The last time I sang our national anthem – the Himnusz – was five days ago. We were in Losonc [Lučenec], standing before the coffin of our immortal friend Miklós Duray. Hungarians from all corners of the Carpathian Basin were there – mostly, of course, from Felvidék and present-day Hungary. We stood and sang – not in valediction, not to bid farewell to our friend: we sang it to lift him up and into eternity, to lift him into the pantheon of Hungarians. To every one of the hundreds of Hungarians gathered there it was obvious that the only possible instrument with which to do this was our national prayer – as is done when honouring our compatriots standing atop an Olympic podium, or our great forebears who are commemorated on our national holidays. Even if we look back over one thousand years, there is no other single work in Hungarian culture that can lift our hearts as high as our national anthem does. If we were to set our minds the impossible task of condensing into a single work everything that is Hungarian, or more precisely, everything that makes Hungarians Hungarian, we would have to choose the Himnusz. It is therefore fitting and just that the Day of Hungarian Culture should be the day which commemorates the birth of Hungary’s national anthem.
And then at the cemetery in Losonc we heard Verse 28 from Chapter 21 of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. “This is the Gospel of the Lord”, said the priest, and I quote: “Stand up straight and lift up your heads.” And thus we did. In its style the Himnusz is a prayer, a supplication and a jeremiad, and thus demands a posture of deep, serious penitential humility; yet it is not sung on bended knee – and certainly not with heads bowed. On the contrary, one stands upright, steadfast, almost stridently – and always with head held high.
Some works are incomprehensible unless one knows something of their author. There are works that ring hollow without an understanding of their creator’s intellectual flights, or the depths of their emotions. They are works – and often jewels of Hungarian literature – in which authors use their pens to draw on themselves, on their own bodies and souls. They are poems, the paths to which are blocked by their poets, and which we can only approach through their creators: they write them, render them poetic and send their messages to us. The Himnusz is not like that. When we read it we do not imagine its poet, Kölcsey. We do not interpret its verses as his personal admonition. And although when we listen to it or sing it we are addressing God, He is not in our mind’s eye. It is not the image of the poet or of God that emerges from the swirl of history, but that mysterious, elusive and ineffable something that we can call “Hungarian-ness” – or, more precisely, Hungarian destiny and the Hungarian genius. It is the form and quality of invention, of creation, of existence, of which only we Hungarians are capable. Others also construct wonderful buildings, build cities, write poems, compose works, sing their songs and dance their dances; but no one does what we Hungarians do and no one does it how we do it. While we read Kölcsey’s poem or sing Erkel’s melody, we forget about them. This is because we see and understand something more important: we feel that the message intended for us comes up from somewhere in the bottomless well of the past. It is as if it were a message from hundreds of generations of Hungarians who lived before us: a message that is lost in the mists of prehistoric times, a message originating with our first ancestors and embracing every Hungarian who has lived before us. It is a message that is not only addressed to us, but also to the heart of every Hungarian who will be born henceforth.
The Himnusz reminds us that we Hungarians – like all Christian peoples who understand what sin and forgiveness are – have good reason for repentance. Yes, we Hungarians are not without sin. Our faults and shortcomings are legion. The question is, what should we do with this recognition and admission? Should we perhaps kneel in the middle of a football pitch? Or should we topple the statues of our great forebears? Should we reject and erase our culture of a thousand years? Or should we allow the self-appointed, rootless liberal censors to sift through and rewrite the history of the Hungarians? Kölcsey says something different. He committed to paper the most important sentence in literature on the history of Hungary: “This people has suffered for all sins / Of the past and of the future”. Read with Christian eyes, this is not a discount, a free pass or a carte blanche for further sins. In a Christian spirit, this sentence means that, although the number and extent of our sins may be great, God has not wiped us off the face of the earth. Even if He has punished us, He allows us to continue our history. The only reason for this could be that our virtues and merits are also legion, and so we have earned the right to have a future. There have been many peoples whose fates have been decreed otherwise by the Lord of History; and it seems that now, too, there are some which are doomed to disappear, and that this fate is being dealt upon them right now. And if it is true that our survival is not the result of blind luck, but of political, military and spiritual conflicts, battles and struggles for freedom fought with the help of God, then it is also worth asking what we have done to deserve our continued habitation in the heart of the Carpathian Basin, and the fact that we still own all that has sprung from it. This is true even though Hungary, which conforms to the rhythm of its heart’s contractions and expansions, is now in a state of contraction. No one can claim to know for certain what we have done to deserve this. Instead every generation has the right – and perhaps the duty – to find its own answer. And this answer can hardly be separated from the dangers that threaten the life of Hungarians.
