János Martonyi

In a tight spot: Orbán’s Hungary between Russia and the European Union

The last time I talked about the Hungarian government’s attitude toward the the Ukrainian crisis was at the beginning of March when, most likely as a result of Polish urging, Hungarian foreign minister János Martonyi joined his Visegrád 4 colleagues and condemned Russian action in the Crimea. Soon enough, Zsolt Németh, undersecretary in the ministry, called in the Russian ambassador to express Hungary’s disapproval of Russian aggression. By that point I thought that Hungary would remain resolute in defense of Ukraine. But something happened between March 4 and 18, when Hungary retreated from its earlier position.

The Council of the European Union released a statement in which it stated that “the EU does not recognize the illegal ‘referendum’ and its outcome.” The EU and the U.S. agreed to impose sanctions against Russian and Ukrainian officials considered responsible for the referendum. Sanctioning would proceed in three stages, with the final stage including economic sanctions.

In an interview with CNN on March 18 János Martonyi indicated that Hungary would be a very reluctant participant in any action against Putin’s Russia. If an economic conflict were to develop between the EU and Russia, “one of the EU national economies hit most would be Hungary due to its vulnerability to energy supplies.” A few days later Viktor Orbán claimed that they checked all the numbers and indeed Hungary would be a huge loser if economic sanctions were leveled against Russia.

In fact, it seems that Hungary is one of the three most reluctant EU members when it comes to taking a stance against Russian aggression. The other two countries are Greece and Cyprus. Both Greece and Hungary depend on Russia for about 50% of their energy needs while Cyprus, though it doesn’t need Russian gas, does want its oligarchs’ money. As Judy Dempsey, the well-known journalist, remarked, “Cyprus’s reluctance is linked to its status as a lucrative parking place for Russian money.” In the same article she stated that “East Europeans aren’t united either. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who recently signed a major nuclear energy contract with Russia, has played down the entire Ukraine crisis and Russia’s annexation of Crimea. In contrast, the Baltic states are so afraid of their giant neighbor’s appetite that they are taking a tough line despite a total dependence on Russian gas.” (For a complete list of the EU member states and their respective attitudes toward Russian sanctions, take a look at the chart in Judy Dempsey’s article.)

Well, there is playing down and playing down. At the outbreak of the crisis Viktor Orbán announced that “Hungary is not part of the conflict.” Just before the March 6 summit Orbán released a statement in which he made no reference to Russia at all. He announced that the topic in Brussels will naturally be Ukraine but added that “for us the most important consideration is the security of Hungarians in Subcarpathia.” It is “from this viewpoint that we look at the events. By sending the foreign minister to Subcarpathia we wanted to make sure that the Hungarians there know that they can count on us.”

Last Thursday Orbán had a chance to talk with Angela Merkel before the start of the summit. The meeting, in the presence of Péter Szijjártó, lasted half an hour during which, I’m certain, Orbán wanted to convince Merkel to refrain from additional sanctions. Originally 21 Russian and Ukrainian individuals were barred from entering the EU and their bank accounts were frozen. It seems that Orbán wasn’t persuasive enough because Merkel, who was keen on adding 11 more persons to the list, managed to convince her colleagues to embark on the second stage of sanctions against Russia. After the meetings Orbán announced to Hungarian journalists that the issue of Paks didn’t come up. In his usual cocky manner he announced that “there is nothing to discuss in this connection. It is a closed issue.”

In the end Orbán, representing Hungary, signed the agreement that cites Ukraine’s desire to become part of the European Union sometime in the future. The Hungarian prime minister made it clear, however, that minority rights in Ukraine are his primary concern. If the language law that would have curtailed the free use of Hungarian in Subcarpathia had been enacted, he wouldn’t have signed the document. He added that the Ukrainians must conduct a meticulous nationality policy and that at the same time the Ukrainian government must restrain the nationalistic far-right elements within the country.

He then turned to his ideas about the most desirable source of energy, which in his opinion is nuclear power. In this respect, he is following the lead of Great Britain. And that takes me to a newly published article on CNBC’s website by Javier E. David. The author argues that “the new Cold War brewing between Russia and the U.S. has the potential to go nuclear–just not in the conventional sense.” As a result of the Ukrainian crisis, a debate developed as to whether the United States can use natural gas to counter Russia’s global ambitions. But “some experts say the real front in the global energy battle lies not in oil and gas, but in the arena of nuclear technology.” According to the World Nuclear Association, Rosatom is building 37 percent of the new atomic facilities currently under construction worldwide.

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The article cites Barbara Judge, former chairperson of the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority, who describes the situation as follows: “The Russians view nuclear as an excellent export product. . . . They are using it as part of their plan to establish themselves as a geopolitical power.”  How do they achieve this? By lending poorer countries money. “Countries that need nuclear often do not have the funds to pay for it.” By financially helping these countries purchase nuclear technology, Russia “is using that money as a lever to open the door.”

It is because of these considerations that Viktor Orbán might be mistaken and that, after all, the case of Paks might not be closed.

Ukrainian-Hungarian relations during the Orbán years

Today I’m going to survey Hungarian-Ukrainian relations over the course of the last four years, since Viktor Orbán won the election. You may recall that the new prime minister began his diplomatic rounds with a trip to Poland, which was supposed to signal a foreign policy that would put the emphasis not so much on relations with western Europe as on relations with other central and eastern European nations. Of course, he also made several official visits to Brussels, but they were quick trips related to Hungary’s membership in the Union. There is a handy list, compiled by MTI, on Orbán’s foreign visits, showing that Ukraine was one of the first countries he visited. It was on November 12, 2010 that he traveled to Kiev. Shortly thereafter, on November 30, he went to Moscow.

Ukrainian-Hungarian flagsSo, let’s see what Orbán had to say about Hungarian-Ukrainian relations at the time. He claimed that former Hungarian governments hadn’t paid enough attention to Ukraine, but from here on everything would change because “the current Ukrainian leadership stabilized Ukraine” even as he is “working on stabilizing Hungary.” He was looking forward to cooperation between two stable countries, and he expressed his appreciation that Viktor Yanukovych’s government had withdrawn some legislation that was injurious to the Hungarian minority in Subcarpathia. A few months earlier, during one of his visits to Brussels, Orbán had a meeting with Anders Fogh Rasmussen, secretary-general of NATO, during which he commented favorably on the new Ukrainian government (Yanukovych became president of Ukraine on February 25, 2010), which he considered to be a “reliable” partner.

Since 2010 Ukrainian-Hungarian relations have been friendly. In fact, behind the scenes they were quite close. Here I will give just one example of how close: the story of Oleksandr Shepelev, former member of the Ukrainian parliament. Shepelev belonged to Yulia Tymoshenko’s party from 2006 until December 2012. The Ukrainian government charged him with three contract killings and one attempted murder. In addition, he was alleged to have embezzled one billion dollars of government funds which, they contended, he pumped into Rodovid, an ailing bank with which he was associated. He fled Ukraine, fearing for his safety. The Ukrainian government went to Interpol asking for his arrest. He and his family were found in Budapest in July 2013 where he was seeking political asylum. The Ukrainian online newspaper Kyiv Post triumphantly announced on September 30 that “the Hungarian authorities have denied refugee status to former Ukrainian member of parliament Oleksandr Shepelev, a diplomatic source told Interfax-Ukraine.” The Hungarian judicial system ordered the Shepelev couple to be incarcerated until the immigration authorities decided their fate. Half a year went by and there was still no decision about the Shepelevs.

