Adolf Eichmann

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.

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Days of protest, but the “Nazi” monument will stand in Budapest

I have been so preoccupied with the election results that I have neglected the recent tug-of-war between the Orbán government and a small group of people who desperately want to prevent the erection of a monument to commemorate the “occupation” of Hungary by German troops on March 19, 1944.

The monument depicts Hungary in the guise of the Archangel Gabriel as an innocent victim of German aggression when, in fact, Hungary was an ally of Nazi Germany. By extension, the present Hungarian government puts the blame for the Hungarian Holocaust entirely on Germany, although they do admit that some civil servants shamefully collaborated with the commandos of Adolf Eichmann. But the Hungarian government is not to be blamed because, with the occupation, Hungary lost its sovereignty. Most historians who are experts on the subject, inside and outside of Hungary, see it differently. So does the Hungarian Jewish community, whose representatives have been trying to have a dialogue with Viktor Orbán: they proposed more appropriate ways to remember the seventieth anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust. At the end of February there was a short reprieve in the “war of words” between Orbán and the Jewish community when Orbán promised to postpone the erection of the monument and offered to engage in a dialogue sometime after the Easter holidays.

But then came the election, whose results Viktor Orbán described as a resounding victory, and he was again full of energy. Two days after the election workmen appeared on Szabadság tér (Freedom Square) and started building a barrier around the designated site of the monument. Soon enough activists gathered and swore they would take it down. And indeed, in the morning the workmen constructed the wall and in the afternoon the demonstrators took it down. By the second day the demonstrators had the right kind of equipment to do quite a professional job disassembling the barrier. By yesterday, the barrier had gone up six times and come down six times. Someone compared the situation to the famous Hungarian/Romanian folk ballad in which the walls that are built one day by the masons at the Fortress of Deva/Déva are destroyed by the next morning.

While this was going on, about 20 policemen stood idly by until April 14, when several of the organizers were ordered to appear at the police station and charged with defacement of property. The defacement consisted of using spray paint to write messages on the canvas that covered the metal barrier. Included among the people so charged were Zoltán Lovas, a newspaper man; Fruzsina Magyar, wife of Imre Mécs who as a young man was condemned to death after the failed revolution in 1956; and Alice Fried, a Holocaust survivor, whose “graffiti” read: “I survived the Shoa. I still want to live!” Since then Imre Mécs, who “willfully” wrote messages on the canvas, was also charged.

History falsification / spiritual well-poisioning The first on the right is Fruzsina Magyar

History falsification / Spiritual well-poisoning
Fruzsina Magyar is on the far right.

Meanwhile tourists keep inquiring what’s going on and the participants tell them that “the government wants to erect a Nazi monument and the people are protesting.” Of course, it would be far too complicated to explain to these people what is at stake here. The game of erecting and taking down the barrier will go on for a while, but meanwhile the foundation for the enormous statue of Archangel Gabriel is being built. Yes, it must stand just as ordered by the imperious Viktor Orbán. His announced deadline is May 1.

Opponents say that as soon as Viktor Orbán and his government are gone this statue will join the statues erected during the Rákosi and Kádár periods, which are now  in a kind of statue cemetery in Memento Park. Others are certain that the new monument will have to be guarded day and night because it is likely that opponents will deface this monument that they find so objectionable.

The English-language media doesn’t seem to have taken much notice of what’s going on in the heart of Budapest. I discovered only one opinion piece, by András Simonyi, former Hungarian ambassador in Washington, who finds Viktor Orbán “deaf to the uproar by the Jewish community and other decent Hungarians. He fails to show leadership and magnanimity. He is missing the opportunity to behave like a statesman.”  Statesmanship? Magnanimity? From Viktor Orbán?

By contrast, the German press has been covering the story of the monument from the beginning. After all, Germany is implicated in this story. But the Germans, unlike the Hungarians, faced up to their own past and were ready to take the blame. They also know, as do most historians, that the Germans had eager accomplices in the Hungarian Holocaust. German public radio had a segment on the controversy, “Proteste gegen Nazi-Bezatsungsdenkmal.” Yes, the description of it as a Nazi monument is spreading. In it the journalist responsible for the text accurately described the situation that awaited the German troops in Hungary. Junge Welt ran an article entitled “Orbán in the role of the victim.” Perhaps the writer who claimed that Hungarians never quite got over the fact that they lost World War II is right. Seventy years after the fact. It would be high time to do so, but self-examination is impossible as long as the Hungarian government prevents any kind of honest look at Hungary’s role in the Holocaust.

Memorial Conference in Washington and Gergely Prőhle, representative of the Hungarian government

First, a very brief note on March 19th in Budapest. To mark the 70th anniversary of the German “occupation” of Hungary Mazsihisz organized what turned out to be a gathering of several thousand people on Herzl Square, in front of the famous synagogue on Dohány Street. Mazsihisz sent invitations to many important people, including Viktor Orbán. To be sure that he received it, they sent it registered mail. The prime minister’s office claimed that it never arrived. So Mazsihisz sent a second letter and got a second-string response. Viktor Orbán didn’t attend. Instead, he sent one of his deputies, Zsolt Semjén.

