Nothing Will Go Back: An Interview with Dr. Andrea Pető of Central European University

WHEN I FIRST read Dr. Andrea Pető’s writing earlier this year, I was thrilled to have found a vocal feminist scholar from Hungary. Her progressive work on gender provided a counterpoint to my image of contemporary Hungary, which is ruled by a tight-fisted and “illiberal” regime, whose right-wing views leave little room for feminism. Under Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the government has encroached on independent media and academic freedom. A Trump supporter, Orbán also recently inaugurated a class of “border hunters”: militants charged with hunting down illegal immigrants on the shared border with Serbia.

Having only read about these political developments, I was eager to hear firsthand from an academic living and working in Budapest. As events would have it, I found myself in the Hungarian capital this spring. Dr. Pető was happy to meet. Our interview couldn’t have been more timely. Weeks before my visit, the Hungarian Parliament passed a law intended to force the closure of Budapest’s Central European University (CEU), founded by George Soros. Dr. Pető is a professor in CEU’s Gender Studies department. 

We met on a Thursday afternoon in a university building on Zrínyi utca, opposite the sun-drenched St. Stephen’s Basilica. Dr. Pető was waiting for me in her fifth-floor office, a quiet space filled with memorabilia from past conferences she’s organized. At one point, she dug out a tote bag from a conference of European Jewish Women organized at CEU in 2006. “That was a nice time,” she reminisced, acknowledging that holding a similar conference in Budapest today might be difficult. In our hour-long conversation, we talked about gender politics in Budapest, the country’s religious revival, and the stakes of living in an illiberal state.


STEPHANIE NEWMAN: What impact do you think the Trump administration has had in emboldening Orbán and influencing Hungary’s direction overall?

ANDREA PETŐ: As I see US politics from here, there’s much more resistance through the judiciary and the media than there is in Hungary. Our illiberal state is a new form of governance, not a backlash. Nothing will go back to the way it used to be. Because of independent media in the United States, there hasn’t been the same kind of takeover as in Hungary.

On the other hand, there is this transnational network of politicians and public intellectuals who are meeting and strategizing. The World Congress of Families is an American fundamentalist Christian organization, and, along with the International Organization for the Family, they’ll be meeting here in Budapest from May 25–28, 2017. They support banning abortion and promoting the family as a heteronormative unit. Last year, the conference was in the Caucuses, in Georgia, and there were lots of Russian delegates there. In 2015, the conference was in Salt Lake City, Utah. Of course, there is this very strange alliance between the fundamentalist Christians and Russian intellectuals, and now the honorary leader of this latest four-day conference is our Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. The organizer is the state secretary for Hungary’s Ministry of Human Capital, which covers social affairs, education, and culture. So, the state secretary responsible for family affairs will be the keynote speaker at this extremely controversial “World Congress of Families.”

In one of your pieces for openDemocracy, you mention the government’s promotion of a more traditional family structure. Is this related? 

Yes, but this “traditional family structure” is not as traditional as you might imagine. The illiberal state has a very different family policy from Christian conservatives. Our government has the rhetoric of promoting all families, but not the practice. I wrote this article about the Polypore state with Weronika Grzebalska [a PhD researcher at Graduate School for Social Research, Polish Academy of Sciences] comparing women’s politics in Poland and Hungary. The Polypore state is working with securitization, familialism, and constructing alternative NGOs that mirror existing institutions. The conservative values are only fig leaves. Behind them aren’t values, but power: economic, social, and symbolic power.

That said, if you look at the policies in Hungary, you can’t really see any government attempt to change existing reproductive rights. Abortion today is more or less freely available. Free abortion was introduced by a decree in Hungary in January 1945, after the massive rapes committed by Red Army soldiers, and it was constantly regulated by decrees until 1990, when the constitution needed a higher-level legal framework. In our System of National Cooperation (name of the document replacing the constitution), life must be protected from conception. But the government wouldn’t dare renegotiate how these values will be regulated — with good reason. The number of abortions is decreasing, even though health insurance does not cover pills. Polls are actually showing that more than 70 percent of Hungarian women want to protect the right to an abortion. At the moment, I think what we have is an acceptable compromise, as far as the practice is concerned, for all parties involved.

Another parallel between the United States and Hungary is the rising rate of xenophobia. What was the feminist response to the immigration crisis in 2015, as Syrian refugees crossed into Hungary through Serbia?

