In my mother tongue, in Hungarian, this article would be just of one sentence: the one formulated in the title. For an English-speaking North-American audience, however, I need to insert many footnotes. Actually, this whole text below is a multitude of footnotes.
For Hungarians, everything is more complicated than for the rest of the world.1
Footnote #1. – At least, that’s how we feel. Throughout the history, since the formation of the very first Masonic lodge on the territory of the former Hungarian Kingdom in 1749 – 2,3 the public perception of Freemasonry went through several stages.
Footnote #2. – That first lodge happened to be in my homeland, Transylvania, in the city of Kronstadt or Brassó – or Brașov, as it is called today in Romania.
Footnote #3. – Those events in the distant past of the 18th century are more like a tale, a distant fairy tale… where some eccentric gentlemen and some aristocrats fancied to join or form a lodge – just as it was in vogue everywhere else in Europe. There was even a “Hungarian” system, created by an army officer – we are talking Austrian army, by the way — a certain captain Draskovics János (we have this “normal” way of putting first the family name or the last name). It is true, that Magyar officer happened to be a Croatian, and today’s Freemasons from that country consider him one of their own pioneers in Masonry and call him Ivan Drašković V (the fifth).4
Footnote #4. – This already tells a lot about the complicated nature of historical “facts”. Because everything is true, even when examined from different angles. The real question is how those “facts” are used today in the vigorous national-pride-building exercises of every miserable small nation in Central and Eastern Europe.
From that era, the most prominent Mason was the emblematic figure of the (Hungarian) language renewal and reform movement, Ferenc Kazinczy. Thanks to his efforts the Hungarian could become the official language in Hungary in 1844. He joined a Masonic lodge years before he was sentenced to death, later commuted to imprisonment for the participation in the Martinovics conspiracy.5 Even today, his involvement with the Craft is regarded, depending on political worldview, as a matter of pride or absolving him for the “foolish” mistake.
Footnote #5. – Everything was fine, back then in the late 1700s until some enthusiastic Hungarians organized a kind of Jacobin (revolutionary?) movement in the Hapsburg Empire. As we learned later, the head of this movement was an informer of the imperial secret police, reporting mainly about secret societies like Freemasons6 and Illuminati and Jesuits (they just got expelled by the Emperor…). He was Ignác Martinovics7, a Franciscan monk, chemist, physicist, theologian, professor and paid snitch.
Footnote #6. – Ironically, he organized his revolutionary movement somewhat in a similar way as Masonic lodges are organized. Their adventure though was short-lived: before doing any harm to the establishment they were caught and he was executed together with his four “directors” in 1795. In the very same year, the Emperor outlawed all the Masonic lodges – and they remained illegal till 1868 when by a special ministerial permit Vienna allowed to form Masonic lodges in Hungary.8
Footnote #7. – As a rebel against the Austrian rule, he was a good boy. As an informer of the police, he was a bad boy. As being executed by the imperial oppressors, he is a good boy. As organizer of “lodge-like” conspiracy and being a precursor of Masons, he is a bad boy…
Footnote #8. – Just a reminder: the former Hungarian Kingdom was then under Austrian Hapsburg rule for centuries already – the Austrian Emperor and the Hungarian king being the same person but there were two distinct administrations. And just in the previous year, i.e. in 1867 the two state entities signed what became to be known as the Compromise (Ausgleich) which resulted in the “two-headed” monster (as its enemies liked to call it) known as Austro-Hungarian (dual9) Monarchy.
Footnote #9. – While Hungarian Masons were allowed to start lodges and Grand Lodges10, in the Austrian part of the empire the 1795 ban was still in effect. Don’t ask…
Footnote #10. – About 18 years later the two rival Grand Lodges of Hungary “merged” under the name of Symbolic Grand Lodge of Hungary (1886) and the golden era11 of the Hungarian Freemasonry began. It didn’t last too long: at the end of the WWI, it got banned again in 1919.
Footnote #11. – During those 33 golden years, there were around a hundred lodges with over 10,000 members. Many civil and social changes were initiated by those Masons, like the institutes for deaf and blind children, medical emergency services and much more. A great number of celebrities – poets, writers, actors, scientists, journalists and radical politicians – were known members of Masonry.
Again, here goes a period of few decades when Masonry (almost) became a decent thing and worthy of praise.12
Footnote #12. – And here we have to stop for a moment before going into the next phase of public perception. This golden age of Masonry in the Hungarian Kingdom overlaps the period of the emancipation of Jews. So, while still restricted in certain areas of life and society, the assimilated Jews joined “en mass” the Masonic lodges13. It is worth noting that the voluntary assimilation or ‘Magyarization’ of Jews, very visible by changing names, was an unprecedented phenomenon at that time… So much so, that for the nationalists and racist politicians (and their unwashed constituency) the Jews became the target group of their ideology14: they found the Jews were “over-represented” in certain areas and professions. There was even a famous blood libel at the beginning of the eighties of the 19th century. (Further reading: Umberto Eco, The Prague Cemetery)
Footnote #13. – It needs to be mentioned in favour of Hungarian Masonic lodges that they were wide open to Jews at the time when many Masonic bodies in Europe and around the world didn’t accept Jews.
