An attempt at character assassination but to what end?

On the surface, today’s topic is history or to be more precise a historical debate, the kind that normally interests only historians who are experts in a given period or subject. Debates usually take place in seminar rooms or at conferences. They are actually peer reviews. And, of course, before the publication of a book, the author as well as the publisher will ask people who are familiar with the topic to read the manuscript and critique it. Even book reviews that appear in scientific journals are read only by the initiated few.

In Hungary, however, these so-called scientific debates often end up in the popular press because some professional historians are also public figures who appear on TV or write in newspapers. For example, a highly public debate took place in 2012 when András Gerő accused his fellow historian, the respected Ignác Romsics, of anti-Semitic discourse. The “debate,” in which more than two dozen people participated, lasted over six months.

That debate was on balance a civilized discussion, but what I’m writing about today is more like “character assassination.” At least, that’s what the normally pro-government Válasz called it. And that’s something, considering that the target of the character assassination is Krisztián Ungváry, who called Mária Schmidt, adviser to Viktor Orbán on matters of history, the “keretlegény” of the Hungarian historical profession. “Keretlegény” was an armed soldier who guarded and supervised Jews called up to serve in the labor battalions during World War II.

short piece by Ungváry, “The Living Horror” (Az élő borzalom), appeared on this blog.  It was about the memorial the Hungarian government insisted on erecting despite very strong opposition by historians, the Jewish community, and all those who would like Hungarians to face historical facts instead of hiding behind a falsified history of the Hungarian Holocaust.

Ungváry made a name for himself with a book which has since been translated into both English and German, The Siege of Budapest. In 2013 he came out with another large work, A Horthy-rendszer mérlege: Diszkrimináció, szociálpolitika és antiszemitizmus (The balance sheet of the Horthy regime: Discrimination, social policy and anti-Semitism in Hungary).  The book received the Academy Prize and is now under consideration for Ungváry’s award of an academic doctorate, which in Hungary is considered to be higher than a Ph.D.

The man who decided to attack Krisztián Ungváry is Dániel Bolgár, a young teaching assistant who hasn’t yet finished his Ph.D. dissertation. He has been described as “a talented man with a bright future,” but the general consensus is that this time he went too far for his own good. One thing is sure: it takes guts for a TA to take on an established, respected scholar.

What makes the story especially interesting is that Bolgár’s TA job is in András Gerő’s department at ELTE. Gerő a few years ago established a Habsburg Institute which is heavily subsidized by the government through the XXI Century Institute, headed by the aforementioned Mária Schmidt. In general, Gerő tries to court right-wing historians favored by the government. For example, Sándor Szakály, who was named director of the newly established Veritas Historical Institute, is on the board of Gerő’s Habsburg Institute. Gerő is deeply indebted to Schmidt and comes to her defense every time she is criticized. And she has a lot of critics: practically all Hungarian Holocaust scholars.

People suspect that the present debate is not so much about Ungváry’s book, which I think is an important contribution to the topic of anti-Semitism between the two world wars, but about the irreconcilable differences between the historical views of the right and the left when it comes to the evaluation of the Horthy regime. The clever twist in this game is that the accusations against Ungváry come in the guise of anti-Semitism, of which he is certainly not guilty.

These professional historical debates are far too esoteric for outsiders to judge. For example, Bolgár’s initial criticism, which he first published in Magyar Narancs, concentrated on statistical data from the 1930s about the economic status of Hungarian Jewry. At this time he did not accuse Ungváry of plagiarism, I suspect because otherwise Magyar Narancs wouldn’t have published his article. The title, however, was telling: “Tale about Jewish prosperity.” Ungváry, following virtually every Hungarian historian who has ever dealt with the topic, shows through statistical analyses and indirect evidence that the Jewish population was better off than Hungary’s non-Jewish inhabitants. There are many well-founded reasons for that claim: Hungarian Jews were better educated than the average, a great number of them belonged to the middle or the professional classes, and their representation in the peasantry was minuscule. (Almost 60% of the total population belonged to that economic group.) There is nothing revolutionary about the thesis. It’s practically self-evident, but Ungváry devotes about 80 pages to proving his point by approaching the question from different angles.

Bolgár accuses Ungváry of using the statistics of anti-Semitic authors, like Alajos Kovács who was at the time the head of the Central Statistical Office. Bolgár concludes that there are no reliable statistics whatsoever on this question, and he in fact suspects that the Jewish population on the whole was poorer than non-Jews which is, of course, total nonsense. Ungváry answered, a rebuttal that couldn’t be left unanswered by Bolgár, and then Ungváry wrote a final piece entitled “Insinuation.” In order to understand the argument of both sides a little better, I recommend reading these articles.

