Looking history in the face in Budapest

After a visit to Hungary, Matthew Reisz reflects on how academics can resist simplistic, government-promoted versions of history 

August 16, 2018
Source: istock

Universities face political pressure in many parts of the world. But since my own origins are partly in Central Europe – my father was from a Czech Jewish background, although he came to England as a child refugee – I am always particularly intrigued and distressed by developments in that region.

I once met a representative of the University of Ostrava, my late father’s home town, at a recruitment fair in Bogota (where I doubt if many other people even knew which country Ostrava is in). But I only recently got a chance to travel to Central Europe to take a look at what was going on for myself, when I went to meet Andrea Pető, professor in the Department of Gender Studies at the Central European University for a profile piece

Although I was practically comatose after missing a night’s sleep when my plane got diverted, I was instantly enchanted by Budapest. I also felt very much at home, since Hungarian must be the only language where the “sz” combination of letters in my surname is not an oddity but seems to feature in every other word.

Like most countries in continental Europe that suffered occupation by the Nazis, the Soviet Union or both, Hungary has a history of persecution and collaboration that has proved hard to digest, and which populist politicians have been skilled at exploiting. Pető took me on an eye-opening tour of the city, explaining who is (and, crucially, who isn’t) commemorated in public sculpture, and how Victor Orbán’s “illiberal democracy” has been keen to establish a view of national history that divides the world into those “for us” and “against us”.

It is a sign of these gloomy times that things have got significantly worse for Hungarian higher education even since I met up with Pető just over two months ago. Recent developments have posed additional threats to the future of gender studies and the CEU itself, as well as to the autonomy of universities. News of the latest reforms in Poland are similarly dispiriting.

Illiberal regimes are never likely to have much time for universities, not least because they are at the forefront of resisting the simplistic versions of history that politicians want to promote. What makes Pető’s work so bold and important is that it is premised on the idea that nations have to face up to the darkest episodes in their history if they want to move forward.

Her latest book considers the Hungarian women raped by the Soviet Red Army at the end of the Second World War – a traumatic event, she argues plausibly, whose aftershocks have rippled down the generations even when unmentioned. There are, of course, many reasons why people might shy away from reading about such a subject. But Pető offers a striking and inspiring example of what it means for an academic to maintain a deep commitment to progressive and feminist politics in an exceptionally hostile environment.

Matthew Reisz is books editor at Times Higher Education

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Matthew Reisz meets Andrea Pető, recent recipient of the Madame de Staël prize, a scholar at Hungary’s Central European University whose feminist probing into the dark corners of Hungary’s past is provoking strong reactions in the ‘illiberal democracy’

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