Jewry

An attempt at character assassination but to what end?

On the surface, today’s topic is history or to be more precise a historical debate, the kind that normally interests only historians who are experts in a given period or subject. Debates usually take place in seminar rooms or at conferences. They are actually peer reviews. And, of course, before the publication of a book, the author as well as the publisher will ask people who are familiar with the topic to read the manuscript and critique it. Even book reviews that appear in scientific journals are read only by the initiated few.

In Hungary, however, these so-called scientific debates often end up in the popular press because some professional historians are also public figures who appear on TV or write in newspapers. For example, a highly public debate took place in 2012 when András Gerő accused his fellow historian, the respected Ignác Romsics, of anti-Semitic discourse. The “debate,” in which more than two dozen people participated, lasted over six months.

That debate was on balance a civilized discussion, but what I’m writing about today is more like “character assassination.” At least, that’s what the normally pro-government Válasz called it. And that’s something, considering that the target of the character assassination is Krisztián Ungváry, who called Mária Schmidt, adviser to Viktor Orbán on matters of history, the “keretlegény” of the Hungarian historical profession. “Keretlegény” was an armed soldier who guarded and supervised Jews called up to serve in the labor battalions during World War II.

short piece by Ungváry, “The Living Horror” (Az élő borzalom), appeared on this blog.  It was about the memorial the Hungarian government insisted on erecting despite very strong opposition by historians, the Jewish community, and all those who would like Hungarians to face historical facts instead of hiding behind a falsified history of the Hungarian Holocaust.

Ungváry made a name for himself with a book which has since been translated into both English and German, The Siege of Budapest. In 2013 he came out with another large work, A Horthy-rendszer mérlege: Diszkrimináció, szociálpolitika és antiszemitizmus (The balance sheet of the Horthy regime: Discrimination, social policy and anti-Semitism in Hungary).  The book received the Academy Prize and is now under consideration for Ungváry’s award of an academic doctorate, which in Hungary is considered to be higher than a Ph.D.

The man who decided to attack Krisztián Ungváry is Dániel Bolgár, a young teaching assistant who hasn’t yet finished his Ph.D. dissertation. He has been described as “a talented man with a bright future,” but the general consensus is that this time he went too far for his own good. One thing is sure: it takes guts for a TA to take on an established, respected scholar.

What makes the story especially interesting is that Bolgár’s TA job is in András Gerő’s department at ELTE. Gerő a few years ago established a Habsburg Institute which is heavily subsidized by the government through the XXI Century Institute, headed by the aforementioned Mária Schmidt. In general, Gerő tries to court right-wing historians favored by the government. For example, Sándor Szakály, who was named director of the newly established Veritas Historical Institute, is on the board of Gerő’s Habsburg Institute. Gerő is deeply indebted to Schmidt and comes to her defense every time she is criticized. And she has a lot of critics: practically all Hungarian Holocaust scholars.

People suspect that the present debate is not so much about Ungváry’s book, which I think is an important contribution to the topic of anti-Semitism between the two world wars, but about the irreconcilable differences between the historical views of the right and the left when it comes to the evaluation of the Horthy regime. The clever twist in this game is that the accusations against Ungváry come in the guise of anti-Semitism, of which he is certainly not guilty.

These professional historical debates are far too esoteric for outsiders to judge. For example, Bolgár’s initial criticism, which he first published in Magyar Narancs, concentrated on statistical data from the 1930s about the economic status of Hungarian Jewry. At this time he did not accuse Ungváry of plagiarism, I suspect because otherwise Magyar Narancs wouldn’t have published his article. The title, however, was telling: “Tale about Jewish prosperity.” Ungváry, following virtually every Hungarian historian who has ever dealt with the topic, shows through statistical analyses and indirect evidence that the Jewish population was better off than Hungary’s non-Jewish inhabitants. There are many well-founded reasons for that claim: Hungarian Jews were better educated than the average, a great number of them belonged to the middle or the professional classes, and their representation in the peasantry was minuscule. (Almost 60% of the total population belonged to that economic group.) There is nothing revolutionary about the thesis. It’s practically self-evident, but Ungváry devotes about 80 pages to proving his point by approaching the question from different angles.

Bolgár accuses Ungváry of using the statistics of anti-Semitic authors, like Alajos Kovács who was at the time the head of the Central Statistical Office. Bolgár concludes that there are no reliable statistics whatsoever on this question, and he in fact suspects that the Jewish population on the whole was poorer than non-Jews which is, of course, total nonsense. Ungváry answered, a rebuttal that couldn’t be left unanswered by Bolgár, and then Ungváry wrote a final piece entitled “Insinuation.” In order to understand the argument of both sides a little better, I recommend reading these articles.

