A village located in five different countries

Why Central Europe is so fascinating
(Reading time: 12 – 15 min)
Frank Ottenhoff

August 29, 2019

Hotel New York in Budapest

“Frank, you are Dutch and an Indo. But why did you choose Hungary for your documentary?”1 people ask me. It took me some time to find the complete answer. Let me first tell the story of the village Moekatsjevo (Мукачево). If you were born in this village in the beginning of the last century and you stayed in Moekatsjevo, then your cv is like this: Kindergarten in Hungary, primary school in Tjechoslovakia, WW II in Slovakia, middle ages in the Soviet Union and as a pensioner you live in Ukrain. Without putting a single step out of the city.2 The story like that of Moekatsjevo doesn’t leave me cold. But why?

First a question easier to answer. Why a documentary about a country in Central Europe could be helpful? Central Europe and Western Europe have things in common, for else they wouldn’t be both part of the EU. But Central Europe is also very different from Western Europe and still we are living in the same European community. And at the moment there are serious tensions between Western Countries and the Visegrád countries.3 And anyhow, we have to deal with these tensions. But how?

Living together always poses the challenge ‘first to understand before being understood’ to paraphrase Steven Covey4. I hope my documentary ‘A Life in Hungary‘ will give people insight into Hungary as a country of Central Europe. To better understand ’the other’ within the European community. As a first step in dealing with tensions.
Close but different
People in Western Europe raise many questions about Central Europe. Why nationalism is so strong in the Central European countries? Why there is a hesitation to welcome immigrants? At the same time: why are a lot of people so hospitable? Why do people support leaders with a more authoritarian style? The usual answer to all these questions is: “Well, that’s very very complicated; to answer these questions you have to understand their history”. To say it straightforward: if you really want to understand why people are supporting Orbán or Kaczyński, immerse yourself in the history of the people in Central Europe.
The Hungarian parliament
In this history there are many layers. The chaos after the fall of the Wall. Communism. World War II. Timothy Snyder put the total death toll in the “Bloodlands” (Central Europe) at 14 million victims of both Stalin and Hitler (the soldiers who died on the fields of battle excluded…..).5 The impact of the Habsburg Empire. And for Hungarians: they were the last people who settled in Europe more than thousand years ago. Their language is not related to other languages in Europe.6 So the Hungarians are a bit lonesome in the European community the Hungarian writer Sándor Márai argues. After being occupied for 500 years Hungary now is a democracy for less than 30 years.
How to define Central Europe? There are many, many definitions. But in a way I prefer this one: people determined by the same fate. That is: they move in the space between the chaos of the East and the orderliness of the West with a dynamic of their own.

Central Europe: the same fate

In Central Europe the past weighs very heavy. Social, ethnic and national contradictions return frequently. There is always the danger of heavy violence. In the past it were the rich: the German empire and the Habsburg empire at one side, and the Russians and Turks on the other side. Later it was the capitalistic West opposite to the communist Eastern Bloc.7
Born in Hungary but now Romania
The village of Moekatsjevo (Мукачево) is an illustration of the turbulent and dramatic history of Central Europe. If you want an illustration of moving borders watch this video. Amazing if you realize what happened.
Movie with shifting borders
In the corridor of the house of our Hungarian friends is a map of Hungary from before WW I. In the documentary our friend Kati indicates a town on the map where her father was born: Nagyvárad. When her father explains to the authorities he was born in Nagyvárad, they don’t believe him when he says he was born in Hungary. Nagyvárad now is a part of Romania but between the wars was a part of Hungary.

Nagyvárad was part of Hungary before the Trianon treaty. With this agreement, Hungary lost 2/3 of its territory and population and economic treasuries: salt and gold mines, forests, legs of transportation system was cut, and so on… Great powers, moving borders and always the danger of heavy violence. Just one of the many examples.

