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.