Speech by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on the 175th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution and War of Independence of 1848–49
Good afternoon, Dear People of Kiskőrös. Welcome to all those from the area. Celebrating Hungarians around the world, Ladies and Gentlemen,
When outsiders survey the life of Sándor Petőfi, born 200 years ago, they can hardly believe what they see. He is born in a small town some days’ walk from the capital. At birth he is so weak that he is bathed with surgical spirit. He survives. He becomes a travelling thespian, a ham actor. Later he becomes the country’s celebrated poet. In five years, he writes a thousand poems and makes an international name for himself. He starts a revolution that brings freedom to his country. He is a soldier in the War of Independence. At the age of 26 he is felled by the weapons of invading troops. His own wish, written in verse, is fulfilled: he dies not in bed with his head on a pillow, but on the battlefield of the freedom fight. On the battlefield his death has no witnesses. None of those who saw his arrival in the world are alive; be went as he came. He simply stepped into the world of legends. A 26-year trajectory in the Hungarian sky, starting deep within Hungary and ending on the Milky Way. A flash of light, followed by his nation in breathless admiration. A foreigner would say “a mystery”. An American filmmaker would say “Petőfi Mystery”. We Hungarians see no mystery in this – we would rather call it Hungarian destiny. He is one of us, who rises above us. It is difficult for Hungarians to accept such things, but we are happy to succumb to it, because we know that we could hardly do anything about it, even if we wanted to. Sándor Petőfi is our beloved son. Every Hungarian has known, since childhood, at least one line of his poetry. Therefore we have no need to say it, but know without words that in every Hungarian we find some Petőfi, and in Petőfi we find every Hungarian.
When Petőfi was born, Kölcsey was finishing the Himnusz [Hungary’s national anthem]. With the Himnusz something eternal was created, and at the same time the country was given a programme. “This nation has suffered for all sins of the past and of the future!” And, as Luke the Evangelist continues, “Therefore stand up straight and lift up your heads.” Regaining our nation’s self-respect and restoring its sense of self: this is the Hungarian nation’s programme over the following twenty-five years. And this comes to pass. Twenty-five years after the Himnusz, in 1848, Hungary is no longer the same country: it is a nation with head held high, standing upright, looking out with self-confidence around the world of European nations. Hungary has begun to produce world-class masterpieces of science and literature in astonishing amounts: it has regulated our wild rivers; it has built rail lines to Vác and Szolnok; it has constructed stone bridges between Pest and Buda; it has launched steamships on Lake Balaton and the Danube; it has erected a home for Hungarian science and culture; it has built an ever more attractive country with a beautiful future. To have come so far is a great achievement, a great feat, a truly Hungarian act of bravura. This is all well and good, and for a citizen of Vienna or Berlin it might be enough; but for us Hungarians it is not enough. We know that there must still be – there must always be – a vocation that transcends the everyday, and gives our finite lives a higher meaning. The restless Hungarian soul asked – and has been asking ever since: What is the world-changing deed, the soul-lifting mission, the Sursum corda [“Lift up your hearts”] for which we stood up straight? Vörösmarty wrote, “Think boldly and of great things, and stake your life on that.” But what is it, and in what direction can we find it? What do we do with our regained self-esteem and multiplied strength? This question has sprung up like an intermittently subterranean stream for every generation in Hungarian history awakening to its own identity – right up to our own lifetime. It has always been expressed in the language and fashion of the time, but the meaning has always been the same. As Levente Szörényi and his band [Illés] sang, “If only I knew where, but where, but where I’m going.” In the same way, the Hungary of the mid-19th century waited, searching for the word, searching for the voice that would tell us the direction in which to set the course for our own personal destiny – and, with it, for the country. Petőfi gave the country this long-awaited word, the voice of action, the gesture that set the direction. The word was clear, the voice was pure, the gesture was spellbinding: “To your feet, Magyar!”; “Shall we be slaves or free?”; “Long live a free and independent Hungary!” If this was all they did, it would have been enough for them to enter the great book of Hungarians. Glory to the Youth of March!
