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.
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.