It was about a year ago in November that I wrote a post on the political career of István Bethlen, prime minister of Hungary between 1921 and 1931. It was right after the week-long power outage during which I decided to reread Ignác Romsics’s biography of Bethlen, the most talented politician of the interwar period. At that time I didn’t think that within a year István Bethlen would be declared the twentieth-century forerunner of Viktor Orbán. At least in the eyes of the head of the current government, whose activities of the last three and a half years have earned him the epithet “Godfather.” Poor Bethlen is turning in his grave.
It has been obvious for a long time that Viktor Orbán and his entourage have been madly looking for an ideological forebear on the right who is not tainted by servility to Hitler’s Third Reich or by rabid anti-Semitism. But, given Hungarian historical reality, it was hard to find the right man. During the first Orbán administration they experimented with early heroes and religious figures: St. Stephen and the Virgin Mary. But it was tough to adapt the activities of an eleventh-century king about whom we know relatively little to the political needs of today. Stephen is still venerated, however. Only recently 35,000 graduating high school students received from the Orbán government a free copy of György Györffy’s István király és műve (1977), a 667-page tome.
The reburial of Miklós Horthy during the Antall government gave impetus to a reexamination of the Horthy regime, presumably in the hope that Horthy’s person and the whole period might be presented in a more favorable light. But it is hard to be sanguine about a twenty-five-year period that led to a lost war, incredible human and material suffering, the Holocaust, and an outright Nazi regime. A hopeless task, if you ask me. The reevaluation of Horthy is still under way, and a Horthy cult emerged recently that was originally initiated by Jobbik and rapidly taken over by the government itself. Writers who by and large were supporters of the Horthy regime began to be rehabilitated, but it turned out that the politicians who were promoting their revival knew little about their literary worth or their political orientation that led them badly astray.
But now they seem to have found their man in István Bethlen, who had nothing to do with Hitler, had to hide from the Nazis when they occupied Hungary on March 19, 1944, and finally died in a prison hospital in Moscow after he was arrested by the Soviets. It is, on the surface, a perfect fit. The government decided to unveil a statue of the former prime minister on October 8, 2013, Bethlen’s birthday.
A couple of days before the statue was unveiled a conference was organized under the sponsorship of László Kövér, who was also the keynote speaker. Kövér came up with a surprising assessment of Bethlen who, according to him, was a divisive man because “those who were interested in the everlasting submission and debilitation of Hungary wanted to forget him. But those whose goal was an independent and strong Hungary remember him and want to remind others of the man.” This is a typical example of how Fidesz politicians operate, excluding those who don’t happen to agree with the official view even when it comes to an assessment of a historical figure. Naturally, there were allusions to Marxism and “the lies of pseudo-liberals.”
At the unveiling that took place on Saint George’s Square in the Castle district Viktor Orbán was introduced as “the prime minister who shapes our age.” He then gave a fifteen-minute speech. But before I analyze Orbán’s speech I would like to say a few words about the statue itself. The sculptor was Géza Stremeny, a well-known artist. I checked out some of his work and like most of it, but this particular one reminds me, at least in composition, too much of the truly brilliant sculpture of Mihály Károlyi by Imre Varga, which was unceremoniously removed from Kossuth Square in front of the Hungarian Parliament. Both have a frame around the figure, but Stremeny’s is stark, with an echo of a gallows, as opposed to Varga’s rounded frame. Both men stand in a similar pose, leaning on a cane. I suggest taking a look at the Károlyi statue to see what I mean.
But let’s move on to the speech that was received with mixed emotions in opposition circles. There is no question that Orbán portrayed himself as a worthy equal of István Bethlen. “When István Bethlen occupied the office of the prime minister Hungary was losing on all fronts. It was a country that was isolated; it was on the verge of economic collapse. Let’s face it, it was a humiliated country.” But Bethlen realized that “Hungary shouldn’t expect a better future with the help of foreign lands but only from its own diligence and self-sacrificing work…. He believed that creative work is the only right strategy.”
