Maradjunk a tényeknél. Történeti-politikai írások.

TitleMaradjunk a tényeknél. Történeti-politikai írások.
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsLaczó, Ferenc
Author(s) of reviewed materialLitván, György, Éva Gál, and Péter Kende

book. Title translated: Let's Stick to Facts. Historical-Political Writings.

PublisherBudapest: 1956-os Intézet
ISSNISBN 978-963-9739-05-5.
Review year


Full Text

A witness to the age of extremes who had to suffer under both rightist and leftist extremism and belonged to the many who got to be implicated to some extent in the latter and to the few who courageously and actively fought against both, eminent historian György Litván (1929-2006) was an important member of the revisionist party opposition and the circle around Imre Nagy[1]before the 1956 Revolution and a loyal 1956er afterwards. His mature worldview can be characterized as based on leftist, anti-dogmatic convictions and the recognition and propagation of the necessity of a shared liberal basis. A persuaded and vocal democrat with a long record of credible words as well as deeds, Litván has been hailed as one of the inspiring forces behind the foundation of the Third (i.e. post-1989) Republic.
This new, posthumous volume, the first in a planned series of three, collects his shorter pieces at the intersection of historical scholarship and political engagement. The three sections ofMaradjunk a tényeknél, featuring twenty or more pieces each (most of which have been published before without this collection being exhaustive, while it also includes several interviews with him), explore the professional and ethical problems historians have to face when acting in proximity to politics, discuss lessons of contemporary relevance that can be drawn from the recent past and, last but not least, include Litván’s writings on 1956 that also regularly combine historical argumentation and political intervention and in many ways reflect the changing climate of opinion in Hungary at large.[2]
In the case of his writings the objective and the subjective moments are difficult, if not impossible to disentangle, and the connections between the levels of political and historical argumentation have also been organic, therefore, the publication of this collection can be considered highly appropriate. “As a historian, I aimed to become an expert on those questions which personally intrigue me the most,” Litván stated in one of his interviews (p.25).[3] In other words, he belongs to what he calls “the type of historian interested in the great interconnections, the main tendencies, who is perceptive of the similarities between different epochs” (p.58). He states, on what is perhaps an overly general level, that “I believe that in many respects we are dealing with the same debate throughout 20th century Hungarian history.” In his view, the essence has remained “the problem of modernization andpolgárosodás, in other words, the necessity and possibility of catching up with the West,” even if the realm in which this great debate has been fought might have shifted (from the sphere of culture or the discipline of sociology to that of political acts and the sphere of power) (p.214). He makes an important distinction though, saying that politically engaged historians have to pursue a specific way of acting and talking politically: their politics has to be “indirect and ideational, concerned about the long-term, has to defend or oppose traditions and aim at revealing general tendencies” (p.60). 
The “organic interconnection” between the two levels can already be seen reflected in the choice of the themes of most of his primary research: early 20th century Hungary and its “progressive boom,” the remarkable achievements and often tragic fate of this “second reform generation,” whose concerns no doubt showed some remarkable similarities to Litván’s own in the second half of the same century.[4] This generation was not only responsible for a thriving modernist culture, but introduced and spread sociological knowledge and a democratic culture in Hungary as well, formulating, in the words of Litván, “a radically oppositional, real alternative” (p.167). The simultaneous significant evolution and elaborate debates between liberalism and socialism at this time would prove particularly worth exploring for him, since the aim “to reconcile individualism and liberties with some kind of socialist collectivism, a flourishing, well-functioning economy with social welfare measures, the defense of national interests with international solidarity, piecemeal reformism with revolutionary change” (p.176) was basically identical to his own.
Moreover, and highly significantly in my view, one of Litván’s major scholarly aims was a kind of symbolic restoration of historical actors frequently under unjustified attack, such as Oszkár Jászi and Mihály Károlyi.[5] One of his typical statements in this vein characteristically combines a tragic story and the perception of injustice with optimism. It reads: “everyone had to pay a terrible price, and not at all according to a measure of justice, not at all based on how many mistakes he/she committed or how wrong he/she was. But later on history, even if sometimes slowly, provides justice” (p.193). That there was also another, parallel need of restoration, of cleansing the unjustly tarnished image of Imre Nagy and many other heroes of 1956 is rather evident – to which one can add that Litván’s recurrent arguments to restore/improve/save the reputation of the year 1945 in Hungarian history can be seen as a similar counter-polemic against ideologically driven, this time rightist distortions.[6] Though while prior to 1989, he clearly aimed at the improvement of the image of the 1956 revolution (officially infamously denounced as counter-revolution then), he proved a balanced discussant of its many facets after 1989. For this, strong proof can be found in his “Az 1956-os magyar forradalom – negyven év távlatából” (The 1956 Hungarian Revolution – Forty Years On), which comprehensively discusses the most important questions related to the revolution (the various names it is called, its origins, outbreak, phrases, the main forces, aims and trends at work as well as its chances, effects and afterlife) and does this in a clear and succinct way.
As the articles in this collection attest, Litván would often argue in two directions in his polemics, against the dogmatic, dictatorial left and the illiberal, revisionist right,[7] though over time there was an unmistakable shift in Litván’s perception towards seeing the latter as the more grave issue.[8] In 2001 he characteristically wrote the following concerning contemporary understandings of 1956: “I do understand the anticommunist emotional force of the “revolt” against the version of the circle around Imre Nagy, who have recognized and used the opportunity quicker [to establish and spread their version of the events – added by me, FL] and I consider it right, even natural, that against “our” no doubt existing biases and one-sidedness other participants and inheritors of the certainly multicolored 1956 also wish to acquire “their own” revolution or freedom fight. It is a separate issue what means are applied when doing this acquisition” (p.384).
On the pages of this collection, Litván programmatically propagates distancing from through confrontation with the past (p.147), claiming that historians need to provide more factually based representations of the past that are understandable “in human dimensions” (p.138) – which, in the light of research results into current levels of historical awareness, can only seem justified.[9] All in all, he proves a critical and self-critical, though unshakably leftist thinker whose accomplished aim was to become a faithful and accurate though evidently emphatic chronicler of leftist concerns, aspirations and achievements as well as crimes, mistakes and tragedies in the 20th century.

