Krisztián Ungváry

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.


Mária Schmidt: Another person who chose the wrong profession

Ever since June 26, when Mária Schmidt, director of the House of Terror and a close associate of Viktor Orbán, wrote an article that one of her critics called “fulminating,” a tsunami of articles, blog notes and comments has appeared in the Hungarian media. I wrote about the article in detail on June 29, and many other pieces followed in Hungary. I am happy to announce that the English translation of this controversial article is now available.

Let me sample a few of the reactions by bloggers: “We have always suspected that she is vicious and stupid, but now for some strange reason she decided to let the whole world know it.” Or, “On five long pages she is raving, sometimes with unbridled fury and hatred” which can be described in one simple obscene sentence in a comment on the Internet. Or, I saw a note by Balázs Láng, an actor, on Facebook. In it, he compares Mária Schmidt to Clara Zachanassaian in Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s play The Visit (Der Besuch der alten Dame). Mária Schmidt, whose businessman husband died young, is a very wealthy woman. Láng continues: “Reading Schmidt’s lines, the heroine of Dürrenmatt is mercy, love, and humanity itself in comparison. The article of the Hungarian heiress is ‘In the captivity of the past’ and she leaves no doubt that in that jail she is the screw.”

Then there are others that must hurt more because they come from fellow academics. The first serious criticism came from György C. Kálmán, a literary historian, who wrote an article not really about the infamous piece by Schmidt but about a television interview that followed its appearance. As you will see, Schmidt has been very busy in the last couple of weeks trying to defend the views she expressed in her article. She has been singularly unsuccessful. Kálmán in this article can hardly find words to describe his reactions to this interview because “everything that leaves that lady’s mouth is illogical, confusing, primitive, discontinuous, and obscure even within her own parameters.” The delivery is “emotional, overstrung, full of indignation, resentment, and saccharine.” And finally, the greatest blow that anyone can deliver, Kálmán gingerly suggests that Mária Schmidt’s “intellectual powers” are wanting. That perhaps she does not understand, or at least doesn’t understand fully, what she is talking about.

Even more upsetting for Mária Schmidt must have been an article by Mária M. Kovács, a fellow historian who is currently professor and director of the Nationalism Studies Program at the Central European University in Budapest. Readers of Hungarian Spectrum should be familiar with her name because we talked about a recent book of hers on the infamous numerus clausus of 1920 that restricted the enrollment of Jewish students at institutions of higher education. Her article in Népszabadság is entitled simply “Schmidt.” It is a very hard-hitting piece of writing; I strongly suggest that anyone with some knowledge of Hungarian read it in the original. Here I can only summarize her most important points.

Mária M. Kovács calls Schmidt’s writing in Válasz a provocation and a declaration  of war. In her opinion, the author of that article crossed a line. One area in which she overstepped the limit of acceptable discourse  is her handling of the Holocaust. In her article Schmidt talks about the Holocaust as “one of the preferred topics of the empire,” meaning the United States, the European Union and Germany, and says that the empire “demands a minimum” that “must be fulfilled.” The Hungarian left-liberals wholeheartedly serve the interests of this empire to the exclusion of the interests of their own country. In fact, they not only fulfill the West’s demands, they overachieve in their servility. And since the Holocaust is one of the favored topics, the attitude of the Hungarian liberals and socialists toward the Holocaust is also overdrawn. The other area where Schmidt crossed the line is her calling anyone who is against the erection of the memorial to the German occupation of Hungary in 1944 a traitor who acts against the nation’s interests.

Mária Schmidt and Mária M. Kovács were both guests on György Bolgár’s program on KlubRádió. Kovács’s conversation with Bolgár took place on July 9 from 25:36 in the first part of the program. On the following day, one can hear Schmidt’s less than cogent discussion from 23:23, again in the first part of the program.

