The Challenges of Public History Under Illiberal Rule: Gábor Gyáni Launches the Jenő Szűcs Lecture Series

by Bence Bari

On February 21, 2023, the Democracy in History workgroup of the CEU Democracy Institute launched its Jenő Szűcs Series. The first public lecture in the series was delivered by Gábor Gyáni under the title “Telling the Truth (or Not?) About History. Dilemmas of Public History.” As emphasized by co-organizer Gábor Klaniczay in his opening remarks, the ongoing lecture series honours, adopts and develops the critical approach of the late Hungarian historian Jenő Szűcs regarding the ideologically defined viewpoint of authoritarian states on history and society. Lead Researcher of the workgroup, Balázs Trencsényi, added that the endeavour is not restricted to the Hungarian context; the new projects Revisionism and Academic Space in Autocracy are also to engage in discussions of the post-Soviet space and Turkey.

István Rév, Director of The Vera and Donald Blinken Open Society Archives, in turn described the goals of the last project in detail, outlining a complex agenda. The participants would form four research groups, each of which would study historical revisionism in specific temporal dimensions. Furthermore, the researchers will compile a comprehensive internet archive on the topic. They will also organize conferences, exhibitions, and public programs. Rév emphasized that such activities are much in line with the understanding by project participants of the CEU as an “activist institution” and their determination to resist official and corrupting historical narratives.

The lecture of Gábor Gyáni corresponded to these outlines as it attempted to differentiate between academic institutions and the projects of public history launched and supported by the Hungarian government, their interpretation of history and contribution to the formation of collective identities. The lecturer emphasized that the original goal of historical scholarship was to form canonized narratives of the national past, thus contributing to the formation of collective identities in nation-states during the nineteenth century. This, however, resulted in the marginalization of certain collective memories and experiences.

The emergence of public history as an influential subject after the Second World War was originally a rather emancipatory project that attempted to reverse these dynamics.

This was due to the commitment of its representatives who focussed on latent pasts and made attempts to rehabilitate groups and their memories previously excluded from official narratives. Such groups often belonged to “defeated parties” or alternatively, had fallen victim to discriminatory policies.

The main difference between historical scholarship and public history, argued Gyáni, lies in their approach to history as a subject. Even though historians cannot accomplish an all-encompassing form of objectivity in their works, they must conform to scientifically defined criteria and the methodologies of their discipline and attempt to discover historical truth via carefully posed questions.

The lecturer claimed that, by contrast, public history is not scientific in its methods. It is rather driven by an emotional approach to history and an already established version of the “truth.” Gyáni emphasized that this difference would not be problematic on its own. He pointed out that even if their approach to history is not scientific, various products of public history: movies, literature, games and others are legitimate forms of entertainment.

However, public history became rather harmful when it emerged as an asset to “banal nationalism” (a term coined by Michael Billig, a scholar of social psychology) and various projects of identity politics.

Those pursuing such discourses claim an exclusive right to history and challenge the legitimacy of historical scholarship, accusing it of being ideologically driven and distorted. However, they do not offer a scientific alternative to the alleged corruption of traditional scholarship. They rather overlook or consciously simplify the rich complexity of the past, especially when it comes to certain popular topics. Such challenges are issued especially often when it comes to the history of the twentieth century.

According to the lecturer, it is no coincidence that in the case of Germany, the main subjects of public history are the role of Germany in the First World War, Nazi Germany, and the East German state. Various representatives of public history attempt to depict Germans as victims, thus blurring their responsibility regarding historical events, and are in favour of equating two totalitarian dictatorships (thus blurring the differences between Nazism, Stalinism and their local specificities).

In contrast, the Peace Treaty of Trianon is a rather popular topic of public history in Hungary. Local representatives of the field describe the dissolution of “historic Hungary in 1918-20” as a national tragedy or even more than that – an injustice done to the Hungarian community which continues to be inflicted l today. By contrast, they attempt to minimize and relativize the participation and the responsibility of Hungarians in the national chapter of the Holocaust. Hungarian origins and ethnogenesis are also popular subjects in Hungarian public history, topic that are specific to this context.

Gyáni also raised awareness of the problem that, as opposed to Germany, the Hungarian government supports or even initiates such projects of public history, founding institutions dedicated to the subjects it prefers.

The recently opened Magyarságkutató Intézet (literally: Institute of Research on Hungarianness) is one of the most notable examples in this regard. The explicit aim of this institution is to reconsider the ethnic origins of Hungarians and to make connections between them and the Huns. This is a viewpoint that the Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán has promoted at times, as he has claimed publicly that Hungarians are the descendants of Attila the Hun and that they belong to the Turkic family of peoples – statements not supported by scientific discoveries in the fields of history, archaeology, or linguistics. Due to this, the Institute of Research on Hungarianness attempts to prove the Hunnic ancestry of Hungarians through the use of archaeological genetics – a methodology with rather dubious validity and results, Gyáni argued.

Thus, the lecturer outlined a “competition” or even a “struggle” between historical scholarship and public history, but also between “science” and “state.”

Gyáni emphasized that in Hungary after 2010, the state became the dominant actor in media and has directly intervened in the structure of scientific institutions. Besides abolishing the autonomy of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, the Hungarian government has also established “close to ten” new research institutions, each of which are tasked with spreading its official narrative of national history. The lecturer concluded on a rather grim note, stating that under these circumstances, Hungarian scholars have essentially lost their struggle with public history for legitimacy, attention, resources, and public support.

While the lecture was comprehensive and convincing on its own terms, the discussion that followed it has revealed a certain disagreement between Gyáni and members of the audience – the current author included. It was argued in response that while the lecturer’s remarks are difficult to challenge when it comes to the Hungarian context, his general viewpoint on the character and relationship between historical scholarship and public history is rather debatable.

Even though the foundations of historical scholarship are, and remain scientific per se, contemporary historians tend to be abundantly aware that they are constructing narratives rather than developing objective and incontestable descriptions of the past.

That implies that Gyáni’s description of public history as “irrational” or driven by an “individualist viewpoint” does not distinguish it sufficiently from historical scholarship. It is also questionable whether the two fields are in a fierce competition with each other. We should remember that despite its often-inaccurate depictions of the past, public history has resulted in the creation of invaluable pieces of arts and continues to generate serious public interest in history.

In collaboration with Karen Culver and Ferenc Laczó

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