According to Indexthe Hungarian government that was asked to extradite the Shepelevs to Ukraine was quite eager to oblige. Vitali Zakharchenko, the just recently dismissed minister of interior, came to Budapest several times to confer with his Hungarian colleague, Sándor Pintér, about the fate of Shepelev. Viktor Pshonka, the prosecutor-general of Ukraine whose garish house we admired online, who since was also dismissed by the Ukrainian parliament and is currently in hiding, also paid a visit to Budapest to confer with Hungary’s own chief prosecutor, Péter Polt. In fact, the Hungarian government was certain that Shepelev would be in Kiev soon enough, and they leaked the impending extradition to reporters. The Hungarian courts, however, intervened. In a December 9 hearing the judge ruled that the reasons given by the immigration office for a denial of political asylum were insufficient. Shepelev, who might have been thrown into jail for life in Ukraine, was temporarily saved by the Hungarian judiciary despite the best efforts of the Orbán government.

The immigration office had to make a decision by January 6 but nothing happened. At this point Galina Shepeleva threatened the prison authorities with a hunger strike. Shepelev’s lawyer, after looking at the documents submitted by the immigration office, came to the conclusion that the office was following the explicit orders of the Hungarian government. In brief, Viktor Orbán was effectively assisting Yanukovych’s thoroughly corrupt government go after a political opponent, possibly on trumped-up charges.

As long as Vladimir Putin and Viktor Yanukovych were both in power Viktor Orbán’s situation was easy. He could have excellent relations with both. But now Yanukovych, who according to Orbán brought “stability to Ukraine,” is gone and Putin has sent troops to the Crimea. Orbán, as prime minister of a country that is a member state of the European Union, is supposed to follow the lead of the European Union. The prime ministers or presidents of most European countries, including Hungary’s neighbors, have openly condemned the Russian military action. Viktor Orbán is silent.

The Russian military move is clearly illegal. The reference point is the so-called Budapest Memorandum of 1994 signed by Bill Clinton, John Major, Boris Yeltsin, and Leonid Kuchma, who was then the president of Ukraine. The complete text of the Budapest Memorandum is available on the Internet. The parties agreed, among other things, “to refrain from economic coercion designed to subordinate to their own interest the exercise by Ukraine of the rights inherent in its sovereignty and thus to secure advantages of kind.” In this light, Putin’s economic pressure on Ukraine was already a violation of the agreement. Point 2 of the agreement states that “the United States of America, the Russian Federation, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, reaffirm their obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine.”

The ineffectual János Martonyi did go to Ukraine with the Czech and Slovak foreign ministers. Poland sent only an undersecretary. They went to Kiev and the Donetsk region where they held most likely absolutely useless talks with Ukrainian leaders. Martonyi subsequently visited the Subcarpathian region where he conferred with leaders of the Hungarians living there who hold conflicting political opinions. Ever since Orbán won the election in 2010 the Hungarian government has given financial help to one faction while it has ignored the other. It looks as if the main difference between the two groups is their attitude toward the Yanukovych government. The Yanukovych government, most likely as a sign of its appreciation for Viktor Orbán’s support, lifted some of the discriminatory pieces of legislation previously enacted. That made some of the Hungarians supporters of the Yanukovych regime. Others sided with the supporters of the European Union. Throughout his visit to the region Martonyi kept emphasizing the need for unity. However, under the present circumstances I’m not at all sure what this means. Supporting whom? The parliament in Kiev rather foolishly abrogated the language law enacted in 2012 but thanks to the intervention of the acting president it is still in force. Therefore it is also difficult to figure out what Martonyi’s silly motto, “Don’t hurt the Hungarians,” which he repeated on this occasion, means in this particular case.

For a good laugh, which we all need today, here is what the sophisticated deputy prime minister, Zsolt Semjén, said about the Ukrainian crisis last night in an interview on HírTV. “It is a good thing to have something between us and Russia.” Let’s hope that this statement, however primitive, means that Hungary stands behind the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

A footnote to McCain’s visit and Viktor Orbán’s letter to John Lukacs

I’m going to start with a footnote to my post on American-Hungarian relations and the visit of John McCain to Budapest.

I have written about Foreign Minister János Martonyi several times over the years on Hungarian Spectrum. Here I’ll recap briefly.

Martonyi loyally served the Kádár regime as trade secretary in Brussels between 1979 and 1984 when he was promoted to department head at the ministry of foreign trade. He joined the communist party only a few months before its collapse.

In the Antall administration he became undersecretary in the ministry of foreign affairs, but when the socialists and liberals won the election in 1994 Martonyi, for the first time in his life, found himself outside the world of civil service. He became a partner at Baker & McKenzie’s Budapest office. His exile didn’t last long. In 1998 he became foreign minister in Viktor Orbán’s first government where he dutifully played second fiddle to Viktor Orbán, who even then was inclined to conduct his own diplomatic efforts, if you can call them that. While today he has his own undersecretary for foreign affairs and trade located in the prime minister’s office, then he was not so blatant. My impression in those days was that the man Orbán relied on was his old friend, one of the founders of Fidesz, Zsolt Németh, undersecretary under János Martonyi.

Initially I felt sorry for Martonyi for being put in such a demeaning position, but since then I changed my mind. A self-respecting person would have resigned. He didn’t. During Fidesz’s exile, especially during the tenure of April H. Foley, he was the confidant and skillful manipulator of the American ambassador. Perhaps because of his usefulness during this period Viktor Orbán decided that the post of foreign minister would go to Martonyi even though most people thought that the front runner was Németh. But given Zsolt Németh’s decreasing visibility and influence, it looks as if Németh has been dropped while Martonyi is just ignored.

In my post on the McCain visit I called attention to Martonyi’s enthusiastic endorsement of the Orbán government’s anti-American stance, which belies the man’s allegedly pro-western moderate views. Today he gave a telephone interview to MTI in which he explained that he had a private conversation with Senator McCain “who spoke in very positive terms” about his visit to Budapest. Martonyi assured the American politician that the rules of democracy are being followed to the letter in Hungary. He added that “John McCain is still our friend who follows Hungarian affairs with understanding. His visit to Budapest only strengthened his sympathies quite independently of the kind of terminology he used at his press conference.”

So, if I understand it right, according to Martonyi, Senator McCain lied at his press conference and in the press release I shared with you yesterday. Or put another way, those Hungarians who heard McCain and read the newspaper reports on that press conference were misled by the good senator because he, in fact, was mighty impressed with Viktor Orbán and Hungarian democracy and thought that the monument designed to demonstrate that Hungary had no role to play in the Holocaust was a splendid idea. A friend of mine originally from Romania told me that this kind of lying was a favorite trick of the Ceaușescu regime.

