Hungary

Another strange Orbán speech at the 25th anniversary of the Pan-European Picnic

Another day, another speech. Earlier I briefly mentioned that the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Pan-European Picnic has been one of the important topics in the German press lately. The interest is understandable. It was the very beginning of the German unification process.

During the summer of 1989 Otto von Habsburg, who at the time was a member of the European Parliament, gave a lecture in Debrecen extolling the benefits of a Europe without borders. A couple of MDF activists came up with the idea of organizing a picnic right at the border between Austria and Hungary, symbolizing the artificial nature of borders. The organizers convinced Otto von Habsburg and Imre Pozsgay, a member of the Németh government and high-ranking party functionary, to attend the gathering to be held on August 19.

It turned out to be more than a simple picnic. Some East Germans who happened to be in Hungary heard about the event and decided to crash it in more than one way. They ran to the gate between Austria and Hungary and broke through. The Hungarian border guards were instructed to let them go. In fact, some children who were left behind were taken by Hungarian border guards across the border to join their parents. What followed we all know. On September 11 the Hungarian government opened the borders for all East Germans who were camping out in Hungary waiting for an opportunity to leave.

Hungarian border guards open the gate to freedom

Hungarian border guards open the gate to freedom

Yesterday Germans, Hungarians, Austrians, and some of the few hundred people who broke through the gate gathered to remember that  momentous day. Naturally, Viktor Orbán was also present. But instead of giving a formal speech he had a fairly lengthy “conversation” with Philip Rákay, a long time Fidesz activist and nowadays the superintendent of MTV, the state television station.

It was a strange conversation in which Orbán combined praise of the Hungarian nation with an explanation of his use of the word “liberal.” His speech back in July does need some explanation, especially since a couple of days ago he received some harsh words from the German Foreign Ministry. Undersecretary Michael Roth indicated that in the opinion of the German government “Hungary is going in the wrong direction.” According to Roth, Germany is grateful to the Hungarians for their courage in standing up for freedom in 1989, but today Germany must ask about the state of freedom in Hungary. “The developments taking place in Hungary raise concern,” he said, because “they affect our common European foundation.” This admonition came not from The Washington Post or The New York Times but from the government of the strongest and most influential country in the European Union.

This morning Péter Szijjártó responded by calling Roth’s “allegations” so general as to be meaningless, and he declared that no one should worry about the state of democracy in Hungary. Hungarians demand “respect” because they are freedom-loving people. “We are not the ones who threaten democracy.” Orbán at the commemoration ceremony also stressed the freedom-loving nature of Hungarians, adding that they are also chivalrous and magnanimous. Magnanimous because they did not take the money offered to them by Germany in exchange for the Hungarian courage and generosity shown in allowing thousands of Germans to cross over to Austria.

Soon enough, however, Orbán left history behind and began talking about matters that were in one way or another connected to his infamous speech. For example, he pointed out that Hungary cannot copy the Chinese, Russian, Japanese, or South Korean models because “we are Hungarians who come from a fundamentally Christian culture, motivated by freedom and [therefore] we must build a different economic and political system.” I have the feeling that this reassurance will not be enough for the politicians of the Trans-Atlantic alliance.

As for his description of the events of 1989, “the year of miracles,” it focused on Fidesz’s and his own role, with the usual emphasis on forcing the Russians to withdraw and getting rid of the communists. The Fidesz youngsters decided to be as radical as possible while there was such a revolutionary mood. It is almost as if Viktor Orbán and his youth organization were the only players in the drama of the regime change. Most of those present don’t remember the minute details of those months and don’t realize that Viktor Orbán and his friend László Kövér were only minor characters who until the last minute were not even admitted as negotiating partners in the Round Table Discussions. They don’t remember that the Russian troop withdrawals were negotiated by the Németh government, the “communists” who figured so large in Orbán’s discussion yesterday at the celebration.

According to Népszabadság the word “communist” was the most frequent one to leave his lips. Orbán’s critics keep repeating that they don’t understand where Orbán finds his communists because according to practically all independent observers there are mighty few of them, and they certainly cannot be found in public life. These critics, however, are most likely not familiar with the works of Gyula Tellér, who is convinced that the power structure that developed in 1954-55 is still with us. At the top were the hard-core Rákosists and the communists around Imre Nagy. These two power groups fought for supremacy. Under them were the middle classes and the petite bourgeoisie. This structure, according to Tellér, has remained surprisingly stable over more than fifty years.

Since Orbán is an attentive student of Tellér, according to whom these two top communist groups still exist, he continues to talk about communists in a country where the communist party is practically nonexistent. The real enemy, however, is not this group of ineffectual self-proclaimed communists; it is the opposition, whom Orbán views as communists who hide beneath the mask of Western-style socialism and liberalism. These covert communists must be obliterated, destroyed. The fight cannot end.

In fact, that fight has been intensified since 2010 when there was a revolution thanks to the electoral victory that produced a two-thirds majority in parliament.  Orbán recalled that József Antall sarcastically said to his critics who complained that his government did not stamp out the whole communist hierarchy, “Tetszettek volna forradalmat csinálni,” a very difficult phrase to translate because “You should have staged a revolution” doesn’t do it justice. Well, Orbán continued, in 2010 “tetszettünk forradalmat csinálni”  (We did stage a revolution). The fight against the “communists” will continue.

And the fight will continue on another front as well. János Lázár in his speech today told the Hungarians that they “are only half way into the reorganization of the Hungarian state.” Yes, they created new civil and criminal codes and a new administrative structure. What is still missing is a “new state structure.” I’m afraid that means a move toward a presidential system, with Viktor Orbán as president with far-reaching powers.

The Orbán government bestows the Order of St. Stephen on Imre Kertész

A couple of days ago a stunned Hungarian public learned that the Orbán government will bestow on Imre Kertész, the sole Hungarian Nobel Prize winning author who until now has been the target of scorn from the far right and the object of studied neglect on the part of Fidesz, the highest state decoration, the Order of St. Stephen.

In November 2011 I wrote a post entitled “New Hungarian regime, new or not so new decorations.” The Order of St. Stephen was established by Maria Theresa in 1776, and it was abolished in 1946 when Hungary was declared a republic. Actually, no Order of St. Stephen was given out between 1920 and 1940 because by law the Grand Master of the Order had to be the Hungarian king. So for twenty years Horthy did not feel at liberty to bestow the order. By 1940, however, he no longer had any compunctions about taking over the role of the king. Once the order was reestablished, the recipients included Joachim von Ribbentrop, German foreign minister; Gian Galeazzo Ciano, Italian foreign minister and son-in-law of Mussolini; and Hermann Göring, marshall of the German Reich. It is this order Imre Kertész that will receive–and this company that he will keep.

It is difficult not to suspect that the Hungarian government’s sudden interest in Imre Kertész has something to do with Viktor Orbán’s efforts to improve his self-image abroad after the fiasco of the Holocaust Memorial Year. How many people will he manage to fool? I have the feeling not too many. The whole scheme is so obvious and cheap when, for example, only a few weeks ago Viktor Orbán was ready to appoint the anti-Semitic Péter Szentmihályi Szabó to be Hungarian ambassador to Rome, the same man who consistently called Kertész “Imre Kertész” instead of using the proper Hungarian word order “Kertész Imre,” indicating that he does not consider him to be a Hungarian.

I suspect, and I’m sure that I am not the only one, that it is Mária Schmidt who is behind this devilish idea. She “discovered” the deeply anti-communist Imre Kertész. Last Thursday Heti Válasz published a fairly lengthy article by her about the greatness of Imre Kertész, which bears little resemblance to the Kertész most of us know. The Hungarian original is not yet available, but thanks to the website Mandiner an English translation of it made its appearance online.

But before I talk about the Schmidt essay I should say a few things about Kertész’s attitude toward Hungary. Kertész has lived in Berlin for ten years. He loves the city and is grateful to the German reading public that discovered him. He also appreciates Germany’s efforts to face the country’s past as opposed to his own country’s reluctance to take even partial responsibility for what happened in Hungary during the spring and summer of 1944. He went so far as to deposit his archives in Germany instead of Hungary.