This was a transformative moment for everybody, especially for us here in this academic ivory tower. It was important for us that CEU opened its doors to the refugees. The faculty, staff, and students were collecting donations in shifts. In a sense, the non-response and ignorance of the state created space for various civil organizations to flourish. It was also interesting to interact with the Hungarian women who converted to Islam because they had married somebody practicing the religion. They have a very powerful association here in Hungary, and they were the driving force behind this kind of civic initiative, because they spoke the language and, being veiled, had more trust from the women refugees. These Hungarian women had two or three cell phones, and they’d be driving from one place to another to coordinate their humanitarian action. This also proved that the stereotype of the passive Islamic religious woman, who stays home taking care of the kids, is unsustainable. They were out there with their children, organizing and active. The migration crisis changed their position.

Of course, Orbán was staunchly anti-immigration, and now many reporters are attributing the attempted CEU shutdown to his low tolerance for liberal ideologies. How is CEU responding?

I can say that there’s enormous support for CEU from inside Hungary — and that’s interesting. State-funded universities are signing letters to support us. They’re organizing teach-ins — all the way from Pécs, which is in the south, to Debrecen and Szeged. So the 1968-ish kind of protest toolkit is coming back, and that’s heartwarming. Even Andrássy University, a conservative German school supported by the Christian Democratic Union of Germany, is supporting CEU. Meanwhile, I’ve found students in Budapest to be extremely interested in education and motivated to study. So I think this is a good sign that academic freedom matters to a lot of citizens. And it probably explains why 80,000 Hungarians protested to protect CEU on the streets of Budapest.

I actually walked through one of the protests on May Day in Heroes’ Square. And somebody was speaking. There was a lot of booing from protestors, but in solidarity with the speaker. I even saw some “CEUropa” flags. It was really something to be there. It felt palpable, the dissatisfaction.

Right. The different protests are leading somewhere. They’re changing political passivity. Support for Orbán’s Fidesz party is diminishing — though not by as much as you’d think. Polls show that if elections were held today, the present government would win easily.

In terms of public outreach, one of your initiatives has been creating a feminist walk in Budapest as an alternative way to experience the city’s history. How did your route take shape, and what is it meant to achieve?

The feminist walk was inspired by my dedication to two things: public outreach and alternative teaching methods. I’m a historian working on gender, World War II, and women’s movements. I’ve also been teaching for 26 years, and I’ve recognized that giving lectures is not the most efficient way to teach young students. So I was inspired by a feminist walk in Novi Sad, Serbia, which I saw while visiting the city for my book launch in the early 2000s. They had a map with markers that showed where important women were born, where the women’s associations were located, where monuments to women stood. I said that we have to do something like that for Budapest.

I recognized it would be very difficult to do a tour without serious basic research, as we simply do not know our own past. Women’s associations were banned by the communists from 1945–’51. Police actually came into the offices of the women’s organizations and boxed everything to archive in the Ministry of the Interior. When the files were released for research in 1991, I came in and actually opened up the boxes. They contained documents showing where these women’s associations had been located — sometimes even going back to the end of the 19th century. This was for a book I wrote on the history of women’s associations from 1945–’51. At the same time, I was wondering about redefining chronology from a woman’s perspective. Let’s say, who was the first woman to go ice skating in City Park? I found out it was the daughter of the Minister of Culture, who very bravely took his two daughters to the ice skating rink, which hadn’t been available for women. That became a place on the feminist map of Budapest.

Right next to the CEU campus in Szabadság tér [Liberty Square], there’s a plaque where the first female secondary school was set up. The founder of the school, Blanka Teleki, was imprisoned after the Revolution of 1848, in the prison that used to stand here in Liberty Square. Nowadays, these sites related to women aren’t marked. We visit the public statues of women, but there are not that many. There’s the statue of Sisi, Emperor Franz Joseph’s wife, and there’s the one to Veres Pálné, the founder of women’s education. There is the statue of Anna Kéthly, who is the social democratic MP in the Parliament, and the recent statue of Cécile Tormay, who is a controversial, far-right, anti-Semitic woman. The erection of certain monuments reflects the fight over the politics of memory.

How have your students been interpreting the feminist walk?

