István Bethlen

Political controversy over the role of Regent Miklós Horthy (1920-1944)

Sunday marked the unveiling of a bronze bust of Admiral Miklós Horthy. The bust is located on the property of a Hungarian Reformed Church in Budapest, but it is visible from the busy Szabadság tér. The minister of the church is Lóránt Hegedüs, whose wife is a Jobbik member of parliament. This is not the first time that Hegedüs has prompted controversy with his extremist political views and actions. A few years back there was already a more modest Horthy bust, but that one was by and large hidden from public view.

The main reason for Hegedüs’s admiration of Horthy is the governor’s alleged role in regaining some of the territories Hungary lost after World War I. We mustn’t forget that November 2 was the 75th anniversary of the First Vienna Award negotiated with the assistance of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. As a result of the Award, Hungary regained a sizable portion of Slovakia. Less than two years later, on August 30, 1940, the Second Vienna Award, also arbitrated by Germany and Italy, granted Hungary some of the territories lost to Romania.

Lóránt Hegedüs in front of the controversial statue of Admiral Miklós Horthy / Népszabadság, Photo Árpád Kurucz

Lóránt Hegedüs in front of the controversial statue of Admiral Miklós Horthy
Népszabadság, Photo: Árpád Kurucz

Naturally, Horthy is only a symbol of these apparent successes of Hungarian diplomacy. The negotiations themselves were done by the Hungarian government, but Horthy was the one who as head of state rode on his white horse into the larger cities of the regained territories. It is this Horthy that the Hungarian extremists who gathered around the statue admire.

One often hears people who admire Horthy say that the admiral was responsible for Hungary’s relatively fast recovery after the war. These people don’t know that, although the whole interwar period is named after him, Horthy’s power was constitutionally extremely limited. Especially in his first ten or twelve years or so in office he had little say in the everyday running of the government. In the thirties, unfortunately for the country, he insisted on and received increased political power. Horthy knew practically nothing about politics before he became governor, and his skills didn’t improve greatly during his twenty years in office.

What these extremists admire most, his alleged skill in recovering former Hungarian territories, was actually his and the country’s undoing. For the good offices of Nazi Germany in November 1938 and August 1940 Hitler demanded loyalty from Horthy and Hungary. It was difficult to say no to the benevolent Führer who took Hungary’s side during the negotiations with Slovakia and Romania.

The other issue is the anti-Semitic nature of the Horthy regime and Horthy’s personal responsibility for the Holocaust in Hungary. It is undeniable that the interwar Hungarian governments actively helped the Christian middle classes achieve economic  and intellectual prominence to the detriment of the Jews. The numerus clausus (1920) that restricted the number of Jewish students at the universities was intended to further that aim of the government. Anti-Semites of those days talked about “the changing of the guard,” meaning altering the composition of the economic and intellectual elite. Most leading Hungarian politicians, including Horthy, would have liked to see a Jewish-free Hungary, but they knew that shipping out all the Jews would have terrible economic consequences. Yes, there was pressure from Germany, but many people in the government actually welcomed that pressure since it would facilitate the “changing of the guard” which hadn’t proceeded as rapidly as they would have liked.

As for Horthy’s personal responsibility for the expulsion of the Jews, I have to side with the majority of Hungarian historians who blame him for what happened. First of all, Horthy was not powerless even after the German occupation on March 19, 1944. He could have forbidden the Hungarian administration to make the necessary preparations to send about 600,000 Hungarians to Auschwitz. Because everything that was done was done by the Hungarian authorities. If he could stop the transports in July, he could have ordered the ministry of interior to refuse to cooperate with the Germans earlier on. The Germans simply didn’t  have the personnel or the know-how without Hungarian help to organize such a mass expulsion. Without the assistance of the Hungarian Railways, for example, no transport could have left the country. It was only when Horthy received threatening calls from all over the world in July 1944, including Great Britain and the United States, that he decided to act.

Finally, I would like to touch on the Orbán government’s position regarding the Horthy regime and Horthy himself. An unfolding Horthy cult is undeniable. It started with Jobbik, but eventually Fidesz decided not to try to stop the tide. Viktor Orbán himself didn’t promote the erection of Horthy statues or naming streets after Horthy, but he didn’t stand in their way either.  Just yesterday in parliament he quite openly admitted that what he wants are the votes of those who voted last time for Jobbik. And if that is your aim you don’t condemn the Horthy regime’s foreign policy or admit its responsibility for the deaths of Hungarian Jews.

