East German refugees

Mária Schmidt is on the warpath again

Last summer I wrote at least five posts about Mária Schmidt, a historian of the Holocaust and director of the controversial House of Terror museum established during the first Orbán administration (1998-2002). Why is Mária Schmidt so important? Why is it necessary to spend time on a historian not held in high esteem by her colleagues? It is true that as a historian she would not deserve much attention, but as the chief adviser to Orbán Viktor on matters of modern Hungarian history her ideas cannot be ignored. I don’t think I exaggerate when I claim that Schmidt’s interpretation of German-Hungarian relations in the 1930s and the first half of the 1940s is crucial to understanding the Hungarian government’s reevaluation of the Hungarian Holocaust. The newly erected memorial to “all the victims” of the German occupation of Hungary on March 19, 1944 was a direct result of Mária Schmidt’s views on the period.

The other reason that I give her so much space is that every time she opens her mouth, or puts pen to paper, she says something outlandish. She begins radio and television interviews with syrupy sweetness and ends with shrill diatribes.

She has been lying low on Holocaust issues since last summer, most likely because it looks as if János Lázár, Viktor Orbán’s deputy, decided to remove her from the job of spearheading the creation of a new Holocaust museum, the House of Fates. The government realized that no compromise could be reached between the administration and the Jewish community as long as Schmidt was in charge of the project.

They are working on the building of the House of Fates but the concept is still missing

The construction of the House of Fates is proceeding apace

She refocused her attention on more recent events. Last month she wrote an essay on “geopolitical games” between Russia and the United States in which she didn’t spare the U.S. This was not a topic that excited too many people in Hungary.

But then came an exchange of letters between Schmidt and the office of the German chancellor that she made public on February 4. Since the publication of this exchange she has given two interviews, one to György Bolgár on Klubrádió and another to András Kovács of Origo.

Let’s start with a summary of Mária Schmidt’s letter, dated January 20, to Chancellor Angela Merkel. In it Schmidt invited Merkel while in Hungary to a reception in the House of Terror honoring “ordinary citizens who [in 1989] risked everything as opposed to the political leaders of the regime who were only following the lead of the heroic civilians.” Of course, she was talking about the East German refugees in Hungary. In addition, she expressed her hope that together they “could light a candle for the victims of communism.” The answer from Councilor Maximilian Spinner, on behalf of the chancellor, was brief and to the point: “Unfortunately, such a visit is impossible due the limited amount of time available.”

I have the feeling that even if Angela Merkel hadn’t had such a tight schedule she wouldn’t have wanted to be associated with the reception Mária Schmidt organized. The Germans ever since 1989 have repeatedly said how grateful they were to the Hungarian government at the time, and here is an event that belittles the role of the Németh government and Foreign Minister Gyula Horn, whom the Germans revere. And that government, whether Schmidt likes it or not, was the last government of the Kádár regime. By that time the dictatorship had mellowed to such an extent that it was not a brave, heroic act to help the East German refugees. Thousands and thousands of ordinary citizens lent a helping hand alongside the Hungarian government. Schmidt’s invitation was something of a trap, which I assume the Germans noticed and wanted to avoid.

Well, Schmidt was furious. She called Angela Merkel “the heartless chancellor.” She accused the Germans of never thanking these “brave civilians,” of thanking only the Hungarian government that existed “during the still functioning communist dictatorship.” Not only did Merkel not go but no “official representative” of Germany made an appearance when Schmidt gave memorial plaques to the few people she found worthy of the honor.

And then came the interview with Origo. She accused Merkel of “insolence,” which ought to “shock all well-meaning Germans.” According to Schmidt, “the chancellor obviously did not know what country she was visiting.” Otherwise, surely she would have wanted to meet ordinary citizens. She also found Merkel’s words about democracy, freedom of the press, and civic groups puzzling. In her opinion, Merkel talked like a “left-liberal” instead of a Christian Democrat.

Schmidt had a few not so kind words for the United States as well. According to her, M. André Goodfriend, the chargé d’affaires until the arrival of the new U.S. Ambassador Colleen Bell, “misunderstood his role and became enamored with his media appearances.” Everything has changed since the arrival of the ambassador, a claim that is most likely based on Colleen Bell’s frequent appearances at markets or social events, which of course may not indicate a policy change.

According to Schmidt, Hungary is a true ally of the United States and “it would be very sad if there were people in Washington who would like to disrupt that bond.” She is certain that Hungary would like to restore good relations between the two countries, but “we must not forget that the Hungarian nation is a proud one that does not like it if an American diplomat comes here and tells us how we should or should not remember our past,” a not too subtle reference to the memorial that on Viktor Orbán’s insistence was erected despite international protest, a memorial that falsifies the history of the Hungarian Holocaust.

Otherwise, at the moment Schmidt is organizing a conference, “Test of Bravery” (Bátorságpróba). The odd title seems to be lifted from a well-known picture book for children suffering from cancer. The conference will focus on the second Orbán government’s accomplishments between 2010 and 2014.

