Sándor Szakály: Portrait of a historian

The “cursed” memorial to the German occupation of Hungary on March 19, 1944 is still unfinished and the daily demonstration against its erection continues. Today the small group of demonstrators was joined by thousands of DK supporters who gathered to launch a campaign of “resistance” to the world of Viktor Orbán.

No one knows when Viktor Orbán will find the time opportune to go against the majority of Hungarians who consider the proposed monument a falsification of history, but while we are waiting for the final outcome historians are debating the crucial issue of the Hungarian state’s role in the death of about 400,000 Hungarians of Jewish origin.

The two main historians representing the position of the Hungarian government are Sándor Szakály, a military historian and director of the Veritas Historical Institute, and Mária Schmidt, an alleged expert on the Hungarian Holocaust and director of the infamous House of Terror. Of the two, it is most likely Schmidt who has been playing a key role in the formulation of the Orbán regime’s view of history. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we would eventually find out that she was the one who came up with the idea of the monument which, as it turned out, became a huge headache for Viktor Orbán. In comparison, Szakály is a small fry who, unlike Mária Schmidt, has no close connection to the prime minister himself. It is possible that it was Schmidt who suggested Szakály as a good choice for the directorship of Veritas.

In the last week or so both Schmidt and Szakály have been in the news. Szakály had an interview with a young journalist of an online newspaper called Versus (vs.hu) in which he again managed to say a few things that are considered to be inflammatory by some and outright wrong by others. The interview solicited a couple of written responses, and Szakály was invited by György Bolgár of KlubRádió for a chat on his program Megbeszéljük (Let’s talk it over). For those of you who know Hungarian, I highly recommend devoting about half an hour to that conversation, which begins at 22:13 and continues in the second half hour of the program.

Szakály began his career as a historian in 1982 when he published articles in periodicals dealing with military history. His first full-fledged book, on the military elite in the last years of the Horthy regime (A magyar katonai elit: 1938-1945, Budapest: Magvető), was published in 1987 . The book is full of statistics, including the percentages of various religious denominations of high-ranking officers. Or the breakdown by age of officers of the General Staff. It seems you can find every bit of minutiae about the Hungarian military elite you ever wanted (or didn’t want) to know. Even those that matter not. But the “spirit” of that military corps is missing entirely. We don’t learn anything about their ideology and their views of the world.

Szakaly

Szakály showed the same positivistic mindset when discussing the deportation of approximately 23,000 Jews in July 1941 who, according to the Hungarian authorities, could not produce proper identification to prove they were Hungarian citizens. This event took place shortly after the German attack on the Soviet Union. The Hungarian authorities sent these unfortunate people to territories already held by the Germans. Most of them were killed by the German occupying forces. According to Szakály, “some historians consider this event to be the first deportation of Jews from Hungary,” but in his opinion it can more properly be considered “a police action against aliens.” Jewish communities demanded Szakály’s resignation from his new post as director of Veritas.

Of course, Szakály did not resign. Moreover, as he said in this latest interview, he sees no reason to resign. He used “the correct technical term.” But then he continued: “I asked Ádám Gellért [a scholar who published an important study of the event] whether he looked at the text of the regulation. Did it say that Jews had to be expelled? Or did it say that they have to be expelled because they had no citizenship? It is another matter whether it was the appropriate time during the summer of 1941 to expel those without papers. I don’t contend that it couldn’t have happened that somebody out of spite expelled such a person who did have citizenship.”

Let’s analyze these few lines from a historian’s perspective. It is clear that Szakály lacks any and all ability to analyze a historical event in its complexity. If the ordinance does not specifically say something, the issue is closed. If the document did not say that Jews were to be expelled, then clearly the intent of the authorities was simply to deport stateless persons. The fact that all those who were deported were Jews doesn’t seem to make an impression on him and doesn’t prompt him to look beyond the words of the ordinance.

But that’s not all. Let’s move on to the timing. Szakály never asks himself why the Hungarian authorities picked that particular date and location for the deportations. He admits only that it was perhaps not the most “appropriate time.” Keep in mind that Germany attacked the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941 and Hungary followed suit on the 27th. Szakály either feigns ignorance or he really is incapable of putting 2 and 2 together. The cabinet decided on the deportation of  “Galician Jews” on July 1, and on July 16 the first transports started their journey toward Soviet territories, by now occupied by German troops. In fact, the Hungarian authorities used the very first “opportunity” to get rid of some of the Jews who lived in the northeastern corner of the enlarged country. The date was calculated and planned.