Even today, after the unveiling of the statue and after outcries from the Hungarian and the international Jewish community, Fidesz refuses to take a stand. János Lázár already announced that it is the job of historians to determine Horthy’s role. As if historians hadn’t done their job already. Although no full-fledged biography of Horthy has yet been written in Hungary, Thomas Sakmyster’s book, Admiral on Horseback: Miklós Horthy 1918-1944. appeared in English in 1992 in the United States. Since then we have even more information on that period, including archival material that indicates that Horthy most likely knew about Hitler’s plans for the extermination of the Jews much earlier than the summer of 1944.

An incredible number of documents have been published ever since the 1960s on German-Hungarian relations. Selected private papers of Horthy were published in English.  Documents from the Hungarian Foreign Ministry were also published in several volumes between 1962 and 1982. Hundreds of articles appeared on different aspects of the Horthy regime. So, those Fidesz politicians who urge historians to work harder should first sit down and read a few books and articles which are readily available. Then they can decide whether it is appropriate to embrace the Horthy regime or not.

The time has come, I think, for the Orbán government to announce unequivocally that it does not seek its forebear in the different governments of the Horthy period. Not even the Bethlen governments because Prime Minister István Bethlen was an arch-conservative whose ideas were behind the times even then, and in the twenty-first century they have no place in a country that belongs to the European Union.

It seems that the Hungarian Reformed Church at least has finally taken action. The church is beginning disciplinary action against Lóránt Hegedüs. I don’t know whether they will have the guts to defrock him, but in my opinion that man has no business whatsoever leading a spiritual community.

Viktor Orbán’s self image: A worthy successor to István Bethlen

It was about a year ago in November that I wrote a post on the political career of István Bethlen, prime minister of Hungary between 1921 and 1931. It was right after the week-long power outage during which I decided to reread Ignác Romsics’s biography of Bethlen, the most talented politician of the interwar period. At that time I didn’t think that within a year István Bethlen would be declared the twentieth-century forerunner of Viktor Orbán. At least in the eyes of the head of the current government, whose activities of the last three and a half years have earned him the epithet “Godfather.” Poor Bethlen is turning in his grave.

It has been obvious for a long time that Viktor Orbán and his entourage have been madly looking for an ideological forebear on the right who is not tainted by servility to Hitler’s Third Reich or by rabid anti-Semitism.  But, given Hungarian historical reality, it was hard to find the right man. During the first Orbán administration they experimented with early heroes and religious figures: St. Stephen and the Virgin Mary. But it was tough to adapt the activities of an eleventh-century king about whom we know relatively little to the political needs of today. Stephen is still venerated, however. Only recently 35,000 graduating high school students received from the Orbán government a free copy of György Györffy’s István király és műve (1977), a 667-page tome.

The reburial of Miklós Horthy during the Antall government gave impetus to a reexamination of the Horthy regime, presumably in the hope that Horthy’s person and the whole period might be presented in a more favorable light. But it is hard to be sanguine about a twenty-five-year period that led to a lost war, incredible human and material suffering, the Holocaust, and an outright Nazi regime. A hopeless task, if you ask me. The reevaluation of Horthy is still under way, and a Horthy cult emerged recently that was originally initiated by Jobbik and rapidly taken over by the government itself. Writers who by and large were supporters of the Horthy regime began to be rehabilitated, but it turned out that the politicians who were promoting their revival knew little about their literary worth or their political orientation that led them badly astray.

But now they seem to have found their man in István Bethlen, who had nothing to do with Hitler, had to hide from the Nazis when they occupied Hungary on March 19, 1944, and finally died in a prison hospital in Moscow after he was arrested by the Soviets. It is, on the surface, a perfect fit.  The government decided to unveil a statue of the former prime minister on October 8, 2013, Bethlen’s birthday.

A couple of days before the statue was unveiled a conference was organized under the sponsorship of László Kövér, who was also the keynote speaker.  Kövér came up with a surprising assessment of Bethlen who, according to him, was a divisive man because “those who were interested in the everlasting submission and debilitation of Hungary wanted to forget him. But those whose goal was an independent and strong Hungary remember him and want to remind others of the man.” This is a typical example of how Fidesz politicians operate, excluding those who don’t happen to agree with the official view even when it comes to an assessment of a historical figure. Naturally, there were allusions to Marxism and “the lies of pseudo-liberals.”

Géza Stremeny: István Bethlen (1875-1946)

Géza Stremeny: István Bethlen (1874-1946)

At the unveiling that took place on Saint George’s Square in the Castle district Viktor Orbán was introduced as “the prime minister who shapes our age.” He then gave a fifteen-minute speech. But before I analyze Orbán’s speech I would like to say a few words about the statue itself. The sculptor was Géza Stremeny, a well-known artist. I checked out some of his work and like most of it, but this particular one reminds me, at least in composition, too much of the truly brilliant sculpture of Mihály Károlyi by Imre Varga, which was unceremoniously removed from Kossuth Square in front of the Hungarian Parliament. Both have a frame around the figure, but Stremeny’s is stark, with an echo of a gallows, as opposed to Varga’s rounded frame. Both men stand in a similar pose, leaning on a cane. I suggest taking a look at the Károlyi statue to see what I mean.

