The Synagogues of Szeged and Subotica

If you’re bicycling through southern Hunganry and the adjoining (formerly Hungarian) province of  Vojvodina in northern Serbia, you can’t but be aware of the terrible displacements and atrocities that have been committed in the region by one ethnic, religious or cultural group against another over the last several centuries, and even quite recently, nearby.

One such atrocity, the Nazi murder of the Jewish population of the region, stands out. So, still, do the beautiful synagogues of Szeged and Subotica, both of which I saw earlier this week. They are a stark reminder of the sheer size of the Jewish communities in these two cities, communities which, as I understand it, are virtually non-existent, or very small, today.

The synagogue in Szeged (1907) is the fourth largest in the world, and the second largest in Hungary, after the Dohany Street Synagogue in Budapest. It is in good condition and is used as a concert hall as well as for worship.

The synagogue in Subotica (1902), inspired by the great Hungarian architect Odon Lechner, was built for a community that numbered around 3,000 at the time. It’s another great example of Hungarian art nouveau.

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Both great buildings are evidence and poignant reminders of the Jewish life and culture that must have been part of everyone’s everyday life in these and other cities in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans until the 1940s.

But I write about this mainly because I am intrigued by the language of the memorial tablet placed outside the Subotica Synagogue:

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The  Jews, it says, ‘perished in fascist death camps.’ So, it seems to imply, that had nothing to do with the local populations, or local hatreds. It all happened in a faraway place.

The description places the blame on ‘fascism’, as if anti-Semitism was, and is, principally a matter of political ideology, rather than something with darker, less intellectual origins (an irrational hatred that lay at the heart of Christian European culture for centuries)- something that can be ‘educated’ away, and blamed on specific political leaders rather than on the population at large. Of course, I may be maligning the people of Subotica. I don’t know if they were exemplary in their protection of the Jewish community (as Serbia was, in general) or not. Even if so, the description is misleading. The murder of the Jews was not a ‘fascist’ crime. It was not a German crime. It was a Nazi crime, inspired by the leaders of the Nazi party and supported by millions of others, in Germany and elsewhere, who shared their hatred.

The inscription dates from 1994, a time perhaps when Communist ideology was still lingering in the country (Yugoslavia still?) and it was convenient to wipe the slate clean and claim that in the absence of ‘fascism’ the danger no longer existed.

But I remember a train journey I made from Belgrade to Budapest in the summer of 1987, when both Hungary and Yugoslavia were still nominally communist. I talked for an hour or so with a pleasant middle-class lady who was eager to practise her excellent English. For some reason we got onto the events of the Second World War and I asked a few questions about Jewish survivors, and about the scale of the transportation and murder of the region’s Jews.

‘I know it was awful,’ she said. ‘And it’s awful that the Jewish communities were almost entirely destroyed, but you know we never really liked them.’

So much for the eradication of the irrational by political re-education! Anti-Semitism was not specifically a fascist phenomenon.

 

 

 

The Turning World

There’s a story that goes around Central Europe about a man called Pavel, or Pal, or Paul, who was born in Austro-Hungary, grew up in Romania, lived briefly in Ruthenia, and Hungary, worked in the Soviet Union and died in Ukraine. All without ever leaving his tiny village in Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia. Given the monstrous behaviour of those who trample across remote corners of the world, he must have been a master of tact to have survived at all. He probably spoke at least a dozen languages fluently.

It’s an unfamiliar concept for a British Citizen, that our nationality and allegiances might change around us, but we may soon, if Scotland achieves independence, have to accept a change of citizenship (United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland).

I thought of Pavel, Pal or Paul yesterday whilst in the Serbian city of Subotica, just across the border from Szeged. It’s a town that’s been stamped a dozen or more times into my passport, since it lies on the rail and road routes from Budapest to Belgrade. It’s actually a charming small city, replete with the usual fin-de-siècle art nouveau town hall, banks, shops, churches and synagogues (no mosques, as far as I know).

It’s a town that has endured many ‘affiliations’, to use a term that Wikipedia uses, most of them probably not affiliated by choice.