And now to something entirely different. I translated Professor John Lukacs’s open letter to Viktor Orbán expressing his misgivings about getting involved with Russia through a long-term commitment on the Paks nuclear power plant. Well, this time Viktor Orbán replied to Professor Lukacs very promptly.

* * *

Mr. John Lukács
Corvin-Chain recipient professor

Dear Mr. Professor:

I am reading your open letter that is also addressed to me and that appeared in the newspaper that once belonged to the communist party. I always looked upon your friendship and attention as one of the gifts of my life. Perhaps because of your books or the liberality of your lectures, or perhaps the genuine Catholic serenity which surrounds you. I don’t really know. Whatever it is, it was easy to be in agreement when we talked about Hungarian history, the state of Christian civilization, and the important questions of the future. This must have been the reason that until now I didn’t notice the differences which divide us and which are most likely due to our different generational responses.

You still see our beloved country’s anchoring in the West as an open question. For our own anti-communist generation hardened during the times of the regime change, it is a closed chapter.  A clearly and splendidly closed chapter. A worthy answer to the Soviet occupation of 1945 and to the decades of communism. It is an answer coming from the Hungarian spirit and Hungarian soul. Two plebiscites connect Hungary to the military and political system of the West. NATO and the European Union. What always belonged together has grown together. We chose our military, political, and economic systems by an overwhelming majority because today’s Hungarians know who we are and where we belong. We here at home already live in that future about which you still worry on the other side of the ocean.

miniszterelnokThe most challenging question of that future is the competitiveness of our West, that is of Europe in the next decades. My own answer can be summarized this way: the future of Europe is western identity and eastern activity. We have to firmly guard our values, including our Christian commitment, and at the same time with full speed we must build our economic ties with the East. This is what Germany, France, and even the United States are doing, and at last we ourselves started on that road.

Please don’t pay too much attention to the left, which is still struggling with its own communist past and Muscovite* role. Its present anti-Russian stance is outright laughable. To hold the view that strong economic ties with Russia are wrong because of its communist past would find its parallel in arguing against the strengthening of our economic ties with the Germans because they were Nazis. All this is only the scummy slough of communism.

As you know, we have an election campaign here and therefore there is more than usual disagreement. But I would bet a lot that on the question of Russian relations the day after the election there will be perfect agreement.

We thank you for your concerns and friendly words. We all of us wish you vigor and good health. We are looking forward to your new books.

January 27, 2014

With friendship,
Viktor Orbán

—–

*Orbán actually uses the word “muszkavezető.” First of all, “muszka” as the equivalent of Russian is dying out in the Hungarian language. Second, “muszkavezető” literally means “someone who leads in the Russians.” One can say all sorts of things about Rákosi and his gang, but not that they themselves were responsible for the presence of the Russians on Hungarian soil.

American-Hungarian relations and John McCain’s visit to Budapest

It was a week ago that Gergely Gulyás, the young rising star of Fidesz, attacked the American ambassador designate, Colleen Bell, accusing her of bias against the current Hungarian government. At that time I pointed out that without Viktor Orbán’s approval or perhaps even instructions the open letter Gulyás published could never have appeared. Now, in light of the recent visit of Senator John McCain to the Hungarian capital, a fuller picture emerges about the circumstances of that letter.

The public learned only on January 30 that Senator McCain will be spending a day in Budapest. He came not alone but as part of a nine-member bipartisan delegation consisting of three senators and six congressmen.

Surely, the Hungarian government must have known for some time about the impending visit of the American delegation. I venture to say that they knew about it before January 22 when Gulyás published his outrageous letter accusing Colleen Bell of partiality toward the opposition. Those Fidesz politicians who watched the video of the Senate hearing realized that the Republican McCain had a rather low opinion of the ambassadors Barack Obama proposed and may therefore have thought that an attack on Bell would yield brownie points with McCain. If that was the case, it was based on a total misunderstanding of American politics. Sure, at home McCain will show his dissatisfaction with Obama’s choices, but in Budapest he will not cozy up to Viktor Orbán just because he thinks that Bell knows nothing about Hungary or diplomacy. He will follow American foreign policy toward Hungary, which is currently very critical.

A day before the visit of the American delegation János Lázár continued the attacks on the United States in connection with the electronic listening devices that were most likely used on Hungarian citizens as well. Here they found themselves in a strong position. All of Europe is up in arms over the facts disclosed by Edward Snowden, and the decision was most likely made at the highest level that this topic could be used effectively against McCain during the talks. Another miscalculation. McCain didn’t apologize but instead emphasized that surveillance is necessary in the face of terrorism. They will be more selective in the application of these devices in the future. Period.

Meanwhile the parliamentary committee investigating American surveillance held its first meeting on January 30.  In addition to the official members, János Lázár, head of the prime minister’s office, Sándor Pintér, minister of the interior, and János Martonyi, foreign minister, were also present. By the way, the so-called “moderate” János Martonyi, the favorite of former American ambassadors, also condemned Colleen Bell’s testimony as if he were not aware that Bell didn’t express her own opinions but simply presented the official position of the United States government. Pintér promptly made the proceedings secret while Martonyi announced that the topic of surveillance will “remain on the agenda,” adding that “it will take a long time to repair the trust that is so important between allies and friends.” János Lázár announced that the surveillance affair “may influence in a significant way the relations between the USA and Hungary.” All in all, the Orbán government was ready to receive John McCain in full armor. Lázár also said at the press conference after the meeting that the new ambassador “will have to appear before the parliamentary committee,” something that will surely not happen. Máté Kocsis, the youthful chairman of the committee, went even further. He wants to see Edward Snowden himself in Budapest to answer the committee’s questions.

It was only on Thursday that McCain’s impending visit leaked out. The Hungarian media was convinced that the chief topic of the conversations would be Ukraine. The newspapers recalled that McCain had visited that country in December, but they really couldn’t give any reasonable explanation why Hungary would be that important in connection with the crisis in Ukraine other than having about 200,000 co-nationals living in its subcarpathian region who at the moment don’t seem to be threatened. What we learned afterwards was that Viktor Orbán “informed the American delegation of the V4 [Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic, and Hungary] discussion on the situation in Kiev.” So, Ukraine was not at the center of the discussions.

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So, let’s see what McCain himself had to say about his time in Budapest. Besides the usual round of praise for the faithful ally, he stated that “we understand the concerns about the state of democracy in Hungary that have been raised by people both inside and outside of this country. Some of these concerns are very serious…. The United States and the rest of the free world have an abiding interest in Hungary’s continued development as a strong, inclusive, and tolerant democracy, with a free market economy, an independent judiciary, and a free media.” During the conversations “we also expressed our hope that Hungary will address its energy security needs in ways that further diversify Europe’s supply of energy.” To translate all that into plain English, McCain criticized the state of democracy in Orbán’s Hungary and also must have shared his concerns over Hungary’s sole reliance on Russian energy sources, especially now that Orbán seems to have committed Hungary to Russia in building two new reactors on borrowed money.

