Miklós Horthy

Mária Schmidt’s latest opus: The love story

Mária Schmidt is familiar to the readers of Hungarian Spectrum. This latest article of hers also appeared in Heti Válasz, her favorite publication. Her vision of  Jewish-non-Jewish relations as a love affair goes against everything we know about the period between the two world wars. If Sorsok Háza (House of Fates) becomes an embodiment of that love affair, we will have a totally false depiction of Hungarian reality. No wonder that the Hungarian Jewish community has great reservations about the project.

I have no doubt that the Sorsok Háza will open its doors and that what we find inside will mirror Mária Schmidt’s strange vision of modern Hungarian history. She makes it clear here that the project is a government-funded undertaking and thus no one has the right to have any say in its execution.

Mária Schmidt started off as a promising historian in the late 1980s, but soon enough she changed her chosen profession to become a party propagandist. She became chief adviser to Viktor Orbán in the second half of the 1990s and provided the underpinning of  Fidesz’s historical ideology.

The question is how long she will be useful to Viktor Orbán. Her latest excursion into the field of historical propaganda was not exactly a success story. The controversial memorial to “all the victims of  the German occupation” of March 1944 did serious damage to the already badly tarnished reputation of Viktor Orbán and his regime. 

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“The Holocaust represents a value, because it has led to immeasurable knowledge at the cost of immeasurable sufferings;
thus, there is an immeasurable moral margin in it.”

Imre Kertész

I have not seen S. Z. for decades. The last time I met him was in New York in the early nineties at the place of the outstanding historian T. J., a common friend of ours, who has sadly deceased since. We got to know each other in Oxford where both of them were teaching then. S. taught Jewish history, of which subject he is one of the most widely acknowledged American academic experts, and I spent some time there on a research grant. Then S. came to Budapest for a conference, and after he gave his presentation, we went out for dinner. We talked for hours, and a lot of topics came up including the “House of Fates,” about which he had already heard a lot back in Washington and of course also during his stay here. Those who volunteered to bring him up to date concerning the state of affairs in Hungary, about me and the would-be Holocaust museum, had spared no effort to dissuade him from meeting me, both via e-mail and then personally. They were probably unaware of our long time acquaintence  which gave me the advantage that he wanted to ask me his questions and hear my answers, which is what he did. So we talked at length about the new memorial site which is in the making. I told him about the concept of the exhibitions and of the education and training center. I showed him the exterior and interior visual designs, the interior fit-out and furnishing concept. We discussed the prospective permanent exhibition in most detail. Finally he said: “If I get it right, this is a love story. A story of love between Hungarian Jews and non-Jews. A love that has survived everything. As a result of which there is still a large Hungarian Jewish community living in this country.”

Yes. This is exactly what the “House of Fates – European Education Center” is all about. This is about decision makers’ intent to take an oath on a common fate shared by all Hungarians: Jews and non-Jews alike. About the commitment to make sure that just like our predecessors we can also plan a shared future despite the cataclysms of the 20th century. This is why it is crucial for young generations to get to know and understand what the tragedy of the holocaust meant for our national community as well as what the causes, circumstances, intents and forces that had underlain and fuelled anti-Semitism in Hungary and in Europewere. Who and why had poisoned the lives of our fellow countrymen categorized as Jews even before the fateful Nazi occupation of Hungary. How and why part of the last, nearly intact European Jewish community could be so swiftly annihilated in Nazi death camps. Who are responsible for all that? Who were the ones who remained humans amidst inhumanity because they opted for what is good, at the risk of even their lives and freedom in some cases. How could the survivors start anew and process what can hardly be processed. Why the majority of those people decided to stay here, to start their lives at home again and share what their fellow countrymen had to share. For this is something unparalleled, something that is not self-evident at all, particularly if we consider the fact that in this Central and Eastern European region, and nearly in the whole of Europe, survivors decided to leave and part with their past.

The House of Fates is made up of three parts, namely an exhibition, an education and a training section. Moreover, it has an up-to-date, well-equipped conference room, a room for hosting and staging temporary exhibitions and the required infrastructural background.

The exhibition section is divided into three units: A permanent exhibition that takes 50-60 minutes to tour. The area of this exhibition is shielded so that visitors cannot use any electronic device there. The story that is related here focuses on the period between 1938 and 1948, based nearly exclusively on recollections of survivors, and is supposed to touch the feelings of the visitor, make him interested and, ideally, to prompt him to ask questions. The installation and the narrative are both targeted at the 14 to 24 year-old generation.  Having toured this exhibition unit the visitor can proceed to see the “exploration” section or go on to look at the remaining “chamber” exhibitions.  Upon entering the exploration section the visitor is (or may be) given a tablet, with the most important information concerning the items on display, including names, dates, and a lexicon, along with questions and assignments. Those interested in the chamber exhibitions may decide to see them or to come back and visit them at a later date. As our plans stand at present, the chamber exhibitions will show Hanna Szenes, the Zionist resistance, Raoul Wallenberg, Margit Slachta, Sára Salkaházi and the 1944 story of the Józsefváros Railroad Station as well as the story of the Jewish community of Budapest’s 8th  district called Józsefváros. This is where the walls of perpetrators, those responsible and the humanitarian rescuers will be installed. A videostream will be played in the exploration room, showing visitors the most important events and personalities of those years. A number of computer workstations will also be installed where additional information and data can be collected and studied. Interactive workplaces will be created for browsing and searching for information.

At the training center there will be programs bringing as close as possible to members of the “Y generation” the very feeling and experience of being excluded, outcast and persecuted, while drawing their attention to the importance and inevitability of making a choice between good and evil and individual responsibility.

Importance is also attached to offering a training program to enable teachers to teach their students about the collective persecution to which entire social groups had been exposed under the dictatorships of the 20th century, with particular focus on the tragedy of the Holocaust.

It was seventy years ago, in 1944, that Hungary suffered one of the most horrendous tragedies in its modern-age history. The second Orbán cabinet took its decision on the creation of what is known as the “House of Fates” in the context of the memorial year relating to the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust. In remembering the national tragedy seven decades after, this memorial year is intended to be a site of “creating order in our common matters” and have “peace flow through our rembrance and regard”1. In the context of the memorial year, the government has allocated a HUF 1.5 billion budget to social programs and it adopted a decision building up the Memorial to the Child Victims of the Holocaust – European Education Center at the site of the former Józsefváros Railroad Station.  I was entrusted with the role of leading the professional project team, while the implementation of the investment project was assigned to Government Commissioner Dr. Balázs Fürjes.

