István Deák: A monument of self-pity and self-justification

DeakIstván Deák is perhaps the best known Hungarian-born historian in the United States. His first book dealt with Weimar Germany (Weimar Germany’s Left-wing Intellectuals [1968]). He then moved on to Lajos Kossuth and the 1848 Hungarian revolution (The Lawful Revolution, 1848-1849 [1979]). His next book was on the Habsburg military (Beyond Nationalism: A Social and Political History of the Habsburg Officer Corps, 1848-1918 [1990]). He also wrote about Europe in the 1930s (Essays on Hitler’s Europe [2001]). He edited and partly wrote, together with Jan T. Gross and Tony Judt, a book entitled The Politics of Retribution in Europe: World War II and Its Aftermath, published in 2000. His latest book which will appear sometime soon is entitled Europe on Trial: Collaboration, Accommodation, Resistance, and Retribution during and after World War II. István Deák is Seth Low Professor Emeritus at Columbia University. I should also mention that he was one of the readers of my Ph.D. dissertation.

* * *

When German troops marched into Hungary, in March 1944, they did so primarily to prevent the Hungarians from breaking away from Germany. Miklós Kállay’s government under Regent Miklós Horthy was not alone in preparing for a breakaway. Among Germany’s European comrades-in-arms, Finland, Romania, and Bulgaria were getting ready to take the same step. Italy had preceded all of them by almost a year, if not quite successfully, and only the Slovak and Croatian governments made no attempt to capitulate. However, in the spring of 1944, the Slovak military leadership was already preparing to turn against the Germans and its own government, and the Croatian fascist Ustasha regime was steadily losing its power and importance while Tito’s Communist partisan army was gradually taking over. By the summer, it already came to fighting between the Germans and the Slovak insurgents; civil war was raging in Croatia and Romania; Finland and Bulgaria had not only left the German alliance but by September were waging war against the Third Reich. The three countries together sent hundreds of thousands of soldiers to fight against the Germans.

The Hungarian breakaway attempt failed because neither the social elite nor the majority of the people wanted it to happen; the invading Germans were welcomed everywhere in March 1944. That there was no armed resistance was not only because instructions to that effect came from Regent Horthy or from the government but also because the Hungarians regarded the Germans as old and loyal allies against Bolshevism, the Slavic and Romanian neighbors, and the Jews. The current Hungarian government’s contention that the occupying Germans oppressed the Hungarian people, that the country became a victim, and that it lost its independence is a rekindling of the same false Communist propaganda that excused “the people” and put all the blame on the “traitor landlords and capitalists.”

Following the arrest of a few hundred liberal, conservative, and other anti-Nazi politicians, the invading German army units were able to continue their march toward the Russian front, while in Hungary the new Sztójay-government, consisting largely of veterans of earlier Horthy-regime cabinets, mobilized the population, industry, and agriculture for the final showdown in the war. At the same time, the new government, drawing on the technical advice of a tiny SS detachment, embarked at a dizzying speed on the drastic solution of the “Jewish Question”, i.e. the humiliation, segregation, despoliation, and deportation of eight hundred thousand Jewish citizens. The deportation of the Jews to Auschwitz allowed for the largest redistribution of wealth in Hungarian history, shortly to be followed by the Communists’ even greater wealth redistribution.

Such sporadic and hesitant steps as the suspension, in July 1944, of the deportation of the Jews of Budapest and of the Jewish labor servicemen, and Regent Horthy’s surrender attempt in October, did not change the determination of the country’s political and military elite to remain loyal to the German alliance. This explains why they complied even with such outrageous German wishes as that, in order to delay the Red Army’s advance toward Vienna, the Hungarian army participate in the defense and thus the destruction of Budapest; also that the Hungarian government voluntarily hand over to the Germans a significant proportion of the national wealth. To regard all this as suffering brought upon the Hungarians by German oppression is absurd and a falsification of history. It is wrong to speak simultaneously of Hungary’s and Germany’s heroic struggle against the Bolshevik enemy and at the same time complain about German oppression.

The planned monument to the German occupation and the underlying notion of self-justification can cause serious damage to the country’s image. It is true that Hungary is not alone in suffering from a mania of self-pity and self-justification: the Ukrainians, Romanians, Czechs, Slovaks and Serbs did not get much further than that either. However, what is going on in Hungary today, where the official leadership both apologizes for the sins committed by the Hungarian state against the Jews and points an accusatory finger at everyone but its own country, creates an impossible and dangerous public mood. It is infantile to perpetually accuse the West of conspiracy, to attack the United States with arguments once used by the nationalist Horthy and the Communist Rákosi regimes, and to harbor perpetual grievances. The West is not rushing towards intellectual, moral, and financial bankruptcy; its main concern is surely not how to put the Hungarian people in chains.

