11. 27. 2012. 10:40

Literature and censorship in the Kádár era in Hungary

This paper examines reader's reports in the archives of a Hungarian publishing house, and provides a glimpse into the elaborate ritual of tacit negotiations and the exercise of self-censorship in the Kádár era.

The role a foreign author can play in the cultural memory of a nation depends largely upon the availability of his or her works in translation. After the nationalisation of Hungarian publishing houses in 1949, the publication of foreign literature became an issue strictly controlled first by the Hungarian Workers’ Party, then, after the revolution of 1956, by the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party. Besides literary qualities, ideological issues and moral considerations exerted considerable influence on publishing policy in Hungary – and thus the reception of foreign authors – up until 1989. As the first step towards more extensive research into the mechanism of censorship in the field of British literature during the era of the one-party system in Hungary between 1949 to 1989, this paper examines the reader’s reports on George Orwell and Anthony Burgess to be found in the archives of Európa Publishing House, which was established by the cultural authorities in 1956 for the publication of foreign literature. My aim is to investigate the manner in which aesthetic principles and ideological as well as moral judgments are conflated in these reports, which often have the quality (and sometimes the length) of a critical essay. The reports were not intended for publication, consequently the readers’ names, in accordance with the policies of the publishing house, will not be disclosed unless the reader has given his or her permission.

The period of Soviet-style dictatorship in Hungary can be divided into two distinct eras: the Rákosi era, that is the Stalinist period between 1949 and 1956, and the Kádár regime between 1956 and 1989. The cultural policies of the first period can be characterised in Zsófia Gombár’s words by a “narrow-minded arrogance and repressive censorship” in order to “remould all spheres of life according to a […] Soviet type of model.” “In contrast to the Rákosi regime’s sectarian close-mindedness, the cultural policy of the Kádár era finally brought a certain opening up in ideological and cultural terms to the country.” Ferenc Takács, critic, essayist, translator, Reader in English at Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, claims that Kádár’s cultural policy, indeed, brought about “the greatest and most productive era of literary translation in the history of the country” – ironically very often due to the availability of authors who, unable to publish their own works, turned to translation out of necessity.

The Kádár era

János Kádár (First Secretary of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party from 1956), in order to maintain the illusion of democracy, preferred indirect methods to control the publishing industry. Censorship officially disappeared from the legislative system, the word itself was rarely used (it was often replaced by the expression “administrative methods”), but the Ministry’s printing permit remained necessary, even though it was denied to be a form of censorship. The complex system of censorship was simplified, but partly because editors and readers within the publishing houses were expected to exercise self-censorship without direct interference from the Ministry. Sándor Révész claims that the duties of editors and censors overlapped, and prohibition formed a part of the selection. The change in economical considerations is also reflected on by Géher. In the 1978 edition of his book he mentions only as the fifth (that is, least) important characteristic of the reader the ability to evaluate the expected success of a book; he adds to the 1989 edition of the volume (written in 1988) that by the end of the 1980s this skill has become the most valued one (pp. 28–29). According to Ferenc Takács, the “system was based on an elaborate ritual of tacit negotiations and the constant testing of limits.” This taciturnity poses problems for research into censorship methods in the Kádár era. Even though written directives and proposals existed, communication was often intentionally not in written form, so the reasons that lay behind the decision to publish (or not) a foreign author cannot always be traced. However, great numbers of reader’s reports are undergoing research in the archives of Európa Publishing House, and even though they in themselves cannot account for all levels of decision making, an analysis of them provides useful insights into censorship methods. The study of reports confirms the opinions of experts such as Bart or Gombár, who assert that the reports reflected both practical considerations and party directives. Bart divides the Kádár regime into two periods regarding cultural policies. The first one, up until the mid-1970s, can be characterised by ambitious plans and basically sufficient financial means to carry these plans out (even though a shortage of paper remained a problem throughout the period and funds in foreign currency for copyrights also remained insufficient – in fact these material problems led to the classics being given greater weight than contemporary literature). Bart also claims that in this period the real commissioner behind the publishing industry was not the potential readership, but the Directorate for Publishing, and through it, the cultural policies of the state. From the mid-1970s until the end of the 1980s increasing financial problems forced all participants in publishing to take economic considerations more seriously, which meant that the demands of the market were also taken into consideration (this is reflected in the efforts to publish books by Anthony Burgess). At the same time the disillusionment of the officials grew and plans for changing the way people thought became less and less ambitious. As reflected in reader’s reports, the potential success of a book was also calculated, and it was with a view to its commercial potential that the otherwise despised popular culture also appeared on the market. These factors together led to the easing of political control over the publishing industry (or to the diminishing effectiveness of political control) by the 80s. Nevertheless, this control was present until late on in that decade. The slackening of ideological control is reflected in the fact that in the late 70s and early 80s editors often tried to publish books that had been rejected in the 60s.