In reality, Bethlen managed to get a low-interest loan from the League of Nations which at that point served as a kind of IMF. Even Orbán had to admit that much, but he immediately added that Bethlen didn’t use the borrowed money for welfare purposes but for job creation. “This policy was a brave one which bore fruit. In a decade Hungary managed to stand on its own feet again.” Clearly, this is what’s going on at the present time in Hungary. “We can say with all modesty that although there is still much work to be done, by now Hungary has regained its vitality and is getting stronger every day.”
Orbán’s speechwriters managed to find a Bethlen passage from 1931 that also came in handy: “We must realize that there are always those who want to use the economic crisis to their own advantage…. That’s why some people blacken the good name of the country abroad because they hope that the foreign powers will force such reforms on us that will enable them to gain power.” A little later we will understand what Bethlen was actually talking about.
Finally, he made sure that Bethlen will receive his deserved place in the national pantheon right after Ferenc Rákóczi, István Széchenyi, and Lajos Kossuth. He closed his speech “Glory to István Bethlen, glory to Hungary’s prime minister.”
What Viktor Orbán didn’t mention was that by 1931 Hungary was so indebted that the country was on the verge of insolvency. Foreign financial experts suggested another loan from the League of Nations, advice Bethlen refused to take. It turned out that the Hungarian government had falsified its financial records in the past and therefore the League of Nations insisted on a careful monitoring of the government’s use of any possible loan. This is what Bethlen wanted to avoid, just as Viktor Orbán didn’t want any low-interest loans from the IMF for the very same reason. As a result the bottom fell out, Bethlen had to resign in August 1931, and shortly after his resignation Hungary had to suspend payments on its foreign loans.
Viktor Orbán often talks about the magic ten years that would be necessary to complete his work. One wonders, as did the economist Péter Mihályi, whether Orbán had Bethlen’s ten years in mind. If he did, he forgot to mention the price the country had to pay for the relative well being of the 1920s which was financed not by self-sacrificing work, as Bethlen promised, but largely by foreign loans. It might have been wise to do a little research on the circumstances of Bethlen’s resignation instead of cherry picking a few sentences that meshed with his own ideas.
Those of you who follow the comments may already have discovered that next year a new historical research institute will be set up by the Hungarian government. The institute, named Veritas Történetkutató Intézet (Veritas Historical Research Institute), will be up and running in 2014. The idea for yet another historical institute naturally came from the prime minister, who instructed the Ministry of National Economy to find funds for it in next year’s budget.
The goal of the institute will be “the strengthening of national unity” and “the authentic and worthy depiction of the Hungarian constitutional tradition.” Those who are chosen as associates will have to concentrate on the last 150 years, especially on political and social events. And they will have to produce research results “without any distortion,” which might not be an easy task since one of the goals of the institute will be the “strengthening of national consciousness.” Scientific neutrality and “national” historiography are hard to reconcile.
It seems that the Orbán government is not satisfied with the number of institutes whose members already study this particular period: there is the Habsburg Foundation as well as the Twentieth-Century and the Twenty-First Century Institutes directed by historians close to the present government. One suspects that the government’s aim is to widen the circle of historians whose devotion to the nation is unquestioning.
Viktor Orbán, the seeker of historical truth. Let’s see what he had to say in his speech about the times before and after 1956 and about another landmark in Hungarian history, the change of regime in 1989-1990.
Orbán described the 1956 revolution as the manifestation of an all-embracing feeling that the Hungarian people must act because otherwise the nation will perish. According to him, “everybody knew, or if they didn’t they felt it, that this cannot go on. If the Soviet world continues, nothing will remain of Hungarian life which is ours. … We felt in our bones and guts that the fate of our country is at stake. That’s why the overwhelming strength of the enemy didn’t matter. One couldn’t wait any longer. We had to do what was superhuman. Everything else would have led to the extinction of the nation.” For Orbán, the revolution’s only goal was national survival.
One doesn’t have to be a student of the revolution and its aftermath to sense that this explanation cannot be correct. After all, the revolution was crushed after about two weeks and Hungarian life managed to survive forty-three more years under communist rule within the Soviet bloc. Moreover, hundreds of books and memoirs attest to the fact that the uprising was totally spontaneous. And very few us who took part thought in such lofty terms. No one was terribly worried about our 1,000-year history; we wanted to get rid of the Stalinist leadership that had brought so much suffering to so many.
