György Ránki

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.