This assignment is a real honor for me but it is an immense responsibility and workload at the same time. It took me quite a while, wavering whether to undertake it at all. My children tried to dissuade me. As did some of my friends. One argument against taking up this job was that I would be exposed to relentless and fierce attacks. And even if all goes well, which I have staunchly believed up to this very day, I may expect nothing but denigration. Finally, I answered yes, out of love for my country. I hoped that through such an immense and successful undertaking I could perhaps make a contribution to reconciliation, to a discussion of the tragedies of the past to settle issues and to at least alleviating, if not bringing to an end, all of the evil and purposeless accusations constantly experienced even today. Thereby neutralizing or at least weakening the forces continuously calling Hungary an anti-Semitic and fascist country, using these unfounded stigmata as a political weapon to discredit the Hungarian nation as a whole. Indeed, I expected all of those who already started a media campaign against the  House of Terror Museum and spared no effort to discredit it both in Hungary and abroad, to activate themselves again, and, alas, so they did, wasting no time. The same individuals and circles, with the same vehemence, started the same ruthless attack driven by the same motives both in Hungary and abroad, against me and the prospective memorial site, unleashing that orgy of hate which is so characteristic of them. This is why the “House of Fates” project became, right from the beginning, a target of a series of attacks lead, most unfortunately, by the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Faith Communities (MAZSIHISZ). For as we were approaching the 2014 election campaign the neolog Jewish religious organization undertook to launch a frontal attack against the government – yielding to circles of intellectuals dissatisfied by the weakness and wavering of the anti-government forces – threatening to boycott the memorial year. They put together a package of three demands, calling for the discontinuation of the sculpture composition designed for Szabadság Square in remembrance of Hungary’s Nazi occupation, the removal of director-general Sándor Szakály from the helm of Veritas, a new historical research institute and a right to control and supervise the creation of the House of Fates.

sorsok haza projekt

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán tried to remove the politically motivated onslaught from among the campaign themes by inviting Jewish organizations to consultations after the elections.  Nonetheless, MAZSIHISZ and  its supporters continued their relentless campaign and their  attacks on the House of Fates. They threatened and tried to blackmail everybody cooperating with us or even considering accepting our invitation. They bombarded the members of the International Advisory Board with e-mail messages, as well as anybody else whom they could contact. They spread their accusations all over the place both in Hungary and abroad. In collaboration with certain leaders of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington – who have, to be honest, been rather negatively biased against us in the first place –, they turned Yad Vashem against us.

They are continuously inciting the Israeli Hungarian community as well. Among other charges, they argue that the name “House of Fates” is wrong or misleading, the location is not authentic, or if it is, then it is too particular; the deadline set by the government is too short for such complex work to be carried out properly, and then within one month of my appointment I was attacked for not having worked out a finished scenario. A public auto-da-fé was staged in the “Bálint House” where Professor András Gerő, arguing in favor of and working in the project team, was subjected to a ritual execution (also instead of me) by MAZSIHISZ employee László Karsai posing in the role of the grand inquisitor, in unison with the rather hot-tempered audience.

INTERNATIONAL PRESSURE

This had seemed likely to come; indeed it was to be expected. I went and kept going through this before, during, and for years after, the opening of the House of Terror Museum. However, the like of the direct and intensive international pressure I have experienced in relation to this assignment I did not even have to face at the time of the creation of the House of Terror Museum.  At that time it was only Mr. Mussatov, the then Ambassador of Russia, who protested against the new museum but his objections were settled through a joint tour of the exhibition and a discussion. The former diplomat has delivered presentations at several of our conferences since then. In regard to the “House of Fates”, however, ambassadors of a number of western countries feel compelled to lecture me on how to interpret, indeed, how we all Hungarians should interpret our 20th century history, with a special focus on the role of Miklós Horthy. I have had to sit through countless lectures delivered by western diplomats about Horthy, Hungary’s “revisionism”, the collaboration of Hungarians etc., and all of them represented countries whose history offers at least as many, if not even more, very good opportunities to raise uncomfortable questions. I was asked as early as just before Christmas 2013 by US Deputy Chief of Mission Mr. André Goodfriend – of course on a strictly “friendly” basis – for a list of the names of those working on the House of Fates project. Then a fortnight later he told me – again, on a friendly basis – that he did not agree with the participation of some of those included in the list. “I wasn’t aware that you needed to agree” was my response, also on a friendly basis. The Ambassador of the UK to Hungary assured me that Her Majesty’s government was avidly interested in the Hungarian Holocaust. This is very nice of them, particularly in view of the fact that their predecessors weren’t so very deeply concerned while the annihilation of European and particularly of Hungarian Jewry was underway. Both these gentlemen and a dozen or so of their fellow diplomats expressed their expectations and wishes in regard to the prospective exhibition. Hungary’s ambassadors in both Tel Aviv and Washington were summoned by the Departments of Foreign Affairs because of me, complaining about a remark I had made at a book presentation event, along the lines that the post-World War I system of dishonest peace treaties had been the most devastating tragedy of the 20th century and that a fair and unbiased approach should be taken when forming an opinion about Horthy’s role in history just like in the case of Kádár’s role, rather than viewing these political leaders strictly in black and white. Foreign diplomats, particularly some of the responsible officers of the US voiced their definite expectation that it should only be appropriate and necessary for the Hungarian Government to invite an international committee of historians to commit Hungary’s 20th century history to paper for us, Hungarians. They keep applying pressure to achieve such a governmental assignment. Even the US Foreign Secretary had been mobilized to achieve this end. I am particularly proud of the fact that during the latest Arab-Israeli armed conflict, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanjahu managed to find the time to send a letter to Viktor Orbán, voicing his concerns about my humble self and the House of Fates project.

As a consequence of internal political skirmishes and the unprecedented international pressure applied, both MAZSIHISZ and Yad Vashem withdrew from the International Advisory Board of the House of Fates project.  The rest of the members were also brought under pressure, to make it impossible for that board to continue its work. Therefore, instead of the next scheduled meeting of the international advisory board, we could only hold a consultation where the members present (Michael Wolffsohn and Joshua Muravchik) liked and were satisfied with our concept.