Now, let’s move on to a conference that was held in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The conference was opened by Paul A. Shapiro, Director of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies of the Museum, and Randolph L. Braham, the foremost expert on the Hungarian Holocaust. Their two short speeches were followed by presentations by American and Hungarian historians of the Hungarian Holocaust, including Gábor Kádár and László Csősz, two of the three co-authors of The Holocaust in Hungary: Evolution of a Genocide about which we talked at length ten days ago. I will try to get the texts of all of the lectures. I can tell you right now that I’m lucky enough to have received a lengthy study by Professor Braham entitled “Hungary: The Assault on the Historical Memory of the Holocaust.” He would like to share it with the readers of Hungarian Spectrum, for which I’m very grateful.

Gergely Prőhle was the representative of the Hungarian government at the conference. He delivered a short talk defending the Orbán government’s handling of the Holocaust Memorial Year and growing Hungarian anti-Semitism in general.

As it turned out, Prőhle came to the United States to take part in the March 15th celebrations of the Hungarian community in Los Angeles. On his way home he stopped in Washington to talk to Ira N. Foreman, the U.S. State Department special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, with whom he discussed the details of the 2015 Hungarian chairmanship of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. That was in the morning. In the afternoon he attended the conference in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Center, which he left early because he had to catch his plane.

The talk he delivered was short. He admitted that it is not easy for the government to react to all of the various interpretations of recent events. Anti-Semitism is not “a specialty of Hungary” and, according to him, the Hungarian government has done everything it could since 2010. They changed the civic code; they started a campaign against paramilitary groups. Admittedly, there are still problems but let’s wait for the election when hopefully the far-right Jobbik will be forced back to the democratic camp.

He denied the existence of any new interpretation of the Treaty of Trianon or the Holocaust. Hungary recognizes its responsibility, which by now should be clear. Trianon is an important issue but the rights of the Hungarians in the neighboring counties are more important.

Back in Hungary Prőhle gave an interview about his trip to Washington to György Bolgár of KlubRádió. Bolgár asked him how his talk was received and whether there was any follow-up discussion. Prőhle answered in the negative but admitted that he had left by the time the participants reconvened after a short break. If he had been there, he could have heard Zoltán Tibori Szabó from Cluj/Kolozsvár, writer, editor, journalist, who has written extensively on the Hungarian Holocaust, quip that perhaps it should be Fidesz that gets back to the democratic camp first. The audience loved it and responded with an extended applause.

Gergely Prőhle is an assistant undersecretary in the Hungarian Foreign Ministry who has the reputation of being a moderate. But how moderate is he? At the end of February he wrote an op/ed piece in Heti Válasz entitled “Arányok és tévesztések,” a play on words indicating that the Jewish community’s reaction to the government’s Holocaust Memorial Year was disproportionately vehement and hence mistaken. “It doesn’t matter who says what, the government didn’t declare 2014 to be the Holocaust Memorial Year because it wants to sweep Hungary’s responsibility under the rug. Given the amount of money allocated to the events, to talk about a ‘falsification of history’ and declare ‘a boycott’ is an overreaction.”

EichmannThen came something that took my breath away. Prőhle mentioned a recent film on Hannah Arendt’s years in New York (“Hannah Arendt: Ihr Denken veränderte die Welt” which according to the reviews I read is not exactly a masterpiece). I don’t know how many of you remember Hannah Arendt’s controversial book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, which originally appeared as a series of articles in The New Yorker. Adolf Eichmann was one of the chief characters in the Hungarian Holocaust. According to Arendt, who was present throughout the long trial, Eichmann showed no trace of antisemitism or psychological damage. Hence her famous phrase, “the banality of evil.” Her critics point out that she “grasped an important concept but not the right example.” That is, Arendt was wrong in saying that Eichmann wasn’t an anti-Semite but only followed orders. Indeed, some time after the trial his autobiography was published, which revealed that he was in fact a rabid anti-Semite.

In any case, Prőhle decided to refresh his knowledge of the Hungarian events of 1944 from this film. It “becomes clear from the film,” he writes, “how risky it is to show certain elements of historical truth that don’t fit the concepts contrived ahead of time.” If I understand Prőhle right, he thinks that Eichmann’s trial was a show trial.

But that’s not all. He accuses Mazsihisz, the umbrella organization of different Jewish communities, of criticizing the government of historical falsification for material gain. This is how he argues: “Regardless of how legitimate Mazsihisz’s misgivings are, it seems that its main aim is to mobilize and gather the Jewish community around it in order to receive more of the 1% offerings of taxpayers to Mazsihisz.” Taxpayers can designated that 1% of their taxes go to their favorite cause, from churches to animal shelters to radio stations.

This is Prőhle, the moderate. I don’t know what less moderate officials think or talk about. At least they have the good sense not to write op/ed pieces in Heti Válasz.