Literature

Mária Schmidt exploits Imre Kertész to bolster her own historical revisionism

Mária Schmidt, in an interview with Olga Kálmán on ATV yesterday, claimed that her writing an article about Imre Kertész, the Nobel Prize winning Hungarian author, at this particular time had nothing to do with the news released at the same time that Kertész will be one of the recipients of the Order of St. Stephen, currently the highest decoration the Hungarian state can bestow. It was pure coincidence. She just happened to be reading a lot of Kertész, especially two of his lesser known works, and suddenly it occurred to her that Imre Kertész has been totally neglected by left-of-center liberal intellectuals. Showing her contempt for these people, she kept calling them the “szoclib” crowd. And why do these people neglect him? Because they, who previously served the Kádár regime, cannot forgive Kertész for equating Soviet-style totalitarian dictatorship with Nazism.

Schmidt is dismayed that especially as we commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust Imre Kertész’s name is hardly mentioned when, after all, he is the most famous Hungarian Holocaust survivor. Mária Schmidt is correct that Imre Kertész does not figure large in public discourse nowadays, but I disagree with her on the reasons for this relative neglect.

First, I would like to set the record straight. Kertész, after receiving the Nobel Prize, was attacked not by the “szoclib” crowd but by the extreme right, while the more moderate right just ignored him. In his diaries Kertész does complain about some Hungarian Jews on the left who were not enthusiastic about his receiving the prize, but they were few and far between. Those who actually burned his books were the far right. Mária Schmidt says not a word about this right-wing reaction to Kertész. When Olga Kálmán asked her about this omission, the only thing she could say was that she didn’t stoop so low as to mention them. A lame excuse. I might add that one of those right wingers who doesn’t consider Kertész to be a Hungarian writer will also receive a decoration from the government tomorrow.

And now a few thoughts about the absence of Imre Kertész from the public discourse of the last few months over the events of 1944. The debate has been about history, historical truth. Imre Kertész cannot add anything to our knowledge on that score. The argument is over the role of Hungary in the drama. Kertész is not only not interested in that topic but has a most unhistorical interpretation of the Holocaust. Here are a couple of examples of his rather startling remarks about the Shoa. “I have never considered the Holocaust a German-Jewish war; rather the method of a totalitarian regime,” he said in his famous interview entitled “Ich war ein Holocaust-Clown” that appeared in Die Zeit in September 2013. What can someone who is interested in the history of the Holocaust do with such a definition?  Not much. Or “I’m not interested in literature. Literature is of secondary importance. I only wanted to find the language to describe the phenomenon of totalitarianism. My whole work is about the alienated man of the 20th century.” Again, for those interested in questions surrounding the Hungarian Holocaust these words are not exactly helpful.

Holocaust3

I think that Kertész was on the right track when he blamed his relative neglect in discussions centering on the Holocaust on his “radical thinking.” He is indeed radical when he talks about the “ambitious generation of Holocaust liars, who rely on sentimentalism, assimilative dictatorship and profit-oriented business.” About whom is Kertész talking? Or, elsewhere: “The main point here is not what happened to the Jewish people but what happened to European values.” Of course, it is very important to consider what happened to European values, but how can anyone say that what happened to the Jewish people is not the main point?

Well, Mária Schmidt can and did. In one of her earlier works she stated that “World War II is not about the Jews, not about genocide. However regrettable, the Holocaust and the destruction or rescue of the Jews was of minor importance, one could say a marginal issue, which was not among the military goals of either side.”

It’s no wonder that Schmidt found a kindred soul in Kertész when she discovered quotations that support her own revisionist history. She quotes Kertész as saying that “the Holocaust does not divide but unites us, because it increasingly shows the universal nature of the experience.” For Schmidt this sentence provides justification for the government’s decision to lump together all the victims of the German occupation. Yes, I know it’s a stretch, but I’m sure this is how her mind works. In her earlier writings on the Holocaust she wrote about the Jews’ “inherited” suffering. After all, the survivors’ children and grandchildren are no longer victims, she claims. Kertész’s views support her thesis that there is nothing special about the suffering of the Jews. After all, everybody was touched by these dictatorships and everyone who lived through them suffered.

All in all, it seems to me that Schmidt is trying to use a writer’s ahistorical views to justify her own revisionist view of history. Kertész’s main concerns are philosophical and moral. He is searching for the meaning of his experiences. I’m sure that one day there will be many studies of Kertész’s philosophical ruminations, but Kertész cannot help us when it comes to a historical evaluation of the Holocaust.

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The other side of Péter Szentmihályi Szabó: An ardent communist

There is more to Péter Szentmihályi Szabó, the presumed future Hungarian ambassador to Italy, than meets the eye. The picture is complete only if we take a look at the man’s career during the Kádár regime, which he was allegedly ready to fight, if necessary with weapon in hand.

Péter Szabó, who changed his name to Péter Szentmihályi Szabó, was born on January 8, 1945. According to an interview he gave in 2000, his father, Károly Szabó, studied to be a  lawyer but in the 40s worked as a journalist for a “right-wing paper.” “Luckily” the offices of this unnamed newspaper were bombed during the war, and all traces of his father’s association with the paper disappeared. This way “the communists couldn’t molest him,” as the son remarked. What the father did after the war is not clear except that he was “an archaeologist of language” who wrote a book on the relationship between the Hungarian and the Etruscan languages. It was posthumously published by Karpatia Press, which specializes in far-right and wacky books.

