to do with the creative art form as it exists today. Ultimately, the city – and its cynicism and dynamism – was refreshing. In Hungary, I saw many parallels with other countries that are struggling to develop economic and political institutions, and to build peace after the end of a grueling war. The U.S. (slavery notwithstanding) is the major exception in a world that intimately knows widespread war and repression, and perhaps lends itself to understanding why the U.S. faces many of its problems today: skepticism and caution in embracing systems and ideologies have yet to be learned.