The system of censorship throughout the Kádár era rested on two pillars. One was the firm conviction of the morally and intellectually constructive influence of literature (which is why pessimism or decadence was seen as a major argument against the publication of a book). The other pillar was the exclusion of political taboos, the most important of which were the following: criticism of the Soviet Union or the one-party system, anti-Marxism, and ironically, the existence of censorship. Other expressly prohibited issues were the revolution of 1956, the Treaty of Trianon after the First World War, and the difficulties faced by Hungarian minorities in neighbouring countries. Gombár adds, “[n]on-political censorship categories were ‘graphic description of sexuality’ and abusive language. However, as years passed, the public attitude towards sex, obscenity and verbal vulgarity gradually changed”. Yet descriptions of sexuality or abusive language in literature remained an extensively discussed topic in reader’s reports until the end of the 80s.

Reader's reports

The gradual softening of the dictatorship after the 1956 revolution did not mean the lack of control: rather, it gave rise to the “three Ps” system: the party promoted, permitted or prohibited the works of an author. What this system meant for prohibited foreign authors can be shown by the example of George Orwell or Anthony Burgess. They also represent the adage “once a thief always a thief.” Nothing, not even politically neutral works, could appear by any author who had ever written politically or otherwise suspect books. Accordingly, the first reader’s report on Koestler that can be found in the archives dates from 1988. Prior to this date Koestler’s name could not be printed in Hungarian – and he remained relatively unknown to the public. George Orwell’s name probably appeared to be less dangerous, as a number of reports can be found on him – yet no book by Orwell was published until 1989. Orwell’s name is first mentioned in a report in 1963, when a collection of English essays was being edited. His name appears in the first draft, but a later reader claims that none of his essays has literary merits that would justify its translation. Anyone familiar with some of Orwell’s essays might suspect that this is not the real reason, and even though the reader claims that it is not a political question, this statement cannot be taken at face value. Twelve years later in 1975, the publication of the minor work Down and Out in Paris and London was considered, and two readers argued for its publication; they also mentioned that the reading public would expect a different book by this author. However, no work of Orwell was published until 1989, and no report was written on him until 1988. Even in that year one of the readers found the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four too early and politically dangerous, as the public “would not understand it as a fictitious negative utopia, but as a realistic description of their everyday lives.” Exaggeration though this statement may be (everyday life in Hungary in the 80s hardly resembled the distressing fictional world of Nineteen Eighty-Four), the fact remains that all through the Kádár era political implications were taken very seriously in the publication of English fiction.

Reader’s reports from the archives of Európa Publishing House on Anthony Burgess

(Date; Title and date of original publication; Suggestion: + recommended, – not recommended; Remarks)

1966 The Doctor is Sick (1960) +

22 April 1967 The Wanting Seed (1962) – cynical, yet ideologically not problematic

4 June 1967 The Wanting Seed (1962) –

1967 Malayan Trilogy (1964) +

1968 Malayan Trilogy (1964) + without the third volume

1968 Malayan Trilogy (1964) – psychological treatment of social-political problems

1969 Enderby Outside (1968) +

1969 Inside Mr Enderby (1963) –

1971 Shakespeare (1970) – witty but superficial

1971 Devil of a State (1961) – witty, but not worth translating

7 June 1972 The Doctor is Sick (1960) +

27 June 1972 The Doctor is Sick (1960) –

30 July 1972 The Doctor is Sick (1960) – Low quality, narrow-minded humour

1972 Nothing Like the Sun (1964) – gossip instead of art

1973 Honey for the Bears (1963) –

1973 Nothing Like the Sun (1964) –

8 March 1974 One Hand Clapping (1961) +

2 May 1974 One Hand Clapping (1961) +

30 Oct 1974 One Hand Clapping + published in 1979

1974 Napoleon Symphony (1974) – It should not be the first Burgess novel to appear

1974 A Clockwork Orange (1962)

1974 A Clockwork Orange (1962) +

30 May 1978 The Clockwork Testament or Enderby’s End (1974) + The trilogy together

18 Aug 1978 The Clockwork Testament or Enderby’s End – Not as the first volume by Burgess

10 March 1979 ABBA ABBA (1977) – impossible to translate

11 April 1979 ABBA ABBA – topic not interesting

8 July 1979 Beard’s Roman Women (1976) –

30 Sept 1979 Beard’s Roman Women + abusive language

9 Feb 1981 Tremor of Intent (1966) + it could be a popular success

14 April 1981 Earthly Powers (1980) + homosexuality

10 Aug 1981 Earthly Powers – not well structured

10 Sept 1981 Tremor of Intent

1983 The Doctor is Sick +

1984 Napoleon Symphony (1974) – chaotic

1984 Enderby’s Dark Lady (1984) – linguistic problems

4 Jan 1985 Enderby’s Dark Lady + difficult to translate

3 July 1985 Enderby’s Dark Lady +

29 July 1985 The End of the World News (1982) –

15 Sept 1985 The End of the World News +

31 Oct 1985 The End of the World News

1989 Tremor of Intent (1980) +

13 July 1989 1985 (1978) +

28 Aug 1989 1985 (1978) +


This is a shortened version of a paper originally published in Confrontations and Interactions. Essays on Cultural Memory. Edited by Bálint Gárdos, Ágnes Péter, Natália Pikli and Máté Vince. L'Harmattan: Budapest, 2011

Zsolt Czigányik is a lecturer at the Department of English at ELTE, Budapest (see his profile).

Zsolt Czigányik