Németül és angolul (alább)
The Unavoidable Question of Nationalism
With the expansion of the European Union, a process of denationalization has begun in the region of the former Eastern bloc. However, this unification process is challenged by the opposing forces of rising nationalism, right wing populism and religious fundamentalism. Despite the supranational structure, the EU members, especially the newcomers, still remain open to ideas nation building, collective memory and to future ambition. These nations are still, perhaps more so now than before, obsessed with their national, ethnic and religious homogeneity based on an introverted understanding of their culture. An imaginary heritage, distorting or mythologizing the past to serve the current political needs, is very much a part of the landscape, as well as conflicts over public spaces that certain groups intend to monopolize. The mythic, idealized past is frequently mobilized against the memories of different groups, whose recollections are not considered to be part of the majority conception of culture; memorial sites are therefore constant terrains of political battles and targets for subversive artistic practices.
In those countries of the former Eastern bloc where the political earthquake was preceded by roundtable discussions, the traumatic memory of the Socialist past was silenced, and its analysis was postponed to an unspecified future date. Undoubtedly this was the case in Hungary. Since the political change was negotiated, and an agreement was hoped for through compromise between the partners from the former ruling elite as well as from the former opposition, all conflicts and disagreements were set aside. The price to be paid for this was high: burying the past without proper mourning and without drawing any lessons from it. It soon became impossible to critically analyze the past, due to the changes in the political climate, as these turned into a political weapon for witch-hunts, mostly in the hands of the right. As a result, calls for remembrance came to be interpreted as right wing rhetoric, having no place in neoliberal or leftist thinking, and the Socialist past was condemned to silence. However, silence and taboos poison communication and have terrible consequences; without critical examination and proper mourning of past injustices, one is not able to deal with contemporary cultural problems. This confused and paralyzing atmosphere to a greater extent dominates these countries nowadays, where the discredited symbols of Socialism have been replaced by national, religious or revisionist monuments.
While energy is expended on blocking and filtering memories of the Socialist past,1 the forces of nationalist extremism and the church have made aggressive claims on public space in different countries. In Hungary, statues dedicated to Saint Stephen - the first king of Hungary who converted the country to Christianity - mushroomed in public spaces previously emptied in the nineties. In Estonia, Socialist monuments were replaced by nationalist ones, to correspond with the fact that the newly liberated population had suddenly become the governing force in the successor states of the disintegrating Soviet Union. The policy of exchange of public symbols, however, did not take into account that the newly established independent Estonia inherited a huge Russian minority. Tallinn\'s infamous »Bronze Soldier« monument, which to Estonians represented a monstrous symbol of oppression, but was a sacred memorial for minority Russians. The city »substituted« the monument (which had a Soviet, Russian and Orthodox connotation) with a structure near to it in the city\'s main square which was four times bigger. Named the »Column for Liberation«, it was an aggressive cross referring to a military award in the interwar period , and overshadowing the Orthodox Church behind.
In Poland, instead of monument-exchange, we can witness the metamorphosis of the »Poznań June 1956« - erected in1981 by the Solidarność trade union to commemorate the failed uprising in the city - as its meaning and message changed in tandem with the political change in the country. The powerful Catholic church in Poland attempts to use its strong influence over the masses to keep the ball rolling, that is, to maintain the active political role it played in the time of Socialism, despite the changed conditions in the new democracy. As Piotr Piotrowski argues, »Solidarność fought not only for »bread and freedom«, like the workers of Poznań in 1956, but also for memory. A memory which − like everything else in the period − was \'appropriated\' by the communists.«2 Analyzing the importance of the monument, he states that it »played a significant role in the political consciousness of Poznań. […] it became a symbol of resistance towards communism. […] Propagating the slogans of democracy, \'Solidarność\' assumed an ideological unification, based on Polish Catholicism. […] Paradoxically however, both sides, i.e. the communists and \'Solidarność\', functioned within the same paradigm of social mechanisms − the mechanism of the dominance of a chosen (single) ideology, which proclaims equality of difference, and does not accept the necessity for the functioning of democracy − i.e. ideological conflict«.3 Nowadays, the monument is a symbol of victory over dictatorship. But as Piotrowski interprets it: »The monument of »Poznań June 1956« was built in a different reality, in a totalitarian reality, and in reacting to the totalitarian reality it used the other totalitarian language; opposing the dominance of communist ideology showed another dominance – a national-Catholic one«.4
The battle over public space is very much part of the symbolic politics of the neighbouring countries in Central Europe. The Hungarian nationalistic ‘statue mania’ enjoyed state support for raising statues in towns with large Hungarian populations in neighbouring countries, such as Komarno, Slovakia. The planned ceremony of unveiling the »Saint Stephen« statue in the main square of the city, to be performed by the Hungarian president, László Sólyom, was obstructed, as the \'gesture\' was perceived as a provocation, and as an interventionist aggressive act in the internal affairs of another country. On the other hand, at the time of the inauguration of the statue, the sensitive question of the site of »Cyril and Method« in Komarno was presented as a response of Slovakian nationalism, as Jan Slota and Anna Belousovova placed a wreath in front of the statue on the balcony of the Slovenska Matica. In their version of events, they achieved the act in harsh conditions, risking their own lives due to high winds as they climbed out onto a ladder. This dramatized ritual was intended to stir the Slovakian nation, and to gain control over public space by putting the authority for raising new statues into the hands of the national government rather than the city council. In both cases, public monuments were abused and made to serve opposing political interests. and thus public space became a field of political struggle.
