Imre Mécs

Dissonant government voices on the Hungarian Holocaust

The Orbán government’s efforts to falsify history are proceeding full steam ahead. The “madness”–as Imre Mécs, one of the heroes of 1956, called it–continues. It looks as if Viktor Orbán refuses to listen to reason and insists on erecting a monument that depicts suffering Hungary as Archangel Gabriel at the mercy of the German imperial eagle. The originally stated purpose of the statue was to commemorate the German occupation of Hungary on March 19, 1944. After the first outburst of indignation, the monument’s rationale was changed to a commemoration of the victims, both Jewish and non-Jewish, of German aggression. There is only one problem with the whole concept. Hungary was an ally of Germany, and it was a legitimate Hungarian government that handled the deportation of about 600,000 Hungarian citizens of Jewish heritage. Not without reason, critics of the whole idea of the monument suspect that the Orbán government wants to shake off any responsibility for the Holocaust and to shift the blame entirely to Germany.

The protest around the foundation being built for the future monument has been going on for two weeks. Today about twenty people were removed and taken to police headquarters. The two best known demonstrators who were taken away are Imre Mécs, a former member of parliament who was sentenced to death as a result of his participation in the 1956 revolution, and his wife Fruzsina Magyar, a well-known dramaturgist.

It seems unlikely that the “madness” will end any time soon. Not only will the memorial stand but Sándor Szakály, a historian with far-right political views, will remain the director of the newly created historical institute,”Veritas.” As far I as can see, this new institute will be the government’s vehicle for a revisionist interpretation of modern Hungarian history. And we can only expect more historical madness. Just wait until young historians affected by the extremist ideology of Jobbik begin writing their own revisionist interpretations of historical events.

Mazsihisz, the umbrella organization of Jewish groups, objected to Szakály’s appointment, but considering that Sándor Szakály just signed a document ensuring long-term cooperation between the Veritas Institute and the Holocaust Documentation and Memorial Center, we can be sure that Szakály’s appointment is secure. How could it happen, one might ask, that the Holocaust Documentation Center would ever sign such a document? The answer is simple. One of the first acts of the Orbán government was a personnel change at the head of the Holocaust Documentation and Memorial Center. The old appointees were fired and the new guard arrived. At that point it was clear that the Orbán government had plans for the Center. Since the Memorial Center is financially dependent on the government, Viktor Orbán thinks he has every right to run the place the way he likes. In his world there is no such thing as an independent foundation. So, while Mazsihisz stands against Szakály’s appointment, the Orbán-appointed head of the Holocaust Memorial Center, György Haraszti, signs an agreement of long-term cooperation with the head of Veritas. On the face of it, it might seem that Orbán managed to split the Jewish community, but my feeling is that most Hungarian Jews applaud Mazsihisz and have a rather low opinion of the new head of the Holocaust Memorial Center.

Last Sunday’s March for Life, a yearly gathering in remembrance of the Holocaust, was the largest ever, definitely more than 30,000 people. The crowd filled the streets between the Danube and the Eastern Station. Quite a distance. The government was represented by President János Áder, who then joined the International March for Life on a pilgrimage to Auschwitz. This year the Hungarians led the procession from Auschwitz to Birkenau because of the 70th anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust.

The Hungarian group in Auschwitz-Birkenau

The Hungarian group in Auschwitz-Birkenau

Áder made a speech there that was welcomed by all those who are critical of the Hungarian government’s attitude toward the Holocaust. Áder emphasized that the Hungarian state didn’t resist “the diabolical plan of the German occupiers”; in fact, it became its enablers. He called Auschwitz “the largest Hungarian cemetery.” He went as far as to say that “in order to understand the tragedy of 1944 we will have to take a look at ourselves.”  He added that there is no “forgiveness when a state turns against its own citizens.”

János Áder in Auschwitz-Birkenau / MTI

János Áder in Auschwitz-Birkenau / MTI

These are very strong words. The strongest I have ever heard from a member of the Orbán government. I can’t quite decide how to interpret them. I have the feeling that this was Áder’s first visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and I understand that the place makes an incredible impression on visitors. Perhaps the president changed his speech in the last minute to place greater emphasis on Hungary’s guilt than he had originally planned. Perhaps he was simply saying what he thought the pilgrims expected to hear. Perhaps he really does believe that the Hungarian government was complicit. In any case, Áder’s admission of Hungarian guilt stands in stark contrast to what Viktor Orbán, László Kövér, and Zoltán Balog think of Hungary’s anti-Semitic past. Áder didn’t look for excuses, he didn’t try to bury uncomfortable truths. Was this an example of what we call the good cop, bad cop syndrome or was it genuine? I don’t know whether we will ever be able to answer this question properly given the tight-lipped Fidesz leaders.