The House of Terror’s director is a tireless supporter of the government despite the recent slight she suffered when the much contested House of Fates projet was removed from her hands and taken over by the prime minister’s office. Her “concept” remained, however. It is, in the words of László Karsai, a Holocaust researcher, “two hundred pages of nothing.”

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Gyula Horn and the opening of Austro-Hungarian border, September 10, 1989

When I am either unfamiliar with a topic or have only bits and pieces of information that don’t make a coherent whole, I like to follow up. Since I didn’t remember all the details of the Hungarian decision to allow the East German tourists who refused to return to the German Democratic Republic to cross into Austria, I decided that I would reread Gyula Horn’s autobiography, Cölöpök (Piles).

It took me a little while to find the appropriate pages because the book has no table of contents. There are some chapter numbers but no chapter titles. Moreover, Horn jumps from topic to topic, and not necessarily in chronological order. Once I found it, however, the passage turned out to be full of interesting details.

Let’s start with the crucial question of whether the Soviet Union gave the Hungarians permission to allow the thousands of East Germans to cross into Austria. No, there was no permission. The Soviets were “informed on the day that the Hungarians opened the border for the East Germans to cross.” That was on September 10, 1989.

Gyula Horn in 1990 / parlament.hu

Gyula Horn in 1990 / parlament.hu

According to Horn, the Hungarian foreign ministry suspected that the Soviets already knew about the Hungarian decision, either directly through their intelligence forces in Hungary or from the leadership of the GDR. Because the East German party and government leaders had been informed by the Hungarians of their decision on August 29. The East Germans insisted that Hungary fulfill its obligation of a 1969 treaty between Hungary and East Germany by which Hungary was supposed to force East German citizens to return to their homeland. It was this treaty that the Hungarians were going to suspend. Why suspend instead of abrogate? Because in the latter case Hungary would have been obliged to wait three months before they would have been free to let the Germans go. And the number of East Germans in Hungary had already swelled to the thousands by then.

The East German side insisted on a meeting with Miklós Németh, the prime minister, and Gyula Horn. The Germans were still hoping that the Hungarians could be cajoled, blackmailed, persuaded, take your pick, to return the East German citizens who were staying in the West German embassy, in student hostels, in camping facilities. But when the two politicians got to Berlin, the hosts were told about the suspension of the 1969 treaty.

If Gorbachev had wanted to prevent the escapade of the Germans across the Austro-Hungarian border he had more than a week to send word to the Hungarians warning them against such a step. But although Horn gives a very detailed account, there is not a word about any visit from the Soviet ambassador to the Foreign Ministry.

The relationship between Horn and Eduard Shevardnadze was cordial, and in the previous year or two the Soviets usually took the Hungarian more liberal side against the noisiest hard-liners–Romania, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia. When, shortly after the momentous event, Horn met Shevardnadze in New York, the Soviet foreign minister expressed his agreement with the Hungarian solution. In fact, he asked Horn to estimate the number of dissatisfied East Germans who would gladly leave and was duly impressed with Horn’s answer that the number might be one or two million.

Horn admits that there was some fear that Gorbachev might be pressured by others in the government and party to intervene. After all, the existence of an East Germany within the Soviet bloc might be considered of paramount interest to Moscow. Horn adds that he never feared military intervention because he knew that Gorbachev was not in favor of any kind of military action. But he did consider possible economic or political action, although elsewhere in the book Horn mentions that by that time the Soviet Union was in such dire economic straits that they were unable to fulfill their delivery obligations to Hungary.

Horn outlines the different ideas the Hungarians entertained over time, but he claims they never contemplated sending the East Germans back home.  When there were only a few hundred escapees, they offered them refugee status in Hungary which they categorically refused. Then the German and the Hungarian governments came up with a plan that  in the middle of the night in great secret a large German plane would land in Budapest and the East Germans would be smuggled onto the plane. But soon enough that idea was abandoned because the East Germans continued to arrive in greater and greater numbers, not so much from East Germany as from Yugoslavia where they had spent their holidays. Once they got to Hungary, they refused to continue northward. Something had to be done.

It was at this point that Németh and Horn secretly visited Bonn and talked to Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher. They outlined the difficulties and promised that a solution would be found. A few days later when the decision was made to open the border, Horn phoned Genscher and asked him to send his undersecretary to Budapest immediately to begin serious negotiations about the details of the border opening. Genscher kept repeating that “this is fantastic, we never in our wildest dreams imagined such a brave and humane step.” The undersecretary arrived overnight and was told about the details of the operation. The reach of the East German intelligence services worried Horn, and he asked the Germans not to send cipher telegrams. Only handwritten notes by courier.

It was around 6 p.m. on September 10 that Horn gave an interview on MTV in which announced the government’s decision to open the border between Austria and Hungary. In his book he added: “Naturally I did not know at that time that with this step we began the road toward the unification of the two states and with it a new chapter in the history of Europe.”