Really, the feminist walk is activism. It’s also a form of teaching, and a form of trying to think about social justice in a productive way. I’m using these tours to see how the city as an archive works. What are the power relations that contribute to marking and forgetting certain spaces? Why are certain monuments there or not there? It’s a good educational tool. This year, two students from a course I was teaching with Duke University, “Preserving Knowledges of the Past,” created their own interactive map of lesbian spaces in Budapest under communism as their course work. They read the oral history of lesbians collected by a woman’s NGO, Labrisz, identified the places, and tried to find pictures. So now there is a map on the Labrisz website, showing lesbian life in the 1960s and ’70s — how these women were remembered, where they met, where they shopped and had fun.

In one of your articles, I read that there used to be a public statue of the Jewish philanthropist Johanna Bischitz, which has now been taken down. How else have women’s legacies been suppressed?

Yes, Johanna Bischitz — they removed her statue in 1938. She was the founder of a Jewish Women’s Charity Organization. And during Aryanization, the government moved this statue to the Hungarian Jewish Museum. It’s still there. There’s not much political will to reinstate that statue, which I think is a good reflection of the gender politics of this regime — and also those of the different Jewish communities, which are not very progressive either, as far as women’s political activism is concerned.

There’s also been a continual zeal for renaming streets since 1989. The last round of renaming was introduced by this present government, eliminating everything that had to do with progressive history. There were lots of women who were active in the progressive movement, and they fell victim to these renamings. A good example is Piroska Szalmás, who was a musician that led workers’ choirs in interwar Budapest; one street was named after her, and now it’s been renamed, and that makes her invisible.

Since you mentioned the Jewish communities, what is that relationship today between Jewish communities and women’s movements in Hungary?

What you see is, on the one hand, Jewish communities institutionalizing and setting up social welfare and educational organizations that are very hierarchical. Women have roles like “care work.” On the other hand there’s also this young, arts-oriented generation — the driving force behind the Jewish revival here, who had little or no connection to the Jewish establishment. There was an interesting master’s thesis I supervised about Jewish women in various communities. It asked their motivation for joining these communities, for becoming Orthodox, for reinventing the Orthodox tradition. It was pretty obvious that these women had felt a need for spiritual discussion. The pre-1989 period was non-spiritual, and what’s interesting is that this reenchantment — as opposed to the disenchantment before 1989 — is now offered by religion, not by progressive leftist politics. I mean, you know, in Eastern Europe we don’t have the Occupy movement, or if we do, it’s just 35 people protesting. We don’t have mass movements that would politically offer a progressive agenda lived through emotional involvement. But there are several who find this kind of spiritual satisfaction within the religious framework, both Jewish and Christian. This also contributes to our society’s polarization. With our communist heritage and the new illiberal technocratic individualized discourse, this redefinition of emotions in politics is the only way to protest. It partly explains why the far right is so popular here, because they are not only addressing structural issues, but are also doing it in an emotional way.

And yet, Jewish history in Hungary is so brutal. I know you’ve done extensive work with the USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual Archives of Holocaust survivors. How have you engaged with that material?

In using the USC visual history archive in my class, I’m trying to cope with two types of criticism. The first is that the archive is an Americanized version of the Holocaust, impossible to use because of the myriad individual stories that don’t come together. The second type of criticism is that an interview is always a performance, so you cannot use one to teach what has happened. If you look at Holocaust educational material, you’ll see that teachers use these interviews as proof of what happened on Kristallnacht or during the Warsaw Uprising. I’m using this material to see how digital media is changing the memorialization of the Holocaust, and I’m also using the archive to teach interview techniques. It’s a very good example of the methodological and moral challenges that somebody faces while doing an interview.

The material also presents an exercise for students in the class to look at the politics of the archive. One of my students actually wrote a very interesting paper for my class, comparing the interviews from the same survivor group. These survivors were in the Kindertransport from Czechoslovakia to England, and my student compared the interviews of the subjects, who were children at the time, and noticed that the interviewer — the male interviewer — was interviewing female and male survivors, who had the very same background, differently. And this despite the fact that the interviewer had a prepared interview guide. So the archive shows how the mediation of memory is very much gendered. Women were always asked about their families and caretaking. Men were asked about their deeds, agency, and activity. It sounds pretty stereotypical, but unfortunately that’s the case.

There are also the politics of indexing. One of the big achievements of the Shoah Foundation’s collection is that they indexed each and every interview, and segmented them. So if you’re looking for somebody who spoke in their interview about chocolate in Prague in 1932, you put that into the search engine, and come up with somebody who, within the 52,000 interviews, mentions chocolate in Prague in 1932. But then, for example, there are experiences of sexual violence. Interviewers were not asking about sexual violence, and if the interviewees brought up the topic because they wanted to tell their stories, very often the interviewer would silence them. If you watch carefully, you might see a segment where you recognize this kind of story, but it would be indexed as something other than rape, perhaps as assault. I was pedagogically and strategically sending some of my interesting student papers to the staff at the Visual History Archive, in which students were saying that the indexing relating to sexual violence was insufficient. As a result, the Visual History Archive recently introduced “rape” as an indexing term.