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Terrible atrocities have been committed in the city, by one ethnic group against another, whilst enforcing one affiliation or another, not least by the Nazis and their henchmen against the city’s 3,000 Jews, transported and murdered in Auschwitz.

I stopped to eat two slices of pizza, four cups of tea and a plate of tiramisu (all quite permissible when one is cycling nearly 100 km a day), and since I like to practice my imperfect Hungarian I asked the waiter if he spoke the language. He did, he said, since one of his parents is ‘Hungarian’ and the other ‘Serbian’.  I made a half-hearted attempt to order ‘hot black tea with cold milk on the side’ in Hungarian, but he greatly preferred to practice his excellent English, which, in any case, put my poor Hungarian to shame. But since it’s a fashionable concept I asked him how he ‘identified’.

‘I am a Vojvodinian,’ he said.

If you’re not aware that Vojvodina is a place, you might think this as absurd as identifying as a Vulcan (which certain people do (and who are we to judge?)).

But in fact it’s a clever ruse, and the best possible answer if you come from a place that everyone else has trampled over. Vojvodina is an identifiable region but, sadly (or wisely?) never one that was affiliated only to itself.

 

Ethics and Business – ‘Eastern Europe’ after the Revolutions

I was invited this week to present some ideas on business ethics to the committee that provides guidance to a London-based fund whose investments are guided by ethical principles. They were interested particularly in the way business ethics are perceived in former ‘Eastern Europe’, parts of which, including the Czech Republic (where I live), are now better known as ‘Central Europe’. It was in Prague, in the Czech Republic, that I started LLP Group in 1992.

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I have to admit that I was initially sceptical about the idea of an ethical fund (it can sound like that much derided concept of an ‘ethical foreign policy’, derided because impractical), but that was before I looked more carefully at the fund’s website, where its clarifying principles are published. I studied philosophy at university and have enjoyed a life of puzzled uncertainty about almost everything ever since, and I tend to see a hundred sides to every issue, at least when I come at things from a distance and with incomplete knowledge. You would often find me sitting comfortably on the fence when it comes to complex ethical issues. And so I couldn’t see how one could apply ethics consistently to investment decisions.

But, as published, the fund’s principles are reasonably pragmatic. They’re carefully defined in terms of where the fund might invest, and where it definitely won’t. The fund wisely avoids the perils of simply saying it will invest in businesses that are good, and not in those that are bad. I had previously wondered how it could calculate the ethical value of one form of business over another in the real, complex, interconnected world, but in fact they’ve made it simpler than that.

But even so, calling a fund an ‘ethical’ fund, even with careful qualification, still lays it open to embarrassment if it finds itself invested in a company whose practices are dubious for reasons other than those the fund lists.

Ethics should be a day-to-day consideration for businesses of all kinds. Businesses should be measured by ethical balance sheets, as well as by financial ones. Of course, when you’re actively involved in a business, as I am, it’s much easier to know right from wrong. My and my business partners’ decisions about the company are made in nearly full knowledge and understanding of the choices we have before us, and in our case they’re usually small choices made in the context of a medium-sized, privately held business whose whole history and complexity I and my partners and colleagues know completely. In any case business software is rarely morally contentious. But judging large businesses from the outside is altogether a different and more difficult matter.

All human institutions operate in both a legal and a moral framework. Neither framework can be precisely defined, nor are they ever complete. We’ve seen in recent months how tax law has been strained by the changing, digital nature of ‘sales’ and ‘service delivery’, and as for moral principles, these are personal, cultural, ideological, political, religious, or national, and will never be uniform. LLP Group’s business history lies largely in former socialist Central and Eastern Europe (let’s call it Eastern Europe for the sake of brevity), where business history itself began, or began again, only following the fall of communism in 1989. I’ve seen legal and moral frameworks struggling to emerge, and I’ve been acutely aware that for many in the region, there was no ready-made framework after 1989. For some, ethics were entirely irrelevant and, for all, the law was too loosely defined, and only sometimes a limitation.

I want to focus on two areas – the acceptability of corruption and the distinction between the legal and the ethical, a distinction that even twenty-five years after the end of Communism still isn’t fully appreciated in Eastern Europe.