Kertész’s 2007 visit to the Bundestag: “I feel that people understand me better here.”
Source: AFP Photo Axel Schmidt

Given the fact that Kertész is a very ill man–he is in the advanced stages of Parkinson’s disease–it is difficult to know how much he understands about what’s happening around him. It is highly unlikely that he will be able to receive the highest Hungarian decoration in person. In the last two years he has not appeared in public. One thing is sure. In 2012 when he gave an interview to Florence Noiville of Le Monde, which was republished in part in The Guardian, he had a very bad opinion of Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. He was dismayed by the Hungarian people’s enthusiasm for Orbán. He felt that “the current situation is nothing but a further illustration of that tendency [of Hungary] to choose wrong.” After talking about Orbán’s anti-EU attitudes and about the majority of Hungarian young people at the university who sympathize with the extreme right, he concluded that “Hungarians are holding on to their destiny. They will undoubtedly end up failing, without understanding why.”

As for the official attitude toward him, Kertész was aware that some of his right-wing friends kept in touch with him only in secret. “It not well seen for them to be friendly with me. Remember the unleashing violence when I won the Nobel Prize–people were angry to see me become the only Hungarian Nobel when I was not glorifying “Hungarian-ness. After my novel Someone Other, I was attacked because of my dark portrayal of the country. Some even wondered if I was a real Hungarian writer….”

In January 2013 an article appeared in The New Yorker entitled “The Frightening Hungarian Crackdown” by Hari Kunzru, himself a writer. When Kunzru heard about Kertész’s decision to house his archives not in Hungary but in Germany, he thought it was “a profound gesture of reconciliation.” The friend corrected him:

I’m afraid there is something more to it: he has also good reasons to believe that in Hungary his legacy wouldn’t be treated with as much respect as in Germany, as he is regarded by the current political elite as an “unHungarian” and then I’ve been euphemistic. For example, currently his work is not part of the Hungarian national education program, due to some changes in school material in which, at the same time, three famously antisemitic writers have been included.

The article ends with these words:

Hungary remains in a wistful, toxic relationship with the nineteen-thirties, with a fantasy of Jewish conspiracy and national moral decline. As the memory of the iron curtain fades and Europe recenters itself, Hungary’s fascist resurgence should be a matter of concern for all. Kertész’s own reaction is to quote Karl Kraus: “The situation is desperate, but not serious.”

All in all, it is unlikely that Kertész would accept any kind of decoration from Viktor Orbán’s government if he were in perfect mental health. Mária Schmidt and Viktor Orbán are taking advantage of an old, sick man.

To justify honoring Kertész Schmidt paints a very different portrait of his views. She uses three sources. All three appeared in the last few years when Kertész was not entirely himself. When he said a few things that perhaps were not only not fair but were dictated by resentment and suspicion of his liberal friends. In typical Schmidt manner, she presents a one-sided image of a very complex man by concentrating on a small segment of his output. She picks statements of Kertész which to her mind supports her own highly flawed thesis of the Holocaust. She is using Kertész’s Nobel Prize winning novel, Fateless, to justify her own House of Fates. Despicable.

Tomorrow I will give a taste of Schmidt’s revisionist description of Imre Kertész.

The man behind Viktor Orbán’s political ideas: Gyula Tellér

An English-language article on Viktor Orbán’s infamous speech of July 26 claimed that Orbán has a brilliant mind. I don’t know on what basis the author came to this conclusion because most people find Orbán’s ideas incoherent and confused. Moreover, it seems that some of his closest associates considered his “philosophical reflections” on the state of the world unnecessary, perhaps even dangerous. But Orbán defended his decision to deliver the kind of speech he delivered because he as prime minister of Hungary has a unique view of the world which he ought to share with the people.

Here I venture to suggest that it is not his unique political role that has given birth to his “revolutionary” ideas. The “birth mother” is instead a trusted adviser who is described by those familiar with his work as an ideologue. Few people even know his name, although it is becoming ever more apparent that Viktor Orbán’s “system” in large part stems from his adviser’s harebrained ideas.

Who is this man? His name is Gyula Tellér. He is apparently an excellent translator, but his real passion is political theory. He started his political career in SZDSZ but soon enough switched allegiance to Fidesz. Tellér was one of the authors of SZDSZ’s party program of 1990; a few years later he had a hand in formulating Fidesz’s program. To understand this man’s thoughts one ought to read Zoltán Ripp’s excellent essay “Color changes of an éminence grise” (Egy szürke eminenciás színeváltozásai).

Gyula Tellér, the man behind Viktor Orbán

Gyula Tellér, the man behind Viktor Orbán

I cannot summarize Ripp’s long and sophisticated essay in a few paragraphs here. Instead I will concentrate on some less weighty articles that appeared after Gyula Tellér’s ideological influence on the prime minister was discovered.

Ilidkó Csuhaj, who is a political reporter for Népszabadság and therefore not a historian or political philosopher, simply said that “Orbán recited a study of Gyula Tellér in Tusnádfűrdő.” According to Csuhaj, Viktor Orbán was so taken with an article Tellér wrote in the March issue of Nagyvilág (“Was an Orbán system born between 2010 and 2014?”) that he assigned it as compulsory reading for all his ministers.

Unfortunately, the connection between Gyula Tellér and Viktor Orbán goes back much farther than March 2014. From a careful reading of Ripp’s essay and Tellér’s own works it is absolutely clear that Viktor Orbán has been mesmerized by this man’s confused and dangerous ideas.

One of his “theories” explains the force of so-called “solidified structures.” Tellér here refers to the Kádár regime: both its elite and its social structure remain part of life in Hungary. No real regime change, he argues, will take place until those remnants of Kádárism are destroyed on every level: in science, in culture, in art. Everywhere. Anyone who achieved anything in the old regime must be stripped of his position in society. An entirely new middle class has to be created. That’s why for Tellér and hence for Orbán the so-called regime change of 1989-1990 is an increasingly insignificant event.

Another theory of his is that in Hungary there are three societal groups: (1) the old feudal Hungary and its later offshoot, the Hungarian upper middle classes; (2) the bourgeois Hungary; and (3) the old Rákosi socialists who simply changed their colors to become leaders and beneficiaries of Kádár’s Hungary. Initially he was critical of feudal Hungary, but as time went by he began to look upon the Horthy regime as an acceptable and perhaps imitable system.

Tellér started embracing international conspiracy theories, plots hatched abroad against Hungary. He became an enemy of globalization and capitalism. The mover and shaker of Hungarian life in his view became the foreign “investor.” From here Tellér easily arrived at anti-Semitism and is thus considered by Ripp, for example, to be a successor to István Csurka. That’s why Ripp colors Tellér “brown” at the end of his essay. Others are less polite. One blogger (orolunkvincent) calls Tellér “a Nazi madman”  and compares him to Aleksandr Dugin, the man behind Putin’s ideas. The blogger quotes extensively from Tellér’s writings and speeches in which he exhibits fervent anti-Semitic views.

Another blogger (democrat) complains how unfortunate it is that “a single man is behind the whole concept” of Viktor Orbán’s political agenda. Behind Orbán’s “grandiose plan” is Gyula Tellér, whom some people call a crackpot. In Tellér’s paranoid worldview, “the world is against Orbán, who is ready to make the country successful with a brilliant new system, but he is oppressed by the ugly and evil foreign (and Jewish and Marxist) capitalists.”

And here is the latest Tellér gem, uttered at a conference only yesterday. He delivered a long lecture on his interpretation of Hungarian history and politics over the last 50 years. He claimed that “the change of regime began in 1955″ when “a well-informed group of people” realized that socialism cannot survive in its present form. Who were they?  They were representatives of “a well-known and significant sub-culture” whose task was “running the economy, the financial system and the press.” He continued by saying that the “members of this group had numerous offspring who learned from their moms and dads that socialism is kaput.” These children of communist parents therefore became liberals and had a large role to play in 1989-1990. So, these people are still with us.

Although Tellér does not name this group, anyone who knows anything about the political culture of the Hungarian right knows that this was an anti-Semitic harangue. Of course, the whole “history” is outright crazy because it assumes that some people are blessed with extraordinary insight into the future. They know exactly what will happen in forty or fifty years and prepare themselves as well as their children for this eventuality.

Today an article appeared on ATV’s website in which Gábor Gavra, its author, gives a list of Tellér’s ideas that can be found in Orbán’s “national system.” The list is too long to repeat here, but it is frightening. Almost as if every aspect of Orbán’s system came straight from Tellér’s ideas. I think it is time to reevaluate Viktor Orbán’s ideology because its origins can be traced to the ideas of a man who holds far-right and anti-Semitic views.

