Refusing to face the past
Until recently critics of the Hungarian attitude toward the past complained only about the fact that the overwhelming majority of Hungarians simply refuse to take responsibility for the crimes committed against Hungarians of Jewish origin that resulted in the death of about 400,000 people. The Hungarian attitude is similar to that of the Austrians who gladly dump responsibility for the holocaust within their own country on the Germans who marched into Austria accomplishing the Anschluss that, let's face it, most Austrians fervently desired. The Austrians can point to the fact that no Jewish labor camps or deportations took place in Austria before 1938.
Hungarians hold very similar views. They claim that Hungarian Jews were shielded until Germany occupied Hungary on March 19, 1944. From there on what was done was only under pressure from Germany. Of course, the whole deportation process was the work of local authorities.
From here on this Hungarian way of interpreting the events of 1944 will be part of the Hungarian constitution. The state assumed the mantle of historian, decided on one particular historical interpretation, and made it official dogma. The new constitution will state that whatever happened between March 19, 1944 and May 2, 1990 simply doesn't exist. Or, more precisely, it existed but entirely independently from the Hungarians. They are therefore not responsible for anything that happened during those forty-five years.
A number of historians, philosophers, and sociologists raised their voices against this particular passage in the new constitution. Although the Rákosi and Kádár regimes interfered with the work of historians, even the communists didn't go so far as to constitutionally set "the corrrect interpretation" of history. Falsification of history was a serious problem during the Rákosi regime, and with a very few exceptions one could easily throw out all the books written about modern history in those days. However, by the second half of the Kádár regime excellent historical works began to appear that contradict the new official history of modern Hungary set in stone in the new constitution.
The possible consequences of this particular passage in the constitution are immeasurable. One must assume that all textbooks will have to be rewritten that contain any reference to Hungarian complicity in the holocaust. I wonder what will happen to historians who dare to hold a different view on modern Hungarian history. Can they be sued or prosecuted?
There are already certain signs that a massive rewriting of history is under way. There is a Holocaust Memorial Center in Budapest which seems to be at the top of the government's agenda. This memorial center has a permanent exhibition entitled "From Deprivation of Rights to Genocide." One of the undersecretaries in Tibor Navracsics's ministry decided to pick this exhibition as his first target. The question is whether Hungarians are responsible for the Hungarian holocaust. The undersecretary notified a representative of the Holocaust Memorial Center that part of the exhibit has to be reassessed because "it is set up in such a way that it depicts Horthy marching into various cities and regions, which is an altogether different sort of thing. It is different because there is no causal connection between the return of Hungarian-inhabited areas to Hungary and Regent Miklós Horthy and the Hungarian army marching in, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the subsequent death marches in which people were being herded to their deaths." According to him this is a skewed take on history that "gives rise to unnecessary tension," I assume between Jewish and non-Jewish Hungarians.
To claim that there is no connection between the return of areas from Serbia, Romania, and Czechoslovakia to Hungary and the holocaust is nonsense. It is a well known fact that the Hungarian Jews in the returned areas enthusiastically greeted the Hungarian troops only to find out that they would be stripped of their rights as citizens of their own country. The "Jewish laws" were made applicable to them immediately.
In order to make sure that the exhibit changes its sinful ways and shows the history of the Hungarian holocaust in a manner that is acceptable to the government the Holocaust Memorial Center would need new leadership. Although theoretically the government has no say in the matter, it is clear that the authorities would be happy to see the current director, László Harsányi, go and instead have Szabolcs Szita, a historian who came up with a more acceptable version for the exhibition, at the head of the center.
István Deák of Columbia University, who had a hand in approving the current exhibition, expressed his amazement that the undersecretary, who "is presumably a well read and educated man," can possibly assume that there is no connection between territorial enlargement and the treatment of Hungary's Jewish citizens. Deák is charitable. The government is full of people who are both ignorant of history and rabidly nationalistic; they simply cannot face the fact that one's nation doesn't always behave in the most righteous way. As Deák said, "we mustn't insist on the innocence of the nation under any circumstances." But if you are an ardent nationalist, you will surely insist on the perfection of your fatherland. A dangerous concept.
This morning I received a link to an article in The Globe and Mail with the title "The importance of national shame." It continues this way: "Do you believe that your country is the greatest in the world? Then shame on you. And I mean that literally: I’m increasingly convinced that a crucial factor in the progress of any country is a strong and well-inculcated sense of national shame. To face up to the fallibility and deep wrongs of your country is to reconnect it to the wider world. It also allows you to see the state for what it should be: a sturdy if battered containment vessel for the dreams and ambitions of its citizens, not a golden trophy of preordained rightness."
The Hungarians haven't gotten that far yet.