Hungary, (Anti)Colonialism, and the Global Cold War

52nd Annual ASEEES Convention, Washington, D.C., November 5–8

Convenor: Árpád von Klimó (The Catholic University of America, DC, USA)

Discussant: Steve Jobbitt (Lakehead University, Canada)

Chair: Judith Szapor (McGill University, Canada)

Decolonization became a major debate since the 1960s, complicating Cold War Culture and challenging the West’s claim for moral superiority and human rights policies. Communist countries like Hungary began to engage in diplomatic campaigns with the double aim at convincing new states in Africa and Asia to support the Soviet sphere instead of the West and to undermine the image of many Western states by focusing criticism on their colonial past or involvement in colonial wars or support of anticommunist authoritarian regimes. After the Algerian War, it was the Vietnam War and the support of the fight of “liberation” movements which became one of the most important ideological and practical battle fields for the new version of anti-colonial and anti-imperialist propaganda, aimed at domestic as well as international (UNO, UNESCO, IOC, other world sports organizations) and transnational audiences (Africa, Asia, Western Europe, USA). During this time, and increasingly since the Second Vatican Council, colonialism and post-colonial critique became an intensifying debate also among Catholics all over the world, not only in relation to Latin America and Liberation Theology. In the world of sports, Hungarian functionaries and athletes also participated. Similar new ideological debates erupted in the international networks of academia and the sciences, as the example of the Hungarian noble laureate (Chemistry), Albert Szent-Györgyi, demonstrates.

We are still at the beginning to study the questions related to these complex problems. Our panel will attempt to clarify some of the assumptions and research problems related to the connection between Cold War politics, decolonization, Hungarian and Vatican diplomacy. The papers of this panel show that the outcome and results of the anti-colonialist activities and debates were often contradictory.


The Soviet Union, the United States and Nuclear Fear: Albert Szent-Györgyi’s Political Life, 1945–1973

Ádám Farkas (Eötvös Loránd University, Hungary)


Albert Szent-Györgyi was a popular public figure after the WWII and he was expected to become the President of Hungary. He was saved by the Soviets, spent two months in the Soviet Union and was one of the founders of the Hungarian- Soviet Cultural Association. The non-communist Nobel laureate scientist worked together actively with the Soviets to rebuild the Hungarian cultural life. As he became dissatisfied with the political changes, he emigrated to the United States in 1947. Since the mid-1960s he turned to the politics again, he spoke out against the Vietnam War. He criticized the US government and urged to cooperate with the Soviet Union for peace. But for Szent-Györgyi it was never the criticism of the imperialistic intentions. Like many of his scientific colleagues, he was deeply concerned about the destructive uses of scientific knowledge. Szent-Györgyi turned to civil and political rights, peace and antiwar movements. His writings (The Crazy Ape, What next?, Science, ethics and politics, Lost in the 20th century) became standard works in the antinuclear movement. His perception of the superpowers changed once again, and in his eyes the Soviet Union somehow appeared as a following example for the United States. His image was rehabilitated in Hungary and visited the country in 1973. The paper investigates Szent-Györgyi’s involvement in politics, his changing attitudes to the superpowers and the social movements related to Eastern Bloc and the West. Drawing on oral history, memoirs and archival materials, the study reflects on ideology, rebellion and political belief.



Connecting the Local to the Global in the Cold War: Hungary’s Contribution to Western Colonialist Sport Practices in the International Olympic Committee, 1960s–1989

Johanna Mellis (Ursinus College, USA)


For part of my book manuscript, I am exploring socialist Hungary’s work with the International Olympic Committee (which was and is a colonialist organization). Sport leaders from Hungary and the other Eastern Bloc countries helped to ‘decolonize’ the IOC in some regards, by bringing in and working more with sport leaders from African and Asian countries. But they also worked hard to uphold the IOC’s discriminatory ‘Amateur Rule,’ which forbade athletes from receiving commercial sponsorships for their sport endeavors. Eastern Bloc sport leaders did this in order to protect the state-supported sport systems back home from scrutiny (to continue giving athletes prized material privileges and prevent them from defecting to the West). But their efforts also severely restricted athletes in non-authoritarian countries from getting the money they needed to train, compete, etc., and thus contributed – even if inadvertently – to the discriminatory policies of the sport body.