Dániel Bolgár and Krisztián Ungváry during the "debate"

Dániel Bolgár and Krisztián Ungváry during the “debate”

But this was only a warm-up for Dániel Bolgár. Ungváry decided to invite Bolgár for a discussion, which took place a few days ago and which is available on the Internet. Bolgár delivered a speech that lasted two hours, in which he accused Ungváry of outright plagiarism. He compared him unfavorably to a “village elementary school teacher who writes the history of his village.” According to Válasz, it was clear from the very first minute that Bolgár not only wanted to criticize Ungváry but to “totally destroy him.” The reporter simply didn’t understand why Ungváry didn’t get up and leave. Instead, he sat next to Bolgár, quietly taking occasional notes.

I admired Ungváry’s behavior. I certainly couldn’t have withstood such an attack without raising my voice. It’s a long haul, but if you have some time, please watch this video.

The other official participant in the discussion was Viktor Karády, the well-known expert on the social history of Hungarian Jewry in the Horthy-period who lives in France. Unfortuntely, he is also the quiet type. Occasionally he was cut off before he could finish his sentence. Bolgár must have invited some people who had problems with Ungváry’s book, who also shouted Karády and Ungváry down for another half an hour if not longer. One of them announced that the book “is about nothing.” I suspect that the man is an apologist for the Horthy regime and finds Ungváry’s thesis unacceptable. What is the thesis? That behind the anti-Jewish government measures was the desire for a distribution of wealth from Jewish to non-Jewish hands. The book is about “intellectual antecedents of depredation of the Jewry.” It seems that a lot of people find this thesis unacceptable.

Ungváry may have remained quiet during the debate, but he struck back in print. He wrote a piece for the conservative Mandiner from which we learn that Bolgár tried to publish his findings in a serious historical journal but the quality of his work was found wanting.

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74 comments

  1. @Bumi – If I know my Norwegians, they will never give in. (Not that it’s relevant to the present, but just look at their WWII history!).
    Bertelsmann, which owns RTL, can possibly be bought off – if their ratings don’t fall too much as a result. They’re in it for the money, only. They couldn’t care less about democracy in Hungary.

  2. Rather OT but worth mentioning – the story of a blind (!) German with a small company for brush making and broom binding in Berlin who saved some Jews in WW2 :
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Otto_Weidt
    ” Up to 30 blind and deaf Jews were employed at his shop between the years of 1941 and 1943.[1] When the Gestapo began to arrest and deport his Jewish employees, he fought to secure their safety by falsifying documents, bribing officers and hiding them in the back of his shop.”
    If only there had been more people like him in Germany and elsewhere (including Hungary …)!
    A documentary about him is to be shown again on German tv.

  3. RTL would just be selling off a media project that is rapidly being surpassed by internet technology. Broadcast TV and radio along with cable are fading fast and if Orban wants to spend good money to secure these outlets then I suspect RTL will eventually dump their Hungarian holdings.

    Growth for the music industry internationally will come from expanding the overall online radio audience and ad pie at the expense of broadcast radio. By 2015, 170 million people will listen to Internet radio, up 10 million listeners from 2014. Online TV advertisement income is growing steadily and RTL is fully aware of this trend.

    Even China has not been able to fully wall off that nation from the internet, clearly Orban and Fidesz will not be able to do so. RTL would be smart to dump its broadcast and cable operations in Hungary for good money, because they could over the next 10 years be worth much less.

  4. A Blog Absconded: Have you, Eva, given this blog over to these two creatures–Webber & Gabor. (Are they a team like ‘Wayne & Shuster’?)

    What a lot of hogwash!

    The only thing that the attack of Bolgar shows is that in Orbanistan, Merit no longer counts for
    anything, having been replaced by fawning, mealy-mouthed, attacks that seek favor with the
    siloviki.

    Modern Hungarians…disgusting to the nth degree.

  5. @Webber

    Well, we’ll see. I’m not optimistic.The tricks vary, fideszniks are resourceful and creative. In this case, the pressure will come from the Hungarian recipients, they will complain that they can’t even buy milk or purchase their parents’ prescriptions or whatever. It’s much harder to be tough with them, who were supposedly your friends until now. Then the Norwegians will realize that that people in the Hungarian NGO sector are like any Hungarians with entitlements and they are not puritan revolutionaries. It’s just that the NGO sector offered good enough jobs for them. Fidesz always finds a way to apply pressure and I have no doubt this will happen again.

    As to RTL, they are in it for the money, that’s for sure. Having said that, what they are doing now, in essence concluding a deal with the government to abolish a tax (in other words to gain financially) in exchange for something that is the media company’s statutory duty (under Hungarian law at least, balanced media services) is corruption pure and simple.