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Those who are not Hungarian may find it difficult to understand – even ridiculous – that we have been retelling the story of this day on 15 March for 175 years. They do not understand why we never tire of it. We are not bored, and we will not be bored, because it is a birthday: a great shared birthday. And when one’s birthday comes round, the family gathers and the moment arrives when our mother and father tell the story of the day we were born. This is how the day on which Hungarian freedom was born lives on in our memory, and this is why every year we retell the story of that rainy Wednesday when the Youth of March went forth. And that parade – that mighty parade of Hungarian freedom, overcoming barriers, small-mindedness and the encumbrances left over from previous centuries – did not start from the Pilvax Coffee House or the garden of the National Museum, but from here, from Kiskőrös. This is why we have come here today, and why we bow our heads to the memory of the Petrovics family of Kiskőrös, who gave us Sándor Petőfi.
We tend to forget the parents of our grandparents. We should not. Let us bow our heads to old Petrovics, who at the peak of his life became a full member of the Community of Free Kiskun. It took many years of honest work to achieve this rank. That is not an easy thing to do here, this is not a land for outsiders, but he succeeded. And old Petrovics created a happy and joyful childhood for his two sons, and passed on to them his hard-working patriotism. And God – perhaps as a reward – spared him the necessity of having to mourn one of his sons and see the other subjected to forced labour. István, the younger Petőfi brother, was a brave man, who rose to the rank of captain during the War of Independence. During the subsequent reprisals he was demoted, conscripted as a private in the Imperial Army, and sentenced to three years hard labour. Unbroken, he bore this with head held high. And let us bow our heads to the memory of their mother, Mária Hrúz, described on the Petőfi family tombstone as their “most beloved mother” – and who, as a Slovak woman, here in this house brought into the world the greatest Hungarian poet. Glory to the Petrovics family!
Ladies and Gentlemen,
When two Hungarians meet, there is a good chance that within a few minutes they will have developed three conflicting viewpoints. Like seeing a white raven, it is rare for us to all agree on something. One of these rare things we agree on is that Sándor Petőfi is the greatest Hungarian poet. It is strange that we agree on precisely one literary question, even though Hungarian literature is a royal pageant of writers. Surprisingly for a down-to-earth people like us, there is no Hungarian life without literature. In us Hungarians, love, joy and sorrow ripen into verse and song. Perhaps it is our language or our spiritual make-up, but we Hungarians live poetically in this land, where life is often very prosaic. There is something in each of our great poets that embodies a face and a character trait from all the great collective Hungarian soul. The genius of János Arany’s simplicity, Attila József’s spiritual struggles, Ady’s self-flagellation, Babits’ philosophical depth, Karinthy’s hilarious black humour: all of this is us. Yet when we have to name someone in whom we find all that we consider to be Hungarian destiny and Hungarian genius, the name on our lips is that of Sándor Petőfi. It is difficult to say why this is so. Perhaps it is because freedom has its own language, its own universal language. It also has French, German, Italian or Polish dialects; and we Hungarians are not missing from this chorus, because Sándor Petőfi created the Hungarian dialect of freedom. That is how we Hungarians became part of the free world. Perhaps our bias can be forgiven when we say that Hungarian is the most successful language of freedom, because Petőfi’s language is understood all over the world, and has been translated into the languages of more than two hundred peoples on all five continents.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Celebrating Hungarians,
Petőfi emerged in our midst like a wandering sorcerer stepping out from a storm cloud, or a thorny wild flower springing from the soil. He was not cut out to be a soldier, being slight of build – but the real problem was more the fact that he cared nothing for the rigorous rules of military life. He probably still holds the world record for the greatest number of deeply insulted ministers of war. Nor was he, by the standards of the world at that time, well-suited to be a husband. He was well-suited to Julia Szendrey. They were two charming eccentrics: the cigar-smoking, coffee-drinking, trouser-wearing, self-aware Hungarian woman; and the purple-tailcoated Petőfi, who kept in his room a broadsword with a blade the width of a man’s palm, which he nicknamed “Guillotine”. Nor was it easy to befriend him – after all, it is easiest to make friends with someone who is perfect. He could be as imperious as a Caesar, scourging those whom he regarded as versifiers, and denouncing the idleness of talented poets. Critics and criticism were definitely not to his liking. He wrote that the thing he would hate most in the world would be horseradish sauce – if it were not for critics, I. He had a difficult personality. He radiated spirit and self-confidence. While acknowledged by others for their talent, such men are generally rejected and do not win hearts. Sándor Petőfi, however, proved to be an exception to this rule: although they had reason to, people did not reject him, but accepted him into their hearts. God helped him and did not allow his talent to turn into pride and his self-confidence into overconfidence and the hubris that uses superiority to belittle those with less talent. For people of outstanding talent this is a great grace and privilege. Perhaps this was given to him by God because, although the clergy may not have liked him, he was after all a Lutheran, and he never rejected the Christian influence of the spiritual world. As a prophet of world freedom, he also knew that the triad of liberty, equality and fraternity should supplement but not supplant the commandment of faith, hope and love. Neither resentment, nor unjust setbacks, nor political failures caused him to eschew God the Creator and throw in his lot with the spirit of destruction, the great bringer of chaos. Unlike so many of today’s celebrities and world stars.