But let’s move on to the speech that was received with mixed emotions in opposition circles. There is no question that Orbán portrayed himself as a worthy equal of István Bethlen. “When István Bethlen occupied the office of the prime minister Hungary was losing on all fronts. It was a country that was isolated; it was on the verge of economic collapse. Let’s face it, it was a humiliated country.” But Bethlen realized that “Hungary shouldn’t expect a better future with the help of foreign lands but only from its own diligence and self-sacrificing work….  He believed that creative work is the only right strategy.”

In reality, Bethlen managed to get a low-interest loan from the League of Nations which at that point served as a kind of IMF. Even Orbán had to admit that much, but he immediately added that Bethlen didn’t use the borrowed money for welfare purposes but for job creation. “This policy was a brave one which bore fruit. In a decade Hungary managed to stand on its own feet again.” Clearly, this is what’s going on at the present time in Hungary. “We can say with all modesty that although there is still much work to be done, by now Hungary has regained its vitality and is getting stronger every day.”

Orbán’s speechwriters managed to find a Bethlen passage from 1931 that also came in handy: “We must realize that there are always those who want to use the economic crisis to their own advantage…. That’s why some people blacken the good name of the country abroad because they hope that the foreign powers will force such reforms on us that will enable them to gain power.” A little later we will understand what Bethlen was actually talking about.

Finally, he made sure that Bethlen will receive his deserved place in the national pantheon right after Ferenc Rákóczi, István Széchenyi, and Lajos Kossuth. He closed his speech “Glory to István Bethlen, glory to Hungary’s prime minister.”

What Viktor Orbán didn’t mention was that by 1931 Hungary was so indebted that the country was on the verge of insolvency. Foreign financial experts suggested another loan from the League of Nations, advice Bethlen refused to take. It turned out that the Hungarian government had falsified its financial records in the past and therefore the League of Nations insisted on a careful monitoring of the government’s use of any possible loan. This is what Bethlen wanted to avoid, just as Viktor Orbán didn’t want any low-interest loans from the IMF for the very same reason. As a result the bottom fell out, Bethlen had to resign in August 1931, and shortly after his resignation Hungary had to suspend payments on its foreign loans.

Viktor Orbán often talks about the magic ten years that would be necessary to complete his work. One wonders, as did the economist Péter Mihályi, whether Orbán had Bethlen’s ten years in mind. If he did, he forgot to mention the price the country had to pay for the relative well being of the 1920s which was financed not by self-sacrificing work, as Bethlen promised, but largely by foreign loans. It might have been wise to do a little research on the circumstances of Bethlen’s resignation instead of cherry picking a few sentences that meshed with his own ideas.

Looking backward: Historical complexity and political simplification

A couple of days ago I mentioned that three historians who are attached to the Institute of History of the Hungarian Academy of Science were entrusted with deciding the fate of persons and concepts that can possibly be connected to dictatorial regimes of the twentieth century. The other day the long awaited list was made public and was met with a mix of fury and derision. By today well known historians, members of the Academy, are calling the list and its creators a disgrace to the historical profession.

Almost a month before the appearance of the infamous list András Gerő, whose specialty is the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, rang the alarm bell and predicted that nothing good would come from this enterprise because the text of the law is imprecise and because whoever wrote it has no clue about the complexity of life and thus of history.

I will summarize Gerő’s main objections. The full text of the the law can be read here, but the key sentence is that “the name of no person can be used anywhere (institutions, media organs, public places) who played a leading role in the establishment, formation, and maintenance of twentieth-century dictatorial regimes or such expression or name of an organ that can be directly related with such a regime.”

The first problem is that the law itself is sloppily formulated. On the one hand it talks about dictatorial regimes (rendszerek) in the plural when it comes to persons whereas, when talking about organizations and concepts, it uses the singular (rendszer). So, how many dictatorial regimes are we talking about? Gerő rightly states that there were three such regimes in Hungary in the twentieth century. The Soviet Republic of 1919, the 1944-45 Arrow Cross regime, and the communist regime between 1949 and 1989. The text of the preamble to the bill provides a clue to the lawmakers’ thinking. Here they talk about “dictatorships” but add that “first and foremost” they are thinking of  the communist dictatorship and the 1919 Soviet Republic lasting 133 days. Thus, the emphasis is on dictatorships of the left.

