Mária Schmidt

Mária Schmidt: Another person who chose the wrong profession

Ever since June 26, when Mária Schmidt, director of the House of Terror and a close associate of Viktor Orbán, wrote an article that one of her critics called “fulminating,” a tsunami of articles, blog notes and comments has appeared in the Hungarian media. I wrote about the article in detail on June 29, and many other pieces followed in Hungary. I am happy to announce that the English translation of this controversial article is now available.

Let me sample a few of the reactions by bloggers: “We have always suspected that she is vicious and stupid, but now for some strange reason she decided to let the whole world know it.” Or, “On five long pages she is raving, sometimes with unbridled fury and hatred” which can be described in one simple obscene sentence in a comment on the Internet. Or, I saw a note by Balázs Láng, an actor, on Facebook. In it, he compares Mária Schmidt to Clara Zachanassaian in Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s play The Visit (Der Besuch der alten Dame). Mária Schmidt, whose businessman husband died young, is a very wealthy woman. Láng continues: “Reading Schmidt’s lines, the heroine of Dürrenmatt is mercy, love, and humanity itself in comparison. The article of the Hungarian heiress is ‘In the captivity of the past’ and she leaves no doubt that in that jail she is the screw.”

Then there are others that must hurt more because they come from fellow academics. The first serious criticism came from György C. Kálmán, a literary historian, who wrote an article not really about the infamous piece by Schmidt but about a television interview that followed its appearance. As you will see, Schmidt has been very busy in the last couple of weeks trying to defend the views she expressed in her article. She has been singularly unsuccessful. Kálmán in this article can hardly find words to describe his reactions to this interview because “everything that leaves that lady’s mouth is illogical, confusing, primitive, discontinuous, and obscure even within her own parameters.” The delivery is “emotional, overstrung, full of indignation, resentment, and saccharine.” And finally, the greatest blow that anyone can deliver, Kálmán gingerly suggests that Mária Schmidt’s “intellectual powers” are wanting. That perhaps she does not understand, or at least doesn’t understand fully, what she is talking about.

Even more upsetting for Mária Schmidt must have been an article by Mária M. Kovács, a fellow historian who is currently professor and director of the Nationalism Studies Program at the Central European University in Budapest. Readers of Hungarian Spectrum should be familiar with her name because we talked about a recent book of hers on the infamous numerus clausus of 1920 that restricted the enrollment of Jewish students at institutions of higher education. Her article in Népszabadság is entitled simply “Schmidt.” It is a very hard-hitting piece of writing; I strongly suggest that anyone with some knowledge of Hungarian read it in the original. Here I can only summarize her most important points.

Mária M. Kovács calls Schmidt’s writing in Válasz a provocation and a declaration  of war. In her opinion, the author of that article crossed a line. One area in which she overstepped the limit of acceptable discourse  is her handling of the Holocaust. In her article Schmidt talks about the Holocaust as “one of the preferred topics of the empire,” meaning the United States, the European Union and Germany, and says that the empire “demands a minimum” that “must be fulfilled.” The Hungarian left-liberals wholeheartedly serve the interests of this empire to the exclusion of the interests of their own country. In fact, they not only fulfill the West’s demands, they overachieve in their servility. And since the Holocaust is one of the favored topics, the attitude of the Hungarian liberals and socialists toward the Holocaust is also overdrawn. The other area where Schmidt crossed the line is her calling anyone who is against the erection of the memorial to the German occupation of Hungary in 1944 a traitor who acts against the nation’s interests.

Mária Schmidt and Mária M. Kovács were both guests on György Bolgár’s program on KlubRádió. Kovács’s conversation with Bolgár took place on July 9 from 25:36 in the first part of the program. On the following day, one can hear Schmidt’s less than cogent discussion from 23:23, again in the first part of the program.

Since then Mária Schmidt had an interview with Ildikó Csuhaj of Népszabadság with the telling title: “And my sensitivity doesn’t matter?” It is clear from the interview that she feels threatened by other historians’ criticism of her position on Hungary’s role in the Hungarian Holocaust. Instead of trying to come up with facts that would bolster her views, she lashes out against such highly respected historians as László Karsai and Krisztián Ungváry. When the journalist pointed out that these two historians did not say, as Schmidt claims, that the Hungarians were more guilty than the Germans, this was her answer: “Questioning the loss of sovereignty covers politically motivated malice, or at least ignorance, low professional standards.” She is the good historian while the others are inferior, ignorant, and full of malice.