Dániel Bolgár and Krisztián Ungváry during the "debate"

Dániel Bolgár and Krisztián Ungváry during the “debate”

But this was only a warm-up for Dániel Bolgár. Ungváry decided to invite Bolgár for a discussion, which took place a few days ago and which is available on the Internet. Bolgár delivered a speech that lasted two hours, in which he accused Ungváry of outright plagiarism. He compared him unfavorably to a “village elementary school teacher who writes the history of his village.” According to Válasz, it was clear from the very first minute that Bolgár not only wanted to criticize Ungváry but to “totally destroy him.” The reporter simply didn’t understand why Ungváry didn’t get up and leave. Instead, he sat next to Bolgár, quietly taking occasional notes.

I admired Ungváry’s behavior. I certainly couldn’t have withstood such an attack without raising my voice. It’s a long haul, but if you have some time, please watch this video.

The other official participant in the discussion was Viktor Karády, the well-known expert on the social history of Hungarian Jewry in the Horthy-period who lives in France. Unfortuntely, he is also the quiet type. Occasionally he was cut off before he could finish his sentence. Bolgár must have invited some people who had problems with Ungváry’s book, who also shouted Karády and Ungváry down for another half an hour if not longer. One of them announced that the book “is about nothing.” I suspect that the man is an apologist for the Horthy regime and finds Ungváry’s thesis unacceptable. What is the thesis? That behind the anti-Jewish government measures was the desire for a distribution of wealth from Jewish to non-Jewish hands. The book is about “intellectual antecedents of depredation of the Jewry.” It seems that a lot of people find this thesis unacceptable.

Ungváry may have remained quiet during the debate, but he struck back in print. He wrote a piece for the conservative Mandiner from which we learn that Bolgár tried to publish his findings in a serious historical journal but the quality of his work was found wanting.

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Mária Schmidt’s revisionist history of World War II and the Holocaust. Part II

In order to demonstrate Mária Schmidt’s revisionism when it comes to Hungary’s role in the war, the re-evaluation of the Horthy regime, and the twentieth-century history of the Hungarian Jewish community, I have chosen two articles, both from a collection of essays entitled Diktatúrák ördögszekerén. The first, covered yesterday, dealt with World War II and, to Schmidt’s mind, the inappropriate punishment of Germany and the Axis Powers. The second article, “Place of the Holocaust in the Modern History of the Hungarian Jewry (1945-1956)” is the subject of today’s post. In it Schmidt is allegedly seeking an answer to the question of whether the Holocaust altered and, if yes, to what extent, the relations between Jews and non-Jews. The answer? Well, that is not clear from the twenty-three pages that follow. There are places where she categorically states that the peaceful coexistence between Jews and non-Jews came to an abrupt end. Although in the 1920s there were signs  of reconciliation, the good old days could never be restored. On the other hand, she sometimes indicates that the ties between the two groups were always strong, even after 1928, especially in comparison to the situation in the neighboring countries.

The article on the Holocaust and its effect on Hungarian-Jewish relations actually covers a great deal more than the title would indicate. Almost half of the article covers the 1919-1944 period. Her thesis is that “the Hungarian liberal nobility and the leaders of Hungarian Jewry signed a pact in the middle of the nineteenth century.” What did this so-called “pact” entail? An understanding that the Hungarian nobility would provide Hungary’s political leadership and that the Jewish leaders would stay away from politics and busy themselves in the economic sphere and the professions. Continuing this line of reasoning, she argues that because Hungarian Jews became leaders of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, after 1919 the Hungarian political elite, the liberal nobility in Schmidt’s words, “considered the agreement null and void.”

I guess I don’t have to dwell much on the improbability of such an arrangement, formal or informal. Schmidt, however, takes this “unwritten rule” for granted and therefore maintains that the non-Jewish political elite after World War I was fully justified in changing their attitude toward the country’s Jewish citizens. The members of the political elite “believed that the representatives of Hungarian Jewry in 1918 and 1919 not only demanded a share of political power but made an attempt at their total annihilation.” Schmidt provides no supporting evidence for this stark claim.

From the above one would think that Jewish/non-Jewish relations had suffered such a blow that reconciliation between the groups was out of the question. A few lines later, however, we read about “the second flowering  of Hungarian Jewry” between 1928 and 1938. On the one hand, she talks about the partnership between the political elite and the Jewish community while, on the other, she mentions “the subordinate position of the Jews.” As if she couldn’t decide, or did not want to decide about the precise nature of that relationship. The Horthy regime “was not friendly to the Jews but until 1938 its representatives were not antagonistic either.” This is how Schmidt skirts the issue throughout the article. As an apologist for the Horthy regime she has every reason not to be forthright. The fact is that both the political leaders and a large segment of Hungarian society were imbued with anti-Semitism during the period under investigation.