Anticommunism, Decolonization and the Vatican: Cardinal Mindszenty in Portugal (1972)

Árpád von Klimó (The Catholic University of America, DC, USA)


On October 11, 1972, the head of the Hungarian Catholic Church in exile, Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, arrived in Portugal, for a one week-long visit. On the next day, Mindszenty was at the center of an extensive program of prayer, rosaries and masses at the Shrine of Fatima. He celebrated High Mass in front of approx. 250,000 people. The Hungarian Cardinal in his short speech emphasized that the Fatima secrets” were also addressed at him, who suffered from “Russia … spreading error over the world”, that is: a Communist system which oppressed the church. Mindszenty had been a symbol of anticommunist resistance since his incarceration in 1949, and his 15-year long stay at the US Embassy in Budapest (1956-71). With Portugal, he visited a country with an authoritarian regime that was increasingly justifying its existence with anticommunism. The colonial wars in Angola, Mozambique and Portuguese Guinea (1961–75) had ruined the finances of Portugal and the high number of victims and the suffering of Portuguese troops, similar to Vietnam, had contributed to the undermining of the regime that claimed to adhere to Catholic teaching, while the Vatican and progressive Catholics increasingly challenged its ideology. My paper studies the visit of Mindszenty in relation to the wider political context, the changing understanding of colonialism among the Vatican and Portuguese Catholics, the Cold War conflict related to Communist Hungary and the West, based on documents from Mindszenty’s private archive in Budapest (Mindszenty Foundation), from the Hungarian Foreign Ministry, as well from a variety of other primary sources.


The Clash of Colonialisms: The Race Between Hungarian Communist and Anti-Communist Anti-Colonialism in the Third World

Zoltán Ginelli (Independent Scholar, Hungary)


This paper explores how Hungarians on both sides of the Iron Curtain opened up to Afro-Asian decolonisation through competing constructions of Eastern European semiperipheral postcoloniality to be shared with the Third World. State-socialist Hungary struggled to open up via socialist globalisation against Western protectionism, and developed anti-colonialism against Western Empire and solidarity towards emerging postcolonies. The stakes were high, because Hungarian anti-communist political refugees in the West were already racing to first develop anti-colonial solidarity towards postcolonial countries and persuade them against “Soviet colonialism”. Backed by the USA, Hungarian ex-premier Ferenc Nagy successfully popularised this critique in the International Peasant Union and the Assembly of Captive European Nations, and during his Asian trip (1954) managed to manipulate the first Third World conference in Bandung (1955). In the race for recognition, the communist leadership in Hungary was losing initiative. After the 1956 revolution, Hungarian communists struggled to persuade Third World countries in the United Nations to vote against the Western condemnation of the Soviet invasion, and post-Stalinist Khrushchevian opening up policy allowed them to seek recognition by exporting the “Hungarian development model” to the Third World. Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah looked to the socialist world to relieve Western dependency and in 1962 requested the Hungarian economist József Bognár to develop the newly decolonised African country’s First Seven-Year Plan. While Hungarian refugee experts like Imre Kovács were working as anti-communist reform advisors in Latin America and Asia, Bognár’s Centre for Afro-Asian Research (1963) promoted export-oriented growth to reposition and integrate state-socialist Hungary in the global economy.

Postcolonial Hungary: Eastern European Semiperipheral Positioning in Global Colonialism

Is there a postcolonial Hungary? This project focuses on situating Hungary’s historical development in the global histories of colonialism and anti-colonialism. It interrogates the revival of colonial discourse in the region and explores how it displaced a politics of Western transition and convergence by reconstructing the histories of Hungarian colonial discourse and self-positioning in the world economic system.

