In Hungarian history, western or eastern orientation has been one of the most important aspects of national identity. The phenomenon of Turanism should be seen in that context.
On a plaque next to this stained-glass window at the Gellért hotel is an excerpt from a ballad by János Arany (1817-1882), titled The Legend of the Miraculous Hind. The story goes that a miraculous stag with golden antlers appeared before Hunor and Magyar, the sons of Nimrod, while they were on a hunting trip. They felt impelled to follow the miraculous stag. Settling near the coast of the Sea of Azov, they married the two daughters of Dula, King of the Alans. Attila the Hun and Álmos, the Grand Prince of the Magyars and father of Árpád, are said to have descended from them.
The term “Turanian” was coined by linguistic researcher Max Müller. He used it to describe the non-Indo-European and non-Semitic languages, which in his opinion belonged to a third large family of languages. Although his definition was soon refuted by other linguistic researchers, it lived on in a geopolitical sense. Indeed it inspired valuable linguistic and ethnographic research.
Thanks to the resulting Turanism, Hungarian research on Tibet could assume a leading role and Hungarian orientalists remain authoritative in their field. Some researchers only use the term “Turanian” in a geographical sense to describe certain peoples of southeast Europe, Turkey, Iran and Central Asia.
However, political Turanism, presuming an ethnic and cultural affinity between these peoples, also lived on. In general it can be established that Turanism is understood as the turning towards the Asian origins of the Hungarian civilisation and culture.
Behind the idea of Turanism lie both national delusions of grandeur and rejection of Europe, both of which have a long tradition in Hungarian history. While supported by all important Hungarian rulers, the western orientation of the country has been strongly questioned many times.
With the awakening of Hungarian nationalism at the beginning of the 20th century, the question became topical again. The elite wanted to see itself as a military nation. The claims of certain linguistic researchers regarding the Finno-Ugric relationship were therefore strongly rejected, because many found the idea that their nation was related to a peaceful farming people (the Finns) as insulting.
Instead their sense of identity was dominated by the clichés of the nomadic Hungarian riders on fast horses terrorising Central Europe from time to time. The extremist Turanians insisted on “ties of ancestry” with the Turkish peoples, Tibet, Japan and even the Sumerians, and held the view that Jesus was not a Jew but a Hungarian or a “noble of Parthia”.
Some examples may illustrate how topical these thoughts remain in Hungary today. Magyar Nemzet, the country’s second-largest daily, had no less than six topics concerning questions of Turanism among its top ten most popular forum topics in 2011. Of those four are by far the most popular. Their titles are: “Do we need the Sumerian lineage?”, “The lineage of Jesus”, “Europe’s oldest civilisation came from Hungary” and “Our Hungarianness and the Finno-Ugric theory”.
It should be recalled that the newspaper comes recommended by Fidesz, and is seen as “middle class-conservative”. Magyar Nemzet does not publish its own essays on these topics but it tolerates such opinions expressed by its readership in its forum section. Such thoughts have now arrived on the political stage. For example, Csanád Szegedi, deputy chairman of the party Jobbik, openly advocates leaving the European Union and establishing a new Turanian alliance with Central Asian states.
It is not surprising if well-known intellectuals and artists are also swept along. The famous singer Levente Szörényi, who has also been a Fidesz PR backer for some years, sought to prevent the shooting of the film adaptation of Imre Kertész’s novel Fateless on the grounds that the planned location in the Pilis hills was a “home of deceased souls and a special place of gathering for the spirits of our ancestors”.
According to Szörényi and co. Dobogók? in the Pilis hills is a “heart chakra”, a centre of energy. The fact that we are not just speaking about a few isolated supporters of that theory is proven by a look at Dobogók? itself, where it is possible to buy all manner of paraphernalia associated with the culture of heathenism, and which regularly attracts visitors.
Songwriters of the far-right scene play their part in modernising and popularising such thoughts. Here we can see the modern face of the far right, which seeks to popularise extremely reactionary thoughts using very modern means. The song “I am a Hungarian” by the rock group Hungarica illustrates that point:
“I am a Hungarian, proud scion of the Hunnish, Avarian bow-stretching Scythians. I know that when hordes of barbarians were butchering one another on the ruins of Rome and the plague was raging, this was long the kingdom of God […] Don’t tell me that my past stinks of fish [a popular disparagement of Finno-Ugric descent - K.U.] and that I have stolen words from here and there. What matters is the soul. The Middle Ages were dark elsewhere, and it wasn’t here that Galilei was sent to the stake.”
That text exemplifies various elements of far-right delusions of grandeur: hostility to Europe, arrogance and self-pity. Such products of “national rock” are not played on the public radio and television channels, but the writers themselves who promote Turanism are strongly represented in the Fidesz-aligned media.
Gradations can be observed. On the radio and television and in the press there are centre-right and far-right versions of such media. Hír TV, Magyar Nemzet and the weekly Heti Válasz belong in the first category, while Echo TV, the daily Magyar Hírlap and the weekly Demokrata belong in the second.
Those in the first group convey conservative views that are acceptable in the context of a Christian democratic party, while those in the second cater to a different section of the electorate and make use of means that are in part anti-Semitic and racist. On Echo TV right-wing conspiracy theories are constantly aired and self-appointed shamans even make appearances. Magyar Hírlap sees the “finance Jews from Brooklyn” as lying behind the current economic crisis. The message is clear: the aim is to appeal to the full spectrum of the right-wing electorate by expressing such ideas.
That tactic, however, has not entirely succeeded because despite all efforts the far-right party Jobbik has managed to make headway. Nevertheless the double structure of the media has been retained. Possibly the thinking is (not without good reason) that many Fidesz voters belong to the spiritual hinterland of Jobbik and these methods are intended to keep them onboard.
On the other hand Fidesz is also hoping for voters defecting from the far-right camp. For how long that tactic will remain acceptable to the Christian-conservative electorate, which would be expected to strongly reject Turanism, anti-Semitism and anti-Christian propaganda, is a central political question of continued relevance.
The original strategy doesn’t seem to be working as Jobbik is already massively present in all areas of the media world with its own products.
About the author
Historian Krisztián Ungváry, 41, studied history and German in Budapest, Jena and Freiburg. Currently he works as a researcher at the Institute for the History of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution in Budapest. The historian’s fields of specialism include the history of the Second World War, the Hungarian Holocaust, the expulsion of the Germans of Hungary and the Hungarian state security past. His best-known book is Battle for Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II, which was published in Hungarian, German and English.