“We’re not Nazis, but …”: Human Rights First report on Hungary and Greece

As I reported a few days ago, members of the Hungarian right-wing media and pro-government “political scientists” were outraged because editorials in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal called on the European Union to introduce sanctions against the Orbán government. The occasion was Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s July 26th speech in which he expressed his belief in the illiberal state’s superiority over the liberal state. A week or so later Charles Gati, an American political scientist, published an article in which he outlined the very limited options, in his opinion, the U.S. government has in influencing Viktor Orbán’s domestic policies. Again, members of the right-wing press were beside themselves, especially because they suspect Gati, who is of Hungarian origin, of having influence in Washington. They think that he and some other “unpatriotic” Hungarians are the only reason the U.S. government has a less than favorable opinion of the current government in Budapest.

Well, if they were offended by editorials in some of the leading American papers and Charles Gati’s list of modest steps Washington can take, I can’t imagine what kinds of editorials will appear in Magyar Nemzet, Válasz, and Magyar Hírlap after the appearance of a report by Human Rights First (HRF),”an independent advocacy and action organization that challenges America to live up to its ideals.” HRF is one of those non-governmental organizations that Viktor Orbán would like to stamp out in Hungary. And what temerity! HRF calls on the U.S. government, Congress, the European Commission, and the local governments to take steps to restore democracy and combat extremism, racism, and homophobia in the two countries the report deals with: Hungary and Greece.

Human Rights First

In Hungary 444.hu was the first to report on We’re not Nazis, but … The Rise of Hate Parties in Hungary and Greece and Why America Should Care. The reaction of this online paper was well expressed in the article’s headline: “It has been a long time since Hungary has received such a kick in the behind.” Well, that might be an exaggeration, but the report is very hard-hitting. As the Hungarian saying goes, the government “will not put this in the shop window.”

First, let me start by saying that the report is much more than what the title suggests. Sonni Efron, senior fellow, and Tad Stanke, vice president of research and analysis, are the authors of the study, which I consider the best detailed analysis of the current Hungarian (and Greek) political situation. To give you an idea of the thoroughness of the report: It is 122 pages long, out of which close to 40 pages deal exclusively with Hungary. More than half of the 388 footnotes pertain to Hungary. Every important development, every important detail of the Hungarian far right can be found here. But just as important, if not more so, there is a separate chapter entitled: “Orbán: Increasingly Problematic U.S. Ally.” And here are a few of the topics discussed: Retreat from Democracy, Human Rights, and the Rule of Law; Rewrites the Election Law to Favor Itself; April Election: Free but Not Fair; After Re-election, Cracks Down on NGOs; Pursues Revisionist History; Co-opts Jobbik’s Agenda.

So, what are the recommendations that will most likely send the Hungarian government and its media empire into a rage? Here are some of them:

(1) The President should adopt a policy to reverse Hungary’s backsliding on democracy. This policy should be an integral part of the U.S. strategy to reinforce the Transatlantic Alliance  in the face of Russian action in Ukraine. The President in his September speech to the U.N. General Assembly should refute Orbán’s notion that “illiberal” nations are better off economically and articulate the dangers that authoritarian regimes pose to peace, prosperity and fundamental freedoms.

(2) The President should instruct the Director of National Intelligence to investigate allegations of Russian and Iranian financial or other support of European far-right parties.

(3) At the North Atlantic Council meeting at the 2014 NATO summit, he should express concern about the rise of neo-fascist parties in Europe and its impact on security and good government in NATO member countries and the strength of the Alliance.

(4) The President should task relevant U.S. agencies with compiling information on corruption by Hungarian political and business leaders as well as government officials suspected of funding violent extremists.

(5) The President should direct the Departments of Commerce, Treasury, and State as well as USAID to step up efforts to promote broad-based economic recovery and entrepreneurship in Hungary, with emphasis on combating youth unemployment.

(6) The President should install a U.S. ambassador seasoned in managing the complex relationship with an ally that also has major challenges in democratic governance and protecting human rights.

(7) The President should send senior public citizens, including former U.S. officials from both parties, to Budapest to discuss how abandoning liberal democracy would result in increasing political, economic, and strategic isolation for Hungary.

(8) The President should speak out about the intimidation of independent media and NGOs, and the chilling effect it is having on Hungarian society.

(9) The President should prioritize efforts to support embattled independent media, NGOs, and human rights defenders in Hungary. Develop a communications strategy to reach Hungarians who depend mainly on the state-dominated news outlets for information.

And these suggestions are only for the President. The report also has a long list of tasks for the State Department. John Kerry should convey to senior European leaders U.S. support of EU efforts to hold Hungary accountable for violation of EU law. He should support the implementation of the European Commission’s new framework for addressing systemic threats to the rule of law in the European Union. Hungary should be removed from the Governing Council of the Community of Democracies. Kerry should talk about American disapproval of the government’s intimidation of the Hungarian media. The U.S. should fund programs to support independent media outlets which are on the verge of disappearing. Kerry should take a less charitable view of the Hungarian government’s half-hearted efforts to combat anti-Semitism. He should also condemn the raids on Hungarian NGOs receiving funds from foreign donors. The United States should work with European partners to fund embattled NGOs.

HRF also has suggestions for the U.S. Congress, the European Commission, and finally the Hungarian government itself. For instance, the Orbán government should revise the constitution to allow the executive to be effective while reinstating checks and balances on executive power and should combat hate crimes and discrimination.

MTI did not report on the appearance of the HRF Report, only on Jobbik MP Márton Gyöngyösi’s reaction to the report at a press conference held this afternoon in front of the United States Embassy. Gyöngyösi is the party’s foreign relations expert. He made quite a name for himself when in 2012 he gave an interview to the Jewish Chronicle in which he claimed that Jews were colonizing Hungary. In the same interview he questioned whether 400,000 Jews were really killed or deported from Hungary to Nazi death camps during World War II. I wrote at length about Gyöngyösi and his background at the time of this infamous interview.

So what does this Jobbik foreign policy expert think of the HRF’s report? According to him, there is already a program in place in the United States which with the assistance of U.S. national security forces, foreign paid NGOs, and the so-called “independent press” is designed to discipline Hungary and make her return to “the road of neoliberalism.” Given this situation Jobbik calls on Fidesz and the government to stop its double-game and decide whether it stands for Euro-Atlanticism or is on the side of those people committed to the nation. According to Gyöngyösi, ever since 2010 there have been several verbal attacks on Hungarian sovereignty, but to date this is the most savage and aggressive interference in the domestic affairs of the country. He is not surprised that the key target of the report is Jobbik because it is “the most resolute defender of Hungarian sovereignty.” He also wanted to know about the role of the U.S. Embassy in Budapest in organizing a spy network.

There is nothing surprising about Jobbik’s swift reaction to the appearance of the report. MTI’s silence does not come as a surprise either, given MTI’s self-censorship of any news that reflects badly on the government. As of now, every newspaper, including Magyar Nemzet, has simply republished MTI’s release on Gyöngyösi’s press conference. However, HírTV was present at Gyöngyösi’s performance, and therefore Magyar Nemzet, which is affiliated with HírTV, had some additional information. Although MTI did not mention it, Gyöngyösi suggested to the Americans that instead of trying to “overthrow Hungarian national sovereignty” they should bring charges against those politicians who commit crimes against humanity. For example, the leaders of Israel. The usual Jobbik answer to everything.

Scandal surrounding the purchase of E.ON gas company

The left-of-center Hungarian media is full of stories about details of  the purchase of the German-owned E.ON gas and electricity company by MVM (Magyar Villamos Művek), a state-owned utility company.

Let’s go back a few years to recall the background of this deal. Rumors of the purchase of the company were already circulating in the summer of 2011 because Viktor Orbán made it clear that he found state ownership of utilities of strategic importance to the country. Not everybody shared the Hungarian prime minister’s view. For example, the Financial Times Deutschland at the time called the idea “madness,” arguing that the price of energy cannot be lowered by nationalizing the utility companies.

It is also important to understand the history of E.ON in Hungary. Originally E.ON bought the company from MOL, the Hungarian oil and gas company, when during the initial tenure of Viktor Orbán (1998-2002) the government set the price of gas so low that MOL suffered considerable losses. For ten years E.ON managed to make the Hungarian business profitable, but in 2010 it suffered a blow when the second Orbán government once again froze the price of gas. As a result, E.ON lost money. The Germans decided to bail and sell the company to the Hungarian state. The deal was closed in March 2013. At the time experts found the purchase price too high.