From other Hungarian sources it became clear that the forthcoming election was also discussed. McCain must have expressed his worries about the fairness of the election because apparently Orbán readily agreed to have international observers. McCain was also worried about the lack of transparency in the negotiations with the Russians concerning Paks. And at this point I’m not at all sure that McCain knew that all the financial details of the Paks negotiations have already been made secret for years to come.

McCain and the others present were familiar with the memorial to be erected on Szabadság tér. They even talked about anti-Semitism in Hungary. The Democratic congressman from Florida, Ted Deutch, told Orbán that he must be sure that the monument will not be used “to whitewash history.” Apparently, Viktor Orbán gave his word, but unfortunately we know how much his word is worth.

The American delegation met Attila Mesterházy, Gordon Bajnai, Benedek Jávor, and Gábor Fodor. I assume that Ferenc Gyurcsány was not present because in 2007-2008 he was accused by the Americans, with help from Viktor Orbán who was then in his anti-Russian mode, of being a great friend of Vladimir Putin.

Magyar Nemzet and Magyar Hírlap, the government’s mouthpieces, have for some time been publishing articles with a sharp anti-American edge, but since the Orbán government decided to take on the American government through an attack on Colleen Bell the articles and opinion pieces written in these two organs have become outright vicious.

Magyar Nemzet after the official meeting  made a flippant remark about “the former presidential candidate who suddenly had an attack of worry for Hungarian democracy.” István Lovas, the paper’s correspondent in Brussels, wrote an opinion piece in today’s Magyar Nemzet entitled “At last,” in which he expressed his delight that at last Hungary is hitting back: “Goodbye servitude, goodbye hopelessness.” Magyar Hírlap just today published four articles on American-Hungarian relations where they talk about John McCain as “a somebody called McCain, … a loud American” who lectures Hungarians about democracy and who “worries himself sick” over undemocratic Hungary. Hungarians are bored with all that talk about checks and balances they keep repeating. A few weeks ago an article in Magyar Hírlap described the oft repeated phrase “checks and balances” as American whining (nyivákolás).

I’m pretty sure that this fierce anti-American rhetoric is popular in certain circles in Hungary, but I have to believe that it will have very adverse effects on both the diplomatic and the economic relations between Hungary and the United States.

Attack on the United States and friendship with “tolerant” Russia

Don’t think that the Hungarian government’s attack on the incoming American ambassador is independent of the Hungarian-Russian deal on the Paks power plant. Oh no, both have a great deal to do with the Hungarian government’s continuing war of independence. The newest ally in this fight is the “tolerant” and democratic Russia under Vladimir Putin. At least this is what András Bencsik, one of the organizers of the Peace Marches that demonstrated against the European Union, thinks.

If you think that I’m joking, you are wrong. Serious efforts are being made by Fidesz-Jobbik supporters  to recreate the old Soviet/Russian friendship from which twenty-three years ago Hungarians were happy to escape. The Fidesz-Jobbik label is not a mistake on my part. I consider Zsolt Bayer, András Bencsik, Gábor Széles and others involved in the Peace March movement outright anti-Semite neo-Nazis. And yes, they are supporters of the present government. The two are not mutually exclusive alternatives.

It all started with the letter addressed to Colleen Bell, the U.S. ambassador designate, who was accused by Gergely Gulyás, an influential member of Fidesz and an MP, of representing the interests of the Hungarian opposition. She was told in no uncertain terms that the Hungarian people will not stand for the tutelage of a foreign power. There is even talk of dragging the new ambassador before a parliamentary committee investigating American illegal spying on Hungarian politicians, including perhaps Viktor Orbán.

Of course, we all know that Gergely Gulyás would never dare to make such a frontal attack on the United States on his own. There is no question in my mind that a vicious anti-American propaganda is under way which might be connected to the forthcoming election as well as the possible domestic opposition to the Russian-Hungarian deal on Paks. In any case, the innocent victim of the political and diplomatic game will be Colleen Bell, who has not the foggiest idea what is waiting for her. I suspect she will soon be sorry that she ever had ambassadorial ambitions.

As soon as Gulyás set the tone, everybody on the right felt free to join the offensive. Even our “moderate” János Martonyi decided to line up and move Hungary’s attack against the United States abroad. He gave an interview to the Budapest correspondent of The Wall Street Journal in which he “urged the incoming U.S. ambassador to Budapest to stay independent in her judgment after Colleen Bradley Bell voiced concerns about the state of checks and balances in Hungary and independence of some of the country’s institutions.”

Naturally, Martonyi is more diplomatic than the far-right-wing Fidesz supporters like András Bencsik who feel just as comfortable in Jobbik’s Hungarian Guard as in Fidesz (and earlier, in the case of Bencsik, in communist circles). Bencsik is a man of action. This morning he wrote a short piece on Facebook in which he announced his plans to organize another Peace March, not surprisingly a week before the election, on March 29. Of course, one goal is to fire up the core Fidesz electorate. But it will be a demonstration against the United States “which takes up the role of the Soviet Union. It doesn’t send ambassadors but arrogant regional governors, instructors, commissars to the subjugated country whose job is to relay tidbits of the ideas of the enslaved people to the heart of the empire. Their job is to force these primitive people to lead a prescribed life: ‘checks and balances and marijuana.'” The last refers to President Obama’s views on the legalization of marijuana. “In comparison Russia is the home of tolerance.”

Bencsik in this Facebook note interprets “checks and balances” as some kind of geopolitical balance that was, for example, practiced by the princes of Transylvania who maneuvered  between the Ottoman and the Habsburg Empires. With closer relations with Russia, Bencsik argues, Hungary can have a larger role to play in foreign affairs and will thus receive greater independence. Of course, not everybody will be happy with this new Russian-Hungarian friendship, just as Izsák Schulhof mourned the departure of the Turks from Buda. What? Who is this Schulhof? Bencsik, an anti-Semite, naturally found his anti-Hungarian Jew who allegedly mourned the departure of the escaping Turks from Buda in 1686. As usual, the story is not accurate. A friend of mine sent me a link to a letter of a historian of the Budapest Historical Museum which sets the story straight. It seems that these anti-Semites manage to find some usually untrue story to depict Jews as historically against the Hungarian nation. The implication of Bencsik’s reference to Schulhof is that only Jews complain about the foreign policy of Viktor Orbán which otherwise gives greater leeway for diplomatic maneuvering and therefore is beneficial to Hungary.

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Some Hungarian weeklies had fantastic covers depicting this new love affair between Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin. András Bencsik’s Magyar Demokrata, on the other hand, decided to feature the new “museum quarter” in the heart of Budapest.

Heti Válasz opted for word play on “pax vobiscum” from the Catholic mass,  meaning “peace be with you,” while Figyelő talked about “atomic power.” HVG reminded its readers of the “Eastern bloc.” I especially like Magyar Narancs’s “The country is on Putin’s hook.” The pictures appeared on 444.hu.

