Skip to content
Long Read January 2024

Does a biographer have an autobiography?

by Gábor Egry

Gábor Egry reflects on the blurred boundaries between historical and subjective writing and on the historical in the autobiographical through Ignác Romsics’s “egohistory”, Hetven év – Egotörténelem 1951-2021 [Seventy years – Egohistory, 1951-2021, Vol. 1] (Helikon Kiadó, 2022). 

There is no history without all the facts: this could be the foundational conviction of Ignác Romsics, preeminent historian of modern Hungary, whose career has been accompanied not only by many professional and political distinctions, but, thanks to his rather traditionalist perception of history, is also one of the most marketable and productive representatives of the profession. Since 2010 his name has appeared on 18 volumes as either author or editor and the series of new works on the bookshelves bearing his name is not a simple edition of his previous oeuvre. In these, Romsics writes industriously on themes such as the peasant uprising of György Dózsa in 1514, or the Ferenc Rákóczi led uprising against the Habsburgs in the early 18th century, themes that he himself may have considered impossible decades ago because they are so far from the primary field of scholarship that made him famous, namely the Horthy era and the 1920 Treaty of Trianon. In other words, the collapse and dissolution of Hungary at the end of the First World Ware and over the next 25 years, both controversial and sensitive and still very emotional issues for society and politics even today.

Facts abound in this first volume of “egohistory” – as Romsics qualifies the work on the title page – which is a veritable story of the coming of age of the son of a poor peasant family, first as a citizen of Communist Hungary in the 1950s and 1960s, as one of the new socialist men, a generation raised to believe in and ready to act for the ideals of Socialism, and subsequently, since the 1970s as a historian too. The reader must pause at the points when these transitions – which first overlap and later succeed each other – culminate in a gesture of distancing from the centre of the profession, with Romsics leaving the famous Institute of Historical studies of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, where the most significant historians of this era worked in relative freedom while nurturing regular contacts with Western academia, and doing so paradoxically as a way to find the conditions to achieve his full potential.

Not that Romsics lavishly provides the facts of why he left the institute, why its internal microcosm and bureaucratic structures became burdensome and made the idea of quitting one that he welcomed. This frugality with facts relating to the decision that forms the most central moment of his autobiography, the one that divides it in two, is in stark contrast to the details of his life before he was born, an elaborate history and ethnography of the villages of Homokmégy and Alsómégy near Kalocsa, some 140km south of Budapest, a Catholic religious centre and seat of an archbishopric established by Saint Stephen. 

Interspersed with distant family history, the origins of the Romsics in Dalmatia and their migration in the 18th century, the family linkages within the slowly growing outlying settlements, first a few houses and later veritable villages, the accumulation of land by one lineage and the impoverishment of others, this is the landscape of a society largely defined by its relation to nature and agriculture, painted in great detail, and reaching back to the establishment of these localities. Here the reader will find a village that has stepped out of an ethnographic museum, a Skanzen, with the family home and its transformation into a modern household described meticulously, furniture and household utensils listed, the function of every room given even a map-like drawing of the plot to aid in the visualization of this very typical environment of peasant life. A space full of human relations – kinship, parish, school, friendship and, from an early age, work – all a lived experience of the author.

I have recognized myself almost too easily in the young school student who identified with the egalitarian and patriotic views of the Hungarian socialist system, embraced the one-sided history of national liberation struggles and had no issue with finding Soviet literary works (although not all of them) entertaining and captivating.

This is certainly not only memory, despite the interspersal of stories from Romsics’s life; this is the scene depicted by a biographer for his or her subject to highlight the conditions that made them, according to the conventions of historical biographies. And the space where society underwent its most significant transformation since the onset of modernity was in the slow dissolution of peasant agriculture and life. A change that enhanced divisions between poor and well-to-do, which replaced human bonds with state institutions as the foundation of society locally, but which was still mostly received with a passivity and finally accepted as bringing more positives than negatives – at least in Romsics’s reading. 

Romsics’s personal story is not just a variation of this transition: it is easy to read it as it is distilled into one specific and still generally representative biography. How distant it is from or familiar to the reader highlights our own place in the time and the social space of this large historical process. Despite being 25 years younger and having been born in Hungary’s second largest city, the rural world of Romsics was often eerily familiar to me from the short visits paid to my mother’s family and the long summer stays with my parental grandparents. True, I was never exposed to the laboring side, but I share with him the material conditions, including the range of books on the bookshelves, and the joy of chasing baby chickens before reading in the shade.