Because of the controversy over the purchase price, atlatszo.hu  (Transparency), an NGO that receives some funds from the Norwegian Grants, decided to ask for documentation about the deal. Although by law the Magyar Nemzeti Vagyonkezelő/Hungarian National Asset Management, the state organization that handles state properties, was obliged to release the documents, they refused. At that point atlatszo.hu went to court and won. The state appealed but atlatszo.hu won again. That did not deter MNV. They decided to go all the way to the Supreme Court (Kúria). But no luck. After a year and a half of legal wrangling the Hungarian state was forced to release the documents. Atlatszo.hu promptly made them public on its website.

On the basis of the documents now released, it looks as if MVM purchased a company that was practically bankrupt. The purchase price of 251 billion forints was considered too high when critics were unaware of the actual financial health of E.ON. As it turned out, the assessors estimated the value of E.ON to be -355 billion forints. Yes, you read it right: minus. So, with the 251 billion paid by the government, the loss to the country is 616 billion forints.

Viktor Orbán was bent on purchasing E.ON regardless of price. In fact, even before negotiations began he repeatedly announced his absolute determination to acquire the company. Not the smartest move. There was not much haggling over price either. The Germans asked 260 billion forints and, it seems, Orbán was happy to pay.

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Chairman-CEO of E.ON

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Chairman-CEO of E.ON

In fact, he was so eager that he wasn’t bothered by the fact that the Hungarians were unable to examine the financial health of the company thoroughly. The German side announced that certain documents would be released only after the deal was complete.

The negotiators from MNV were aware of the riskiness of the transaction and were afraid to go ahead with the deal without appealing to a higher authority. They wanted to submit their findings to the Ministry of National Development for approval. Mrs. László Németh, then minister of MND, did not feel comfortable with the deal either, so in the end it was Viktor Orbán who personally assured MNV of state guarantees for any losses incurred as a result of the transaction.

Apparently the greatest risk for the health of the company is the “take-or-pay contract” that has existed for many years between Gazprom and the E.ON companies. That means that the company either takes the product from the supplier or pays the supplier a penalty. After 2008, in the wake of the global financial crisis, Hungary’s gas needs decreased considerably. And yet the company was obliged to buy gas regardless of need. Some references in the documentation indicate that after the close of the deal the new owners might be able to negotiate with Gazprom concerning the take-or-pay arrangement. Orbán’s cozy relationship with Putin should help in this regard.

Critics also point to legal irregularities. For instance, owners of E.ON shares were not notified thirty days before the deal was signed. There is also the possibility that Brussels will consider the state subsidies to MVM illegal. (Apparently, the socialists already asked the European Union to investigate the case.)

The new division of MVM cannot stand on its own financially. Not only does it need state subsidies to cover its costs, but two of the gas storage facilities bought from E.ON already had to be closed.

Együtt-PM and DK are bringing charges of mismanagement and abuse of fiduciary duties in connection with the purchase of the E.ON gas business by MVM. MSZP was more modest. The party only asked Miklós Seszták, the new minister of national development, to investigate the case. If I were the representative of MSZP I wouldn’t wait breathlessly for this investigation. The ministry already made its position clear tonight. Hungary cannot be at the mercy of foreign interests in the energy sector, and therefore the purchase of E.ON was necessary for the “defense of the decrease of utility prices.” Getting back the gas company is also of inestimable value from the point of view of national security because of the gas facilities where Hungary can store 70% of its yearly gas consumption.

As for the purchase itself. “Several independent assessments showed the economic justifiability of the purchase in the long run.  The state ownership guarantees the secure gas supply of Hungary and it serves as a solid foundation for future economic growth,” reads the statement of the ministry released to MTI. I must say that this is a pretty weak response to the very serious charge of financial irresponsibility with taxpayer money.

In the right-wing media the silence is deafening. The only article I found was in MNO (Magyar Nemzet Online). It was posted at 17:33 and is a bare outline of how the documents were acquired by atlatszo.hu and what the documents show. It seems that, since the Ministry of National Development hadn’t yet responded to the revelations, the paper’s editors didn’t know what the right position was on this particular issue. I guess they will eventually find their voices.

As for the Fidesz-friendly prosecutors, they were quick to charge socialist and liberal politicians with an abuse of fiduciary duty for selling state properties at prices they considered too low. But it is unlikely they will ever charge Fidesz politicians with the same abuse for buying state properties at prices that are too high.

Attacks on Charles Gati and the American media

Charles Gati’s article “The Mask is Off”appeared on August 7 in The American Interest and a day later in Hungarian Spectrum. I guess readers will not be surprised to hear that it created quite a storm in Hungary, especially in the right-wing press. And in a counterattack Válasz published a piece by an Italian politician assailing Gati and whitewashing Viktor Orbán’s ideas on the “illiberal state.”

Let’s start with the reception of Gati’s article, which was not translated word for word but was extensively summarized in Népszabadság on the very day of its appearance. Other left-of-center publications followed suit. Two days later Magyar Nemzet, the unofficial mouthpiece of Fidesz, published an unsigned piece that condemned the article and accused Charles Gati of willfully misinterpreting Viktor Orbán’s concepts and of meddling in the internal affairs of Hungary. His article, it argued, was intended as an instrument of political pressure.

Magyar Nemzet reported on Hungarian reactions to the article, starting with Fidesz’s official position. The answer the paper received emphasized that “Hungary is an independent, democratic state whose government and prime minister were chosen by the Hungarian people.”

Magyar Nemzet, Fidesz if you wish, received additional ammunition from András Schiffer of LMP. After paying lip-service to the importance of checks and balances, Schiffer declared that “Hungary must be governed from Hungary and no matter how serious a situation was created by the ‘system of national cynicism’ it can be remedied only at home as a result of the will of the Hungarian people…. Those from overseas who entertain visions of a cultural war don’t realize that with their pronouncements they hurt the self-esteem of the Hungarian people and unwittingly extend Viktor Orbán’s stay in power.”

Magyar Nemzet also asked a “political scientist” from the Nézőpont Intézet who is a committed supporter of Fidesz and the current government. Gati’s article struck him as “desperate” and, he said, the “foreign misgivings” repeated by Gati “have been ordered” by unnamed foes of the Hungarian government. So, it seems, the sin Charles Gati committed was to dare to “meddle” in Hungarian affairs by voicing his opinion about Viktor Orbán’s regime and by outlining options the United States could pursue under the circumstances. András Schiffer, whose position vis-à-vis the Orbán government is anything but clear, was perhaps the most explicit: foreigners shouldn’t have “visions” about the Hungarian situation, especially since such criticism damages the self-esteem of the Hungarian people. But even the somewhat meaningless Fidesz statement makes a sharp enough distinction between “Hungarians” who have a right to express their opinions and foreigners who don’t.

But then what can we do with Viktor Orbán’s “vision” of the Hungarian nation as a “world-nation” (világnemzet)? This concept is supposed to express the unity of the Hungarian nation regardless of where these Hungarians happen to live. Of course, we all know the reason behind this generous gesture, and we also know the efforts the Orbán government made to limit the number of possible voters from the West while actively recruiting voters from Romania and Serbia. But still, he can’t have it both ways. Either those who are Hungarian by birth are part of the nation and can have a say in the governance of the country or not. Once the Orbán government extended that privilege and made all of us members of this wonderful world-nation he has to take the bad with the good. He cannot pick and choose.

Right-wing Hungarian media is convinced that Viktor Orbán is an innocent political target

The right-wing Hungarian media is convinced that Viktor Orbán is an innocent political target

As for foreign powers “meddling” in another country’s internal affairs, it happens all the time. Viktor Orbán in his long political career openly sided with George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney during U.S. presidential campaigns. But others are not supposed to speak their mind about Hungary. Even non-Hungarian Europeans know this. The pro-government Válasz published an article by Luca Volontè, an Italian Christian Democratic politician who was at one time the whip of the European People’s Party in the Council of Europe. Válasz gave this title to Volontè’s polemic against Charles Gati: “Hands Off Hungary!”