Viktor Orbán offered another highly questionable hypothesis. The arrival of János Kádár, which began his long rule at the head of MSZMP (Magyar Szocialista Munkáspárt), was bearable for the citizens of the country “because we could remember our heroes of whom we were so proud.” I think it is enough to read the memoirs of those who were incarcerated for a few years. When they were at last freed no one cared a whit about either them or the revolution. In fact, most people considered them fools for sacrificing years of their lives to a lost cause. As István Eörsi, the poet, described so well his encounter with reality in 1960. A book was written on this subject with the title “Silent Heritage.” No one talked about it, no one cared about it.
Once Orbán was in the swing of things he moved on to Hungarians’ other heroic struggles against communism in the twentieth century. He claimed that in the last century “Hungarians threw off the shackles of dictatorship three times. We got rid of the Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1919; we cut loose the fetters in 1956, and in 1990 we overthrew the reign of goulash communism.”
Let’s start with 1919. The Hungarian people didn’t get rid of Béla Kun and his fellow commissars, the Romanians did. The Hungarian Red Army was demolished by the Romanian army, the Béla Kun government resigned, and most of its members escaped. A couple of days later the Romanians occupied Budapest.
In 1956 Hungarians naturally did not throw off any shackles; they only tried. Although the outbreak of the revolution in Hungary was an uncomfortable episode for the Soviet Union, a few years later US-Soviet relations, for example, improved in comparison to the 1950s.
When it comes to 1990 and the overthrow of the regime, once again anyone who watched the events leading to the change of regime knows that the Eastern European countries managed to regain their freedom as a result of an economically and militarily greatly weakened Soviet Union whose leaders decided that they didn’t have either the will or the resources to fight for a Soviet empire in the region. Without that Soviet decision, in Hungary, just like in the other nations of the Soviet bloc, the one-party system would have continued–a system in which, most probably, Viktor Orbán and the other top Fidesz leaders would have had high party and government positions just as László Kövér predicted in 1985.
Orbán told his listeners yet another story that bears little resemblance to reality. 1989 was the year in which monumental changes took place. Imre Nagy and his fellow martyrs were reburied, the Oppositional Round Table (which included MSZMP) worked out all the arrangements for the regime change. The barbed wire fence between Austria and Hungary had already been dismantled. Therefore it is more than an exaggeration to say that “the strength of those killed in ’56 worked in our cells and the crushed truth expanded our chests. There was no power that could stop us. It was here on that square that we declared that the Soviet soldiers must leave Hungary. It was here that we said that the communist party must be forced to accept free elections.”
Of all this, the only thing that is true is that Viktor Orbán did demand Soviet troop withdrawal in his speech, which in fact was an unnecessary gesture because an agreement had been already reached between Hungary and the Soviet Union concerning the issue of troop withdrawal.
I guess one cannot make an effective speech about 1989-1990 by calling attention to the less heroic aspects of those years. For example, the general apathy of the people who passively watched the few politically active leaders who were deciding their fate. And I guess one shouldn’t note that just as many people showed up at the funeral of János Kádár as at the reburial of Imre Nagy two weeks earlier.
1956 had to be reshaped in the image of Orbán’s own nationalism and his own program. Because, after all, he gave the marching orders for the coming victorious election after which “we can finish what we started in 1956.” They? There’s an ideological chasm between the ideas of the intellectual leaders of the 1956 uprising and the thousands of students who played a large role in the events on the one hand and Viktor Orbán’s “System of National Unity” (Nemzeti Együttműködés Rendszere [NER]) on the other. They started nothing, and they’re not finishing anything either, except in the sense of “finishing off” the country’s fledgling democratic spirit.
It was twenty years ago, on September 3, 1993, that Miklós Horthy, regent of Hungary between 1920 and 1944, was reburied in Kenderes, the Horthy family’s ancestral home. The reinterment was controversial, mostly because half of the cabinet of Prime Minister József Antall attended the ceremony as “private persons.”