A more rational attitude on both sides is, of course, warranted: so long as this article can appear in Hungary, and while the Hungarian ambassador to the United Nations asks for forgiveness from the Hungarian Jews on behalf of the Hungarian state, one cannot speak either of political dictatorship or of official anti-Semitism in Hungary. Would that the government and its faithful followers remind themselves not to engage in collective hysteria!

István Deák
Columbia University

January 2014

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72 comments

  1. FIDESZ polarized the people.
    “People with us” are united by fake patriotism, real antisemitism, and real anticommunism.
    This empowerment makes about 1/3 of the voters happy.

    The rest is the enemy. An enemy soldiers must be uber-FIDESZ if he wants to cross the line.

    All this will come to an end when all sources of money are gone. The people who built a good nest egg, will meet each other on the Riviera.

    The rest will have a hard time to overhaul a ruined economy and education.

    The new regime will have to pledge to join the West, and never sell out the country to Russian, Azeri, or Iranian masters.

  2. Report from a debate between historians, in front of 300 people in the audience.

    András Gerő tried to defend his personal friend Maria Schmidt and the House of Fates.

    On the opposite side, Laszlo Karsai. Krisztian Ungvary and Maria M Kovacs also contributed to the debate.

    Mr. Gero admitted that he also advises M. Schmidt in the project. The building of the railroad station might be ready by April, but the exhibition will not. He projected the drawings of the planned center. The project will be geared towards schoolchildren, from ages 13 to 20.

    He criticised the Pava street Holocaust Center as not affecting the emotions and not having too many visitors.

    The new center at the former Jozsefvaros railroad station will give equal wight to show the perpetrators and the righteous Gentiles who hid Jews.

    The audience became verbally somewhat hostile towards Gero at this moment, who took offence.

  3. Dear Tappanch, thank you for this information. Can you give us a link where we can watch this event on video or read reports on it? Or perhaps you were simply in the audience and thus giving us first hand knowledge? In this case please continue.

  4. Laszlo Karsai told the audience that he had visited the House of Terror earlier today. This museum is also led by M. Schmidt. He described why the exhibition at the House of Terror is anti-Semitic.

    It shows the main perpetrators of the Hungarian Holocaust, who were executed after the war as victims of the Communism.

    He found several Nazi books for sale in the museum bookstore.

    He went on saying that the director of an anti-Semitic show should not be allowed to direct a new Holocaust memorial.

    Maria Schmidt’s whole line since the 1990’s is the following falsification of history:

    The Germans occupied Hungary in March 1944, and they and the Nyilas (arrow cross) deported the Jews. There were tens of thousands of Hungarians helping the Jewish population – this is Ms Schmidt’s view.

    In fact, there were less than 900 righteous Gentiles in the entire country.
    The railroad station selected for the Holocaust memorial was not used in the main deportations under Horthy, when at least 440,000 Jews were deported.

    The station was used in late November 1944, to deport 17,000 Jews, none of them children under the Nyilas rule.

  5. Mr Gero claimed that the leaders of the project consulted with the main Jewish organization MaZsiHisz.

    At this point, Mr Tordai, vice chairman of MaZsiHisz, who sat in the audience, asked to be heard. He said that this was not true. MaZsiHisz was not consulted

    [After the debate, he added:
    The organization will decide what to do in a week from tomorrow. “We expect positive steps from the Orban government in the meantime. But we do not want to follow the steps of Samu Stern” (the head of the German-appointed Judenrat in 1944)]

  6. Mr. Paul :

    petofi :
    Have a gander at the reporting of people even as respected as Kalman Olga and notice how
    the kid-gloves go on when Fideszers appear on the program.

    Can you elaborate on this point a little bit? Is Kalman Olga in the pockets of Fidesz in your opinion?

    I don’t much watch the program anymore. I tune in and notice her aggressive, somewhat insulting, questioning of people like Bajnai. When a Fidesz apparatchnik is on, she’s considerably more demure. But Olga has a position to protect: Hungarians always know where their self-interests lie and act accordingly…in the main.

  7. There was also some personal animosity shown between the historians. Mr Gero defended his line by saying that he shouts about anti-Semitism when he sees it. He did so in the case of historian Romsics. This was not an emotional act on his part: Mr Romsics fulfilled the criteria by revealing the original (Jewish) names of some Hungarian historical personalities. But he does not think Maria Schmidt is anti-Semitic.

