Hungary’s Real Indians

Native Americans have long been beloved in Hungary, where ‘Indians’ stand for what is real, endangered, and exceptional. Viktor Orbán has used the trope to channel demographic anxiety and bolster his anti-migrant rhetoric, but it could also spell trouble for his politics of fear.

When he was younger, Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán famously feathered his speeches with pithy and satirical references to the wisdom of the ‘Dakota Indians’: ‘If you find yourself sitting on a dead horse, get off,’ or ‘Don’t bother blowing into a balloon with holes in it.’[1] Nowadays, Orbán’s ‘Indians’ are no longer summoned to lighten the mood, but rather to darken it, building on a romantic vision of the noble few fighting a desperate, perhaps even futile battle for survival. In a speech from July 2016, during which he endorsed Donald Trump, Orbán told his audience, ‘I can even understand the Americans’ positive point of view on migration because that is how the United States came to be, but they have to be able to see that in this situation we are the Indians.’[2]

East-Central Europeans’ romance with Native Americans has a deep root in German idealism filtered through American transcendentalism. In late nineteenth-century Germany, Karl May became famous for his vivid popular novels featuring the Apache character Winnetou, although he conceived most of them without having visited North America. His works were translated and eagerly read in Polish, Czech, Hungarian, Romanian, and Serbian/Croatian. Two statues of Indian warriors facing off near the shore of Lake Michigan in Chicago – The Bowman and The Spearman (1928) – are the work of a Croatian sculptor, Ivan Meštrović. And the mountain-sized Crazy Horse Memorial, still under construction in the Black Hills of South Dakota, was the vision of a sculptor of Polish origin, Korczak Ziółkowski.

The trope of heroic nobility these works reproduce has many echoes throughout a region where Native Americans represent the ingenuity and creativity of small peoples. In Hungary, ‘Playing Indian’ has channelled not only the demographic anxiety of a small nation that fears for its own cultural extinction, but also the frustration of political and social groups edged out by the dominant culture. ‘Indians’ stand for what is real, endangered, and exceptional. Over the last century, these features have been enacted by tens of thousands of Hungarians who wanted to be like Indians because they felt that, in some sense, they already were.

Hungarian Indians

You can learn a great deal about a country by studying its Indians. Some years ago, a Hungarian friend of mine was renovating an apartment in Budapest when he found some photographs taken during the 1930s. One shows a man in a loincloth poised to throw a spear. Another features the same man clasping a woman’s hands while an older gentleman in an elaborate feather headdress makes like he is about to scalp her. In the background we see a dugout canoe and the Danube.

The ‘Indians’ in these photographs are of a particularly 1930s Hungarian vintage. In 1931, the artist and orientalist Ervin Baktay and a few of his friends started an ‘Indian’ camp, where participants took names like Star Dancer, Shaggy Wolf and Little Hamster. For anywhere from a few weeks to three months every summer, the Hungarian Indians built teepees, wore feather headdresses and moccasins, and smoked peace pipes on an island in the Danube, which in 1933 was formally designated an ‘Indian reservation’. The Hungarian naval river fleet even moved its manoeuvers elsewhere to avoid disturbing the ‘Indians’.[3] As the group’s ‘chief,’ Baktay wrote a Hungarian newspaper essay in 1937 calling on his tribesmen to ‘fundamentally disconnect from the other, urban, civilized “I”: let us be children in spirit, let us know how to play, and delight in the beautiful … In this way the healthy physical sporting life also becomes a transformational, regenerating spiritual experience.’[4]

Baktay saw the ‘North American Indian’ as ‘the most authentic of athletes among all the peoples of the world, and that in the most noble sense of athleticism,’ like ‘the perfect gentleman and sportsman.’[5] The physical prowess of Indians was due to their proximity to nature; they were skilled hunters who hunted only what they needed, a people who had evaded ‘civilization’s faults’ until ‘the white civilization’ stole their freedom.