After this unsatisfactory “analysis” of the interwar years we get to a very important date: “On March 19, 1944 Hungary’s sovereignty ceased to exist.” Schmidt wrote this article in 1998, but in 2011 it found its way into the preamble of the new constitution. In her description of this period almost every sentence sounds familiar: “The country that was directed by Nazi puppets no longer defended its Jewish citizens.” The Nazi puppets in Viktor Orbán’s latest formulation are “Nazi collaborators.” The portion of the sentence that talks about the country’s inability to defend its Jewish citizens is echoed in one of János Áder’s recent speeches on the Holocaust. Not a word about the personnel of the governments formed after March that was practically identical to the composition of earlier cabinets. On the contrary, she gives the impression that the political elite of the interwar period actively tried to save Hungary’s Jewish citizens. She claims that “in the last minute some members of the traditional elite managed to call up 40,000 Jewish men for labor service and thus saved them from deportation.”

Finally, we arrive at the 1945-1956 period which is in many ways the most fascinating part of this essay. I should mention that Mária Schmidt is also the foremost ideologue of the fierce anti-communism of the Orbán regime. This anti-communism is of relatively new vintage and has managed to give a less than accurate picture of the 1945-1989 period. I also assume that Schmidt’s influence on Viktor Orbán and his colleagues is considerable when it comes to the undifferentiated treatment of the period because she does the same in her own writings.

The article under consideration is especially interesting because in it Schmidt’s two interests intersect: the history of Hungarian Jewry and communist crimes. Early in the article she spends some time on the Hungarian Jews’ heavy involvement with the workers’ movement and with liberal politics. Their interest in left-wing politics only strengthened after the war until practically all the political leaders, legal or illegal, of leftist parties were Jewish. She quotes Robert Michels (1959) as the foremost authority on the history of the European working class movement, who claims that “in Hungary the parties of the working class were entirely in Jewish hands.” At this point Schmidt parenthetically notes: “Let us add to this that in Hungary’s case this statement with more or less modifications was true until 1956.” This sentence encapsulates her assessment of the Jewish presence in politics between 1945 and 1956. They were the ones who were mostly responsible for the Stalinist dictatorship of the Rákosi period.

The judges and the prosecutors of the people’s courts that passed some 400 death sentences were almost exclusively Jewish. The leadership of the Hungarian Communist Party was heavily Jewish (Mátyás Rákosi, Mihály Farkas, Ernő Gerő, and József Révai), and Schmidt is not moved by the argument that they were first and foremost committed to communism and did not consider themselves Jewish. Anti-Semitism arose because the people who were in positions of political power all came from what she calls and puts into quotation marks “the persecuted.” And she continues thus: “After twenty-five years of frightening  of the right-wing press, a Jewish-communist world conspiracy seemed to materialize.”

After the old non-communist elite was removed and accused of war crimes, “the comrades of Jewish origin managed to get themselves into important positions in the new democracy.” Prior to 1945 Hungarian Jews had a double identity: they were Hungarians and they were Jews. But socialism offered something that replaced both. “Instead of Hungarian, internationalism and instead of Jewish, comrade.” Or a little later: “When the old political elite lost its positions in many cases their places were taken by Jewish comrades.” They received important, well paid jobs, uniforms, ranks, fabulous careers.” I don’t know what you call this, but I call it anti-Semitic discourse.

Victims of Communism Memorial, Washington, DC / commons.wikimedia.org

Victims of Communism Memorial, Washington, D.C. commons.wikimedia.org

And let me add a footnote to all this. A few weeks ago Viktor Orbán announced that Hungary is ready to contribute one million dollars for the establishment of a museum in Washington, D.C. dedicated to the victims of communism. In 1994 the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation was established. Originally, the founders planned to raise $100 million for a museum and memorial, but by 1999 only $500,000 had been raised. Viktor Orbán is trying to resuscitate this abortive plan. But $1 million is peanuts for such an undertaking, and therefore he is trying to convince other countries in Eastern Europe to contribute to the fund. In Schmidt’s and Orbán’s worldview, if there is a museum for the victims of Nazi Germany it is only appropriate to have one for the victims of communism.

I don’t know whether the supporters of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation know much about Viktor Orbán’s cozy relationship with former KGB agent Vladimir Putin and his recent friendship with the president of Kazakhstan, who is a leftover from communist times and who today is a bloody dictator. I also wonder how much these people know about the background of a fair number of Fidesz politicians who are such rabid anti-communists today but who in the past were high-ranking party members. Some of them were even agents spying on their fellow citizens during the Kádár regime. Do they know that Viktor Orbán’s father was party secretary of the company he owns today? Or that Orbán himself was secretary of KISZ, the youth organization of the Hungarian communist party? And that László Kövér worked for a while after graduation at the institute attached to the party’s central committee?

