Antal Szerb

Another blunder by Fidesz-Jobbik: Naming a street after the anti-Semite Cécile Tormay

It was only a couple of weeks ago that Viktor Orbán promised zero tolerance of antisemitism in Hungary. Although attendees of the World Jewish Congress appreciated the resolute words, they reserved judgment on the Hungarian government’s policy pending visible signs of the promised zero tolerance.

And what happened? Budapest’s city government decided to name a street after the nationalist writer Cécile Tormay (1876-1937), an avowed anti-Semite. Ronald S. Lauder, president of the WJC, reacted with consternation to the news.”This decision by the Budapest city government, which is headed by a member of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, puts into question the pledge given to the Jewish community that anti-Semitism will be fought vigorously by the Hungarian authorities. However, it seems that they need to be reminded that Cécile Tormay was not only one of Miklós Horthy’s favorite writers. She was also a notorious anti-Semite.” Lauder urged “Prime Minister Orbán to speak with the mayor of Budapest, who is a member of his party, and to persuade him to withdraw the plan for the naming of a street after Cécile Tormay.”

Formally, Mayor István Tarlós is not a member of Fidesz, but naturally he is Orbán’s man. Running as an independent was only a political ploy to make Tarlós more acceptable to voters who would under no circumstances vote for a Fidesz candidate.

Today’s WJC press release mentions Tormay’s most objectionable work, An Outlaw’s Diary, published in 1921. This book by the “Grand Dame of  the Nation,” as his admirers called her, was translated into English–in addition to German and French thanks to the generosity of the Hungarian government–in 1923 and is available online.

I regret that the blog format doesn’t allow me to write a longer study of this woman’s political and personal career. Both are fascinating. Women, especially women of her social class, couldn’t really be active participants in political life in the interwar period. Yet from 1918 until her death in 1937 Tormay was the head of the largest right-wing women’s organization, the Magyar Asszonyok Nemzeti Szövetsége (MANSZ) with a membership of half a million. In addition, she was editor of the right-wing national-Christian literary magazine Napkelet (Orient) that was established with government money as a counterpart to the liberal, urbanite, western-oriented Nyugat, the leading literary magazine (1908-1941) which, by the way, is available online. That wasn’t exactly a normal career for the daughter of a man who had been ennobled by Franz Joseph sometime at the end of the nineteenth century.

Cécile Tormay (1875-1937) / Wikipedia

Cécile Tormay (1875-1937) Wikipedia

Her first works appeared after 1899. Her best effort was a novel (1914) entitled A régi ház (The old house) that met with considerable critical success. In his obituary of Tormay, Antal Szerb (1901-1945), the famous literary historian and critic, talked about the book with appreciation. Szerb only regretted that after the war Tormay turned her attention to politics. “She proved to be so active and energetic that many turned away from Cecile Tormay, the writer.” It was a polite way of saying that the literary elite couldn’t identify with someone who espoused antisemitism and fascism.

Judit Kádár, a literary historian, has studied Tormay’s works and politics. The couple of articles of hers that I read portray Tormay as a vicious anti-Semite infatuated with Mussolini and fascism. Kádár portrays her organization, MANSZ, as “a fascist organization,” invoking Juan J. Linz’s well-known definition: “hyper-nationalist, often pan-nationalist, anti-parliamentary, anti-liberal, anti-communist, populist and therefore anti-proletarian, partly anti-capitalist and anti-bourgeois, anti-clerical or at least non-clerical movement with the aim of national social integration through a single party and corporative representation not always equally emphasized, with a distinctive style and rhetoric, it relies on activist cadres ready for violent action combined with electoral participation to gain power with totalitarian goals by a combination of legal and violent tactics.”

I think Tormay would happily have accepted the label. In 1922 she wrote: “Look at Italy! Will they get to where we’ve arrived? Let’s hope so!” She claimed to be a forerunner of Italian fascism. As editor of Napkelet and Magyar Asszony she regularly published pro-fascist articles. In 1932 she personally greeted Mussolini, celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Marcia su Roma.

Her support of the Horthy regime yielded numerous benefits. In 1935 after the death of Marie Curie, Hungary delegated her to one of the committees of the League of Nations. In 1937 they nominated her for the Nobel Prize in Literature. (Eugene O’Neill received it that year.)

In the last few days, several foreign and Hungarian Jewish organizations raised their voices against naming a street after this notorious antisemitic and fascist writer. Mazsihisz, the Hungarian organization of Jewish religious communities, also felt it necessary to dwell on Tormay’s alleged lesbianism. Indeed, in 1925 there was a scandal that involved her and her friend, Countess Raphael Zichy. Zichy’s husband accused them of having a sexual liaison. The two women sued him. They eventually won and Zichy ended up in jail for a year and a half. Just recently a Pécs judge wrote a book on the trial and came to the conclusion that the verdict was correct. Zichy didn’t have solid proof. Others remembered differently. Apparently, Horthy’s personal intervention saved Cécile Tormay.

I don’t quite understand what Tormay’s sexual preferences have to do with her political views or her antisemitism. It would have been quite enough to quote a few choice passages from The Outlaw’s Diary. But even Judit Kádár makes a connection between her alleged hatred of men and her antisemitism, which I find forced. But I should probably re-read The Outlaw’s Diary. The first time around I read it as a historical document for the years 1918-1920. Perhaps it’s time to look at it again from a different perspective.

Finally, a few words about István Tarlós, the mayor, and Fidesz-Jobbik cooperation on the Budapest City Council. Outlandish ideas, like naming a street after Cécile Tormay, usually originate with the Jobbik members who then receive the support of the Fidesz delegation. Together they have a majority on the council. Tarlós, an engineer without much background in the liberal arts, readily (and I suspect often out of ignorance) obliges.

After Mazsihisz asked Tarlós to reconsider his decision to support naming a street after Tormay, he quickly backed down. He announced that he will suggest that the decision be reexamined. But it remains an embarrassment for Hungary.

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