Since then Mária Schmidt had an interview with Ildikó Csuhaj of Népszabadság with the telling title: “And my sensitivity doesn’t matter?” It is clear from the interview that she feels threatened by other historians’ criticism of her position on Hungary’s role in the Hungarian Holocaust. Instead of trying to come up with facts that would bolster her views, she lashes out against such highly respected historians as László Karsai and Krisztián Ungváry. When the journalist pointed out that these two historians did not say, as Schmidt claims, that the Hungarians were more guilty than the Germans, this was her answer: “Questioning the loss of sovereignty covers politically motivated malice, or at least ignorance, low professional standards.” She is the good historian while the others are inferior, ignorant, and full of malice.

During the interview, the journalist concentrated mostly on questions concerning Hungarian-German relations during 1944 and before. When she mentioned Randolph Braham’s name in connection with Hungary’s status as an ally of Germany, Schmidt lost her temper: “Let’s leave all that talk about ‘allies.’ In the case of Sándor Szakály the problem was that he used the contemporary designation … What kind of thinking is exhibited when someone talks about a real alliance when the elephant allies himself with the mouse?” When the journalist retorted by saying that “formally” Germany and Hungary were allies, the answer was: “Please, formally we can also speak of a police action against aliens.” Dangerous to use contemporary designations in one case but not the other. I guess that means that Germany and Hungary were not really allies.

Mária Schmidt being interviewed by Ildikó Csuhaj Source: Népszabadság

Mária Schmidt being interviewed by Ildikó Csuhaj
Source: Népszabadság

During the conversation the topic of nation and its detractors came up and the journalist remarked that calling people enemies of their own nation is a very serious accusation. Well, it seems that even Schmidt realized that she went too far here and claimed in this interview that what she actually wanted to say was that these people were “enemies of the nation-state.” However, the reporter kept talking about Schmidt’s original wording: “people who are enemies their own nation.” At this point Schmidt became annoyed: “Why are you talking about anti-nation sentiments? I was talking about antagonism toward the idea of the nation-state. Let’s fix this before anyone puts words in my mouth.” Unfortunately for Schmidt, nobody put these words in her mouth; she uttered them herself.

At the end the reporter brought up the fact that the Yad Vashem Institute no longer supports Mária Schmidt’s project, the House of Fates. Moreover, one of the associates of the Institute apparently said at one point that “it is time to get rid of this institute and this woman.” Schmidt assured her interlocutor that this woman no longer works at Yad Vashem. As if her alleged departure had anything to do with her less than polite words about Mária Schmidt. As for her next project, the House of Fates, she is still trying to convince people to work with her. A few more interviews like the ones she has been giving and I can assure her that no one will be willing to do anything with her that is connected to the Hungarian Holocaust.

The Hungarian far right today and in the 1930s

Not much of any political relevance happens over weekends in general but on a long weekend, as Easter is in Hungary, politics takes a real holiday. Today’s highlight was the resurrection of Hungarian football and the “great game” at Felcsút, with 4,500 fans in attendance. Ferenc Puskás Academy went up against Real Madrid’s football academy; both teams were made up of seventeen-year-olds. The final score was Real Madrid 1, Puskás Academy 0. At least it wasn’t a rout. Earlier Real Madrid beat Melbourne 10-1.

I’m taking advantage of the holiday to take a historical trip back to Hungary in the 1930s. Not that these were happier times. On the contrary, then just as now the Hungarian extreme right made considerable gains. One often hears from Horthy apologists that the governor and his conservative governments were just as hard on the extreme right as they were on the extreme left, i.e. the communists. This wasn’t the case. Politicians of the Horthy era were much more zealous when it came to the few hundred illegal communist party members than they were with representatives of the extreme right. Horthy and his friends had a blind spot when it came to the extreme right even though by all measures they were the ones who posed  a much greater threat to the regime than the weak and ineffectual communists did. Yet men like Mátyás Rákosi or Zoltán Vas received very long prison sentences while extremists on the right were rarely jailed. The longest sentence ever handed down for a right-wing extremist was three years, in the case of Ferenc Szálasi. Zoltán Vas, on the other hand, spent sixteen years in the infamous jail of Szeged.