Well, in any case, the Hungarian Embassy in Washington and the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation jointly organized an event scheduled for tomorrow afternoon. It will be a panel discussion on the “History and Legacy of Communism in Europe.” Mária Schmidt will be one of the participants. Let’s hope that the audience will appreciate her vast knowledge of the subject.

Hungarian history textbooks under scrutiny

Recently the Hungarian government purchased/nationalized two of the larger textbook publishers: Apáczai Kiadó and Nemzedékek Tudása Tankönyvkiadó. Perhaps it should be mentioned for the sake of Hungarian cultural history that János Apáczai Csere (1625-1659), polyglot author of the first textbook written in Hungarian, was one of the many Transylvanian scholars who studied at Dutch universities (Leiden and Utrecht). What linked the Principality of Transylvania and The Netherlands was their common Calvinist heritage.

Because of the Hungarian state’s direct interest in textbook publishing, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the new list of “recommended” textbooks heavily favors these two publishers although, if the quality of textbooks is any indication, these publishing houses are not the best. Of the 3,223 textbook titles currently available, the ministry approved only 922 (29%). Private publishers tend to fall into the “unapproved” category. For instance, one private publisher, Mozaik, has 17 titles and, according to the CEO of the company, 260,000 books currently in use in Hungarian classrooms. But there is not a single Mozaik title on the recommended list.

A few years back I became very interested in what Hungarian high school students learn about modern Hungarian and world history in grade 12. At that time the most popular history textbook in this category was Konrád Salamon’s. I ordered a copy of it as well as another textbook that was the work of a team of historians whom Viktor Orbán would surely find unacceptable. Names like János Kende, Tamás Krausz, Zoltán Ripp, Péter Sipos, and Éva Standeiszky. I found the joint effort of these historians far better than Salamon’s textbook, which included many questionable notions about such fundamental values as democracy. The historian László Karsai wrote a detailed critique of the Salamon book, which was pretty devastating. Yet it was at one point the most popular book, not because teachers liked it so much but because the matriculation questions on history were based on this particular textbook. (Personally, I think it’s high time to get rid of matriculation exams altogether, but that’s a topic for another day.)

tortenelem konyvek

Recently, as part of a foundation study, László Miklósi analyzed five grade 8 and three grade 12 modern history textbooks, with special focus on their treatment of the fate of Hungarian Jews. The one he liked best was published by Műszaki Kiadó–Csaba Dubcsik and Ildikó Repászky’s Történelem IV. It is especially strong in providing important source material and asking thought-provoking questions based on the material. Instead of taking it for granted that students understand the meaning of certain concepts (racism, political anti-Semitism, differences between fascism and Nazism), the authors explain their meanings. In general, the book devotes more time than the others do to ideologies. Its authors spend considerable time defining concepts like conservatism, liberalism, “Christian-national,” and the different meanings of “Christian” in the Hungarian setting. While among the books discussed there is at least one that claims that Horthy was not anti-Semitic, this textbook actually publishes Miklós Horthy’s infamous letter to Pál Teleki in which he tells the prime minister that he always was an anti-Semite.

The book also includes a speech from Hitler from which it becomes clear that the Führer’s final goal was the physical elimination of all Jews. And students should learn something about the dangers of fanaticism when reading a Himmler quotation in which he admits that he would be willing to kill his own mother if Hitler so ordered. This seems to be the only book that quotes from people who survived Auschwitz. The description of the situation after March 19, 1944 seems to be detailed and accurate, including Horthy’s role. There is mention of the fact that, although Horthy in his memoirs claimed that he knew nothing about the fate of the Jews, “there are several sources that prove his knowledge of the truth about the deportations.” All in all, this seems to be the best modern history textbook on the market at the moment. At least as far as the question of the Hungarian Jewry’s fate between the two world wars is concerned.

I can’t imagine that this book will be available in state high schools. It is a shame, but Viktor Orbán’s worldview is so radically different from what Dupcsik and Répászky summarize in this textbook that he couldn’t possibly tolerate exposing Hungarian students to such intellectual “poison.” After all, we hear often enough how unique and magnificent the Hungarian nation is. This regime puts so much emphasis on “Christian-national” values that the less than glowing description the authors offer of this term would be unacceptable. This and similar textbooks couldn’t possibly be tolerated by an authoritarian regime that wants to be in charge of what people think.

What else can one expect from a regime that has the temerity to set up a state research institute under political supervision (just like in the one-party system of Rákosi and Kádár) and call it, of all things, Veritas?