In 2009 Ilona Németh, an artist of Hungarian origin living in Slovakia, declared in an interview that the question of nationalism was unavodaible.5 Being invited to participate in a countrywide public art project in Hungary, she installed a huge mirror next to the statue of a turul bird, erected in the main square of the Hungarian town of Győr in 1902.6 Because the mythical turul bird stands for the historical Hungary, and has become the symbol of \'Great Hungary\' and all the mythologizing that come with it, it serves as the main symbol of extreme right-wing nationalists. With the help of the mirror, Németh made the inhabitants of the city aware of the changing message of public monuments in different political regimes, and directed attention to the tensions that are currently inherent in such symbols; she forces the passerby to confront these related problems.
The Peace Treaty of Trianon, the 90th anniversary of which was celebrated in June 4th 2010, has been a sensitive issue in the Carpathian basin ever since it came into being. Trianon has been perceived as a national trauma for Hungary, as it was shorn of over 72 % of the territory it had previously controlled, with a significant portion of ethnic Hungarians coming under foreign rule after the dissolution of the multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian Empire. For non-Hungarians it was seen as a process of decolonization and the birth of new nation-states, while for Hungarians it meant a punitive dismemberment. Since the borders were not drawn along ethnic lines, Trianon was a constant source of regional tension in the interwar period, since the revision of the borders was the main element of Hungarian internal affairs. During the Cold War, forced internationalism and friendly relationships were taken as the correct form of relations between the neighboring countries of the Soviet bloc. Owing to the fact that the borders drawn by the 1947 Peace Treaty were almost identical to the previous ones of 1920, the problem was swept under the carpet, and Trianon was excluded from the discussion, becoming a taboo. The boomerang came back with a vengeance after the satellite countries of the Soviet Union regained their sovereignty. There has been no right wing political force on any side of the border that failed to play the nationalism card, and revenge for - or the celebration of - Trianon has also always served as political ammunition in the hands of the extreme right. June 4th was declared as the Day of National Alliance in the Hungarian Parliament, while in Komarno a celebration was organized and a memorial stone inaugurated on behalf of the Slovakian nation expressing its gratitude to the signatories of the Peace treaty.
In 2009, Tibor Horváth, a young conceptual artist and Hungarian agent provocateur, touched on the sensitive issue of Trianon. He collected bumper stickers showing the map of Great Hungary with its pre-Trianon borders and historical associations, and re-configured them by the map of Hungary today; that is, he overlaid the myth with the reality.
The writer of »transit.blog.hu«, referring to his own series,7 made apparent the close relationship between revisionist tendencies reclaiming »the national land«, and xenophobia - mostly anti-Antisemitism. He transformed the national colours into the flag of Israel, and confronted it with the hidden red-white-red flag behind the map of the »truncated Hungary«- a reminder of Hungary’s greatness and power under the Árpád Dynasty in the Middle Ages (as well as being a symbol of the Hungarian \'Nazi\' Arrow Cross Party during World War II).
Such reactions were also predictable in the reception of Liane Lang’s local art intervention; inserting a plastic hand into the beak of a newly (and in fact illegally) erected turul [native mythical bird] monument in Budapest\'s 12th district, an action based on a rather ignorant attitude towards the very sensitive and ideologically loaded local context, rather than on a conscious selection of the targeted object. Her project was perceived by the right wing extremists as an attack and »humiliation against national pride«. The overwhelming response was, as usual, to find a scapegoat; here, anti-Antisemitism was mobilized, and one of the Holocaust memorials in Budapest was brutally desecrated.8
Beyond Jews, Romas are the other main target of the extremist right. The hatred of Roma population by the banned Hungarian paramilitary group (the Magyar Gárda, or Hungarian Guard) encouraged armed pogroms against Romas; six Roma have lost their so far. In the village of Tatárszentgyörgy, a young man and his 5 year old son were shot dead. An artist offered to erect a monument in the small village commemorating the victims, but his proposal was rejected by the local council, arguing that it would remind inhabitants and visitors of the tragedy, as the villagers are eager to forget the event.