The situation changed somewhat by the middle of this summer. Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues Douglas Davidson and Sir Andrew Burns of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) ascertained, each of his own, that the misgivings concerning and attacks against the project are utterly groundless, and therefore it would be rather difficult to explain why they withdraw their support from a memorial site that will be Europe’s largest and very likely most grandiose and sophisticated such project.

Based on an initiative put forth by Director of International Jewish Affairs for the American Jewish Committee Rabbi Andrew Baker, a consultation took place in Budapest on July 28 among the House of Fates, the Páva Street Holocaust Memorial Center, MAZSIHISZ and IHRA, to remove obstacles from continued cooperation. The experts participating in the meeting raised no objection whatsoever against the contents of the exhibition and had no proposal or idea of relevance to be put on the table.  After half a day of discussions the parties agreed that a working group to be formed of the representatives of international Holocaust experts would help us with our work in regard to both the exhibition and education. The agreement so reached was broken up by MAZSIHISZ within 24 hours, again without any sound reason at all, asserting that the text that was published in the form of a press release was not the same as the one that had been agreed on, despite the fact that the president of MAZSIHISZ had approved this text beforehand in an e-mail message. Within another 24 hours IHRA  gave its support to this attitude.

The attitude of the foreign experts and officials is characterized by nothing better than what IHRA’s English Chairman Sir Burns told me at the end of the meeting in July – suggesting, again, of course, on a strictly friendly basis that I should no longer write articles, thereby referring to my text entitled Captive of the Past concerning the Szabadság Square memorial which had appeared a few weeks earlier in the weekly Heti Válasz. He and Mr. David Cesarini justified this piece of advice by referring to my responsibility for the House of Fates project which I must not jeopardize by publishing essays of sorts. All of these developments only deepened my awe and admiration of the developed western world, on account of its deep and staunch commitment to the freedom of speech and thought, even if I am beginning to vaguely recognize how much there still is for us to learn here, on the outskirts of the developed world, before we can also fully enjoy this privilege. Until then, we should best refrain from writing articles or doing things such as thinking about our own history – rather, we should be grateful and accept that all of these missions will be undertaken by them instead of ourselves, for our benefit.

MAZSIHISZ

The party-state dictatorship set up a single tightly controlled organization to lead Hungarian Jews actively practicing their religion through which it could simultaneously control both the internal affairs and the international relations of the Hungarian Jewry. Only the most determined individuals remained members of Jewish organizations during the decades of the party-state rule, partly owing to the above mentioned strict supervision and partly because open expression and practicing of one’s Jewish identity definitely did not meet the approval of the Communist authorities, in some cases entailing the devastating accusation of being a “Zionist”, in most cases with gruesome consequences. Members failed to flock to religious communities in large numbers despite the “Jewish Renaissance” that followed the political regime change. Those communities are still made up primarily of a few hundred – mostly elderly pensioner – devotees. Consequently, the leaders of those religious communities – just like the organizations they are heading – enjoy no general acceptance in Hungarian society, as has been increasingly revealed by a long series of scandals that have broken up in recent times.

No matter how a variety of influential international Jewish organizations as well as Israel’s representatives and diplomats have hastened to back them up, Hungarian society cannot be persuaded or forced to accept an official who first turned from transvestite performing artist into Lutheran theologian and Catholic parish choir master, and then on to the executive director of the Budapest Jewish Community, who is, according to the chairman of the Community, is not even of Jewish origin; or a former executive director banker who had been convicted for bribery. It is also clear for all interested outsiders that the current Chairman of MAZSIHISZ is not seeking an agreement in relation to the House of Fates but he is trying to improve his position to get re-elected by fully exploiting the media interest concerning the prospective memorial center. The Chairman of MAZSIHISZ is posing in the role of a relentless representative and promoter of the organization’s interests to prove his indispensability towards a handful of voters as well as international Jewish organizations and Israel. This is why he keeps upsetting all agreements and imposing new and then further demands and conditions. This is why he has formulated such demands in relation to the House of Fates that had never been and are still not considered to be of importance in relation to the Páva Street Holocaust Memorial Center, which is alleged to be very important to both him and the international Jewish organizations. During the past more than a decade the leaders of the Jewish religious community have never been able to contribute to creating the necessary environment and conditions for undisturbed and efficient work at the Páva Street institution, as is eloquently proven by the miserably low numbers of visitors and the unceasing internal skirmishes. And these unblessed circumstances were not in the least different during the eight-year period when they were cooperating with a Socialist-Free Democrat coalition government.  As a matter of fact, MAZSIHISZ leaders are driven by their own self-interests when they keep provoking fruitless conflicts with the government, whatever action the government happens to take. In attacking the House of Fates, they will even find it worthwhile to obstruct worthy remembrance of the victims of the Holocaust and our murdered compatriots.

In the autumn of 2014, Mr János Lázár the minister in charge of the Prime Minister’s Office who played a leading role in devising and organizing the memorial year for the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust; in putting in place the Szabadság Square memorial and the launching of the creation of the House of Fates, offered an adviser’s contract, much to the consternation of all, to Mr Gusztáv Zoltai, who had  played a leading role in blocking all of the above programs, until his dismissal in early April 2014. According to the arguments then put forth by MAZSIHISZ Chairman András Heisler, Holocaust surviving Zoltai had been so severely affected by the government’s intent to erect a memorial for the victims of Hungary’s German occupation, that he resigned from all of his positions. Heisler himself opted for a different strategy, by turning for help as usual to international public opinion. Zoltai, who used to be a 1956 Communist militiaman, a member of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party (MSZMP), a former member of the communist workers’ militia, headed MAZSIHISZ as an executive director from 1991.

His demonstrative inclusion on the government side was explained by the minister by pointing out that he “did not regard advisory services as some monkey business” and that they had known each other for quite some time. Public consternation was only further aggravated by János Lázár’s promise that the House of Fates would be opened “only in the framework of a consensual solution “, i.e. only if the domestic and international Jewish organizations, most recently, Hungarian Holocaust survivors and “those who suffered the tragedy”, find it to be acceptable and agree with its “professionalism”. Nothing could be more natural than Mr. Heisler’s interpretation: the minister gave them the right of veto concerning the House of Fates project.

Accordingly, the Faith Community, a religious organization representing about two thousand individuals will exercise censorship over the contents of one of the government’s important large scale projects, and will determine its view of history and its message. No such thing has happened in Hungary ever since the separation of state and church towards the end of the 19th century.

