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.

Bibliography

Bakić-Hayden, M. (1995): Nesting Orientalism: the Case of Former Yugoslavia. Slavic Review, 54(4): 917–931.

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.

––––. (2017): The revival of ‘Central Europe’ among Hungarian political elites: its meaning and geopolitical implications. Hungarian Geographical Bulletin, 66(3): 191–202.

Böröcz, J. (1992): Dual Dependency and the Informalization of External Linkages: The Case of Hungary. Research in Social Movements, Conflicts and Change, 14: 189–209.

Böröcz, J. (2009): The European Union and Global Social Change: A Critical Geopolitical-Economic Analysis. Routledge.

Böröcz, J., Sarkar, M. (2017): The Unbearable Whiteness of the Polish Plumber and the Hungarian Peackock Dance around “Race”. Slavic Review, 76(2): 307–314.

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.

Mark, J., Slobodian, Q. (2018): Eastern Europe in the Global History of Decolonization. In: Thomas, M., Thompson, A. (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of the Ends of Empire. Oxford University Press. 351–372.

Mark, J., Iacob, B. C., Rupprecht, T., Spaskocska, L. (2019): 1989: A Global History of Eastern Europe. Cambridge University Press.

Mark, J., Kalinovsky, A., Marung, S. (eds.)(2020): Alternative Globalizations: Encounters Between the Eastern Bloc and the Postcolonial World. Indiana University Press.

Márk, É., Gagyi, Á., Gerőcs, T., Jelinek, C., Pinkasz A. (2014): 1989: Szempontok a rendszerváltás globális politikai gazdaságtanához. [1989: Considerations for the global political economy of the system change.] Fordulat, 21(1): 11–61.

Mayblin, L., Piekut, A., Valentine, G. (2016): ’Other’ Posts in ’Other’ Places: Poland through a Postcolonial Lens? Sociology, 50(1): 60–76.

Muehlenbeck, P. E., Telepneva, N. (eds.)(2018): Warsaw Pact Intervention in the Third World: Aid and Influence in the Cold War. I. B. Taurus

Péteri, G. (2012): Transsystemic Fantasies: Counterrevolutionary Hungary at Brussels’ Expo ’58. Journal of Contemporary History, 47(1): 137–160.

Stanek, Ł. (2020): Architecture in Global Socialism: Eastern Europe, West Africa, and the Middle East in the Cold War. Princeton University Press. Todorova, M. (1997): Imagining the Balkans. Oxford University Press.

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

Semiperipheral Empire: Hungarian Balkanism in Global Colonialism

Alexander Ritter von Bensa the Younger/Adolf Obermüller: North Camp at Mostar during the Bosnian campaign, 1878
Heeresgeschichtliches MuseumMuseum of Military History

In postcolonial studies, Eastern Europe’s colonial experiences and ambitions have been routinely silenced in the literature’s focus on (post)colonial centres and peripheries. The region remains largely absent from mainstream textbooks, which is indicative not only of Western academics’ ignorance and knowledge imperialism, but also of Eastern European authors’ relative neglect or inability to contribute. In Hungarian history, the country has been routinely positioned as colonized victim without any significant colonizer role in global history. Recently, this argument has been forcefully taken up by the (far) right-wing government’s political discourse, which has mobilized decolonial arguments to critique “Western imperialists”, while nationalism has sparked nostalgia towards Hungarian imperial “high times” and reignited racism towards the global periphery.

