01. 14. 2015. 19:19

The Protean self

Excerpts from an interview with Elemér Hankiss

Elemér Hankiss passed away on 10 January 2015. An uncompromisingly independent thinker who eludes all definitions, Hankiss was an emblematic figure of the 1989 change of regime as a participant and a critic.

Never a flag-waver for any kind of particularism, he untiringly worked for the future of Hungary and Eastern Europe. In this interview, originally published in The Hungarian Quarterly, Hankiss spoke about some of the various paths down which he had embarked and shared some of his perceptions of Hungary today.

In April 1944 you had to interpret for German soldiers. And when you recounted this at home your father was angered: “someone who is willing to speak with murderers becomes one of their gutless accomplices.” Was this pronouncement important to you later in life?

At the time I was a boy scout, and we had been called on to serve as interpreters for the German soldiers. When my father found this out, he beat me thoroughly, for the first and last time in my life. I learned this lesson for a lifetime, never to serve brutal powers with words, thoughts, even gestures. After the war I soon learned that I cannot become a member of any kind of political or ideological flock. Because someone who considers the flock important, the security of the fold, loses the freedom of thought. It makes you stupid, and it lames you…

...the pressure for group conformity?

This is Hungary today. Today a conservative figure cannot say a single kind word about a left-wing person, and vice versa, because the others will make them outcasts. The battle of flocks, of packs, of herds is tearing the country apart. But to contradict myself, alongside independence it is also important for a thinking person to find a kind of workshop of kindred spirits, a community of people who listen to one another’s ideas, critically of course.


You took part in the 1956 Revolution, but you have always been hesitant to speak much about your role in the events. “I do not want to inflate myself as an important front-line soldier. I am not a martyr, I have no great merits to boast of. I was insignificant in comparison with those who were hanged. Though I had a ‘00,’ i.e. a case for treason.” You made these remarks in an interview with Alinda Veiszer. In 1957 you were held under remand for seven months, and in your interview with Lengyel you recounted a moment when you ran into Domokos Kosáry [a prominent historian and president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences from 1990 to 1996] in the corridor of the prison.

He was walking down the corridor with such dignity, as if he were the king and the guards were his vassals.

Kosáry wrote a memoir in prison, Látogatás a Földgolyón (“Visit to Planet Earth”). You also wrote notes?

Yes, though in the first months we weren’t even allowed to read. Later we were given books. One of our fellow prisoners would wheel the books around on a tottering trolley. Reaching out of the bars of the cell, you could select from among them. I was happy to grab one of Dostoyevsky’s novels the first time, but I couldn’t stand it for long. There, in the misery of the prison, I could not stand how in Dostoyevsky the whole world, all of life is a miserable prison. The next time I got a Soviet novel about a collective farm and the farmers of Sakhalin Island, who fight heroically against the ice, the snow, and the storms. I read it with pleasure, because it was triumphant life itself.

And what did you write on?

Toilet paper. I got my hands on some pencil stub, maybe I got it from one of the guards. There were decent people among them too.

And who did you share your cell with?

At first I was together with sociologist István Kemény for about two months. Then they realized that this was not a good match and they put a soldier in with me who had smuggled a radio into Hungary in November 1956. He was afraid that they were going to hang him. It was terrible to watch him suffer. But in the end he got off with less.

And you? How did you stand up?

In all honesty when they pulled me out of the bed in the early morning and took me to Fő Street I was shivering from the cold and from fear. But inside they did not maltreat me physically, they only tried to break me psychologically. Our interrogators were no longer the torturers of the Rákosi era, but rather young lawyers who must have become part of the apparatus under Imre Nagy. Of course my interrogator tried everything to corner me, but he couldn’t pin anything on me. I was beginning to think I was going to be let off, but in the end he shoved a bill of indictment in front of me and told me to sign it. I was young and a snob and I angrily threw a Kosztolányi quote in his face: “Law among us is not more than formality, / you always need someone in jail, that's our legality.” [“Itt az ítélet pusztán alaki, / mindíg kell a börtönbe valaki.”]


Your article entitled “Igazságtalan ország” (“Unjust Country”) is very inspiring. You summarize numerous praiseworthy initiatives taken abroad: how can one foster widespread social solidarity. For instance, there is a French website where you can offer services. Someone can offer language instruction, say, in exchange for plumbing. There are similar initiatives here in Hungary too, but it seems at times as if there were obstacles to solidarity that reside in our thinking.

There are historical reasons for lack of solidarity as well. England is a good example. Between 1680 and 1850 the Industrial Revolution destroyed the villages, the small towns, the local communities. It drove people into the hell of the rapidly growing industrial and mining cities. All human bonds were broken; you no longer had your priest, your schoolteacher, your cantor, your neighbor. The individual was lost in the unfamiliar and anonymous crowd. It took some 150 or 200 years for society to reorganize itself, for communities based on solidarity to form. In Hungary communities began to disintegrate rapidly during and after the Second World War. After the war forced industrialization and agricultural collectivization were the primary forces of social disintegration, but the system used violence to shred and destroy traditional communities as well. And over the course of the past 20 years, free market competition has extended this process of disintegration, if perhaps in a different manner. Even today little circles of solidarity are only slowly beginning to take form.


In your 2009 “Új Reformkor? Lehetőségek és lehetetlenségek” (“A New Reform Era? Possibilities and Impossibilities”) you consider whether it would be possible to usher in a new reform era today. What are the chances?

Count István Széchenyi and the figures of the Reform Era started from nothing and within a decade-and-a-half they had formulated an entire series of goals and initiatives that would define the era. You feel awed and ashamed if you think of just a few of them, national independence, the Hungarian language, Hungarian theater, equality before the law, the emancipation of the serfs, the proportionate sharing of taxation, civil society, the repeal of entailments, the legal legitimation of freehold, Széchenyi’s Hitel [“Credit,” a call for economic and political reforms], free industry and trade, the foundation of the Society for the Protection of Hungarian Industry in 1844, the construction of a well-developed network of railway lines, the regulation of the rivers, political rights, freedom of the press, republican government, education, social life and civil society, the refinement of the nation, and so on. If Hungarian society were to awaken, for it has not yet done so, and to reflect collectively on the possibilities of improving the country, if the younger generation of politicians would be just a bit more honest and talented than their predecessors, if the intelligentsia would show greater recognition of its responsibilities than it has over the course of the past two decades, if the leaders of the country would join forces and convince people that it is worth making sacrifices in the name of a better Hungary, which could be built in the space of only a few years, if we could manage to give people back their faith in themselves and in the country, if... But this is already too many ifs, and it is hard to believe that the mentality of a society can change in only a few years. Though there are examples of this. Think of 1956, when a frightened society, hobbled by the weight of oppression, forgot its fears in the space of a few hours and became free in spirit. Or think of how in the 1970s and 1980s the idea of the possibility and even the demand for change became increasingly pervasive in Hungarian society. Earlier the more cowardly you were, the better your chances of survival. In the 1980s, however, courage came ever more into fashion. And the hope grew stronger that perhaps finally the country would begin its ascent back up the slope of history. Today it seems to me that Hungarian society is teetering between cowardice and courage, hopelessness and hope.

Erika Csontos and Károly Tardos

Translated by: Thomas Cooper

Tags: Elemér Hankiss