During the interview, the journalist concentrated mostly on questions concerning Hungarian-German relations during 1944 and before. When she mentioned Randolph Braham’s name in connection with Hungary’s status as an ally of Germany, Schmidt lost her temper: “Let’s leave all that talk about ‘allies.’ In the case of Sándor Szakály the problem was that he used the contemporary designation … What kind of thinking is exhibited when someone talks about a real alliance when the elephant allies himself with the mouse?” When the journalist retorted by saying that “formally” Germany and Hungary were allies, the answer was: “Please, formally we can also speak of a police action against aliens.” Dangerous to use contemporary designations in one case but not the other. I guess that means that Germany and Hungary were not really allies.

Mária Schmidt being interviewed by Ildikó Csuhaj Source: Népszabadság

Mária Schmidt being interviewed by Ildikó Csuhaj
Source: Népszabadság

During the conversation the topic of nation and its detractors came up and the journalist remarked that calling people enemies of their own nation is a very serious accusation. Well, it seems that even Schmidt realized that she went too far here and claimed in this interview that what she actually wanted to say was that these people were “enemies of the nation-state.” However, the reporter kept talking about Schmidt’s original wording: “people who are enemies their own nation.” At this point Schmidt became annoyed: “Why are you talking about anti-nation sentiments? I was talking about antagonism toward the idea of the nation-state. Let’s fix this before anyone puts words in my mouth.” Unfortunately for Schmidt, nobody put these words in her mouth; she uttered them herself.

At the end the reporter brought up the fact that the Yad Vashem Institute no longer supports Mária Schmidt’s project, the House of Fates. Moreover, one of the associates of the Institute apparently said at one point that “it is time to get rid of this institute and this woman.” Schmidt assured her interlocutor that this woman no longer works at Yad Vashem. As if her alleged departure had anything to do with her less than polite words about Mária Schmidt. As for her next project, the House of Fates, she is still trying to convince people to work with her. A few more interviews like the ones she has been giving and I can assure her that no one will be willing to do anything with her that is connected to the Hungarian Holocaust.

Mária Schmidt’s revisionist history of World War II and the Holocaust. Part II

In order to demonstrate Mária Schmidt’s revisionism when it comes to Hungary’s role in the war, the re-evaluation of the Horthy regime, and the twentieth-century history of the Hungarian Jewish community, I have chosen two articles, both from a collection of essays entitled Diktatúrák ördögszekerén. The first, covered yesterday, dealt with World War II and, to Schmidt’s mind, the inappropriate punishment of Germany and the Axis Powers. The second article, “Place of the Holocaust in the Modern History of the Hungarian Jewry (1945-1956)” is the subject of today’s post. In it Schmidt is allegedly seeking an answer to the question of whether the Holocaust altered and, if yes, to what extent, the relations between Jews and non-Jews. The answer? Well, that is not clear from the twenty-three pages that follow. There are places where she categorically states that the peaceful coexistence between Jews and non-Jews came to an abrupt end. Although in the 1920s there were signs  of reconciliation, the good old days could never be restored. On the other hand, she sometimes indicates that the ties between the two groups were always strong, even after 1928, especially in comparison to the situation in the neighboring countries.

The article on the Holocaust and its effect on Hungarian-Jewish relations actually covers a great deal more than the title would indicate. Almost half of the article covers the 1919-1944 period. Her thesis is that “the Hungarian liberal nobility and the leaders of Hungarian Jewry signed a pact in the middle of the nineteenth century.” What did this so-called “pact” entail? An understanding that the Hungarian nobility would provide Hungary’s political leadership and that the Jewish leaders would stay away from politics and busy themselves in the economic sphere and the professions. Continuing this line of reasoning, she argues that because Hungarian Jews became leaders of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, after 1919 the Hungarian political elite, the liberal nobility in Schmidt’s words, “considered the agreement null and void.”

