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Why are so many Hungarians concerned with finding relatives in the East? – Interview with historian Balázs Ablonczy

Péter Cseresnyés 2022.05.31.

As the idea that Hungarians are linguistically and culturally alone in their own region began to gain ground in Hungarian public opinion from the 19th century onwards, the goal to try finding relatives and friends in the East also began to spread rapidly. According to historian Balázs Ablonczy, the author of the book To the East, Hungarian!, Turanism played a significant role in the Hungarian political, and even more so, cultural trajectories of the first half of the 20th century. After Hungary’s defeat in the First World War, the ideological wave of Eastward opening however shifted completely from the advertisement of imperialistic ambitions to “the ideology of frustration.” Its traces are still present today, so much so that Ablonczy says the spirit of Turanism can often be observed in today’s politics. Interview.

In Hungary, there exists a legend according to which frequent conflicts among Hungarians are the consequence of an ancient curse. We call this the Curse of Turan. How does this conception relate to Turanism?

The word Turan originates from the Shahnameh (Book of Kings), one of the most famous works on Persian mythology to this day, written in the 10th century. It describes the legend of a king. In the book, there is an eternal and bloody sibling war between the king’s sons, Iran, and Turan. On this basis, all peoples living north of Iran, in the Land of Tur, were named Turanians.

On the other hand, the phrase for expressing the historic internal opposition and conflict among Hungarians, the Curse of Turan, is an explicitly Hungarian “invention.” The rhetorical phrase was first used in a 1901 newspaper publication by Ferenc Herczeg, one of the most famous Hungarian writers of the time, in preparation for the upcoming elections in the National Assembly.

Photo: Zita Merényi/Hungary Today

Logically, Turanism has a lot in common with the former phenomenon, and less in common with the latter. I defined Turanism for myself as the deduction of political and cultural consequences from a frame of thought tied to the East, the lands where Hungarians originate from. If someone is interested in the affairs of the East, that is not in and of itself Turanism. But once they start tying those affairs into Hungarian society, they are dealing with Turanism. I always try to express this with a perhaps blunt correlation, that if someone is interested in manga and likes sushi, that does not therefore make them a Turanist. But if someone says that we should introduce sushi to our school cafeterias because our Japanese brothers are eating it too, that can be distinguished as Turanism.

In other words, how does our society and culture perceive our origins and the implications of such origins?

Fact

On the question of whether Turanism exists in Hungary as a political conception, Max Müller, a British philologist of German origin, distinguished the world’s languages (on an entirely historical premise) into categories of Semitic languages, Aryan languages, and everything else, including the nomadic languages, which include Hungary. These nomadic languages became the Turanian languages. Müller’s views were particularly popular in the second half of the 19th century.

The roots of Turanist ideology reach back to the 18th century, but Hungary’s interest in the East was only made apparent in the second half of the 19th century. Where do the conceptual origins of Turanism come from? What processes were relevant in its development?

While not everything can be attributed to the spirit of a period, one of the sources of the conceptions around Hungarian Turanism was the medium of liberalism, or social Darwinism by today’s standards, that existed in the 19th century. The point of this theory, similarly to capitalism – which involves competition among individuals – is that groups of humans, nations, and ideologies also compete among one another, creating the conditions needed for societal development.

This is why questions such as who has a bigger navy, more colonies, or perhaps greater economic production held such weight. According to this logic, anyone who falls behind or slips in this race is destined for failure.

Trianon: Instead of the principle on self-determination of nations, the victorious great powers re-drew borders according to their geopolitical interests – Interview with historian Balázs Ablonczy
Trianon: Instead of the principle on self-determination of nations, the victorious great powers re-drew borders according to their geopolitical interests – Interview with historian Balázs Ablonczy

Hungary can only be held responsible for World War I as any other participating country, says historian Balázs Ablonczy, whose new book, “Unknown Trianon,” has just been published. On the other hand, the bad perception of Hungary in the world at the time played a role in that the treaty hit the country particularly hard. […]Continue reading

At the same time, it became increasingly apparent to Hungarians at that time that our language and culture are both quite alone in the region that we exist in. Hungarian public opinion began actively suppressing the idea that we have no relatives, and thus no potential allies, as the perception posited. And if we are on our own, we will be trampled by our rivals.

