It was exactly a week ago that I wrote about the Hungarian Holocaust Memorial Year, which is still very much a topic of debate in Hungary. The core of the problem is the effort on the part of the Orbán government to rewrite the modern history of Hungary.
The problem started with the adoption of a new constitution that has a fairly lengthy preamble in which the emphasis is on the concept of “nation.” The preamble is actually called “national avowal” and its first sentence reads “we, the members of the Hungarian nation.” For the sake of comparison the United States Constitution refers to the “people of the United States” and the modern constitution of Germany to “the German people.” As we will see a little later, this preoccupation with the idea of “nation” may have far-reaching consequences as far as the current controversy is concerned.
At the time of the release of the text of the preamble to the new Hungarian constitution a lot of legal scholars, historians, and commentators severely criticized it for being a hodgepodge of disconnected, unhistorical nonsense. But what must be an absolutely unique feature of this preamble is that the framers decided to eliminate 46 years, 2 months, and 5 days from Hungary’s history because the decision was made to “date the restoration of our country’s self-determination, lost on the nineteenth day of March 1944, from the second day of May 1990, when the first freely elected organ of popular representation was formed. We shall consider this date to be the beginning of our country’s new democracy and constitutional order.” In plain language, Hungarians are not responsible for anything that happened during this “lost” period. It was immediately noted that the first Hungarian transports headed for Auschwitz and other death camps occurred after March 19, 1944. A lot of people suspected that this government was thinking of shifting the entire responsibility for the Holocaust on the Germans who, with the permission of Miklós Horthy, moved their troops into Hungary. Regardless of how often officials of the current Hungarian government repeat that they accept responsibility for the Holocaust, the new constitution claims otherwise. And that is the basic law of the land at the moment.
Sorry about these repetitive prefatory remarks, but in order to fully understand the thinking of Viktor Orbán, János Lázár, and other high officials of the government we must keep in mind the emphasis both on the “Hungarian nation” and on the alleged lack of sovereignty of Hungary. Giving up the idea of erecting a monument that depicts Hungary as the innocent and long-suffering Archangel Gabriel would go against the very core of this view of history. And when we find more and more references to “Hungarians and Jews” in government parlance, we must also keep in mind the nation-centric views that found their way into the new constitution. I maintain that as long as this constitution is in force there can be no meaningful discussion between Viktor Orbán and those who don’t subscribe to this warped view of history. Viktor Orbán may suggest to the leadership of Mazsihisz that “the dialogue should be continued after the Easter holidays,” but there can be no common ground between the two views.
Still, one ought to appreciate the fact that he made the gesture at all. Viktor Orbán rarely retreats. As his critics say, “he goes all the way to the wall.” It seems that this time he bumped into that wall, a wall of condemnation by a civilized Europe that doesn’t take Holocaust denial lightly. Let me quote here from a speech Ilan Mor, Israeli Ambassador to Hungary, delivered at the gathering to honor the recipients of Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations awards. He said that “any attempts to rewrite or to reinterpret the history of the Shoa, in this country or elsewhere, for any reason, politically and/or ideologically, are part of the deplorable attempt to deny the Holocaust, the Shoa.” This is the kind of criticism the Hungarian government is facing when it tries to falsify history.
Just when we thought that, at least until April, we could have a little respite and prepare ourselves for the next round, János Lázár decided to upset the apple cart. He happened to be in Gyula, a city near the Romanian border, when he gave an interview to the local television station. During the interview the reporter asked him about Mazsihisz’s opposition to the government’s plans for the Holocaust Memorial Year. Lázár lashed out at the leaders of Mazsihisz, accusing them of wrecking the government’s plans for the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust. He charged them with fomenting discord between Hungarians and Jews who have lived in unity and symbiosis for centuries. According to him, the story of that common past was a real success. He predicted that Mazsihisz’s “ultimatum” will have a negative influence on the cohabitation of Jews and Hungarians. He added that he hopes “the local Jewish communities in conjunction with the officials of the municipalities will find a way to remember together.” Lázár expressed his belief “in the wisdom of the local Jewish leaders and even more so in the wisdom of the municipal leaders,” and he said he hoped that “this ultimatum was only part of a political move that will not be able to fracture that unity and symbiosis in which we have lived together with our Jewish compatriots in Gyula or for that matter in Hódmezővásárhely,” his hometown where he served as mayor until recently.
It was at this point that all hell broke loose and for good reason. First of all, Mazsihisz didn’t issue an ultimatum. Second, Lázár practically accused Mazsihisz of fomenting anti-Semitism in Hungary by not meekly accepting the falsification of history promulgated by the Orbán government. Third, it was especially tasteless to talk about Jewish/non-Jewish symbiosis and cohabitation in a provincial town. As is well known, there are practically no Jews left in Hungary outside of Budapest. The vast majority perished because Miklós Horthy wanted to start the deportations with those whom he considered to be the great unwashed. And fourth, what caused real furor was that Lázár excluded Hungarians of Jewish origin from the Hungarian nation. Commentators noted that this view comes straight from the Nuremberg laws and the anti-Jewish laws of Hungary. People are truly outraged.
Commentators are trying to figure out what motivated János Lázár to make a frontal attack on Mazsihisz. Some think that he was just careless and didn’t weigh his words. Perhaps in a more formal setting, they claim, he wouldn’t have said what he did. Others think that he is just outright stupid and/or crass.
I see it differently. Lázár is the messenger boy of Viktor Orbán. It is enough to recall the meeting between him and members of different Jewish communities. The participants were hoping for some solution to the impasse. It turned out that Lázár had no authority whatsoever to talk about anything substantive. He could only tell those present that he would relay the points they made to Viktor Orbán, who would answer them in writing. Therefore, I suspect that Lázár, when questioned in Gyula, simply repeated what he knew to be Viktor Orbán’s position. And I don’t think that I’m too far off when I predict that Viktor Orbán will not be any more malleable after Easter. Lázár’s words are only a forewarning of what lies ahead.
P.S. I would like to correct an earlier mistake of mine. I attributed a statement to Ambassador Mor that turned out to be erroneous. In his interview with Heti Válasz he did not speak critically of Mazsihisz as I assumed.
It’s time to make sense of all the contradictory pieces of information that have reached the public in the last couple of days concerning the European Union’s attitude toward the Russian-Hungarian agreement on the Paks II nuclear power plant. The central question was whether the Orbán government notified Brussels, as it was obliged to, about the details of the agreement.
Energiaklub, a non-profit organization that deals with questions of energy and the environment, wrote a letter to the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Energy on February 17 asking for “access to the documentation related to the notification, under the Euratom Treaty, of the PAKS nuclear power in Hungary.” The answer was: “This investment project has not yet been notified to the Commission under Article 41 of the Euratom Treaty, and therefore at the moment no documents can be found in the Commission’s possession.” Critics of Viktor Orbán were only too happy to find that his administration seemed once again to have been caught lying. Soon enough, however, the relevant documentation was made public on the website of the prime minister’s office.
But before I talk about these newly released documents, which give us only a little more knowledge of the whole Paks affair than we had before, I would like to jot down a few dates by way of a road map.
I began collecting material on Paks and nuclear energy on October 18, 2013 when Viktor Orbán, then in India, boasted that Hungary would have extremely low energy prices in the not too distant future. He brought this up as an economic enticement for Indian investors. He also emphasized his commitment to nuclear energy.
Then for almost two months we heard nothing about nuclear energy. Finally János Lázár broached the subject and talked about advanced negotiations with Russia for Rosatom to construct two new reactors in Paks. What we didn’t know was that on December 10, 2013 János Lázár wrote a letter to Günther Oettinger, commissioner for energy. The released document is a cover letter to “the Draft International Agreement with the Russian Federation.” The letter also indicates that the Commission had been notified earlier, at its November 26, 2013 meeting, that “Hungary intends to enter into an international agreement with the government of the Russian Federation on the cooperation in peaceful use of nuclear energy.” Attached was the draft agreement “in accordance with Article 103 of the European Treaty.” The letter also reveals that talks between Brussels and Budapest about Hungary’s intention to sign such a treaty had taken place even before that date because Lázár assured the commissioner that they took “into consideration the comments obtained from the Commission.” The conversation between the commissioner and the Hungarian government is described as “open and constructive.” The confusion described above was most likely due to Energiaklub’s reference to Article 41 as opposed to relevant Article 103 of the Euratom Treaty.
A month later, on January 13, Viktor Orbán traveled to Moscow where Mrs. László Németh, minister of national development, on behalf of the Hungarian government, signed a document about which we still know very little. A couple of days later curious Hungarian journalists inquired from Günther Oettinger’s office what the European Commission thinks of the Russian-Hungarian agreement. They were told on January 15 that the Commission had not passed judgment on whether the lack of competitive bidding was an obstacle to the European Union’s blessing for the deal. However, they were told by the spokesman for Oettinger’s office that such a probe will take place some time in the future.
