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Aleas of history and frontiers of modernity

László Ravasz (1882–1975) and the interwar catholic-protestant rapprochement in Hungary

Hungarian Studies
Author: Pál Hatos

Liberal academics and enthusiastic lay audiences hailed the public debuts of the Calvinist theologian and acclaimed orator László Ravasz as the leading representative of a new generation of modernist clergymen in the early 1910s. Much to the regret of his liberal critics, in the wake of the collapse of historic Hungary following World War I his message stemmed from a modern cult and culture of defeat and was in no way a continuation of the old school liberals of the belle époque of the Dual Monarchy. In his memoires, which were written during the 1960s, Ravasz described his erstwhile political views as “fetishes,” but defended his theological motives. This raises questions concerning a central problem of modern religious experience: how can one map the constantly evolving frontiers between rampant secularization and the no less permanent and certainly insatiable nostalgia for the sacred order of things in modern societies? By redefining what is religious, the currents of Protestant and Catholic thought in interwar Hungary presented in the following article established intellectual contexts on both sides that make not only the historical description of Christian identity but also the very notion of modernity a function of multi-layered readings. At the same time, the Catholic and Protestant rapprochement may be interpreted as a symptom of the decline of religious explanations of the world and history, because they testify to the fact that the dialectics of historical interpretation are no longer defined by the particular approaches of Catholic or Protestant theology or the differences between the two, but rather by the state of competition between universalist utopias and religious world explanations forced into the conservative camp, which necessarily bleaches the emphatic elements of Christian teachings as well.

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The folkloristic image of Kossuth reveals to us the Kossuth of legend, the Kossuth of folktunes and popular anecdotes, while the other view has been shaped by the shifting political traditions and professional historiographic assessments. The changing interpretations of Kossuth are a historical phenomenon of intellectual history and reflect the various political situations as well as the intellectual climate of the past 150 years of Hungarian history.

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Christian churches both Catholic and Protestant experienced a renewal of their theology and a revival of their impact on society in the interwar period; and they could count on the continuous good will of the conservative Horthy regime. Convinced that the leading role of Jewish intellectuals in the 1918-1919 revolutionary upheaval resulted the near ruin of the traditional society and amidst the shock caused by the collapse of historical Hungary, some leading members of Protestant churches endorsed various forms of political anti-Semitism, including the acceptance of some type of curtailment of religious equality, which had once been acclaimed as a significant achievement of nineteenth-century Protestant liberalism. While maintaining their sympathy for the Horthy regime till the very last, the leaders of the churches opposed the persecution and deportation of Hungarian Jews, which began escalating after March 1944. This paper will discuss some of the possible contexts of the Reformed Church's public statements concerning the Holocaust after 1945 and will focus mainly on the writings and sermons of the leading figure of the Reformed Church Bishop László Ravasz (1882-1975).

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Le rôle historique du facteur religieux est actuellement un problème majeur dans la réflexion historiographique en Hongrie. Le positivisme et le romantisme, dont la Réforme avait été la matrice dans tous les pays européens, ont procuré une stimulation mentale décisive aux historiens hongrois du milieu du XIXe siècle, en particulier Mihály Horváth et László Szalay, dans leur effort en vue de l’émancipation religieuse et dans leur lutte contre la dynastie Habsbourg, lutte dont le coeur était justement la principauté calviniste de Transylvanie. La lutte des ordres transylvains au XVIe et XVIIe siècle fut ainsi considérée comme les prémisses de la lutte pour l’indépendance, principal moteur de la société hongroise au XIXe siècle avec le développement du libéralisme. Ces idées s’imposèrent dans le savoir historique dont, jusqu’alors, les plus prestigieux épisodes étaient la conquête du Bassin des Carpates, l’âge d’or du royaume médiéval et la défense contre les Turcs (le « bastion de l’Europe »). D’ailleurs, l’image que la Réforme se faisait d’elle-même, c’est-à-dire le progressisme libéral, convenait tout aussi bien en tant que contre-image aux catholiques conservateurs (ultramontains), qui, depuis les Lumières jusqu’aux progrès de la pensée scientifique moderne en passant par la Révolution, tenaient la Réforme pour responsable de tous les phénomènes préjudiciables au catholicisme1. En s’efforçant de s’approprier les outils symboliques de la pensée nationale hongroise, le protestantisme, en voie de sécularisation, mettait en place une stratégie qui allait finalement s’avérer dommageable à la formation d’un discours national unitaire.

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