I guess I don’t have to dwell much on the improbability of such an arrangement, formal or informal. Schmidt, however, takes this “unwritten rule” for granted and therefore maintains that the non-Jewish political elite after World War I was fully justified in changing their attitude toward the country’s Jewish citizens. The members of the political elite “believed that the representatives of Hungarian Jewry in 1918 and 1919 not only demanded a share of political power but made an attempt at their total annihilation.” Schmidt provides no supporting evidence for this stark claim.

From the above one would think that Jewish/non-Jewish relations had suffered such a blow that reconciliation between the groups was out of the question. A few lines later, however, we read about “the second flowering  of Hungarian Jewry” between 1928 and 1938. On the one hand, she talks about the partnership between the political elite and the Jewish community while, on the other, she mentions “the subordinate position of the Jews.” As if she couldn’t decide, or did not want to decide about the precise nature of that relationship. The Horthy regime “was not friendly to the Jews but until 1938 its representatives were not antagonistic either.” This is how Schmidt skirts the issue throughout the article. As an apologist for the Horthy regime she has every reason not to be forthright. The fact is that both the political leaders and a large segment of Hungarian society were imbued with anti-Semitism during the period under investigation.

After this unsatisfactory “analysis” of the interwar years we get to a very important date: “On March 19, 1944 Hungary’s sovereignty ceased to exist.” Schmidt wrote this article in 1998, but in 2011 it found its way into the preamble of the new constitution. In her description of this period almost every sentence sounds familiar: “The country that was directed by Nazi puppets no longer defended its Jewish citizens.” The Nazi puppets in Viktor Orbán’s latest formulation are “Nazi collaborators.” The portion of the sentence that talks about the country’s inability to defend its Jewish citizens is echoed in one of János Áder’s recent speeches on the Holocaust. Not a word about the personnel of the governments formed after March that was practically identical to the composition of earlier cabinets. On the contrary, she gives the impression that the political elite of the interwar period actively tried to save Hungary’s Jewish citizens. She claims that “in the last minute some members of the traditional elite managed to call up 40,000 Jewish men for labor service and thus saved them from deportation.”

Finally, we arrive at the 1945-1956 period which is in many ways the most fascinating part of this essay. I should mention that Mária Schmidt is also the foremost ideologue of the fierce anti-communism of the Orbán regime. This anti-communism is of relatively new vintage and has managed to give a less than accurate picture of the 1945-1989 period. I also assume that Schmidt’s influence on Viktor Orbán and his colleagues is considerable when it comes to the undifferentiated treatment of the period because she does the same in her own writings.

The article under consideration is especially interesting because in it Schmidt’s two interests intersect: the history of Hungarian Jewry and communist crimes. Early in the article she spends some time on the Hungarian Jews’ heavy involvement with the workers’ movement and with liberal politics. Their interest in left-wing politics only strengthened after the war until practically all the political leaders, legal or illegal, of leftist parties were Jewish. She quotes Robert Michels (1959) as the foremost authority on the history of the European working class movement, who claims that “in Hungary the parties of the working class were entirely in Jewish hands.” At this point Schmidt parenthetically notes: “Let us add to this that in Hungary’s case this statement with more or less modifications was true until 1956.” This sentence encapsulates her assessment of the Jewish presence in politics between 1945 and 1956. They were the ones who were mostly responsible for the Stalinist dictatorship of the Rákosi period.

The judges and the prosecutors of the people’s courts that passed some 400 death sentences were almost exclusively Jewish. The leadership of the Hungarian Communist Party was heavily Jewish (Mátyás Rákosi, Mihály Farkas, Ernő Gerő, and József Révai), and Schmidt is not moved by the argument that they were first and foremost committed to communism and did not consider themselves Jewish. Anti-Semitism arose because the people who were in positions of political power all came from what she calls and puts into quotation marks “the persecuted.” And she continues thus: “After twenty-five years of frightening  of the right-wing press, a Jewish-communist world conspiracy seemed to materialize.”

After the old non-communist elite was removed and accused of war crimes, “the comrades of Jewish origin managed to get themselves into important positions in the new democracy.” Prior to 1945 Hungarian Jews had a double identity: they were Hungarians and they were Jews. But socialism offered something that replaced both. “Instead of Hungarian, internationalism and instead of Jewish, comrade.” Or a little later: “When the old political elite lost its positions in many cases their places were taken by Jewish comrades.” They received important, well paid jobs, uniforms, ranks, fabulous careers.” I don’t know what you call this, but I call it anti-Semitic discourse.