And finally, the inclusion of Hungarian citizens in the transports is assumed by Szakály to be a rare occurrence committed by spiteful individuals. Naivete? Blindness? Ignorance? Or something else?

After listening to the interview with him on KlubRádió, I came to the conclusion that Szakály chose the wrong profession. He should have gone to military academy to become a fine military officer. He would know all the paragraphs of the military code by heart, and I’m sure that he would be a most obedient officer who would follow the rules and regulations to the letter. He would never question his superiors. I’m sure that he would have been a much better officer than he is a historian.

And one more thing that upset many people, for example Péter György, an esthete at ELTE, and György C. Kálmán, a literary historian at the same university. It was this sentence: “In my opinion, prior to the occupation of our country by the Germans the security of life and property of Hungarian Jewry, independently of the discriminative laws, was essentially ensured.” György interprets the above sentence to mean that, according to Szakály, “the age of anti-Jewish laws can be considered a normal state of affairs, which is the gravest falsification of 20th-century Hungarian history.” He added that since Szakály is the head of an official government institute, one could even question the present government’s responsibility.

Kálmán’s is a satirical piece that appeared in Magyar Narancs. He lists 16 paragraphs out of the many anti-Jewish laws enacted in interwar Hungary and asks Szakály whether he would feel secure in his person and his property if these laws applied to him. Here one can read all the important pieces of legislation that deprived Jews of all sorts of personal and property rights.

When confronted with György’s criticism, Szakály thought that his sentence covered the truth because he added the word “essentially” (alapvetően). It is obvious that two entirely different types of scholars stand in juxtaposition here. Szakály, who relies on a strict interpretation of texts, and György, who sees the problem in its full complexity. I have the suspicion that Szakály doesn’t really understand what György is talking about.

Meanwhile Mária Schmidt is fighting against all the historians who don’t agree with her. Just lately she gave several interviews on ATV and Klubrádió, and in today’s Népszabadság she has a long interview with Ildikó Csuhaj. Feeling under attack, she has been lashing out against all her colleagues. An interesting psychological study which I will leave for tomorrow.

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34 comments

  1. London Calling!

    At the root of all this ‘history’ is the undeniable truth. That Hungarian culture has been rooted in the looting and pillaging of a minority of Hungarians.

    Horthy set the climate with the anti-jewish laws which have been supplemented with persecution right up to the present time.

    Manifested today by the dreadful kitsch statue, half built in Freedom Square – where the ‘alternative’ memorial is much more meaningful.

    Hungarians have a guilt complex over the terrible things they did – the Jewish minority was a rich source of looting and wealth beyond their dreams in a time of austerity and war. The Nazis had ‘first pickings’ and Hungarians next. But of course if the Hungarians ‘administered’ the whole exercise they could squirrel away the treasures and cash before Eichmann’s lot got their hands on it.

    The Gendarmerie of the time must have been in a particularly prime situation.

    If you visit the flea markets in Budapest you see beautiful antique clocks and things on sale at unbelievably unrealistic prices. Unworking clocks too but still works of art.

    Apart from the prices I refuse to buy – nothing is available regarding provenance. So I assume it’s loot.

    How much of this belonged to the Jews? I wonder.

    How many homes, even now, have looted Jewish artefacts within?

    How much commerce has its foundation in stolen Jewish funds?

    If you visit the House of Terror – there is nothing that gives even a hint of this. Its all Germans marching and German tanks and German, German, German. (There’s very little for a foreigner to understand Hungary’s perspective). There’s an enormous tank with gun turrent in black oil in a tank! – a German tank of course – which takes up enormous space. It’s in the main staircase so you are meant to get the message that it wasn’t us, guv, honest.

    I’ve wandered through the old Jewish quarter in Gyor and ‘felt’ the ghostly tumbledown atmosphere – but the architecture of the old houses belies the wealth that must have been built up by the wealthy Jewish artisans.

    So I think Schmidt and Szakály and others are engaged in some sort of cognitive resonance reduction on a National scale to try and absolve the nation.

    Try as they might, until all those archives are opened to shed light on which Hungarian spied and reported on which Hungarian; and until the Nation can face its terrible past and do as the Germans have done – fess up, then these deniers will come up with ever more parameters to fit their curve.

    It was shameful looting.

    Nothing less.

    Face up to it Hungary.

    Regards

    Charlie.