Footnote #14. – In the eyes of the rising anti-Jew mentality, the lodges were the gathering place for the unpatriotic, cosmopolitan, liberal, leftist etc. Masons. And Masonic Jews. In one word: traitors. Meanwhile in some of the lodges – following the French Masonic model15 – members openly argued for social changes, for better minority16 policies and the need for reforms in the quasi-feudal system of the kingdom.
Footnote #15. – They even named a (progressive) lodge after that old-timer conspirator: Martinovics.5
Footnote #16. – Then the war came, the Great War, which ended with the greatest national tragedy and trauma for the Hungarian psyche. The dual Monarchy was gone, and as a consequence of finishing the war on the losing side, Hungary was dismembered. Two-thirds of the territory and half of her population ended up in the newly formed successor nation-states – Czechoslovakia, Romania, Yugoslavia, even Austria got a small chunk. Hence the bon mot: Hungary is bordering herself… Looking at it from a demographic standpoint nobody can deny that the majority of that population going into the newly created states were not ethnic Magyars. Which would justify the change of empire. However, in the same time about 3.3 million ethnic Hungarians found themselves suddenly as subjects of new nation states, sometimes with aggressive animosity toward them. The present article and its footnotes not being an essay about the real and/or perceived controversies of the peace treaties that ended WWI, it is not addressing those issues. This historical background presenting the summary events of that period is here only as a background for understanding what happened to Masonry.17
Footnote #17. – Yes, it got banned. Again. But that’s not newsworthy where authoritarian regimes rule. What is related to our topic is how Freemasonry and the progressive ideas developed in the lodges became the target of the national frustration and anger. Freemasons and traitors (and Jews) became almost synonym phrases – and both associated with the loss of Greater Hungary. Politicians in the successor states, like Masaryk and Beneš of Czechoslovakia, were accused18 (by the ever growing irredentism in Hungary) of being Freemasons and obtaining the annihilation of the historical Hungary with the help of their Western Masonic brethren.19
Footnote #18. – Which is of course just the result of the omnipresent scapegoat-seeking mechanism, so eloquently described in his study “Atonement and Sacrifice: Scapegoats in Modern Eastern and Central Europe” by a (Hungarian) historian. On the left and on the right, among fascists and communists alike, the blame is always placed on someone else – never on our own kind…
Footnote #19. – The absurdity of this type of scapegoating – when it comes to Masonry – is the best illustrated by the fact that even in the successor states, like Romania, Freemasons are considered the enemy of the true nationalistic and orthodox20 values, defining their nation. Even if they didn’t lose but gained territory.
Footnote #20. – Like many extremists xenophobe movements, the one mentioned above also considers their own particular denomination to be part of the national identity.
Between the two world wars there was no Masonry officially in Hungary (some Hungarian lodges still worked in Transylvania, Romania, until the king introduced his monarchical dictatorship in 1938). Books, writings, “documents” have been published in the post-Trianon Hungary unveiling the alleged crimes of Masons and Masonry; lists of past memberships were printed to let everybody know. “Mason” became a curse word in the right extreme of the political spectrum. And slowly in the centre as well…21
Footnote #21. – And then on the left as well. During the short years of democratic hopes, between 1945-50, the Symbolic Grand Lodge was reinstated although soon became illegal again under the Soviet-type communist regime.22
Footnote #22. – Except Cuba, in all communist countries, Freemasonry was outlawed as a “bourgeois” organization of the class enemy. Practically, there was no talk about it, the whole issue has been “deleted” from history, it was a taboo. It disappeared from the public discourse.
After 1989, when the Hungarian Grand Lodge was reinstated, the condemnation and slander from the newly emerged extreme right have been revived. The political left wasn’t willing or able to defend the progressive ideas of the “ancient free and accepted” Masonry23 since they just represent a different flavour of the kleptocracy ruling in all of the countries of the former communist block.
Footnote #23. – When it comes about brethren from my mother lodge in Budapest and from the Hungarian Symbolic Grand Lodge in general, there is one rule and promise I’ve made that I take very, very seriously: never tell about any person alive that they are Masons. Sad.24
Footnote #24. – It is sad to be afraid to be a Freemason in a free country. It is sad to be afraid to openly admit membership in a lodge. It is sad to believe in the greatest ideals of the modern era and to have to hide the adherence to the organization that aims for those ideals.
Today I am a Canadian Mason fighting with the demons hailing from home…
[Photo credit: szabadkomuves.hu – the website of the Symbolic Grand Lodge of Hungary]