A good two weeks after his trip to Moscow, Orbán decided to write a letter to José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, in which he informed Barroso about “the recent developments with regards to nuclear energy cooperation between Hungary and the Russian Federation.” From the letter it becomes clear that there had been a response from Brussels to János Lázár’s December 10 cover letter attached to the copy of the draft treaty. According to Orbán, “the Commission raised no objection to the draft agreement” and therefore “my government signed the intergovernmental agreement on January 14, 2014.”
Orbán in this letter tried to downplay the fact that the job of building the nuclear power plant was given without any competitive bidding process. He added that “Rosatom, the Russian nuclear state authority, will be in charge of the implementation of the design and construction work. However, whenever any such work or services cannot be provided in-house, the Russian party will undertake an open and non-discriminatory tendering process.”
And finally, Orbán tried to reassure Barroso that the Russian-Hungarian deal actually serves European interests. “We believe that the long-term cooperation of Hungary with the Russian Federation in the field of nuclear power will contribute to strengthening the energy security of the EU as a whole.” It was at about this time that John Lukács, the conservative Hungarian-American historian who had fairly close ties with Viktor Orbán earlier, wrote him an open letter in which he warned about the deadly embrace of Putin’s Russia. I translated Lukács’s letter and Orbán’s rather impertinent reply.
By February 7 the Hungarian parliament, after five hours of debate, voted for a treaty about which the members knew practically nothing, even as opposition to the Russian-Hungarian deal was growing in the country. Most Hungarians didn’t want an extension to Paks, and they especially didn’t want to have the Russians building it. Foreign observers also envisaged a “Comecon reborn,” which looked quite possible after “realigning Ukraine as a satellite state under Vladimir Putin.” Nick Butler of the Financial Times emphasized Hungary’s “acceptance of Russian technology in its nuclear sector” and added that this huge investment will be financed by a Russian loan. He noted a reassertion of Russian power across the region and wrote that “the advance is not military but economic with energy issues to the fore.”
Barroso’s answer came on February 7. He referred to the progress made toward a common European energy policy. He attributed this success to the Commission’s “respect for Member States’ basic choices concerning their energy mix.” He added, however: “Member States’ commitment to comply fully with the rules of the Treaties and secondary legislation, in particular those governing the internal energy market, and to act in a spirit of coordination and full transparency, remains vital.” After the Commission examined the draft agreement it “raised no objections of principle to the agreement from the perspective of article 103.” But it seems that Orbán is still not entirely in the clear because “there are … other aspects of EU law to be observed, such as the rules on public procurement and state aid.”
Many people are convinced that the hidden state subsidies and the lack of public procurement are insuperable obstacles. Although who knows. Viktor Orbán always finds ways to come out on top.
Bálint Magyar: The Hungarian post-communist mafia state (from a critique of the government to a critique of the system)*
After the collapse of the Soviet Empire, many of us lived under the illusion that communist dictatorships were going to be replaced by liberal democracies. Although the road ahead appeared to be bumpy, there was consensus that we were going through a process of a linear progression. Deviances from the norms of liberal democracies seemed to be children’s diseases rather than characteristics of adulthood. However, the chronic symptoms of such deviances caused analysts to interpret the political processes of certain post-communist states and describe their systems, which got stalled and even turned back on the road, along the liberal democracy-autocracy axis.
Having gained entry into the European Union, certain countries of Central and Eastern Europe passed the entrance test, albeit the exam requirements of the crash courses had been relaxed owing to geopolitical considerations. Those responsible for the enlargement believed that the new member states were inspired not only by the compulsion to pass the test, which entitled them to join the rank of consumer societies, but also by the desire to belong to a network with shared values. As the frustration of old member states grew, so did the literature of transitology become richer and richer. There was disagreement among transitologists, however, as to the extent post-communist countries differed from one another in terms of their deviation from liberal democracies.They sometimes added an adjective to restrict the meaning of democracy, such as illiberal, directed or pseudo, along different institutional indicators, and endeavored to produce a measure of “composite” deviation, which was supposed to assess whether the system under investigation was to be found democratic or not. Others characterized these systems as variants of autocracy by using softening labels, such as semi-autocratic, soft dictatorship or electoral authoritarianism. Still others attached the label “hybrid” to denote such systems.
When reference was made to the subjects of the regime, the phrase “majority democracy” or “dominant party system” was used. When the concept of power concentration cum wealth accumulation was mentioned, “clientalist regime,” “crony capitalism” or “post-accession hooliganism” were the terms suited to stress the illegitimate beneficiaries of power.
Transitional systems or terminal station?
Perceiving the conceptual framework of deviations, Hungarian analysts searched for historical analogies. The process of centralization and nationalization were suggestive of the soft-communist stages of the Kádár regime until 1989. The reincarnation of the ideology, cultural models and language of the Horthy regime between the two world wars gave way to fascist and corporative interpretations whereas the loss of personal integrity in administration and governance was reminiscent of feudal systems.
After 2010, Fidesz annihilated the system of liberal democracy and created an entirely new system. In his speech at Kötcse before the 2010 election, Orbán declared that he would not simply change the government but create a new model of governance, which would be completely different from “the messy period of the past two decades.” This new model was based on an ideology of “national war of independence,” which he called “The System of National Cooperation,” and, true to his promise, he established this system as a “central field.”
Meanwhile, his critics from the opposition – in self-disarmament, as it were – got stuck in a paradigm of mere government criticism, instead of finding a conceptual framework capable of interpreting this novel type of political predator.
The post-communist mafia state
The mafia state, the organised overworld is far removed from the world of anomalies of party funding and the organised underworld’s attempts to influence political decisions – the relationships have now been reversed: it is no longer the case that private wealth is acquired to help a party’s need for financial support to be gained from illegitimate sources; rather a political party’s decision-making potential is used here to requisition private property. It is no longer the case that a hidden underworld seeks to corrupt decision-making processes; rather inherently purposeful illegitimate special interests are aligned here with legislative measures and governance. There are hardly any areas where activities would not be subject to power and wealth accumulation considerations of the adopted political family. The mafia state is a privatized form of a parasite state.
The authoritarianism of the post-communist mafia state as established after 2010 has particular characteristics, and cannot be classified as being any form seen up to now. Although it may share a few characteristic similarities with other autocratic forms, its unique traits define a unique type. It is nothing else than a sub-type of autocratic regimes, and the conceptual framework into which it is cached describes not only the techniques of power concentration but the nature of the elite in power.
The epithet post-communist not merely refers to a historical period, but also to that it came into being from the carcass of communist dictatorship, what was characterized by the state monopoly of ownership. The designation “mafia state” is by no means emotional or journalistic in nature, but rather refers to the new power elite’s essential trait: to its organisational nature and to its order. Here, in considering the characteristics of the relatively narrow authoritarian new elite, the mafia state differs greatly from the various analogies referred to in elites in authoritarian regimes. Above all that it is made up of – as is usual in the mafia – joint businesses founded principally by the family, as well as by sworn adopted political family members through the family’s network of relationships. The organization’s kinship and loyalty are connected by threads linking ever more families, which radiate from the family patriarch in strongly hierarchical divisions of pyramid-like order of obedience.
The traditional mafia, the organized underworld is no more than a violent, illegitimate attempt by a head of the premodern patriarchal family to exercise its power of enforcement within a society based on the equal rights of citizens and the rule of law. An attempt that the state’s public authority agencies are attempting to thwart. The mafia is an adopted family in which “relatives without any blood ties make a strict and solemn commitment to provide unconditional mutual assistance to all parties” (Eric Hobsbawm). The mafia is an illegitimate neo-archaism.
In the mafia state, in the organized overworld the patriarch’s powers of enforcement works at a national level under the disguise of the institutions of democracy by occupying state power and acquiring the tools to achieve it. It can be considered as a kind of political enterprise. For the head of the adopted political family, reigning in terms of the patterns of leadership, the patriarchal family, the home, one’s estate and one’s country are isomorphic concepts. The same culture follows the same pattern for the exercise of power at each level: the nation is his household’s members. Just like the patriarch, who once had the right to decide in personal and wealth-related matters, as well as in any issue concerning the individual roles and competencies of his “household,” this new type of patriarch reigns supreme in a country where the nation becomes his “household.” He does not expropriate – he merely disposes. It is his due to serve justice according to status and alleged merit.
The distinctiveness of the mafia state as a subtype of autocracy
The post-communist mafia state is not merely a deviant form of liberal democracy, nor is it a transient formation, rather it is an independent subtype of autocracy. The specific features of the regime can be summarized as follows:
- The concentration of political power and the accumulation of personal/family wealth occur in unison.
