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Review February 2024

The life and times of Péter Hanák

Review by Ferenc Laczó
Péter Csunderlik, 2023
ISBN 9789633385258
318 Pages
Published by: Napvilág Kiadó

Péter Csunderlik’s engaging new book, Egy különleges közép-európai történész, sketches the life and career trajectory of Péter Hanák, an innovative Hungarian historian, Holocaust survivor, former communist believer, and Danubian patriot. In the introduction, Csunderlik promises an essayistic treatment of Hanák’s biography and oeuvre. This manifests in a chronological and problem-centered narrative that offers insights into the history of Hungarian historiography after 1945, research-based reflections to “comprehend” Hanák’s controversial deeds during the years of Stalinist rule, and an approach that reveals the biographer’s special affinity with his subject – not least via practicing the latter’s art of how to be “objectively curious.” 

Even though historians’ biographies of their former colleagues are rarely free of the risk of navel-gazing, the choice of Hanák as the subject of a book-length essay can be justified on multiple grounds. Perhaps less well known – and certainly less accomplished in terms of publications – than the two towering historians from the same Hungarian Jewish generation, György Ránki and Iván T. Berend, Hanák belonged to that tragic and utterly fascinating generation of Central European Jewish intellectuals whose lives have been profoundly shaped by the catastrophes and utopias – most especially Nazism and Soviet communism, respectively – of the past century. Having in turns been a Hungarian Jewish survivor from a devastated Kaposvár family, a young Stalinist scholar, a prominent Kádár-era reformer pursuing strategies of internationalization, and head of various institutional units – which included his founding directorship of the Central European University’s History Department in the 1990s – Hanák’s life story is, if not necessarily atypical, certainly sufficiently complex and in parts ambiguous to merit serious attention. The kinds of complexities and ambiguities his biography and oeuvre can help us explore have too rarely received sustained, critical, and emphatic treatment in his native Hungary in recent years – years that have mostly been dominated by “memory politics” and right-wing populist condemnations and exculpations. In this sense, Csunderlik’s research-based book amounts to a much-needed intervention, even if it does not fully deliver on the analytical potential of his intriguing subject.

Hanák belonged to that tragic and utterly fascinating generation of Central European Jewish intellectuals whose lives have been profoundly shaped by the catastrophes and utopias of the past century.

Csunderlik begins by underlining that Hanák repeatedly and eagerly reflected on the problems of Jewish integration and assimilation as a scholar but practically tabooed his own devastating family history in the age of anti-Jewish genocide. The author also does well at pointing to how his family’s forced downward mobility and the Hungarian state’s discriminatory policies against him only strengthened Hanák’s identity as a young worker, without thereby erasing his somewhat anachronistic Hungarian patriotism with its roots in the 19th century. 

As Csunderlik shows, Hanák’s social democratic activism soon paved his path to Hungary’s Soviet-style communist movement, which provided him with a replacement family, an attractive forum, and quick career opportunities. His scholarly career began with the commemoration of the centenary of 1848, which soon made him – a committed and dynamic man still in his twenties – an influential and complicit actor in Stalinist symbolic politics. Predictably, grave disappointment soon followed. 

By the time of 1956’s intellectual ferment, Hanák attempted to occupy a middle ground that did not really exist and was widely perceived as “lukewarm” – neither a dogmatic believer, nor a reputable reformer. If his personal involvement in the 1956 revolution, and refusal to join the re-founded communist party afterwards, kept Hanák from assuming top positions prior to 1989, his basic ideological conformity, scholarly innovativeness, and sincere change of behavior – in short, his conscious but also cautious reformism – were to make him an admirably successful scholar under Kádár’s rule. The theme of utopias, and the reasons behind their failure, continued to occupy him for the rest of his life. 

Csunderlik sketches the profile of Hanák with nuanced strokes, revealing some of his subject’s idiosyncrasies, and finely balancing his assessments.

As Csunderlik shows in the second half of the book, Péter Hanák’s erudition, wit and irony, his firm opposition to nationalism and implicit legitimization of Kádárist internationalism, the emphasis on beneficial compromises (including, most importantly, that of 1867, with echoes in the present), and his growing involvement in Habsburg Studies across borders amounted to an integral whole. Hanák’s avid interest in Central European cultural history and the complex problems of the bourgeoisie in this region certainly distanced him from the unfavorable image of an ideologically committed East European historian. At the same time, he was a clear beneficiary of the Kádár regime’s relaxation and opening. Csunderlik’s biography does a splendid job at depicting how much this meant in terms of prestigious Western connections and appointments – and how little it brought him in terms of material comfort. Péter Hanák evidently cherished the world of Western scholarship in the late Cold War years, which was in many ways similar to his own, consciously progressive, and narrowly male-dominated world of ideas – even if he was suddenly forced to work hard and, remarkably, even had to take English classes just before he started to offer courses in New York City.

Egy különleges közép-európai történész is a stylishly composed, broadly accessible, and at times amusing book that offers a fair-minded depiction of the everyday realities, concerns, possibilities, and intellectual maneuvers of a notable scholar in twentieth-century Central and Eastern Europe and sheds ample light on the evolving priorities of international and Hungarian historical scholarship. Csunderlik sketches the profile of Hanák with nuanced strokes, revealing some of his subject’s idiosyncrasies, and finely balancing his assessments. The author’s research draws not only on previously unexplored primary sources but also on numerous original interviews with relevant actors. His treatment of the existing secondary literature is unfortunately less impressive and often amounts to little more than signaling agreement. An attempt at broader analytical contextualization is rarely palpable. We read multiple insights into moot questions – such as how Hanák’s habitus, convictions, and scholarly-political agendas may have resembled or differed from those of his contemporaries (Hungarian Jewish or otherwise); how the profound traumas of his youth may have contributed to his temporary moral shortsightedness after 1945; how his reformist attitudes and predilection for modernization related to the Kádár regime’s own self-image and priorities; how the shifts in his scholarly focus tracked broader transformations in historiography and how his position within the international scholarly field evolved; what his “Danubian patriotism” and commitment to dialogue across Central and Eastern Europe’s numerous national borders yielded in academic and civic terms, etc. – but few distilled analytical conclusions. Notably, the book lacks more extended closing reflections. This is regrettable since Hanák may have been a különleges (for lack of a better translation: exceptional) individual in many respects, but numerous elements in his trajectory were far from unique and were clearly shaped by larger historical forces. 

Péter Csunderlik’s original and articulate treatment on these pages thus depicts Péter Hanák as a remarkable actor in twentieth-century Central and Eastern Europe but does less to scrutinize a historian whose trajectory was deeply embedded in the varied experiences of that century.

Ferenc Laczó is an assistant professor with tenure (universitair docent 1) at Maastricht University, a visiting assistant professor at Columbia University in 2023-24, and an editor at the Review of Democracy (CEU Democracy Institute). He is the author or editor of twelve books on Hungarian, Jewish, German, European, and global themes.