1944

A critique of a political analysis on Hungary by Stratfor’s George Friedman

In the last few months I have been getting a daily newsletter from Stratfor, a private intelligence and forecasting company. No, I’m not a subscriber, and I doubt that Stratfor has many individual subscribers. Its clients are mostly institutions that feel the need for economic, military, or political analyses and forecasting.

Stratfor’s daily newsletter offers one free analysis chosen by the company. Most of the topics lie outside my field of interest, but today’s “special” aroused my curiosity: “Borderlands: Hungary Maneuvers.” The article was written by George Friedman, founder and chairman of Stratfor. Friedman received his B.A. from the City College of New York and his Ph.D. from Cornell University. For almost twenty years he was a professor of political science at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. Then in 1996 he decided to quit academe and become a strategic analyst.

Friedman was born in Budapest to Holocaust survivors, but his parents left the country when he was a small child. What he learned from his parents sitting around the kitchen table was that “except for the Germans, the vastness of evil could not have existed.” In his parents’ lessons Miklós Horthy, the Hungarian regent between 1920 and 1944, pretty much got a pass. Friedman continues to believe the history his parents taught him. To his mind, Horthy was a wily geopolitical strategist who maneuvered between Germany and the Soviet Union for quite a while. Only brute German force, blackmail, and threats against Horthy himself opened the door to mass destruction of the Hungarian Jewry.

The first half of the article tries to convince the reader that his vision of Horthy is the correct one while the second draws parallels between the Hungary of today and the times of Horthy. As he says, Horthy’s “experience is the one that Hungary’s current leadership appears to have studied.”

I will not be able to cover the whole article in this post and therefore will concentrate on Friedman’s account of the Horthy era. The appearance of this “revisionist” appraisal of Horthy is especially ill-timed because it was only a few days ago that historians of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences unanimously declared at a conference that the monument Orbán is erecting, which is supposed to make Germany alone responsible for the destruction of Hungarian Jewry, is a falsification of history. Nothing like lending a helping hand to Viktor Orbán’s project.

Friedman’s Hungary was a small, weak country that helplessly floundered between the Soviet Union and Germany, all the while trying to remain independent. “Horthy’s goal was to preserve its sovereignty in the face of the rising power of Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin.” Friedman seems to think that Horthy viewed both great powers with equal contempt. But that was not the case. In fact, until the very last moment he refused to turn to the Soviets to declare his willingness to negotiate a separate peace, whereas he was indebted to the Germans for helping Hungary regain sizable territories in Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Yugoslavia between November 1938 and April 1941. (These territories are shown in the Wikipedia map below.)

"Hungary's

As for the Jewish issue, Friedman claims that “Horthy was no more anti-Semitic than any member of his class had to be.” First of all, I’m not sure why Friedman believes there was a social imperative to be anti-Semitic. Members of Horthy’s social class may have been anti-Semitic, but they didn’t have to be anti-Semitic.

Horthy as well as the majority of Hungarian politicians and high officials wanted to rid the country of its Jewish population. Horthy didn’t want an immediate “cleansing” because without Jewish capital and know-how the Hungarian economy would have collapsed. But eventually the Hungarian anti-Semites stripped the Jews of all their worldly possessions and deported them. These Hungarians, including high officials, didn’t particularly care what happened to the Jews once they were deported. There simply had to be “a changing of the guard” (őrségváltás). Non-Jews were to take over positions held by Jews in the professions, business, and manufacturing. None of this seems to have penetrated Friedman’s consciousness.

It is at this point that we reach the crucial date of March 19, 1944, which is described this way: “Horthy fell from his tightrope on March 19, 1944. Realizing that Germany was losing the war, Horthy made overtures to the Soviets.” Let me state right here that Horthy did not make overtures to the Soviets. A small delegation talked to American and British officials in Turkey. They were told to talk to the Russians, something Horthy was reluctant to do.

Friedman’s inadequate knowledge of history is evident in practically all the sentences he writes in this article. According to him, “Hitler forced the Hungarian leader to form a new government consisting of Hungary’s homegrown Nazis, the Arrow Cross Party.” Or, a few sentences later, he writes: “He [Horthy] did not crush the Hungarian Nazis, but he kept them at bay. He did not turn on Hitler, but he kept him at bay. What Horthy did was the dirty work of decency. He made deals with devils to keep the worst things from happening. By March 1944, Horthy could no longer play the game. Hitler had ended it. His choice was between dead sons and the horror of the following year, or living sons and that same horror.” Friedman’s “parents believed that Horthy’s critics were unable to comprehend the choices he had.”

We who are more familiar with the real story realize that the account Friedman heard from his parents in addition to bits and pieces he remembers from Horthy’s memoirs have nothing to do with reality. But Friedman cannot be deterred from his preconceived notions of German-Hungarian relations and the Hungarian Holocaust. He keeps going: “Once the Wehrmacht, the SS and Adolf Eichmann, the chief organizer of the Holocaust, were in Budapest, they found the Arrow Cross Party to be populated by eager collaborators.” Of course, this isn’t true either. The eager collaborators were in fact members of the Hungarian government appointed by Horthy.