As Baktay was gathering his ‘tribe’, fascists from a different corner of the zeitgeist were similarly entranced with nobility and physicality – not of the hunter, but of the national warrior. ‘Fascism,’ wrote the Italian ‘superfascist’ Julius Evola, ‘appears to us as a reconstructive revolution, in that it affirms an aristocratic and spiritual concept of the nation’. The movement saw to the ‘elevation of the nation in practice to the degree of “warrior nation”’.[6]

Though some of Baktay’s ‘Indians’ may have had – or later developed – fascist sympathies, he himself was not a fascist. After studying to become a painter in Munich, he returned to Hungary, where he and his friends were so enamoured with ‘wild west’ films and novels that they set up a ‘saloon’ in a studio. In the late 1920s, Baktay spent three years in actual India studying its culture and religions. Then he became an editor for a new Hungarian journal called The Globe (A Földgömb), whose motto was ‘My reason serves to grasp the world!’ Being an ‘Indian’ was yet another way to identify with a different nation and culture or, as my friend who found the photographs put it, to ‘break away from the problems of Hungarian ethnogenesis’ by trying something else.

Although Baktay stopped running the camp in 1955, it hung on in some form until 1963. By then another Hungarian personality, the popular singer Tamás Cseh, had already started his own Indian camp elsewhere in the country. In 1961, he and a few friends fled to the hills to play Indian while on vacation in Bakony, stripping life down to a survivalist minimum. Over the years the group sought to make their camp less campy and more authentic. Soon they were singing Native American folk songs in their original languages, with dance steps to match. But the sixties were different from the 1930s. The political backdrop was a stagnating state socialism, rather than a rising fascism. In the words of a Hungarian journalist who probed the camp’s history, the ‘freedom, the simplicity of life stood in contrast to the communist Hungarian oppressive, centralized, state-stupefied world’.[7]

Indian Hungarians

While Baktay and Cseh’s ‘Indians’ delighted in the cultural and ethnic difference of Indians, others sought to uncover a hidden ethnic link between Indians and Hungarians. In 1965, a Hungarian goldmine explorer going by the name of Juan (János) Móricz claimed to have discovered Amazon Indians in Ecuador who spoke Hungarian. He developed an elaborate theory of how proto-Hungarian explorers had arrived by boat from the West after leaving their mark on dozens of place names in Indonesia and Hawaii. Móricz argued that sinister forces, among them the Habsburgs and the Spanish, had long conspired to prevent the Hungarians from becoming aware of ‘their ancestors’ glorious past’ by silencing or stigmatizing those who wrote about the connection.[8]

In 2013, Tünde László wrote an article on ‘The Ancient Hungarian Traces in the Land of the North American Indians.’ László is the editor-in-chief of the Hungarian Woman Magazine, an online repository of Hungarian pronatalist, nationalist, new-age mysticism. In the article she asserted that ‘the number of very suspicious similarities or total overlap between the cultures of the Hungarians and the North American Indians I have studied is so great that the only way to possibly explain them is a common origin.’[9] Part of this presumed common ancestry, she concluded, also offers the key to the future of the Hungarians. In the ‘Dakota’ language, László writes, the word for ‘foetus’ is ‘mysterious one-of-us’. ‘What unspeakable wisdom and philosophy refined through the millennia addresses us with this nomenclature!’ she swoons. If only we fully grasped the meaning of that phrase, ‘the area wreathed by the Carpathian (Mountains) would once again resound with the laughter of children, and Hungary would be saved from all the threatening demographic predictions!’

An article on the website of the Hungarian television network ATV from 2015 declared that if demographic trends continue at the present rate, the Hungarian nation would die out within five hundred years. Although Viktor Orbán does not expect much from the electorate besides their votes, he has three prescriptive refrains: stop migration, stop smoking and have more children. He wants there to be more Hungarians and for them to live longer. In 2013, he received a prize from the WHO for his efforts to curb smoking, and state support for families with children has increased significantly under his government.[10] ‘It is cause for celebration that the birth rate is now the highest it has been since 2010, that the number of marriages is increasing, and the decline in population hasn’t been so slow in years,’ Orbán said recently. ‘But the decline, even if it is slowing, is still a decline. It is the most personal decision of every person how many children to bear. Yet even though it is personal, it is also the most important one for the sake of our community.’[11]