- The alternation of the political elites’ systematic replacement takes place in parallel with that of the economic elite, driving such change not with the instruments of democracy and market economy. This elite replacement is centrally organised into a hierarchy dependent on the adopted political family. This cannot be called a traditional form of primitive accumulation of capital, because herein there is no flow of capital between the premodern and modern sectors or between the agrarian and industrial sectors, accompanied by a change of ownership. What happens is merely the implementation of the change of owners of accumulated capital. Due to their socialization, however, the new body of owners do not become real entrepreneurs, but merely tax collectors in an entrepreneurial disguise, fortified by the head of the adopted political family with political monopolies.
- It is not incidental that public interest is subverted to private interest; it occurs systematically and relentlessly. Public policy objectives, such as the motives for policy decisions, remain in the background, unaccounted for. Decisions are tainted with power and wealth motivations. Every decision concerns power and wealth at the same time: “brainwash and money laundering” (Mária Vásárhelyi).
- The organised underworld’s illegal physical coercion, characteristic of the mafia, is replaced by legalized public authority/state sponsored coercion. The intention of this is to serve not only to maintain power, but also to further extend the wealth of the adopted political family.
- With the legalized instruments of state monopoly of coercion, the mafia state coercively extracts personal fortunes – sometimes indirectly through (transit)nationalization – to serve its own interests and redistributes this amongst the adopted political family members. In this respect, too, such corruption differs from “established” forms, in which merely the illegitimate diversion of revenues takes place. Just as private banditry is abolished by classical mafia, the mafia state eliminates individual and anarchic forms of corruption, and replaces them with ransom levied from above, in a centralized and largely legalized form.
- The personal wealth, resulting from the accumulation of political power of the adopted political family’s fortune, and public/state property inevitably overlap with each other. This is in contrast to, for example, constitutional monarchies, where the two are clearly distinct from one another.
- Key players in the authoritarian mafia state:
- the poligarch (Tamás Frei) is someone who uses legitimate political power to secure illegitimate economic wealth – their political power is visible, whilst the economic power remains hidden;
- the oligarch is someone who from legitimate economic wealth builds political power for themselves – their economic power is visible, whilst the political power, if any, remains hidden;
- the strawman is someone who has no real power – whether in politics, or in the economic sphere. In the gap between the legitimate and illegitimate spheres, they formally serve as go-between for the public. In fact, the majority of those in different posts of governance are strawmen, and so are those in the economic sphere, especially if they are dependent on the state.
- Decisions are taken outside the competence of formalized and legitimate organizations. It is not the model of the communist parties’ “politburo.” but the “polipburo” (Sándor Révész) run by the adopted political family. (The phrase polip is the Hungarian equivalent of the phrase octopus.) However, the polipburo does not possess the legitimacy demanded by the nature of its operation. It is not Fidesz that has a transmission belt to enforce its decisions, but it is the party itself that has become the major transmission belt of the adopted political family.
- In place of the class structures, a patron-client chain of vassal relationships comes into being. The adopted political family is built around the patriarch, the head of the family. It is centralised and hierarchically made up of personal and family relationships structured in an authoritarian formation. Under the protection of institutional guarantees, a strong democratic society with a wide range of weak ties is replaced, alongside the abolition of institutional guarantees, by a weak society with limited but strong ties. There is no free entry into the adopted political family; one may enter only if accepted, admitted and ready to give up one’s integrity. Nor is there a free exit – one may only be expelled.
- Formalized and legal procedures give way to material and arbitrary actions. The head of the government does not govern, but illegitimately disposes of the country as if he owned it. State institutions, including the Parliament, the government, the tax offices and the Chief Prosecutor’s Office, do no more than rubberstamp and do the bookkeeping. The “law of rule” substitutes for the “the rule of law.” Proper jurisdiction is replaced by an arbitrary practice of justice.
- The topdown destruction of bureaucracy a la Max Weber implies the takeover of the leading positions of administration by “party commissars,” who they are loyal not to the party, but to the head of the adopted political family directly or through personal links. These commissars play various roles in the legitimate spheres of bureaucracy: strawmen, governors, commissars, supervisors, cashiers – labels that give a more precise sociological definition of their actual functions than the official designations of management positions.
- This new form of vassal dependency should not be called feudal, because the sociological/material nature of power and its legal/formal legitimacy do not converge. The gap between them is bridged by state coercion and hypocrisy. The mafia state is compelled to bridge the gap between the sociological nature and legitimacy of autocratic rule with quasi-democratic procedures by restricting civil rights and electoral democracy. It is neither a liberal democracy, nor a dictatorship based purely on coercion.
In the wake of the massive and aggressive transformation of wealth structure, the expenses incurred by the power restructuring of the mafia state impose a heavy strain on the economy and at a time of crisis the mafia state resembles an oil dictatorship without oil revenues. New sources are needed to generate revenues that reinforce the power and wealth of the adopted political family. These include flat rate tax, reduction of social expenditure, ransom levied on banks and public utility providers, and above all channelling European Union sources into the coffers of the adopted political family. This, in some sense, is an economic pyramid scheme, because there are three losers per one winner (Balázs Krémer); it is moot point how long taxpayers of West Europe are willing to directly finance the enrichment of the Hungarian mafia, the adopted political family.
However, in addition to the economic pyramid scheme, there is a political pyramid scheme as well, which in foreign policy may be characterized as a strategy of “drifting in a Western boat propelled by an Eastern wind” (Miklós Haraszti). The policy that runs in the face of our European Union and Transatlantic commitments goes hand in hand with begging for alms in terms of legitimacy and finances, at autocrats in the East. In domestic policy some form of cold civil war and the subjection of citizens are under way. Alternate periods of mobilization and demobilization under the slogan of a national war of independence are part of an ideological pyramid scheme, which serves as a tool of suspending moral and legal justice.
The nationalism of the mafia state is not targeted at other nations, but rather the expulsion of all from their own nation who are not part of the adopted political family, or are not built into the order of vassals. Since they are not part of the “patriarch’s household,” they must face all the consequences of being outsiders. For Orbán the nation consists of the adopted political family and their in-laws, from the head of the family down to the servants. The Hungarian octopus creates a collectivist, nationalistic ideology under the pretext of the so-called national and social justice, which is just a tool to justify their egotistic aspirations for concentrating power and wealth. Short of assets, the losers are offered a feeling of belonging, as well as the right to pass positive and negative judgments: the right to cherish “true patriotism” on the one hand, and to contempt the enemies (“aliens” and “traitors”) and parasites (Gypsies, homeless, jobless) of the motherland on the other. Whereas the leaders of Fidesz are not anti-Semites and their target is not “the Jew,” they pander to anti-Semites. They hate the bank sector not because it is run by “the Jew,” but rather because it is not theirs. Nor are they racists – but their target audience is. However, it is their inexcusable sin that they have legitimized feelings of antisemitism and racism as well as allowed to use the language that expresses such feelings. In a campaign to reach out to extremist voters they reproduce them in expanded numbers and occasionally build the representatives of radical right-wing ideology into state institutions. One wonders if the escalation of this economic, political and ideological pyramid scheme can be curbed and what tragedy may befall the society should the pyramid implode one day.
This being the case, it boggles the mind that the main dilemma of the opposition still is whether to regard Viktor Orbán’s reign as a legitimate government or an illegitimate system. Although the manipulative and one-sided transformation of the election law urged the coalition of the democratic opposition to unite, but this unity exists only in a technical sense. They are still between the devil and the deep blue sea: should they be the opposition of only the government or rather of the whole system?
*This is an edited version of a talk delivered on February 2, 2014 at a conference of the István Bibó Public Society (Népszabadság, February 15, 2014).
I think that this latest tug of war between Hungarian Jewish organizations and the Orbán government should not be viewed solely in the context of the treatment and fate of Jews in Hungary. Yes, the debate broke out as a direct result of the government’s plans for the 70th anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust. But we are dealing here with a larger project: the government’s concerted effort to rehabilitate the entire Horthy era (1920-1944). Downplaying the country’s responsibility for the deportation of Hungarian Jews is part and parcel of this effort.
There has been a debate in the last couple of years among political commentators about the nature of the Orbán government’s policies. Are they the result of a grand design or are they a haphazard collection of on the spot decisions dictated by circumstances? I am inclined to think that the first hypothesis is closer to the truth, especially when it comes to Fidesz politicians’ views of the history of the Horthy period.