Kati shows where her father was born. Hungary in those days and now Romania. An example of shifting borders in the history of Central Europe.
“You should give up your hotel and stay in our home”
After this short introduction on Central Europe now the emotianal part. My curiosity for Central Europe started when I met the Slovak, Polish and Hungarian people who became our friends forever. The story starts in 1974. My Dutch friend and I went for a 2 weeks holiday to the ČSSR (Československá socialistická republika). Prague in those days was too depressing for us, so soon we left for the little town Sabinov in the eastern part of the ČSSR, which is Slovakia in these days. We went there to meet a pen friend. We checked in in the local hotel. And then went to the house of the pen friend.
When we were in her home for just half an hour the mother of the house said in her language: “You should give up your hotel and stay in our home”. In front of us a plate of warm tasty soup and a small glass of slivovica. In the evening there was a graduation party at the secondary school. There we met a group of young people who became our Slovak friends. The following week we traveled to many different places to enjoy the beautiful nature of Slovakia. And we became friends forever.
Peter (left) and Johny (right) showing my friend Cees and me the beautiful Slovak nature.
In 2013 my wife and I visited our friends Erika and Johny whom we last met in 1975. We also visited the woman who gave us a place to stay in 1974 (see pic), Erika’s mother. It was like we just met the year before. Amazing.
In 1974 we stayed for a week at the home of Erika and her mother. In 2013 we met again. The picture tells the story.
We also met the family of our friend Peter. We called him Pet’o. Unfortunately in 2013 he was killed by the Taliban. The family and our Slovak friends make you feel part of their family. These experiences are not an exception in Central Europe. For me it feels like a kind of pleasant magic. A family feeling.
With the parents and sister of our friend Peter who was killed by the Taliban.

I could easily tell you stories about the Polish people my wife and I met in our lives. A few years ago we lived for one week with the family of my colleague. In the 80’s we stayed with a Polish family in Christmas time. But it would take too far to tell you all of these stories. To make a long story short: family feeling.

‘The Good Company’
In 2011 my wife and I met Hungarian people at the felt symposium my wife attended in a small village in the south of Hungary: Kati, Léna and Kriszta. For a week we stayed in the same house with them. My wife Marie is always connecting with people. So she invited them to drink a cup of tea together.
Later we invited our Hungarian friends to come to the Netherlands. When Kati and Léna came we developed the idea of the documentary ‘A Life in Hungary’, with support of my friend and documentary maker Paul. Kati offered to ask her granny to be the focal person in the documentary.
In 2012 I left for Budapest for film recordings with Paul. The parents of our friend Kati offered a room for 10 days in their home. Kriszta helped me with the historical facts and Léna translated the Hungarian dialogues into English. And as you might guess……. we became friends. And called ourselves ’the Good Company’.
Kati, Kriszta and Léna helped making the documentary ‘A Life in Hungary’. Here we are in Budapest, just at the start of the recordings. On the picture also our daughter and son in law (left).
Displaced and soul

Why Central Europe has such an impact on my personal feelings. One part of the story is this family feeling I described before. Another part of the story has something to do with the history of my own parents. They had to leave behind their home two times in their live. The first time because they were not welcome anymore in Indonesia. The second time because we had to leave New Guinea. Russian submarines were near the coast of New Guinea, ready to attack.8

Russian submarines ready to attack New Guinea

Under the resposibilty of the same Khrushchev who crushed the Hungarian uprising in 1956 I found out later. My parents were displaced two times.
My parents first had to leave Indonesia and later New Guinea. On the picture my family, just arrived in the Netherlands.

In Central Europe people may feel displaced in their own country as a result of political powers. As an example the regime of Rákosi. Rákosi was the communist ruler in Hungary from 1949 till 1956. He didn’t allow the Hungarians to show their own culture. The Hungarians were not allowed to feel home in their own country. Displaced in your own country. A Hungarian friend said to me: “Western people are not able to understand the doings of Rakosi and Kádár’s communist area: mental terror, closed borders, killings of people due to political reasons.”

Recovering the Hungarian soul after centuries of foreign occupation is an important driver for the nowadays politics in Hungary.

The ‘desert’ and hospitality
So, this was a glimpse on the background of our Central European friends. Hannah Arendt used the metaphor of the ‘desert’ for a society in which everything between people is withering away and people loose political power. The people in Central Europe lived in a totalitarian state during the German occupation and communism, a desert in Hannah Arendt’s view.
I often have to think of an unwritten rule in the desert: if you see a lost person, adopt this person because else this person will not survive. If you meet people in Central Europe and you really want to relate to them, it will not be easy avoiding them to adopt you.
You’re a liberal

What about the political situation in Central Europe. Let’s focus on Hungary now. “You’re a liberal.9 That was what Hungarian friends who support Orbán said to me when I explained my views on democracy and the EU. I think they are right, but when Orbán supporters call you a ‘liberal’ it’s not a compliment. But it also triggered my curiosity. These Hungarians have different views. What are those views and what’s the background?