I often say that I grew up in Hungary albeit in my early 30s. In 1987 I was sent by my employer into the professional and social isolation of a world where the spoken language was more remote from English than Hindi, where just about everything from hemlines to computer technology was old-fashioned and second hand, and where everyone I met was my Cold War enemy.

The Hungarian Socialist People’s Republic was initially a shock, in all kinds of ways. I’d been brought up, as most of us were, to imagine socialist Eastern Europe as uniform, monolithic, bureaucratic, ideologically hostile to the West, ardently socialist, strenuously equal, socially liberal, and determined to demonstrate that socialist values could triumph over capitalist materialism. I had read Tony Benn’s admiring but naïve accounts of life behind the Iron Curtain.

What I found was ideological apathy. The vast majority of people were impotently acquiescent in the life that had been prescribed for them by the Party. The few who sought power and responsibility had the Party ladder to climb. They were mildly ambitious, sometimes talented, more or less tolerated by the acquiescent majority and generally forgiven for the nonsense they had to spout. Someone had to do the job. Rather them than us. The Party wasn’t quite the monster it had once been. It wasn’t murdering its enemies anymore. As Janos Kadar said after the Soviet invasion, ‘Those who are not against us are with us.’ This reversal of Lenin’s view of seventy years earlier captured the tone of the last years of communist rule.

Cynicism, though, was a feature of everyone’s life. Impotent acquiescence wasn’t a particularly unpleasant condition, as long as there was enough food, drink and the occasional Cuban banana at Christmas. For the majority what mattered most was the private sphere, the personal life of family and friends, hobbies, and sometimes religion. Greed was completely pointless and envy had nothing much to work with. Everyone had more or less the same. Material reward wasn’t what stoked ambition, either inside the Party or outside it. If you worked hard in your profession it was only because you took some pride in it.

On the other hand, and to my very great surprise, I found racial prejudice, nationalism, homophobia and sexism wherever I looked, coexisting with the enforced state socialist ideology that didn’t in theory allow them. I sometimes say I became racist in Hungary too, if only inasmuch as I was made to feel conscious of race wherever I went. It was always, ‘Watch out, he’s a gypsy, she’s a gypsy.’ And once it was, ‘I know it was terrible that the Germans killed the Jews, but you know we never really liked them.’ Society seemed to have been frozen in the late 1940s when the socialist revolutions came. It was no surprise to me that, as in former Yugoslavia a few years later, these evils re-emerged once the Party straitjacket had been removed.

Petty corruption was a ubiquitous feature of daily life. If you wanted good hospital treatment you made a small gift to your doctor and your nurses (a little cash, a bunch of flowers, a jar of homemade pickles, or a bottle of palinka). Waiting lists and queues were long, and you often needed to bribe a little to get to the top or to the front.

I looked for the ardent ideologists, with whom I could discuss socialist ideology, but I found none, nor any hostility towards me as a representative of the decadent capitalist world. Indeed, if you were from the West you enjoyed a spurious (almost corrupting) celebrity, and I found that in the technical areas I worked in as a programmer, whatever I said was taken as Gospel. It was as if the locals accepted they’d been left behind, and that the socialist experiment had failed.

Public life prior to the failure of Communism was, in theory, governed by the ethical-political principles of socialism. Private life (including religion) was more or less a matter for the individual, and private endeavour in the public sphere was impossible. ‘Business,’ therefore was impossible. Because of that, ethics applied only in the private sphere. In the public sphere ideology and morality were generally discredited.

This was the world that collapsed into the arms of Western capitalism in 1989. And when socialist ideological control of public life failed there were no rules left to operate outside the private sphere. Few had ever believed in the public rules, but there hadn’t been much opportunity to break them. Whatever new rules now emerged as a divided multi-party democracy came into being, weren’t impressively framed. They were generally based on the principles of Roman law, and where they were inexact, mischief flourished. They were easy enough to break or circumvent. Little now limited private endeavour in the public sphere and there were plenty of spoils for all to seize. The petty corruption that was endemic to the socialist system bloomed into opportunism and organised crime.