Why did the interwar regime wage a half-hearted battle against the extreme right? Certainly not because government politicians found their racist ideas abhorrent. After all, more often than not they shared these people’s anti-Semitism. They found nothing wrong with nationalism; on the contrary, they pursued an openly revisionist foreign policy. What they found unacceptable was the socialism in “national socialism.” Official Hungary considered these men “revolutionaries” who wanted to turn the existing order upside down. Mátyás Matolcsy, a talented economist of extreme right views who died in jail after the war, didn’t mince words: “we must give up the idea of the sanctity of private property,” and “everybody can dispose of their property only so long as it does not infringe upon the universal interest of the nation.”  The Arrow Cross party program called for the introduction of  the Soviet system of a centrally organized planned economy. Their program also included total state control of the banking system. While Matolcsy wanted to expropriate only Jewish property, the Arrow Cross party was more  “egalitarian.” They would have taken away, for example, all agricultural lands from large landowners, including lands owned by the Hungarian Catholic Church. In 1938 the Arrow Cross party published a pamphlet on the fundamental principles and beliefs of the movement, which was intended to serve the needs of the swelling numbers of followers. In it the author explained that the party wants to exchange the liberal capitalist regime for a “collective economy.” So, it’s no wonder that contemporaries labeled the Arrow Cross leaders Bolshevik revolutionaries who presented a danger to the existing order.

Krisztián Ungváry in his latest book, A Horthy-rendszer mérlege: Diszkrimináció, szociálpolitika és antiszemitizmus  (The Balance Sheet of the Horthy Regime: Discrimination, Social Policy and Anti-Semitism in Hungary), quotes from a speech by the legitimist (opposition) Hugó Payr who visited a slum area full of unemployed workers. One of them said to him, “Sir, we are all Bolsheviks here.” When Payr inquired whether they were followers of  the Arrow Cross movement, the answer was in the affirmative. Payr warned his fellow members of parliament that the middle classes who had been stirred up to embrace anti-Semitic passions didn’t realize that they were in fact helping to establish a new proletarian dictatorship. He invited them to accompany him to working class neighborhoods where “people already talk about which apartments they will requisition or rob.”

I think that while we are grappling with the growing influence of the neo-Nazis in today’s Hungary we should keep in mind what transpired in Hungary in the 1930s. There the result of the economic crisis was not the growth of the Hungarian Social Democratic Party but the incredible spread of the ideas of national socialism’s local version, the Hungarism of Ferenc Szálasi.

Jobbik zaszlo

One has to assume that Viktor Orbán is unhappy about the growth of Jobbik because it may become a threat to his own party’s position, as was already seen at the election. If he has any sense, he will turn his attention to the poorest segments of Hungarian society and offer them tangible economic incentives. Until now he competed with Jobbik in the domain of nationalistic humbug, but surely that will not be enough.

The socialists have also neglected the poor and frustrated masses, whose numbers are growing. People talk about four million people under or very close to the poverty line. If one of the two major parties doesn’t take the initiative, Jobbik may triumph.

Moreover, until now the socialists and liberals refused to engage in a dialogue with Jobbik. After all, they are a racist and neo-Nazi group with whom the “better half” of society should refuse to conduct business. But this also meant that there was no public forum in which the ill-conceived ideas of Jobbik politicians could be confronted.

The socialists must pay more attention to Hungary’s poor as well as to the Hungarian extreme right. Those who voted for Jobbik must be convinced that Jobbik’s remedies are no remedies at all. On the contrary, they would mean a total collapse of the Hungarian economy and society. But at the same time the socialists have to offer about half of the citizenry a way out of their present misery.

Krisztián Ungváry on the memorial to the German occupation of Hungary: “The Living Horror”

Ungvary KrisztianBelow is the English translation of an article by Krisztián Ungváry entitled The Living Horror (Az élő borzalom) that appeared in the original Hungarian in HVG (January 21, 2014). It is about the memorial the Hungarian government insists on erecting despite very strong opposition by historians, the Jewish community, and all those who would like the Hungarian officialdom and people to face historical facts instead of hiding behind a falsified history of the Hungarian Holocaust.

A few words about Krisztián Ungváry. Born in 1969, his interest in history was already evident in his high school days. He won several nationwide history competitions with his writings on history.

