Research centre meant to support ‘politically useful ideas’ such as Orbán’s claim of Turkic ancestry for nation as government pivots away from EU, scholars claim
March 12, 2020
Hungary’s government has poured money into a new research institute designed to promote the notion that Hungarians are descended from Turkic peoples such as the Huns, according to scholars who see it as a further sign of crumbling academic independence in the country.
The scholarly consensus is that modern-day Hungarians can trace their roots back to Finno-Ugric peoples, which includes Finns and some groups in Russia. But under prime minister Viktor Orbán, the Budapest government has promoted the idea that Hungarians are descended from nomadic mounted warriors, hosting jamborees of steppe sports, attending political summits of Turkic countries and even toying with the construction of a memorial to Attila the Hun.
This reshaping of Hungary’s national image has spilled over into academia, critics have warned, with the establishment of the Hungarian Research Institute (MKI), an organisation reportedly boasting more than 100 staff and dedicated to uncovering the “past, language and origin of the Hungarians”.
The Hungarian Network of Academics, a group of more than 500 scholars
he Hungarian Network of Academics, a group of more than 500 scholars critical of the government, has drawn attention to the Budapest-based institute, warning of “political manipulation” of the country’s prehistory.
In a report, Hungary Turns its Back on Europe: Dismantling Culture, Education, Science and the Media in Hungary 2010-2019, the network argues that the MKI is just one of several research institutes set up under Mr Orbán to rewrite history.
The director of the MKI, Gábor Horváth-Lugossy, said in an interview in November that “everyone feels and knows that the official scientific position needs to be corrected”.
Dr Horváth-Lugossy, who has acknowledged that he is close to the ruling party Fidesz, said it was “only a matter of time” before the “hegemony of the left-wing scientific canon…would crumble”.
The MKI is overseen by Hungary’s Ministry of Human Capacities, whose minister, Miklós Kásler, has said he wants it to “put an end” to the dispute over national origins – critics argue that this shows that the government has presupposed the institute’s findings. Last year, Mr Kásler reportedly proposed building a monument to Attila.
The notion that Hungarians stem from the likes of Attila flourished in the 19th century as nationalists, seeking political and cultural autonomy from the Habsburg empire, sought to carve out an identity separate from “western” Austria.
The idea persisted in a “pseudo-scholarly public history underworld” that was “not accepted by any serious scholar”, explained Gábor Klaniczay, professor of medieval studies at the Central European University, an institution that the Orbán government has largely chased out of Hungary.
But it was revived by the Hungarian far-right party Jobbik in the 2000s and has since been taken up by Fidesz, he said.
“Turanism”, as this ideology of Turkic descent is sometimes known, has been linked to anti-Western and anti-liberal thought, stressing instead Hungary’s affinity with central Asia.
The MKI does engage “well-established – but preferably right-wing – scholars”, yet it also serves “propagandic goals”, said Professor Klaniczay.
In 2018, speaking at a summit for leaders of Turkic countries, Mr Orbán himself declared that the Hungarian language “is related to the Turkish languages”, prompting criticism from a Finnish linguist that went viral.
Scholars believe the attempt to rewrite Hungarian ancestry is part of Mr Orbán’s political pivot away from the European Union – with whom he has clashed repeatedly over refugee policy and the erosion of democratic institutions during his tenure – and towards Turkic countries to the east.
In 2018, Hungary acquired “observer status” at the Turkic Council, a group of countries including Turkey, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the fruit of a foreign policy push known as the “eastward opening”, explained Kubínyi Kata, a linguist based at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest.
“Orbán can use the Turkic card as a means to show strength to the EU, and, respectively, the EU card as a means to show strength to his Turkic partners,” she said. To bolster this pivot eastwards, the government has created “new, alternative research centres with the task to deliver ‘proof’ in favour of unscientific but politically useful ideas like that of the Turkic ancestry”, she added.
Not all research at the MKI focuses on prehistory; the centre also explores 20th-century topics, for example. The institute did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Times Higher Education.
Asked about criticisms of the MKI, a spokesperson for Hungary’s government said the institute focused on a wide range of historical topics, including “interdisciplinary research of pre-conquest Hungarian history and the ancient history of the Hungarian peoples”.