Since then there have been sporadic efforts to rewrite the history of the Horthy era. In the last three years the Hungarian government has upped the ante, quietly but steadily encouraging a full rehabilitation of Miklós Horthy despite official denials of any such attempt. About a year ago in Washington Foreign Minister János Martonyi categorically denied any attempt at a rehabilitation of either Horthy or his regime. But the rehabilitation continues. For example, the twentieth anniversary of the reburial was remembered in Kenderes a couple of weeks ago. On that occasion Sándor Lezsák, deputy speaker of the Hungarian parliament, gave a laudatory speech about the former governor. According to him, “The  reburial was a historical atonement, but we cannot be satisfied with that. Even after twenty years, the results of the hypnotizing effects of the poisonous lies of the socialist-communist four decades are still with us.” In his speech Lezsák accused “the historical criminals” who are back and who tried to remove important documents from the archives in an attempt to falsify history. He suggested setting up a research institute for the study of Miklós Horthy and his family. The institute would be a central depository of all documents relating to the Horthys.
Below is a short article by Randolph L. Braham, the renowned historian of the Hungarian Holocaust, entitled “The Reinterment and Political Rehabilitation of Miklós Horthy.” It appeared in Slavic Almanach, vol. 2, edited by Henrietta Mondry and Paul Schweiger (Johannesburg: University of the Witwatersrand, 1993), pp. 137-40. Professor Braham predicted twenty years ago that the full rehabilitation of Miklós Horthy would occur not too far in the future. I thank Professor Braham for allowing Hungarian Spectrum to republish this article.
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The remains of Miklós Horthy, the former Regent of Hungary (1920-1944), were brought back from Portugal and reinterred in his hometown of Kenderes on 4 September 1993, together with those of his wife and youngest son.* Hungarian nationalists all over the world will undoubtedly hail the former head of state as a patriot who successfully championed the twin causes of anti-communism and revisionism. They will recall that during his rule, the country evolved along a nationalist-Christian line and made great strides towards the reestablishment of Greater Hungary by reacquiring some of the territories that were lost under the peace treaties of Trianon (1920). But was he really a patriot?
Horthy was a representative of the conservative-aristocratic elite that perpetuated an anachronistic semi-feudal class system. His domestic policies aimed at preserving the privileges of the landowning aristocracy and stifling the aspirations of the peasantry. In foreign affairs, his primary objective was to bring about “the revision of the punitive peace treaties”–a policy that led to Hungary’s adherence to the Axis and the establishment of an authoritarian proto-fascist regime. Horthy’ s Hungary embraced Hitler’s revisionist ambitions and was the first among the Nazi satellite states to sign the Tripartite Pact (20 November 1941). Having joined the Axis aggression first against Yugoslavia (11 April 1941),and then against the Soviet Union (27 June 1941), Hungary soon found itself at war with the Western democracies as well. After the crushing defeat of the Hungarian and German armies at Voronezh and Stalingrad early in 1943, the Horthy regime aimed to bring about the gradual extrication of Hungary from the Axis Alliance. But the pursuit of unattainable goals–the retention of the reacquired territories, the avoidance of a Soviet occupation, and the possible preservation of the “traditional system”–led to disaster: Hungary was first occupied by the Germans (19 March 1944) and then by the Red Army. Horthy himself was ousted on 15-16 October, in a coup engineered by the Hungarian Nazi radicals acting in conjunction with the Germans. Under the new “Hungarist” regime, Hungary became the only Nazi satellite to fight to the very end and, consequently, once again emerged as a major loser after World War II.
Disastrous as Horthy’ s domestic and foreign policies may have been for the country at large, they proved catastrophic for Hungarian Jewry. They contributed to, if not actually determined, the virtual destruction of the loyal and highly patriotic Jewish community that contributed disproportionately to the modernization of the country. It was during Horthy’ s tenure that the once flourishing Jewish community was subjected to increasingly severe discriminatory measures that led to its decline and eventual destruction. Like the other members of the aristocratic-conservative elite, Horthy was a “civilized” anti-Semite, who was particularly scornful of the “Eastern,” unassimilated Jews. Shortly after he was named commander-in-chief of the counter-revolutionary national forces in 1919, several units of the army engaged in pogroms that claimed thousands of Jewish lives. Almost immediately after his inauguration as Regent, Hungary adopted the first anti-Jewish law in post-World War I Europe (22 September 1920). This was followed by increasingly harsh laws in the late 1930s. In the summer of 1941, from 16,000 to 18,000 so-called “alien” Jews were deported to near Kamenets-Podolsk, where most of them were slaughtered by the Nazis. Early in 1942, close to one thousand Jews were murdered in the Bácska area by Hungarian gendarmerie and military units. Tens of thousands of Jews later died while serving in forced labour companies.
