Volume > Issue > Church & Society in Communist Hungary

Church & Society in Communist Hungary


By Thomas Molnar | November 1984
Thomas Molnar is Professor of Humanities and Philosophy at the City University of New York, and in addition he regularly teaches a philosophy of religion class at Yale University. The author of numerous books, he was born in Budapest in 1921 and left Hungary in early 1946. He returned to Hungary for a visit for the first time last summer. This article conveys his impressions of his native land after an absence of 38 years.

According to all reports I gathered in Hungary about the neighboring communist countries, Hun­gary is absolutely atypical of the general situation in Eastern Europe. While Rumanians lack food, Poles are in despair, and Czechoslovaks live under monolithic suppression, Hungarians eat very well, the shops are abundantly supplied (neighbors, in­cluding Austrians, do their shopping in Hungary), and the regime is rather discreet about enforcing stricter economic measures.

The future could go either way: Moscow could stop the Hungarian mini-economic miracle, or the liberalization could continue. The chief wor­ry of the population at present is whether the cur­rent situation will last. Most agree that it will last, even though it may displease the many Russian tourists (always in controlled groups) to compare the good life in Hungary with what they experi­ence daily at home.

Regarding the revolution that turned Hungary upside down after 1945: My immediate impres­sions after a very long absence were absolutely clear and they were subsequently confirmed at every step: the peasantry and the proletariat have been the winners, while the old bourgeoisie has been the great loser — except those who, by conviction or opportunism, have rallied if not actually to the regime (there are many of those too), at least to the new way of life and the new value system. On the streets, in shops, in public parks on Sundays, in restaurants, and in elementary human relations, the manners and tone and style of the earlier lower classes dominate. Hence the many shabbily or carelessly dressed people even in the best places, the coarseness of language, the crowdedness, and the lack of courtesies.

Hungary now lives its own post-revolution, and the ascendant classes are still far from having adopted the old bourgeois style, if they ever will. The public tongue is that of equality. A though the old polite formulas are still in use, they cannot be expected. One reason is, of course, that the state owns almost everything: land, buildings, stores, res­taurants, bookshops, cafés. Those who work there become negligent, at times brutal, although plea­sant and charming exceptions abound. The second reason is a certain degree of scarcity relative to the West (one could argue that scarcity is the logical consequence of state ownership), which subordi­nates the customer to the seller. Often bribes are passed to the supplier, at all levels, including be­tween large state enterprises. The situation of customer dependency certainly does not create an agreeable climate.

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