Victims of Communism Memorial, Washington, DC / commons.wikimedia.org

Victims of Communism Memorial, Washington, D.C. commons.wikimedia.org

And let me add a footnote to all this. A few weeks ago Viktor Orbán announced that Hungary is ready to contribute one million dollars for the establishment of a museum in Washington, D.C. dedicated to the victims of communism. In 1994 the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation was established. Originally, the founders planned to raise $100 million for a museum and memorial, but by 1999 only $500,000 had been raised. Viktor Orbán is trying to resuscitate this abortive plan. But $1 million is peanuts for such an undertaking, and therefore he is trying to convince other countries in Eastern Europe to contribute to the fund. In Schmidt’s and Orbán’s worldview, if there is a museum for the victims of Nazi Germany it is only appropriate to have one for the victims of communism.

I don’t know whether the supporters of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation know much about Viktor Orbán’s cozy relationship with former KGB agent Vladimir Putin and his recent friendship with the president of Kazakhstan, who is a leftover from communist times and who today is a bloody dictator. I also wonder how much these people know about the background of a fair number of Fidesz politicians who are such rabid anti-communists today but who in the past were high-ranking party members. Some of them were even agents spying on their fellow citizens during the Kádár regime. Do they know that Viktor Orbán’s father was party secretary of the company he owns today? Or that Orbán himself was secretary of KISZ, the youth organization of the Hungarian communist party? And that László Kövér worked for a while after graduation at the institute attached to the party’s central committee?

Well, in any case, the Hungarian Embassy in Washington and the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation jointly organized an event scheduled for tomorrow afternoon. It will be a panel discussion on the “History and Legacy of Communism in Europe.” Mária Schmidt will be one of the participants. Let’s hope that the audience will appreciate her vast knowledge of the subject.

Mária Schmidt’s revisionist history of World War II and the Holocaust. Part I

Until now I rarely mentioned the name of Mária Schmidt, a historian, although she certainly deserves more than a fleeting glimpse. The more I’ve studied her writings the more I’ve become convinced that Mária Schmidt is the chief ideologist of the current government’s very controversial views on history.

First, let’s go back a little bit and take a look at her professional career. She received a B.A., majoring in German and history; her interest at that point was the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. At least she wrote her senior essay on the attempts of certain politicians to reconstruct the dual monarchy and create a multi-ethnic federation. Sometime in the mid-1980s she switched topics and began doing research on questions concerning the modern history of Hungarian Jewry. Her patron was the famous Hungarian historian, György Ránki, who for a number of years was in charge of the Institute of Hungarian Studies at Indiana University.

Schmidt Mária

Mária Schmidt / Source: 168 Óra

Her connection with Ránki was fruitful. In 1985 she received a three-year scholarship from MTI and the Soros Foundation. In 1988-89 she spent two months in Jerusalem at the Yad Vashem Institute. A few months later she was back in Israel on another year-long scholarship at Tel Aviv University. As soon as that was over, she received another scholarship to do research in Berlin. She was one of the young Hungarian historians who had plenty of opportunities to become serious scholars. They could travel, they spoke foreign languages, they had the opportunity to be in the company of scholars from all over the world.

These details of her early career are similar to those of other historians who today find her views abhorrent. It is hard to know exactly when Mária Schmidt discovered that she was in fact a right-wing nationalist and a revisionist, but by 1998 she became one of Viktor Orbán’s “chief advisers.” Her influence on the prime minister’s historical views is unmistakable. I’m afraid we can blame Mária Schmidt for the Orbán regime’s wholesale falsification of modern Hungary history. And, I’m afraid, also for the monument that will most likely be raised soon depicting Hungary as the innocent victim of German aggression.

Mária Schmidt might have been a serious historian in the 1980s, but by now her scholarship is highly suspect. A cursory look at her works reveals that most of her books and articles are of a popular nature. Works based on original research are hard to find on her long list of contributions. But how could she do serious and sustained work when she is the director of the House of Terror and two foundations? In addition, she teaches at the Péter Pázmány Catholic University, and she just received another job, currently in limbo, to create a new Hungarian Holocaust Museum dedicated to the child victims.