Postcolonial studies have been preoccupied with the global economic centre and periphery, but the complex historical relations, experiences and epistemologies of Eastern European and Hungarian colonialism and imperialism have been remarkably silenced (Mayblin et al. 2016; Mark and Slobodian 2018; Grzechnik 2019). Meanwhile, new research has shown that Cold War epistemological heritage rendered connections between postsocialism and postcolonialism problematic (Chari and Verdery 2008; Gille 2010; Mayblin et al. 2016), and East-West convergence discourse has marginalised historical relations between Eastern Europe and the Global South (Mark and Apor 2015; Mark and Slobodian 2018; Muehlenbeck and Telepneva 2018; Mark et al. 2020; Stanek 2020). Following a global historical and world-systemic perspective, this research introduces the concept of semiperipheral post/coloniality to unpack Hungarian coloniality in the long-term historical context of integrating into the world economy, thereby offering a structuralist critique of constructivist approaches to postcolonialism (e.g. Wolff 1994; Bakić-Hayden 1995; Todorova 1997). The Hungarian semiperipheral integration to the hierarchical system of the global division of labour has generated structural path-dependencies (uneven exchange, indebtedness, financing technology) (Márk et al. 2014), which resulted in global manoeuvring to gain comparative advantages between the (former) colonising centre and the (former) colonised periphery. This led to an uneasy and often antagonistic in-betweeness in the context of global hierarchies: being superior coloniser but oppressed colonised; catching up to and benefiting from but contesting the colonial centre; bridging or allying to but demarcating from the periphery. This project seeks to reconstruct the history of such a semiperipheral Eastern European country in order to understand the new political stakes in the revival of colonial discourse in current Hungarian politics.

Before WWII, Hungarian colonialist-imperialist ambitions followed nationalist and global racial-civilisational aspirations, but pragmatically developed East-West in-betweenness and uneasy criticism towards the imperialist West. Local experiences of peripheralisation, underdevelopment and out-migration forged sympathy with those in a similarly subservient position within the colonial system, but there also evolved alternative colonialisms of semiperipheral expansion and racial supremacy (e.g. Balkanism, Orientalism, Turanism). After WWII, state-socialist anti-colonial solidarity contested geopolitical fault-lines and Western European protectionism (1957), but Hungarian trajectories were driven by pragmatic, state-led foreign policy aims to lever Soviet and Western “dual dependency” (Böröcz 1992) by opening to Afro-Asian decolonisation. Amidst fears of international isolation (Péteri 2012), the post-1956 Hungarian alliance-building and global positioning encouraged to encounter coloniality through socialist internationalism (Mark and Apor 2015; Mark et al. 2020). Hungary re-opened to the decolonised periphery with “civilisational” desires to export the “Hungarian model” and develop markets to counter the global centre, whilst the periphery contributed to Hungarian “third way” state-centred and semi-capitalist export-oriented growth as a new integration strategy during the 1960s New Economic Mechanism (Ginelli 2017, 2018). On the other hand, rivalling narratives clashed between state-socialist anti-Western anti-colonialism and émigré “Soviet colonialism” in the Non-Aligned postcolonial world about how to incorporate Hungary and Eastern Europe into global colonialism.

After 1989, Hungary as part of the former Second World lost its global ideological privileges and Afro-Asian connections, and experienced third-worldification by becoming the core’s “undeveloped” region. The postsocialist “return to Europe” and self-colonising neoliberal “transition” silenced anti-colonial critique against the West (or the EU) (Böröcz 2009), and resulted in “postsocialist amnesia” on former relations with the global postcolonial world and in racial realignment with whiteness (Böröcz and Sarkar 2017; Mark et al. 2019). After the 2008 crisis, Viktor Orbán’s increasingly authoritarian “illiberal” turn from 2010 on sought to globally reposition Hungary against the “failed liberalism” of Western transition. Apart from various political regionalisms (“classical Europe”, “Central Europe”, “Eurasia”) (Balogh 2015; 2017), this geopolitical manoeuvring produced a new colonial discourse which positioned Hungary against the liberal, Atlantic-Western colonial-imperial centre (“Brussels is the new Moscow”, “we never had colonies”, “we will not become colonies”), while constructing selective racial-civilisational demarcation from the periphery in anti-migration discourse, and appropriating global colonial history exclusively for Eastern European nationalist victimisation. This Hungarian semiperipheral postcolonial identity politics not only exploits the country’s silenced historical experiences of coloniality (Ottoman: 1526, Habsburg: 1848, Trianon: 1920, Soviet: 1949, 1956), but also functions in the semiperipheral re-adaptation to current hegemonic shifts in the world economy. Hungary’s “Eastern turn” to the New Silk Road exploits Turanist Orientalism towards Central Asia, “illiberalism” and “Christian democracy” functions in developing new global alliance networks in Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and Latin America, while the reaffirmation of European whiteness and appropriation of colonial history aims to exclude Afro-Asian postcolonial competition for benefits in the European Union.