Luca Volontè is the only outsider the Orbán government managed to recruit so far. His article sounds not a little suspicious. Almost as if he received some help from Budapest. He seems to be too familiar with the current Hungarian political scene, and the interpretation of Orbán’s speech bears a suspicious resemblance to some of the Hungarian right-wing media’s efforts at explaining Orbán’s message away. We will see whether Fidesz will be able to gather a few more supporters from Europe. The emphasis is on Europe because the current Hungarian line is that in Europe the speech did not make waves; that happened only in the “anti-Hungarian” United States. In fact, Válasz‘s byline made it clear that the anti-Gati voice came from Europe.

And finally, an illustration of the right-wing media’s efforts to control the damage caused by Viktor Orbán’s speech. Today a brief exchange was published, also in Válasz, between Harold Meyerson and Zoltán Laky. Meyerson wrote an opinion piece on August 6 entitled “Hungary’s prime minister a champion for illiberalism” in The Washington Post. Laky, a journalist who obviously thinks that The Washington Post is the mouthpiece of the U.S. government just as Válasz is of the Hungarian government, wanted to know whether Meyerson received instructions concerning Viktor Orbán’s crossing the Rubicon with this speech either from the U.S. government or from the editors of The Washington Post. Meyerson set his Hungarian colleague straight. He has no idea what the U.S. government thinks of Viktor Orbán’s speech and, as far as The Washington Post is concerned, he is not an employee of the paper; the editors don’t even know what he will write about. He is an independent journalist. Yet the title of the Válasz article was titillating: “Permission to target Orbán? The journalist of The Washington Post speaks.”

As for damage control in the United States, I believe the Hungarian government’s chances are slim to none. Budapest can send a new ambassador, as it will in September, and it can spend millions of dollars on lobbying efforts, but its quest is hopeless as long as Viktor Orbán is the prime minister of the country. When the conservative Washington Times publishes an opinion piece entitled “Democracy’s dangerous descent in Hungary,” then Hungary’s chances in Washington are close to hopeless. Viktor Orbán managed to alienate even the paper that in the past usually defended his government.

The sorry state of the Hungarian opposition: The Budapest municipal elections

It was around noon in Hungary when I began writing this post on the negotiations among the three democratic parties in preparation for the municipal elections on October 12, and I’m not at all sure that within a few hours, by the time I upload this post, the situation won’t have turned around 180 degrees.

I began collecting material on these negotiations right after the national election on April 6. On April 23 a strange news item appeared in Index according to which the socialists had a magic formula for certain victory in the Budapest municipal election. What if, said Zsolt Molnár who at that time was chairman of the Budapest MSZP, András Schiffer’s LMP, a party known for its refusal to cooperate with any other opposition force, would nominate a person for lord mayor (főpolgármester) whom MSZP, and presumably DK and Együtt-PM, would support? Schiffer’s answer was brief and to the point: “let’s not clown around.”

Well, since then the three parties–MSZP, DK, and Együtt-PM–have been doing nothing else but clowning around although it is critical that they reach an understanding. It is only in Budapest that the democratic opposition has a chance to win the city and perhaps even the post of lord mayor.

Viktor Orbán was well aware of the threat  because the results of both the national and the EP elections indicated that the democratic opposition had a chance of taking the city back from Fidesz. It was at this point that Fidesz decided to change Budapest’s electoral law so that it would be very hard for the opposition to gain a majority on the city council. In the past, positions on the council were determined by the number of votes received on straight party lists. From here on, mayoral winners on the district level (and there are 23 districts in Budapest) will make up the council. Thus, the opposition parties cannot compete individually; they have to agree on common candidates.

The jostling began immediately. It was clear from day one that the three parties must agree on a common candidate for the position of lord mayor. Weeks went by, with a different name circulating every other day. Hungarians call this graceless performance “casting,” using the English word for the phenomenon. Finally, after weeks of searching for someone who would take the job and who was also acceptable to the three parties, the candidate was announced a few days ago: Ferenc Falus, a physician who served as the country’s chief medical officer between 2007 and 2010. He is described by people who know him and worked with him as a good administrator and “almost stupidly honest.” Moreover, he seems to be everything that István Tarlós is not. While Tarlós is an intolerant boor and quite vulgar, he is a mild-mannered, well-spoken gentleman.

At least the three parties agree on Ferenc Falus as candidate for mayor of Budapest

At least the three parties agree on Ferenc Falus as candidate for mayor of Budapest

Although choosing the candidate for the post of lord mayor was not easy and seemed to take forever, the decisions on some 300 posts on the district level were even more difficult. Why such large numbers?  Because for each district the three parties had to agree on not only the person of the mayor but also members of the district councils. And naturally, each party wanted to have as many of their own people as possible.

As the national and EP elections demonstrated in Budapest, DK and Együtt-PM have taken away a fair number of votes from MSZP. Although the strength of the three parties is more or less equally divided, leaders of  MSZP seem to have some difficulty understanding that their party is no longer the “large” party while the other two are the “small” ones.

MSZP’s chief negotiator was Ágnes Kunhalmi, the new chair of the Budapest MSZP. She is young woman who until recently was the face of MSZP only when it came to matters of education. But then, Kunhalmi was thrust into the limelight just before the national elections when in the last minute she was nominated by the party to run instead of the disgraced Gábor Simon in Budapest’s 15th electoral district. She lost to her Fidesz opponent in a very tight race. In fact, the difference was so small, something like 200 votes, that a complete recount would have been in order. Kunhalmi was suddenly a star in the party.

It seemed to me that negotiations went along splendidly as long as Kunhalmi didn’t have to return to party headquarters to get approval of the deal from the chief honchos. But there Kunhalmi ran into difficulty. She asked for a few days to iron things out but said she was sure that in a day or so she will get the okay. The deadline had to be extended because MSZP was unhappy with its lot. Finally, a “firm” deadline was fixed for Friday, but Friday came and Friday went and MSZP was still playing coy. Then they got another extension, to midnight on Monday. But by Tuesday morning there was still no MSZP agreement. It was at this point that Viktor Szigetvári, who seems to be running the show  in Együtt-PM, announced that their patience had been exhausted: they will run their own candidates in districts where MSZP refuses to recognize the tripartite agreement.

The revolt against the agreement apparently came from MSZP politicians who have been in city politics for a long time and who couldn’t understand why they would have to give up their places to inexperienced newcomers. After all, they have the experience that will be necessary in case of an electoral victory.

This may be true, but the electorate will not appreciate MSZP’s arguments. They only see that while the two other parties, especially DK, are eager to cooperate, MSZP stands in the way of an understanding. They are running out of time and the campaign cannot begin. A lot of people, including faithful MSZP voters, are disgusted with the performance of the socialists. At the same time I doubt that Együtt-PM will gain extra votes by their abrupt decision to go it alone. On the contrary, they might lose some because voters will punish them for their impetuous behavior.

DK at the moment is sitting on the sidelines, watching the battle between MSZP and Együtt-PM. Under the circumstances this seems to be the best strategy. In my opinion, the warring parties can only lose with this latest conflict. People are fed up with parties in general and even more fed up with the democratic opposition, whose members seem to be more preoccupied with their personal ambitions than with unseating the current administration in Budapest and elsewhere in the country.

In the last few hours Ágnes Kunhalmi fought back. By mid-afternoon she expressed her astonishment at Együtt-PM’s announcement about the breakdown of  negotiations when only a few seats were still undecided out of the 300. MSZP was supposed to announce its agreement to the nomination of the last three candidates. She accused Szigetvári of personal ambitions to which he is ready to sacrifice the chances of the opposition at the Budapest election. Stop, a portal close to the socialists, thought that the biggest loser in this latest turn of events is Együtt-PM because, after all, the other two parties are in favor of continuing talks and compromise. A few hours later, Kunhalmi decided to use less belligerent language in connection with Együtt-PM’s decision  to withdraw from further negotiations. She expressed her belief that there will be an agreement.

There may be, but the last few weeks of negotiations among the three parties did not enhance their reputations. The voters’ faith in their political acumen has been further eroded as the result of all that wrangling. Trust in their ability to govern either the city or the country may have been shaken in light of their inability to present a united front against a very resolute and ruthless political foe.

Federation of Jewish Communities (Mazsihisz) versus Mária Schmidt

Back in December 2013 I predicted that the creation of a new Holocaust memorial museum, the House of Fates, would be a very controversial issue. I wrote at this time that both Mária Schmidt, the revisionist historian of the Holocaust who was named to head the project, and the Orbán government “have very definite ideas about what they want and what they don’t want. They certainly don’t want an exhibit that exposes the responsibility of the Hungarian government and those 200,000 people who actively worked on the deportation of more than 600,000 people within a couple of months.”