    Krisztian Ungvary also asked to be heard. He criticized the historical projects of the Orban government [I forgot the details, although he spoke very well, getting applause from the audience]

    Mr Gero responded by quoting from one of Mr Ungvary’s writings, which he said was itself anti-Semitic. [I did not agree with Mr Gero’s opinion].

    Earlier, historian Maria M. Kovacs also spoke a few words.

    Someone in the audience asked Mr Gero to convey the Jewish community’s negative opinion of Orban’s 1944 projects to his friend Schmidt. Mr Gero flatly rejected this request.

  8. Joe Simon :
    You cannot fight tanks with guns.
    .

    I wonder why nobody tried to tell that to the kids that were fighting Russian tanks with bottles of petrol and fake mines made of upside down frying pans without their handles in 1956?

  9. petofi :

    I don’t much watch the program anymore. I tune in and notice her aggressive, somewhat insulting, questioning of people like Bajnai. When a Fidesz apparatchnik is on, she’s considerably more demure. But Olga has a position to protect: Hungarians always know where their self-interests lie and act accordingly…in the main.

    The problem is that very few Fidesz people accept the invitations to appear on either ATV or on Klubrádió. So, if one is too harsh on the few who do say yes they will also boycott the stations. But I saw Kálmán being very aggressive with Kocsis or Gulyás but these two are very slippery characters.

  10. Re debate of historians. Gerő can be infuriating. Sometimes he is very good while other times simply infuriating. He seems to have a blind spot when it comes to Mária Schmidt.

  11. J Grant :

    Joe Simon :
    You cannot fight tanks with guns.
    .

    I wonder why nobody tried to tell that to the kids that were fighting Russian tanks with bottles of petrol and fake mines made of upside down frying pans without their handles in 1956?

    Plates, plates, I can assure you. We brought them out from the Astoria Hotel on November 2.

  12. This time I want not to debate but to ask a question.

    @tappanch, February 1, 2014 at 3:58 pm | #4

    “The Germans occupied Hungary in March 1944, and they and the Nyilas (arrow cross) deported the Jews. There were tens of thousands of Hungarians helping the Jewish population – this is Ms Schmidt’s view. In fact, there were less than 900 righteous Gentiles in the entire country.”

    Here is definitely an error because the “Arrow Cross” was not a part of the Sztójay government. But does it really matter how many people have been formally recognized by Yad va-Shem? Istvan Deak wrote two statements in the same article (Istvan Deak, The Holocaust in Hungary, pp.148-158, Hungarian Quarterly, Winter 2004, Budapest.):

    “…It has been calculated that 200,000 persons in public service participated in the swift and amazingly efficient execution of the deportations. They included, from Prime Minister Sztójay, through Andor Jaross, László Endre, and László Baky, that trio in the cabinet who were directly in charge of the Hungarian Final Solution, down to county prefects and sub-prefects…”

    “Considering, however, that in Budapest most everyone was capable of detecting a Jew and also that most of those in hiding were not denounced, it is likely that at least a hundred thousand Gentiles gave active assistance to the Jews, while many more simply looked the other way.”

    So 200 thousand of bad Gentiles vs. 100 thousand of good ones – it is not so bad taking into account that the bad ones HAD and the good ones HAD NOT the government support. Professor Deak gives an example of “the Soros family in disguise that had regular access to swimming pools, restaurants, and opera performances in Budapest”. In any other country the hidden Jews spent months or years in basement not showing outside.

    “It shows the main perpetrators of the Hungarian Holocaust, who were executed after the war as victims of the Communism.”

    To say more correctly – we do not know, because the “justice” of that time was not just. Nobody would doubt that every just court would execute Szálasi but what about his foreign minister (don’t remember his name) who, as Deak testifies, help Wallenberg and Lutz to help the Jews and also was hanged? Or executed in Novi Sad general Szombathelyi who in 1994 was rehabilitated by the present post-communist country? I think that ALMOST everyone convicted by the communist courts has a right for an appeal and new trial.

    “The railroad station selected for the Holocaust memorial… was used in late November 1944, to deport 17,000 Jews, none of them children under the Nyilas rule.”

    I have seen train deportations in many films about the “Arrow Cross” time. But to where? Auschwitz stopped functioning in October. There was no trains available, and Eichmann organized the “death march” on foot because of that. Am I wrong?