The Hungarian Holocaust Year and the reaction of Jewish organizations

Let me start with a disclaimer. In a comment I gave details of the negotiations currently underway among the politicians of MSZP, Együtt-14, and DK. I should have been more circumspect because the information came from Heti Válasz. Although it is the least objectionable of the pro-government publications, that doesn’t mean that one ought to believe everything that appears in it. Heti Válasz claimed to know that MSZP will have 66 districts while E-14 and DK will have 20 districts each. The paper reported that the list will be headed by Attila Mesterházy to be followed by Gordon Bajnai, Ferenc Gyurcsány, and someone from PM. Well, it turns out that although the negotiations are proceeding well, the participants are far from a final agreement.

Berlin postcard 1938 issued to commemorate the meeting between Hitler and Horthy

Berlin postcard 1938, issued to commemorate the meeting between Hitler and Horthy

And now to today’s topic. As all active readers know, my post on the events of 1944 created an incredible number of comments. I wrote in response to the government’s idea of erecting a monument to Hungary’s “occupation” by German forces. My summary was largely based on the final chapter of Krisztián Ungváry’s latest book, The Balance Sheet of the Horthy Regime: Discrimination, Social Policy and anti-Semitism in Hungary, which in turn relies on the cumulative research of German, American, and Hungarian scholars. Since it is a very recent publication, Ungváry incorporated the latest findings about the circumstances of this so-called occupation, which surely can’t be called an occupation in the accepted meaning of the word. It, in fact, could better be described as a troop movement within the territories of military allies.

Since the beginning of the year the controversy swirling around the erection of such a monument has been steadily growing in Hungary and abroad. It is not at all surprising, therefore, that Krisztián Ungváry decided to voice his opinion on the subject. Some people thought that the announcement of the erection of a monument was a joke, and accordingly Ungváry starts his article with a witticism of General Maximilian von Weichs, the general of the German forces sent to Hungary in 1944. When he was asked about the time it will take to occupy the whole country Weichs answered: twenty-four hours. And if there is resistance? Weichs’ answer was: only twelve hours because in that case there will not be so many welcoming speeches from Hungarian officials. Weichs felt that his stay in Hungary was unnecessary. His soldiers had nothing to do, and he personally spent his time going to parties, wine tastings, and the opera.

Ungváry makes no bones about the Orbán government’s duplicitous public relations campaign when it comes to Hungary’s role in the Holocaust. On the one hand, Ministers Tibor Navracsics and János Martonyi can admit Hungary’s share of responsibility in the events of 1944, but this is a message intended for foreign consumption. At home the government, by erecting a memorial to the German “occupation,” refuses to acknowledge any share of the blame. Some of the pro-government “historians” go even further and claim that, with the active help of Miklós Horthy, “300,000 Hungarian Jews were hidden, fed, and saved in Budapest.”

I think the erection of a monument was the last straw even for Mazsihisz (Magyarországi Zsidó Hitközségek Szövetsége), which has been watching with growing suspicion the government’s efforts to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust. Mazsihisz is an organization that represents only the Jewish religious communities, which is a very small group in comparison to those who consider themselves Jewish but have no religious affiliation. Mazsihisz also depends to a large degree on the goodwill of the Hungarian government, and therefore its leaders tread lightly. However, last year there was a shakeup in Mazsihisz, and it seems that the new leadership is taking a more activist role in defense of Jewish interests.

In charge of both the new House of Fates and the memorial is János Lázár. Lázár instructed Antal Rogán, mayor of District V where the memorial will stand, to make the necessary arrangements for a “building permit.” The new president of Mazsihisz, András Heisler, wrote a letter to Rogán in which he expressed his misgivings about the project. The letter interpreted the erection of such a monument as a “grievous and sad message” which worries both the Hungarian and the international Jewry. The letter specifically asked the authorities to abandon the idea of such a monument.

Heisler is afraid that if the monument actually materializes there will be “an international scandal” which he would like to prevent. Mazsihisz also has problems with the House of Fates. At the beginning of December they wrote a letter to Mária Schmidt in which they listed the names of twenty experts whose presence would ensure the historical accuracy of the planned exhibit. They asked her to pick five. Now, more than a month later, there is still no word from Schmidt. Moreover, Heisler knows nothing more about the monument than he did when he read news of it on January 1. In brief, all the plans for the Holocaust year are proceeding without any input whatsoever from the official Hungarian Jewish organizations. A few days ago Mazsihisz decided to write to János Lázár himself. As yet they have received no answer from him either.

So, this is where we stand. I agree with András Heisler. The falsification of history is proceeding apace on all fronts, but the Holocaust is an especially sensitive subject as far as the Orbán government is concerned. On the one hand, the government wants to look like a responsible trustee of the memory of close to 500,000 victims and therefore organizes a whole series of events commemorating the Holocaust’s 70th anniversary. At the same time it is busily rehabilitating the same Miklós Horthy who bore a major responsibility for the fate of those Jews deported to Germany. The monument to the German “occupation” is especially egregious. With its erection, the present government would be giving material form to its sanitized history of the country, in particular the absolution of Hungarian governments of the interwar period and the Hungarian authorities of seventy years ago of any responsibility for the fate of Hungarian Jews. It is a shame, and I hope that the Orbán government will abandon the whole idea.

 

Péter Szijjártó’s trip to Israel

I often wonder where Viktor Orbán manages to find the characters he surrounds himself with. A former auto repairman is apparently the brains behind the Fidesz propaganda machine. Another new star is a man who knows practically nothing about either economics or business practices but who expounds daily about the blessings of lower utility prices. A former pastry chef is the chief spokesman for the party. The auto repairman is practically invisible, but the others are very much in the limelight.

Stars come and go in the world of Fidesz. Orbán often has a sudden new favorite who catches his eye, and in no time this person finds himself in a very important position. The former favorite is unceremoniously dropped. The chief is, however, generous with those who fall from grace. An important position in some office or state company is normally awarded as a consolation prize.

It was perhaps the rise of Péter Szijjártó that was the most spectacular. At the age  of 20, straight out of high school, he became a member of the Győr City Council. A year later he established the local chapter of Fidelitas, the youth organization of the party. At the age of 23 he acquired a high position in the party hierarchy on the county level. During these years he also attended Corvinus University. Straight out of college he became the youngest member of the Hungarian Parliament in 2002.

After 2006 he was promoted to occupy the important position of Fidesz spokesman. He headed the “parrot commando,” as the Fidesz communication team was called by the party’s critics. He became Viktor Orbán’s voice since  Orbán himself rarely spoke or gave interviews in those days. Szijjártó also often acted on behalf of the party chairman. For example, he was entrusted with answering a letter from Gordon Bajnai to Viktor Orbán, inviting him to discuss the economic program he was planning to introduce after he agreed to serve as prime minister. It was a rude, impertinent response to Bajnai’s polite letter. I suggest you take a look at that exchange because it tells a lot about Szijjártó, Orbán, and Fidesz. The picture is not pretty.