Another, rather unexpected, thing happened, unexpected for those intellectuals who’d publicly dissented from one-party ideology (though if they’d read Animal Farm more carefully they might have seen it coming). Whilst the topmost dogs in the Party apparatus lost all their credibility and power, the vast ranks of ambitious, pragmatic and cynical apparatchiks, those who’d made the socialist system more or less work, quickly learned how to dance to the new capitalist tune, as nimbly as Orwell’s pigs stood on their two hind legs. They understood the technicalities of power, they had the connections. They even possessed a few management skills (which, sadly, you don’t learn as a dissident intellectual driving a taxi or stoking a boiler). For those who thought their time had finally come, this was bitterly disappointing, even more so when the West went to these turncoats for advice and assistance. For these incumbent bureaucrats things were suddenly even better than they’d ever been before. Now there were no rules, no d ideology to which they must pay lip service.

I’ll write more in a day or two about what happened next!

Yesterday’s Heroes

Just outside Budapest there’s a place where yesterday’s heroes stand, like children doing penance in a corner. Memento Park contains most of the monumental statues erected between 1949 and 1989 by Hungary’s Communist regime. I remember them well from the late 1980s when they stood proudly on the main roads into the city, welcoming travellers to a socialist utopia, or in the largest public spaces. Just like the red star that topped the cupola of Budapest’s glorious Parliament building, everyone thought they’d stay where they were forever. And then a helicopter removed the star, and almost in the blink of an eye, in the early 1990s, yesterday’s heroes were all gone.

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It’s a sad place, a reminder of tyranny and cruelty, but also of colossal human folly, committed by many in good faith. You’ll see Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, the heroes of the 1919 revolution (which, like so many revolutions, deteriorated into horror), and statues commemorating the liberation of Hungary in 1945 by the Red Army, and the sacrifice of thousands of Soviet lives that it entailed.

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The park is an uncomfortable reminder of a past that was often cruel, but it’s also an example of crude revisionism. Were Marx and Engels bad men? They didn’t foresee tyranny. Should the sacrifice of millions of Russian lives in defeating fascism be forgotten and their symbols reviled? True, many of these statues are crudely propagandist, emblems of tyranny, but not all of them.

I’m reminded of this issue by the controversy that surrounds a statue of Cecil Rhodes that stands above the entrance to Oriel College in Oxford, to which Rhodes made a large donation, and which many now want to remove. The Oxford Union, a student debating chamber, last night voted narrowly in favour of its removal, but I don’t think the vote binds the College or the University. Another statue of Rhodes was recently removed from the University of Cape Town. He offends current sensibilities, his British and white supremacism no longer acceptable. Oriel College is resisting, but has pandered to modern sensitivities by placing a disclaimer on its outside walls.

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What’s the right thing to do?

The first question to ask is ‘what are statues for?’

  • Some are intended (as at Oriel College) to honour their subjects
  • Some are deliberately propagandist. They promote and celebrate a particular political or religious idea. Many of the statues in Memento Park fall into this category.
  • Some celebrate the victors in a zero-sum game, and the virtues they extol depend on which side you’re on
  • Some reinforce the power of a single living individual such as Stalin, Kim Jong-un, etc.
  • Some adorn graves and thereby have a special ritual or religious significance
  • Some promote ideas that have universal appeal (think of Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais)
  • Some might stand as a warning to others (Ozymandias)
  • Some deliberately remind us of the iniquities of the past

And, does their significance and purpose change as time passes and deeds recede, or as values change?

Is removal a sensible way of expressing disapproval? Removal by destruction, or by altering a statue’s context (as removal to the Memento Park does)? How bad does someone have to be to be erased from public view?

