Viktor Orbán and the Jewish war heroes of World War I

Yesterday Viktor Orbán delivered a speech in the Jewish cemetery on Kozma utca where there is a separate section for the graves of soldiers who served in World War I. This speech was hailed by the reporter for AFP as a breakthrough because it was Orbán’s “first acknowledgment of his country’s complicity in the Holocaust.” Alas, when I got to the original text it turned out that Orbán said nothing of the sort. He simply repeated the same old mantra: there were many Hungarians who “chose evil instead of virtue, the shameful instead of the honorable.” What this regime refuses to acknowledge is that it was the Hungarian government, not just individuals, that was complicit in the Hungarian Holocaust.

Otherwise, his speech was, as István Gusztos, a frequent contributor to liberal internet sites, labeled it, “hadova,” a word of Gypsy origin meaning “empty talk.” What Gusztos particularly objected to was Orbán’s glorification of war heroes as if the Austro-Hungarian participation in World War I had anything to do with the defense of the homeland. Orbán also made the unsubstantiated claim that without the Jewish soldiers the defense of the country couldn’t have been achieved. For starters, we have no statistics whatsoever on the percentage of Jewish-Hungarian soldiers in the army. We do know, however, that Archduke Joseph regarded the Jewish soldiers as “just as good patriots and soldiers as anyone else.” (János Gyurgyák, A zsidókérdés Magyarországon [p. 95]).

As for the glorification of heroes, Gusztos has a point. Orbán spent some time complaining about history books that “even after the change of regime talk about battles that had no heroes, only victims.” Instead, in his speech he concentrated on a series of battles that eventually managed to repel the Russian army at the Uzsok/Uzhok mountain pass in the last couple of months of 1914. Yes, the Russians were eventually pushed back, but at a large cost in lives on both sides. By concentrating on this particular episode Orbán advanced his thesis that World War I was a defensive war. In fact, he envisioned a scenario in which, if the Russians had not been stopped at Uzsok, they would have marched straight to Budapest. Given the slow pace of military movements in World War I, that outcome was unlikely, but it sounds good in a political speech.

Source: 444.hu

Source: 444.hu

How did Orbán manage to transition to the Jewish theme? After all, the occasion was the refurbishing of the military section of the Kozma utca cemetery. As usual, he handled the task well. The hero of the day was Baron Samu Hazai, the minister of defense at the time of the Russian-Hungarian encounter at Uzsok. Hazai was born Samuel Kohn, but after he decided on a military career he converted and changed his name. He was a great favorite of Prime Minister István Tisza, who often gathered influential men of Jewish extraction to advise him. He even offered positions in his cabinet to Jews. His first appointment was Samu Hazai. Two years later he picked János Teleszky as minister of finance. The third Jewish member of his cabinet was János Harkányi, minister of trade. They all served for the duration of Tisza’s seven years in office.

So, Hazai was the minister of defense, but what did he have to do with the battle at Uzhok? “Our outstanding minister of defense, Baron Samu Hazai, almost from nothing managed to put together a force of 70,000 men and in a moment of great inspiration decided to send Sándor Szurmay to head the new army group.”

Well, there is another version of the story. Sándor Szurmay held the rank of lieutenant-general and since 1907 had worked in the ministry of defense. When the war broke out he wanted to join the fighting forces, but Hazai found him indispensable and, instead of letting him go to the front, made him undersecretary of defense. The patriotic Szurmay was not happy with the arrangement and eventually asked the supreme command to put pressure on Hazai, who eventually relented. Orbán was mistaken:  Szurmay was not named to head a new force but arrived at Uzhok to take charge of the troops that were already fighting there. Szurmay quickly discovered that the military situation was desperate and that without extra men the Russians couldn’t be repulsed. At his request, Hazai and Tisza “moved heaven and earth” to send the extra 70,000 men to the battle site.

Orbán didn’t get the story quite straight, but at least Samu Hazai’s name resurfaced. After all, he was the first cabinet member of Jewish origin in Hungarian history. Moreover, during his tenure he put considerable effort into the modernization of the army and was responsible for legislation introducing a more enlightened military court system. In addition, he wrote several books on military topics and translated Carl von Clausewitz’s book On War. A fairly long English-language biography of Hazai is available online.

Two more thoughts on this speech. One sentence in particular caught my eye: “The road that led from the heroic Hungarian Jews’ comradeship to the concentration camps is incomprehensible.” I guess if it’s incomprehensible, the fate of Hungarian Jews from 1919 to 1944 doesn’t have to be, in fact can’t be explained. He said merely: “Walking around these graves it is incomprehensible that there was a political system in Hungary after World War II that wanted to eradicate even the memory of the soldiers buried here.” What a leap, and how telling.

The other interesting passage dealt with peace in our time. European countries worked hard to create peace after “the wars of nation states.” And “we must never forget that we must defend this peace every day so we wouldn’t become like the ‘sleepwalkers’ of Europe in 1914.” This passage can be interpreted in two different ways, I think. One interpretation is that Orbán here hails the European Union as the replacement for the warring nation states. This might be a friendly gesture toward Brussels. On the other hand, one might think of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, in which case Orbán is urging some kind of understanding with Russia at the expense of Ukraine. I don’t know which interpretation, if either, is applicable. Orbán’s double talk is difficult to decipher. 

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51 comments

  1. Seal Driver: Eva and Marcel De – Try to listen to the speech with Orbanite ears. What the average Fidesznik hears is “we were evil and we admit it.”
    As someone who is well-versed in right-wing dinner-table discourse, I can assure you that this is going to spark a certain degree of angst. Orban knows it. He was taking a risk with his speech. Something was pushing him to do it.

    I do agree; I would even guess the part you’re pointing at didn’t particularly please many Left-leaning citizens either (especially among those who don’t show up on election day).

    However, this doesn’t prevent the ideology from being consistent. And popular. For as long as Fidesz promotes the imperial model of a paternalistic, minority-protective State – run by Magyars with ‘Christian values’ of course – these are concessions those same people can live with.

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