When Orbán asserted in 2016 that ‘we are the Indians,’[12] the comparison was meant to suggest that the survival of the Hungarian nation was at stake. Yet behind the rhetoric of national survival, Orbán’s primary interest seems to be his own political survival. He has radically altered the constitution – to cripple the independent judiciary and media – thereby making an opposition electoral victory nearly impossible, while handing out contract favours to a new elite of friendly oligarchs, as well as to his own village and relatives. The most recent scandal involves his son-in-law’s lighting company, which benefitted from large contracts drawn from EU funds (an EU fraud investigation has found ‘serious irregularities’ with the contracts and has sought to recoup 40 million euros).[13] It can come as no surprise that Orbán noted in a recent speech that ‘we are threatened today with danger from the West. This danger has been brought to us by the politicians in Brussels, Berlin, and Paris.’[14]

In a defence of Indian culture from 1921, Baktay observed that the ‘slogan of the West’ was the ‘struggle for survival’. But it was not really for survival that the West struggled. ‘The white race is moved by nothing else but self-interest, property, material advantages, and to reign.’[15] Perhaps Orbán is more of ‘the West’ than he presents himself, and the real Hungarian Indians are to be found elsewhere.

Holly Case is Associate Professor of History at Brown University and a former Visiting Fellow at the IWM, Vienna. This article was first published by Eurozine as a supplement of the printed version of Transit‘s 50 entitled Ein Zeitalter wird besichtigt. 1989 revisited.


[1] Frédi és Béni, ‘Négy dakota közmondás, melyeket ma már nem vállalna be Orbán Viktor,’ online at: http://szeka.blog.hu/2015/03/28/negy_dakota_kozmondas_melyeket_ma_mar_nem_vallalna_be_orban_viktor

[2] ‘Viktor Orbán endorses Donald Trump at Băile Tușnad,’ Budapest Beacon, July 25, 2106, online at: http://budapestbeacon.com/featured-articles/viktor-orban-endorses-donald-trump-at-baile-tusnad/36683

[3] Béla Kelényi, szerk., Az indológus indián: Baktay Ervin emlékezete (Budapest: Hopp Ferenc Kelet-ázsiai Művészeti Múzeum, 2014), p. 277.

[4] Ibid., p. 276.

[5] Ibid., pp. 274-275.

[6] Julius Evola, The Metaphysics of War: Battle, Victory and Death in the World of Tradition ([UK]: Arktos, 2011), p. 27.

[7] András Földes, ‘Fakéssel ölnek a bakonyi indiánok,’ index, Aug. 30, 2013, online at: http://index.hu/kultur/2013/08/30/indian/

[8] ‘Magyarul beszélő indiántörzs 1. rész,’ Magyar nő magazin, Dec. 7, 2012, online at: http://magyarno.com/magyarul-beszelo-indiantorzs-1-resz/; ‘Magyarul beszélő indiántörzs 2. rész,’ Magyar nő magazin, Dec. 8, 2012, online at: http://magyarno.com/magyarul-beszelo-indiantorzs-2-resz/

[9] ‘Amerikai turániak – Ősi magyar nyomok észak-amerikai indián földön,’ Magyar nő magazin, Jan. 17, 2013, online at: http://magyarno.com/amerikai-turaniak-osi-magyar-nyomok-eszak-amerikai-indian-foldon/.

[10] MTI, ‘Orbán Viktor átvette a WHO kitüntetését,’ Magyar Nemzet, Oct. 8, 2013, online at: https://mno.hu/belfold/orban-viktor-atvette-a-who-kitunteteset-1188878.

[11] ‘Orbán Viktor 19. évértékelő beszéde,’ Magyarország Kormánya, Miniszterelnöki Kabinetiroda, Feb. 13, 2017, online at: http://www.kormany.hu/hu/a-miniszterelnok/beszedek-publikaciok-interjuk/orban-viktor-19-evertekelo-beszede

[12] ‘Viktor Orbán endorses Donald Trump at Băile Tușnad,’ Budapest Beacon.

