Wikipedia: a great digital wasteland of opinionated cesspits, or a glorious repository of knowledge? Or merely a curate’s egg? Well, possibly a bit of all three. But, for better or worse, it is the go-to internet resource for a wide audience keen to get a grip on an increasingly slippery ‘truth’. Internet search engines will commonly return a Wikipedia link on the first page of results when searching for people, places or events. And where else is there currently a global forum for the distribution and discussion of actual Facts (as, rather quaintly, we might still call them)? There is a strong argument for taking Wikipedia seriously. But also for engaging with it with healthy circumspection.
Let us settle down to a fable, a short history and a Wiki-related story. First, the fable.
“The Count Mauritius Augustus de Benyowsky, Magnate of the kingdoms of Hungary and Poland, was born in the year 1741 at Verbowa, the hereditary lordship of his family, situated in the county of Nittria, in Hungary.”
Thus begins Morič Benyovszky’s two-volume autobiography, published to resounding success in London in 1790, running to multiple translations and editions across Europe and America in the following decades. But in those three dozen words – which, to be clear, he himself wrote – Benyovszky laid several traps for future historians.
There were three blatant untruths in this introductory sentence – to wit: that he was born in 1741 (1746, actually); and that he came from hereditary nobility, and was some kind of ‘magnate’. Not a great start to an autobiography. On the plus side, he was indeed born in the small town now known as Vrbové. The real – and modern – problem, however, lies in the words ‘Hungary’ and ‘Poland’.
Before we look at this problem, a few words of real history would probably not go amiss: Morič Benyovszky was all the rage across Europe between 1790 and 1810 or so, and has been all the rage in Slovakia, Hungary and Poland in recent decades as well. But his name is little known in the wider world. His past and present fame arises from the fact that he led – and colourfully documented – a number of melodramatic adventures around the North Pacific and in Siberia and Madagascar. (For further information, view the author’s relevant web-page.) Captured by the Russian army during the brief war between the Polish Confederation of Bar and the Russian Empire, he was sent to Kamchatka as a prisoner of war in 1769. In early 1771, he and seventy-odd fellow-prisoners managed to seize a supply ship and escape, in an extraordinary voyage that took them to Japan, Formosa and Macao (Benyovszky would have us believe he also took the opportunity to explore the coast of Alaska: sadly, he didn’t). Securing transport from China, Benyovszky and his surviving comrades fetched up in France, where he swiftly managed to hoodwink the government into financing him for a colonising expedition to Madagascar. The colony began promisingly in 1773 – and in the blink of an eye degenerated into fever, war, death and chaos; Benyovszky abandoned his scheme (after, he assures us, being elected ‘King of Madagascar’ by the Malagasy peoples) and returned to France in 1776. After several years of blagging his way around Europe, he beguiled American investors into underwriting a second venture in Madagascar (all profits were to come from buying and selling slaves). This expedition disintegrated immediately on landing in 1784; Benyovszky disappeared into the Madagascan undergrowth, but was subsequently hunted down and killed by a French military team in 1786. In 1790, his autobiography appeared posthumously. It was a roaring success, since the many tales narrated were exotic, exciting and swoon-inducingly Romantic.
But, rather disappointingly, most were also complete fabrications.
And now a Wikipedia story (surely everyone has one?)
We return to the geopolitical concepts of ‘Hungary’ and ‘Poland’ and indeed – rather because it was explicitly not mentioned by Benyovszky or any of his contemporaries – ‘Slovakia’. In 2017, to coincide with the publication of my biography of Benyovszky, I completely revamped the existing English-language Wikipedia article on him. The previous version had unquestioningly repeated Benyovszky’s own beguiling fictions. In both book and article, I described our hero as a ‘Hungarian’, thereby demonstrating a lamentable lack of common sense. My use of the terms ‘Hungary’ and ‘Hungarian’ was simply intended as shorthand for the eighteenth century ‘Kingdom of Hungary’, exactly as Benyovszky himself had stated. I was fully aware that Benyovszky was considered a Hungarian national hero, ever since the rise of Hungarian nationalism in the mid-nineteenth century. What I had not properly appreciated was the Slovak sentiment: since 1993, the town of Vrbové has been firmly inside the borders of the modern state of Slovakia; for seventy-five-odd years before that, it had been in Czechoslovakia.