Once Fidesz won the election, Szijjártó became a personal spokesman for Viktor Orbán. Szijjártó accompanied Orbán everywhere he went. You could see him in Brussels as well as in Moscow, sitting right next to the prime minister. Obviously, he proved to be indispensable as a kind of negotiating partner because in May 2012 at the age of 33 Szijjártó was basically entrusted with Hungary’s foreign policy and trade relations. Foreign Minister János Martonyi is a figurehead; Szijjártó, by contrast, seems to spend more time on airplanes than on the ground. He is in charge of Orbán’s pet project: the opening to the East.

It is hard to tell how successful he is at convincing Far Eastern, Central Asian, and Near Eastern countries to extend trade relations with Hungary. Lots of travel, lots of boasting, a great forecast but apparently the results are meager. His age (after all, he is by now in his mid-thirties) shouldn’t be an obstacle, but unfortunately he looks a great deal younger and doesn’t give the impression of a serious and knowledgeable man. He looks like a punk and I fear he is a punk.

szijjarto frizura

So, let’s see how Szijjártó operates on the ground. He just spent a couple of days in Israel where he gave an “exclusive” interview to The Jerusalem Post. It turns out that Szijjártó, in a meeting with Finance Minister Yair Lapid, “offered Israel access to Hungary’s 7 billion cubic meters of state-owned gas storage.” I assume he was talking about the storage the Hungarian government just bought way above market value from the German company E.on. And then came the usual boasting and exaggeration: “we could be a central European distribution hub for Israeli gas.” While at home the state-owned company just signed an agreement with Gazprom, Szijjártó in Israel complained about dependence on Russian gas which “means that we’re quite defenseless.”

While there, Szijjártó met with executives of Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd., including the recently ousted CEO of the company Jeremy Levin who was awarded the Officer’s Cross of the Merit Award, one of the highest civilian awards in Hungary. Bad timing, I would say.

I am not sure why Szijjártó felt it necessary to inform the Israeli public and perhaps even the government that Hungary often goes against the policies of the European Union. For example, on the issue of nuclear energy. While the rest of Europe wants to lower or even exclude nuclear energy by 2020, Hungary is moving in an entirely different direction. Right now 43% of electricity comes from nuclear energy in Hungary, and the Orbán government wants it to be 60-70%. Thanks to Szijjártó’s “exclusive” interview, at last the Hungarian people and politicians could learn about Viktor Orbán’s plans, which he hadn’t bothered to share with anyone at home.

He also told the reporter that “while the EU pushed a platform of human rights and diversity, Hungary was forcefully embracing its Christian heritage.” I bet that made a real impression in Israel, especially when in Eastern Europe the largest Jewish community can be found in Hungary. It is not terribly difficult to come to the conclusion that if a nation forcefully defines itself as Christian, the non-Christians might not be considered part of that nation.

Before the rise of Szijjártó to his current position of roving ambassador, Orbán tried to impress China and Russia without much success. The emissary then was Tamás Fellegi, Viktor Orbán’s senior adviser in law school. At least Fellegi looked like a serious negotiator with academic credentials and business experience in the United States and in Hungary. But he failed miserably and was packed away in Washington to head a Hungarian government lobbying group. Then came the “wonder boy.”  I wonder how long he will last.

New American ambassador in Budapest

I will devote today’s post to U.S.-Hungarian relations. At last the White House appointed a new ambassador to replace Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis, whose tenure as U.S. ambassador to Hungary came to an end in July.

I devoted at least three posts to her less than sterling ambassadorship. In passing I also talked about her predecessor, April H. Foley, who was totally under the spell of Viktor Orbán and János Martonyi and hence had a very bad relationship with the socialist-liberal Hungarian government.  These two as well as their predecessors were so-called political appointees with no prior experience in diplomacy and no prior knowledge of the country in which they served. In September I introduced Colleen Bell, the producer of a very successful daytime soap, as the possible next U.S. ambassador in Budapest. And indeed, it is official: Ms Bell will soon be in Budapest. Right now, I’m certain, she is being prepped by the officials of the State Department. I can well imagine how difficult it must be to cram all the basic information about the past and present of a country one most likely knew nothing about a couple of months ago. I mean that in all sincerity. Of course, she will have a large staff of professionals who will help her along, but it still won’t be easy.

I wonder whether she is fully aware of the depth of the strained relations between Washington and Budapest, which hit a new low two days ago, exactly when Bell was appointed ambassador. The U.S. embassy in Budapest published the following press release:

The United States strongly condemns the shameful event organized by Jobbik, a Hungarian political party identified with ethnic hatred and anti-Semitism, to unveil a bust honoring Nazi ally Miklos Horthy, Hungary’s leader during World War II, at the entrance to the Hungarian Reformed Church at the edge of Szabadsag ter in Budapest on November 3.  Those who organized and participated in the event, including members of Hungary’s Parliament, promoted not only their own intolerance, but also a dramatically negative image of Hungary.  Although the significant number of counter-demonstrators showed there is strong opposition to the organizers’ views, and members of the Hungarian government have expressed disapproval, an event such as this requires swift, decisive, unequivocal condemnation by Hungary’s highest ranking leaders.

Seasoned reporters don’t remember such a strongly worded communiqué from the United States government in the longest time. In this press release the U.S. is calling on Viktor Orbán himself to condemn what happened on Szabadság tér. For the time being we haven’t heard anything from either Viktor Orbán or his deputies Tibor Navracsics and Zsolt Semjén. I am expecting an official silence, which will further strain the relations between the two countries.

U.S. Embassy, Szabadság tér, Budapest Source: commons.wikipedia.org

U.S. Embassy, Szabadság tér, Budapest
Source: commons.wikipedia.org

Of course, we all know that the warning comes straight from the State Department. Perhaps with the change of personnel that occurred after John Kerry took over the post of secretary of state, the State Department decided to be tougher on the Orbán government than it had been in the last three years. Perhaps they began to realize in Washington that the Orbán team doesn’t understand the polite language of diplomacy. One must be plain spoken and hard hitting with the man. As an old acquaintance of Orbán said, the Hungarian prime minister is basically a bellicose coward who when meeting strong resolve and firm resistance on the other side usually retreats. At least temporarily.

Gábor Horváth, one of the editors of Népszabadság, wrote an editorial in today’s paper in which he expressed his sympathy for the incoming ambassador who might not be aware of the difficulties she will face in Budapest. Horváth for a number of years was the paper’s correspondent in Washington, and therefore he is thoroughly familiar with the Washington scene. In his opinion, the millions of dollars the Hungarian government is spending in Washington are a total waste: the Orbán government’s reputation is irreparably ruined due to Viktor Orbán’s policies and behavior. And the government does indeed spend a lot of money lobbying “in Congress, the Executive Branch, think tanks, the investment community, the Jewish community, and the Hungarian-American community.” For details on the lobbying activities of Tamás Fellegi, former minister of national development, see politics.hu’s exclusive by Lili Bayer.