Photo: Zita Merényi/Hungary Today

Soon after this conceptualization, academic circles even developed the imperialistic ambition setting the goal that Hungary should gain influence in the Balkans, the Middle East, or even Central Asia.

Why did a part of Hungarian academia begin involving itself with the East, and why did it do so at that point in history?

Aside from the causes I previously mentioned, the transformation of Hungarians’ perception of Turkey and Turkish people was a significant factor of the 19th century. While Hungarians and Turks had waged war with one another regularly since the 14th century, these conflicts concluded with the Ottoman-Habsburg wars at the end of the 18th century. After this, Hungarian public opinion towards Istanbul became increasingly less hostile. Not even to a small degree, because another threat entered the Hungarian field of view at the beginning of the 19th century: the Russian Empire. This threat brought with it Pan-Slavism, an ideology centered around the political, societal, and cultural unification of all Slavic peoples. At the same time, ethnic tensions had become commonplace in many regions of the period. Following the logic of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” Hungary became increasingly sympathetic toward the Turkish cause.

Another important factor was the involvement of many legendary Hungarian scholars during the 1800s. These people practically dedicated their lives to revealing the secrets of the East. It’s enough to think about Sándor Kőrösi Csoma, the founder of Tibetology, or Antal Reguly, one of the pioneers of Finno-Ugristics in Hungary. It’s not an overexaggerating to say that these two practically broke their backs pursuing their research of the East. Kőrösi Csoma ultimately died during one of his expeditions after catching malaria. But Reguly also succumbed to the illnesses he caught during his research trips to Russia. In turn, the contributions they made during their careers were highly valued by Hungarian academia.

Photo: Zita Merényi/Hungary Today

You mentioned that overtime Turanism was fused together with imperialistic ambitions. Where did this goal set out from?

After the Austro-Hungarian compromise of 1867, these thoughts began gaining increasing prominence during the age of dualism. The point of the logic was that Hungary, with a GDP the size of all the Balkan countries put together at the time – including Greece – was viewed as a great power, and thus needed to act as such. This is why many thought – especially starting in the 1910s – that the first few decades after the compromise were meant for reconstruction, and now the time for expansion had come. The opinion that we should set goals beyond the national borders, for example towards economic developments in the Balkans or strengthened relations with the Ottoman Empire, gained increasing traction. And it was all strengthened by the fact that Orientalism (in the fine arts and literature) had become a huge fashion in Western Europe, and that fashion had seeped into Hungary as well.

When did these foreign policy goals become especially relevant?

Primarily in the 1910s. The most important association for Hungarian Turanism, the Turanian Society, was established in 1910, the operation of which was already funded significantly by executives during the First World War. Multiple scholarship programs were initiated, the Turanian Society published its own journal, Turan, ten times a year, and the first Hungarian cultural institute abroad, the Hungarian Institute for Science in Constantinople, was opened. Meanwhile, of course, the most unique foreign policy goals were also formulated. Among these there can be found realistic ideas, while some were completely extreme. There were ideas that the Patriarchate of Constantinople should be made Hungarian, but also that there should be a Hungarian university in Belgrade.

The founder of the Turanian Society, Alajos Paikert, one of the determining figures of Hungarian Turanism, even threw in the idea of a Libyan-Hungarian subkingdom. How realistic was the idea of such a state in Africa?

Paikert, who also founded the Agricultural Museum, was an agricultural specialist. In his case, Turanism was likely more of a trendy hobby, but he nevertheless invested a lot of time towards it. If we look at a picture of him, we see an eternally conventional, monocled, balding a little too early, mustached, distinguished gentleman. At the same time, he conceptualized completely surreal things, not only regarding the East. On paper, he came up with a new religion, the People’s Alliance, he reformed the international criminal justice system, he wrote poems, and he drew blueprints for a trench-digging machine. By today’s standards, his subkingdom in Libya also falls under the fantasy category, but the idea came about during the time of the First World War, and back then it seemed a bit more down to Earth. Libya was already an Italian colony, and Italy was at war with Hungary. Thus, the point of the suggestion was: if we defeat Italy and punish them, there could be potential for a Hungarian subkingdom in Libya.

