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Recreating Nationhood And National Belonging In Hungary

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A characteristic form of philanthropic actions in Hungary is closely linked to the working of national ideologies, more specifically the imperative of helping ethnic Hungarian minorities of neighbouring countries of Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania and Serbia. The principle of transborder responsibility, evoked both by government programs as well as by these philanthropic initiatives is part of the Hungarian constitution, both the old and the new. Besides diversity of their actual form and content, a wide consensus has been in place among different governments around the necessity of such support.

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Similarly to the above referred ideology of Gustav Adolf Association on German diaspora support in interwar Germany, this helping imperative is based on the idea of minority societies and their national Hungarian culture being under constant threat by assimilationist majoritarian states. Reference to the banning of Hungarian language use in public, the lack of Hungarian language public education, minority stigmatisation and discrimination may all become grounds for organising philanthropic initiatives. Twin-school programs, summer camps to promote the use of the (Hungarian) mother-tongue, teacher trainings, book donations are organised in great numbers. Large philanthropic organisations, such as the Maltese and the Hungarian Red Cross often have their specific division or programmes directed towards Hungarian minority communities in neighbouring states, and there is a multitude of smaller associations, family, church, workplace communities that organise such support. Between 2009 and 2014 we have carried out ethnographic research in three such programs. All three have been targeting Hungarian-language education of children in minority communities: two of these being voluntary school partnerships initiated by teachers at two schools in Hungarian cities and a child sponsorship network involving donors who become symbolic god-parents of selected children. All three programs have been designed to support different ethnic Hungarian or Hungarian-speaking children, their families, and their larger communities (including the Moldavian Csángós of Romania), as well as Hungarian schools, their students and teachers in Romania and Ukraine. The empirical basis of the present analysis consists of about 35 interviews and 6 short periods of participant observation in these programs, lasting 4 to 7 days each.

Experience in discordance with romanticizing ideologies of heroic resistance and preservation of national identities and culture is not problematised on institutional level, that is through formal discussions among donors and volunteers, and are not translated into organisational documents, such as mission statements or the web page of the program. Active members and volunteers have to cope with such discrepancies on their own, in informal discussions among themselves, or with other parties, outside the program. These result in informally negotiated narratives, created individually or in small discussions that remain fragmented, non-standardised and incoherent on both individual and institutional levels. First, donors and volunteers attempt to redefine the levels and content of Hungarianness of their protegées, and tend to establish a ‘lesser’ membership in the imagined community of the Hungarian nation. “For five hundred years these people did not have Hungarian language education. So their Hungarian identities became squeezed out. And if we want them to have sentiments of Hungarian belonging at any time in the future, we have to approach them in a way that they become attached to us. So that they see for themselves that they belong to us. One can say that why do they live in such poverty, why Romanians do not help them. And then, we go there. We go there, we help them, so that children can advance in schools, in education etc. ” (active god-parent, organizer of a god-parent association for Moldavian children).

On the other hand, and paradoxically, in parallel with loosening ties, volunteers and donors may also complement such strategies with continuously recreating national authenticity. Emotional tension implied by the ambivalence of national identities is resolved by a continuous reproduction of powerful culturalising narratives on threatened minority communities. Intertwining local cultural elements with nationhood and Hungarianness (local dialect, folklore, religion, ancestry) are a straightforward means of evoking such ideas; actively assembling cathartic performances, staging the Hungarianness of the recipients of support is another. “The boy from the Transcarpathian school started to recite a poem. He was so incredibly sweet, and all of a sudden the audience has silenced, even the buzz of a bee could be heard. And I said, just think about how many dialects are there. ”

18 May 2020

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