This was not the only way to connect with the young boy growing up in the Hungary of the 1950s and 1960s. Romsics’s self-depiction throughout his coming of age rang several bells for me. I have recognized myself almost too easily in the young school student who identified with the egalitarian and patriotic views of the Hungarian socialist system, embraced the one-sided history of national liberation struggles and had no issue with finding Soviet literary works (although not all of them) entertaining and captivating. It was a veritable journey down memory lane to read and recall the titles of the literary works and songs, compulsory education materials, which Romsics so meticulously listed from the official school curriculum, and it is certainly appealing how he does not hide his affinities. All the more as this personal story of being transformed testifies to the relative success of the Socialist regime, with its project of instilling a new, Socialist patriotism in the young generation – and also the not-so Socialist foundation it was built on. 

While the young Romsics is a vividly painted personality, the personal is that side of his life that gradually fades away after his secondary school years. As in all biographies of prominent people, professional development and work take the main role in the narrative, details of the personal life being intermittently presented, and subjective feelings and observations interwoven in the story of the professional career. At some point the naïve individual disappears and there emerges someone who suddenly knows all the not-quite palatable ways in which the system operates – the attention paid by the state security and the presence of its agents, the hidden intervention of politics into human and labor relations, the limits set on individual freedom by the priority of politics over expertise – and it makes him abandon his political persona, still very strong during his university years. The Romsics of the transition years, the one I first encountered on the TV screen, in newspapers and, finally, in the auditorium, the historian who lays down a marked distance from politics is born, but his personal motivations remain vague – just as the motives for leaving the Institute for Historical studies do. 

But biography is a genre bound by conventions, especially since it is no longer written for the sake of the life story alone but is supposed to highlight broader issues of history and is expected to be grounded in contemporary society.

The decision to subdue, perhaps even refrain from the personal-subjective throughout the professional part of one’s career may not simply be the result of a biographer’s self-discipline: it is certainly easier and safer to reveal sentiments, opinions, feelings from one’s childhood than to reveal oneself during life periods for which the companions are still alive. It is also a conventional way of telling life stories, splitting the person into personae. But it again raises the question: does a biographer have an autobiography? 

One of Romsics’s strongest dimensions as a historian is biography. While his first book on the Horthy era probably made stronger waves – described in detail in this book – than his biography of the politician who finally shaped this historical period, István Bethlen, the latter is still the major academic work that cemented his position in historiography. Since its publication, he has returned to the genre in various forms and coached his students to publish biographies of their own. But biography is a genre bound by conventions, especially since it is no longer written for the sake of the life story alone but is supposed to highlight broader issues of history and is expected to be grounded in contemporary society. Romsics does not follow these conventions simply in this book. It is true, his life is possible to read as an example of the deep social transformations and the social mobility so often associated with the period. He goes beyond this by framing his story through the general history that is presented by an omniscient narrator, who is both the same and still different from the author. He goes after facts to construct this frame, and these facts are sometimes puzzling in an autobiography. 

For example, what was the significance of the history of individual buildings in Kalocsa in Romsics’s development? Did he know about their history and did he relate himself to it when attending school in the city? Did it affect the milieu and spirit of Kalocsa in the 1960 in ways that were formative for him? Or it is just the historian’s perfectionism that makes him find a place for these details in the narrative? Is there, however, really a place in an autobiography for facts that certainly pertain to him, but which he could not have had any information about when those events happened? Romsics visited the archives housing the documentary material that pertains to some events of his life (disciplinary procedures, teachers’ reports, minutes of meetings of party bodies, etc.). While this certainly helps us to understand what happened to him and why, interpreting his own life trajectory through external factors, the relationship between life recollections and such historical interpretations is complicated at best. How much is the omniscient narrator, inevitably present in autobiographies, entitled to know and tell without diminishing the autobiographical quality of the work and without creating the danger of unconscious reinterpretation of the subjective past? This is not to say that autobiographies that rely on memory do not involve reinterpretations done after one learns facts, such as learning who it was who reported on Romsics among his friends and acquaintances, whose gestures may have been the result of some operational game – but all these reinterpretations, if they have a place in an autobiography, a story of one’s changing subjectivity,  supposed to have taken place before the start of the writing of the book. Thus, there is arguably a different quality to this reinterpretation, the part of the life that the autobiography is supposed to capture. Examining the sources with the aim of writing the book is more the gesture of the historian who places his object in context and not of a person recollecting his or her own past.