[1] He calls this circle the first significant anti-Stalinist movement and group of Central-Eastern Europe after 1945, though he admits that they did not address the masses (p.275, p.278). In his presentation, 23rd of October was an unexpectedly large victory and an even more unexpected failure for them (since they feared two directions, "exaggerations" as well as suppression, p.346), and tragically it was through the 4th of November that they could truly identify with the revolution (p.280, p.282). See his "A Nagy Imre-csoport."

[2] Litván was among the founding members of the The Institute for the History of 1956 Hungarian Revolution and served as its president as well.

[3] All quotes in the text are my own translations. FL.

[4] Moreover, family continuity ought to be mentioned: Litván’s own father was a member of this generation and this family legacy provided him, in his own words, “with a solid intellectual and moral foundation” which he could return to after some (communist) years of abandoning it, which he later called a time of “complete self-sacrifice” (pp.99-101).

[5] Admittedly, the selective opening towards and appropriation of these two historical figures was also part of the communist attempts in the 1960s and 1970s of finding an acceptable line of predecessors. Litván tells the story of the Károlyi centenary in his “Az illúziótlan hit receptje” (see pp.102-107) claiming that this "cult" turned out to have a boomerang effect for the communists.

[6] His study on breaks and continuities in the early postwar period is highly interesting (pp.226-236). Litván comes to the conclusion, also formulated by Gati, that even though 80% did not vote for the communists in 1945, around half of the people desired a radical break with the past (p.235). On page 246, he calls attempts to claim that merely one occupation was replaced by another “narrow-minded and ahistorical.”

[7] See page 371 for an explicitly articulated example.

[8] At one point he writes that “this falsification of history does not fall short of that practiced by the communists, it is merely its obverse, being based on the primitive idea that all that needs to be done is to reverse everything the communist historical ideology taught and proclaimed” (p.123). I find it important to add that Litván remarks that he belongs to a generation of historians who have become open and sensitive to national issues without accepting nationalist extremism (see p.63). On the other hand, I find Litván’s insistence on mutual acceptance and recognition and his often undifferentiated anti-rightist polemic somewhat contradictory – in this respect, the book lacks equal nuancing, empathy and balance. In my view, his comparison between Miklós Horthy and Imre Nagy (p.307), and the conclusion he draws about historical legitimacy is a point in case: this comparison, clearly advantageous for the Left, is only one of several potential ones (to compare Horthy and Kádár would be an obvious alternative). Similarly, his recurrent claim that the Left is capable of improvement and self-reflection while the Right is not sounds like a foregone conclusion, especially in light of the lack of many serious leftist attempts to face the communist past, something he himself recognizes and complains about.

[9] See Mária Vásárhelyi’s recent volume Csalóka emlékezet (Bratislava: Kalligram, 2007).