  13. @Eliezer

    1.
    Destinations of the deportations under Szalasi’s rule:
    for example to Bergen-Belsen and other camps inside Germany.

    The Szalasi government handed over some of the forced laborers to
    the Germans at the Jozsefvaros railroad station. Wallenberg also
    appeared at the station, trying to extend Swedish protection to some
    of the people there.

    THere were also numerous death marches on foot, as you know.

    2.
    I think Szalasi’s foreign minister was Vajna. I do not know why he merited clemency.

    3.
    Hungary executed 146 war criminals after the war (another source talks of 180), between
    1945 and 1948, BEFORE the Communist takeover. It was the Communist Rakosi who closed the “People’s Courts” and stopped prosecuting the war criminals.
    [He found new enemies for the new regime]

    4.
    How many Jewish people were hidden in Hungary?

    In the countryside, very few. Some babies were taken in by neighbors.

    In Budapest, most people outside the ghettos survived with false papers. Do not forget that there were lots of non-Jewish refugees in Budapest – people from Transylvania, from Serbia.

    I knew someone who was 10 in Ujvidek in 1942. The Hungarian soldiers were shooting people into the icy Danube. They got the order to stop when it was his turn in the line. He came up to Budapest with papers of a Serb boy, since he spoke Serb – this is how he survived.

    5.
    Hungarians are not of a pure race, and this was realized even then. That is why the authorities used the terms “Christian” or “Paleo-Christian” (őskeresztény), and not “Aryan” for “non-Jewish” in Hungary.

    The same way Jobbik people did not recognize that Mr Szegedi is of Jewish extraction, quite a few Jew passed as non-Jewish that time.

  14. “The railroad station selected for the Holocaust memorial… was used in late November 1944, to deport 17,000 Jews, none of them children under the Nyilas rule.”

    Can you give me a reference, please? Thank you.

    “THere were also numerous death marches on foot, as you know.”

    Yes. Has any estimation been published – how many out of 50 thsd sent there?

    “I think Szalasi’s foreign minister was Vajna. I do not know why he merited clemency.”

    No, he does not. But he was an Interior minister. The foreign minister was Baron Gabor Kemeny, from the same Deak’s article:

    “We must also consider that Wallenberg and Co. owned at best a few pistols among them, and that they would have been powerless to save any lives had some Arrow Cross leaders, as for instance the Foreign Minister Baron Gábor Kemény, not been willing to co-operate with them.”

    “I knew someone who was 10 in Ujvidek in 1942. The Hungarian soldiers were shooting people into the icy Danube. They got the order to stop when it was his turn in the line. He came up to Budapest with papers of a Serb boy, since he spoke Serb – this is how he survived.”

    It is strange because it was not purely massacre of the Jews: there were approximately 2500 of Serbs and 700 of Jews killed, so being a Serb was not of much help. And I assume every Jew there spoke Serbian.
    I do not doubt the enormity of the crime, just a particular guilt of the Chief of General Staff. Did he issue the order? There was a trial in Budapest ordered by Horthy-Kallay, several people sentenced to death but they managed to escape. Szombathelyi was not accused, and because the present government vacated his after-war sentence, I assume he was not guilty.

  15. Gero is partly crazy and partly has invested way too much from his reputation into his friendship with Ms. Schmidt (who uses him like a good handler uses his agent), so now he has to defend her and his participation. This may not be conscious, but it happens.

    This means that House of Fates will be ready (it’s a building project, remember, and Fidesz loves to build) and will be like Teror Háza, decidedly not a museum, but a kind of Madame Toussaud’s enacting controversial ‘events’ (rewriting history in a playful way).

    The good thing is that there are so many people with various Jewish identities that it is very easy to acquire some people from them who will support whatever Fidesz happens to do. Ms. Schmidt and her people make sure that any board or advisory council they select from Jews will not contain trouble makers but will be sympathetic to Fidesz’s causes. They do their own research on these people beforehand.

  16. ONE CERTAINLY REMEMBER THAT MR KARSAI IS THE ONE WHO IN HIS TRUE COLORS, AT THE 2010 BEGINNING OF THE CLASS ACTION SUIT IN CHCIAGO AGAINST THE MAV, STATED THAT IT WAS “STUPIDITY” AND PUBLICLY ESPOUSED THE CAUSE OF THE HUNGARIAN GOVERNMENT AGAINST THE JEWISH VICTIMS, THIS CERTAINLY DOES NOT GIVE US MUCH FAITH IN HIS OPINION, DOES IT

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