A Hungarian and a Dutch family together in Budapest. They always give us a warm and tasty welcome.

After the fall of the Wall I read “The Magic Lantern: The revolution of ’89 witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin and Prague” of Timothy Garton Ash.10A beautiful and happy view on turbulent times. He was a good friend of Havel.

The same Timothy Graton Ash now writes in the Guardian11 that “Fidesz has effectively demolished the independence of the judiciary, as documented in an extensive report by Judith Sargentini for the European Parliament. It has also changed the electoral law so that in 2014, Fidesz got 66% of the seats in parliament on 44% of the vote (whereas in 2010 it needed 53% of the vote to get the parliamentary supermajority that enabled it to change the constitution). Much of the media, already dominated by owners closely tied to the Orbán regime, has now been consolidated in a so-called Press and Media Foundation, effectively a pro-government cartel. Hungary has sunk down the World Press Freedom index to 87th this year.”

In the European elections Orbán got 52% of the votes. So the majority of the Hungarians still support him. You might think these voters are a bit manipulated but in my view they are not crazy. Let me invite you to consider some historical facts. Then you might sense why things are happening in Hungary now like they do. So liberals: brace yourself now.

Historical facts and nowadays politics
The Hungarians were the last people who settled in Europe. They have a language which has no relation to other European languages. To compare: the Dutch have a relation to other German languages. The French (and the Romanians) to the other Roman languages. The Poles to other Slavic languages. So Hungary is a bit alone in the European landscape.
Hungary explicitly choosed to be Christian. To be connected to Western Europe Sándor Márai writes in his impressive book Land! Land!12 And to avoid being absorbed by the Slaves. And Orbán wants Hungary to be a Christian state. Some background information: while for example Poland is mainly Catholic in Hungary almost 40% are Catholics and 14% are Protestants.
Hungary was occupied for five centuries. By the Turks, the Austrians, Germany and the Soviet Union. The Turks occupied Hungary for 160 years. Before the battle of Mohács 3,2 million Hungarians were living in Hungary. After 160 years of occupation there were only 1,5 million left. While in the same time (1500-1700) in the northern part of the Netherlands the population grew from 1 to 2 million people. According to the Pew Research Center, 72 percent of Hungarians had unfavorable views of Muslims in 2016 compared to the EU median of 43 percent.
In the documentary ‘A Life in Hungary’ professor Gyarmati tells us that in the ‘small’ 20th century there were nine (!) system changes in Hungary. A system change defined as a 180 degrees shift of power in society. If you were a friend of the regime in one period you became a pariah in the next. Imagine yourself: 9 radical shifts in power in such a short time!
Professor Gyarmati explaining in my documentary his theory about nine system changes in Hungary in the ‘small’ 20th century.
Hungary started with democracy after the fall of the Wall. Without bloodshed but also without dealing with the old occupiers like we in Western Europe did with the nazis Dzsingisz Gabor, former state secretary of the Netherlands and Hungarian by birth, writes in an article.13 For example after the fall of the Wall in Hungary amongst the judges were the same people who were in leading positions in the communist period. It is about the same as a nazi being a judge in the Netherlands. Maybe this sheds another light on the measures Orbán takes to change the judicial power.

The end of history?

Many West Europeans were happy with the fall of the Wall. At the same time we in Western Europe are not always aware that the fall of the Wall resulted in chaos and robbing of the countries in Central Europe.14 “The fall of Wall could happen due to an economic crisis of the West, they looked for new markets. Central Europe, especially Hungary was just before a financial collapse, that’s why Hungarian communists were so flexible to open the country for the Western capital” a Hungarian friend told me. 

In the west we thought it would be ’the End of History’.15 Liberal democracy was considered to be the end (goal) of societal development. In Central Europe this view was often felt as a kind of Western arrogance. After the fall of the Wall people from the west were eager to buy land to make profit or to settle with new businesses in the Central European countries. In Central Europe some people literally lost their ground under their feet.