Why does any lawmaker think that such a piece of legislation is necessary in the first place? The reason is that “our streets and institutions should bear names that are worthy of the ideals of a democratic country.” However, Gerő points out, it is not only dictatorship that is opposed to the ideals of a democratic state. What if the equality of citizens is terminated in a perfectly legitimate and democratic manner? The reference here is to the Horthy regime’s anti-Jewish laws. “Without equality of citizens there is no rule of rule (jogállam).” Gerő comes to the conclusion that perhaps the lawmakers are not really familiar with the meaning of the rule of law.

Listed by Epicantus / Daria Nepriakhina

Listed by Epicantus / Daria Nepriakhina / Flickr

But, Gerő says, ignorance has its consequences. On the preliminary list were such names as Béla Kun and Tibor Szamuely, who was personally responsible for political murders during the 1919 communist interlude. Their roles in the establishment and maintenance of a dictatorship are indisputable. But Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels also appeared on the list. They were included because of their role in laying the foundation for the later Soviet regime. Since both died years before 1917, we have no idea what they would have thought of the kind of dictatorship that was established in Soviet Russia. And if Marx and Engels are blacklisted, why don’t we put Prime Minister Pál Teleki, who played a leading role in the enactment of Hungary’s anti-Jewish laws, on the same list? And if we can connect Marx and Engels with the Muscovite Mátyás Rákosi, we should certainly link the name of Bishop Ottokár Prohászka, who is considered to be the theoretician of Ferenc Szálasi’s Hungarism, with the Holocaust.

One must also should keep in mind that people might change their views over their lifetimes. Either because they genuinely had a change of heart or because they responded to a changing situation. As an example Gerő brings up Gyula Szekfű (1883-1955), the historian. His extremely influential book written in 1920, Három nemzedék: Egy hanyatló kor története (Three generations: History of a declining age), blamed the liberals of the dual monarchy for the misfortunes that befell Hungary after World War I. This book played an important role in justifying István Bethlen’s counterrevolutionary regime. Later he moved farther to the left and after 1945 he even praised Stalin’s accomplishments and the Soviet regime. From 1953 he became a member of parliament and in the last two years of his life a member of the Presidium. There’s no question that he helped maintain the communist dictatorship. Right now a street bears his name in Budapest’s District IV. Should he be banned? According to the law, if we take it seriously, yes, he should be.

The other person Gerő mentions is János Szentágothai, the famous Hungarian medical researcher. He was also a member of parliament and later a member of the Presidium during the Kádár regime. Between 1977 and 1985 he was the president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences which was a political post. After 1990 he was again a member of parliament as an MDF member. Again, he should be banned but naturally he won’t be.

The third person is Béla Kovács, secretary-general of the Smallholders party, whom the Soviets exiled to the Gulag on February 25, 1947. In 2000, during the first Orbán administration, the government made February 25 a day of remembrance for the victims of communism. In 2002 Kovács’s statue was unveiled on Kossuth Square. Kovács became a member of Imre Nagy’s cabinet, but in 1958 he became a member of the pseudo-parliament of the early Kádár regime. He should also be banned according to a strict interpretation of the law.

The drafters of the law added that if and when there is any question concerning eligibility the case must be referred to the historians of the Academy. But if one reads the law carefully, it doesn’t allow for any doubt. The choice is either black or white, yes or no. Historians should know full well that life and therefore history is not that simple, and therefore they should not have accepted the job. Unfortunately, they did. The historians “should have told the government that this task cannot be accomplished in the spirit of academic correctness.”

They accepted the job despite the fact that Attila Pók, one of the three historians who took part in this disgraceful exercise, admitted that the law doesn’t allow for any shading or for a scientific approach and that the law was not thought through.

The government passed the buck to the Academy and the historians passed it back to the government. They excused their own participation by emphasizing that theirs was not the final word. They acted only in an advisory capacity.

The concern is growing in historical circles that “by participating in this political game they risked their academic credibility.”  As historian Gábor Gyáni said, “the historians found themselves in such an absurd situation that they had to explain why concepts like “freedom” or “republic” are not directly related to dictatorships. But at the same time they fell into such traps as declaring Maxim Gorky or Vladimir Mayakovsky supporters of a dictatorship. The former, after the assassination of Sergei Kirov in December 1934, was placed under “secret” house arrest. There were rumors that his sudden death wasn’t an accident. Mayakovsky by the late 1920s became increasingly disillusioned with the course the Soviet Union was taking and committed suicide.

Life is not as simple as Fidesz politicos imagine or as even well-known Hungarian historians think. And what if one day historians associate Viktor Orbán and the members of his government with the destruction of democracy in Hungary and with building an authoritarian regime with the assistance of a neo-Nazi party? It could easily happen.