  • Statues of Jimmy Savile (a pioneering and popular DJ) were immediately removed when it was revealed that he was a serial molester of children.
  • Saddam Hussein’s status was joyfully hauled down in Baghdad following the disastrous American-led invasion
  • The largest statue of Stalin in the world was removed from Prague in 1962 after his crimes were quietly acknowledged by Khrushchev.
  • There are countless statues of wicked medieval kings and queens. Should they, too, be removed, or has so much time passed that they have now become morally neutral, no longer an expression of approval or disapproval?
  • Churchill didn’t get everything right. He never paid his tailors and he shared many of Cecil Rhodes views on race and empire. I suspect, though, that his statue will stand in Parliament Square until the universe winds down.
  • Oliver Cromwell stands nearby, a much more dubious figure (he killed a King, presided over a military dictatorship, and committed acts of appalling cruelty against Catholics in Ireland and Scotland).
  • There are no statues of Hitler on public display in Germany, but there are images in museums, and a bust of Hitler on display at a military museum in the USA.

It is a matter of historical interest how a sculptor expresses an idea, whether his or others’, and we should always be reminded of the distorting power of propaganda. But after how long, or in what context, does a statue become an item of historical interest rather than an expression of current (ever more global) attitudes?

On balance I believe it would be foolish to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College. He is part of our history, neither wholly bad nor wholly good. We know what he was, what he did, and what he believed, and it does us no harm to be reminded of his achievements, whether they are to be praised or loathed. But he is surely no danger.

 

Blingless in Sofia

There are large parts of the world where many of those of moderate wealth, and all of those of great wealth, have acquired their possessions questionably. In such places bling abounds. If there are ‘expensive’ restaurants for business visitors or tourists they tend to be decorated brightly, opulently and ostentatiously, with the undiscerning, and undeserving, rich in mind. They are peopled by fat-bellied, swarthy gangsters, shouting into their mobile phones, blowing cigarette smoke with arrogant abandon and largely ignoring their blonde and leggy molls, who look on vacantly, even anxiously, uncertain of their tenure.

Such was Sofia some fifteen years ago, and such is Moscow still, and probably Almaty. If you weren’t wearing Gucci, or Versace, and weren’t dripping with ill-gotten gold, you were consigned to a table in a dimly lit corner of the restaurant, to be served, eventually, by reluctant waiters, and glanced at with sneering pity by more profligate and better-tipping oligarchs.

I feel a great nostalgia for such times. There was an edge to travel in the newly free democracies of Central and Eastern Europe that has been lost to normality. It was an adventure. Now it is merely a pleasure.

I’m in Sofia for two nights on the first leg of a four-country tour of LLP Group’s offices in Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia, before returning to my home city of Prague, and then on to the UK for Christmas with my mother. I’m travelling not on a Santa-style sledge, drawn by flying reindeer decked out in our company’s colours, but by low-cost airlines, which take me through two additional capitals, Belgrade and Berlin. If time permits I might also make a detour to Vienna on Sunday, since I have designs on Demel, the great Viennese café and cake shop, who make the best stollen and gingerbread in the world. I need stocking fillers for Christmas.

The purpose of my tour is unambitious and largely gastronomic. I take my colleagues out to lunch or dinner. I bestow Christmas goodwill, and listen to their woes and joys. Yesterday I took my Bulgarian colleagues to my favourite place in Sofia, the entirely bling-less Made in Home, a restaurant that is the antithesis of gangsterism, ostentation and tastelessness. The blingy rich wouldn’t even be seen dead there, though, aware of it or not, they’re far more likely to be seen dead at the places they do frequent. Its décor comes from grandmothers’ attics, bizarrely juxtaposed with original modern paintings and prints. Its chairs are a mismatched collection from the last ten decades, and your table may well have been made from a door. It’s cosy, friendly, inexpensive, and peopled by people of all kinds, none of them eager for display, and the food is absolutely excellent. It is the kind of place you might find in New York, London, Tel Aviv, or Paris, but that’s not to suggest it’s bland.

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We booked a table for 12.30 and although we set out from the office at 12.15 we were lucky to arrive before losing our table. Traffic in Sofia is appalling, made worse by breakdowns (see my colleague Stoyan removing an overheated car from our path) and by road works. Sofia, one of my favourite cities in Eastern Europe, is still being remade.

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We enjoyed an excellent lunch, choosing from a menu that included Bulgarian as well as ‘international’ dishes. The emphasis is on vegetables, but you can also eat fish and meat. It was so good I returned, alone, for dinner, and ate the zucchini patties with yoghurt all over again.

