Report: Colonizers and Colonized. Imperialism and concepts of Empire in Central Europe

The event took place int he Kossuth Klub, Budapest, with the invited speakers Csaba Zahorán, form Terra Recognita Association, and Attila Melegh, from the Budapest Demographic Institute and Corvinus University. Moderation was done by Máté […]


The event took place int he Kossuth Klub, Budapest, with the invited speakers Csaba Zahorán, form Terra Recognita Association, and Attila Melegh, from the Budapest Demographic Institute and Corvinus University. Moderation was done by Máté Zombory, member of AnBlokk Association.

Máté Zombory introduced the event and the organizers, then gave word to Wojciech Przybylski, who gave a basic description of the CED of Politics project.

Answering to Máté Zombory’s question on their first reactions to the title of the debate, Csaba Zahorán addressed the Hungarian aspects of the question: whether we can speak about anything like a Hungarian imperial consciousness today, and what would be its dimensions to take into account. He emphasized that speaking about such a consciousness implies a continuous exaggeration, as in contemporary Hungarian public debates or common consciousness this topic is less prevalent than it appears in certain situations. These appearances he ascribes mainly to ignorance, like in situations when Hungarians crossing the Hungarian-Slovak border expect to meet territories where everybody speaks fluent Hungarian, or when Hungarian tourists relate to members of neighbouring nations with a jovial arrogance, similar to how American tourists sometimes look to the other parts of the world.

An other aspect of this ’consciousness’ would be a certain type of Trianon-folklore, or Trianon-subculture. This, among its members, besides a natural attention to one’s own history, contains the pride of Hungarian superiority.

A third dimension where we could speak about Hungarian imperial consciousness is the way neighbouring nations sometimes sense Hungarian external politics as arrogant or imperial. How much these perceptions are realistic or exaggerated, is debated. It is usually the politics or political proposals of the extreme right that our neighbours perceive as offensive.

Csaba Zahorán quoted the notion of „imperial minorities” as another possible dimension of thinking about Hungarian imperial consciousness. This refers to the remainders of a once dominant, state-forming group, in the body of a new state. The superior consciousness of this group, based on economical and political superiority, is preserved in these cases in the form of cultural ’superiority’. He the Hungarian minority can be seen as such an imperial minority, but the Romanian press also speaks about Russians in Moldova in these terms. Historians also speak about Germans remaining outside the borders as imperial minorities.

In the introduction of the historical aspect of Hungarian imperial consciousness, Csaba Zahorán relied on a paper by Ignác Romsics, which traces historical dimensions of „the Hungarian imperial thought”. Romsics mentions that before 1526, one could speak about a Hungarian state that would comprise most of the Carpathian Basin. This ceised to exist with the Ottoman rule, but in the 18th century the imperial thought appeared again, and with 1848 one could see a real possibility in forming the Eastern territories into a state with a Budapest center. This kind of thinking did not take into account the national minorities, which later questioned their belonging to the Hungarian state. After 1848, emigrant thinkers developed this thought into the direction of a more consensual ’Danube federation’, while in Hungary this idea evolved more into direction of Hungarian supremacy. With 1867, this idea lost its power, but with the Millenium of the Hungarian State, publicists and politicians began to talk about it again. Still, Romsics states that it was not an idea that would affect Hungarian politics, but more an issue talked about in the press and public debates. At the same time the Turanian idea appeared, that wished for a bigger association with our Asian brothers. After Trianon, ’imperial’ thoughts resigned into revisionism. Turanism appeared again in Hungarism. In general, imperial thoughts about Hungary can be characterized by a weak link to real politics and possibilities.

Csaba Zahorán mentioned the thought of Hungarian supremacy in the Carpathian Basin as a ’petty Hungarian imperialism’ connected to the thought of Hungarian imperialism. This was a more realistic and concrete phenomenon than the idea of a Hungarian empire itself, which feeds the feeling of nationalist Hungarian oppression in the neigbouring nations. This, and the negative reactions to it are part of national history and historical education in Hungary and its neighbouring countries. Its main element is the idea that Hungary wishes to reclaim its lost territories.

Part of ’petty Hungarian imperialism’ is the cultural supremacy of Hungarians within and outside the border. It sometimes relies on the Hungarian local bourgeoisie’s perception of the new population of its cities as culturally inferior. From the part of our neighbours’ politics, it is very comfortable to put Hungarian external politics into this frame, and then treat the question of Hungarian minorities outside the border in this context.

After Csaba Zahorán presented the historical context of the topic, Attila Melegh proposed to look at it in a wider frame. Usually colonization is not a frame that is thought to be useful in understanding our region. Still, each nation’s historical consciousness contains elements of imperial experiences. Here, the concept of Empire should be more clearly defined, he said.

Attila Melegh proposed to split the definition of Empire among historical state-formations that connect regions otherwise not connected, and the historical concept of Empire and Imperialism as defined by a specific relation between state and capitalism, where there is a systematic flow of capital from the peripheries to the centre of Empire.