Photo: Zita Merényi/Hungary Today

Were there any realistic concepts brought forward by the Turanists? Or can we only speak of fantasies?

Clearly the previously mentioned, radical ideas were not founded on the basis of reality. But I would say that there was creativity in the scholarship initiatives and similar such actions. If Hungary organizes courses where students from abroad learn, for example, Hungarian, then those people can make up important outposts for Hungarian cultural and economic expansion when they return home. I would add here that large states do not do it any differently in the modern world. Together with this I think that the predisposition of opening up to the East was more of a trend among the Hungarian middle-class, not a deep emotional commitment, especially prior to 1918. All of this stands today: Hungarian society and its values of modernization have been Western since the time of Saint Stephen and have developed as such.

At the same time, however, the Turanian Society had some noteworthy figures in its ranks, among them István Tisza and Mihály Károlyi. In fact, between 1923 and 1944 just about every Hungarian prime minister showed up at their doors. This would mean that the society had to have some influential capacity – if nothing else?

The golden age of Hungarian Turanism fell between 1910 and the end of the First World War, 1918. If we look through the active members of the organization throughout this period, we can see the big shots of political and economic life among them. During this time, a bunch of future or current prime ministers and ministers took part. We need to realize that the entire flow of Turanism was considered very fresh and exciting, simply put, it was trendy. In reality, neither Tisza, nor Károlyi were particularly active in this society. Károlyi took part here and there, but primarily because he was a friend of Pál Teleki. Teleki, on the other hand, was a very active member of the Turanian Society, in fact he was even the founding President.

Photo: Zita Merényi/Hungary Today

The second major Turanian flare up came after the First World War, after Trianon. The constant pressure of an Eastern origin while following a Western state model was strengthened. Did the aim or message of Turanism change during this time? How heavily did the trauma from Trianon impact the movement? To what extent did the frustration and defeat of Trianon impact the ideological foundations of the movement?

After the defeat of the First World War the ideological wave of Eastward opening shifted completely from the advertisement of imperialistic ambitions to “the ideology of frustration.” Prior to the war, – and especially during it – the executives pumped vast amounts of money into projects intended to deepen Eastern relations. In the 1910s, many thought that this will be the path of the future, or at least one of them. The defeat of the war washed all these hopes away. Dreams remained, but with a rather sour taste to them. After the trauma of Trianon, the idea of turning away from the West became especially prevalent.

Meanwhile, we can observe at the executive level that the entire movement had dropped one level lower: there were no longer any prime ministers, ministers, or wealthy big shots in the Turanian Society, in their stead were state secretary, retired state secretary, and advisor-level politicians involving themselves in the organization. At the same time, the executives made efforts to squeeze out connections with related ethnicities (Finns, Estonians) and made important gestures in the direction of these freshly independent northern relatives.

Trianon: Instead of the principle on self-determination of nations, the victorious great powers re-drew borders according to their geopolitical interests – Interview with historian Balázs Ablonczy
Trianon: Instead of the principle on self-determination of nations, the victorious great powers re-drew borders according to their geopolitical interests – Interview with historian Balázs Ablonczy

Hungary can only be held responsible for World War I as any other participating country, says historian Balázs Ablonczy, whose new book, “Unknown Trianon,” has just been published. On the other hand, the bad perception of Hungary in the world at the time played a role in that the treaty hit the country particularly hard. […]Continue reading

What became of Turanism after the Second World War? How could the Turanists operate under the full dictatorial force of Rákosi and later Kádár?

Following the Second World War a unique change took place. It seems obvious that the communist state authorities did not really bother with the question of Turanism. For radical right-wingers – among whom there were Turanists – there were rarer instances where they were punished by the authorities. But this was rather because of their right-wing views, not because of their turn to the East. There were, however, many Turanists who died during this period or left the country. The latter group was responsible for filling Turanism with newer content following emigration. It was at this time that the thought of Sumerian-Hungarian ethnic ties was strengthened, thanks to the radical wing of the Turanist emigrant group. This theory of ethnic relation does have scientific antecedents, we can point to authors in the 19th century who thought that there was a correlation between the two peoples’ languages. In fact, there were some who spoke of complete ethnic ties. Of course, it is important to emphasize that these theses were debunked by academic critique, both back then and today.

