Psychological consequences of repression
The result of the years of autocracy on the Hungarian people seems to be a generalized anguish now that they are faced with trying to create a democratic society. The methods of the Communist government that resulted in some of the most damaging psychological consequences were:
One key to understanding Hungarians is their tendency to internalize. This was the consensus of a group of Hungarian psychologists who were interviewed in an attempt to answer the question of "What is the Hungarian national character?" 1 The most dramatic indicator of this internalization is Hungary's high suicide rate, particularly when contrasted with its low homicide rate. Nearly 5,000 people commit suicide each year in Hungary, compared to a murder rate of only 300 per year. In comparisons of suicide rates in developed countries around the world, Hungary's suicide rate shows up as the highest in the world.2 In the most recent data from the United Nations, the suicide rate per 100,000 in the U.S. was 12.4, in the Soviet Union it was 19.5, but in Hungary the rate was 41.6.3 Thus, Hungary's suicide rate is nearly 4 times that in the U.S., whereas the U.S. murder rate is over 3 times that of Hungary.4 Further, over the last 30 years, the difference between Hungary's rates and those of other countries has steadily increased. While other countries' rates have fluctuated or increased moderately, Hungary's suicide rates have skyrocketed to approximately twice the 1960 rates, which already were leading the world.5
Many trace the origins of the internalized aggression reflected in these high suicide rates to Hungary's history of being dominated, a history which is not just decades old, but centuries old. As psychologist Margot Honti says, "We know what it is to be losers. We have all been losers for centuries." 6
When you deal with a people who have known only 50 years of freedom in the last 500, it is not surprising that that affects their manner. In public, Hungarians are reserved and cautious. Hungarians are in general skeptical, reflective, and slow to make a commitment. Hungarians are used to being lied to and to going along with the lie at some level, though not with intimate friends. "Here we lived a life for the last 40 years where everybody knew that everyone else was lying." 7
And sudden freedom
Some of the leaders emerging in the new democracy are giving people a false ideology: "Control your own destiny. You should place the greatest value on yourself. You'll be successful in life if you just work hard enough." While these may be half-truths, all too often the message communicated to Hungarian citizens about the essence of democracy is that the individual should put himself at the center of his life: His wants, and his struggles are of paramount importance. Thus, a selfish orientation is promoted instead of submission to God, a grabbing for things instead of a receiving of the love of Jesus and the power that arises from His sacrifice for us.
Hungary is a linguistically isolated country that is trying to emerge from decades, and even centuries, of oppression. The Soviets left in 1990, leaving behind a country saddled with a large national debt, polluted air, and an inefficient, bureaucratic mindset. It is little wonder that the people are pessimistic and withdrawn. The number of people who choose the ultimate withdrawal of suicide bespeaks the anguish that a large part of the society feels.
Today in Hungary's democracy, everybody can live for himself. What is being instilled in people is "Work for yourself, show yourself to be clever, and mind only your own business." What seems to be on the increase in the free market economy is not satisfaction or contentment, but rather greed, alcoholism, drug abuse, and overemphasis on sexuality.
The challenge that Hungary presents is how to join forces with Christians there in bringing a message of hope to those in despair. In part, the challenge is how to unite the economic and professional resources of the West with the expertise, fervor, and vision of the believers there.
Harold Delaney, Ph.D., is professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM.
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© 1993 East-West Church and Ministry Report