The point of this hopelessly inaccurate history is to reframe the present debate about Viktor Orbán’s governance. On the one hand are people like his parents, who blamed the Germans “for unleashing the brutishness in the Hungarians.” On the other hand are nameless people who were harsher on Horthy. This debate, he writes, “has re-entered history through Hungarian politics. Some have accused Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of trying to emulate … Miklós Horthy…. This is meant as an indictment. If so, at the university of our kitchen table, the lesson of Horthy is more complex and may have some bearing on present-day Hungary.”

I suggest that George Friedman take a refresher course.

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Hungarian parliament voted on Paks; the Jewish-government dialogue is stalled

Yesterday we all thought that the parliamentary vote on the Russian-Hungarian agreement about financing and building two new reactors in Paks would take place only next Thursday. But, in typical Fidesz fashion, the Fidesz-KDNP majority made a last-minute change in the agenda and opted to hold the vote today. Perhaps the sudden decision had something to do with the revelations of Mihály Varga, minister of the economy, about the financial details of the agreement. Parliament had only four days to ponder the bill, and five hours were allowed for discussion on the floor.

The decision to move the vote forward naturally upset the opposition, but that was not all that raised eyebrows. The figures Mihály Varga revealed were much higher than earlier expected. First of all, Hungary will have to pay back the loan not in 30 but in 21 years, in 2035. In the early years the interest rate will be 3.9%, later 4.5%, and in the final years 4.9%. The Russians will pay the 10 billion euros it is lending to Hungary over ten years, and Hungary will have to pony up 2 billion euros in the final years of plant construction. (That figure, of course, assumes that there are no cost overruns, a highly unlikely possibility.) According to information received from government circles, one reason Viktor Orbán was so eager to push through the vote at the earliest possible date was that he was concerned that even Fidesz legislators would be unwilling to vote for the plant expansion once they knew its true cost. This information had to be revealed because the court so decided. Moreover, according to estimates, the expansion of nuclear capacity would be so costly that it would raise the price of electricity at least 40% and in the first decade perhaps 80%. Népszabadság gave the following headline to its article on the estimates prepared by MVM, the state-owned utility company: “More expensive electricity, brutal losses.” Nice prospects, if MVM’s calculations are correct.

LMP asked for a roll call vote, after which András Schiffer held up a sign: “Hungary sold out and indebted,” while Szilvia Lengyel, also of LMP, held up another placard proclaiming that “We will not be a Russian atomic colony.” Bernadett Szél (LMP) and Katalin Ertsey (LMP) had megaphones that produced the noise of ambulance sirens at full volume. The scene was quite something. I highly recommend the video of the brawl, available on Index. Parliament had to adjourn for over an hour. László Kövér called the protesters idiots and also indicated that the highest possible fine will have to be paid by the four LMP members.

LMP (Politics Can Be Different) / Source Index

LMP (Politics Can Be Different) / Source Index

A quick look at the record of the votes is most interesting. It is striking how many members chose not to be present. Let’s start with Fidesz which has a large 223-member delegation out of which 21 members were absent. Among the missing were Viktor Orbán, Zoltán Balog, Mihály Varga, Tibor Navracsics, and Zoltán Illés and Zsolt Németh, undersecretary for foreign affairs.. Out of the KDNP caucus of 34 members only two were missing but one of them was no other than Zsolt Semjén, deputy prime minister. Half of the Jobbik members were absent, but those present with the exception of one voted with the government parties. The majority of MSZP members decided to stay at home (32 out of 48). Out of the 27 independents 17 were absent and only one of those present voted for the bill: József Balogh of blind komondor fame.

The other important news of the day was the scheduled meeting between Jewish leaders and János Lázár. If anyone had great hopes for a compromise between the government and the Jewish community, he was mistaken. It turned out that János Lázár was simply a messenger. As he himself admitted, everything depends on Viktor Orbán. His is the final word and at the moment that word is “no go.” The monument will be erected, Sándor Szakály will stay, and the House of Fates “can become a reality only if there is intelligent, correct dialogue that concentrates on the essence of the matter… If there is no cooperation there is no reason to go ahead with the project.” So, if you raise objections and want to oversee Mária Schmidt’s activities, there will be no new Holocaust center in Hungary.

As for the monument depicting Archangel Gabriel and the German imperial eagle, “it would be a falsification of history if we pretended as if Germany didn’t deprive Hungary of its sovereignty on March 19, 1944.” The problem is that most respectable historians dispute the government’s contention of a lack of sovereignty, pointing to the composition of the governments formed between March 19 and October 15, 1944. For example, all ministers and undersecretaries of the Sztójay government also served in earlier Hungarian ministries going back as far as 1933. It is also clear that Miklós Horthy was not entirely powerless, as he demonstrated several times during this period. In my opinion, given the seemingly firm position of the government, there can be no agreement between the two sides.