Critical art practices and artworks proposed by those seeking a reconciliation between different groups of the population, and between the nations in the Carpathian basin, are constantly damaged, ruined or cursed. In 2009, »National kneel«, a performance by János Borsos, resulted in widespread nationalist reaction after he made it available online. In the work, he asked for forgiveness, saying that he wished »to compensate those groups of society that are despised because of their race, ethnicity or moral orientation« by wearing their symbols and going down on his knees - knees covered by patches formed from Hungarian and Slovakian national symbols. János Sugár’s serial public art works, comprising bilingual signposts (Hungarian-Romanian, Hungarian-Slovakian, Hungarian-Gipsy) each carrying just a single innocent word (»sorry«) generated an angry response even though the work was unspecific on who was saying sorry to whom; it was professionally removed by unknown intruders whilst being exhibited in its Hungarian-Slovakian version outside Budapest Kunsthalle.9 Official removal was also the fate of another earlier work by Ilona Németh, consisting of signposts carrying questions derived by the sociologist Bogardus, located in the mixed neighbourhood of Budapest’s 7th district (example: »Would you accept someone from group X as a member of your family, or as a friend, or as someone living in the same city?”«). The official or \'spontaneous\' reception of the artworks which work against the rising tension has highlighted a deep intolerance pervading today’s Hungary.
»Shared memory«, a wonderful concept coined by Jan Assmann, and utilized by Irit Keynan (a peace activist and scholar from Israel) in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict10, is seemingly totally out of the question in the our own region, poisoned by constant ethnic conflicts caused by the clash between different unhealed traumas of the recent and distant past, leading to the hunt for scapegoats. It is tempting to agree with Rosalyn Deutsche, who commented that the democratic public space is about conflicts and negotiation, and not about harmony11; however, it is strictly against providing a forum for hate speech.
As Boris Buden argues, it is not possible to speak about a homogeneous and universal nationalism; instead, many forms of nationalism exist.12 Western-style nationalism, where mass migration is the main trigger, can be differentiated from the nationalism of the post-socialist countries, where old pathologies return in new forms. Bori Kriza’s 2007 documentary about the Hungarian rock band »Romantic violence«, entitled »Rocking the Nation«, shows the intended \'purifying\' tendencies in the ethnocentric Hungarian nationalism, with its rituals and symbols based on the collective imagining of a glorious past, trying to recreate an ethnic paradise that never existed. Anti-Antisemitism, racism and homophobia are the \'natural\' elements of this nation-building, justified by unhealed and accumulated historical traumas and fueled by the desire to avenge historical injustices, leading to discrimination, violence and suffering. As Sári Stenczer argues, »The misunderstanding of the historical traumas of the past, the disruptive forces of the present, in parallel with low self-esteem and the individual and collective confusion of conscience and values, drive a large number of people to claim that they are patriots. Unfortunately this always goes hand in hand with segregation, racism, violence and undemocratic ideas. It is the time, more than ever, to speak up on political, social, existential and moral matters, about human rights issues, and it is the charge of the media and arts to oppose every form of hatred and unhealthy patriotism.«13
Despite the radicalization of political life in the last few years leading to the multiplying of critical art practices, there are as yet only a few artists in Hungary that are interested in political issues, and artworks focusing on social problems are still quite rare, interventions sporadic. The scene steers clear of politics, regarding it as discredited in the previous era, and assumes that politics is beyond the scope of art. The rising art market helps in obscuring the clear-eyed view and social responsibility of the artist. Any works with political or activist content are labelled as \'Socialist\' - a concept which is in spiralling decline, so immediately diqualifying any critical practice.
The question is, how long can the present exclusion of the art scene from the political situation continue, given the two thirds majority of the right wing in the newly elected Hungarian parliament, and that 17% of the votes were given to the extreme right wing A day after his inauguration, the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán addressed the situation by declaring the need for a \'right wing culture\': »For the modern right wing the old traditional Hungarian Christian culture originating from before 1945 is not enough anymore [...] there is a need for a new, modern culture containing the old one [...] The Hungarian right wing culture is to be invigorated with art works, awards, celebrations [...]«.14 An emergent, fully armed, right wing cultural policy is proclaimed in this speech, the art scene can therefore no longer avoid the challenge. The question of nationalism, and of a rigid and centralized conservative cultural politics, will be truly unavoidable.