Horváth thinks that the ambassador will have difficulties establishing a cordial relationship with the Hungarian government. I agree with him, with one correction. She will have no difficulty establishing a working relationship with János Martonyi, the minister of foreign affairs, but that will not take her very far. Martonyi will assure her that everything is just fine and dandy and that what she and her staff see is not really so. But all this means nothing because the conduct of foreign policy is not in the hands of Martonyi. The semi-official organ of the government, Magyar Nemzet, only today accused the United States of spying on Viktor Orbán and his government in order to pass on information to the socialist-liberal opposition. So, this is where we stand. I hope the new ambassador will understand the workings of the Hungarian government because otherwise she will be truly lost.

Another political appointee as U.S. ambassador to Hungary?

Way back in May, Al Kamen of The Washington Post wrote on his popular blog “In the Loop” that about fifty new ambassadors will be named  by Barack Obama. As he said, “many high-rolling Obama contributors have been jockeying for these plum jobs since the day after the election.” Kamen mentioned a few of the possible appointees and among them was Colleen Bell, the producer of the TV soap “The Bold and the Beautiful,” who “is in line for a posting, perhaps Belgium or Hungary.” Well, it looks as if it is Hungary. It is not yet official, but people in the know think that her appointment is likely.

Those who are not familiar with American soap operas–I’m one of them–can learn from soaps.com that the daytime show, which started in 1987, focuses on the trials and tribulations of the beautiful people of the fashion world in Beverly Hills.

Colleen Bell might be the next ambassador to Hungary / Source: www.welovesoaps.com

Colleen Bell might be the next ambassador to Hungary. Source: http://www.welovesoaps.com

According to Wikipedia, Colleen Bell is also a philanthropist and an advocate for the environment, arts, and social causes. And what is most important when it comes to an ambassadorship is that she and her husband are generous contributors to Democratic causes and specifically to the Obama campaign. Just as Eleni Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis, the last U.S. ambassador to Hungary (2010-2013) was. April H. Foley (2006-2009) was a contributor to Republican causes (and was George W. Bush’s girlfriend at the Harvard Business School). For three years, between October 2003 and August 2006, a cousin of the elder Bush got the job after Nancy Goodman Brinker (2001-2003), another generous contributor to the Republican party, was called back to occupy an important position in the Bush campaign.

In the last twenty years all U.S. ambassadors to Hungary were political appointees. In fact, with the exception of the ambassadors appointed immediately after World War I and World War II, career diplomats rarely served as ambassadors in Budapest. The list of U.S. ambassadors to Hungary is available online.

When Barack Obama ran for office he promised to change the system of rewarding top donors with ambassadorships. As you can see, the practice is continuing unabated. I suppose one could argue that these appointees have the advantage of easier access to the president. But they operate within the framework of the State Department, not the White House, so this so-called advantage rarely makes a real difference.

How have the last two ambassadors worked out? Foley did more harm than good. She was an ardent neo-conservative who suspected communists around every corner. She received plenty of ammunition to feed her distorted view of Hungarian politics from Viktor Orbán, who charmed her. She consulted more with the opposition than with government officials. One of her favorites was János Martonyi, who is capable of looking like a perfect democrat and a moderate but who continues in his post as foreign minister despite being entirely ignored by the prime minister, who conducts his own foreign policy with his minions. Foley fed all of her suspicions to the State Department, whose staff seemed to have been taken in by her misinformation and became convinced that the Hungarian government was courting Putin’s Russia. At one point the relationship between Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány and April Foley was so strained that they refused to speak to each other.

As for Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis, I devoted at least three posts to her. To give you an idea of her skill in reading people, she said in an interview with HVG that Orbán reminded her of the Bill Clinton of twenty years earlier. The two men resemble each other mostly because of “their commitment and passion for people.” In the interview Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis mentioned that she had also met with Gordon Bajnai, then prime minister, but it seems that Bajnai didn’t make much of an impression on her. I can only assume that this Obama appointee didn’t know that Orbán had until the very last moment been keeping fingers crossed for a Republican victory and considered Sarah Palin “an extraordinarily talented politician, an excellent debater, and a very successful governor.”

At the Central European University in Budapest she gave a lecture where someone asked her opinion on the new constitution. She could have said that she hopes that the new constitution will be democratic, but no, she felt compelled to add that “the new constitution is being written by people who are well qualified. The new constitution will be a good one. The rule of law, the freedom of the press and expression will be ensured.” This was the U.S. ambassador who is supposed to remind Viktor Orbán and his government about Hungary’s commitment to democratic values and the rule of law.

And I understand that this woman, who surely had not the foggiest idea of what was going on around her, was hoping to be reappointed. Luckily that didn’t happen, but a political appointee from the world of soaps doesn’t strike me as an obvious improvement. Perhaps we will all be pleasantly surprised and Colleen Bell will be a terrific, hard-hitting U.S. ambassador who has a thorough understanding of the political situation in which she has to operate. But given the track record of political appointees going to Budapest with little knowledge and zero experience I don’t expect miracles.

I must say that I simply don’t understand what the United States government is doing. Don’t they realize how significant Hungary has become in the last three or four years? The Orbán regime’s undemocratic practices are starting to look attractive to some of the countries in East-Central Europe. There are indications of a possible return of the Kaczyński regime in Poland and danger signs in Romania and Bulgaria as well. An experienced, tough-minded U.S. ambassador is needed in Budapest. I have serious doubts about the wisdom of appointing Colleen Bell.

Randolph L. Braham: The Reinterment and Political Rehabilitation of Miklós Horthy

It was twenty years ago, on September 3, 1993, that Miklós Horthy, regent of Hungary between 1920 and 1944, was reburied in Kenderes, the Horthy family’s ancestral home. The reinterment was controversial, mostly because half of the cabinet of Prime Minister József Antall attended the ceremony as “private persons.” 

Since then there have been sporadic efforts to rewrite the history of the Horthy era. In the last three years the Hungarian government has upped the ante, quietly but steadily encouraging a full rehabilitation of Miklós Horthy despite official denials of any such attempt. About a year ago in Washington Foreign Minister János Martonyi categorically denied any attempt at a rehabilitation of either Horthy or his regime. But the rehabilitation continues. For example, the twentieth anniversary of the reburial was remembered in Kenderes a couple of weeks ago. On that occasion Sándor Lezsák, deputy speaker of the Hungarian parliament, gave a laudatory speech about the former governor. According to him, “The [1993] reburial was a historical atonement, but we cannot be satisfied with that. Even after twenty years, the results of the hypnotizing effects of the poisonous lies of the socialist-communist four decades are still with us.” In his speech Lezsák accused “the historical criminals” who are back and who tried to remove important documents from the archives in an attempt to falsify history. He suggested setting up a research institute for the study of Miklós Horthy and his family. The institute would be a central depository of all documents relating to the Horthys.