[13] ‘Kiverte a biztosítékot az angol nyelvű sajtóban is az Elios-botrány,’ Magyar Nemzet, Feb. 12, 2018, online at: https://mno.hu/kulfold/kiverte-a-biztositekot-az-angol-nyelvu-sajtoban-is-az-elios-botrany-2446774 ; Buckley, N., & Byrne, A. (2017, Dec 22). Neil Buckley and Andrew Byrne, ‘Viktor Orban’s oligarchs: a new elite emerges in Hungary,’ Financial Times, Dec. 21, 2017, online at: https://www.ft.com/content/ecf6fb4e-d900-11e7-a039-c64b1c09b482

[14] ‘Orbán Viktor évértékelő beszéde,’ Magyarország Kormánya, Miniszterelnöki Kabinetiroda, Feb. 18, 2018, online at: http://www.kormany.hu/hu/a-miniszterelnok/beszedek-publikaciok-interjuk/orban-viktor-evertekelo-beszede20180218

[15] Kelényi, szerk., Az indológus indián, p. 273.

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    Claudia Šabi? ist Politikwissenschaftlerin und Ethnologin. Seit 1998 ist sie Wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin an der Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt am Main. Print

  • Ranabir Samaddar

    Distinguished Chair in Migration and Forced Migration Studies, Calcutta Research Group

    Guest
    (March - April 2018)
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  • Paul Sanders

    Paul Sanders is a historian and management scholar. He is a full-time professor at Reims Management School in Reims, France. He has published across the disciplines of history, international relations and leadership.   Print

  • Karl Schlögel

    Karl Schlögel war Professor für Osteuropäische Geschichte zuerst an der Universität Konstanz, dann an der Europa-Universität Viadrina in Frankfurt/Oder. Nach seiner Emeritierung arbeitet er an einer Archäologie des Kommunismus und einer Geschichte des Wolgaraumes. Zurzeit ist er City of Vienna/IFK Fellow am IFK in Wien.     Print

  • Thomas Schmid

    Thomas Schmid is the publisher of the WELT Group, Berlin. He worked for various newspapers, among them as editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung. From 2006 to 2010 he was Editor-in-Chief of Die Welt.   Print

  • Margit Schratzenstaller

    Margit Schratzenstaller is senior researcher at the Austrian Institute of Economic Research (WIFO) and is currently coordinating (together with Karl Aiginger and Stefan Ederer) ‘WWW for Europe’, a 4-year research project within the 7th Framework Program funded by the European Commission.   Print

  • Dieter Segert

    Dieter Segert ist Professor für Transformationsprozesse in Mittel-, Südost- und Osteuropa am Institut für Politikwissenschaft der Universität Wien. Seit September 2007 ist er Mitglied des Vorstandes des IDM Wien, seit Juni 2008 Mitglied der Leibniz-Sozietät der Wissenschaften zu Berlin.   Print

  • Victoriya Sereda

    Sociologie, Ivan-Franko-Universität, Lviv
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  • Michel Serres

    Michel Serres ist Philosoph und Mitglied der Académie Française.   Print

  • Anton Shekhovtsov

    PhD in Political Science
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  • Marci Shore

    Associate Professor of History, Yale University

    Visiting Fellow
    (June 2018 – August 2019)
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  • Sławomir Sierakowski

    Director, Institute for Advanced Study, Warsaw; Founder, "Krytyka Polityczna" movement
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  • Sara Silverstein

    Ph.D. Candidate in Modern European and International History, Yale University
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  • Ondřej Slačálek

    Assistant Professor of Political Science, Charles University, Prague
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  • Aleksander Smolar

    Political Science, Paris
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  • Timothy Snyder

    IWM Permanent Fellow
    Richard C. Levin Professor of History, Yale University
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  • George Soros

    George Soros is a pioneer of the hedge-fund industry, investor and philanthropist, he is the author of many books, including Financial Turmoil in Europe and the United States: Essays (2012), The Soros Lectures: At the Central European University (2010), The Crash of 2008 and What it Means: The New Paradigm for Finance Markets (2009).   …
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  • Robert Spaemann