  2. double genocide theories of szakaly, schmidt, orban are despicable.

    each crime can be analyzed individually and together.

    too many hungarians were involved in the hitlerian genocide.

    while quite a few hungarians extended the misery of hungary under stalinist colonization.

    to reject the mistakes of the new double genocide historians, read

    http://www.es.hu/karsai_laszlo;antiszemitak_holokauszt_tortenelemhamisitok;2012-09-05.html

    http://defendinghistory.com/2013-started-on-wrong-note-in-capitals-of-poland-ukraine-lithuania/62553

  3. You don’t have to be a scholar/historian to see that this Szakály “character” is an idiot …

    A bit OT:

    A counterexample which I’ve mentioned before (I think):

    Wolfgang Schneiderhan, the former general inspector (aka boss) of the German military until 2009 gave a talk on the Jewish soldiers in Germany in WW1 and how they were treated by the Nazis …

    They couldn’t believe it – after all, many had their Iron Crosses for being brave soldiers defending their homeland Germany ..

    He’s an honest man – a friend of mine got to know him.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wolfgang_Schneiderhan_%28general%29

  4. And btw…

    Invasion? You must be joking.

    You named a roundabout after Hitler – Hitler Korond, now renamed back to Kodaly Korond. And you made the Jews pay their utility bills before being transported.

    You built Messerschmidt 109s in Gyor – at the Raba factory and other places and gave one to the German air force – one for you – one for our Hungarian air force.

    And Hitler rewarded you with some Trianon lands which of course you wouldn’t be allowed to keep.

    And Horthy only delayed the order to remove the Jews from the Yellow Houses because he was told that the British would bomb Budapest if he did.

    Yea, some German occupation that.

    You welcomed him in with open arms……

  5. @ Charlie: “If you visit the House of Terror – there is nothing that gives even a hint of this. Its all Germans marching and German tanks and German, German, German.”

    Au contraire. If you visit the House of Terror (authored by Maria Schmidt), it’s all about the Hungarian suffering at the hands of the Soviets (apart from one little side-room dedicated to the Holocaust) culminating in a room full of screens of Viktor telling the Russians to go home, thus championing over the narrative.

  6. London Calling!

    Bowen.

    You may well be right!

    I am no expert on war munitions but there was a lot of marching.

    I visited when the place was full – and it couldn’t cope with coach parties of wheelchair bound visitors.

    The arty farty presentation of witness testimonies appearing on one screen then going dormant only for another screen to become live was impossible to follow in a particular presentation. This technique was common and no one could follow them as they became live randomly in a crowded room.

    It’s a little obvious to state that, of course, if you are Hungarian you could listen – but foreigners have to read the (unreadable!) subtitles.

    How Schmidt thought some big noise’s car (Horthy’s?) in a fishing net with intermittent intense illumination of its interior helped with my understanding of things is beyond me.

    This was an exhibition that completely disregarded foreign visitors, in my view.

    I left thoroughly confused.

    Schmidt needs to come to Exhibition Row in London to see how to make a museum come alive. Our museums are packed with tourists and are one of the most popular visits on the tourist trail.

    I saw nothing of the holocaust from my recollection – I had to leave through boredom and frustration.

    But yes Orban was prominent

    However I found the ‘cameo’ photographs of all the 1956 uprising victims – with all their different birth dates and the same dying dates – their executions – on the OUTSIDE of the building, very poignant.

    I concluded this is what put the ‘Terror’ in Terror House.

    I understand that they want to remove them? Why?

    Regards

    Charlie

  7. ES (Élet és Irodalom) published an article “Holokauszt-emlékmü Kolozsváron” (Holocaust Memorial in Cluj-Kolozsvár) by Zoltán Tibori Szabói on June 23, 2014
    The author informs us: Between October and December 1940, the Hungarian authorities expelled Jews who lived in Székely settlements. They deported them to Soviet territory, despite the fact that most of them were borne in pre-Trianon Hungary, were Romanian citizens after the First World War and became according to the Vienna decision again Hungarian citizens.

    This article shows that there are Hungarians in Romania, who are ready to look into their own past.

  8. @Charlie: the tank would be Russian, and the car a Communist secret police one.

    Orban said (upon opening the museum, for it was his pet project): “We have locked the two terrors in the same building, and they are good company for each other, as neither of them would have been able to survive long without the support of a foreign military force.”