One of the first steps taken by the Orbán government was the removal of the director of the Holocaust Memorial Center. A few months after the formation of the government András Levente Gál, one of the undersecretaries in the Ministry of Administration and Justice, paid a visit to the Center and expressed his displeasure at what he saw there. He especially objected to the exhibit’s linkage of the Hungarian occupation of the regained territories with the deportation of Jewish Hungarians from those territories. And he was not the only one to complain. Cardinal Péter Erdő, Archbishop of Esztergom, objected to the placement of the anti-Semitic Ottokár Prohászka, bishop of Székesfehérvár (1858-1927), right next to Hitler. A Christian Democratic politician announced that he will not visit the Holocaust Memorial Center as long as Prohászka’s picture is there. It was clear that the Orbán government’s view was that, since it is the Hungarian government that finances the Center, it can dictate what goes on there. As the Hungarian saying goes: “Who pays the Gypsy can order the music.”
Soon enough the government fired the director and appointed its own man, a non-Jew, Szabolcs Szita, in his place. He is the man to whom Professor Randolph L. Braham addressed his letter stating that in protest he will no longer allow his name to be associated with the Center’s library. I don’t know much about Szabolcs Szita’s work. I do have one of his books, but I must admit that I didn’t read it very carefully. In light of all these developments, it’s time for a much closer reading. The book, Együttélés–üldöztetés– holokauszt (Coexistence–Persecution–Holocaust), was published in 2001. According to an English-language postscript, it “won the first prize in the competition announced by the Ministry of Education” of the first Orbán government. The first half of the unfootnoted book deals with the history of European Jews with special emphasis on Germany while the other half, about 150 pages, looks at the history of Hungarian Jewry from their settlement to the Holocaust. There is a lot of emphasis on Hungarian civilians’ efforts to save their Jewish friends and neighbors. Szita’s views seem to be more in sync with those of the government than were his predecessor’s.
Shortly after his appointment Szabolcs Szita gave an interview to Origo, which was severely criticized by fellow historians and Jewish leaders. Let me quote some of Szita’s contentions: “If there had been no aggressive German interference Hungary probably would have been the example in the eyes of Europe and the world. Until 1944 we were an island of peace. There were anti-Jewish laws but Jews were not facing the peril of death en masse as in other countries.” In this interview he put the blame more on individuals “who must be named and condemned, Baky, Endre and Jaross,” men in charge of the deportations in the Ministry of Interior of the Sztójay government. He also overemphasized the number of high officials who resigned rather than take part in the deportation of their compatriots. As we know, there were mighty few of those. A notable exception, by the way, was Károly Szendy, mayor of Budapest between 1934 and 1944. As far as I know, the “grateful nation” didn’t even bother to name a street after this decent man.
In 2011 Szita came up with some startling suggestions. For example, he thought that it might be a good idea to organize a professional debate on whether “there was national resistance” to German occupation. That question doesn’t need a lot of research. There is ample evidence already showing that there wasn’t. He also thought that it would be a good idea to set up an institute to investigate the activities of the People’s Courts. These were the courts that dealt with the fate of war criminals. How would that help our understanding of the Holocaust?
From this interview we learn about the genesis of the House of Fates. Szita came up with the idea that the abandoned building of the Józsefváros Railway Station should be acquired by the Holocaust Memorial Center. School children could visit there to learn something about the Holocaust. He would have placed a Wallenberg Memorial at the site because Raoul Wallenberg managed to save a few people at that station.
The Holocaust Memorial Center has been suspiciously quiet in the last few weeks, but I guess after Mazsihisz’s announcement of a boycott yesterday Szabolcs Szita could no longer remain silent. He and his staff came out with a “professional communiqué.” That sounds to me like: “here is the final truth on the matter.” It is a strange document. The first paragraph talks about March 19, 1944 as a dividing line (actually sorsforditó, which means an event that changes everything) when “the trampled down country without any resistance became free prey.” Further, the official statement claims that “it is probable that without the unexpected German occupation Hungarian Jewry would have survived the war.”
It is at this point that Szabolcs Szita goes further in his condemnation of Miklós Horthy and the Sztójay government than in his 2011 interview with Origo. Then he blamed only individuals lower down on the totem pole, László Baky, László Endre, and Andor Jaross, who were guilty because they organized the deportations. Now he seems to have moved from this position and also blames “Governor Horthy, the Sztójay government, and the servile attitude of the civil service.” He also makes reference to the “civil servants who were brought up in the spirit of anti-Jewish laws” and thus became violently anti-Semitic. Again, Szita refuses to admit that it was not just the members of the civil service who were infected by the all-pervasive anti-Semitism but the whole population. There were few people who raised their voices or moved a finger in defense of their Jewish compatriots.
Some people called the document “cowardly.” Well, it is certainly not a brave document, but what can one expect from an institute that is basically an arm of the Hungarian government? It tries to satisfy both sides and therefore its message is confused and contradictory. But at least the document names Miklós Horthy and the government he appointed as guilty of the crime, which is more than one might have expected from the new management of the Budapest Holocaust Memorial Center.
It looks as if there is a good possibility that the Orbán government will go through with its plans to erect a monument in memory of the German “occupation” of Hungary which, according to the new constitution’s preamble, put an end to Hungarian sovereignty for almost half a century. I’m sure that by now all readers of Hungarian Spectrum are aware of the significance of this monument. I also hope that most people who are even slightly familiar with the history of Hungary in the twentieth century perfectly understand that this monument, if erected, will be the embodiment of Hungary’s claim to total innocence in the Holocaust. This attempt at rewriting history has unfortunate ramifications for the way Hungarian society will look at the past and their own place in it. This monument, if Viktor Orbán’s plans become reality, will put a stamp of approval on the government-led falsification of history.
The planned monument has already raised concerns and objections, and yet Viktor Orbán refuses to reconsider. Why is this monument so important to Fidesz and the present right-wing government? Why are they ready to alienate important groups at home and abroad for the sake of this hideous monument? Why did they announce their decision so late? Why the hurry?
I would like to offer a couple of thoughts for consideration. The first is that, in my opinion, preparations for the reinterpretation of the history of Hungary between the two world wars has been in the works for a long period of time. Since way before 2010. Moreover, I’m sure that it was systematically worked out with one overarching thing in mind: to take away the odium of the Holocaust from the Hungarians. I know that a lot of people think that the script for a revisionist history was written only recently in order to compete with Jobbik, whose votes Fidesz needs at the next election. But the text of the constitution’s preamble belies this theory. Viktor Orbán promised great changes in every facet of life in 2010. Why should history be any different? In fact, changing society’s historical consciousness should be practically a prerequisite of all other changes.
It was maybe yesterday that Szabolcs Kerék-Bárczy, formerly of MDF and today a DK candidate in the first electoral district of Budapest, pointed out that by now he thinks that Viktor Orbán and his friends aren’t just trying to please their friends in Jobbik but actually believe that changes in historical interpretation are warranted. Reporter Olga Kálmán loudly protested, as is customary in Hungarian liberal circles. I tend to side with Kerék-Bárczy. I think that setting up the “Veritas” Institute under the direction of a former MIÉP now Jobbik supporter is more than politics. It comes from deep conviction.
I will make available a few documents here. First, a protest of twenty-three historians that was published this morning on Galamus.
* * *
The protest of the Hungarian historians against the planned German Occupation Memorial
We hereby protest against the plan to erect a memorial in central Budapest to the German occupation of 1944. The memorial falsifies an important period of our history, and relativizes the Holocaust in Hungary.
According to the description of the memorial, which has recently been made public, the memorial will be built “in the memory of all the victims.” Since, however, this memorial is based on a falsified version of history, it cannot fulfill its purpose. By presenting both the victims and perpetrators of the Holocaust together as the sole victim of the Germans, the planned memorial dishonours the memory of those half a million victims who were killed in the Holocaust in Hungary.
The Hungarian Holocaust took place with the active participation of the Hungarian authorities. But the planned memorial places all responsibility solely with the Germans and the German army’s “Arrow Cross subordinates.” In truth, the Arrow Cross had nothing to do with the mass deportations which took place in the summer of 1944.
We, the undersigned historians, call upon the government to stop falsifying our recent past, to stop relativizing the history of the Holocaust in Hungary, and to abandon the plan to erect a memorial to the German occupation on Freedom Square in Budapest.
Bencsik Péter historian
Deák Ágnes historian
Eörsi László historian
Fazekas Csaba historian
Frojimovics Kinga historian
Gecsényi Lajos historian
Gyáni Gábor historian
Hajdu Tibor historian
Hosszú Gyula historian
Karády Viktor sociologist
Karsai László historian
Kenedi János historian
Klaniczay Gábor historian
Kovács M. Mária historian
Kövér György historian
Majsai Tamás historian
Mink András historian
Molnár Judit historian
Ormos Mária historian
Paksy Zoltán historian
Pihurik Judit historian
Rainer M. János historian
Sipos Péter historian
* * *
You will recall that Mazsihisz wrote a letter to Viktor Orbán in which the leaders of the organization expressed their misgivings about the direction in which the Holocaust Memorial Year is heading. They complained about Mária Schmidt’s reinterpretation of the Horthy regime and objected to the appointment of Sándor Szakály to head the “Veritas” Institute and demanded his resignation. In addition, they called on the government to give up the idea of a monument to the events of March 19, 1944. Yesterday came the answer:
* * *
A Statement by the Government Information Centre
January 21, 2014 2:50 PM
Historical facts speak for themselves. The time has come for us to erect a monument to all victims. This is a question of humanity. The debate concerning the monument is understandable because this is an important issue, but we very much hope that no one disputes the fact that the victims of the events that occurred following 19 March 1944 deserve to be remembered with compassion and respect. On 19 March 1944, Hungary was occupied by Nazi German forces; on this day, the country lost its independence.