The heavily revised article went up on Wikipedia at the end of July 2017. It – or, to be more precise, its first paragraph – turned into something of a Central European online battlefield. Within a week, my innocuous phrase ‘He was a soldier and adventurer’ had been edited by others to ‘… a Hungarian soldier…’. By the end of August, the ‘Hungarian soldier’ had become a ‘Slovak soldier’, and our hero’s citizenship of ‘Hungary’ had been modernised to ‘Slovakia’. Later that same day, both changes had been reverted, only for them to be re-introduced within twenty-four hours. The next few weeks saw multiple changes and multiple reversals by some dedicated Wikipedians. My own pathetic attempts to defuse the edit-war, by amending his citizenship to ‘eighteenth century Kingdom of Hungary’ and suggesting that past or present political borders had little to do with Benyovszky’s wider activity – he had, after all, fought for Poland and Austro-Hungary (and even offered to fight for the nascent United States), and had colonised on behalf of France, Austria and some Americans – such attempts were grandly ignored.
Over the following three months, there were over thirty changes to the ‘nationality’ mentioned in that first paragraph. Generally, it flip-flopped between ‘Hungarian’ and ‘Slovak’; from time to time, he became a Pole as well. A diplomatic move (by a cool Polish head) to resolve the problem by re-wording the sentence to state that Benyovszky ‘described himself’ as a Hungarian and a Pole – referencing the opening statement from his autobiography – was met with the disdain it so clearly deserved: contributors simply exploited the new wording to state that ‘he described himself as a Slovak, a Hungarian and a Pole’ (or any permutation thereof). Since the start of 2019, a further thirty or more edits of this sentence have taken place, shunting Benyovszky around the political landscape of modern central Europe. (Benyovszky also spent a couple of years in Rijeka, swindling the local grandees – so far, the Croats have not yet noticed that he could be one of their own…)
To be fair, though, this battle for national ownership had been going on since at least 2003, when Wikipedia records began. Fortunately for my stress-levels, other Wikipedians have taken it upon themselves to monitor changes and maintain the spirit of the original text (‘Kingdom of Hungary’), leaving me free to tut disapprovingly from the sidelines. Fortunately also, the zealous nationalists never get beyond the first paragraph (2%) of the entire article, thereby leaving untouched and available for global enlightenment the remaining 98%.
This whole enlivening experience perhaps highlights a couple of issues.
Firstly, Wikipedia’s main strength and ultimate weakness is that any article can be ‘edited’ by anyone at any time, without so much as a by-your-leave. No need, even, to have a registered account on the platform. This is praiseworthy, in that everyone can contribute their own pieces of information, to build up a rounded and extensive picture of a subject. But the price paid for this is that ‘history’ can be altered in the blink of an eye, even on a mobile phone after five pints down the pub, by anonymous contributors. As I discovered. Those who edit Wikipedia articles are real people (unless they can be shown to be bots…). They have hobby-horses and pet hates and wildly differing political views, all of which are far more disconcerting than the rather limited standard range of eccentricities among fellow-historians. Inevitably, then, updating Wikipedia can be quite disheartening.
Nevertheless: the English-language Wikipedia article on Benyovszky has received an average hit-count of around 50 per day over the past five years: not a bad result (assuming always that seekers after truth can edge past that first paragraph). And the equivalent, but completely separate, articles in the Polish, Slovakian and Hungarian editions attract similar numbers; Wikipedia has over 300 different language editions (twenty of which host articles on Benyovszky) – so its potential influence and audience are enormous. As an information channel it cannot be ignored by historians, any more than books, essays or articles can be ignored. But for the guardians of history, it is not simply a question of tagging the articles with recommendations for ‘further reading’ in specialist articles and books, since – let’s be honest – most of those are physically and financially inaccessible to most people: hard work needs to be done to place facts and interpretations and citations squarely on that Wikipedia page. And then keep tabs on it, both day and night – from down the pub if necessary.
Secondly, history is a view of the past through the prism of the present. Of course it is. But to what degree should the birth-place and sphere of activity of an historical figure be subservient to modern political realities and/or relevant to historiography? As a Scot myself, I am not over-burdened by the need to find yet more national champions; but, clearly, new nation-states need their ‘own’ history. Drawing lines on the map to delineate a new nation-state inexorably leads to scouring the past for appropriate heroines and heroes who were born, flourished or died within the new borders. It is of course the historian’s job to unearth these people and make sense of them, separating fact from fiction (in Benyovszky’s case, something of a full-time job); indeed, patriotic fervour may kick-start new historical research, which can only be good; but is it also part of the historian’s task to shoehorn such icons into a narrow, and possibly transient, national framework?
It is understandable for the Slovaks, the Hungarians and the Poles to wish to claim Benyovszky as their own. Arguably, modern Slovaks have more right to him than any of their neighbours. (Just before Covid kicked off, I stood before a hundred expat Slovaks in London and, over the course of an hour, rubbished their national hero. Their incredibly polite reception won me over.) Clearly, it is not simply a matter of national pride; events in Ukraine have lent a tragic actuality to the issue of young – and not so young – independent nations and their aspirations. But there is a fine line separating patriotism from xenophobia, one that – in the dynamic arena of Wikipedia, as elsewhere – needs careful handling.