Thirty years ago I believed that we had merited our nation’s undying desire for independence: we had redeemed our right to survive at the cost of the lives of our best compatriots, who had fallen under the blood-stained flags of freedom flown here; and our reward was survival. Thirty years later, I think the same. But I also believe that this alone would not have been enough. We needed to fight our battles for freedom not only for political independence or for economic and sovereign self-determination. In fact our greatest struggles have always been fought – with means sometimes peaceful and sometimes martial – in order to remain who we are: to live in the way we want to live, and not to live in a way others tell us to. The Ottomans told us who was a true believer and who was a giaour, the Habsburgs who was a good Christian, the Germans who we could live with and who we could not. The Soviets did not want us to be Hungarians, but wanted to force us to become proletarians of the world, who could then unite. And the Brussels bureaucrats want to hammer us into the form of liberal world citizens instead of our Hungarian form, which is considered to be outmoded. We have always resisted them, we have always outsmarted them, and we have always found our own paths in life. Even when it was not possible to write it openly on the flag, everyone knew that we are who we were and we will be who we are. If there is any virtue that deserves the reward of survival, it is that of remaining true to ourselves.
This is why today we cannot be lured into a trap by the siren voices that entice us to stand on what they call “the right side of history”. This is why we do not get sucked into the intoxicating whirlwind of ever bloodier wars; this is why we want a ceasefire, negotiations and peace. The Hungarians have learned that the “good” and “bad” sides of history will be determined by the great powers that eventually prevail, and that they are not the least bit interested in what is good or bad for the Hungarians. This is why – even in the most complicated and difficult situations – we must remain on the Hungarian side of history.
The indispensable condition for survival is proper self-awareness and self-respect – neither too much nor too little. This is especially true for us Hungarians. We are a special people. Other peoples are strong or weak, rich or poor, small or great, free or oppressed. Our essence, our Hungarian national nature, cannot be defined in this way. It cannot be, because although we are surrounded by land in every direction, we are in fact an island nation. We came here one thousand one hundred years ago and we marked out our dwelling place – amidst and encircled by strangers. In the shadow of those larger than ourselves, we established our state and created the Hungarian order of life. And we have retained this for more than one thousand one hundred years. We speak our language, incomprehensible to everyone else. The literature we write has depths and heights which are inaccessible to others, and through Europe’s stormy waters we navigate our country with a cast of mind that others cannot understand. Hungary is still a Hungarian country – just as it was two hundred years ago, on the day the Himnusz was born. We say who can come in, who can stay here, who can live with us and who cannot. And we also want to determine how our lives can be connected with those of our neighbours. We are not better or worse, we are different; and this difference is provided by Hungarian culture, the feast day of which is today. From Szatmárcseke in the land of the Huns, we send our greetings and appreciation to the city and people of Veszprém in Pannonia, which is now a European Capital of Culture. This proves József Antall’s classic thesis that we are Hungarians, and therefore Europeans.
Today I wanted to tell you that the message and the deeper meaning of the Himnusz is illuminated for us by Chapter 21, Verse 28 of the Gospel of Saint Luke. They are correlative lines, as if written by the same spirit: this people has already suffered for all the sins of the past and the future, so stand up straight and lift up your heads. We are the Hungarians, who are not and shall not be inferior to other peoples; and in our own special nature we are as good, as decent and as honourable a people as any other. The rest – everything else – is up to God. In another two hundred years we shall see who is left standing, and which nations will be sifted out by the Lord of History.
Until then, God above us all, Hungary before all else! Go Hungary, go Hungarians!