As for whether the Germans were true occupiers or not, here is an amusing story. A few days ago neo-Nazi groups also decided to demonstrate on Szabadág tér. Great was the panic among the anti-monument demonstrators. They were afraid of physical attacks by these skin heads. To their surprise it turned out that, just like the Budapest liberals, the neo-Nazis came to demonstrate against the monument. Why? Because, as they explained, the Germans did not occupy Hungary. How could they? Hungarians and Germans were comrades-in-arms who fought together against Bolshevism. No comment.

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Days of protest, but the “Nazi” monument will stand in Budapest

I have been so preoccupied with the election results that I have neglected the recent tug-of-war between the Orbán government and a small group of people who desperately want to prevent the erection of a monument to commemorate the “occupation” of Hungary by German troops on March 19, 1944.

The monument depicts Hungary in the guise of the Archangel Gabriel as an innocent victim of German aggression when, in fact, Hungary was an ally of Nazi Germany. By extension, the present Hungarian government puts the blame for the Hungarian Holocaust entirely on Germany, although they do admit that some civil servants shamefully collaborated with the commandos of Adolf Eichmann. But the Hungarian government is not to be blamed because, with the occupation, Hungary lost its sovereignty. Most historians who are experts on the subject, inside and outside of Hungary, see it differently. So does the Hungarian Jewish community, whose representatives have been trying to have a dialogue with Viktor Orbán: they proposed more appropriate ways to remember the seventieth anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust. At the end of February there was a short reprieve in the “war of words” between Orbán and the Jewish community when Orbán promised to postpone the erection of the monument and offered to engage in a dialogue sometime after the Easter holidays.

But then came the election, whose results Viktor Orbán described as a resounding victory, and he was again full of energy. Two days after the election workmen appeared on Szabadság tér (Freedom Square) and started building a barrier around the designated site of the monument. Soon enough activists gathered and swore they would take it down. And indeed, in the morning the workmen constructed the wall and in the afternoon the demonstrators took it down. By the second day the demonstrators had the right kind of equipment to do quite a professional job disassembling the barrier. By yesterday, the barrier had gone up six times and come down six times. Someone compared the situation to the famous Hungarian/Romanian folk ballad in which the walls that are built one day by the masons at the Fortress of Deva/Déva are destroyed by the next morning.

While this was going on, about 20 policemen stood idly by until April 14, when several of the organizers were ordered to appear at the police station and charged with defacement of property. The defacement consisted of using spray paint to write messages on the canvas that covered the metal barrier. Included among the people so charged were Zoltán Lovas, a newspaper man; Fruzsina Magyar, wife of Imre Mécs who as a young man was condemned to death after the failed revolution in 1956; and Alice Fried, a Holocaust survivor, whose “graffiti” read: “I survived the Shoa. I still want to live!” Since then Imre Mécs, who “willfully” wrote messages on the canvas, was also charged.

History falsification / spiritual well-poisioning The first on the right is Fruzsina Magyar

History falsification / Spiritual well-poisoning
Fruzsina Magyar is on the far right.

Meanwhile tourists keep inquiring what’s going on and the participants tell them that “the government wants to erect a Nazi monument and the people are protesting.” Of course, it would be far too complicated to explain to these people what is at stake here. The game of erecting and taking down the barrier will go on for a while, but meanwhile the foundation for the enormous statue of Archangel Gabriel is being built. Yes, it must stand just as ordered by the imperious Viktor Orbán. His announced deadline is May 1.

Opponents say that as soon as Viktor Orbán and his government are gone this statue will join the statues erected during the Rákosi and Kádár periods, which are now  in a kind of statue cemetery in Memento Park. Others are certain that the new monument will have to be guarded day and night because it is likely that opponents will deface this monument that they find so objectionable.

The English-language media doesn’t seem to have taken much notice of what’s going on in the heart of Budapest. I discovered only one opinion piece, by András Simonyi, former Hungarian ambassador in Washington, who finds Viktor Orbán “deaf to the uproar by the Jewish community and other decent Hungarians. He fails to show leadership and magnanimity. He is missing the opportunity to behave like a statesman.”  Statesmanship? Magnanimity? From Viktor Orbán?

By contrast, the German press has been covering the story of the monument from the beginning. After all, Germany is implicated in this story. But the Germans, unlike the Hungarians, faced up to their own past and were ready to take the blame. They also know, as do most historians, that the Germans had eager accomplices in the Hungarian Holocaust. German public radio had a segment on the controversy, “Proteste gegen Nazi-Bezatsungsdenkmal.” Yes, the description of it as a Nazi monument is spreading. In it the journalist responsible for the text accurately described the situation that awaited the German troops in Hungary. Junge Welt ran an article entitled “Orbán in the role of the victim.” Perhaps the writer who claimed that Hungarians never quite got over the fact that they lost World War II is right. Seventy years after the fact. It would be high time to do so, but self-examination is impossible as long as the Hungarian government prevents any kind of honest look at Hungary’s role in the Holocaust.