Relic Of Communism, Promoter Of Capitalism – The Hungarian Forint

Through ten journeys across Hungary, while visiting every county in the country, during innumerable train trips, bus, tram and metro rides they have always been right by my side.  No matter how many times I crossed the nation I could not escape them. They allowed me access to cross the Danube on ferries, to eat Hungarian cuisine, to drive down highways, to enter museums and explore castles. There has never been a moment when I was without them. Wherever I have gone in Hungary I have been accompanied by forints. The forint is the Hungarian national currency. Unlike most other member states of the European Union (EU) – but like most Eastern European nations in the EU – Hungary does not use the Euro. Having its own currency allows Hungary greater control of the economy. It is also a symbol of national pride and independence. The different denominations of the forint used as banknotes display a host of important Hungarian personages and national monuments. You can learn a great deal about Hungary by studying its currency. The way Hungarians see themselves and celebrate their heritage is symbolized by the images portrayed on the forint banknotes.

From Hyperinflation to Stabilization – Pengos to Forints
Unlike almost all of the symbols and paraphernalia of Communist-era Hungary, the forint is still in use today. When one thinks of money and capitalism, communism is usually the last thing that comes to mind. Yet the forint was born just as the communists were beginning to cement their control over the country. The forint was used as a propaganda tool by Hungary’s communist government to gain credibility with the population and eventually secure power. It replaced the pengo which had been Hungary’s national currency from 1927 to 1946. The pengo still holds a dubious world record. It suffered the highest recorded hyper-inflation in history following the end of World War II. By the summer of 1946, it took 460,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 pengos to equal a single US dollar. Put another way that is 460 octillion pengo to get one dollar. That exchange rate for the pengo contains an astonishing 28 consecutive zeros.

Because of its worthless value, the pengo was abolished with the introduction of the forint on August 1, 1946. The economic situation in the country stabilized soon thereafter. The communists had taken control of this process and made sure they received all of the credit. A Stalinist totalitarian system soon took over all levers of the government, holding Hungary in its iron grip. The first forint banknotes produced were meant to reflect the preferred ideology of the communists. As such the 10 forint note showed a male worker holding a hammer, while the 100 forint note portrayed a woman holding a sickle and ears of wheat. This mirrors the same symbols, the hammer and sickle on the Soviet Union’s flag. The symbolism of industry and agriculture with workers was unmistakable.

Symbol of a worker's state - one of the first Hungarian forints issued

Symbol of a worker’s state – one of the first Hungarian forints issued (Credit: Hungarian National Bank)

Soon though, the party preferred for banknotes to showcase more traditional Hungarian heroes, albeit those who had opposed aristocratic power. The next set of banknotes included Georgy Dosza who led a failed peasant uprising in the 16th century, the poet Sandor Petofi and the politician Lajos Kossuth, who both vehemently opposed Habsburg Rule in helping lead the failed Hungarian Revolution of 1848-49. Ferenc Rakoczi was the next to appear, selected due to his role as the leader of another uprising against the Habsburgs in the early 18th century. These men all fit into a convenient narrative that the communists could manipulate to link revolutionary figures from the Hungarian past with their own ideals. The personages on these notes remained remarkably stable throughout the decades of communist rule. The only later additions were cultural in nature, specifically the composer Bela Bartok and the writer Endre Ady.

Faces Of The Forints – Heroes For Rebels
The faces on the forints that I have come to know during my travels across Hungary appeared on new banknotes issued towards the end of the 20th century. The only holdover from the communist era was Rakoczi, all the other rebels have disappeared. In their place is a pantheon of great Hungarians that represent over a thousand years of the kingdom’s history. Instead of heroic failures, the currency has been transformed to focus on gloriously successful men. To start with, the seven banknotes most used today display images of three Kings, two princes, a count and the politician who helped negotiate the historic compromise with Austria that created the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Every personage now on a banknote came from either royalty or nobility. Commoners were excluded from the historical figures, just as communist preferred rebels had been a decade earlier.

A wealth of symbolism - the 10000 Hungarian forint note

The wealth of a nation – the 10000 Hungarian forint note (Credit: Hungarian National Bank)

For a country with such an ill-fated history, given to invasion, occupation and upheaval, putting a positive face for Hungary on the forint has become the new ideal. For instance, the 10,000 forint note has an image of King Stephen I (Saint Stephen), the king who turned Hungary towards Christianity and the west. King Matthias Corvinus on the 1000 forint note expanded the boundaries of Hungary through a series of successful wars and brought a cultural renaissance to the kingdom. Gabor Bethlen, Prince of Transylvania, shown on the 2000 forint note, was a leader who cultivated renaissance ideals and led a golden age in Transylavania, this while much of Hungary was under the tyranny of Ottoman rule. Count Istvan Szechenyi, appearing on the 5000 forint note, led the way in starting modernization of the country. The opposite side of the notes show landmarks associated with each person. Due to the pro-royalist, pro-nobility background of each figure shown, a majority of the landmarks are castles or palaces. This pro-aristocracy imagery is no less ideological – a direct opposite – of that shown by the communists. It is obvious that the Hungarian government is making a statement about their post-Cold War values and reverence for the kingdom’s glory days on the forint.

Symbols matter - the Holy Crown of Hungary on a commemorative 2000 Hungarian forint banknote

Symbols matter – the Holy Crown of Hungary on a commemorative 2000 Hungarian forint banknote (Credit: Hungarian National Bank)

You Can Take It With You – Forints At Home & Abroad
The importance of the imagery and symbolism displayed on the forint cannot be understated. It is something every Hungarian sees on a daily basis. It is also something that follows every foreigner as they journey across the country. At the end of a trip, a few of these forints and their historical personages are likely to follow visitors home.  I know from experience. Kings, princes and counts have come to occupy a place not only on my trips, but also in a wallet at my home.

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