Old divisions die hard as new Europe clings to ancient prejudices


BUDAPEST LETTER:Hard times in Central Europe mean it only takes the slightest scratch for historical wounds to gush anew

SOME US politicians may consider it “new Europe”, this long-contested region that was a latecomer to the EU club, but history sits heavily on the nations stretched between the Baltic and the Balkans.

Europe’s great fault lines are here, where the Mongol and Ottoman empires finally petered out, the Prussian, Austrian and Tsarist empires collide, Nazi Germany sought its Lebensraum, the Cold War unravelled barbed wire across the continent, and Yugoslavia imploded.

Central Europe’s leaders and their parties like to project a modern and progressive image, but it only takes the slightest scratch for historical wounds to gush anew, umbrage to be taken and for EU neighbours and Nato allies to lock horns over the same disputes that enraged their ancestors.

Hungary is a particularly sensitive case. For half a century it helped run the swathe of central Europe encompassed by Austria-Hungary and, while Hungarians may have been junior partners in the dual monarchy, they were vastly superior to all those Romanians, Slovaks, Serbs, Croats and others who could only dream of a state of their own.

Disaster for Hungary struck in 1918, when defeat in the first World War triggered the dismemberment of the Habsburg empire and the emergence of Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and a much bigger Romania that included Transylvania.

The 1920 Treaty of Trianon that formalised the borders of the emasculated Hungary relieved it of almost three-quarters of its pre-war territory, two-thirds of its population, much of its industry and natural resources and direct access to the sea through ports on the Adriatic.

Perhaps the most painful loss of all was Transylvania, where the pancake-flat Hungarian plain rises up into dense Alpine forests and 2,000-metre peaks of the Carpathian mountains – home to a large proportion of Europe’s bears, wolves and lynx.

This majestic land is rich with Hungarian history, stretching back to the arrival of Magyar tribes at the end of the ninth century, and it is the birthplace of many of the nation’s most treasured myths, legends and political and cultural luminaries.

It was 92 years ago yesterday that the Romanians of Transylvania – who had long constituted an oppressed majority in the region – declared unification with the rest of Romania, an event commemorated annually with the country’s national holiday.

This year, the Romanian community in Hungary planned to celebrate December 1st with a concert in Budapest’s National Theatre, featuring music by two of the countries’ greatest composers, Bela Bartok and George Enescu.

But it was not to be. Instead, the National Theatre was last night braced for a protest by the far-right Jobbik party, which is demanding the resignation of the institution’s director, Robert Alfoldi, for “betraying” the nation with his plans to stage the “anti-Hungarian” concert.

“When the Romanian Cultural Institute of Budapest asked me to lease the grand hall of the theatre for a celebration of Romania’s national holiday, I thought that the performance and reception may help the two countries, Hungary and Romania, get closer to one another by means of culture and art, despite their stormy past,” Alfoldi said when cancelling the concert.

“Unfortunately, I did not realise that my decision would be easy to misinterpret and this could hurt the feelings of many Hungarians. While I still believe that the pains of the past should be processed in a European manner and in a responsible way, being the head of one of the most important cultural public institutions, I cannot disregard the situation that has developed.”

That “situation” constituted Jobbik’s threat to demonstrate outside the theatre and a resounding vote of no-confidence in Alfoldi from the ruling Fidesz party, whose MPs said “the loss of Transylvania constitutes a deep trauma to the present day for the majority of the Hungarian nation” and insisted that this “tragic event” should not be marked in a national institution.

So much for “new Europe” and platitudes about EU integration healing old wounds.

Splinters of history still aggravate all the countries of this region, mainstream politicians dredge up past grievances to distract from current travails and to parade their patriotism, and far-right parties target the traditional bugbears – Gypsies, Jews and malevolent neighbours.

The privations of the financial crisis seem to be fuelling support for nationalists across the continent, and analysts note that their political influence is growing, along with the number of violent attacks on Roma. A slide to the right is unlikely to foster unity within or between nations as they – and the EU – struggle to hold their economies together. Old stories are not buried deeply in “New Europe”. As many of its people see dreams of prosperity fade, and blame is apportioned, the flogging of familiar scapegoats should worry us all.