And indeed, the project that still hasn’t quite gotten off the ground has been nothing but a bone of contention between the Jewish community, which was supposed to receive the museum as something of a gift for the seventieth anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust, and Mária Schmidt as the representative of the government.

The presence of Mária Schmidt as the person responsible for the preparation of the plans aroused suspicion in the Jewish community because of her revisionist views. There was fear that Schmidt would create a museum like the House of Terror, whose exhibit is not an accurate portrayal of the history of 60 Andrássy Street, the site of the headquarters of  both the Arrow Cross party and ÁVH, the national security forces of the Rákosi regime. The fear was and still is that this new museum will try to alter the accepted history of the Hungarian Holocaust by adopting the views of Mária Schmidt, which most historians find untenable.

Mazsihisz, the umbrella organization of various Jewish groups, demanded the removal of Mária Schmidt as head of the project. Within a few months, however, it became clear that Mária Schmidt would remain.

Then, after a couple of months of seeming quiet, behind the scenes negotiations took place between Schmidt and leaders of  the Hungarian and international Jewish community. The latter desperately tried to find a way to have at least some say in the concept and eventually functioning of the museum. At last, on June 30, the following agreement was allegedly reached:

Upon an initiative by Rabbi Andrew Baker, who joined the International Advisory Board of the House of Fates project in his capacity as Director of International Jewish Affairs of the American Jewish Committee, Mária Schmidt, the historian in charge of the professional side of the project, briefed András Heisler, Chairman of Mazsihisz (the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities), and Sir Andrew Burns, the Chair of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), together with a number of international and Hungarian experts on the progress made since the project was launched in 2013.

Participants agreed on a five point “road map” to be followed with a view to promoting the successful completion of the project.

  1. The Páva Street Holocaust Museum and Documentation Centre and the future House of Fates will co-operate and complement each other. Páva Street provides a permanent exhibition of the Holocaust as well as serving mainly as a center for research and documentation. The House of Fates will offer exhibitions directed toward young people while also serving as a center for education and training.
  2. Participants agreed that in addition to the International Advisory Board an international working group of academic experts will be set up in cooperation with IHRA to give feedback on the historical content and context of the exhibition.
  3. A similar academic working group will be set up in cooperation with IHRA to help in shaping the educational material and methods of the future Educational Centre which will be an integral part of the House of Fates project.
  4. Steps will be taken to establish regular contacts and exchanges of views between the House of Fates project and Mazsihisz.
  5. The outlines of the exhibition will be presented to the full membership of the International Advisory Board and subsequently opened up to the public at large in the autumn.

It looked as if the hatchet had been buried and that the two sides were getting closer to some sort of agreement. At the same time, however, there were troubling signs that the “road map” was in reality a worthless piece of paper because everything was proceeding apace without any consultation with Mazsihisz and other Jewish organizations. For example, on July 18 the Official Gazette (Magyar Közlöny) reported that the project had been enlarged. The government had generously added another 667 million forints for the restoration of three other buildings belonging to the railroad station. Thus the whole project will cost 7.2 billion forints. And the House of Fates will function under the auspices of the same foundation that is in charge of the House of Terror.

The House of Fates under construction

The House of Fates under construction

In the interim Schmidt indicated that she wanted to concentrate only on the deportations and nothing that preceded them. She claimed that the existing Holocaust Memorial Center deals with this period and there is no need to duplicate its work here. But it is hard to imagine an “education center” on the Holocaust that ignores both the widespread anti-Semitism that existed in Hungary and the government’s role in the anti-Jewish laws.

Then came several seeming blows to Mária Schmidt’s project. First, Mazsihisz (Federation of Jewish Communities) released a statement on the requisite conditions for future cooperation between Mazsihisz and the House of Fates project:

The president of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities in Hungary – as he had agreed with the Prime Minister – attended on July 28 a consultation about the House of Fates project and a site visit of the future museum.

On July 30, the office of Dr. Maria Schmidt issued a declaration about the meeting. The content of the declaration was not truthful to the statement agreed by the participants at the meeting.

At the meeting, Dr. Maria Schmidt made the false declaration that she had no information on the future operation of the museum. In fact, ten days earlier, the government by its resolution 1390/2014.(VII.18) ordered the ‘Middle- and Eastern European History and Society Research Public Foundation’, directed by Dr. Maria Schmidt, to operate the House of Fates Museum.

This yet another unconsulted government decision, and the untrue declaration by Dr Maria Schmidt, undermined all agreements previously achieved.

In order to restore transparency and good faith, MAZSIHISZ specifies the following conditions for its cooperation with the House of Fates and its directing institution, the Middle- and Eastern European History and Society Research Public Foundation.

  • The interpretation of history at the House of Fates should be in line with that of the universally accepted exhibition in the Holocaust Documentation and Research Center in Páva Street, Budapest.
  • The House of Fates should reach an agreement on the composition and competence of the academic working group supported by IHRA. The educational working group should also be set up and its competence should be clarified.
  • The expert group of MAZSIHISZ should continuously participate in shaping and controlling the scenario and the educational material.
  • In setting up the team of exhibition guides, the House of Fates project should use the knowledge and the commitment of the experts educated at the Rabbinical Seminary – Jewish University, which is the higher education institute of MAZSIHISZ.
  • The operation of the House of Fates should be controlled by a body consisting in equal proportions of individuals selected by the government; the international academic experts; and the scholars delegated by MAZSIHISZ. Such a body would guarantee the politically independent operation of the institution under any future government.
  • A precise schedule of the preparations should be drawn up, and both the participating members and the public at large should be notified. The dates should be accepted by all participants of the July 28 meeting.

MAZSIHISZ hopes that by accepting and observing the above terms the House of Fates will become a worthy memorial of the hundreds of thousands innocent victims of the Hungarian Holocaust.

And then followed the statement of  Sir Andrew Burns, chairman of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance:

Contrary to media reports, IHRA will not be in a position to endorse the House of Fates concept until the consultations with the national and international experts as well as with the Hungarian Jewish Community have been taken into account. Dr Heisler has published a letter to Dr Schmidt about the points of concern to the Jewish community which are shared by IHRA. Close cooperation with Mazsihisz is not only desirable but essential in ensuring the integrity of the project.

Meanwhile work on the future museum is proceeding. According to Mária Schmidt, the grand opening will occur sometime in the fall. Mazsihisz’s refusal to support the project will not deter her or the government whom she represents from carrying it to completion. Even if, as András Heisler, president of Mazsihisz, said, “it will be the only Holocaust memorial center in the whole world which would be created without the participation of the local Jewish community and one which has not taken into consideration its views.”

Krisztián Ungváry: One terror regime is taboo, while the other is market kitsch

I have been planning to publish an opinion piece by Krisztián Ungváry that appeared in the July 21 issue of Népszabadság for some time, but Viktor Orbán’s speech completely upset my plans.

On July 12 Mária Schmidt, the director of the House of Terror and the person appointed by the Orbán government to oversee the creation of a second Holocaust museum in Budapest, gave an interview that contained several misstatements regarding the views of Ungváry on the Hungarian Holocaust.

Considering that the issue of this new museum, the House of Fates, is still very much in the news and in fact I will devote a whole post to it tomorrow, I thought it would be appropriate to publish this polemic of Ungváry. After all, Hungarian Spectrum published in full Mária Schmidt’s article outlining her revisionist view of Hungarian-German relations as well as the fate of Hungarian Jewry, and therefore the readers of this blog are familiar with her line of reasoning. Moreover, in the same post I published Mária M. Kovács’s article in which she dissected Schmidt’s rather flimsy arguments.

Here is another article that sheds light on the way Mária Schmidt operates. Right now there is a stalemate between Mazsihisz and Schmidt over the House of Fates because the Jewish organization claims that Mária Schmidt’s statement published on August 8  misrepresented the understanding that was reached between Schmidt and several of the Jewish organizations involved with the project.

My thanks to “Buddy” for the translation of this interesting answer to Mária Schmidt. It is packed with little known and important facts about the German occupation of Hungary in 1944. Buddy would like to dedicate this translation to his professor, Professor Mária M. Kovács of Central European University.

