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Dispatches from Budapest

By David Hiley, Justice Studies Budapest program supervisor and professor of philosophy
February 7, 2007


© David Hiley

The headline on CNN International read “Budapest Burning.” On September 20th, the television screen filled with images of protesters burning cars and breaking into the Hungarian television station on Szabadsagter–Freedom Square–where the U.S. Embassy is also located.

I opened my e-mail to find messages from family, friends, and parents of students: Were we in danger? Were buildings near us burning? Should we make plans to leave Budapest?

Looking out of my window toward Freedom Square and the Parliament, there was no evidence of Budapest burning. But news of the protests continued. Serious developments, regardless of CNN hyperbole.

We had been in Budapest a little over a month—my wife and I, plus 12 UNH students. We knew that an incriminating tape recording of a private speech by Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany to his party members had been leaked to the press. In it he admitted they had “lied morning, noon, and night” about the condition of the economy during the last election. Because of Hungary’s soaring deficit, it cannot adopt the EURO, the next step in its ascension to the European Union. Hungarians’ growing awareness of the country’s dire financial condition, coupled with their reaction to the proposed austerity measures, had created an incendiary situation. The leaked tape ignited more than a week of protests and calls for the prime minister’s resignation.

Our immediate concern, and the concern of the staff in the college, was the safety of our students, some living in flats near Freedom Square. As the week unfolded, while the size of the protests grew, the violence abated. Gyurcsany remained steadfast in his refusal to resign. By the end of the second week, the Parliament grounds took on an almost festive air. Tour buses slowed enough for their patrons to snap pictures.


© David Hiley, Students in the Justice Studies Program study at Corvinus University of Budapest, Hungary. The program is in its fourth year.

From tourist to student

For the Justice Studies Program, this began our transition from tourists to students. As part of the program, students take courses in Hungarian history, culture, and politics from Hungarian faculty. I teach a course on democracy and global justice, complemented by weekly field trips focused on the Hungarian justice systems. The protests provided an unexpected learning opportunity. Our students began to explore the causes of the protests in a larger context.

Hungarian history is tragically complex. Freedom and democracy are recent experiences here. Hungarians have been dominated by a series of occupying forces beginning in 896 and ending in 1989. Numerous revolutions have failed. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the failed 1956 Revolution, which began on October 23rd. For 12 days, Hungarians rose up against the Soviets who had occupied the country since 1945.

This anniversary has offered another unplanned part of our educational program. We have attended a documentary film festival and conference of participants and eyewitnesses to the Revolution. We are learning that Hungarians are still uneasy with this revolution. While the 12 days of freedom produced a euphoric sense of solidarity, it also included well-publicized atrocities. Participants and historians disagree about some of the events, the meaning of the Revolution, and the period that followed. For our students, this has been an exceptional lesson in the politics of history.


© David Hiley

Budapest is a beautiful city. At night, lights tracing the design of the famous Chain Bridge are reflected in the Danube River. But in the light of day, graffiti covers every surface below 10 feet. Try as they might, city workers cannot get ahead of the litter. Homeless people sleep in doorways and underpasses. A few sparkling blocks gleam for the tourists, but the city continues to show the decades of Soviet neglect.

Our students struggle with the contradictions. Last week I met with each student. All talked about seeing beyond the postcard pictures. They think more seriously about the life of a city and a country so newly free and a people less privileged than themselves. For me as a teacher, this time in Budapest has provided a classroom for raising issues about the nature of freedom, democratization, and how much harder it is to be free and democratic than simply declaring it so.

Professor Hiley’s most recent book, “Doubt and the Demands of Democratic Citizenship” examines democracy and the responsibilities of citizenship in the U.S.

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