After graduating from high school in 1988 he worked for a few months at the Military History Archives cataloging documents pertaining to the Hungarian military in the 1920s. He entered ELTE (University of Budapest) to study history and German in 1989. While still an undergraduate he spent a semester at the University of Freiburg where he did research in the military archives at Freiburg and the allied archives in Koblanz.  He graduated from ELTE with first-class honors in January 1995. 

Right after graduation he began working on his Ph.D. His doctoral dissertation was on the siege of Budapest (1944-45) which was published in Hungary and has had several printings. It was translated into German a year after its appearance in Hungary (Die Belagerung Budapest [1999]). The first English translation of the book  (The Siege of Budapest) appeared in England in 2003 and in the United States in 2006. We discussed Ungváry’s latest book entitled  A Horthy-rendszer mérlege: Diszkrimináció, szociálpolitika és antiszemitizmus  [The Balance Sheet of the Horthy Regime: Discrimination, Social Policy and anti-Semitism in Hungary] (Pécs: Jelenkor, 2013) only recently.

For anyone interested in Krisztián Ungváry’s list of publications, it is available on the Internet. Among them there are several that are also available in German or in English.

This translation is the work of someone who remains anonymous, but it was made public by “Gabi Nagy” on Facebook. Gabi wrote: “Please share. People must know.” 

* * *

On January 17, the Hungarian government decided to erect a monument commemorating the German invasion of Hungary. (…) I would hope that more will be said about the aesthetic qualities of Imre Párkányi Raab’s work – more precisely, its lack of aesthetic qualities. Here, I am concerned only with how he and the Budapest Gallery are falsifying history to ensure that this … sculpture is erected in a public space. This focus is justified because the government, which commissioned the monument, has omitted to consult professional historians before selecting the proposed work. I would like to fill the gap left by that lack of consultation.

The artist says his work “uses the methods of art history and evokes figures from cultural history with allegorical forms. (…) Two cultures are represented: one, which thinks itself stronger, and which is certainly more aggressive, towers above a more tranquil and softer-lined figure, that of the Archangel Gabriel, who represents Hungary. Gabriel, in cultural and religious tradition, is God’s servant or God’s power personified.

“On Heroes’ Square, the Archangel Gabriel sits atop a column, among the clouds. In my composition, he has been laid low. … He is depicted as handsome and tranquil. His body is perfect, and there is no fear in his eyes. His face is tranquil, his eyes are closed. The monument explains that his dream will turn into a nightmare. A culture, its wings broken, is being crushed by a greater power: the Third Reich and the symbol that represents it: the Imperial Eagle. The depiction of the eagle is the exact opposite of the Archangel Gabriel’s. The Imperial Eagle is an assemblage of mass produced icons and symbols. It sweeps in flight across the world. Soon it will reach us and engulf Hungary, putting its inhabitants in chains.”

In the view of the sculptors Miklós Melocco and György Benedek, the work described above is “unique and outstanding in the way it conveys meanings that go beyond the unmistakable message of the explicit symbolism. … The way it reflects history is also remarkable. … We accepted more than 200,000 Polish refugees. Our country was at peace until 1943. The German army massacred as it arrived, and their Hungarian servants in the Arrow Cross movement murdered the country. At most, they intended to leave behind a few Hungarian slaves, temporarily. This lends a terrifying naturalness to the sculpture’s stylised depiction.”

Their opinion is a surprise, because students have been failed at university for less egregious historical distortions. Not to mention that the symbolism is unfortunate. It has already been pointed out that the “Nazi” eagle is actually a German national symbol – making its use in this monument both artistically and politically tasteless. (…)

But the tasteless execution is nothing compared to the historical distortions. Let’s take them in turn:

1. The events of 1944 are, to say the least, more complicated than a story of “bad” Germans fighting “good” Hungarians. Eichmann himself was thrilled by his experiences here, observing that the Hungarians must surely be descended from the Huns since nowhere else had he seen so much brutality “in the course of solving the Jewish question.” So much for the “more tranquil, softer-lined figure”.

2. The German invasion did not put the country’s population in chains. Rather, it opened the way for the country’s right-wing elite to redistribute the possessions of some 800,000 people. Very many people received some share of the spoils, and for that reason they are unlikely to have felt oppressed.