While it is true that in contrast to those in Nazi-ruled Europe, the Jews of Hungary were relatively well off, the ever harsher anti-Jewish measures of the late 1930s prepared the ground for the acceptance and successful implementation of the Final Solution programme after the German occupation. During his Schloss Klessheim meeting with Hitler on 18-19 March 1944, Horthy gave his consent to the delivery of several hundred thousand “Jewish workers” to Germany. The German and Hungarian experts on the Final Solution took full advantage of this agreement to carry out their ideologically defined racial objectives. After the inauguration of the Horthy-appointed government of Döme Sztójay, the Jewish community of Hungary was subjected to the most ruthless and concentrated destruction process of the war. With the instruments of state power at their disposal, the Nazis and their Hungarian accomplices succeeded in “solving” the Jewish question at lightning speed. The isolation, expropriation, ghettoization, concentration and deportation of the Jews–anti-Jewish measures that took years to carry out in Poland–were implemented in less than four months. On 7 July, Horthy halted the deportations (they in fact continued until 9 July), but by then all of Hungary, with the notable exception of Budapest, was already Judenrein. The Holocaust in Hungary claimed close to 600,000 victims.
Horthy’ s admirers will, no doubt, remember primarily his halting of the deportation in connection with the Hungarian Holocaust. But even at that late hour, Horthy apparently did not act on his own initiative. He was subjected to great political and moral pressure by Pope Pius XII, King Gustav of Sweden, and other Western leaders who were informed of the grisly details of the Holocaust in Hungary. Influential as these pressures may have been, perhaps the determining factor that induced Horthy to act was the rapidly deteriorating military situation. The Red Army was fast approaching Hungary, and the Western Allies were already fanning out in France after their successful landing in Normandy. While the Jews of Budapest may have been saved by Horthy–a credit also claimed by the Raoul Wallenberg myth-makers and even by the German and Hungarian Nazis–the Jews of the Hungarian countryside, including those of the territories acquired from Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia, were liquidated during Horthy’ s tenure. And this took place on the eve of Allied victory, when the secrets of Auschwitz were already widely known.
Hungary’s disasters notwithstanding, contemporary chauvinists will continue to remember-and admire Horthy’ s blend of conservative anti-communism and militant nationalism. The reinterment of his remains is likely to emerge as the first step towards his full rehabilitation as a “patriot” who tried to advance Hungary’s best interests as he perceived them to be. In a series of interviews, Prime Minister József Antall identified Horthy as a “Hungarian patriot” who should be placed into the community of the nation and the awareness of the people.” The national mint issued a commemorative medal with Horthy’ s likeness. The reburial ceremony was attended by tens of thousands of Hungarians, many of whom were presumably longing for the return to the “good old days” of the Horthy era. Among those attending as “private citizens” were four leading members of the government, including the Minister of Justice, István Balsai, and the Minister of the Interior, Péter Boross.
Judging by the events surrounding the reinterment of Horthy’s remains, rehabilitation will probably be all but complete in the not-too-distant future. It is the task of objective historians concerned for Hungary’s soul and democratic future to keep the record straight.
*Miklós Horthy died in Estoril on 9 February 1957, at age 88. His son, Miklós Jr., died on 28 March 1993, at age 86. They were buried together with Mrs. Horthy, who died in 1959, in the English Cemetery in Lisbon.
Practically everything that has aroused my interest in the last couple of days is connected in one way or the other to Tusnádfürdő/Baile Tusnad or, as the organizers call it, the “free university” Tusványos. It is a made-up word. Originally, these gatherings were held in Bálványos/Cetăţile Păgânilor, but the festivities over the years have grown so much that they had to move to Tusnádfürdő. Hence the name.
