March for Life

Dissonant government voices on the Hungarian Holocaust

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

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

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

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

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

The Hungarian group in Auschwitz-Birkenau

The Hungarian group in Auschwitz-Birkenau

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

János Áder in Auschwitz-Birkenau / MTI

János Áder in Auschwitz-Birkenau / MTI

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

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

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March for Life and the anti-Semitic Patriotic Bikers of Hungary

A group of right-wing bikers planned to stage a demonstration all across Budapest, including zooming by the famous synagogue on Dohány utca. The slogan for the demonstration was “Give Gas! Hands off our homeland and our homes!” The demonstration was scheduled for April 21, the same day as the March for Life (Az élet menete). The march, designed to pay tribute to the victims of the Hungarian Holocaust, has been held every year since 2002. Last year’s march was especially memorable, and I wrote about it right after the event.

II Give Gas With police escort Hands off our homeland and our house

II. Give Gas!
With police escort
Hands off our homeland and our homes!

Readers of Hungarian Spectrum are familiar with the Goy Bikers, whom I introduced as early as 2008. The organizers of this particular gathering belong to another group who call themselves Nemzeti Érzelmű Motorosok, loosely translated as Patriotic Bikers. As one can see, however, patriotism is not exactly their most notable characteristic. Their anti-Semitism is. At least the Goy Bikers proudly identify themselves as an anti-Semitic group, which is reflected even in their name. These guys, on the other hand, hide behind their patriotism.

And as if we didn’t have enough of these characters lately, there are also the Scythian Bikers (Szkíta Motorosok) who are ready to join the “Give Gas!” demonstration. As a reminder, the Scythians were an Iranian tribe and Jobbik is especially fond of the current regime in Iran. According to some commentators, the Goy Bikers have closer relations with Fidesz while the Patriots are linked to Jobbik. We know that the chief organizer of the “Give Gas!” demonstration, Sándor Jeszenszky, is the Jobbik chairman of Budapest’s District XI. (District XI, by the way, is one of the ritziest sections of Buda.) Gábor Vona, the chairman of Jobbik, is apparently furious over Jeszenszky’s connection with the Patriotic Bikers, although I doubt that the party chairman knew nothing about it earlier.

The organizers proudly announced on their posters that the bikers will be escorted by the police. From the poster it is also clear that this is not the first such demonstration organized by the Patriotic Bikers. It is the second. They made an appearance for the first time in 2012 on the day the March of Life took place in Budapest. Why didn’t we hear about their demonstration a year ago? Well, there were a couple of articles about the bikers protesting high gasoline prices, higher tolls, and new rules and regulations concerning drivers’ licenses. So, their demonstration couldn’t be directly connected to the March for Life. This time there is no question what “Give Gas!” means. Mind you, the “Give Gas!” slogan is not exactly original. On a 2011 poster of the German National Democratic Party (NPD) the party leader Udo Voigt can be seen riding a motorbike with the slogan “Gas geben.”

The Hungarian Jewish umbrella organization, MAZSIHISZ, called on everybody to come to the gate of the Jewish quarters in order to prevent the bikers from entering. And indeed that would have been one of the two legal answers to the bikers’ provocative plans once the police accepted their application to demonstrate. The other would have been for members of the government, including Viktor Orbán, to join the March for Life and walk along with the crowd and those opposition politicians who normally attend. But given Viktor Orbán’s reluctance to alienate the extreme right and his negative attitude toward any kind of cooperation with the opposition, we knew that he would neither show solidarity with the Jewish population of Hungary nor walk alongside his political opponents. However, considering that the next meeting of the World Jewish Congress will be held in Budapest, which apparently Viktor Orbán himself will attend, the prime minister decided that he had to do something, however uncomfortable it might be for him. A truly uncomfortable position given Orbán’s relations with the extreme right and his fears that the fourth amendment to the new constitution may not be well received in Brussels. It took only a few hours for Viktor Orbán himself to forbid the “Give Gas!” anti-Semitic demonstration.

This happened on Monday in Parliament. Pál Steiner of MSZP asked Viktor Orbán, who happened to be in the chamber, about a “Nazi-like” (náci szellemű) demonstration that is being “led by the police.” Although according to house rules it should have been Sándor Pintér who answered the question, Viktor Orbán, stressing the importance of the issue, rose to reply to Steiner’s question directly. In his answer he informed Steiner that he had already “instructed Sándor Pintér not to grant permission” for the bikers to hold their demonstration. A few hours later the organizers were informed in writing that the announced demonstration cannot be held.

Viktor Orbán as prime minister has the right to instruct his ministers to do or not to do certain things. Did Pintér have to follow Orbán’s instructions and did the police have to obey Pintér’s instructions? The answer is yes. The only remaining question is whether it was legal to forbid the biker demonstration. Legal experts claim that most likely it was not legal. According to laws currently in force, police competence to decide who can and who cannot demonstrate is extremely limited. As the law reads, the police force “doesn’t permit” a demonstration; it only “acknowledges” its taking place. There are only two circumstances under which the police may not “acknowledge” an already announced demonstration: (1) if the demonstration seriously endangers the functioning of the parliament or the courts or (2) if the flow of traffic cannot be ensured via an alternate route.

The bikers announced their demonstration to the police on April 3, and because the police didn’t raise any objection to their holding the rally within 48 hours they in effect sanctioned it. When on April 8 the police refused to recognize the demonstration, they gave as their reason that the demonstration “might be accompanied by an assault against public order.” But to prohibit a demonstration on the grounds that it may involve a crime is not lawful. If in the course of the event there are signs of violence the police can simply disperse the crowd.

Given the presumed illegality of the police action taken on the instruction of Sándor Pintér and Viktor Orbán, it is not at all surprising that the Patriotic Bikers are challenging the decision in court. It can easily happen that the Bikers will win. As one of the legal experts said, by now Viktor Orbán and his government don’t even try to pretend that Hungary is a full-fledged democracy. The quasi-dictator can transgress existing laws and act on his own. And his “subjects” even thank him for it, as Pál Steiner did in parliament. Such occurrences can also happen in a country where the laws concerning freedom of assembly and its limitations are not properly spelled out. Just as Viktor Orbán can forbid this particular demonstration, he might be able to do the same when the democratic opposition wants to go out on the streets the next time. Although the anti-Semites’ bike ride is odious, the way in which Viktor Orbán and the police handled it shows the state of Hungarian democracy today.