The Fundamental Law of Hungary states very clearly: “We date the restoration of our country’s self-determination, lost on the nineteenth day of March 1944, from the second day of May 1990, when the first freely elected organ of popular representation was formed. We shall consider this date to be the beginning of our country’s new democracy and constitutional order. We hold that after the decades of the twentieth century which led to a state of moral decay, we have an abiding need for spiritual and intellectual renewal.”
This is why, to mark the 70th anniversary of the German occupation, the Government decided to erect a memorial in commemoration of all victims.
We ask everyone not to make a political issue out of this compassionate remembrance. It is the objective of Hungary’s Government for a culture of remembrance to become established in Hungary.
(Prime Minister’s Office)
* * *
There is one obvious question: what victims are we talking about besides Hungary’s Jewish citizens? Hungary continued the war uninterrupted on the German side just as before. Thus the peaceful occupation of the country made no difference in the military losses of Hungary. The reference to lost independence, of course, equates to a refusal to take any responsibility for what happened.
So, this is where we stand now. Orbán is planning to go ahead while Mazsihisz is standing firm. As expected, the city council of District V with its Fidesz-Jobbik majority voted to grant the permit to construct the statue. Mazsihisz so far hasn’t changed its mind. As András Heisler, president of Mazsihisz, said, “trench warfare” set in.
In addition to Mazsihisz, there is EMIH (Egységes Magyarországi Izraelita Hitközség/Unified Israelite Religious Community/Chabad) whose leader, Rabbi Slomó Köves, has been on very friendly terms with Fidesz and the Orbán government. For example, Köves was appointed to be the official rabbi to the Hungarian armed forces. Even he is supporting Mazsihisz, but he suggests that besides the ultimatum-like voices an alternative program ought to be offered. Whatever he means by that.
Mazsihisz’s position has been greatly strengthened by Randolph L. Braham’support, who shares the point of view of Mazsihisz concerning the issues at hand. He considers the events of late a well orchestrated rewriting of history with a view to the rehabilitation of the Horthy regime. Braham in an interview given to Népszabadság said while talking about Sándor Szakály that he recalled the saying: ”Behind every dictator with a sword there is a historian with a sponge in his hand.” How true.
And here is another topic we ought to cover. I may have criticized Colleen Bell for not being as well prepared for her Senate hearing as she should have been. However, no one in his right mind should think that her statement about current Hungarian politics is Colleen Bell’s personal opinion. It clearly reflects the U.S. State Department’s interpretation of Hungarian affairs. She was only the voice of this opinion. Therefore it is inexplicable why Gergely Gulyás addressed an open letter to Colleen Bell personally in today’s Magyar Nemzet. He accused her of bias. How will she be able to represent the United States with the kinds of prejudices she exhibited at the hearing, Gulyás asked. Bell shouldn’t be worried about the state of democracy in Hungary. The U.S. Embassy had nothing to say when in the fall of 2006 “the police force of the Gyurcsány government brutally attacked the peaceful demonstrators.” Gulyás at one point talked about Ferenc Gyurcsány’s party as a “left-wing Jobbik.” It is the Demokratikus Koalíció that poses a danger to democracy. He expressed his hope that “the Hungarian government can count on the new ambassador in the struggle against extremists.”
At the same time he talked about some of “the self-appointed Hungary experts” who have an influence on American diplomacy and who are committed to the Hungarian left-liberal side and are therefore unable to swallow the fact that it was a right-of center government that won the election. “These people try to mislead American diplomacy and the American public with the most absurd lies.” Finally, he drew a line in the sand: “The citizens of Hungary don’t need outside help in their decisions concerning their own future.”
Trench warfare with with Mazsihisz and open war against the United States. Where will this lead?
Yesterday, given the very crowded news day, I had neither time nor space to discuss an article by Ildikó Csuhaj of Népszabadság about some of the details of the negotiations between Russia and Hungary over the Paks nuclear plant. What you have to know about Csuhaj is that she seems to have fantastic connections to important Fidesz and government officials and usually comes up with impressive “scoops.”
As we discussed in the comments, information coming from these circles cannot always be trusted and, in fact, one suspects that some of the leaks that reach Csuhaj might be purposely planted in the leading left-of-center paper. In any case, Csuhaj received lots of information about the Paks deal from her unnamed sources. Some of the information sounds entirely plausible. For example, that the plan to have the Russians build the extension to the power plant was first discussed in January 2013 during Viktor Orbán’s visit to Moscow.
I don’t know whether any of you remember, but the opposition belittled the significance of the meeting last January and pointed to the extremely short duration of the visit. The left media drew the conclusion that Viktor Orbán offered himself to Vladimir Putin but the president of Russia wasn’t interested. In brief, the meeting was no more than a courtesy visit. Today we know that during that visit Orbán got an offer of Russian collaboration on the Paks project. Apparently he pondered the issue for a few months and by the summer made the decision to go ahead. In mid-summer serious negotiations began, which continued all the way to the last days of December.
According to Ildikó Csuhaj’s source, what inspired the Orbán government to add two extra reactors to the existing plant was its desire to achieve sustainable economic growth. Building such a large project, especially if the story is true that 40% of the work will be done by Hungarian companies, will be a stimulus to employment and will give impetus to faster growth.
So far the story sounds plausible, but what comes after that must be taken with a grain of salt. According to the Fidesz story, Viktor Orbán began making inquiries at large German industrial concerns. Apparently, negotiations were conducted with RWE AG, the second largest utility company in Germany, and Deutsche Telekom. On the basis of these conversations, according to the Fidesz source, Orbán came to the conclusion that what German industry will need in the future is cheap energy. But those nasty German environmentalists are against building reactors on German soil. Given the Russian offer, Orbán apparently hatched the idea of building a large nuclear power plant that will be more than enough for Hungary’s energy needs. The rest of the capacity could be sold to Germany’s energy-hungry industrial complex.
The project couldn’t be financed from private sources as the Finnish nuclear power plant will be. Moreover, Orbán apparently made it clear that the plant must remain in state hands. Thus, a bilateral financial agreement signed by Russia and Hungary was needed which is a first within the European Union.
Csuhaj’s Fidesz source claimed that Viktor Orbán received the European Union’s blessing for the bilateral agreement. Allegedly, János Lázár talked to Günther Oettinger, EU commissioner for energy. The EU Commission even sanctioned closing the deal without a tender.
Apparently, the Edmond de Rothschild Group, a private Swiss banking concern which among other things offers investment advisory services, was especially helpful to the Hungarians in handling all these sticky negotiations with EU officials. The Rothschild Group advised the Hungarian government to get in touch with the law firm Hengeler Mueller, which has offices in Berlin, Düsseldorf, Munich, Brussels, and London. It is a large firm with 90 partners and 160 associates. They give “high-end legal advice to companies in complex business transactions.” It was allegedly this law firm that managed “to convince” the European Commission about the legality of the transaction.
Well, it seems that the European Commission has not yet blessed the deal. Eszter Zalán, the Brussels correspondent for Népszabadság, asked Sabine Berger, the spokeswoman of Günther Oettinger, who informed her that Oettinger’s office will examine the agreement and decide whether it conforms to European laws. This legal scrutiny may take weeks to complete. It also became clear that details of the agreement reached Brussels only in December. The announcement yesterday, however, didn’t come as a surprise to the European Commission.
Domestically, there is an outcry over the agreement, signed secretly with no consultation with the opposition, experts, or the general public. Fidesz politicians responded to this criticism by claiming that it was during Bajnai ’s tenure that parliament authorized the government to conduct negotiations about doubling the capacity of the Paks nuclear power plant. They called members of the opposition, including Bajnai, liars for denying their authorization of the negotiations.
Well, this is not a correct description of what happened in 2009 when the topic of the enlargement of the power plant came up in parliament. Csaba Molnár, then minister in charge of transportation, communication, and energy, was the man who turned in the resolution to which Fidesz is now referring. In it there is not one word about permission to start negotiations with anyone concerning building two more reactors. It simply talks about authorization to begin a study of its feasibility, its environmental impact, future requirements of the population, etc. However, all Fidesz politicians keep referring to this resolution as authorization for making a deal with the Russians.