In a sense, this is an excellent manifestation of how the boundaries between historical and subjective writing are and will always remain blurred. This is despite what is most probably the author’s intention with this style of writing, by grounding his life in facts and dispelling the suspicion of subjectivity as much as it is possible. And Romsics may very well be aware of how this is a transgression of the boundaries of the autobiographic genre – at least in a philosophical sense. The book is defined as “egohistory”, suggesting that the reader should not expect a classic autobiography. What is egohistory, if we read Romsics as an exemplary work? He fills out the holes of childhood memory with ethnography and captures facts once unknown to him, suggesting that this is a factual take on one’s own life that is close to biography, while still accepting that subjectivity inevitably seeps into the narrative. Yet, it relies on more literary techniques of biography, such as casting milieus that somehow inform the narrative about the personalities moving into and leaving the scene. It follows the tradition of pushing the personal to the background as the individual becomes integrated into society as an adult. It is more like a biography of the autobiographer.

One reason to shift from autobiography to self-biography is certainly the respect Romsics has for the facts. If they are known, historians should not hide them and – we can add – if they are known they probably make autobiography impossible. Respect for the facts is the crux of Romsics’s scholarship, and this is easy to understand after having been socialized into the politicized world of Socialist historiography and given the need to face his childhood enthusiasm for a history that was distorted. Still, one might wonder how we can reconcile this sense of historiographic norms with the inevitability of selecting facts when crafting narratives.

Romsics is not the sole figure who accepts and exemplifies this transformation and its benefits for village people. On his journey, he is always accompanied by peasant-turned-intellectuals from an older generation and from his own generation.

If Romsics’s book is history, what are the broader stakes of this narrative? The story of rural modernization and the reconfiguration of village life and societies, of which Romsics makes himself an example, is certainly one of those parts of the narrative that speak to the wider discussions in recent Hungarian historiography. While this is still the conventional take on the Socialist era, a new trend in historiography is explicitly challenging it. This “vidéktörténet” (a term which can be translated as rural history) and its representatives are very vocal about how misplaced and ideologically based they consider the story of rural modernization. Instead, they see a communist plot to destroy all the values and material bases of rural society and focus on the destruction and traumas that allegedly shaped the world of the countryside after 1945. Without making an explicit argument, Romsics’s book is a clear refutation of this thesis. Neither he nor his village seems traumatized; he instead emphasizes passivity and a distancing from heroic deeds. The family story is one of accumulating property and material goods and growing security. It is not a story of enthusiastic acceptance of, for example, collectivization, but it is more sensitive to the internal divisions of the village. When his grandfather, in his old age, admits that his life is fairly secure and if he knew this in advance he would never have opposed the Communist policy of collectivization, it is hard not to see him speaking directly to the advocates of a vision of ruins and trauma.

Romsics is not the sole figure who accepts and exemplifies this transformation and its benefits for village people. On his journey, he is always accompanied by peasant-turned-intellectuals from an older generation and from his own generation. Teachers, cultural activists, fellow students and historians, journalists, writers. They co-create the new system, participate in politics and its institutions, share its vices but help the emergence of a group of educated people with a rural background as first-generation intellectuals later populating the expanding world of culture and academia. On the pages of Romsics’s egohistory, this groups emerges as a source of solidarity and assistance, despite their diverging trajectories after graduation from university. The names must be familiar to anyone who experienced the transition and attest to something important but often forgotten, that many more than two opposing networks emerged from the change of regime into the field of democratic politics. But this is a story for the second part of Romsics’s egohistory.


Gábor Egry is a historian, Doctor of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, director-general of the Institute of Political History, Budapest. His research interests are nationalism, everyday ethnicity, politics of identity, politics of memory, economic history in modern East Central Europe. He held fellowships at Imre Kertész Kolleg Jena, New Europe College, Bucharest, Institut für Ost und Südosteuropa Regensburg and he was a Fulbright Visiting Research Scholar at Stanford University’s Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies. Author of five volumes in Hungarian and several articles. among others in European Review of History, Slavic Review, Hungarian Historical Review, Südostforschungen. His last monograph is Etnicitás, identitás, politika. Magyar kisebbségek naconalizmus és regionalizmus között Romániában és Csehszlovákiában 1918-1944 (Napvilág, Budapest, 2015) received an Honorable Mention from the Felczak-Wereszyczki Prize of the Polish Historical Association, and he received the Mark Pittaway Article Prize of the Hungarian Studies Association in 2018. Since 2018, he is the Principal Investigator of the ERC Consolidator project Nepostrans – Negotiating post-imperial transitions: from remobilization to nation-state consolidation. A comparative study of local and regional transitions in post-Habsburg East and Central Europe.