To let international Jewish organizations have a say without having contributed a single penny to the costs of setting up the institution is contrary to the responsibility of the sovereign Hungarian state for its own past, present and future.
In an interview with the daily Népszabadság (September 26, 2014) János Lázár repeatedly expressed that the moral values, the kind of community of shared values determining the political right, mean nothing to him. He finds criticism concerning his employment of Zoltay to be immaterial; indeed, he considers “any form of ex-post evaluation from the outside” of his newly hired adviser, to be a mistake. Let us not be surprised when using the same argument he invites one of these days the very Ferenc Gyurcsány to work for him as a government advisor, to whose Őszöd address Mr. Lázár referred the other day as a positive example.

Mr. Lázár apparently fails to understand that this time we are dealing with our very identity. This is not about practices in wielding power or safe bargains concluded in the background, but about principles, belief, all of the things on which our whole life, including our political community rests and is built. We have seen lots of examples during the past 25 years how disregarding principles and moral convictions lead to the loss of all values and then the collapse of entire political communities. When politics appear to be reduced to all-pervasive cynicism and bare immorality, the countdown will immediately start.

When I undertook to create what will be called the House of Fates, I knew what attacks I would be in for.  I undertook the job nonetheless, because I am convinced that my country needs to make sure that young generations also learn that preserving solidarity towards each other is one of our most important common values, and giving it up leads to immense losses and tragedies in the past, and the same would be bound to happen in the future as well. I am convinced that processing the past of our nation as well as presenting and teaching the lessons drawn from it are our tasks and responsibilities which we do not want to and will not evade. This is a cause for our national community that cannot be influenced by any particular or external interests. Not even if Mr. Lázár holds other views on this. The happy ending of the Love Story is at stake.
We must not let it get botched up. I for one will definitely do my share to prevent that.

A historical exchange: Mária Schmidt versus Mária M. Kovács

Viktor Orbán decided to move. In the dead of night, surrounded by hundreds of policemen, the infamous statue commemorating the German occupation of Hungary arrived on Szabadság tér. In no time a few workers managed to perch the 7-meter high statue of Archangel Gabriel and the imperial eagle on its base. The policemen remained. So did the heavy metal fence that is needed to safeguard the statue, which was described by Pester Lloyd as “a self-portrait and a caricature” of Orbán’s regime. Whether the brave prime minister will have the courage to officially unveil it, no one knows. Put it this way, it arrived unveiled.

MTI did not report on its erection until noon, but by that time the German press had already reported the event and the Austrian Der Standard even knew about the eggs that were thrown at it. It is likely that this cursed statue will have to be guarded day and night for months, perhaps even years to come. But Viktor Orbán had his way. He can be proud of this hideous monument.

Gabriel

So, it is appropriate that I publish here a couple of important documents that are closely connected to the controversy that broke out at the beginning of the year when it became known that the Orbán government had already decided to erect a monument commemorating March 19, 1944, the day German troops occupied allied Hungary.

Mária Schmidt, about whom I have written several times, on June 26 came out with a lengthy vitriolic article in Heti Válasz against all those who oppose the government’s interpretation of modern Hungarian history. Thanks to Mandiner, a conservative Internet site, Mária Schmidt’s article is now available in English. I am republishing it here without any stylistic alteration.

About two weeks after the appearance of Schmidt’s diatribe Mária M. Kovács, a history professor at the Central European University, decided to dissect Schmidt’s rather flimsy argument. Her article appeared in Népszabadság on July 9. It was ably translated by Gábor D. Farkas.

I should add here that, according to the announcement that appeared on Friday, the House of Fates Mária M. Kovács is talking about at the end of her article is going full steam ahead under the general direction of Schmidt. Orbán promised to allow the Hungarian Jewish community to discuss the details, but naturally in the final analysis he decided to give a free hand to Schmidt, whom the Jewish community specifically opposed.

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CAPTIVE OF THE PAST

10th July 2014

In contrast to the left-liberal fringe, the significant majority of the Hungarian electorate expects representation of the Hungarian national interest and demands it from its elected leaders.

This article was adapted from the original, which appeared in Hungarian at Válasz.hu

 “The tragedy of the Jewry has become the tragedy of the nation.”

                        György Ránki

Following the 2014 elections, the decades-long influence and intellectual terror of the left-liberal opinion leaders are slowly vanishing. The emblematic figures of the left-liberal team controlled the narrative for decades and ordained themselves responsible for deciding who was presentable and who was not, who would be celebrated – or even who must be celebrated – and who would not. Well, until this spring, that is. Since then, those who could do no wrong have finally lost the few bits of respect they had managed to maintain.

The left-liberal coalition that came to be known as “unity for change of government,” a self-imposed alliance, resulted in a spectacular failure and further proof that the “smart ones” got it wrong. They are not only failing to understand the 21st century, but have, once and for all, locked themselves in the ideology and values of the ‘68-ers, a world that expired long ago. They forced an unprincipled compromise on what at the time still seemed to be a viable party, the Hungarian Socialists, and thereby made impossible its hopes for renewal. This circle of intellectuals, who are completely unaccountable, repeatedly attacked and shamed the Socialist leader, Attila Mesterházy and other MSZP politicians who sought an opportunity to open up to the world outside their narrow circle of values and interests.

Some of the younger Socialists recognized that the path that Viktor Orbán followed over the past 25 years has lessons to offer them, too. They observed how Orbán, following the 2002 defeat, reorganized Fidesz and made it into a hard-hitting party. They learned from the organizational and technical masterstrokes of the Orbán-led transformation. But they have not fully grasped that the emotional appeal – based on a particular mindset and core values – is the soul of this well-functioning political power. Mesterházy realized that the advantage his party once enjoyed, that of being the post-communist successor party, is gone, and what little remains is too little to keep MSZP a defining political power in the 21st century.

The left-liberal intellectual and media elite, however, never got that far. They do not understand that the new century began in 2008, bringing a different balance of power, a different set of questions, different conflicts. And for these we have to find new answers. Instead, they continue to try to win the debates of the last century, ignoring the lessons that the past offers for today’s challenges. The past, however, offers guidance for the present and future only if we are able to study it without bias and prejudice. The left-liberal intellectual circle, those who devised the politically correct narrative and based their political power on it, is incapable of such study.