Have you observed any gendered patterns in the omissions?

There are several taboo topics within those interviews. One is sexuality. One is sexual violence. Another is the price of surviving. This kind of silencing in interviews has several layers. The experience happened in 1944, and these interviews were done in the early 2000s. The period between 1945 and the interviews really influences the narration. So this “mediated-ness” should take the silences into consideration. But every interview is a product of omissions. A very good pedagogical tool is to ask students to analyze interviews in relation to non-remembering. These are topics that come into play more and more often when we speak about historical events.

And the whole politics of hiding has completely changed with the internet. 

Yes. That’s why there was an important initiative passed by the European Parliament for the “right to be forgotten.” This right to be forgotten — to be deleted from certain databases — is, interestingly enough, used by some German and Dutch archives to block access to researching Holocaust materials. One of the achievements of the Hungarian leadership of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) was pushing through the policy that the “right to be forgotten” should not be applied to the Holocaust. This policy changes the whole institutional and legal framework of historical research, and makes the life of the archivist extremely complicated. Even outside the Holocaust, if there is a newspaper article from 1965 about a drunk driver in Budapest, it’s possible that you, as a researcher, will not be granted access to the related police file from the archive. No matter that the news was published in a newspaper. You own your own past, in a very strange way.

It puts perpetrators of war crimes in a powerful position. But you’ve done research into female perpetrators during World War II, and I’m wondering what you found.

My recent book is about female perpetrators during the war, those who had killed and denounced others. This book is based on the post–World War II trials, and how women were prosecuted as war criminals. I was also trying to trace their deeds and their activities before these trials, and it’s pretty obvious that there were gender-patterned crimes. Women had a very particular type of crime, which is denunciation. Of course, you might imagine that the women doing the denouncing were young, under-educated, un-rooted. But it turned out from our quantitative analysis of 55,000 files that these women were, on average, middle aged, professional, married, and very well connected in society. So, in this context, we have to reconsider the whole idea of what women might do during crises and wars. It’s pretty obvious there are very specific crimes that are committed by women. We have to ask why. And I’m not sure I know the answer.

Given that you are a scholar working at the intersection of gender and, to an extent, religion, I’m wondering: What does the broader intersectionality discussion looks like in Europe? 

Intersectionality, as Kathy Davis said, has become a buzzword. Everybody is speaking about intersectionality nowadays. You cannot publish a paper without being intersectional. But how intersectionality works as a method of inquiry — that’s what we’re discussing in our new series from Routledge, Advances in Gender Studies and Intersectionality, specifically in the volume Writing Academic Texts Differently. Intersectionality is an extremely useful methodology, and a political tool — one reflecting in your position as a researcher, in the topic you’re researching, and in the public outreach nature of your work. 

In Europe, as I see it, intersectionality is becoming more important both because of the changing European realities, and because of the Roma population. The Roma people represent Europe’s largest intellectual and political debt. They’re getting more scholarly attention now. CEU, for example, has a new program in Romani Studies and just appointed two new professors in the discipline. So at least there are some new developments in that sense.

Meanwhile, I know that you’re coming out with another book called Gender: War, from Macmillan. I’d love to hear more about it, specifically because you describe the book as “accessible to a curious layperson.” What does that mean from your perspective?

This is an interdisciplinary handbook in gender, with several sub-sections. The book series is designed for undergraduate Gender Studies students who haven’t worked with gender before, but are interested. The sections include animals, God, laughter, love, matter, nature, space, time, and war — really intriguing topics, through which students can get insight into recent scholarship. Some chapters are written by high-profile experts, who struggled like dogs to make this text accessible. We usually write in this horribly sophisticated academic language, but this is a textbook that should be read by 19-year-olds with no background in Gender Studies or in academia. So I have high hopes that this textbook, with its accessible language, will contribute to the institutionalization of Gender Studies.


Stephanie Newman is a Brooklyn-based writer and the founder of Stellia. Her essays and book reviews have appeared in LARB, The Millions, Quartz, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. You can find links to her work on, and follow her on