“Between two pagans:” a political theology of defeat

I’m at a conference in Copenhagen. The topic is “Nationalism, War, and Defeat.”


A brief outline of my presentation:

“Few other nations in Europe have such an illustrious history of defeats as Hungary, and even fewer that would treat such defeats as part of a full-fledged political theology. When I say “political theology” it is to mean that there is more to it than just a bunch of myths, rites, and symbols; it has in fact become a more or less coherent system of ideas that serves as a transcendent explanation and grounding of the existence of Hungary as a political entity.

The first part of my paper describes the antecedents of this system. It should be noted that the latter is of relatively recent origin: although there were some tragic defeats in medieval Hungarian history (such as the Mongol invasion of 1241 or lost battles against the Turks at Varna in 1444 or Kosovo in 1448) these were usually followed by more successful wars (such as the repulse of the second Mongol invasion in 1283 or the defense of Beograd in 1456). What I call a theological reflection on the meaning of defeat only began during the 16th-17th century invasion of Hungary by the Ottoman Empire, when the remaining parts of the country became part of the Habsburg Empire. There was, originally, an overtly theological dispute about who (and what sort of sin) was responsible for the disaster, which gradually turned into a dominantly Protestant narrative of the “two pagans:” Catholicism and Islam (identified with Austria and Turkey), against which “true” Hungarian identity was defined as Protestant, mostly Calvinist.

The second part aims to show how this (Protestant and national) idea was developed into a more overarching political theology from the late 18th century, in an attempt to rise over denominational differences. The most prominent example of this is the Hymnus of Ferenc Kölcsey, which remains the national anthem of Hungary, and which retells the history of Hungary as that of a chosen nation. This time, the series of defeats (from Mongols, Turks, Austrians) and civil wars is emphatically presented as a salvation story, in which repeated divine punishment is also a sign of chosenness. That God has a specific plan of salvation for Hungarians is also shown by many contemporary (literary and rhetorical) references to the ambiguous figure of the “God of Hungarians.” It is also notable that the nationalist wave culminated in another defeat, that of the war of independence in 1848-49, which finally established not just a political theology but a political religion with its martyrs, relics, shrines, and ceremonies that survived well into the 20th and 21st centuries. Moreover, since the war of independence was suppressed by the joint efforts of Austria and Russia, it also reinforced the “between two pagans” or “standing alone between West and East” image of Hungary. An even larger trauma was caused by the Treaty of Trianon that ended the First World War for Hungary: forged mainly by France and favoring East European countries like Romania or the newly created Czechoslovakia and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovens, it was naturally viewed as another example of a hostile union of Western and Eastern powers against Hungary, whose martyrdom was in turn often likened to that of Christ (“the Christ of Europe” or “the Christ of Nations”). The Allied victory and the Hungarian defeat in the Second World War further enhanced the feeling that Hungary was a victim of a West-East conspiracy, and even the crushing of the 1956 anti-communist uprising by the Soviet Union was routinely seen as something made possible by the “betrayal” of the West, this time mostly the United States.

For those who think that all this is of merely historical interest, the third part argues that the politico-theological understanding of the Hungarian state and nation is alive and well in the 21st century; moreover, without understanding its deep embeddedness in Hungarian national consciousness, it is impossible to explain much of today’s political events. An astonishing example is the prime minister’s 2020 speech at the 100th anniversary of the Treaty of Trianon which outlined a complete eschatological vision of Hungary’s salvation story with ten epochs (“ten Trianons”) and several sub-epochs, once again reasserting the unique position of Hungary between East and West and its history of defeats and tribulations as part of a great salvation story.”