3. Not 200,000 but 70,000 Polish refugees arrived in Hungary. This is also a very large number and a positive story, but it has nothing to do with the German invasion.

4. Hungary was indeed an island of peace for many people until 1944, but not for its Jews. Apart from the more than 100 laws and regulations passed against Jews, there were pogroms in several places (in Kisvárda in 1938, and in Munkács and Máramarossziget in 1942), mass murders (a total of 700 Jews died in Southern Hungary in 1942), the mass deportation of some 17,000 people to Kamenets-Podolskii, continuous deportations of those who escaped until autumn 1942, not to mention inhumanely forced labour, which itself caused the death of more than 10,000 people by 1944. This isn’t as much as the millions of deaths elsewhere, but I wouldn’t call it a small number either.

5. The German army did not commit massacres as it arrived in Hungary. What we refer to as massacres were exclusively planned by the Hungarian authorities and partially carried out by them. Proposals to place the entire Jewish population in ghettos had been floated in Parliament as early as 1941, and it was only the tactical maneuverings of prime minister Miklós Kállay and Miklós Horthy, the head of state, that had stopped the proposals coming to a vote. But by March 1944, Hungary’s state bureaucracy had made the necessary preparations for bringing several hundred thousand people’s lives to a close, making sure that they had fully paid their water, electricity and gas bills before they were loaded into the cattle trucks.

6. Here it’s worth recalling that Hungarian authorities were not just implementing ideas they had got from the Germans. Some anti-Semitic measures were enacted over the protests of the Germans, as with the deportations to Kamenets-Podolskii, where in their eagerness, Hungarian authorities caused a humanitarian catastrophe by sending 10,000 robbed and starving Jews to an already devastated area. Some of them were immediately killed in ‘amateur’ pogroms carried out by local Ukrainian anti-Semites. It was only after this that the Germans decided to kill the Jews in order to ensure there was enough food for the local Ukrainian population, reduce the risk of an epidemic and to further their own anti-Semitic programme. This was the first mass murder in the history of the Holocaust whose number of victims ran into five digits. But the Hungarians behind the deportation had known from the outset that their actions would result in mass murder. Miklós Kozma, government commissioner for Carpatho-Ruthenia, the man principally responsible for the action, wrote as early as 1940 in his diary that “Himmler, Heydrich and the radicals are doing what they want to do. In Poland, people are being exterminated … The Polish Jewish ghetto near Lublin is partially solving the Jewish question, so vast is the scale of the deaths.” In July, news arrived of executions, but this did not stop the perpetrators – symbolised in the present monument by the Archangel Gabriel – from carrying on.

7. The “Arrow Cross servants” had nothing to do with the German invasion. A coalition government was formed in Hungary after the invasion, in which the former government party played a central role alongside Béla Imrédy’s Hungarian Renewal Party and a smaller national socialist party. But the Arrow Cross was NOT part of the government. Indeed, Szalasi, the Arrow Cross leader, criticised the deportations of the Jews, saying it was a waste of the nation’s labour reserves. One current ruling party politician said that the Hungarian state’s sovereignty was limited at this time because “a large part of the cabinet had been arrested.” Let’s count: two members of the Kállay government were arrested by the Gestapo – the prime minister himself and the interior minister. Nine ministers were not just free, but members of the new cabinet. Put it differently: there were only two members of the new, post-invasion government who had not been ministers before 1944. To be sure, one of the exceptions was the Döme Sztójay, the new prime minister, but both exceptions had been part of the pre-1944 Hungarian upper elite. Hardly “a large part of the cabinet”.

8. Eliminating the Hungarian nation did not feature among the goals of the German invasion or even long-term Nazi plans. The claim that they would have “temporarily left behind a few enslaved Hungarians” is completely false. The Nazis intended to exterminate Slavs and Jews, not others. Finally, it is exceptionally sneaky to argue that the monument “is dedicated to the memory of all victims,” as government party politician Antal Rogán has claimed. The German occupiers were responsible only for a relative handful of victims. Easily 99 percent of the deaths were caused by the Hungarian authorities who enthusiastically deported the Jews, and it was also the Hungarians that profited. When the unfortunates finally arrived in Auschwitz, everything had already been taken from them, including their wedding rings.