 

Borders – Back Where We Were?

Over the next three days we’re holding our company-wide LLP Group ‘consulting’ weekend in Visegrad in Hungary, in a spa hotel overlooking the Danube, just where the river bends down towards Budapest from the Slovak border. We have these conferences once a year. They’re expensive in terms of direct costs and opportunity costs, but they’re educational and they’re good for morale. The drinks are on us.

My colleagues are coming from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Russia, Bulgaria, Romania and Luxembourg. Those travelling far are flying, but most of us are travelling by car, crossing as many borders as we must. Four of us made the journey yesterday, and it took eight hours to get from Prague to Visegrad. Two hours too many, but not, in fact, because borders have become more difficult, but because of a minor accident involving some trucks and a huge traffic jam. In 23 years of travelling on the dreadful Prague to Bratislava highway I can remember only a few occasions when the road was clear from one end to the other.

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We were apprehensive that the closing of some Schengen borders in response to the refugee crisis might delay our journey, but we crossed the border between Slovakia and Hungary without delay. Only the long queue of cars and trucks crossing from Slovakia to Austria was a reminder of the reversion to the old restrictions on travel.

It’s depressing that after so many years of free movement borders are being closed in Europe. That we have taken open borders for granted for years now has never been more clear than during these temporary inconveniences. Perhaps we’ve already seen Europe at its most open, and won’t be criss-crossing as easily again for a lifetime or two.

A Belorussian colleague dared not travel at all, since his passport is currently with the British Consular authorities in Warsaw awaiting the granting of a British visa. These were the kind of inconveniences I thought we’d long ago put to rest.

The real border, of course, is the Schengen one, and the worst border is the one between Serbia and Hungary. Refugees/migrants are massing in ever greater numbers and trouble is inevitable. Indeed, yesterday there was tear gas. Let’s hope that tomorrow there aren’t bullets.

I sympathise with Hungary. Perhaps no one at the EU’s top tables took the problem seriously enough when there was time to do something about it – properly to finance and accommodate an orderly and humane acceptance of migrants arriving at the borders, and to ease their travel to safe havens all over Europe.

But Hungary’s policy of prevention, will surely not work, neither for Hungary in the long term, nor for the EU.

Shared Ancestry – Shared Values

The Hungarians and the Finns share a common history, somewhere beyond the Urals and near the River Ob. The evidence for this is largely linguistic. Their languages are the most commonly spoken two of the Finno-Ugric group (Estonian is the third) and of the wider Uralic group. Both are difficult to learn for those of us steeped in the syntax of Indo-European languages, agglutinating suffixes instead of using prepositions, eschewing gender and staying singular after a number.

Quite when the Finns and the Hungarians parted company is uncertain. The former struggled north-westwards towards Finland and developed a taste for vodka. The latter rode south-westwards towards the Carpathian basin and developed a liking for palinka. Both are unusually morose people. Over the few thousand years that have passed, the vocabularies of their languages have diverged so much that neither understands the other one today. They share only a certain intonation and syntactical logic.

Differences were thrown into sharp relief in recent days by the attitudes and behaviour of their two Prime Ministers, Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, defensive in tone, disdainful and unwelcoming of the thousands of refugees trekking across his country, Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipila, generously offering one of his own houses to new arrivals in Finland.

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Viktor Orban

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Juha Sipila

Hungary’s government has inflicted serious reputational damage on its country through its behaviour towards those fleeing war-torn Syria and other hotspots. ‘We must preserve the Christian character of Europe,’ Viktor Orban protests, but the Christian message is one of compassion and generosity, not mistrust and contempt. Hungarian xenophobia, at least as voiced by the government and a few toxic right-wing groups, is offensively ugly and not, in the end, pragmatic.

Consider the behaviour of senior police officers welcoming migrants as they crossed the border into Austria, ushering footsore families towards tables of food, clothes and shoes, and then on to the trains that took them to Vienna and Munich. Their role was protective and liberating.  By contrast, Hungarian officials attempted only to contain the thousands of migrants stranded at Keleti Station in Budapest, or held in bleak camps devoid of comfort and sustenance, not to support or assist them.

