dictatorships

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.

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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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Looking backward: Historical complexity and political simplification

A couple of days ago I mentioned that three historians who are attached to the Institute of History of the Hungarian Academy of Science were entrusted with deciding the fate of persons and concepts that can possibly be connected to dictatorial regimes of the twentieth century. The other day the long awaited list was made public and was met with a mix of fury and derision. By today well known historians, members of the Academy, are calling the list and its creators a disgrace to the historical profession.

Almost a month before the appearance of the infamous list András Gerő, whose specialty is the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, rang the alarm bell and predicted that nothing good would come from this enterprise because the text of the law is imprecise and because whoever wrote it has no clue about the complexity of life and thus of history.

I will summarize Gerő’s main objections. The full text of the the law can be read here, but the key sentence is that “the name of no person can be used anywhere (institutions, media organs, public places) who played a leading role in the establishment, formation, and maintenance of twentieth-century dictatorial regimes or such expression or name of an organ that can be directly related with such a regime.”

The first problem is that the law itself is sloppily formulated. On the one hand it talks about dictatorial regimes (rendszerek) in the plural when it comes to persons whereas, when talking about organizations and concepts, it uses the singular (rendszer). So, how many dictatorial regimes are we talking about? Gerő rightly states that there were three such regimes in Hungary in the twentieth century. The Soviet Republic of 1919, the 1944-45 Arrow Cross regime, and the communist regime between 1949 and 1989. The text of the preamble to the bill provides a clue to the lawmakers’ thinking. Here they talk about “dictatorships” but add that “first and foremost” they are thinking of  the communist dictatorship and the 1919 Soviet Republic lasting 133 days. Thus, the emphasis is on dictatorships of the left.

Why does any lawmaker think that such a piece of legislation is necessary in the first place? The reason is that “our streets and institutions should bear names that are worthy of the ideals of a democratic country.” However, Gerő points out, it is not only dictatorship that is opposed to the ideals of a democratic state. What if the equality of citizens is terminated in a perfectly legitimate and democratic manner? The reference here is to the Horthy regime’s anti-Jewish laws. “Without equality of citizens there is no rule of rule (jogállam).” Gerő comes to the conclusion that perhaps the lawmakers are not really familiar with the meaning of the rule of law.

Listed by Epicantus / Daria Nepriakhina

Listed by Epicantus / Daria Nepriakhina / Flickr

But, Gerő says, ignorance has its consequences. On the preliminary list were such names as Béla Kun and Tibor Szamuely, who was personally responsible for political murders during the 1919 communist interlude. Their roles in the establishment and maintenance of a dictatorship are indisputable. But Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels also appeared on the list. They were included because of their role in laying the foundation for the later Soviet regime. Since both died years before 1917, we have no idea what they would have thought of the kind of dictatorship that was established in Soviet Russia. And if Marx and Engels are blacklisted, why don’t we put Prime Minister Pál Teleki, who played a leading role in the enactment of Hungary’s anti-Jewish laws, on the same list? And if we can connect Marx and Engels with the Muscovite Mátyás Rákosi, we should certainly link the name of Bishop Ottokár Prohászka, who is considered to be the theoretician of Ferenc Szálasi’s Hungarism, with the Holocaust.

One must also should keep in mind that people might change their views over their lifetimes. Either because they genuinely had a change of heart or because they responded to a changing situation. As an example Gerő brings up Gyula Szekfű (1883-1955), the historian. His extremely influential book written in 1920, Három nemzedék: Egy hanyatló kor története (Three generations: History of a declining age), blamed the liberals of the dual monarchy for the misfortunes that befell Hungary after World War I. This book played an important role in justifying István Bethlen’s counterrevolutionary regime. Later he moved farther to the left and after 1945 he even praised Stalin’s accomplishments and the Soviet regime. From 1953 he became a member of parliament and in the last two years of his life a member of the Presidium. There’s no question that he helped maintain the communist dictatorship. Right now a street bears his name in Budapest’s District IV. Should he be banned? According to the law, if we take it seriously, yes, he should be.

The other person Gerő mentions is János Szentágothai, the famous Hungarian medical researcher. He was also a member of parliament and later a member of the Presidium during the Kádár regime. Between 1977 and 1985 he was the president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences which was a political post. After 1990 he was again a member of parliament as an MDF member. Again, he should be banned but naturally he won’t be.

The third person is Béla Kovács, secretary-general of the Smallholders party, whom the Soviets exiled to the Gulag on February 25, 1947. In 2000, during the first Orbán administration, the government made February 25 a day of remembrance for the victims of communism. In 2002 Kovács’s statue was unveiled on Kossuth Square. Kovács became a member of Imre Nagy’s cabinet, but in 1958 he became a member of the pseudo-parliament of the early Kádár regime. He should also be banned according to a strict interpretation of the law.

The drafters of the law added that if and when there is any question concerning eligibility the case must be referred to the historians of the Academy. But if one reads the law carefully, it doesn’t allow for any doubt. The choice is either black or white, yes or no. Historians should know full well that life and therefore history is not that simple, and therefore they should not have accepted the job. Unfortunately, they did. The historians “should have told the government that this task cannot be accomplished in the spirit of academic correctness.”

They accepted the job despite the fact that Attila Pók, one of the three historians who took part in this disgraceful exercise, admitted that the law doesn’t allow for any shading or for a scientific approach and that the law was not thought through.

The government passed the buck to the Academy and the historians passed it back to the government. They excused their own participation by emphasizing that theirs was not the final word. They acted only in an advisory capacity.

The concern is growing in historical circles that “by participating in this political game they risked their academic credibility.”  As historian Gábor Gyáni said, “the historians found themselves in such an absurd situation that they had to explain why concepts like “freedom” or “republic” are not directly related to dictatorships. But at the same time they fell into such traps as declaring Maxim Gorky or Vladimir Mayakovsky supporters of a dictatorship. The former, after the assassination of Sergei Kirov in December 1934, was placed under “secret” house arrest. There were rumors that his sudden death wasn’t an accident. Mayakovsky by the late 1920s became increasingly disillusioned with the course the Soviet Union was taking and committed suicide.

Life is not as simple as Fidesz politicos imagine or as even well-known Hungarian historians think. And what if one day historians associate Viktor Orbán and the members of his government with the destruction of democracy in Hungary and with building an authoritarian regime with the assistance of a neo-Nazi party? It could easily happen.