It is very wrong to try and pretend that both victim and murderer were on the same side. But this is what is being done. Authorities didn’t even consider building a central Holocaust memorial – and that’s no coincidence, since it would then be necessary to discuss Hungarians’ roles in all this. It would be very noble if someone whose grandfather died as a soldier on the banks of the Don river or had been killed while carrying out forced labour, were to mourn alongside someone whose grandfather had been driven out in 1944 and then been killed by German or Hungarian authorities. But this monument excludes that possibility by showing no empathy for a group of victims in whose death Hungarian authorities played a central role.

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.


The end of Hungarian sovereignty on March 19, 1944?

On the last day of 2013 at 6:32 p.m. MTI, the Hungarian news agency, reported that the government had decided to erect sometime before March 19, 2014 a memorial to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of the country’s occupation by Germany. Most commentators are baffled. They don’t understand why it is necessary to commemorate such an event. And why it was announced only three months before the deadline. And why did they wait until New Year’s Eve for the announcement? In addition, as one blogger noted, MTI referred to Magyar Közlöny‘s December 31 issue as the source of the news, but at the time of the announcement that particular issue was still not available.

Due to time constraints there will be no competition for the design. The government most likely already has its favorite artist, who will come up with something that will please the conservative taste of the government party’s politicians. And it will be placed on the same Szabadság tér which is already home to the Soviet memorial marking the liberation of Hungary in April of 1945.

In order to understand this latest move of the Orbán government we have to go back to the preamble of the new constitution which states  that “We date the restoration of our country’s self-determination, lost on the nineteenth day of March 1944, from the second day of May 1990, when the first freely elected body of popular representation was formed.” Clearly, the Fidesz government refuses to recognize any Hungarian responsibility for what happened after the German occupation. This is a falsification of history. Not only did Miklós Horthy remain in his post after March 19 but he still had a fair amount of freedom to act. For example, to appoint governments or even to stop the deportations when he came to fear that Hungary’s German ally would lose the war and he personally might be held responsible for the deportation and ultimate death of approximately 600,000 Jewish citizens of Hungary.

Együtt 2014-PM was the first to raise an objection to this “nonsense memorial,” as someone called it. Péter Juhász demanded a suspension of the project. According to Juhász, instead of a monument to the occupation the government should erect a column to commemorate the members of the resistance movement and the victims. Mind you, the former were appallingly few.

Mazsihisz, the association of Jewish religious communities, also objected to the decision. In their objection they pointed to the hurried decision without any prior consultation which “raised worries in the Jewish community at home and abroad.” They recognize only a Memorial Year of the Hungarian Holocaust, which allows for open and fruitful dialogue, not central decisions whose purpose is not at all clear.

MEASZ (Magyar Ellenállók es Antifasiszták Szövetsége), the association of anti-fascists and members of the resistance movement, hoped that the announcement about a new memorial is just a “bad joke.” They fear that the monument might become a gathering place for Hungary’s neo-Nazis.

Well, knowing the Fidesz government, I can predict that all these organizations can protest till Doomsday. On March 19, with sorrowful pomp and circumstance, Fidesz supporters will commemorate the loss of Hungarian sovereignty at the unveiling.

Jobbik, as might have been predicted, welcomed the idea. As far as the politicians of this neo-Nazi party are concerned, the memorial to German occupation should actually replace the Soviet monument standing on the same square right across from the U.S. Embassy. They would take the Soviet statue to the cemetery in which there is a section where high-ranking communist leaders are buried. So, there is no question on which side Jobbik stands.

Up to now only one historian was asked about his reaction to the project–Krisztián Ungváry, whose excellent book on anti-Semitism between the two world wars appeared a couple of weeks ago. The title of the book is A Horthy-rendszer mérlege: Diszkrimináció, szociálpolitika és antiszemitizmus  [The Balance Sheet of the Horthy Regime: Discrimination, Social Policy and anti-Semitism in Hungary] (Pécs: Jelenkor, 2013). It is a book of more than 600 pages and so far I’ve managed to read only 120 pages of it. But even that is enough to recognize that interwar Hungarian governments systematically strove to eliminate Jewish economic and professional preponderance and influence. It wasn’t only the numerus clausus; there were numerous administrative measures that made the economic and professional advancement of Hungary’s Jewish citizens difficult. That effort began in the early 1920s and continued all through the period.