Finally, let me tell you a funny story that I read in today’s Magyar Nemzet. The article quotes Viktor Orbán as saying, “It was three years ago at one of the meetings of the Valdai Club that Vladimir Putin turned a bit to the right and winked; his eyes told me that everything will be all right. He talked about energy cooperation, about Paks, and about many other matters. He made it clear that Hungary can only win from all his plans. I looked into his eyes and saw that he means it, and Hungary will be a winner of all this.”
I assume many of you remember another quotation, this time from George W. Bush, about Putin’s eyes. It was uttered in 2001: “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul; a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country.” So, I wouldn’t rely on Putin’s eyes if I were Viktor Orbán. And while we are at Putin’s eyes, John McCain said in 2007 : “I looked into Mr. Putin’s eyes and I saw three things — a K and a G and a B.” Viktor Orbán should keep that in mind when he gazes into eyes of Vladimir Putin, whom he apparently admires greatly.
I have been planning for some time to write a post about the neo-Nazi propaganda that can be heard daily on Duna TV.
Duna TV was established during the Antall government and is supposed to serve the Hungarian diaspora in the neighboring countries, although I understand that MTV covers a large portion of the territories in question. In any case, at Duna TV, just like at all other public media outlets, the change of government brought in an entirely new management and staff. The old right-of-center ideology that was the trademark of Duna TV was not good enough for the Orbán government. By now there are a couple of programs on Duna TV that are neo-Nazi propaganda, pure and simple.
A rewriting of Hungarian history is one of the goals of this relatively young crew, whose roots go back to their days as HÖK officials in various Hungarian universities. I wrote several times about this student association (Hallgatói Önkormányzat), which bears a suspicious resemblance to KISZ (Kommunista Ifjúsági Szövetség). Just like KISZ secretaries, HÖK presidents receive salaries and have large sums of money at their disposal. There were scandals at several universities involving HÖK, and there is no question that in most colleges HÖK is “the breeding ground for Jobbik.” At ELTE’s faculty of arts one HÖK chairman after the other ended up in Jobbik. One of the chairmen, István Szávay, is today a member of parliament.
Szávay’s predecessor at ELTE’s HÖK, Gábor Balogh, calls himself a historian, although he is in reality a Jobbik propagandist. He writes for far-right publications and, according to at least one source, is on the editorial board of kuruc.info, the site the Orbán government claims not to be able to shut down. At one time he worked for Barikád, the official publication of Jobbik. His name could also be found as a contributor to alfahir.hu, and lately he writes for Jobbegyenes (Straight Right). He gives lectures on political and historical topics to sympathetic audiences which are then made available on YouTube by igazCsepel, who seems to be the cameraman of Jobbik.
Why did Gábor Balogh’s name crop up suddenly? One reason is that in Jobbegyenes he wrote a sharply worded article about Imre Kerényi’s asinine Magyar Krónika, in which he expressed his misgivings about such primitive ideas that give a bad name to the conservative ideology. György Bolgár asked him for an interview, during which Balogh was asked about his professional activities outside of writing a blog. It turned out that he produces and edits television shows on historical and literary topics. From here it was only a couple of clicks to the notorious series aired on Duna TV called Hagyaték (Inheritance).
I don’t watch Duna TV and therefore had no idea that this series is not new. In fact, more than 50 programs were already produced and shown. Every Saturday there is a new segment which is then repeated over and over every day of the week, sometimes twice a day. So, one doesn’t have to worry about missing one of the programs. The programs are also available on YouTube. A Facebook friend called my attention to one that he found especially upsetting entitled “Geniuses at a dead-end: Endre Ady and Attila József.” The conclusion of this program was that these two poets were basically good Hungarians whose Jewish friends led them astray. One of the latest programs extolled the virtues of the Hungarian aristocracy whose only goal in life was service to people and country. Another recent program was devoted to the praise of the Hungarian gendarmes whose activities were distorted after 1945, primarily the result of personal revenge because of their involvement in the “logistics of deportation.” Naturally, what the writers and producers of the program mean is that it was the returning Jews or their surviving relatives who falsified the true role of the gendarmes. One can see many, if not all, of the segments of Hagyaték in the video archives of Duna TV.
Already two years ago people noticed that blatant Arrow Cross and Jobbik propaganda was going on at Duna TV. Péter Urfi of Magyar Narancs wrote an open letter to Zoltán Rockenbauer, the editor of MTVA in charge of cultural programs, in which he complained about Hagyaték and Száműzött magyar irodalom (Banished Hungarian literature) shown on Duna TV. Naturally, nothing happened because including such programs among the offerings of the public television stations is not the result of a misstep or an unfortunate mistake but is part and parcel of what I see as a planned political move by the Orbán government. There may not be a written or verbal agreement between Fidesz and Jobbik, but there is no question in my mind that the Orbán government panders to Jobbik with these programs which rewrite Hungarian history according to Jobbik tenets. A prominent place is given to the map of Greater Hungary, and there is a lot of talk about Trianon and “Nem, nem, soha!” (No, no, never!). Often the commentator talks about Kárpáthaza (Carpathian Home) instead of Magyarország, which is a borrowing from Ferenc Szálasi’s ideological vocabulary.
About a month ago Blikk discovered that the son-in-law of Sándor Lezsák, deputy president of the Hungarian parliament (Fidesz), has a company called Dextramedia Kft. that produces television programs. This company received an order from MTVA to produce a five-part series on the everyday lives of those people who, after losing their homes because of their Forex loans, moved into the ill-conceived newly erected community in Ócsa. At this time Blikk‘s only question was the connection between the owner of the company and a high Fidesz official. But it seems that there is a more to Dextramedia. A couple of days later hirhatar.hu reported that Dextramedia produced for the neo-Nazi Internet N1TV a warm remembrance of Hitler on the anniversary of his birth. And then we learned from hir24.hu that Dextramedia was one of the sponsors of the Christmas Eve concert of a band called Nemzeti Front. Among the other sponsors was kuruc.info.hu. I guess nobody will be terribly surprised to hear that Hagyaték is also produced by Dextramedia. The gate between Fidesz and Jobbik is wide open.
A couple more pieces of information. The new historical institute, Veritas, is supposed to spearhead the rewriting of Hungary’s history. János Lázár found an ideologically appropriate director–Sándor Szakály, a military historian who wrote a whole book on the history of the Hungarian gendarmes. Szakály was one of the experts asked to comment on the history of the organization for Hagyaték. We learned from him that the Hungarian gendarmerie was the best in the whole world. The 12,000 gendarmes were the most disciplined force in the country, and their main task was the prevention of crime. They were friends of the people but enemies of the criminals. They were extremely well trained and received continuing education. They had to wear their uniforms and carry their weapons even when off duty.
Szakály went on and on about the greatness of the force, and he was assisted by another expert–Péter Ákos Kosaras, a high school teacher (by now principal), who lost his job when he posted a picture of himself on a Hungarian social media site dressed in an SS uniform, which he captioned “a good-hearted SS officer.” But he wasn’t unemployed for long. I understand that Kosaras has since written a book entitled Magyarok a Waffen SS- kötelékében (Hungarians in the Waffen SS) in which he portrays these people as heroes.
The objectionable Hagyaték shows are directed by Attila Vándor, one of the owners of Dextramedia, and the editor is our Gábor Balogh.
While the negotiating partners of the Hungarian opposition are closeted in over the weekend trying to hammer out a compromise acceptable to all, I will turn to an entirely different subject. It is the ill-conceived governmental attempt to establish a monthly magazine that will carry only good tidings and will also be a heralding chronicle of the great age that was created by Hungary’s leading light and trustee of its future, Viktor Orbán.
You may recall a post of mine about Imre Kerényi, who became a close associate of Viktor Orbán. I believe I was too charitable in my piece, but I did indicate that I thought there was something not quite right with the man. Some call him a “futóbolond,” a nut, a madman, a lunatic. For some strange reason Viktor Orbán attracts and welcomes these characters.
Kerényi has been entrusted with large amounts of money for propaganda purposes in the field of culture. Originally, he convinced Orbán to endorse a propaganda campaign in connection with the new constitution. He was the creator of the ill-fated Table of the Constitution that had to be set up in every public building. He came up with the idea of ordering art work hailing important moments in Hungarian history. The pictures were, with few exceptions, atrocious. The whole project became a laughing stock. Yet Viktor Orbán didn’t get rid of him. On the contrary, Kerényi was handed more and more projects and more and more money. Millions were spent publishing a series of books Kerényi deemed “the core works” of Hungary’s “national literature.” He is still in the middle of erecting statues of great Hungarian conservatives who until now didn’t receive their due. The statue of István Bethlen is the first in a series of monuments Kerényi is planning to erect.