    (i.e. what happened in Hungary during the Soviet and Nazi eras had nothing to do with the poor Hungarians, who only suffered)

  9. In a way, the House of Terror in Budapest is an apt metaphor for how modern Hungarian nationalism is being (re)defined. That Hungarians have suffered due to foreign intrusions upon its sovereignty. And that Orban Viktor is your saviour.

  10. @Charlie – rather OT:

    I fondly remember the London Science Museum and the Museum of Natural History – went there with a friend (now a zoology prof) 45 years ago – a cup of tea was 9 pence …

    PS: It’s “Exhibition Road”. And of course the British Museum etc are also worth a visit – took my wife there five years ago on her first visit to London!

  11. As Charlie has cottoned on, the deportation of the ‘surplus’ of jews in 1944 was pure opportunism: the heroic Hungarians saw a chance to get at the wealth of the jews by looting their homes and businesses. This has been covered up and ignored all this time. The shame of having sent innocent people to their certain deaths simply for loot! Who else but Hungarians did that during the II War? (Well, ok, the brother Poles, too, but they conspired rather than initiated
    the surplus numbers of deportees.) The shame of this fact weighs on Hungarians, but here’s a truism: anytime a Hungarian is accused by someone, the Hungarian turns the accusation on its head and, regardless of the truth of the accusation, feels unfairly provoked and insulted. Thereafter, the Hungarian transmutes his sin into righteous indignation.

    Hungaricum.

  12. Bowen

    I think you are right – it’s all of a piece with current events and continuing propaganda.

    Wolfi

    Yes! I do know it well – honest!

    I always take visitors there and spent many a school holiday getting there on the 49 bus on a ‘red rover’ ticket as a child.

    And 9d (pence as in LSD) then is nearly 4p today or 15ft! For a good cup of Rosy Lee (that’s tea!).

    My favourite museum these days is the Victoria and Albert museum. You must come back and visit.

    And of course the amazing Rosetta Stone and Sutton Hoo treasures at the British Museum.

    And it’s still free entry for all.

    Charlie

  13. Thank you Karl for mentioning Kolozsvar.

    We should thank to Zoltán Tibori Szabó, an associate professor at the Babeș-Bolyai University in Cluj/Kolozsvár for this article in the Hungarian Spectrum:

    https://hungarianspectrum.wordpress.com/2014/06/21/zoltan-tibori-szabo-holocaust-memorial-in-clujkolozsvar/

    We can bow our head to Anna Horváth, the Hungarian Vice Mayor of Cluj/Kolozsvár, who could be the shining example for Budapest, in showing an example how to handle painful history.

    Thank you, all Hungarians and Romanians in Kolozsvar for building a public site, in memory of people who died in the Holocaust.

  14. If the Orban government is so intent on correcting past wrongs….how about paying compensation to everyone of the 400,000 jews they sent to the camps, above the 100,000 asked for by the Germans?

  15. HUNGARIAN RESISTANCE TO ADMITTING COMPLICITY IS CONTINUED COMPLICITY

    I confess that all my life I had believed that my mother’s unrelenting rancor toward Hungary and Hungarians was “just” a symptom of post-Holocaust trauma.

    Only now do I realize that she was not exaggerating in the least: in fact, she was under-estimating the degree of self-deception, denial, distortion, dissimulation and downright lying.

    I owe the opening of my eyes to Viktor Orban. His shameless efforts to recruit and stoke (some, but enough) Hungarians’ discontent, self-pity and eternal scale-goatism in the service of his own sociopathic megalomania — so far stunningly successfully — have given me (and the world) a clear, contempory sample of what it was like then, and now.

    But we are living in the age of Internet and transparency, whether you like it or not.

    And all of Orban’s (and Schmidt’s, and little Szakaly’s) malign machinations and mendacity are being publicly monitored and documented, abundantly (and in no small part by Professor Balogh herself!).

    This open, cumulating, unsuppressable record will stand ready to unmask them and set the shameful record straight as soon as the population’s immune system recovers enough to rout this retrovirus at long last.

    And it will.

    Because generalizations about Hungarians are as false as generalizations about Germans, Russians, Jews and Roma.

  16. CharlieH
    July 13, 2014 at 3:42 am
    And Horthy only delayed the order to remove the Jews from the Yellow Houses because he was told that the British would bomb Budapest if he did.

    Would you be kind to expand on that? Here is the thing: My father and his whole family (except his brother who signed up as a Hunyadi Pancelos to get a uniform, and saved his sister, but that is another long story) were marched to the Tattersal. They kept them there for a long time, and then they released them. They heard that whale they let them go is the ultimatum of just what you had mention above. I tried to find some details on this but I was unsuccessful. Can you tell me more about this? If you want to do it in private, you can send it through Eva or Eva can provide you with my email address.
    Thank you!