* * *

Mária Schmidt doesn’t realize that she is committing the same tasteless mistakes that she accuses her opponents of, writes the historian, who responds in ten points to the statements of the director of the Terror House published on Nol.hu.

In her interview in the July 12, 2014 issue of Népszabadság, Mária Schmidt referred to my statements several times, but twisted them around every time. In other cases, she demonstrated an unfortunate lack of historical knowledge.

1. According to Mária Schmidt, I claimed that Hitler did not even want Hungarian Jews to be deported.

In contrast, I claimed that Hitler did not insist on the immediate deportation of all Hungarian Jews at any cost. This is not the same thing, to say the least.

2. According to Mária Schmidt, “questioning the loss of sovereignty is a cover for politically motivated malice, but if we can be generous, we have to assume a lack of knowledge and professional incompetence at a minimum.” In contrast, the German policy makers thought differently about this amongst each other.

After March 19, 1944, economic offices of the German military were forbidden to even enter the grounds of a Hungarian factory at all, or meet directly with Hungarian managers on official matters.

Wehrmacht units were strictly forbidden to buy or requisition products, as all of their needs had to be fulfilled only through storage depots of the German or Hungarian defense forces. An example of this restraint is an entry in the war diary of the panzer tank division, which stated that “we aren’t allowed to interfere in the economy, or requisition goods, or take a position on the Jewish question [!], which will be resolved by the Hungarian government.”

At a German Economic Ministry session on April 16, 1944, Department Head Schlotterer stated that Hungary was not an occupied country like France, Italy or Denmark, and its government was a sovereign partner, and that it had to be acknowledged that more should be done for their common struggle.

Karl-Otto Saur, the head of the German fighter program, remembers the same thing: “We can never work by giving orders, only with requests and offers may we act.” This is worth noting because Saur was not by any means a man of weak temperament, but just the opposite, someone infamous for exploiting his authority to the utmost in every case to achieve his objectives.

Plenipotentiary Edmund Veesenmayer was the only one who regularly reported to his superiors that he insistently acted against Hungarian public officials – all of which relativizes, to put it mildly, the claim that Hungary completely lost its independence on March 19, 1944.

3. According to Mária Schmidt, the Germans “solved the Jewish question similarly” in every country.

However, the literature on the Holocaust is consistent in showing that the opposite of this occurred. In Romania, for example, no one was deported to extermination camps. In France only a small group of Jews were sent there, while in the Netherlands and Belgium, nearly all of them were.

The differences are especially noticeable if we look at the percentage of Jews who survived the Holocaust in each country. Obviously, the Germans wanted to solve the Jewish question similarly, no question, but they were not able to enforce their will completely in every location.

It would be of great help to Mária Schmidt if she would at least obtain a decent high school history textbook or an encyclopedia, from which she could learn the relevant data on this.

4. Mária Schmidt finds it absurd that I claimed that we can not find a command from Hitler ordering the annihilation of the entire Hungarian Jewish population.

I must emphasize that it is not in question whether Hitler was responsible or not, and whether or not he stated the necessity of the annihilation of the Jews in general, but rather whether the German occupation of Hungary was also connected with the expectation that the entire Hungarian Jewish population had to be eradicated at any cost.

From this, I would have to conclude that Schmidt intends to prove that in spring 1944 Hitler gave an order for the complete and quick annihilation of Hungarian Jews in death camps, and obviously until now only requisite modesty has held her back from disclosing her evidence, which would completely rock the results of Holocaust research thus far, to the public.

5. Mária Schmidt claims that she has never encountered my aforementioned statement, and that I am the only one who is capable of such absurdities.

She would correct this statement if she read the literature of the Hungarian Holocaust, starting from Randolph L. Braham to László Karsai, Gábor Kádár, and Zoltán Vági, all the way to the work of Götz Aly and Christian Gerlach.

These authors are uniformly of the opinion that the German occupiers did not have a unified plan from the start about how to deal with Hungarian Jews. Of course, they received general instructions from their superiors, but owing to the exceptionally small number of German occupiers, they were forced from the start to carry out their anti-Jewish activities in cooperation with the Hungarian government, relying primarily, in fact, on the Hungarian apparatus.

Source: Országos Széchenyi Könyvtár

Source: Országos Széchenyi Könyvtár

6. According to Mária Schmidt, “certain people question a fundamental fact, in which there has been consensus up until now, namely that if the Nazi occupation of March 19, 1944 had not taken place, then the mass deportation and deaths of Hungarian Jews would not have occurred.”

I don’t know anyone who would cast doubt on this claim. So then who is Mária Schmidt arguing with?

7. According to Mária Schmidt, Eichmann’s incriminating statements comparing Hungarian officials to the Huns because of the brutality they showed with the deportations (which she mistakenly credits to Veesenmayer) were motivated by the fact that he was making excuses as a defendant in court.

The tiny flaw in all of this is that a significant part of Eichmann’s statements incriminating Hungarians originated in Argentina, when he gave an interview to a Dutch Nazi. Not holding back, he made statements that for the most part seriously incriminated himself during the interview, as he wanted to prove that he himself was the number one person responsible for the Holocaust.

8. According to Mária Schmidt, Eichmann and Veesenmayer forced the Hungarian perpetrators of the Holocaust to cooperate through extortion on a daily basis.

By comparison, historical scholarship reveals the exact opposite of this. The overzealousness of the Hungarian enforcers surprised even the German perpetrators. Eichmann was delighted with László Endre, State Secretary for Home Affairs, and his colleagues. He didn’t have to resort to extortion on Endre even once, especially since he only had advisory authority.

When the Hungarian authorities wanted to push back on Eichmann, they could do so without any trouble, for example when they didn’t permit him to deport those of military age. The situation was also similar with Veesenmayer, except that he did in fact attempt extortion, but if the Hungarian side did not wish to cooperate with him (such as after June 6, 1944, for example), then Veesenmayer’s attempts at extortion all came to nothing.

I am interested in seeing evidence from Mária Schmidt showing how, for example, Eichmann extorted the gendarmes and rural civil servants to get them to subject every woman branded as a racial Jew to a vaginal search…

I am also interested in hearing how Mária Schmidt would explain that in 1942 several county assemblies voted in favor of a bill that provided for the deportation of the Jews.

How would she explain Prime Minister Miklós Kállay’s characterization of 75% of MPs in the ruling party as intransigent anti-Semites, because they also demanded the deportation of the Jews even before the German occupation?

Perhaps Eichmann and Veesenmayer could have extorted them?

9. All appearances indicate that Mária Schmidt struggles with langauge difficulties, as when she claims that with Sándor Szakály’s infamous statement calling the deportations of 1941 “a police action against aliens,” his only problem was that he used terminology of that time.

There are contemporary expressions that mean the same today as they did in the past, and can be used without any trouble. There are others which do not mean the same thing, but their meanings are clear, such as “malenkii robot,” about which nobody would ever think that the person involved had to work “just a little.”

This is because this expression is used solely and exclusively in the context of deportations to the Soviet Union. And finally, there are those that do not mean the same thing today as they did back then, and their meanings are not at all clear.

Such is it with the notorious “police action against aliens,” which even in 1941 did not mean procedures carried out against aliens, as a part of the “aliens” affected were native to Hungary. Moreover, out of the “aliens,” it solely and exclusively affected those considered to be Jews.

But even apart from this, it is disgraceful that someone uses this expression today to refer to the Jewish deportations, since the act had as much to do with police activity towards aliens as prostitution does to comfort. If I may draw a parallel: Japanese authorities called “comfort women” (ju-gun-ian-fu) those women who before 1945 were forced into brothels by the Japanese Imperial Army through brutal means.

The unreflected usage of this expression is just as scandalous as when Sándor Szakály, hiding behind objections on terminology, conceals that it was in fact a brutal act of anti-Semitism carried out by independent resolution from the Hungarian government, as opposed to the Germans, and about which even from the start they could have known would lead to the destruction of a significant portion of those affected (as no provisions had been made for their livelihood, their valuables however had been partially confiscated).

10. Mária Schmidt distorts the truth when she credits me with saying that the presence of NATO troops in Hungary is identical to the presence of the Wehrmacht.

Three years ago, an argument was made in connection with the preamble to the Hungarian Constitution that Hungary lost its sovereignty because foreign troops had entered its soil. I answered then (and repeated in my writing published this year dealing with the preamble to the Constitution) that with this logic, we would have to regard the presence of NATO troops as also creating a circumstance in which Hungary has lost its independence.