At the end of October HVG reported that Kerényi received another 340 million forints “to publish a monthly periodical.” It was only a one-liner, and its significance wasn’t apparent until January 6 of this year when a blogger (cink.hu) reported that the government is planning a publication that will concentrate only on “good tidings.” It will be called Magyar Krónika, a title that at first blush seems not too imaginative but that, once one reads Kerényi’s half-mad letter to those one hundred writers, journalists, politicians, and historians whom he invited to contribute, gains special significance. It will be a true chronicle of an age. The age of Viktor Orbán. Just as medieval kings hired chroniclers to write about their achievements, this Magyar Krónika will serve the same purpose. According to Viktor Orbán, no public money will be used for the project.
What kind of a publication does Kerényi have in mind? It will be such an important publication that it will become a collector’s item, he claims. It will be a document that represents the age. It will be about “the people of the central political force,” in plain language those who built Viktor Orbán’s authoritarian regime. These people are “heroes” whose achievements must be lauded in an appropriate manner. Magyar Krónika will concentrate “on the good and on love.” It will report good news. For example, if someone notices that dandelions are in bloom, he should sit down and write about it. If in the organic market a duckling was nice and yellow, one should write about it. If utility prices decrease, naturally one should write about it. And it goes on and on.
Out of the 100 people invited maybe 30-40 showed up for a meeting on Thursday. Viktor Orbán, who is supposed to be on the editorial board, was there as well. Mind you, he was smuggled in by members of his anti-terrorist team via a side entrance because in front there was a fairly large crowd of demonstrators and reporters who had a jolly good time with their posters. The whole thing quickly became a huge embarrassment which, it seems, Viktor Orbán himself recognized. According to people present, Orbán called Kerényi’s letter “infantile and ludicrous.” He also expressed his misgivings about launching the project before the election.
But it is not easy to convince Kerényi not to proceed. Yesterday morning on ATV’s Start, he denied that he had been chewed out by the prime minister. He also claimed that the number of those who were reported to have declined the invitation is all wrong. He said that the first issue, which will be #0, will come out sometime in May, regardless of what Orbán said earlier. As for the letter, it was intentionally written in this ridiculous style because he wanted to call attention to the project in this way. The brouhaha will help the popularity of Magyar Krónika.
That newspapermen working for Magyar Nemzet, Magyar Demokrata, and Magyar Hírlap went to the meeting I can understand, but it is disheartening to see people with some reputation in their fields willing to become part of such a cheap propaganda stunt. For me, the most shocking was the presence of Gergely Prőhle, assistant undersecretary in the Foreign Ministry, perhaps because I met him in person in New Haven. He is considered to be a moderate conservative with a wide knowledge of the world, someone who served as ambassador to Switzerland between 2003 and 2005 and subsequently held a high position in the ministry until 2006. Keep in mind that his tenure in the ministry was during the socialist-liberal administration. And now the only thing he could say at the time of leaving the meeting was that in general he writes about foreign policy and he plans to do the same for Magyar Krónika? And Kerényi’s letter? “It is a question of style.” Sad.
An Interview with Charles Gati of the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
[The interview, published in the January 2, 2014 issue of the weekly 168 Óra (168 Hours) and conducted by József Barát, was translated by Professor Gati for Hungarian Spectrum.]
József Baráth: Hungary is doing better. This is what we hear every day from Fidesz politicians. Some of them even demand better classification from global rating agencies and the resignation of the European Union’s finance commissioner. Looking at it from the United States: How’s Hungary doing these days?
Charles Gati: The Hungarian economy is at a standstill. It suffers from policies of re-centralization and re-nationalization. The global credit agencies issue their ratings on the basis of available numbers. Some presumably make mistakes – after all, human beings always do – but together they reflect a factual condition: that Hungary has come to occupy the last place among the Visegrad Four. The situation could change for the better only if the government no longer stood in the way of Western investments, recognized the advantages of European integration, and prepared the country for the introduction of the euro.
JB: The Hungarian government is no longer criticized so frequently in the United States as in the past. Does this mean that American officials and observers see positive changes? Or is it only that Washington has lost interest, perhaps accepting the view that Hungary belongs to that part of Europe where the values of democracy and the rule of law don’t matter so much and therefore outsiders can’t make a difference?
CG: As far as I know officials don’t see such “positive changes,” and no one has written off Hungary’s democratic potential. Yet, for now, they don’t expect to convince the current Hungarian government any more than they could convince the current government of Ukraine of the values and advantages of Western-style democracy. Given the ingrained optimism of Washington officials, you won’t hear them state it like this but their deeds reflect considerable skepticism. Far more important, however, is Washington’s preoccupation with the agonizing problems of the Middle East.
JB: Tamás Fellegi, a former member of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s cabinet, is conducting a public relations campaign in Washington to improve Hungary’s image in the United States. He’s reaching out to Hungarian-Americans. Does he have a chance to influence American public opinion?
CG: I’m aware of the campaign run by Mr. Fellegi, but I’m not familiar with the specifics of his outreach to Hungarian-Americans. I do know that several Washington think-tanks received contributions from his so-called “Hungarian Initiative Foundation,” which is supported by a $15 million grant from Hungarian taxpayers. In exchange, I presume, Fellegi himself and various pro-Fidesz speakers have been invited to lecture or participate in panel discussions at various forums. I attended one such lecture by György Schöpflin, a Fidesz-member of the European parliament, that was quite successful. Of the twenty or so invited guests, about half were officials of the Hungarian Embassy in Washington. As for substance, these speakers often advance the same view as the one Fidesz promotes: that it’s [the far-right] Jobbik rather than the [right-wing] Fidesz government that opposes Hungarian democracy. They say or suggest that Fidesz, by defending national values against Western “colonialism,” weakens Jobbik’s base, and therefore the West should support rather than criticize Orbán’s Fidesz-led government. This is what one hears from Fellegi, Schöpflin, as well as from Katrina Lantos Swett (daughter of the late Tom Lantos who heads the Lantos Foundation in the US and the Lantos Institute in Budapest, and who sees his father’s legacy differently from me and for that matter from what I think his father’s view would be). By focusing on Jobbik, Anne Applebaum, a respected American journalist, promotes this interpretation, too. To answer your question directly, then, I don’t believe this campaign by officials and fellow-travelers of the Orbán government falls on fertile soil here.
JB: Many are surprised that there isn’t greater resistance in Hungary to the government restricting the rule of law, curtailing the system of checks and balances, and even proceeding with the expansion of funding its clients from the state budget. How do you assess this tendency?
CG: Applebaum’s recent book, Iron Curtain, offers an account of the strategy employed after World War II by Hungarian [and other East-Central European] Communists and their Soviet advisers, a strategy aimed at the immediate capture of the press which at that time meant the Radio, above all. Leaders of Fidesz have learned from Lenin; after gaining power in 2010, they conquered key positions in the press, notably television and radio, so much so that lots of Hungarians didn’t and still don’t realize what’s going on around them. So while internet helps somewhat and there are still independent papers, freedom of the press no longer exists. Those who need information most – people in the countryside who hear and watch one-sided news accounts and one-sided opinions on government-controlled stations – don’t seem to take advantage of what’s available on the internet. Moreover, businessmen as a group appear to be afraid of supporting independent or opposition voices. All in all, the attack against [Western-style pluralist] democracy in 2010 was both sudden and devastating, and much of the public have yet to wake up to the new political environment.
JB: Viktor Orbán claims that European politics should be renewed on the basis of his prescriptions. Could he find followers in Europe? Is the process of European integration endangered by Hungarian government policies?
CG: He has no followers in Europe for now. The British, Lithuanian, and Polish governments — the latter primarily because of domestic circumstances — are somewhat “understanding” of Viktor Orbán, but on a variety of issues they don’t agree with him. As for integration, it isn’t in danger of being reversed. Some countries try to slow down the ongoing processes, partly to protect their sovereign existence, partly to protect their power, but the deepening if not the widening of European integration continues unabated.
JB: There will be election this year in Hungary. Do you think the divided opposition has a chance of winning?
CG: I gave 168 Óra an interview exactly two years ago. Looking back, I note with pleasure that the right-wing press chose one sentence from that interview and attacked me for it thousands of times since. In a long and hysterical editorial, the government daily Magyar Nemzet went so far as to curse me and members of my family as well. I note this with pleasure because not only friends but people of common sense have responded to these attacks by sending me encouraging emails. The sentence in question was this: “I agree with Palmer [the late US Ambassador to Hungary Mark Palmer who served there from 1986 to 1990]: there are possibilities for the removal of this government by democratic means if possible, by other means if that’s not possible.” The meaning of the sentence is clear: If the government stands in the way of free election, the people have the right to protect their democratic rights, restore the well-tested system of checks and balances, as well as freedom of the press and religion. Two years later I can only repeat what I said in 2012. But, with a view toward the approaching election, I can add that while the new electoral law that the Fidesz super-majority in parliament passed strongly favors Fidesz, I still hope the election will be free. I can’t tell how the opposition will do, but I note that the number of undecided voters is very high indeed.