I wrote a couple of times about a commentator who calls himself Elek Tokfalvi, a mirror translation of Alexis de Toqueville. He is an erudite fellow and a sharp-eyed observer of political developments. This time Tokfalvi found a sentence in Viktor Orbán’s speech at Tusványos that prompted him to do a little research. The sentence followed Orbán’s running commentary about the great powers and their exploitation of the smaller ones on the periphery. The sentence reads: “Jenő Szűcs, an author who was very much in vogue about twenty or twenty-five years ago, wrote about this very clearly when he put together a popular treatise on the centers of the world economy and their peripheries.”
I myself didn’t catch this particular sentence when I listened to Orbán’s speech but I sure got a shock when I saw it in print. First, Jenő Szűcs was a historian of Hungarian medieval history who didn’t “put together” popular works. In fact, I clearly remember when I bought one of his works in Hungary and showed it to my father. His first reaction was that Szűcs’s style was so “scientific” that it took mental effort even for a well read and intelligent man like my father to comprehend what the slim volume was all about. I think the title itself is telling: A nemzet historikuma és a történetszemlélet nemzeti látószöge (hozzászólás egy vitához) (History of the nation and the national vision of the view of history, remarks to a debate). His works were appreciated by his colleagues but “in vogue” he was not.
Then there is the problem of dates. Jenő Szűcs died in November 1988, so he couldn’t have written anything twenty or twenty-five years ago. Orbán might conceivably have referenced an article Szűcs wrote in 1980 in the samizdat volume published in honor of István Bibó. The title of the article was “Vázlat Európa három történeti régiójáról.” A year later it also appeared in Történelmi Szemle. But the “Sketch of the three historical regions of Europe” had nothing to do with great centers of the world economy or their peripheries. It was an attempt to portray the region lying between Eastern and Western Europe as a distinct entity that has been different for at least the last thousand years. I for one don’t think that this was a revolutionary discovery, but Hungarian historical circles were impressed.
So, if Jenő Szűcs wasn’t Orbán’s source, who was? Tokfalvi suggests Immanuel Wallerstein, an American Marxist “sociologist, historical social scientist and world-systems analyst.” Apparently in the 1970s Wallerstein was not only translated into Hungarian but very much appreciated by the party leadership. He called the satellite countries “half peripheral” because he saw their centralized planned economic policies as vehicles of true convergence. Thus Wallerstein gave his stamp of approval to the totally mistaken economic policies of the socialist countries. Tokfalvi thinks that Wallerstein is the most likely candidate for Viktor Orbán’s Jenő Szűcs “in vogue.”
Over his career Wallerstein adopted some basic Marxist doctrines: the dichotomy between capital and labor and the view that world economic development is a dialectical process that goes through such stages as feudalism and capitalism. He believes in something called “dependency theory,” which leads straight to the notion that resources flow from a periphery of poor and underdeveloped countries to a “core” of wealthy states, enriching them at the expense of the poor countries. He is one of the leading figures of the anti-globalist movement.
It is becoming increasingly obvious that Viktor Orbán and his college friends are truly the children of the late Kádár period, together with all its ideological baggage. Orbán, when he espoused Wallerstein’s theories at Tusványos, must have noticed that he was flirting with Marxist clichés and felt compelled to preface this particular passage about “the core and the periphery” with the claim that he is not a “vulgar Marxist.” Even his stress on the value of labor that produces only tangible products is suspect. It might be a less than a perfect understanding of Marx’s labor theory. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that were the case because I know from personal experience as well as from the stories of others that Hungarian college students didn’t take their compulsory course on “political economy” very seriously.
This discussion will be a good introduction to a book review I have been planning to write on a new book by János Kornai called “Gondolatok a kapitalizmusról” (Thoughts on Capitalism). Included in this volume is an essay entitled “Marx egy kelet-európai értelmiségi szemével” (Marx through the eyes of an Eastern European intellectual.” The very last sub-chapter’s title is “Ami tovább él Marx tanaiból” (What still lives from the teachings of Marx). Certainly not what Viktor Orbán is talking about.