Hungarian gendarmes supervise the transportation of provincial Jews to the designated railroad stations

Hungarian gendarmes supervise the transportation of provincial Jews to the designated railroad stations /Múlt-Kor

Ungváry points out that it is nonsense to claim that Hungary lost its right to self-determination on March 19, 1944. First, Hungary was an ally of Germany, and thus Hungary’s occupation cannot be compared to the German occupation of other countries in both the West and the East. Second, the Hungarian parliament, whose members were elected in 1939, was in session even after March 19, 1944. Moreover, the majority of the ministers of the Sztójai and Lakatos governments appointed by Horthy after March 19 also served in the government of Miklós Kállay (March 1942-March 19, 1944).

But the exculpatory rewriting of Hungarian history continues unabated. In a year or so the new school textbooks, which will be approved by a new body whose members will be selected by the government, will carry on the job of proving that the Hungarian government and the Hungarian people had nothing whatsoever to do with the deportation of the Hungarian Jewry. It was exclusively the Germans’ fault.

Ruling of the European Court of Human Rights: The case of Krisztián Ungváry v. Hungary

Today’s topic should resonate with readers of all political stripes. Any news about secret agents of the Kádár regime, especially because of the lack of full disclosure, always arouses a great deal of interest. In addition, tidbits about Ferenc Gyurcsány’s activities as KISZ secretary at the University of Pécs in the 1980s are highly sought after, especially in right-wing circles. Add to that a former “official/informal contact” between the university and the Ministry of Interior’s infamous secret service who happens to be today a member of the Hungarian Constitutional Court. Finally, a decision of the European Court of Human Rights that finds the Hungarian Supreme Court’s finding and judgment in the case of Krisztián Ungváry v. László Kiss irreconcilable with Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prescribes that “everyone has the right to freedom of expression.”

Krisztián Ungváry

Krisztián Ungváry

The story started in 2007 when Élet és Irodalom (ÉS) published an article by Krisztián Ungváry, a historian who is an authority on, among other things, the secret service and its agents during the Kádár period. The article was about an aborted student movement at the University of Pécs. In 1982 three young law students wanted to start a peace movement independent from the official Országos Béketanács. They never thought the authorities would find anything wrong with such a movement. After all, Kádár’s Hungary, like the whole Soviet bloc, made frequent references to peace as something desirable. The problem was that the inspiration for this particular movement came from Western Europe and wanted to banish nuclear arms from the whole of Europe, including Soviet arms that could also be found on Hungarian soil. Therefore, the authorities immediately reacted in order to squash the Dialógus program, as the movement was named by the students.

The details of this “storm in a teapot” are not interesting as far as our story is concerned, but the original article does shed light on many aspects of “gulyás communism” that were not evident to the passive majority of Hungarians. The thesis of the article is that very often it was not the secret agents who were the most important sources of information for the Ministry of Interior but the so-called “informal contacts.” In connection with the Dialógus affair Ungváry mentions eight people who served as “informal contacts,” most of whom he managed to identify. Among them was the party secretary of the law school, László Kiss, then associate professor and today a member of the Constitutional Court, a position he has held ever since 1998. At the same time Ungváry comes to the conclusion that, although Gyurcsány as a KISZ secretary was a link in the chain, his role was minimal and he was not one of the “official contacts” the Ministry of Interior relied on.

Kiss Laszlo

László Kiss

Ungváry had proof of Kiss’s reporting to the Ministry of Interior and therefore had no reason to believe that he might be the object of years of litigation in connection with this article. A few days after the appearance of his article, Kiss made an announcement that was published in ÉS in which he declared that he had never been an agent and “never worked with the persons of the secret service mentioned in the article. In fact, he didn’t even know them personally.” He threatened Ungváry with both civil and criminal legal proceedings and, as it turned out later, brought charges against ÉS as well.