  17. A bit OT:

    RTL news tonight has something on a certain Habony Árpád – a friend of Orbán?

    A really “interesting” character…

  18. Orban’s name appears just below Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon on the list of politicians showing up for the World Cup final.

  19. Check it out, Orbán is sitting directly in front of Merkel at the World Cup final right now:

  20. London Calling!

    Some1

    It is desperately sad about your relatives – and even more so when it’s someone you half know – even through a blog.

    I read it in two places the first was somewhere that the Americans warned him and warned him of the consequences if the Jews were moved. Alas I can’t remember where – but when I do I will let you know – unless others on here do so before.

    The second reference is here:

    “It is wrong to believe that, in the end, Horthy halted the deportations. Given the changes in the military situation (the success of the Normandy landings and Operation Bagration), as well as domestic and international protests, Horthy suspended the deportations on July 6, 1944. His decision may also have been influenced by the rumor that if the Jews were removed from the yellow-star houses, then British planes would carpet bomb the capital city.

    From the ‘Yellow-star houses’ project website that someone on here (apologies for not remembering who did) pointed us too. A fascinating read btw.

    It only alludes to a rumour but I believe Churchill was fully aware by then of what the Hungarians and Nazis were up to – and would have carried it out.

    (There ichannel nce that Churchill had a stockpile of anthrax (a massive stockpile in Porton Down) ready to drop on Germany at least if the Nazis crossed the channel. The contingency plans were already set up. There is an uninhabitable Scottish island contaminated with anthrax – completely uninhabitable still – from experiments with wind factors and speed drops. A revenge and action too horrendous to contemplate – and quite topical with Hungary’s experience recently. Dresden was only a starting point. Bombing of Budapest? No sweat! But I digress!)

    Perhaps more of Eva’s readers can throw more light on it – maybe there is a contact point on the Yellow Star Houses website? On a quick search I have been unable to find one.

    Regards

    Charlie

  21. And the jumbled bit above should read:

    There is evidence that Churchill had a stockpile of anthrax……

  22. @ Charlie: When Churchill learnt about what was happening with the 3/4 million Hungarian Jews in 1944, he ordered the bombing of railway lines between Hungary and Auschwitz.

    In the meantime, on 2 July, an American air-raid hit Budapest (accidentally hitting government buildings and the homes of senior Hungarian officials) instead of fuel depots. This coincided with a leaked telegram from a British diplomat who had suggested bombing said homes of Hungarian officials to try and stop the mass deportations of the Jews.

    Very soon after the US bombing, Horthy stopped the deportations from Budapest. The German Minister to Hungary (Veesenmeyer) was not happy about this, but of course couldn’t do anything without Hungarian support in the deportations.

    (Gilbert, M. 2007 ‘Churchill and the Jews’)

  23. @ CharlieH: hahaha I posted that link on March 23rd. Many people have mentioned the deportation to the Tattersall, and I also posted an other link recently to the history of the 8th District, where there are more words about it. I just never heard the “officIal” version about why did they let the Jews go from there.
    Now, I just came across with an other interesting article: http://budapest.postr.hu/elet-halal-urai-voltak-a-hazmesterek-jozsefvaros-a-veszkorszak
    ” A Tattersall (a lóversenypálya akkori neve) egy kulcsfontosságú helyszín, ahova gyakran hurcolták a környékbeli zsidó embereket. Ezekre az esetekre például sokan sokféleképpen emlékeznek. “

  24. London Calling!

    Thank you Bowen.

    And that’s what’s called a deadly embrace…in computing Some1!

    If it was your link to the Yellow-Star Houses…then thank you too…

    Regards

    Charlie

  25. @Charlie Truth to be told, I forgot about the website, and now I looked it up again. I just asked my father via Skype (4:00AM in Hungary) what was the address he lived. He gave it to me, and he found a story on it. My goodness, he knows the people!!! Now, we have to make contact with the person who wrote the story. I guess they will have a small reunion. He is completely familiar wit the story the person wrote on the website.

  26. tappanch
    July 13, 2014 at 2:59 pm
    Orban’s name appears just below Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon on the list of politicians showing up for the World Cup final.

    You better check out whose name is not there, but was present (from facebbok fideszfigyelo):

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