He worked ceaselessly, with the determination of a man who knows that fate has been miserly in measuring out his years. He lived only twenty-six years, and of those twenty-six, only five were devoted to truly creative work. He wrote poetry the way we mere mortals breathe. He translated works in all genres. He wrote drama, novels, short stories, comic epic poetry and narrative poetry, travelogues and letters. He edited the journals Pesti Divatlap and later Életképek, and in the process organised Hungarian literary life and political resistance. In only five years, Petőfi’s oeuvre was complete. The whole was not as rounded and whole as we think of a full poetic career nowadays. What made his life’s work complete was that he paid back to his country in full that which he had committed himself to in his poems. Although he died early, we envy him – not because we wish an early death for ourselves, but because we too wish to leave the world having fulfilled all the duties we have been given.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is with wonder and longing that we see he created a world for himself that was clear, straightforward, and with no transitional grey zone between things. In his world there was no such thing as a life assembled from a little of this and a little of that: one can make a chain out of a sword, or a sword out of a chain; but nothing in its final form is only partly a sword or partly a chain. And when we forget this, he looms over us from the clouds of his poems, reproving and threatening. He makes us feel unworthy – not of him, nor even of freedom, but mostly of ourselves. If we settle for something less and more sordid than we could be, we become unworthy of ourselves; for we are not just anyone, but Hungarians. And to be born Hungarian is a duty: a duty to be worthy of our breed. On a daily basis Petőfi reads this over our heads: slavery or freedom – the choice is ours. He lived his life knowing that the final moment of truth would come. Not just as it comes in one’s personal life, when one commits oneself to the sacred bonds of faith, marriage and patriotism: he knew that the moment of truth would also come in the life of the nation. Therefore, Petőfi taught us, the duty of a Hungarian patriot is to be ready – and, when the moment comes, to go to battle: waist belted, sword sharpened, horse at the ready.
Fellow Celebrating Hungarians,
Just like all of us, Petőfi wanted to be a free and happy citizen of a free Hungary. He was a husband and a father. We can be sure that he would have preferred to live in the freedom he had won, rather than to die for it. He could have chosen a secure, prosperous life – almost in the grand style. He already had a spacious home, a beautiful wife and a child. A successful poet – indeed the most successful, with publishers lining up, fat contracts and royalties. A fine, rich, well-rounded bourgeois life. As his present-day effete descendants, we think that he deserved to depart a Hungary which had regained its glory and was honoured around the world. We think that, as the nation’s poet laureate, he should have died in venerable old age in bed, his head on pillows, holding the hand of his Julia. But he chose otherwise. His death was as he had sung of it: as an apostle of world freedom, in the battle fought for Hungarian freedom. He may have thought – as we do to calm our hearts when troubled by the thought of an untimely death – that no one lives a day less than they are destined to live.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Celebrating Hungarians,
So, although over the past two hundred years the huge march of Hungarian freedom has sometimes taken twists and turns, and sometimes even entered dead ends, it is still in progress. And in this march Sándor Petőfi remains with us today. Even though we do not see him, we can be sure of that. But sometimes he flashes before our eyes, and it is as if we could indeed see him – always when we become unsure, when our steps falter. We see him rebel when outsiders seek to tell Hungarians how they should live. We see him turning against the world powers who once more want to absorb Hungarians into a European superstate. We see him writing “Let there be peace” before the 12 Points of the Hungarian Revolution. And when words prove insufficient, we see him setting out in our stead, to die again for Hungarian freedom. We are indebted to him. This is why we shall never allow the flag of freedom to be wrenched from the hands of Hungarians. We shall not allow it, and it shall not happen, because there is some of Petőfi in every Hungarian.
Long live Hungarian freedom, long live the homeland!
God above us all. Hungary before all else! Go, Hungary, go Hungarians!