Hungarian military

Sándor Szakály: Portrait of a historian

The “cursed” memorial to the German occupation of Hungary on March 19, 1944 is still unfinished and the daily demonstration against its erection continues. Today the small group of demonstrators was joined by thousands of DK supporters who gathered to launch a campaign of “resistance” to the world of Viktor Orbán.

No one knows when Viktor Orbán will find the time opportune to go against the majority of Hungarians who consider the proposed monument a falsification of history, but while we are waiting for the final outcome historians are debating the crucial issue of the Hungarian state’s role in the death of about 400,000 Hungarians of Jewish origin.

The two main historians representing the position of the Hungarian government are Sándor Szakály, a military historian and director of the Veritas Historical Institute, and Mária Schmidt, an alleged expert on the Hungarian Holocaust and director of the infamous House of Terror. Of the two, it is most likely Schmidt who has been playing a key role in the formulation of the Orbán regime’s view of history. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we would eventually find out that she was the one who came up with the idea of the monument which, as it turned out, became a huge headache for Viktor Orbán. In comparison, Szakály is a small fry who, unlike Mária Schmidt, has no close connection to the prime minister himself. It is possible that it was Schmidt who suggested Szakály as a good choice for the directorship of Veritas.

In the last week or so both Schmidt and Szakály have been in the news. Szakály had an interview with a young journalist of an online newspaper called Versus (vs.hu) in which he again managed to say a few things that are considered to be inflammatory by some and outright wrong by others. The interview solicited a couple of written responses, and Szakály was invited by György Bolgár of KlubRádió for a chat on his program Megbeszéljük (Let’s talk it over). For those of you who know Hungarian, I highly recommend devoting about half an hour to that conversation, which begins at 22:13 and continues in the second half hour of the program.

Szakály began his career as a historian in 1982 when he published articles in periodicals dealing with military history. His first full-fledged book, on the military elite in the last years of the Horthy regime (A magyar katonai elit: 1938-1945, Budapest: Magvető), was published in 1987 . The book is full of statistics, including the percentages of various religious denominations of high-ranking officers. Or the breakdown by age of officers of the General Staff. It seems you can find every bit of minutiae about the Hungarian military elite you ever wanted (or didn’t want) to know. Even those that matter not. But the “spirit” of that military corps is missing entirely. We don’t learn anything about their ideology and their views of the world.

Szakaly

Szakály showed the same positivistic mindset when discussing the deportation of approximately 23,000 Jews in July 1941 who, according to the Hungarian authorities, could not produce proper identification to prove they were Hungarian citizens. This event took place shortly after the German attack on the Soviet Union. The Hungarian authorities sent these unfortunate people to territories already held by the Germans. Most of them were killed by the German occupying forces. According to Szakály, “some historians consider this event to be the first deportation of Jews from Hungary,” but in his opinion it can more properly be considered “a police action against aliens.” Jewish communities demanded Szakály’s resignation from his new post as director of Veritas.

Of course, Szakály did not resign. Moreover, as he said in this latest interview, he sees no reason to resign. He used “the correct technical term.” But then he continued: “I asked Ádám Gellért [a scholar who published an important study of the event] whether he looked at the text of the regulation. Did it say that Jews had to be expelled? Or did it say that they have to be expelled because they had no citizenship? It is another matter whether it was the appropriate time during the summer of 1941 to expel those without papers. I don’t contend that it couldn’t have happened that somebody out of spite expelled such a person who did have citizenship.”

Let’s analyze these few lines from a historian’s perspective. It is clear that Szakály lacks any and all ability to analyze a historical event in its complexity. If the ordinance does not specifically say something, the issue is closed. If the document did not say that Jews were to be expelled, then clearly the intent of the authorities was simply to deport stateless persons. The fact that all those who were deported were Jews doesn’t seem to make an impression on him and doesn’t prompt him to look beyond the words of the ordinance.

But that’s not all. Let’s move on to the timing. Szakály never asks himself why the Hungarian authorities picked that particular date and location for the deportations. He admits only that it was perhaps not the most “appropriate time.” Keep in mind that Germany attacked the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941 and Hungary followed suit on the 27th. Szakály either feigns ignorance or he really is incapable of putting 2 and 2 together. The cabinet decided on the deportation of  “Galician Jews” on July 1, and on July 16 the first transports started their journey toward Soviet territories, by now occupied by German troops. In fact, the Hungarian authorities used the very first “opportunity” to get rid of some of the Jews who lived in the northeastern corner of the enlarged country. The date was calculated and planned.

And finally, the inclusion of Hungarian citizens in the transports is assumed by Szakály to be a rare occurrence committed by spiteful individuals. Naivete? Blindness? Ignorance? Or something else?

After listening to the interview with him on KlubRádió, I came to the conclusion that Szakály chose the wrong profession. He should have gone to military academy to become a fine military officer. He would know all the paragraphs of the military code by heart, and I’m sure that he would be a most obedient officer who would follow the rules and regulations to the letter. He would never question his superiors. I’m sure that he would have been a much better officer than he is a historian.

And one more thing that upset many people, for example Péter György, an esthete at ELTE, and György C. Kálmán, a literary historian at the same university. It was this sentence: “In my opinion, prior to the occupation of our country by the Germans the security of life and property of Hungarian Jewry, independently of the discriminative laws, was essentially ensured.” György interprets the above sentence to mean that, according to Szakály, “the age of anti-Jewish laws can be considered a normal state of affairs, which is the gravest falsification of 20th-century Hungarian history.” He added that since Szakály is the head of an official government institute, one could even question the present government’s responsibility.

Kálmán’s is a satirical piece that appeared in Magyar Narancs. He lists 16 paragraphs out of the many anti-Jewish laws enacted in interwar Hungary and asks Szakály whether he would feel secure in his person and his property if these laws applied to him. Here one can read all the important pieces of legislation that deprived Jews of all sorts of personal and property rights.

When confronted with György’s criticism, Szakály thought that his sentence covered the truth because he added the word “essentially” (alapvetően). It is obvious that two entirely different types of scholars stand in juxtaposition here. Szakály, who relies on a strict interpretation of texts, and György, who sees the problem in its full complexity. I have the suspicion that Szakály doesn’t really understand what György is talking about.

Meanwhile Mária Schmidt is fighting against all the historians who don’t agree with her. Just lately she gave several interviews on ATV and Klubrádió, and in today’s Népszabadság she has a long interview with Ildikó Csuhaj. Feeling under attack, she has been lashing out against all her colleagues. An interesting psychological study which I will leave for tomorrow.