I very much doubt that Viktor Orbán, who will have the final say on the issue next week, will move an inch. He is not that kind of a guy. As for the Jewish organizations that will sit down to talk on Sunday, they are unlikely to retreat from their position. So, it can easily happen that an international scandal is in the offing: the Hungarian Jewish community will boycott the Holocaust Memorial Year initiated by the Orbán government.

Official announcements on the fate of the Jews in Pécs, 1944

A few weeks ago I received a newly published book entitled Kötéltánc (Rope walking) by Sándor Krassó, a Holocaust survivor from Pécs. It is not a work of a professional historian but of an eyewitness, not a comprehensive history of the fate of the Pécs Jewish community but snippets from the year 1944. I managed to identify a few people who appear in the book, among them a high school classmate of my father and the woman who had an elegant children’s clothing store with whom I had quite a dispute over the winter coat I was supposed to get.

Perhaps the most moving part of the book was the list of official announcements that appeared in the local paper, Dunántúl, between March 23 and July 6, 1944, the day the Jewish inhabitants of the city and some smaller towns nearby, about 6,000 people in all, were led to the main railroad station to be sent to Auschwitz. The Pécs Jewish community had been gathered into the ghetto on May 6, which was sealed on May 21. I don’t think I have to add anything to these terse announcements. They speak for themselves. They also happen to be relevant to our discussion about the nature of the Horthy regime’s final days.

March 31: “Jewish households cannot employ Christian servants. … Jewish engineers, actors, lawyers must be removed from the professional associations … From April 5 on all Jews over the age of six must wear on the left side of their coats a canary-yellow six-pointed star.”

April 1: “László Endre, administrative undersecretary of the Ministry of Interior, told the reporters of Esti Újság that the government decrees are only the beginning of the final solution of the Jewish question. In the opinion of the Hungarian nation the Jewry is an undesirable element from moral, intellectual, and physical points of view. We must seek a solution that would exclude the Jewry from the life of the Hungarian nation.”

April 6: “On Wednesday the cabinet made the decision to limit the free movement of Jews within the country.”

April 9: “Jews by April 10 must report the details of their radios by registered mail.”

April 15: “A Jew must declare all his assets on official forms. His assets cannot be sold, given to someone else, or pawned.  He must separately declare real estate. A Jew cannot own stocks and cannot have more than 3,000 pengős in cash. Failure to follow this order may mean six months of incarceration.”

April 18: “All Jewish white-collar employees must be dismissed.”

April 19: “Ten people were charged for failure to wear the yellow star… one of them was interned.”

April 21: “All Jewish merchants must shut down their stores.”

April 23: “Jews can receive 300 grams of oil and 100 grams of beef or horse meat per month.”

April 25: “Dismissed Jewish clerks cannot be employed by the same firm even as laborers.”

April 27: “Jews cannot purchase lard.”

April 30: “All Jews must turn in their bicycles to the Pécs police station within twenty-four hours.”

May 4: “Within three days Jews must turn in their musical instruments and pieces of art.. .. For example, pianos, violins, records, paintings, statues, ceramics.”

May 6: [The authorities designated a certain part of town as the ghetto.] “Each room housed five people…. Out of the twenty Jewish doctors in town, five moved into the ghetto.”

The Pécs Railroad Station

Source: http://www.vasutallamasok.hu / The Pécs Railroad Station 

May 10: “Jews cannot take any valuables into the ghetto… They are allowed to take 50 kg total including bedding … Pécs Jews turned in 38 tons of lard, two tons of goose fat, and 60 kg of smoked meat. … Their radios must be turned in on May 11 and 12.”

May 12: “The government commissioner in charge of the press ordered all forbidden Jewish books to be collected for 5 pengős per ton.” [including works by such authors as Heinrich Heine, Martin Buber, Stephan Zweig, and, among Hungarians, Ferenc Molnár, Frigyes Karinthy, and Sándor Bródy]

May 18: “The City of Pécs offers for sale Angora rabbits turned in by the Jews.” [On the same day there were four suicides by Jewish men and women.]

May 20:  “The Pécs police authorities suspect that Jews are giving their jewelry and gold to Christians for safekeeping. All valuables of Jews belong to the state. Christians who harbor such goods will be severely punished. They can be interned.”

May 21: “No Jew’s book can be published…. Tens of thousands of Jewish books will be reduced to pulp…. We are making a reality of what Ottokár Prohászka and Lajos Méhely demanded.”

June 11: “1,200 claims were received for Jewish houses and apartments.”

July 2: “The Jewish ghetto will be closed. The Christian families can move back to their old apartments shortly.”

July 6: [the day Pécs  Jews boarded the box cars] “The ghetto is empty.”