Hope and Scandal in Hungary

This article was recently published in Dissent, along with original photos by Róbert Pölcz [click on photo to enlarge].

Bust of István Bibó (1911-1979) on the Danube promenade in Budapest. Just above the inscription is graffiti directed against the current prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán [click photo to enlarge]. Photo by Róbert Pölcz.
This year a new Hungarian film, White God, has been touring the festival circuit. It’s about an abandoned mongrel whose trusting nature is repeatedly tested by abuse and cruelty. The result: what had once been an endearingly naughty pooch turns into a very bad dog.

White God could be an allegory about Hungary—a proud creature, kicked around and abused, diminished and blamed, that eventually lashes out in fury. Or maybe it’s about how Hungary has treated some of its own since the second half of the nineteenth century—assimilating them, but forever suspecting them of betrayal; marginalizing them, persecuting them outright, or even killing them. And so, as in the film, the odd victim leaps up to tear out the jugular of a Hungarian guard in a single snap.

This tortured sense of intractable antagonism was the lifelong preoccupation of the Hungarian thinker and former statesman, István Bibó. Born in Budapest in 1911, Bibó spent most of his life trying to divert the states and peoples of Central and Eastern Europe—and, above all, his native country—away from the extremes of enraged self-pity and self-righteousness and toward responsibility. At the same time he sought to sensitize the Great Powers to the miseries that fed these extremes. As he wrote in 1946, “Men are most wicked when they believe they are threatened, morally justified, and exonerated, and particularly when they feel they are entitled and obliged to punish others.”

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© 2015 Holly Case, as first published in Dissent.