JB: We keep hearing that Gordon Bajnai has influential American supporters — though, truth be told, we hear this primarily from Fidesz propagandists. Are there significant American interest groups that are prepared to help one or another side in Hungarian politics?
CG: Such “significant interest groups” exist only in minds suffering both from delusions of grandeur and a persecution complex. There are no conspiracies against Hungary if for no other reason but because America is otherwise preoccupied. The government press has claimed, for example, that I work with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on trying to overthrow the legitimate Hungarian government. Too bad I’ve never even met Mrs. Clinton. Never. As for Gordon Bajnai, he has made a very good impression during his visits to Washington and New York. Over the years I heard three or four of his lectures about European integration. I also know that he had a chance to meet with high officials and respected analysts. I can say the same about Attila Mesterházy’s valuable lectures and conversations as he also visits the US quite regularly. It’s too bad the Hungarian Press Agency and most of the Hungarian press seldom or perhaps never report on Bajnai’s and Mesterházy’s successful encounters in America.
JB: Could Fidesz win again with a two-third majority?
CG: It received 53 percent of the vote in 2010, which resulted in a two-third super-majority in parliament. I expect a tough match this year.
JB: According to some interpretations of the new electoral law, even 30 percent popular support might translate into a two-third parliamentary majority — if the opposition is divided.
CG: This is a possibility, but months before the [Spring 2014] election such pessimism is unwarranted. Don’t forget that I’ve lived in America for 57 years…
JB: What do you expect to happen if Fidesz wins? What’s more likely: will Orbán pursue policies of consolidation, or strengthen his one-man rule?
CG: Fidesz is Viktor Orbán’s party. Some of his colleagues may be grumpy, especially those who expected higher positions or greater influence, but there’s no principled opposition to him. His one-man rule could be influenced by economic trends and by the European Union.
JB: There are those who believe that it could take generations before Hungary returns to European values. Do you agree with them?
CG: I couldn’t disagree more. Permit me to mention only one example from Hungarian history. Who would have thought around, say, 1860 that a Ferenc Deák would soon emerge with the idea that a grand compromise [with Austria] had to be the nation’s primary goal and that the necessary political capital for such a goal was within reach? What followed at the turn of the 19th-20th century was the construction of Budapest’s most lasting, most beautiful buildings and boulevards. And what an extraordinary cultural boom took place at the same time! Deák also understood that the economy needed the talents of Jewish and German-speaking citizens, and he recognized their rights. It’s often said that he was “the nation’s wise man.” He was. And he held up the example of Hungary for all of Europe!
Deák’s wisdom is missing from Hungarian politics today. This is so because the emphasis all too often is on “heroism,” not on prudence. But heroism in 21st century Europe is old hat, an outworn value, since there’s no immediate enemy. Hungary has never enjoyed such a favorable international environment.
JB: There are critics.
CG: There are critics, of course. Their criticism shouldn’t be met with vindictive, ad hominem attacks, but with serious adjustments in the realms of both domestic and foreign policies. That’s when Hungary’s image would begin to improve. In this connection, let me recall the memory of Nelson Mandela. Once a most radical, uncompromising leader, Mandela emerged from 27 years in jail promoting tolerance. He sought coexistence between whites and blacks. Let’s also remember than the political prisoner and his jailer received — together — the Nobel Peace Prize. Hungary will do well when wise leaders appear on the political scene who will not only respect their opponents but are able to lift the country from its last place to Europe’s premier class — even if it means that they must shelve their own political past, even if it means painful compromises.
Yesterday I wrote about the Orbán government’s bizarre plan to erect a statue to commemorate the occupation of Hungary by the German army. Since then a flash mob was organized on Szabadság tér where the memorial will be placed and several more people expressed their misgivings about the very idea.
Magyar Nemzet was content to republish the official explanation, according to which the monument will pay homage to the spirit of the new constitution’s preamble which points to Hungary’s loss of sovereignty on March 19, 1944. It seems, however, that even this pro-government paper found the explanation meaningless and hence came up with an imaginative headline: “The government honors every Hungarian victim.” That is, if we are to believe Magyar Nemzet, this monument is a gesture to the victims of the Holocaust.
Magyar Hírlap, a paper to the right of Magyar Nemzet, ran a fairly lengthy op/ed piece by Péter Szentmihályi Szabó, a poet and writer of far-right political views. He, as opposed to historians specializing in the period, is certain that “the German occupation eliminated even the appearance of Hungarian independence, made it impossible to sign a separate peace and made the territory of the country a battleground.” According to Szentmihályi Szabó, placing the new memorial on the same square as the monument to the Soviet liberation of Hungary is an excellent idea because it emphasizes the geopolitical impossibility of a good decision on the part of the Hungarian government.
Even without a detailed knowledge of German-Hungarian relations during the 1930s and 1940s it is obvious that Szentmihályi Szabó doesn’t know what he is talking about. We can’t really speak of “occupation” in the classical meaning of the word because, after all, sending German troops to Hungary came about with Miklós Horthy’s consent. No notes were taken of the conversation between Hitler and Horthy in Klessheim, but it can be reconstructed fairly well. Horthy wasn’t threatened as one recent article claimed. And the main topic wasn’t the deportation of Hungary’s Jewry, although Hitler demanded 50,000 men to work in Germany, which Horthy agreed to. As for making a separate peace with the Russians, Szentmihályi should know that this idea was abhorrent to Horthy, who was a fierce anti-communist. He didn’t entertain the idea until the Soviets were on Hungarian soil. As for the German occupation being the reason that Hungary became a battleground, this is also a patent misinterpretation of history. As the Soviet Union moved westward it engaged the remaining members of the Axis powers, which included the Hungarian army.
Horthy instructed the Hungarian military and public officials to cooperate with the German forces. The Germans couldn’t complain about the Hungarian attitude. Or, if they had any complaint it was about the Hungarian eagerness to get rid of as many Hungarian Jews as possible. Auschwitz wasn’t prepared for the onslaught that Hungarian officials sent. They were ready for one transport of 3,000 a day, but the undersecretary of the Ministry of Interior which handled the deportation sent six transports a day. The Germans eventually managed to convince their Hungarian friends to send no more than four transports daily. And the old story that Horthy was so despondent and so discouraged that he completely withdrew from the affairs of state is also inaccurate. There are documents that attest to the fact that on April 13, 1944 he approved sending the 50,000 Jewish workers to Germany as he promised in Klessheim.
The op/ed piece that appeared in HVG yesterday (“Monument to the Hungarian Collaborators”) is pretty close to the truth. Adolf Eichmann’s staff, including even the drivers, was no larger than 60-80 men. They had to rely exclusively on Hungarian cooperation. In fact, Hungary was so well organized that the Germans themselves were surprised. Given the well-oiled machine, the consensus is that the deportation of Hungarian Jews had been worked out in detail ahead of time. The Germans in occupied countries let the local forces do the dirty work, and “solutions” varied from country to country. In Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, and France the local authorities chose paths that enabled most of their Jewish population to survive. If the Hungarian authorities had been less eager to get rid of their Jewish compatriots the result might have been very different. Just as in July when Horthy halted the deportation of Budapest’s Jewish population, he could have forbidden it in April with the possible exception of the 50,000 workers he promised to Hitler. Or, if the local authorities had sabotaged or slowed down the process, the number of victims could have been much smaller. But about 200,000 people were obediently working to fulfill the Hungarian plan. Krisztián Ungváry figured out that if the Hungarian authorities had stuck to the quota the Germans wanted (3,000 a day) 267,000 people would have survived the ordeal.
Historians studying the period find that the deportation was welcomed by the overwhelming majority of the Hungarian people. Yes, there were a few people who tried to save lives, but the majority approved the segregation and eventual removal of the Jewish population. In Veszprém the Catholic Church even organized a Te Deum mass to celebrate the deportation. There was wide consensus on the “Jewish question,” especially when it became clear that it was the Hungarian state that was the main beneficiary of the destruction of the Hungarian Jewry. Mind you, eventually some of the confiscated material was destroyed, lost, or stolen.
Hungarian historians have done an incredible amount of research on the subject in the last thirty-forty years, and I’m sure that thousands more articles and books will appear on seemingly every aspect of the question in the future. So, the problem is not a lack of knowledge. The trouble is that that information simply doesn’t penetrate the consciousness of the wider public, most likely because they don’t want to hear about all the horrors that took place in their country with Hungarian complicity. It is easier to say that the Hungarian government and the Hungarian people could do nothing to prevent the German atrocities.