One cannot call her an independent scholar either because of her far too close relationship with the present government. In fact, a few years back a reporter from Népszava asked Schmidt about her lack of independence. Her answer revealed her unique view of history. According to her, writing history makes sense “only if it is about politics. Who is interested in what happened one or two hundred years ago unless we want to say something about the present?”

Those who want to know more about Mária Schmidt should read the relevant passages of Professor Randolph L. Braham’s “The Assault on the Historical Memory of the Holocaust” that appeared in Hungarian Spectrum. Here I would like to concentrate on an article of hers that was published in a book entitled Diktaturák ördögszekerén. It is about “Political justice in post-war Europe.” The short article is an apology of Germany’s involvement in the war and a condemnation of the Allies who after World War II “forced the vanquished states to take upon themselves the moral, political, and economic responsibility” for the outbreak of the war. The victorious allies without any legal justification brought individuals to justice. At the time of these political trials the Allies promised that all war crimes would be punished in the future, but this turned out not to be the case. Schmidt brings up the bombing of Dresden and the nuclear attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as war crimes that went unpunished.

According to Schmidt, the legal proceedings against the war criminals, in Nuremberg and in other countries, including Hungary, “were political trials that served political purposes and therefore they brought alien elements to the jurisdictional system.” She finds it reprehensible that “the Allies themselves wanted to destroy the Nazi elite … instead of allowing the German people to get rid of its leaders who became burdensome [tehertétel].” The Allies already in October 1943 contemplated sending war criminals back to their home countries, which obviously Schmidt finds outrageous because she continues: “Similar absurd plans were contemplated concerning Japan.”

Although the article for the most part deals with the political trials of Nazi war criminals, it also contains telling sentences about Mária Schmidt’s views on the Holocaust and the Jewish question. Among those who received death sentences in Nuremberg, she specifically mentions Julius Streicher, editor-in-chief of Der Stürmer, an anti-Semitic newspaper, who was found guilty of crimes against humanity. In her opinion, his sentence was not justified. After all, he was not a public servant; he had no party affiliation; he did not kill anyone; and he did not order anyone to kill. He only incited and spread hate. So, Schmidt doesn’t understand how he could be charged with “an international crime.”

There is an even more puzzling sentence that concerns the Holocaust in this article. Her problem is still with the notion of “crimes against humanity” and that among these crimes the judges at Nuremberg listed the “Nazi genocide against the Jews.” She asserts that the Holocaust was “only one of the many crimes of the Nazi leaders.” This sentence is puzzling in itself because I don’t think that anyone at the time claimed that Nazi crimes consisted only of the Holocaust. The footnote that follows this passage is even more baffling. Let me quote it in full: “Therefore they organized the Eichmann trial in Israel that placed the Nazi genocide against the Jewish people on center stage. It was in this way that they called the attention of the mostly indifferent world to the issue.”

What does Mária Schmidt want to say here? That too much emphasis was put on the Holocaust but it didn’t really work and people became tired of hearing all about it? But then they, I assume the Jews, decided to hold the Eichmann trial in Israel in order to bring the notion of Nazi guilt into the forefront? This muddled passage might be the result of a confused mind, but there is a good possibility that there are other considerations at work in Schmidt’s head.

Let’s move on to Hungary and the people’s courts that were set up in 1945. What is Schmidt’s opinion of these trials? She hides behind the claim of an unnamed minister of justice at the time, according to whom “the goal of the trials was not to serve justice but politics and revenge.” Schmidt’s favorite victim of these trials is László Bárdossy, prime minister between April 3, 1941, and March 9, 1942. According to Schmidt, “with the person of László Bárdossy the court wanted to sit in judgment of the whole Horthy regime, the Hungarian upper-middle classes [magyar úri középosztály], and its political elite.”

Of course, one could spend a great deal more time on Mária Schmidt’s views on war guilt, justice, and crimes against humanity, but I hope that even from this brief summary readers will realize her revisionist take on Germany’s role in the war.  And although the article is really about the trials of war criminals, one can sense Schmidt’s ambivalent attitude toward the Holocaust and its significance.

Tomorrow I will take a look at another article in the same volume that is specifically about the Holocaust’s place in the modern history of Hungarian Jewry.