A concept related to the latter notion of imperialism is that of coloniality, understood as an institutionalised system of unequality, that essentializes the levelling it creates by the conceptual system of racism. Racism is not a peripheric, distinct phenomenon of the 19th century, a flawed conception that appeared on the margins, but a functional element of the system of coloniality, a dominant discourse at the end of the 19th century.

Attila Melegh stated that Central European nationalisms could not avoid the effect of this discoursive system; that our nationalisms are in a sense the continuation, a translation of this imperialist discourse. The discoursive formation by which Central European nationalisms inscribe theirselves into this frame is the East-West slope, where each nation tries to occupy a position on a hierarchical slope, in relation to a superior center and an inferior periphery. Melegh would also use the notion of ’sub-imperialism’ by Lenin, that refers to superior designs where the actor itself is caught in relations of dependency with a more powerful center. The concept of petty Hungarian imperialism fits into this wider frame. Beyond local and historical concepts like the Hungarian-Slovakian conflict, we should be able to look at nationalism as a sort of conscousness of our position in the global hierarchy. It is this context that explains what Bakic-Hayden calls ’nesting orientalism’, that is when each nation, region or group tries to define itself on a shifting scale as superior to its more Eastern (inferior) neighbours. It is this mechanism in work, when our minister of foreign affairs tells our Slovak neighbours as to ’our younger brothers’ that they still have some European lessons to learn. Reacting to Csaba Zahorán’s statement that imperialist thinking today mostly comes from ignorance, Attila Melegh said that as a sociologist, he would take ignorance as a social fact as well, which has its contextual causes. Seeing our position only in the frame of nationalism, and not looking at nationalism in a global frame may cause such a blindness.

After Máté Zombory proposed to turn back to the question of Central European imperialism in a contemporary context, Csaba Zahorán specified that in terms of schooling, university degrees etc. the cultural superiority of Hungarian communities outside the borders is not tenable any more, and Hungarians also lost their superiority in numbers in the cities. Attila Melegh considered that the feeling of cultural superiority is so flexible that it is not disturbed by such facts: while the GDP of Romania or Slovakia has been better than the Hungarian int he last few years, it has not changed public and everyday reflections to these nations as inferior to the Hungarian level of civilisation.

Attila Melegh also emphasized that references to the hierarchical East-West slope should not be treated as an internal affair of Central or Eastern Europe: it can be found as well in the way the EU treats its new members as less civilized followers.

He concluded that as long as our world is hierarchically constructed, cultural supremacy will continue to work as its functional element. The specificity Hungarian suprematism comes from Hungary’s extreme position shifts on the hierarchical scale. It is to be expected that a sinking position will go together with stronger simbolical claims, pointing to our historical greatness. When speaking about imperialism, it is more useful to talk about coloniality and hierarchy, to understand the elements we look at in their common frame.

Csaba Zahorán pointed out that in contemporary Central Europe, it is only Poland that has a realistic intention to become a regional power. Romania also shows such intentions, making strategic use of its position near the Black Sea and close to Russia. Hungarian intentions of such nature can be said to be unrealistic at this point.

Attila Melegh mentioned that to speak from a subordinated position is always hard. It is not by chance that whichever actor uses the East-West slope framework, it never happens that the speaker positions himself in the East. In postcolonial literature the notion of dislocality refers to the effect of this hierarchical determination of self-definition, where self-definition becomes to have no realistic link with one’s actual position. In the case of Hungarian nationalism, it is very common to say that we are not what or where we should be. To say that if communists did not distort our evolution, we would be the region’s first country by now, is an act of dislocation defined by the East-West slope of hierarchy. The position of the extreme right in this context can be defined by the term of Sorin Antohi, „vertical ontology”. This strategy fixes and elevates one’s position to an ontological superiority, and then gives specific reasons of its dislocation, like that of a jewish conspiracy.

Máté Zombory stated that in this context, nationalism is not limited to the political right. He asked the speakers whether Central Europe can be thought of as a position from where non-conflictive, positive identity statements could be made.

Csaba Zahorán argued that there are real processes and intentions of competitive nation-building in Central Europe, that reach beyond each state’s borders. While these processes are in work, they will unavoidably collide. On the other hand, the Visegrad alliance could work as a frame that would induce collaboration and mitigate conflicts.

Attila Melegh added that besides conflicting nation-buliding processes we also have to consider the raising number of transnational connections and mobility. As to the question ’what Central Europe gave to the world’, he considers it important to look at our experiences as valuable as part of the global human experience, and select our ’specificities’ in this way. Workers’ self management, 56 or 68 would be such ’specificities’. It would be good to define these without using the usual hierarchical frame.

One question from the audience referred to why not speak about Hungarian power in a positive way, like all other nations speak about theirs. Self-criticism can be harmful in real politics. To this, Attila Melegh reacted that criticism of the hierarchical frame does not refer to Hungarian imperialism as such, but to the hierarchical structure itself, into which Hungarian and all other nationalisms inscribes themselves into.

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