In postcolonial literature on Eastern Europe, the relationship between the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy and the Balkans is a relatively well-developed context. Nevertheless, Austria’s participation in global colonialism has been recurrently denied by expanding on the country’s neutral role during and after WWII, which was opportunistically used to develop good relations with the Non-Aligned Movement. In addition, the recent focus on Austrian colonialism has left Hungarian colonial activities and ambitions as part of the Empire unexplored. During the socialist era, the narrative of Habsburg colonialism – following anti-German sentiment – was used to position Hungary as part of the colonized world during Afro-Asian decolonization, but Hungarian historical participation in colonialist and imperialist projects, such as towards the Balkans, have been simultaneously de-emphasized. These silences still produce huge biases in current Hungarian attitudes, politics, and historical memory. In recent years, Hungarian scholars have been producing detailed accounts of the imperialist ambitions of the Hungarian Kingdom towards the Balkans, but only in Hungarian (or perhaps German), and these remained rather descriptive and unreflective of postcolonial epistemology or global structural analysis.

This paper interprets Hungarian Balkanism in a global historical and world-systemic perspective as part of global colonialism. It argues that the literature’s uneasiness of applying postcolonialism to the region relies on a false fixation on the hegemonic Western-Atlantic concept of global colonial history, which may be resolved by acknowledging the transnational nature of colonialism and examining Eastern Europe’s in-between semiperipheral position in the capitalist world-system and in global colonial history. The paper aims to critique the constructivist and relational postcolonial epistemology of Balkanism (varieties of Orientalism), and the various Eastern European typologies (“continental”, “internal”, “semi-“, “small” imperialism/colonialism) and geographical biases in postcolonial studies, to look at how Hungarian colonialism towards the Balkans from the mid-19th century served in world-systemic linking-delinking strategies, and in relieving structural dependencies. Finally, it looks at the discursive continuities of Balkanism as a form of semiperipheral imperialism: how the government’s nationalist identity politics and global maneuvering (“Eastern Opening”) affected Hungarian Balkanists’ public nostalgia for the imperial “boom era” and their contested relations to Islam.

Turkish President Reccep Erdoğan praying at the Tomb of Gül Baba in Budapest during his visit in 2018. Source: Turkish Presidency / Murat Cetin/Anadolu Agency / 444.hu
Studying the Balkans Globally Workshop 
Department of Politics Faculty of Media and Communications (FMK) Belgrade – Belgrade, 3 April 2020

See a previous version of this project here.

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Citation:

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

Plotting the semiperipheral empire: Hungarian imperialist imaginaries of Balkan landscapes, 1867–1948

Eastern Europe is the “black sheep” of postcolonial studies: its colonial experiences have been routinely missed out from the relentless focus on (post)colonial centres and peripheries. To be sure, postcolonial literature extended Orientalism as the Western construction of Eastern Europe and the Balkans, and reinterpreted postcolonialism in relation to Soviet imperialism, postsocialism, Eastern Europe’s role in decolonization and socialist globalization. However, the imperialist or colonialist ambitions of Eastern or East Central Europe seem to go against the grain, since concerning countries were themselves often colonized and rarely or never held any colonies. In contrast, Hungarian geographical knowledge production from the mid-19th to the early 20th centuries related to the Balkans is a demonstrative case study of what I call Eastern European semiperipheral imperialism. Hungarian imperialist ambitions emerged from the economic boom in the late 19th century and Austro-Hungarian geopolitical interests to secure southern areas against Russia, Turkey and Serbia. Although the tragic defeat in WWI led to the Hapsburg Empire’s demise, huge Hungarian territorial losses and a defensive revisionism, this only replenished arguments for Hungarian civilizational superiority in the region. Hungary’s “in-between” position constructed a complex and ambivalent imperialist-nationalist discourse operating on various intertwined scales. The Carpathian Basin was envisioned as the scene of a “civilizing mission” by the superior Hungarian culture towards culturally backward and “half-Europeanized” landscapes, in order to both bring and protect European civilization by upholding a “bridge” role and an essential “healthy mix” of Eastern and Western traits. The ideal nation-bearing landscape of the Alföld basin was geographically co-constructed in relation to the Balkan “Other”, while imperialist visions of cultural expansion and economic modernization in the Balkans were naturalized through the concept of landscape: transforming the “wild” Karst and opening to “the Hungarian sea”.