They cannot accept that alternative interpretations and understandings could be just as legitimate in a free society as theirs. They cannot accept that their narrative, once imposed upon society by the predominant power of a bygone era, no longer holds a privileged place. It’s about time to understand that history is not a religion. Nor can it be used, despite Marx’s promise, as a surrogate for religion. History is not equal to morality. The duty of the historian is to explain, to interpret, to understand and to help others understand. The historian is neither judge nor prosecutor nor attorney. The historian cannot project the ideological schemes of his age on the past and cannot observe the past’s narratives with today’s sensibilities. [1] A great example of this is the unholy and unproductive “debate” that has been going on for months around the memorial at Szabadság tér to the victims of the Nazi occupation that began in 1944. I will not comment on the actions aimed at getting media attention and, out of all of the objections, I would focus on the “contextual” ones. [2] I would prefer not to deal with the choice of location because what the United States Embassy has done to one of the most beautiful public squares in Budapest is going way too far. So those who refer to the aesthetic qualities of the square are more than a little hypocritical.

The Germans occupy Budapest

Conventional historical wisdom says Hungary was an ally to the Third Reich and, therefore, the Nazis didn’t really invade and occupy us. According to this line of thinking, we should call the Nazi invasion of March 19, 1944 “friendly support” similar to the Soviet army’s “support” of its Hungarian ally on November 4, 1956. This would be the very same Soviet army that “liberated” us in 1945 and ended up sticking around for about half a century. [3] Some even claim that Hungarians were happy with the occupation, receiving the Nazi troops with flowers and song. There is, to be fair, the faintest whiff of truth to this: the invading Red Army was joined by local collaborators. But the assertion that Hungarians in 1944, 1945 or 1956 were happy about a foreign invasion and occupation can only be made out of small-mindedness.

Another criticism is that the memorial mixes the perpetrators with the victims.[4] This holds that it is conceivable that someone actively involved in persecuting our Jewish compatriots later became a victim of the war. That’s the way war is, after all, right? It doesn’t spare the innocent and destroy the sinful. Every war memorial runs such a risk. On Szabadság tér, there is the Soviet heroes’ memorial, commemorating invading Soviet soldiers who raped more than a hundred thousand Hungarian women while pillaging and terrorizing the country. Of course, those with selective sensitivity have yet to organize a flashmob protest of that memorial.

Others point to the era’s legislative action. Those arguments hinge upon the idea that Hungarians weren’t “innocent” because their parliament passed numerous laws discriminating against our Jewish siblings – or even worse. In 1941, the government deported more than ten thousand citizens of Jewish origin who could not sufficiently verify their citizenship. As bad as these decisions were, they do not make the invasion and its consequences any less of a tragedy. [5] A victim is one who suffers the aggression of a stronger party. As with the ages before it, the twentieth century is rich in tragedies. Victims have become perpetrators more than once before. But recent decades have seen the victim’s status cemented into permanence. We are at a point where some groups would like to consider their ancestors’ tragic fate an inheritable and advantageous privilege. They would like this “victim status” to bleed to generations of those who suffered no harm. The implications of all this are profound. If the victim status becomes inheritable, so too does that of the perpetrator.

We survived two dictatorships. We are full of once-perpetrators and once-victims and their descendants. There are many, including my late grandmother, who died in World War II‘s bombings and the assaults. We don’t even know where their unmarked graves lie. Many Hungarian politicians and other public figures were imprisoned or killed not because of who they were, but because of their political views. [6] Is their martyrdom worth less? During the communist dictatorship, honoring them was out of the question.

Now, 70 years after the tragedy, those who developed the historic narrative of that dictatorship would still like to keep us from laying flowers of remembrance before every Hungarian victim of the Nazi occupation. They would still like to prescribe whom we can mourn and whom we can’t, for whom we can shed a tear and for whom we can’t. They prescribe empathy, then close their hearts, remaining deaf and blind to the pain of others. And so, because they act as if our national mourning can have no palliative effect on tragedies past, they exclude themselves from our national community.

Arguments against the memorial try to score identity points for the “democratic” side, which they portray as permanently forced into opposition and losing ground. By reheating the decades-old themes of “anti-Christianity” and “anti-Hungarianness,” Hungarian left-liberals rooted in Marxism and internationalism have become the longest lasting plums of the side promoting “transcendence of nations,” which even in Western-Europe is shrinking. [7] The angel motif, as a reflex, ignited a hate campaign in them, which only this atheist, extremely intolerant Marxist group is capable of doing.

Such accusations as relate to the memorial are insulting and unjust. [8] The proponents of these flawed ideas try to frame Hungarians more sinful and base than the Nazis. They deny the difference between murderer and abettor, suggesting that the Nazis somehow played a subservient role in the deportation and murder of our Jewish compatriots. That the real sinners were the Hungarians. [9] This, of course, ignores the historic facts and caters to the needs of the Germans and other foreign powers and the left-liberal’s penchant for sating them. [10]

“Up until the Nazi occupation, the lives of the almost one million-strong Hungarian Jewry, along with the ones seeking refuge here, were not endangered – everybody knew it back then and it was never denied by anyone except them. Despite Hungary self-critically owning up to responsibility, who would doubt that true responsibility lies mainly with German National Socialism, which eventually developed mass murder into a political program, planned it and executed it. Without all this, there would have been no Holocaust in Hungary,” György Ránki writes in his classic work. [11]

This jibes with the message of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s March 24, 1944 press conference: “As a result of the events of the last few days hundreds of thousands of Jews, who while living under persecution have at least found a haven from death in Hungary and the Balkans, are now threatened with annihilation as Hitler’s forces descend more heavily upon these lands.” [12]

Then there’s the letter from Otto Komoly, head of the Hungarian Zionist Federation, to the executing committee of the Jewish Agency. It was dated February 25, 1944: “Hungary, in extraordinary circumstances, one could say, shows heroic resistance against its largest neighbor and it only introduces the demanded anti-Jewish measures reluctantly and in a significantly decreased form. With this step-by-step delivery, the country was able to save the lives of three-quarters of a million Jewish compatriots.” [13]

Is it possible that these three men – the president of the United States, the leader of the Hungarian Zionists, and the Auschwitz-survivor and great historian of the period, György Ránki – all misjudged the role of the Nazis in destroying the Hungarian Jewry? It should come as no surprise that opponents of the memorial, in contrast to these men, refer to the self-extenuating testimonies of the most devious wrongdoers, Adolf Eichmann and Edmund Veesenmayer.