Ungváry’s answer in the same issue pointed out that Kiss’s name appears in the folder dealing with the Dialógus affair as the source of information on the details of the case. That didn’t satisfy Judge Kiss, however, and he proceeded with the litigation that lasted over three years.

Ungváry was acquitted of the criminal charges, but he and ÉS lost the first round in the civil case. In March 2010, however, the appellate court ruled in favor of Ungváry and the weekly paper. Liberal groups were delighted, and SZEMA (Szabad Emberek Magyarországért, the party of Klára Ungár) called on Kiss to resign his post after the ruling. After all, Ungár argued, a man with such a past shouldn’t be a member of the Hungarian Constitutional Court. 

Naturally Kiss had not the slightest intention of resigning. Instead he appealed to the Supreme Court, which promptly reversed the appellate court’s decision. Again liberal groups were up in arms, especially since the court fined Ungváry 3 million forints and ÉS 2 million for publishing the piece. But even Mandiner, a group of young conservatives, stood by Ungváry; in fact, they collected money so he would be able to pay the stiff fine. But Ungváry is not the kind of man who gives up easily. Shortly after the ruling of the Supreme Court in June 2010 he appealed to the European Court of Human Rights. On December 3 the Strasbourg court ruled against Hungary. Thus Hungary will have to pay 7,000 euros to Ungváry and, 3,000 to ÉS over and above the amount the paper had to pay in fines after the ruling of the Hungarian Supreme Court.

The decision was a narrow one and the Hungarian government has the right to appeal, which would initiate another round of legal proceedings at the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights. The Hungarian government hasn’t responded yet but László Kiss certainly has. He is planning to sue Ungváry for distorting the verdict of the court when he announced that the finding of the court “validated” his claims about Kiss’s activities. Kiss went so far as to claim that the Strasbourg court “announced that Ungváry was unable to prove his claims,” which were no more than “speculations” that lacked any corroborating evidence.

I checked the published judgment of “Case of Ungváry and Irodalom Kft. v. Hungary.” Since Kiss referenced the word “speculations,” I decided to check the text of the judgment. I found only one “speculations,” and not where I would have expected it to be if one believed László Kiss. No, the word was found in the description of the Hungarian Supreme Court’s judgment that the Strasbourg Court found wanting. Let me quote.

53. The Court notes the finding of the Supreme Court according to which the first applicant [i.e., Ungváry] was unable to prove that Mr K. had been in regular contact with the State security, often anticipating and exceeding its expectations. The Court finds that these expressions exceeded the limits of journalism, scholarship and public debate. In the present case, it is not the –arguably excessive – form of the expression but the defamatory content of these speculations, which the Court finds objectionable as being without sufficient factual support. …

The Court notes that the article intended to demonstrate that collaboration, that is, the activities of “official contacts” meant cooperation without specific, express operational instructions from the State security. Limiting its analysis to this kind of direct cooperation with the State security, the Supreme Court failed to consider that Mr K.’s reports had been in any case available to the authorities of the Communist regime, nor did it attribute any particular relevance to the fact that the first applicant’s undeniably offensive and exaggerated statements were made within the context of the broader presentation of the workings of the oppressive mechanism of a totalitarian regime. It did not consider relevant, either, that the first applicant had indicated the sense in which he had used the term informing (see paragraph 8 above). Indeed, the article was written in order to demonstrate how closely the Ministry of the Interior and the “social organisations” had worked together, and especially, how tight the relation had been between party functionaries and the Ministry of the Interior.

And finally:

The Court notes that the Supreme Court interpreted the first applicant’s description of these officials as one portraying them “guilty by association” – which, in that court’s view, could not prove that Mr K. “actually cooperated” with the State security (see paragraph 19 above).

The Court cannot agree with the deduction of the Supreme Court.

The Court finds that although the first applicant did not prove that Mr K. and his reports had actually been commissioned by the State security, it was nevertheless an undisputed fact that he, as a party secretary, had produced reports on the Dialógus affair. (p. 15)

If I read the decision of the Strasbourg court correctly, I don’t think that Judge Kiss has a chance. Unless, of course, the Hungarian judges are intimidated by the almighty judge of the Constitutional Court.