I watched an interview with an Iraqi migrant on BBC News, and I take comfort in the fact that he praised the kindness of individual Hungarians, reserving his anger only for institutional Hungary, the tone and actions of the Hungarian government not the people. This is my experience too. There is kindness in Hungary and news stories showed many Hungarians offering food at the roadside to those who left the city to walk from Budapest to the border.

On Sunday a convoy of Austrian cars crossed the border into Hungary to pick up refugees and take them back to Austria. So many generous gestures, Christian or just straightforwardly humane, but not a word of kindness from Mr Orban.

The unity of the European Union is an artificial construct. It isn’t something we feel instinctively. The idea of ‘European Values’ that supposedly unites us means one thing to one nation, another to another.

The founding/joining emotions of the early members were formed in the aftermath of the Second World War. Though the Coal and Steel Union and, later, the European Economic Community, were ostensibly economic institutions, it was a determination to avoid conflict based on narrow national interest or racial identity that bound these nations together. The enthusiastic welcome offered by Germany and Austria to arriving migrants reflects their sense of history, and the shadow still cast over their countries by the Holocaust.

The accession motives of newer members, particularly those of the former Soviet Bloc, were not emotional. They were based on economic, political and military expediency.

The fragility of the European Union has never been more apparent than in recent months. ‘European Values’ are lamentably ill defined. Desperate references to ‘solidarity’ by leaders of the founding members mean little to the Visegrad Four. They understand each other no more deeply than the Finns and Hungarians understand each other’s language, however much of the past they share.

Let Them In

There are a dozen of arguments to be made about immigration, but the immediate moral issue is clear. Whilst we squabble about the future of these ‘migrants’, ‘immigrants’, ‘asylum seekers’ or ‘refugees’, arbitrarily labelling them ‘economic’ or ‘legitimate’ to suit one argument or another, they suffocate and drown.

Let them in.

migrants

Some argue that an ageing Europe needs immigrants to avoid economic decline. Others argue that if this is true in the mid- and long-term, there are still sufficient unemployed young people and women to take up the short-term slack.

Some argue that the ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity that follows from large-scale immigration is harmful. England for the English, Hungary for Hungarians. But the greatest civilisations of the world have thrived on diversity, and the world is smaller now – the parochial values of nationalism, ethnic, cultural, and religious homogeneity belong to the past.

Today, our values are supranational or global. Democracy, justice, human rights, equality of opportunity, tolerance. They transcend the particular customs and whims of a single group, and have nothing to do with creed.

Some argue that these people’s problems are not our problems. But in many cases it is the rich world’s meddling (usually driven by an insatiable thirst for oil) that have created the conditions they flee. What good came of our hundred years of meddling in Iraq, in Libya, in Afghanistan, in Syria?

Some argue that immigrants are a terrorist threat. But surely, well-funded terrorists can find a more convenient way of infiltrating Europe than through the fields of southern Europe and under the razor wire, or across the choppy seas of the Mediterranean in unseaworthy vessels.

There are many more arguments for or against. And whilst we argue, these desperate people drown and suffocate, prey to the people-smuggling scum who profit from their misery.

What I miss is kindness. Angela Merkel’s words stand out from the harsh, pragmatic words of her counterparts. And yet Germany has accepted twelve times as many immigrants in 2015 than Britain.

Quoting from the Guardian:

“There can be no tolerance of those who question the dignity of other people,” she said, standing in front of placards accusing her of being the people’s traitor. “There is no tolerance of those who are not ready to help, where, for legal and humanitarian reasons, help is due.”

And then there is our hypocrisy.

How often do our guide books extol the generous hospitality of the Arab world? And yet how hard we find it to reciprocate.

How often have we ourselves fled our own nations, and been received generously by others? Think of Hungary in 1956.

Whatever the causes, the immediate situation requires just one response. Let them in.

The Iron Curtain – Then and Now

How things have changed, and yet not at all.