It’s important to talk it out

“The biggest obstacle in facing the past is that often we ourselves are afraid to face even the past of our own family,” says András Rényi, civic activist, who organized a protest group against the memorial entitled “Living memorial, my history.” Let’s look at his history, then. He might talk about what it was like to grow up in one of the most privileged families of the party state and the price his father paid to remain the permanent deputy editor-in-chief of the party’s Népszabadság (People’s Freedom). He might discuss how his mother served the constantly changing ideology of the party. What benefits did this bring him? Why did he join the state party at the age of 18? This is our mutual history. It is just as living but less discussed, though equally painful. Being open about these facts would also be an important step towards the living recollection he so sorely misses. Many of the protestors could – and should – speak out about the party-state pasts of themselves or their families. But they trust that if they talk ceaselessly about events 70 years past, they can avoid the discomfort.

The biggest problem of the left-liberal elite is that the phrase “Hungarian interest” is not comprehensible to them. Instead, with every fiber of their being, they define themselves as “forward-looking,” or “progressive,” and therefore more advanced than the merely national. They are, as such, greater than the nation, a cosmopolitan or internationalist group. Some of them don’t even notice that they have become servants to foreign interests. Of course, some are being well-compensated for their hard work. There is nothing unusual about this; our leftists have become accustomed to it. As in the past, they still protect the interests of the Soviet Empire’s status quo. While that empire existed, their loadstar was the representation of Soviet interests. Now they have become subservient to the talking points of the West, meaning the United States and the European Union, in particular Germany.

I don’t recall any instance in the past two decades where they were not convinced that the “developed west” or another of our criticizing neighbors were in fact correct. Just like they never stopped demanding the acceptance of the “more highly developed,” “eminent” Soviet example, putting their interests above ours when that was the expectation. There are two reasons for this. One is that they think the winner must be right. The other, and more important, reason: they are flat-out anti-nation.

They see empire – could be the Soviet, the European Union or the American –  as fundamentally superior to the Hungarian. In this view, the supernational is to be supported and the merely sovereign is to be rejected and discontinued. For them, the nation is dangerous and antipathetic, so the national interest, as a set of viewpoints, is a concept-non-grata. Its representatives are stuck here in a sort of old-fashioned, dangerous, pre-modern condition. It’s not a coincidence that, abroad, they are hyped and celebrated. They are bequeathed with scholarships and fancy jobs. For them, everything that has a connection to the national, concretely Hungarian interest is suspicious, provincial and must be talked down. That’s why they don’t care about Hungarians abroad or the interests of the Hungarian economy; that’s why they stand behind every criticism, excoriation, and rebuke with joyful approval, regardless of how insignificant or suspicious the source.

No wonder that the Socialists, led by Mesterházy, gathered black marks from these know-it-alls after even faint intimations of moving closer to the Hungarian interest (the visit to Kolozsvar, the support for the Szekler autonomy). Furthermore, unlike the “circle of signers” and their political representation – the new SZDSZ, the DK – they paid bare-minimum lip service to the favored topics of the empires (Holocaust, racism, Roma issues, homosexual marriage, etc.). Instead, the MSZP’s campaign espoused the scarcely decodable messages of the “democracy project” in the campaign. This made the MSZP quite incomprehensible to Hungarian voters. And besides: because most Hungarian voters have experienced dictatorship, they don’t need American and European bureaucrats’ secondhand wisdom about the difference between free and rigged elections, freedom of speech, party state censorship, democracy and dictatorship. We do not need the “concerned” of the West to decide when we are free and when we are prisoners. The arguments of the “democratic” opposition, campaigning on buzzphrases like “checks and balances” and the “democratic deficit,” so poorly reflect the experience of Hungarian society that their ad-nauseam repetition is counterproductive, as the election results showed.

The “democratic package” and the “unity” coalition could only have happened due to pressure. Who promised what to the Socialists in return? Support from the left-liberal circles could not have been promised. Every leader of MSZP knows the MSZP remained, to left-liberals, just as unacceptable as the conservatives.  The difference was that the left-liberals at least fear the conservatives, and therefore respect and revere them while reserving derision and pity for the Socies.

The “company of the infallible” for half a century dismissed the political elite between the two wars for wanting to join the West. They rejected the communist model and viewed the Soviet Union as hostile. Multiple indoctrinations focused on how unnecessary the declaration of war for the Soviet Union in World War II was, why Hungary declined Stalin’s supposed peace offer and so on. The discourse hinged on cluelessness, one insisting that the Horthyist political elite failed to comprehend the Soviet Union’s enormous power and also failed to see the inevitability of Hungary conforming to its superpower neighbor’s desires. Today the Russian-American power game playing out at our borders seems all too familiar. On the surface, it’s about influence in Ukraine; in fact, it’s about Russia’s redefining its sphere of influence vis-à-vis a momentary indecisive and weak-looking American empire. But the very same left-liberal team wants unconditional anti-Russian statements from the Hungarian body politic. They want this despite the fact that Europe is divided about how to deal with the conflict, and that both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Barack Obama are so circumspect in their public utterances that it’s hard to figure out what they really want. It is obvious that, precisely because Russia is the defining power in the region, Hungarian leaders will themselves be best served by serving our national interest, assuming they tread with care. Because in contrast to the left-liberal fringe, the significant majority of the Hungarian electorate expects representation of the Hungarian national interest and demands it from its elected leaders.

Aging left-liberals have been among the most persistent members of this elite that fails to understand the 21st century. They are accustomed to being navigated to the right track by the “club of signers.” These people, conditioned to unconditional authoritarianism and well-versed in peer pressure, have for decades been uninterested in what’s happening beyond the Beltway, so to speak. They are unable to interact with anyone besides similary elderly believers, and fail entirely to connect with younger generations, who, unlike them, believe in meritocracy. Among the young, pragmatism and achievement trumps blind faith, and they want no part of the odd hate logic of this “elite.” They expect rational analyses and ideas. They are far more impressed by compelling arguments than the signing of petition after petition. They want valid answers, rich debates, and thinking that goes beyond the black and white logic of statements and directives. Hungary wants – and needs – this, too.

