‘Hungarian Party campaigns for recognition of Scythian heritage’, Pál Nyiri recently wrote on the Culture Matters blog. Here we reproduce his post, which raises many interesting points about the politics of ethnic identity and the relationship between nationalism and academic writing.
According to Hungarian newspapers, the xenophobic, anti-Semitic party Jobbik (“The Righter”), which has three seats in the European Parliament, has launched a campaign to expunge from textbooks the accepted theory according to which Hungarians are a Finno-Ugric people, and replace it with one according to which they are related to the Huns, Avars and Scythians, Indo-Iranian nomads that inhabited large parts of the Eurasian steppe in the first half of the first millennium C.E.
The party, whose EP delegation is led by a professor of criminal law and whose paramilitary offshoot, the Hungarian Guard, has recently been banned, called on the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and universities to rectify their curricula, asserting that the Finno-Ugric theory was a Hapsburg plot to break the self-respect of the Hungarian people. The signatories of the petition include a professor of archaeology, the self-described founding director of the Centre for Asian Studies at the University of Pecs, and a self-described anthropologist.
Linking Hungarians to Oriental origins has been a strand of Hungarian nationalism since the late 19th century. The idea is to stress the uniqueness of Hungarians and their difference from other Eastern European peoples. Yet the Scythican-Avaric references echo those of Russian Eurasianists, whose ideology tends to be that of Russia as a grand synthesis of Orient and Occident (see an interesting recent book by Marlene Laruelle): quite a different proposition from those of Hungarian nationalists, who stress isolation rather than mixing.
I recently had a conversation with my colleague Thijl Sunier (professor of Islam in Europe at VU University) about exactly how and when Islam has come to be the Other of Europe, and when and how alternative historical narratives disappeared. Southeastern Europe, where discourses of the bastion of Christianity against Ottoman barbarism have been a mainstay of nationalisms, is an interesting case in point.
The re-emergence of self-Orientalising ideologies within mainstream nationalism complicates the picture. Jobbik’s leaders have expressed support for Hamas, some sympathise with Iran’s government, and ties exist between Jobbik and the Hungarian Islamic Community (Eduardo Rozsa Flores, who was recently killed during a supposed plot to assassinate the Bolivian president, was a member of both).
So Jobbik’s wish to establish Hungarians as an Indo-Aryan people makes sense in today’s politics as well as within the historical frame of Nazism (and WWII “Hungarism”). Yet the Hungarian Guard’s vigilante patrols in villages with large Gypsy populations (who would logically be fellow Indo-Iranians) have been even more high-profile than its anti-Semitism.
Jobbik is also the champion of animosity towards Russia (it has been demanding the removal of Soviet war memorials) and the only party that has made opposing immigration a consistent element of its campaigns (this element is not very distinctive, because no party supports immigration).
It is not clear, then, what its version of history between antiquity and the Hapsburgs would look like. In any case, this campaign is likely to signify the return of radical revisionist (including but not limited to self-Orientalist and racist) voices into academic history writing, from which they had been banished since World War II.
Pál Nyiri is Professor of Global History from an Anthropological Perspective at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology of VU University Amsterdam.