Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 1
10 January 2000

The Crown H U N G A R Y:
Crown Fever

Paul Nemes

On 1 January 2000, the year the Hungarian state celebrates its 1000th anniversary, the Holy Crown (Szent Korona) was moved from the National Museum to Parliament. Tens of thousands of Hungarians lined the streets to see the Holy Crown, the Orb, the Sword and the Sceptre being taken to Parliament, but the law reform which made the move possible has been criticised by opposition parties. What then, is the role of the Holy Crown in today's Hungary?

First, it may be appropriate to give a brief account of the history of the Holy Crown, and to give some leads as to why it is of such great importance to Hungarians. The Holy Crown was sent to Szent István (St Stephen) by Pope Sylvester II (or, some say, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Otto III) in the year 1000. The crowning of St Stephen (thought to have taken place on either 25 December 1000 or 1 January 1001), the first Christian king of Hungary, marks the beginning of Hungarian statehood.

The Crown soon became the focal point of struggles for the throne because it was bound to the Crown Lands of St Stephen (pre-Trianon Hungary). Since then, no king of Hungary has been truly legitimised without swearing allegiance to the Holy Crown of St Stephen and the people it represents.

Charles Robert had to be crowned three times because it was not until he was crowned with St Stephen's Crown, in 1310, that the coronation was seen as legally binding. Another, more recent, example of the powers of the Crown is the fact that inter-war Hungary - after the abdication of the last Hapsburg king of Hungary, Charles IV, in 1918 - remained a kingdom without a king.

The Holy Crown has had a lively history, having been stolen, hidden, lost and taken abroad many times. It last returned to Hungary from Fort Knox in 1978. After the fall of Communism, it made its return to the national coat of arms in 1989, the National Assembly choosing the pre-war coat of arms in favour of the crown-less Kossuth arms.

Back, then, to today's Hungary. Already on 20 August (St Stephen's Day) last year, newly commissioned officers partially swore allegiance to the Holy Crown. Smallholder (FKGP) President and Minister for Agriculture József Torgyán has gone as far as saying that Members of Parliament also should swear allegiance to the Crown.

The Socialist Party (MSZP) and the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ), on the other hand, are opposed to any such developments, saying that the Holy Crown is purely of symbolic value, and nothing but a feudal remnant - a relic. The SZDSZ, who - with the exception of Imre Mécs - did not participate in the ceremonies on 1 January, recognise that the Holy Crown is an invaluable national treasure, but believe that the republic's position is endangered by the law reform, which they say is unconstitutional.

Due to the split opinion regarding the position of the Crown, an amendment to the Constitution proved unsuccessful. Instead, the Coalition parties decided to commemorate the millennium year of Hungarian statehood by introducing a Millennium Law package, Lex Millenaris, which incorporates the Holy Crown.

A royal republic?

So what does the new Millennium Law mean? Is Hungary becoming a royal republic? Every Member of Parliament seems to have a different opinion on the matter. This appears to confirm something typically Hungarian, that if there are four Hungarians in the same room, most likely they belong to five different political parties.

A leading opposition MP summed up the Government's position, saying that the Government coalition's slogan for the new law should be something like, "more than a republic, less than a kingdom."

Prior to the Parliamentary session on the new law last month, Justice Minister Ibolya Dávid tried to reassure opponents by saying that Hungary always has been a constitutional country and will remain so. The Millennium Law does not contradict the constitution, and will not introduce a royal, secular system. Therefore, she says, she does not understand why the Opposition is making such a big fuss of the matter. According to her, the opposition fear the Crown like the Devil fears incense.

Smallholder MP Béla Túri-Kovács argues that the crown is a symbol of historical Hungary's territory and its people. László Varga (FIDESZ-Hungarian Civic Party) says that the Holy Crown represents Christendom and nothing else. Free Democrat Tamás Bauer holds the view that the Crown is a symbol of the monarchy, while Socialist and former Justice Minister Pál Vastagh says that it is nothing more than one part of the national coat of arms.

Rather predictably, István Csurka, the Hungarian Justice and Life Party (MIÉP) leader, argues that the new law is not challenging enough when it comes to the territorial rights that accompany the Crown, meaning that the Crown represents the territorial integrity of historical Hungary.

In short, MPs find it impossible to agree on or determine the meaning and the consequences of the new law. The Government coalition mean that the Holy Crown does not represents a form of government (monarchy), but is the symbol of the historic Hungarian state. The MSZP and SZDSZ oppose the law because they are concerned about the rights the Crown once gave to the nobility and that the law may bring more political power to the Crown.

As the Holy Crown has had a higher standing than that of the head of state, the Socialists remind us, the Crown at one time represented the king and the nation, which is contradictory in a republic. They are also concerned that the new law could be the first step towards a change in the form of government. The Government argues that the law buries the Crown's connection to the throne.

Constitutional lawyer György Wiener (MSZP) says that while it is true the Crown once did stand for the rights of the nobility, today it represents the whole nation. The Millennium Law does not suggest that a king should be made head of state. As long as there is no candidate for the job, this is an unnecessary discussion he says. Wiener states that national unity is still represented by the President.

The Government has said that the Holy Crown only is a symbol representing all members of the Hungarian nation. This insistence on the Crown's value as purely symbolic does not however mean that it will not threaten the role of the Republic's elected head of state as the representative of national unity.

In the new law, it would seem, none of the powers and rights that before Communism belonged to the Crown are restored, but the Crown is made a national symbol, which according to the Law previously was not the case. Opinion is divided over whether the consequence of the Millennium Law will be more far-reaching than its content, and whether it will lead to the Holy Crown acquiring a place in Hungarian politics.

No one can really say what the allegedly mystical powers of the Holy Crown exactly are. Due to differences of opinion, the new Millennium Law does not represent the wishes of all Hungarians, as the Government claims.

However, there can be no doubt that, while the Crown is a symbol that belongs to all Hungarians, its power to legitimise has survived the monarchy and therefore it will help any Hungarian ruler to have the Holy Crown on his or her side.

Paul Nemes, 10 January 2000

Sources: HVG, Magyar Nemzet and MTI



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