They have only one hope left that on the political right there are still some who expect reassurance, verification, good grades for the possibility that one day in the future the tables may turn. That’s why they still enjoy appearance at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences again and again. [14]
———————————————————————————————
[1]   Jean Sévillia: Historiquement incorrect, Kairosz, Budapest, 2013. Liberté pour l’histoire, page 13. [Történelmileg inkorrekt – Hungarian edition]
[2]   “Undersigned historians call the government to discontinue falsifying our recent past, relativization of the history of the Holocaust and drop the plans to realize the memorial on Szabadság tér.” January 22, 2014 Galamus csoport. „Történészek tiltakozása” [Exclamation of Historians]. Amongst the 26 undersigning historians are Maria Ormos, former member of the MSZMP Political Committee, Tibor Hajdú and Lajos Gecsényi, former Workers’ Militia member, party historians favored by MSZMP for decades. [MSZMP= Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party, state party in Hungary from 1956-1989 – translator’s note]
[3] “Neither the argument stands that the country lost its independence because foreign troops parked on its territory. This circumstance stood after 1990, but presence of the NATO soldiers didn’t cause public outrage just as it didn’t cause a demonstration wave in 1944 when the troops of the German Empire, allied with Hungary, arrived to our homeland” – argues Krisztián Ungváry (Megjegyzések Magyarország alaptörvényéhez [Notes on Hungary’s Basic Law], in: Tettesek vagy áldozatok? Feltáratlan fejezetek a XX. század történelméből [Perpetrators or Victims? Unrevealed Chapters of the 20th Century History], Jaffa kiadó, Budapest, 2014.311 o.) According to Ungváry the Nazi invasion and public vote-backed joining the NATO falls under the same category.
[4] “The memorial that caused many storms, the contrast of the pictures of the angel-like innocent Hungarian society and the empire eagle Germany aims at forgetting and making forget the responsibility of the Hungarian society and the Horthy-government in the harassment and getting rid of the masses marked as Jews and for the sometimes willing, other times unwilling cooperation with Nazi Germany that lasted until the end of the war.” – says György Hunyady Academy member. – http://index.hu/belfold/2014/05/13/az_mta_megunta_a_hallgatast/
[5] According to Mária Ormos, member of the Academy, in 1941, at the deportations of Karmenec-Podolsky: “Earlier there was no example of slaughtering the deported even in Poland, what the deportations meant was that Jews were let go on the new territory. At that time neither concentration camps nor even ghettos existed, which were later set up in Warsaw. We could not state therefore that responsible Hungarian actors knowingly took mass murder into account, but they by all means could have had an idea because the leadership knew the deported didn’t have homes, work at the new place, could not make money, so “when their savings are gone they are sentenced to starvation to death.” http://index.hu/belfold/2014/05/13/az_mta_megunta_a_hallgatast/
On the other hand, Ungváry states that “in the case of Kamenec-Podolszky the deportation anger of the Hungarian authorities lead to a humanitarian catastrophe… Only after that was the German decision taken that for the better supply of the local Ukrainian citizens, for the termination of the risk of epidemic and to carry out their own anti-semitic program they will murder the Jews.” – Krisztián Ungváry: Az emlékmű és az emlékműmutyi [The memorial and the memorial-fraud], in: id. mű, 319 o. Ungváry uses the German reasoning and language of that time!
[6] http://www.xxszazadintezet.hu/1944_marcius_19/1944_marcius_19.pdf
[7] Western Europe is seeing a national renaissance. Scotland’s break away, independence of Catalonia is on the agenda just as much as Belgium’s split only to mention a few examples. The strengthening of the European skeptics, or realists with an agenda emphasizing national attributes against the centralization of the European Union is worth mentioning too. England plans a vote on EU membership, etc.
[8] Thirty American senators and representatives of Jewish origin asked the Hungarian Prime Minister to revise the plans for building the Szabadság tér memorial. The undersigned in their letter published on the website of the World Jewish Congress wrote that “The Nazi occupation of Hungary was a horrific period in Hungarian history, which caused incalculable suffering and tragedy to millions of innocent people. And while there were individuals in Hungary who actively helped those persecuted by the Nazis, it cannot be ignored that there was also a portion of the population at that time that willingly participated in Nazi activities, including the deportation of Hungarian Jews.” “While we understand and greatly appreciate the desire to honor all Hungarians brutalized during the Nazi occupation, we also believe that Hungary’s remaining Jewish population should participate in determining the appropriate way to remember the suffering of Hungary’s Jews during this period. They too share in the Hungarian historical narrative and it is their leadership’s opinion that the current proposal whitewashes the fact that there were Hungarians complicit with the systematic murder of their relatives.” “We greatly value the strong and enduring relations and partnership between our two nations, and it is with that in mind that we urge you to reconsider your government’s current plan to construct this monument against the wishes of the Hungarian Jewish community.”http://www.hir24.hu/belfold/2014/05/23/amerikai-szenatorok-is-beszalltak-az-emlekmuvitaba/.
[9] “Hitler demanded Horthy to “solve” the Jewish question, but they did not declare what that meant exactly. The German side presumably would have been satisfied with smaller concessions…” (Megjegyzések Magyarország alaptörvényéhez [Notes on Hungary’s Basic Law], in: Tettesek vagy áldozatok? Feltáratlan fejezetek a XX. század történelméből [Perpetrators or Victims? Unrevealed Chapters of the 20th Century History,] id.mű.314 o.), “Hitler did not place an order to deport the Hungarian Jews to extermination camps” Krisztián Ungváry, November 7, 2013 galamus.hu.  With this Nazi-apologist understanding even the German historians don’t agree: “The government of Budapest again and again denied the German order that the local Jewry would be deported to Poland… From his numerous reports it turned out how Veesenmayer was involved in every minor detail and how passionate he was to follow the anti-Jewish initiative. He made recommendations for improvement again and again.” Eckart Conze – Norbert Frei – Peter Hayes – Moshe Zimmermann: Das Amt und die Vergangenheit – Deutsche Diplomaten Im Dritten Reich und in der Bundesrepublik [A Hivatal és a múlt – német diplomaták a Harmadik Birodalomban és a Német Szövetségi Köztársaságban]. Karl Blessing Verlag, München, 2010., pp. 260 – 267.
[10] The memorial shows Hungary the innocent victim of the evil Germans. This has to be emphasized because the German eagle does not mean the Nazis but Germany which cracks down on the unsuspicious Hungarians. Ungvary, Krisztian, in: Weltzeit, 2014, 12. mai, Ungarns Aufarbeitung des Faschismus von Keno Verseck. According to Ronald S. Lauder: “Even though Hitler made the command himself the murders were carried out by Hungarians, the Arrow Cross members, this “extremist group made up of anti-Semite bandits”.
[11]György Ránki: A Harmadik Birodalom árnyékában [In the Shadow of the Third Reich], Magvető, Budapest, 1988. page 176. A német megszálláshoz vezető út [The Road to the German Invasion], 176 o. Ránki quotes Goebbels’ diary that “The Jewish question was solved the least satisfactory in Hungary. The Hungarian state is full of Jews and the Führer at his negotiations with Horthy couldn’t convince him of the need for much stricter measures” The Goebbels Diaries, 1942-1943, edited by Louis M. Lochner. Garden city. N. Y. Doubleday, 1948, p. 357. quoted by: Ránki referred work. 219.
[12] Press Conference, on March 24, 1944. in: Maria Schmidt: Diktatúrák ördögszekerén [The Devil’s Wagon of Dictatorships], Magvető, Budapest, 1998. 100 o.
[13] Komoly, Ottó report to Richard Lichtheimnek, March 25, 1944, Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem, L22-176.
[14] The conference entitled „A történelmi emlékezet és a történettudomány” [Historical Remembrance and History Studies] at MTA, May 13, 2014