    It is also a prime example how Western companies treat fundamental rights in an effective dictatorship (freedom of speech, right to a non-partizan information etc.): as products to be sold and bought, in a deal with a dictatorial and corrupt government.

    Orban also shows to the liberals: “look at these hypocritical Westerners who preach democracy, criticize Hungary all the time but who abandon their haughty principles when they get under the slightest pressure or for a little money. Am I not right exploiting these disgusting liars?”

    It also shows how utterly naive these Westerners are (at least I’m not surprised): why would RTL believe in Fidesz’ word if Fidesz already breached a previous deal? And breached it with Tesco et al. Because this how Westerners operate, they are just unable to assume that the other party will lie again (like Putin or Orban did so many times). There’s no amount of bad experience which will teach Westerners never to believe corrupt autocrats.

    Won’t liberal Hungarians think that the Western companies deserve the extra taxes if for nothing else, than for their reprehensible and enthusiastic complicity in maintaining this autocracy (like Deutsche Telekom which created a disgustingly fidesz-loyal media out of origo.hu also in exchange for favorable treatment)?

  6. Re RTL and Deutsche Telekom:

    Afaik German tax law even allows money/bribes paid as business expenses – but only in foreign countries …
    That’s Capitalism working – business as usual, I’m sorry to say.

    Now for something OT, but important:

    The blizzard that was supposed to Hit New York City is moving into New England – I just hope that our dear hostess is not targeted (again)! I remember that Éva was cut off from power and communication last winter – or was it two years ago?

  7. Re: the wealth and poverty of the Hungarian Jews before the Holocaust

    The contemporary estimates spoke about 20-25% of the wealth of Hungary being “in Jewish hands”. But I suspect if we subtract the wealth of the extended Weisz-Chorin family from this, the percentage would be much lower.

    Let me quote from my own contribution somewhere else.
    1.
    In 1920, 40.5% of the 2739 factories were owned by Jewish people. Among the owners of land of more than 1000 hold, i.e. 570 hectares, 19.6% were Jewish.

    2.
    The higher average wealth hides the sharp class division inside the Hungarian Jewish population too.

    According to a calculation (from 1978), 34.4% of the Jewish population belonged to the working class in 1910, 59.3% belonged to the self-employed or salary-earning middle class, and only 3.1% to the ruling class (defined as “large employer” and “agricultural landowner of more than 100 hold, i.e. 57 hectares)

    3.
    I got the data from the 1929 Magyar Zsidó Lexikon. In 1926, there were about 51,000 Jewish and 159,000 Christian families in Budapest (by religion and not by “race”).

    % of families living in ; Christian; Jewish

    0 or 1 room apartments: 63.3%; 25.4%
    2 room apartments: 22.1%; 39.6%
    3 room apartments: 8.4%; 21.2%
    4 room apartments: 3.8%; 9.2%
    5 or more: 2.4%; 4.6%

    So poverty was prevalent in both the Christian and the Jewish population of Budapest, but the typical Jewish family lived in 2 bedroom, while the typical Christan family lived in 1 bedroom apartments.

  8. @ LwiiH

    While the rest of Europe is talking about the 70th anniversary of liberating Auschwitz, the official Hungarian government website (the English version only) has Orban making a speech about the 100th anniversary of a battle in what used to be Hungary’s border in modern-day Ukraine.

    Yes, there’s a tip of the hat to the Holocaust in Hungary, but this seems to be more of an attempt to say something pro-ethnic minority, and anti-Russian imperialism (with a bit of Trianon angst thrown in for the Fidesz faithful).

    ‘ “We regard the [Jewish] soldiers who fought against superior Russian numbers to protect Hungary as heroes”, the Prime Minister underlined in his address to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the liberation of the Uzhok Pass.’

  9. Totally believable, the wealth and poverty statistics are similar for all ethnic groups in Budapest where most of the wealth could be found.

    The origin of the wealth came probably from the stock trading bankers of Budapest.

    There was a sizable Jewish population in Budapest which lived in poverty. All those Holocaust pictures show very many poor looking Jews.

  10. eva – “Bolgár might be the greatest Hungarian historian ever but I strenuously object to his way of conducting historical debates. I have never, never in my life heard American-Canadian historians talking to each other or about each other this way. The “bunkó stílus” not surprisingly has been spilling over to academe.”

    I’ve never understood, why some people have a need to humiliate others to get their message across? Why can’t they argue their case in a civilised manner, respecting opposing views?

  11. Lest anyone thinks that Orban has finally decided to address the Holocaust properly …

    At Auschwitz today, appeared the premiers of Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, France, Lithuania, Ukraine, Belgium, and many others. In the UK, a service was held in London with the prime minister and opposition leaders, and senior royalty in attendance, making speeches.