This research is part of my Leibniz ScienceCampus “Eastern Europe – Global Area” reseearch project at Universität Leipzig.

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Balogh, P. (2015): Returning to Eurasia from the heart of Europe? Geographical metanarratives in Hungary and beyond. In: Törnquist-Plewa, B., Bernsand, N., Narvselius, E. (eds.) Beyond Transition? Memory and Identity Narratives in Eastern and Central Europe. Lund University. 191–208.

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Chari, S., Verdery, K. (2009): Thinking between the Posts: Postcolonialism, Postsocialism, and Ethnography after the Cold War. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 51(1): 6–34.

Gille, Z. (2010): Is There a Global Postsocialist Condition? Global Society, 24(1): 9–30.

Ginelli, Z. (2017): Opening the Semi-Periphery: Hungary and Decolonisation. OSA Visegrad Fund Scholarship Research Report.

Ginelli, Z. (2018): Hungarian Experts in Nkrumah’s Ghana: Decolonization and Semiperipheral Postcoloniality in Socialist Hungary. Mezosfera, 5. http://mezosfera.org/hungarian-experts-in-nkrumahs-ghana/

Grzechnik, M. (2019): The Missing Second World: On Poland and Postcolonial Studies. Interventions, 21(7): 998–1014.

Mark, J., Apor, P. (2015): Socialism Goes Global: Decolonization and the Making of a New Culture of Internationalism in Socialist Hungary, 1956–1989. The Journal of Modern History, 87(4): 852–891.

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See chapters of this project on this blog:

Ginelli, Z. (2019): Hungarian Indians: Racial and Anti-Colonial Solidarity in Post-Trianon Hungary. Critical Geographies Blog, 2019.03.18. Link: https://kritikaifoldrajz.hu/2019/03/18/hungarian-indians-racial-and-anti-colonial-solidarity-in-post-trianon-hungary

Ginelli Z. (2019): The Semiperipheral Colonial Alternative: Visions of Hungarian Catholic Postcoloniality in Latin America. Critical Geographies Blog. 2019.07.11. Link: https://kritikaifoldrajz.hu/2019/07/11/the-semiperipheral-colonial-alternative-visions-of-hungarian-catholic-postcoloniality-in-latin-america

Ginelli, Z. (2019): Plotting the Semiperipheral Empire: Hungarian Balkanism and Global Colonialism in Geographical Knowledge, 1867–1948. Critical Geographies Blog, 2020.03.18. Link: https://kritikaifoldrajz.hu/2019/03/18/plotting-the-semiperipheral-empire-hungarian-balkanism-and-global-colonialism-in-geographical-knowledge-1867-1948

Ginelli, Z. (2019): Posztkoloniális Magyarország: A magyar globális nyitás és illiberális autoriter fordulat újraértelmezése a félperifériás gyarmatiság szempontjából. Critical Geographies Blog, 2019.08.11. https://kritikaifoldrajz.hu/2019/08/11/posztkolonialis-magyarorszag-a-magyar-globalis-nyitas-es-illiberalis-autoriter-fordulat-ujraertelmezese-a-felperiferias-gyarmatisag-szempontjabol

Ginelli Z. (2019): The Clash of Colonialisms: Hungarian Communist and Anti-Communist Decolonialism in the Third World. Critical Geographies Blog, 2019.12.23. Link: https://kritikaifoldrajz.hu/2019/12/23/the-clash-of-colonialisms-hungarian-communist-and-anti-communist-decolonialism-in-the-third-world

Ginelli Z. (2020): Semiperipheral Empire: Hungarian Balkanism in Global Colonialism. Critical Geographies Blog, 2020.02.29. Link: https://kritikaifoldrajz.hu/2020/02/29/semiperipheral-empire-hungarian-balkanism-in-global-colonialism

Ginelli Z. (2020): Opening Hungary to Global Colonialism: János Xántus and Hungarian Orientalism in East and Southeast Asia. Critical Geographies Blog, 2020.03.07. Link: https://kritikaifoldrajz.hu/2020/03/07/opening-hungary-to-global-colonialism-janos-xantus-and-hungarian-orientalism-in-east-and-southeast-asia