Photo: Zita Merényi/Hungary Today

Aside from those who fled abroad, there were those who remained in Hungary. During the harshest period of the Rákosi dictatorship in the 50s, they did not have many opportunities to deal with the topic. Only at the end of the decade did a movement begin taking shape: networks formed, journals published. One of the important figures of the Turanists and the tenants of the Sumerian-Hungarian Kinship was Roman Catholic priest András Zakar, a former secretary of Cardinal Mindszenty. Countless books were smuggled in from Western Europe which suggested the Sumerian-Hungarian correlation. From these came book networks which multiplied the illegal volumes, then began selling them, then debating around their content in personal circles and letters.

Fact

Regarding the origin of the Hungarian language, in the 18th century the first news arrived in the country about how Hungarian may be more closely related to Finnish, but the suggestion that Hungarians had ties to the “barbaric and uncultured” Lapps was long rejected by the speakers of the Hungarian public sphere. Starting in the 1850s, even the false legend of how Finno-Ugrists were Habsburg agents had become widespread. The linguists of the second half of the 19th century compared many languages with one another and brought forward many possibilities during their analyses (such as the Sumerian-Hungarian and Etruscan-Hungarian pairings). To this day the greatest debate around the origins of the Hungarian people and language was only started in the last third of the 19th century. The “Ugric-Turkic war” divided scholars, just as it divided public opinion. The latter was rather an obsession of Ármin Vámbéry to proclaim and prove suggested Turkish-Hungarian ties. In opposition to him were the proclaimers of Finno-Ugric ties, Pál Hunfalvy and József Budenz. The question was practically answered by the end of the century, and since then the ties between Finno-Ugric languages are not debated.

If we look back over past decades, the thoughts of Turanism can often be seen entering back into society and politics. Why does this ambition of finding ethnic ties exist in us to this day?

I do not consider this a Hungarian unicum; this is not a particularly Hungarian trait. We can see similar practices among many neighboring peoples. I don’t have first-hand information about it, but my excellent Iranist colleagues tell me that a part of Croatian public opinion is all for Croatian-Persian ties. It isn’t backed by any kind of scientific evidence, but it exists as a tradition for them, nevertheless. As to your question of why so many Hungarians involve themselves with finding a fraternal people in the East, the perception of Hungarians that we are alone, both linguistically and culturally, certainly plays a role. This frustrates many. At the same time, there are those who are proud to say that Hungarians were living in the Carpathian basin 3,000 years ago. I don’t see as much of a strong pull toward this idea, but I can understand why someone would be proud of such a stance.

Photo: Zita Merényi/Hungary Today

Personally, I feel that we have an exciting history and a language capable of creating rich and undying values. We can be proud of this as well, and we don’t necessarily need the knowledge of whether the Hungarian people entered the region prior to all others.

The theory around the ties to the East have often been brought up during the Orbán government’s talks of Eastern opening. The Prime Minister has also made many announcements referring to ties with Eastern peoples. Is it safe to say that “Turanist” features can be found in the Head of State’s communication?

There is no doubt that there were announcements by Hungarian prime ministers in the past that the Hungarian people found to be referring to a genuine relation with the East, perhaps with the intention of building stronger ties with the East. A good example of  the latter is the Prime Minister’s comments at the Organization of Turkic States a few years ago, where he spoke about how “many Hungarians have Kipchak blood in them.” But there is also the Orbán Government’s Eastern opening program announced in 2011, the main goal of which is the geographic diversification of our homeland’s exports, particularly towards the ambitiously emerging markets of Asian countries.

Clearly a country’s attempts to broaden its foreign political influence or build diplomatic ties with other countries is not reprehensible alone. We are of course currently living in times when we can see the limits of this.

Clearly these kinds of diplomatic negotiations must have an element of reaching quasi good intentions. We need to say something which they perhaps want to hear. We approach this situation with these kinds of announcements. Many may consider it strange or even funny that such statements are made, but I would not attribute hugely significant political relevance to them.

Featured photo by Zita Merényi/Hungary Today


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