The original version of this article was published here.
Can struggle against the tyranny of Covid-19 help Hungarians reformulate their chaotic relationship with Hungary’s troubled historical identity?
Hungary’s national anthem, at its inception, was written as a poem. Authored by Ferenc Kölcsey in 1823, the original hymn bore a sinister subtitle: “From the stormy centuries of the Hungarian nation”. Its opening stanza is just as apocalyptic:
“O God, bless the nation of Hungary […]
Long torn by ill fate
Bring upon it a time of relief
This nation has suffered for all sins
Of the past and of the future!”
The anthem’s foreboding tone turned out to be tragically prophetic, as Hungarian history has since been laden with adversity, either brought about by foreign powers or self-inflicted. The resulting sense of a mystical and inevitable doom largely underpins modern narratives on Hungarian identity, if not for the ones pushed forward by the government.
Realpolitik and the fight against tyranny
Official communication often relies on glorifying parts of our history that have way too many dark pages to be venerated without tact. Most countries in Central and Eastern Europe have complicated relationships with their national heritage, largely due to a convoluted history of intermittent periods of glory and prosperity, foreign invasion, civil war, and genocide. Hungary is no exception to that rule.
It is thus extremely hard to formulate a sense of belonging in the face of the cynical scepticism that one must feel when they approach history with critical lenses. Perhaps the brightest spots of our tumultuous past are popular uprisings against tyranny. On March 15, 1848, in tandem with other European upheavals known as the Spring of Nations, Hungary started its revolution against Habsburg absolutist rule. While the struggle was ultimately thwarted, its ideals left a long-lasting mark in Hungarian cultural and political identity.
On one hand, the 1848 revolution brought about the spiritual alliance of national and progressive forces against absolutist foreign tyranny. Adding to that, its chroniclers were largely romanticist poets, which gives the uprising a sense of magical ardour in hindsight. On the other hand, one cannot refrain from seeing the Revolution in the dim light of it being an avoidable war where, ultimately, human lives were lost in the interest of the domestic ruling class. The parallel efforts of Hungary to oppress ethnic minorities around its borders is also hard to ignore given the catastrophe that would later follow.
On a more personal note, I find that much of the magic touch of revolutions is gone from the 21st century. The relative transparency of modern societies make me perceive waves of revolutionary enthusiasm less about a whole community rising against a common foe and more about political divisions within a community.
The fervour of freedom-fights, I concluded some time ago, must be precluded from me, and perhaps my entire generation. We’re left with the nitty-gritty of realpolitik as the fight against tyranny is relegated to history books.
Then along came Covid-19.
Political resistance and the fight against coronavirus
Resistance against coronavirus feels strangely political, in many ways. Firstly, it requires a degree of self-sacrifice to protect people who are unknown to us. As we all know from the tragic events unfolding in Italy, the disease is deadliest among the elderly. While most of my generation will not suffer directly from the consequences of the virus, people aged between 20 and 30 still play a crucial role in slowing its spread, as they tend to be the most prolific spreaders of the virus.
There are further bizarre symmetries between an actual political resistance and the fight against the virus. While resistance to dictatorships entails getting out of your habitat, assembling, and building networks, the struggle against Covid-19 requires us to do the polar opposite. Dictatorships will make one stay home; coronavirus is luring you out in the open. Political revolution usually pits the youth against older generations; this time, we are asked to take care of our elders.
The fact that today it’s not a political faction or a ruling-class elite that is oppressing individuals is perhaps the most intriguing element of the story. All those political complexities that made me refrain from glorifying the past are absent in this fundamentally inhumane and misanthropic adversary. Almost as if the most dangerous threat to our liberty, coronavirus, gave us a chance to highlight those noble traits that we tend to emphasise in the historical narrative on revolutions.
Our current struggle is also peculiarly global and local at the same time. Global, in the sense that all humans, regardless of background, face today a similar threat. Local, as it is ultimately one’s particular actions that will make a difference, and that it is this solidarity that makes us sacrifice our comfort for our community.
Covid 19 may well have given us a chance to break with the past and formulate a new present while fighting, once again, the tyranny of the crown.
Belonging and the concept of nation in face of a universal threat
After having spent the last few months in the charming city of Vienna, hastily coming back to Budapest amid imminent border checks felt eerily like something out of the pages of a history book. And yet, I experienced a surprising relief to be around family and friends, in a city that I know every corner of, in times of dire crisis.
Perhaps the re-discovery of this sense of belonging, of community, of self-sacrifice in face of a universal threat is what made me reevaluate my concept of nation. It has transformed from being an abstract and antiquated twentieth-century concept to an organic collection of human connections that are not critically dependent on culture, language, or borders, but can nevertheless be localised. In short, the people that I wish to protect from the malaise of corona.
Is there a way to capture all that is valuable in revolutions of the past, while leaving that which is corrupted behind? The answer may well lie in future cataclysms, not unlike coronavirus. Make no mistake, this disease will not be the last global threat we need to face. There is at least one more that has been knocking on our door for quite some time now.
When asked why exactly I was leaving the ex-Habsburg capital, a city that is surely better equipped to handle the epidemic from a medical point of view than Budapest, a line from an (as of yet sadly unreleased) Kanye West song popped into my head:
“Been travelin’ a million miles on this road
I wasn’t leavin’, I was on my way home.”
By Bálint Cocchioni
Bálint Cocchioni is currently an MA student of Economic Policy at the Central European University in Budapest and Vienna. His main research areas include complexity economics, inequality, resilience against crises, and historical patterns. Bálint has worked as an intern at the Italian Alliance for Sustainable Development, and is currently a freelance writer for Mérce.hu. He is a firm supporter of Juventus Football Club.
Photo credit: MTI