Below is a short article by Randolph L. Braham, the renowned historian of the Hungarian Holocaust, entitled “The Reinterment and Political Rehabilitation of Miklós Horthy.” It appeared in Slavic Almanach, vol. 2, edited by Henrietta Mondry and Paul Schweiger (Johannesburg: University of the Witwatersrand, 1993), pp. 137-40. Professor Braham predicted twenty years ago that the full rehabilitation of Miklós Horthy would occur not too far in the future. I thank Professor Braham for allowing Hungarian Spectrum to republish this article.

* * *

The remains of Miklós Horthy, the former Regent of Hungary (1920-1944), were brought back from Portugal and reinterred in his hometown of Kenderes on 4 September 1993, together with those of his wife and youngest son.* Hungarian nationalists all over the world will undoubtedly hail the former head of state as a patriot who successfully championed the twin causes of anti-communism and revisionism. They will recall that during his rule, the country evolved along a nationalist-Christian line and made great strides towards the reestablishment of Greater Hungary by reacquiring some of the territories that were lost under the peace treaties of Trianon (1920). But was he really a patriot?

Horthy and HitlerHorthy was a representative of the conservative-aristocratic elite that perpetuated an anachronistic semi-feudal class system. His domestic policies aimed at preserving the privileges of the landowning aristocracy and stifling the aspirations of the peasantry. In foreign affairs, his primary objective was to bring about “the revision of the punitive peace treaties”–a policy that led to Hungary’s adherence to the Axis and the establishment of an authoritarian proto-fascist regime. Horthy’ s Hungary embraced Hitler’s revisionist ambitions and was the first among the Nazi satellite states to sign the Tripartite Pact (20 November 1941). Having joined the Axis aggression first against Yugoslavia (11 April 1941),and then against the Soviet Union (27 June 1941), Hungary soon found itself at war with the Western democracies as well. After the crushing defeat of the Hungarian and German armies at Voronezh and Stalingrad early in 1943, the Horthy regime aimed to bring about the gradual extrication of Hungary from the Axis Alliance. But the pursuit of unattainable goals–the retention of the reacquired territories, the avoidance of a Soviet occupation, and the possible preservation of the “traditional system”–led to disaster: Hungary was first occupied by the Germans (19 March 1944) and then by the Red Army. Horthy himself was ousted on 15-16 October, in a coup engineered by the Hungarian Nazi radicals acting in conjunction with the Germans. Under the new “Hungarist” regime, Hungary became the only Nazi satellite to fight to the very end and, consequently, once again emerged as a major loser after World War II.

Disastrous as Horthy’ s domestic and foreign policies may have been for the country at large, they proved catastrophic for Hungarian Jewry. They contributed to, if not actually determined, the virtual destruction of the loyal and highly patriotic Jewish community that contributed disproportionately to the modernization of the country. It was during Horthy’ s tenure that the once flourishing Jewish community was subjected to increasingly severe discriminatory measures that led to its decline and eventual destruction. Like the other members of the aristocratic-conservative elite, Horthy was a “civilized” anti-Semite, who was particularly scornful of the “Eastern,” unassimilated Jews. Shortly after he was named commander-in-chief of the counter-revolutionary national forces in 1919, several units of the army engaged in pogroms that claimed thousands of Jewish lives. Almost immediately after his inauguration as Regent, Hungary adopted the first anti-Jewish law in post-World War I Europe (22 September 1920). This was followed by increasingly harsh laws in the late 1930s. In the summer of 1941, from 16,000 to 18,000 so-called “alien” Jews were deported to near Kamenets-Podolsk, where most of them were slaughtered by the Nazis. Early in 1942, close to one thousand Jews were murdered in the Bácska area by Hungarian gendarmerie and military units. Tens of thousands of Jews later died while serving in forced labour companies.

While it is true that in contrast to those in Nazi-ruled Europe, the Jews of Hungary were relatively well off, the ever harsher anti-Jewish measures of the late 1930s prepared the ground for the acceptance and successful implementation of the Final Solution programme after the German occupation. During his Schloss Klessheim meeting with Hitler on 18-19 March 1944, Horthy gave his consent to the delivery of several hundred thousand “Jewish workers” to Germany. The German and Hungarian experts on the Final Solution took full advantage of this agreement to carry out their ideologically defined racial objectives. After the inauguration of the Horthy-appointed government of Döme Sztójay, the Jewish community of Hungary was subjected to the most ruthless and concentrated destruction process of the war. With the instruments of state power at their disposal, the Nazis and their Hungarian accomplices succeeded in “solving” the Jewish question at lightning speed. The isolation, expropriation, ghettoization, concentration and deportation of the Jews–anti-Jewish measures that took years to carry out in Poland–were implemented in less than four months. On 7 July, Horthy halted the deportations (they in fact continued until 9 July), but by then all of Hungary, with the notable exception of Budapest, was already Judenrein. The Holocaust in Hungary claimed close to 600,000 victims.

Horthy’ s admirers will, no doubt, remember primarily his halting of the deportation in connection with the Hungarian Holocaust. But even at that late hour, Horthy apparently did not act on his own initiative. He was subjected to great political and moral pressure by Pope Pius XII, King Gustav of Sweden, and other Western leaders who were informed of the grisly details of the Holocaust in Hungary. Influential as these pressures may have been, perhaps the determining factor that induced Horthy to act was the rapidly deteriorating military situation. The Red Army was fast approaching Hungary, and the Western Allies were already fanning out in France after their successful landing in Normandy. While the Jews of Budapest may have been saved by Horthy–a credit also claimed by the Raoul Wallenberg myth-makers and even by the German and Hungarian Nazis–the Jews of the Hungarian countryside, including those of the territories acquired from Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia, were liquidated during Horthy’ s tenure. And this took place on the eve of Allied victory, when the secrets of Auschwitz were already widely known.

Hungary’s disasters notwithstanding, contemporary chauvinists will continue to remember-and admire Horthy’ s blend of conservative anti-communism and militant nationalism. The reinterment of his remains is likely to emerge as the first step towards his full rehabilitation as a “patriot” who tried to advance Hungary’s best interests as he perceived them to be. In a series of interviews, Prime Minister József Antall identified Horthy as a “Hungarian patriot” who should be placed into the community of the nation and the awareness of the people.” The national mint issued a commemorative medal with Horthy’ s likeness. The reburial ceremony was attended by tens of thousands of Hungarians, many of whom were presumably longing for the return to the “good old days” of the Horthy era. Among those attending as “private citizens” were four leading members of the government, including the Minister of Justice, István Balsai, and the Minister of the Interior, Péter Boross.

Judging by the events surrounding the reinterment of Horthy’s remains, rehabilitation will probably be all but complete in the not-too-distant future. It is the task of objective historians concerned for Hungary’s soul and democratic future to keep the record straight.

——

*Miklós Horthy died in Estoril on 9 February 1957, at age 88. His son, Miklós Jr., died on 28 March 1993, at age 86. They were buried together with Mrs. Horthy, who died in 1959, in the English Cemetery in Lisbon.