    Robert Spaemann ist Professor em. für Philosophie an der Universität München.   Print

  • Pawel Spiewak

    Associate Professor of Sociology, Department of Sociology and Philosophy, Warsaw University
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  • Wilfried Stadler

    Wilfried Stadler ist Unternehmensberater, Wirtschaftspublizist und Honorarprofessor an der Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien. Bis 2009 war er Vorstandsvorsitzender einer österreichischen Spezialbank für Unternehmensfinanzierung.   Print

  • Rudolf Stamm

    Rudolf Stamm war von 1975 bis 1988 Korrespondent der Neuen Zürcher Zeitung für Osteuropa und Österreich, anschließend bis 1999 für Italien, dann bis zu seiner Pensionierung 2002 für die USA mit Sitz in Washington D.C. Er starb 2010 in der Schweiz. 1985 erscheinen seine NZZ-Reportagen aus Osteuropa in dem Band Alltag und Tradition in Osteuropa. …
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  • Paul Starr

    Paul Starr ist Professor für Soziologie an der Princeton University und Mitherausgeber von The American Prospect. Er ist Pulitzer-Preisträger.   Print

  • Martina Steer

    ÖAW APART Fellow (History)
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  • Kristina Stoeckl

    Research Director
    APART Fellow, Austrian Academy of Sciences; Department of Political Sciences, University of Vienna
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  • Roman Szporluk

    Roman Szporluk is Professor em. of Ukrainian History at Harvard and Professor em. of History at the University of Michigan. He is a foreign member of the National Academy of Sciences in Kiev, Ukraine. His research focuses on modern Ukrainian, Russian, and Polish history, and on Marxism and nationalism in Eastern Europe.   Print

  • Charles Taylor

    IWM Permanent Fellow
    Professor em. of Philosophy, McGill University, Montréal
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  • Maria Teteriuk

    PhD candidate in Mass Communications and senior lecturer in Media Studies, National University of 'Kyiv-Mohyla Academy', Ukraine
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  • Philipp Ther

    Junior Professor of Polish and Ukrainian Studies, Europa-Universität Frankfurt / Oder
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  • Maria Todorova

    Professor of History, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign
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  • Balázs Trencsényi

    Balázs Trencsényi, Ph.D., is Associate Professor at the Department of History, CEU. His research focuses on the comparative history of political thought in East Central Europe and the history of historiography. He is co-director of Pasts, Inc., Center for Historical Studies at CEU and Associate Editor of the periodical East Central Europe (Brill). He was …
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  • Stefan Troebst

    .
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  • Marius Turda

    Lecturer in the Education Abroad Program, Eötvös Lorand University, Faculty of Humanities, Budapest
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  • Andreas Umland

    Andreas Umland ist Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter am Institut für Euro-Atlantische Kooperation Kiew sowie Herausgeber der Buchreihe Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society, ibidem-Verlag Stuttgart. Print

  • Victoria Vasilenko

    Assistant Professor of Contemporary History and International Relations, Belgorod National Research University
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  • David G. Victor

    David G. Victor is a Professor at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at the University of California, San Diego, where he directs the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation.   Print

  • Harald Welzer

    Harald Welzer ist Forschungsprofessor für Sozialpsychologie an der Universität Witten/Herdecke und Direktor des Center for Interdisciplinary Memory Research am Kulturwissenschaftlichen Instituts Essen.   Print

  • Karolina Wigura

    Adjunct of the History of Ideas, University of Warsaw; Co-Editor of Kultura Liberalna
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  • Volodymyr Yermolenko

    Volodymyr Yermolenko is a Ukrainian philosopher and essayist. He has a degree in Political Science from the EHESS, Paris, and teaches at Kyiv Mohyla Academy in Kyiv. He is the author of the book Narrator and Philosopher: Walter Benjamin and his time (2011, in Ukrainian). Print

  • Oksana Zabuzhko

    Free-lance writer, Kiev
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  • Tatiana Zhurzhenko

    IWM Research Director, Russia in Global Dialogue and Ukraine in European Dialogue
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