From this, Mária Schmidt fabricated the assertion that I believe that the Wehmacht and NATO resided in Hungary on the same basis.

Finally, a comment: Mária Schmidt regularly argues that her own sensitivities also need to be taken into account, and that she considers the lack of this as a sign of double talk.

I think some serious conceptual confusion exists here. I readily admit that she can also claim some victims in her family, such as her grandmother, who died in the war, or her father, who was hauled off as a prisoner of war. In any case, not a single critic has disputed, or hasn’t disputed for that matter, that a memorial to prisoners of war and war victims should be created from public funds.

But Mária Schmidt wants us to lament for her victims in exactly the same way as those who were murdered or knowingly sent to their deaths by Hungarian government officials.

Shouldn’t we consider that due to the differences between the two groups of victims, it would be useful to not always treat them as if they were in the same category? Don’t misunderstand me, every human life is as valuable as another, and every bereavement is equally unique.

But there is a difference between who is responsible for victimizing whom. Mária Schmidt’s relatives – if I understand correctly – were not victimized by the Hungarian state in even a single instance. In contrast to this, the Hungarian state played a decisive role in the tragedy of the Hungarian Jews, which is why the Hungarian state should perhaps memorialize this group differently than those for whom they were not responsible (or to a completely different degree) for their sufferings.

Mária Schmidt’s image of her main enemy consists of those from the “left-liberals loudmouths” to members of the “’68 generation.” It’s unfortunate that she doesn’t realize that she is committing the same tasteless mistakes that she accuses her opponents of, primarily by applying double standards.

A telling example of this is the gift shop in her own museum, where, curiously enough, specific souvenirs of only one totalitarian dictatorship are available for sale. Those who wish to purchase humorous Stalin or Lenin figurines find themselves in the right place. If there’s an attitude that should truly be left behind, it is Mária Schmidt’s behavior that makes one terror regime taboo, while making market kitsch out of the main people responsible for the other.

 

American-Hungarian relations: Chargé d’affaires Andre Goodfriend

Although it was almost a year ago that Colleen Bell was nominated to be ambassador to Hungary, her confirmation is still in limbo, along with that of thirty others. The American chargé d’affaires in Budapest, Andre M. Goodfriend, is therefore serving as the head of the mission.

Mr. Goodfriend joined the State Department in 1987; he served in Tel Aviv, New Delhi, and Moscow before being posted to Budapest in August 2013. As an overachieving undergraduate he got degrees in philosophy, classical Greek, French, and radio-television at the University of Arizona and subsequently received an M.A. in communication from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He has studied Hungarian, Hebrew, French, Russian, Greek (both classical and modern), Spanish, Hindi, Arabic, and Yiddish. Quite an accomplishment. In any case, he has ample experience to handle the affairs of the Budapest embassy at this very difficult juncture of U.S.-Hungarian relations.

Shortly after his arrival in Budapest he decided to start a bilingual blog, Civil Voices. Every article appears in both English and Hungarian. The number of comments is modest but growing. Some are in English, others in Hungarian. Almost all of his posts are relevant to Hungary, even those that deal with specifically American topics. For instance, Mr. Goodfriend’s very first post, about the history of racial discrimination, was written on Martin Luther King Day. Yet the post begins with a commemoration of the 69th anniversary of the Soviet Army’s liberation of the Budapest ghetto and the 68th anniversary of Hungary’s expulsion of its German-speaking citizens. The message was that we must face our past and learn from it.

The most recent blog, written on August 5, is entitled “Love Me, I’m a Liberal/Szeress engem, liberális vagyok.” In it, the American chargé talks about the need to define terms as well as the need for ongoing discussion and engagement to clarify terms. He is asking for some clarification of what Prime Minister Viktor Orbán means by “liberal” and conversely “illiberal.”

Andre M. Goodfriend / Magyar Nemzet

Andre M. Goodfriend / Magyar Nemzet

The United States government is obviously trying to engage the Hungarian citizenry even if they can’t engage the Hungarian government. Of course, I have no idea how close and/or frequent contacts are between the U.S. Embassy and the Hungarian foreign ministry but I doubt that they are at all frequent. Don’t forget that the ministry is in total turmoil. Old hands have been removed; new, inexperienced people are taking over. The present minister is half way out the door on his way to Brussels while Péter Szijjártó, Orbán’s man who was chosen for the task of catching “the Eastern wind,”  is not at all interested in either the European Union or the United States. Instead, he has been madly looking for opportunities in the Middle East and Central Asia.

In addition to the blog that reaches few people, Mr. Goodfriend, seemingly at the behest of the State Department, approached Magyar Nemzet asking for an interview. At least this is what one gathers from the first couple of interview questions that appeared in the August 5 issue of the paper. The English original can be found here. The journalist’s last name is Zord, which in Hungarian means grim, morose, sullen, and I must say that he didn’t belie his name. It would be wonderful if the journalists of Magyar Nemzet were as zealous as Zord was when they question Viktor Orbán or any other members of the government.

The interview ran under the headline “The American dream still exists.” The bold-faced introduction, however, was an indictment: “America is putting its allies under surveillance, torturing POWs, and using police state methods” and yet it is worried “about Hungarian democracy of all things.” Magyar Nemzet was less interested in what the American chargé had to say than what its journalist accused the United States of.

Without going into the details of this fairly long interview, let me make a few observations. The journalist conducting the interview was surprisingly inarticulate. Moreover, at times he showed that he is not familiar with basic facts. For example, he talked about the “American ambassador to Jerusalem” when we know that the U.S. Embassy, along with 81 others, is located in Tel Aviv because of the controversy over the status of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. When it came to concepts like liberalism, liberal democracy, and globalism, he showed that he knew little more about these subjects than what he read in Orbán’s speech. Therefore, Andre Goodfriend had a relatively easy time with him, and I must say he handled the interview very well.

In fact, the journalist, who is after all a Hungarian–born and educated–could learn Hungarian history and even some Hungarian etymology from Mr. Goodfriend. After Zord extolled the virtues of nation states, Goodfriend rightly pointed out that the golden age of modern Hungary was between 1867 and 1910 when the country was part of a large and ethnically diverse empire. Hungary not only prospered economically but excelled “in the sciences, the arts, music, literature, architecture, etc.” He then drew a parallel between the empire of this golden age and the European Union. Moreover, he suggested that perhaps 2004, the year Hungary joined the Union, is a much more important date for the future of the country than Orbán’s choice for the dawn of a new era, the 2008 financial crisis.

While discussing the NGOs, whom the interviewer described as paid political activists and enforcers of foreign interests, Goodfriend reminded him that Viktor Orbán and his organization, Fidesz, received plenty of financial support for the very purpose of loosening the grip of the communist regime on the country in 1988 and 1989. George Soros naturally could not be left out of any discussion on NGOs, although lately Soros’s contributions are not substantial. The interviewer accused Soros’s “network” of conspiracy against the right-wing government. This accusation was artfully countered by Goodfriend who gave a lecture on the etymology of the Hungarian word “összeesküvés,” which implies a secret plan to which the members of the conspiracy swear. By contrast, financial assistance from either the Soros Foundation or the Norway Grants is given in a transparent fashion.

All in all, I think, Andre Goodfriend did very well, and I’m sure that the State Department is satisfied with this interview.

As a footnote I might add that I have been noticing in the last few days certain signs of backpedaling by the right-wing media. Even Zsolt Bayer emphasized in his column today that the world should not take Orbán’s speech so seriously because after all it was only delivered AT A SUMMER CAMP, in all caps! Moreover, what is important is not so much liberalism, which he equates with neoliberalism, but “the rule of law.” It is the rule of law that we must defend and that will be defended in Hungary under the governance of Viktor Orbán.

It seems to me that the vehement reaction, especially in the United States, to Orbán’s ideas on the illiberal state took him and the people around him by surprise. Viktor Orbán and his closest associates have been silent on the subject, but apparently some of his advisers and Fidesz members of the European Parliament admitted to Ildikó Csuhaj, the usually very well-informed journalist of Népszabadság, that they consider Orbán’s fiercely anti-American attitudes counterproductive and apparently recommended that he reconsider his policies toward the United States. I understand that the new Hungarian ambassador will be Réka Szemerkényi, who apparently has good connections in Washington, although I doubt that she will be able to warm up her old friendships with American diplomats and politicians under the present circumstances.