As for Péter Szabó’s early life, we have little to go on except what he revealed about himself. When you try to put the story together, however, troubling questions emerge about the truthfulness of the man. The main problem is with his contention that in 1961, while he was a student at the famous Benedictine high school in Pannonhalma, he organized a day of remembrance for the fifth anniversary of the October Revolution of 1956. Consequently, the story goes, he was not only expelled from Pannonhalma but was barred from all Hungarian high schools. He claims that after this incident he was under constant police surveillance and had to work as a manual laborer. He eventually finished high school at night. The problem with this story is that Szabó finished high school in 1963, exactly when he was supposed to. Moreover, he was immediately admitted to ELTE as a Hungarian-English major. It is hard to fathom that the regime was that lenient with someone who a couple of years earlier was barred from every high school in the country.

Szabó came up with the following explanation about his speedy entrance to university. As a third-year high school student he was the national winner of the annual high school literature competition and therefore did not have to take an entrance exam. He “just marched in,” as he said in the interview. That does not ring true either. If Szabó’s story about his expulsion is correct, he spent only two months as a student during the school year of 1961-62, and that is mighty little time to end up the winner of a national competition. And that’s not all. In the same interview he recounted his first meeting with a well-known writer, adding that he was seventeen at the time and “still a student.” The problem is that this had to be in 1962 when, according to his own recounting, he was no longer a student. So much for Péter Szabó’s veracity.

One of Szentmihályi's sciene fictions Visitor from Infinity (1989)

One of Szentmihályi’s science fiction books
Visitor from Infinity (1989)

Szentmihályi Szabó poses as an ardent enemy of communism. In the interview he said that he “as a young man could never understand how people allowed all those things that would happen to us. [He] decided that he would not allow [the communists] to do the same to him and when the time comes [he] will not shirk from taking part in an armed struggle.” He was still a small boy when he cut out the biographies and pictures of “those horrible politicians” from Szabad Nép, the official paper of the communist party during the Rákosi period, because “politics interested him terribly.”

Indeed, it must have interested him because during his university years he joined KISZ (‘Magyar Kommunista Ifjúsági Szövetség) and later even became KISZ secretary of the politically important organization Írószövetség (Writers’ Union). In the interview he quickly added that he was removed from the position because of his counterrevolutionary and clerical activities. He also wants us to believe that in 1975 on the hundredth anniversary of Endre Ady’s birth (Ady was actually born in 1877) he declared in a speech that as long as Hungary is occupied by Soviet troops one cannot really speak about Ady’s work. But again, luckily his friends managed to save his skin.

A quick glance at some of the evidence, however, shows a very different Szabó who by that time had changed his rather common name to Péter Szentmihályi Szabó. In 1969 the editorial board of Új Írás, a literary magazine, sent out a questionnaire to young writers about their attitudes toward socialist Hungary. Szentmihályi Szabó answered, “I’m so glad that I can be a Hungarian here and now in socialism. Very exciting times. An age that poses great challenges.”

Or here is something else from 1973 that came to light only a couple of years ago when the historian György Németh was researching the history of the Attila József Circle, a gathering of young writers and poets in the 1970s.  It is a letter Szentmihályi Szabó wrote to “Dear Uncle Pista”–most likely István Király, the literary historian and an expert on Endre Ady. The letter can be found in the papers of György Aczél, the man responsible for cultural policies throughout the Kádár years. But before I quote the relevant passage, I have to provide some background.

It was in 1973 that Miklós Haraszti, later one of the founders of SZDSZ, who was 28 years old at the time wrote a sociological study of his own experiences as a blue-collar worker in Ganz-Mávag and in the Vörös Csillag Traktorgyár. The manuscript of Darabbér (Piecework) was confiscated by the authorities, and Haraszti had to stand trial: he received a suspended sentence of eight months. The book was eventually translated into eleven languages, but in Hungary it could appear only in 1989. In the “Dear Uncle Pista” letter Szentmihályi Szabó assures the addressee of his devotion to communist ideals, and he is especially angry over those pseudo-leftist rebels (specifically Haraszti) who turned against the Kádár regime. He is outraged because “we know that Haraszti is an enemy of the regime, our enemy.” Oh, yes, these are the words of the great counterrevolutionary Szentmihályi Szabó who would be ready to fight the communists with weapon in hand.

A few years later he wrote a poem that was published in a volume of poetry entitled Dream of the Mind (Budapest: Szépirodalmi, 1977). Here is a rough translation.

Ungraceful Prayer to Communism

Where are you idling, Communism
my happiness, my pure love?
Our happiness, our pure love.
Horn of plenty! The table of the law!
The spiritual light!
Eat, drink, hug, sleep!
Measure yourself with the infinite!
Instead of exclamation marks
question marks falling on us,
I known it is not urgent.
Just like the apocalypse, only
to the prophets:
your unfulfillment
does not cause sorrow to many.
Where are you idling communism?
The productive forces, the relations of productions,
rattling machines,
and the conscience… subconscious
the state does not want to fade away.
Where are you idling communism?
Spring follows Spring,
my children-eyes blink old;
communism, you, promised,
strain your every muscle,
shake off the parasites.
Communism, grow, my little child.

This same man is now the greatest enemy of the “communists,” the liberals, and the Jews. Actually, he would have gladly accepted the socialist system minus the Soviets and their “henchmen.” “To this day I consider socialism more just than this money-centered capitalism without any ideology.”

I would wager to say that Szentmihályi Szabó was a happier man in the 1960s and 1970s than he is today. In fact, he says in the interview that “those who did not live then can’t really understand that period. It was a much more interesting time than today…. Writers could bargain because Hungary was much more important to the West then…. Every word uttered had weight. The West watched what we wrote…. Who is interested today in what a Hungarian writer has to say?” A disappointed man whose discontent has morphed into hatred and who finds scapegoats in communists and Jews (perhaps the two are intertwined in his mind) for his own shortcomings.