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Václav Klaus: Remarks at the Petöfi Prize Award Ceremony

English Pages, 12. 12. 2018

It is a great honour for me to receive the 2018 Petöfi Prize which is awarded by the Public Foundation for the Research of Central and East European History and Society and by the MOL Group. I really feel honoured, especially as I do believe that it is in the spirit of the great Hungarian poet and revolutionary Sándor Petöfi to appreciate efforts and accomplishments aimed at promoting the freedom of the peoples of Central Europe. It was important in his era, in 1848, it is no less important now.

As someone who spent four decades of non-freedom in a Communist Czechoslovakia and witnessed the total failure of the communist irrational and oppressive political and economic system I have always considered freedom and liberty the main issues worth fighting for. I agree with Ronald Reagan that “Freedom is one of the deepest and noblest aspirations of the human spirit.”

I received several prizes and awards related to the terms freedom and liberty in the past three decades, but this one – here in Hungary, and now, in the era of the evident decline (in the terminology of Oswald Spengler “Untergang”) of Europe – is for me very special for several reasons. I will try to explain why.

It is its explicit connection with the historic and legendary name Sándor Petöfi, with this true and authentic Hungarian. Even in my country, in the Czech Republic, Sándor Petöfi has been a part of our high-school curriculum. We take him as a great Hungarian national poet, as one of the key figures of the Hungarian Revolution in 1848 and – in his efforts for independence from the Austrian Empire – as one of the early Central European fighters for national sovereignty.

Sándor Petöfi was in many respects unique. There were several similar romantic poets in European countries in the 19th century (including the Czech Karel Hynek Mácha) but not many of them were also the authors (or co-authors) of such a revolutionary manifesto as “The 12 Points” or of the national song Nemzeti dal.

His manifesto tried to express – as it is formulated in its subtitle – “what the Hungarian nation wants”. It asked for the freedom of the press, for independent Hungarian government, for Parliament created by democratic parliamentary elections, for the abolition of the old feudal privileges. I am sure the Hungarians know all of that much better than a foreigner like me. These demands were revolutionary in 1848 but some of them would be revolutionary even now – in the post-democratic European Union in which such nation states as Hungary and the Czech Republic have to fight for their sovereignty once again.

Sándor Petöfi’s name re-emerged more than 100 years after his very premature death in another revolutionary year, in 1956, when a group of members of the Hungarian Youth Organisation set up the so-called Petöfi Circle. It became the symbol of opposition to the Hungarian communist government and was instrumental in organizing the historic demonstration which led to the national uprising of Hungarian democrats against their communist rulers and oppressors.

I appreciate that your prize specifically mentions the efforts “for freedom of the peoples of Central Europe”. This – more cultural than ethnic or geographic – entity is important. We – all of us – have several, sometimes conflicting identities. Some of them are stronger, some weaker. We usually start with mentioning the town or village where we were born and spent our childhood. I myself feel very strongly being a Prager. The next genuine identity is the nation we are authentically part of because of the language of the fairy tales we were exposed to. I am a Czech, and I am proud of it.

Nevertheless, I always add that my next important identity is a Central European one. Due to it, I feel having a common identity with the Hungarians, with the Slovaks, with the Poles, with the Austrians and with some other nations of the region. There is no reason not to say very explicitly that my feeling of identity with peoples from North, South, West and East of Europe is much weaker. This is, among other things, the main reason for the – in my eyes unremovable and uncorrectable – weakness of the true (not only proclamatory) European identity and – because of it - of the whole constructivist European unification project. It has no genuine authenticity. 

Something has changed it the last years. Due to it the time has come to stop talking somewhat neutralistically about the so called integration of Europe because this term creates a lot of confusion. The term integration says nothing about the real European state of affairs, about the relationships between European nation states and the supranational European authority.

Sándor Petöfi was very Hungarian. This is something we should praise and honour especially now in the “brave new world” of multiculturalism, continentalism, internationalism and globalism of today. We should not be ashamed of giving the nation a fundamental position in our thinking and behaviour, of course, on condition we know that before the notion of the nation (and the state) we should always insert two essential individualistic entities of the Western (and European) civilisation and culture – the man (and, of course, the woman) and the family. This “holy trinity” defines us as Europeans.

In the current, in many respects frustrating state of affairs, our efforts should be focused on the following issues:

– we – who refused to accept the ideology of communism in the past – shouldn´t be reconciled with the current attempts to establish  the religion of multiculturalism as the official ideology of Western (and European) society;

– we – who are aware of the fragility of the West on the one hand and of its aggressive and ruthless enemies (many of them from inside) on the other – should oppose the multiculturalists’ crusade against Western Civilisation;

– we, the true believers in the nation state, should fight the destructive European ideology (I call europeism)  which is hidden in the text of the Lisbon Treaty and which aims at overcoming the nation-state;

– we – who were dreaming for decades during the communist era about the rule of law and civic rights – should resist the ideology of “humanrightism”, which means the attempts to replace freedom with “rights” (especially the relatively new endeavour to include the right to migrate among the human rights);

– we should prefer freedom to fairness (and equality) which asks for getting rid of the stifling political correctness (coming close to George Orwell´s double-think and newspeak).

I do not have the ambition to call these several sentences of mine “5 Points”, they are very incomplete. We should – together – start thinking about other at least 7 points to compete with Sándor Petofi’s manifesto.

He fought for the abolition of all kinds of non-democratic privileges. We – similarly – have to fight against new “feudalities” in our society, against the nomenklatura of political elites, against omnipotent bureaucracies, against special positions of judges and courts, against non-democratically functioning and not-authentically created political NGO´s.

Sándor Petöfi stressed the importance of national institutions. In one of his “12 Points”, he asked for having Hungarian Government in Budapest, not in another country. Living now, he would oppose having the Hungarian (or Czech) governments in Brussels. He would oppose to place the goals of transnational European integration above democracy. He would recognise the impotence of Europe “sans frontières”. He would know that a world without borders is a world without citizens, and, therefore, without democracy. He would understand that the mass migration is not a panacea for the intergenerational problems of an aging European population, but a way to destroy European culture and civilisation.

He would feel that we are again at one of the critical junctures (as he knew it in 1848). He would rely on the wisdom of ordinary citizens and their democratically elected leaders (labelled populists these days), not on celebrities, media favourites and foreign advisors. He would support the courageous politicians who are blowing against the European wind. He would participate in fighting the relevant battles of the post-communist era.

Our experience tells us that it requires political courage and active political engagement to start changing today´s dominant trends and tendencies. We have to persuade our compatriots that Western civilization is not a given, that it needs its custodians and active guardians.

In the letter announcing to me the reasons behind your decision to confer upon me this year's Petöfi Prize, you stated that by awarding the prize you want to respect heroes of the anti-communist civic movements as well as to recognize heroes of the democratic transformation processes after the fall of Communism. It means – with all due respect – the people of yesterday and the day before yesterday.

Both these groups were well represented among the past laureates of the Petöfi Prize. I am convinced that from now on the award should be given to the personalities actively opposing today´s challenges, to individuals who don´t passively accept the fact that we live in another risky and dangerous moment of history when traditional pillars of the European society are endangered by new “isms” and ideologies, not by communism. To those who do not take the existing threatening trends as something irresistible. These people should be supported and rewarded before it will be too late.

Once again, thank you for honouring me by the Petöfi Prize. It was a pleasure to be with you today.

Václav Klaus, Speech at the Petöfi Prize Award Ceremony, The House of Terror Museum, Budapest, December 10, 2018.


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