    Absent are Putin, Obama. From Hungary, the Human Resources Minister (darkly apt title) Balog was sent instead, and yet, one-third of the people who died at Auschwitz were deported from Hungary.

    I guess Orban found the funeral of the Saudi King, and the 100th anniversary of a battle in the Ukraine was enough for his schedule. President Ader must have been busy, too.

  12. Bowen: “Absent are Putin, Obama. ”

    Obama is in Saudi Arabia presenting his condolences to the Royal Family, I guess this is more important than being in Auschwitz. As something else was more important than participating at the demonstration following the Charlie Hebdo terrorist murder attack.

  13. @Bowen, LwiiH

    The full transcript of Orbán’s speech is on the Magyar version of the gov’t website. I posted a comment about it yesterday at the top of this thread.

    And it’s of little consolation that Komorowski’s address today was, to say the least, mediocre.

  14. @Wolfi, thank you for the concern. Luckily the storm around here was much less threatening than it was predicted. What is most important that we did not lose power because that is truly terrible: no heat, no water, no toilets, and of course, no Internet. I was greatly relieved when I woke up and realized that the snowfall was moderate. Some people north of us are much worse off. I understand that on the Island of Nantucket there is no electricity and they cannot use even their cell phones.

  15. Hungarian madness.
    All people should refrain from jealousy attack. No attacks on the rich ones.
    Only the qualified people of the administration must deal with the welfare and equal opportunity question.
    The administration should refrain from Orban style favoritism.
    Let us hope that one day there will be no more nasty pogroms.

  16. András Gerő asked me to post his letter to me on Hungarian Spectrum. Here it is:

    Dear Éva S. Balogh,

    “Hungarian Spectrum” is your blog. Your entry entitled “An attempt at character assassination but to what end?” was posted there. I do not wish to address the whole post in this letter. I will only discuss those parts of it in my answer that are related to me.

    You write: it is especially interesting that Dániel Bolgár is working for my department. I don’t have any ideas why this is especially interesting for you: whoever is not retired or unemployed is working for some institution or company. I don’t know about the kind of work experience that you have had, but university people in leadership positions, at least if they specialize in the humanities, do not usually interfere with the content of their colleagues’ publications. I can assure you that we certainly do not do so at our institution.

    You also write that the Habsburg Institute is heavily subsidized by the government. The Institute of Habsburg History (for this is its official name) ceased to exist as a single organizational entity in 2010, and it was brought under the leadership of the Public Foundation for the Research of Central and East European History and Society by the government that came to power at that time. That is to say, the Institute of Habsburg History has no separate budget; consequently it cannot receive a big government subsidy.

    Now, you write that I try to court right-wing historians favored by the government. In an attempt to prove your point, you mention that Sándor Szakály is still a member of the board of the Institute of Habsburg History (I repeat that it is not called Habsburg Institute). As already mentioned above, that board ceased to exist in 2010. Mr. Szakály had been a board member until that year despite the fact that the government in charge had not been right-wing. Thus, it follows that you formulate a statement with a present reference about something that has not existed for 5 years already. In other words, you make statements without keeping yourself sufficiently informed. As for what you write on my trying to court right-wing historians favored by the government, let me draw your attention to my criticism on Mr. Szakály included in an interview that I gave to Klubrádió on January 21, 2014. The transcript of that interview was published by the internet portal galamus.hu entitled “A kurzusértelmiségi nettó korlátoltsága” [The clear-cut narrow-mindedness of the government-supported intellectual].

    The interview is available at:
    http://galamus.hu/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=352389:gero-andras-a-szakaly-ugyrol-a-kurzusertelmisegi-352389&catid=79:szemle&Itemid=164

    Furthermore, you contend that I come to Mária Schmidt’s defense every time she is critized. I would like to ask you to make a list of the attacks against Mária Schmidt and actually prove that I have come to her defense every time. Please spare the effort and do not carry out this unnecessary task. Instead, please acknowledge that you are not right in what you are saying here, either.

    In sum, you are making untrue statements related to me. The common feature of these statements is that you would like to place me in a false light. The freedom of the press entails the freedom of opinion also concerning a blog rather than the right to produce false statements and conspiracy theories.

    Incidentally, I am honored to have encountered your malevolence!

    Please do not consider this response to be a private letter. I would like to ask you to post it on your blog along with your own post as a means of rectification.

    Kind regards,
    András Gerő

    Budapest, January 29, 2015

  17. Thank you for posting that, Éva. It’s good that Gerő weighed in. I’m only sorry he did not give us his opinion on the content of Bolgár’s critique of Ungváry.

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