I took the train from Budapest to Vienna on Friday for the first time in about twenty years. When I first lived in Budapest in 1987, the city was still behind the Iron Curtain, and it was a journey I made regularly, especially in the winter, to get away from the greyness of Budapest to the colour, culture and sophistication of Vienna, not to mention the nightlife. Passengers were few and the journey took more than four hours. Eastern Europeans, as they were then called, couldn’t travel without an approved purpose and a visa, and foreigners living in Budapest were very few.

It took nearly half an hour (and the stamping of half a dozen documents) to buy a ticket at the railway station in Budapest, and when the train stopped at the border it might take up to half an hour for the border guards to make their sweep of the train. Suspicion abounded, and I was often the focus of it.

iron curtain

On Friday last week, it took me just one minute to buy a ticket (though, admittedly I waited 30 minutes in the queue with dozens of other eager travellers) and the journey was scheduled to take only three hours. The train left on time, was full, and stopped for just a few minutes at the border. After all, we were all travelling from one Schengen state to another, and in theory passports aren’t required.

But suspicion still abounds, albeit of another kind. As the train left Budapest Keleti Station hordes of a new generation of police (no more polite than the Communist-era variety, but nowadays multi-lingual) swept through the train, demanding (often very aggressively) that anyone ‘suspicious’ (which in their book meant anyone of any colour other than white) should show his or her passport. I sat in the restaurant car with a middle-class Singaporean family (probably ‘ethnically’ Indian). I didn’t have to show my passport, but they had to show theirs. About ten passengers were then removed from the train before we reached the border.

I suppose that what I saw was the EUROPEAN IMMIGRATION PROBLEM at first hand. Hungary has recently and unilaterally adopted an aggressive attitude, though why this means preventing them from leaving the country rather than letting them go, I do not know.

We are back where we were. Borders still matter. If the government of Hungary can get away with it, there will be a new physical Iron Curtain soon on the country’s border with Serbia.

All You Need

biking stuff

You don’t need much for eight days’ cycling around the edge of Hungary. I’ve been known to go on trips where your luggage is carried from hotel to hotel, whilst you cycle at a leisurely pace, unencumbered by clothes and equipment, but those trips are for softies. Serious cycling is a penitential experience, and you must fend for yourself, comfort generally shunned. That said, I confess that don’t carry a tent, nor cooking equipment and I do stay in hotels and eat in restaurants, when I can find them.

So, what does a moderately penitential cyclist carry? What you see in the picture is what I took.

Devices

  • 1 Dell Notebook PC and cable
  • 1 Kindle and cable
  • 1 iPhone and cable (iPhone not in the pic, since in use)

Bike Wear

  • Three light luridly-coloured easy-to-wash easy-to-see miracle-fibre tops
  • Two light easy-to-wash miracle-fibre shorts
  • Helmet (including net to prevent insects reaching hair)
  • Waterproof jacket from sponsor Helly Hansen

Elegant Evening Wear

  • Three pairs black socks
  • Three polo tops from sponsor Banana Republic
  • Hoody for chilly evenings

Constant Wear

  • Rigidly-soled cycling sandals
  • Underwear (five pairs)

Food and Drink

  • Small bag of nuts
  • 40 Gold Blend teabags from sponsor Marks & Spencer

Bathroom and Medical Supplies

  • Savlon for abrasions and mosquito bites
  • Toothpaste from sponsor Colgate
  • Deodorant from sponsor Gillette
  • Toothbrush
  • Painkillers for headaches caused by dehydration and drink
  • Blood pressure pills to alleviate the high blood pressure brought on by age and an unhealthy lifestyle
  • Razor from sponsor Gillette
  • 50+ Sun Cream
  • Black Pepper Cologne by sponsor Molton Brown
  • Bag to put them all in

Miscellaneous

  • Glasses and case
  • Cash
  • Passport
  • Credit Cards
  • Bag to put them in from sponsor Etihad
  • Pens from sponsor British Airways
  • Earphones
  • Two maps

That’s all. Try it. Who needs furniture and paintings and things? Life can be simple and free.

But I’m off my bike now. I’d go further, much further (‘second star to the right and straight on ’til morning’), but having arrived in Timisoara two days ahead of schedule, I added on Szeged, reached in two days through a corner of Serbia, and there, after 675 km, I stopped and got on a train.

bike map