A piece of the Iron Curtain in the house of our Hungarian friends
The native population lost their influence, but also their money. In my own words: they lost control of their lives. Western companies bought the Hungarian state-owned companies for energy and water supply. The rates tripled until 2010. Mortgages were sold in Swiss francs. The mortgage rate was 14%. In the financial crisis a lot of Hungarians were not able to pay their housing and energy anymore. These developments urged Orbán to take measures to protect the lower and middle class in Hungary. Just by accident I am reading in a Dutch newspaper right now that the Hungarian economy has the highest growth rate (1,1%) in Europe at the moment. Hmmm, not bad.
National sovereignty
I am not saying I am a great fan of Orbán. In fact I am not, my Hungarian friends were sharp in calling me a ‘liberal’. In the 1960’s being a ‘liberal’ (not in a party political sense by the way) became a part of my identity. In the 1980’s I was a teacher in the democratic structures in the Netherlands at a ministry. I am still a fan of de Montesquieu with his Trias Politica and checks and balances. But we should not blind ourselves with too easy judgements on the politics of the Visegrád countries. With this history behind in Hungary national sovereignty seems more important than individual sovereignty. And the western liberalism isn’t considered to be the best model for the lower and middle class.
How to deal with the tensions in Europe?
There are tensions now in the EU between the West European countries and the Central European countries (Visegrad countries). Timmermans and Sargentini are fighting the dismantling of the democracy in Poland and Hungary. Orbán’s answer: “Hungary has fought for its freedom and democracy. I stand here now and I see that Hungary is being arraigned by people who inherited democracy not needing to assume any personal risk for the pursuit of freedom”. An inconvenient truth as Casper Thomas writes in his book ‘De autoritaire verleiding’.16 
Watch and listen Orbán’s response on the Sargentini report
Are we enough aware of the history and background of the early democracies in Central Europe? It is quite a challenge I think to make a shift towards democracy after 500 years of occupation and being a totalitarian state during more than 40 years. And facing Hungary’s history I can imagine that there are Hungarians who are experiencing the EU’s influence as a neocolonial power, as a new occupation.

In the house where I presented for the firts time my docu to the Szirmay family

The Hungarian soul and the fall of the Wall
I am not a politician, I am a documentary maker. During the event ‘The Hungarian soul and the fall of the Wall” the focus will not be on judging or taking a political stand, but to understand and give meaning to the things which are happening as they happen. ‘First to understand before being understood’.

The event ‘The Hungarian soul and the fall of the Wall‘ offers you the opportunity to feel, hear, smell and see the history of one of the Central European countries: Hungary. After this event you will have a better understanding and feeling of the dynamics in this part of our Europe. It would be a pleasure to meet you November 1.

  1. A Life in Hungary
  2. Midden-Europa achter de schermen, van Habsburg naar Brussel; Renée Postma, 2004. NRC article
  3. The Visegrád Group is a cultural and political alliance of four Central European states: the Czech Repulblic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia
  4. ‘First to understand before being understood’ is one of the ‘7 habits of highly effective people‘ (Stephen Covey)
  5. Bloodlands, Europe between Hitler and Stalin; Timothy Snyder, 2011
  6. Föld! Föld!; Sándor Márai, 1972
  7. Midden-Europa achter de schermen, van Habsburg naar Brussel; Renée Postma, 2004.
  8. Russische duikboten voor Nieuw-Guinea, Historisch Nieuwsblad 11/2013
  9. Liberal, not in a party political sense but liberal as an attitude striving for freedom and progressiveness
  10. The Magic Lantern: The revolution of ’89 witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin and Prague, Timothy Garton Ash, 1990
  11. Europe must stop this disgrace: Viktor Orbán is dismantling democracy, Timothy Garton Ash, the Guardian, 20 JUN 2019
  12. Föld! Föld!; Sándor Márai, 1972
  13. Van den duivel en de vernietiging van de Hongaarse democratie, Dzsingisz Gabor, 20 dec 2017
  14. Good descriptions in Midden-Europa achter de schermen, van Habsburg naar Brussel by Renée Postma, 2004
  15. The End of History and the Last Man is a 1992 book by Francis Fukuyama
  16. De autoritaire verleiding by Casper Thomas,  2018