 * * *

SCHMIDT

Mária Schmidt’s article, published in the June 26 issue of Heti Válasz, is a provocation and a declaration of war. Many among us think that this kind of provocation does not even deserve an answer. I disagree. The author crossed a line, and it is better if we see clearly what that line is.

Let’s start with the concepts and the cast of characters. Schmidt’s article takes up four printed pages. The author would have had ample space to name those with whom she disagrees. But only four people are named. From among the four, the author has no argument with Viktor Orbán and Attila Mesterházy. The other two are Barack Obama and András Rényi. So what about the others?

Well, the others are simply traitors of the nation who remain unnamed. They are the ones who took a position against the planned memorial to the German occupation [during WW2]. They are the internal enemies of the nation, those who “lock themselves out (sic!) from our national community,” “a vanguard educated in the herd mentality,” whose “every member is a convinced enemy of the nation,” “a devoted atheist,” “a lackey of any and all empires’ interests.” They are the ones who “are getting paid for their efforts.” References are also made in the piece to unnamed “certain ones” and “same ones.”

This kind of language is not without precedent in Hungarian political literature. The extreme right ideologues of the Horthy era used similar language against the political left that was declared, en masse, guilty of treason, against the freemasons, against the cosmopolitan liberals and especially against the Jews among them. Later, this tradition of writing was transferred—with slight variations—to the fifties. Stalinist journalism also spoke about “certain ones” and “same ones,” without mentioning names, but blaming the unnamed targets for being mercenaries of imperialism. In any case, readers were supposed to know whom the party was momentarily targeting, but in case they did not know for sure, all the better, let readers do some frightening guesswork for themselves.

But there are other reasons why the author had difficulties choosing some – named – persons from the large pool of those who oppose the German Occupation memorial. In fact she could have named the Piarist father István Jelenits or the art historian Katalin Dávid, who wrote in the press about her religious convictions. But then how would Schmidt explain her statement that all opponents of the memorial are “devoted atheists”? She could have named Imre Mécs, who during the Kádár era was sentenced to death for revolutionary deeds in 1956, or she could have named Rudolf Ungváry, who was interned during the same period. But then how could she explain her statement that these are the ”same ones” as those who “compiled and represented the historical view” of the Communist dictatorship?

She could have named Krisztián Ungváry, born in 1969, but then what could she do with her statement that the protesters are “elderly” who “locked themselves forever into the thoughts and values of 1968” and who “do not understand the challenges of the twenty-first century”? Or she could have named the historian András Gerő, who spoke up unambiguously against the memorial several times, but then how would she explain her statement that the protesters are members of the elite without opinions, “trained in herd behavior”?

Or she could have named Ignác Romsics and the other members of the history section of the Hungarian Academy of Science, who unanimously think that the design of the memorial is problematic because – as they say – it “seems to underestimate the Horthy regime’s responsibility for the Holocaust.” But then what would she do with her statement that the protestors always represent the truth of those “who seem to be powerful at the moment”?

In fact, the author does not want to argue with anyone. She doesn’t even want to argue. She characterizes the debate about the memorial as “damnable” and “fruitless.” But she does not explain why the debate would be fruitless. Because then she would also have to refer to the fact that the authorities announced the design and the description of the memorial without any public debate because they did not want to open up any discussion or debate. The design that became public on January 19, 2014, was a fait accompli. This was later confirmed by the Prime Minister himself when in a public letter he said mysteriously that he “had no room to maneuver” on the issue of the memorial. How should we understand this? Who are those limiting the Prime Minister’s “room to maneuver”?

Anyway, no debate was ever to take place. According to Mária Schmidt, debate is not even necessary; everything is just fine with the German occupation memorial. She considers the statue a memorial to reconciliation. But who are the parties to this reconciliation? And in whose mind and why was the idea of reconciliation born?

After all, until January 2014–exactly until the time the plan of the memorial was published, we did not witness any kind of excessive hostility between the authorities and those who were commemorating the Holocaust anniversary. But whatever this “reconciliation” may mean, how can this “peaceful” intention be served by this statue of dubious esthetic value, designed in secret and built without any kind of professional or social debate? And how can it be served by the official description of the work, according to which Archangel Gabriel stands for Hungary, symbolizing that the country, just as the angel, was a fully innocent victim during its occupation by the Germans?

The author cites the deceased historian György Ránki and former Zionist Leader Ottó Komoly to support her opinion that everything is just fine with the statue. After all, both of these people thought that without the German occupation the deportations [of the Jews] would not have happened. This is true; the opponents of the memorial do not deny it. But the protesters state—based on well-known historical facts—that while the German occupation was indeed a necessary condition for the deportation, it was not a sufficient one.

Without the collaboration of the Hungarian authorities, the occupying Germans could not have achieved their murderous objectives: making lists of the Jews, putting them into ghettos, pillaging them and transporting them to the trains was not done by Germans but by Hungarians. Ránki thought indeed that that the Germans bore the “main responsibility” for the Holocaust. But he also considered it important to state that Hungary also needs to face critically and self-critically the part of the responsibility that belongs to Hungary. It would be hard to imagine that Ránki, who was always careful about his phrasing when it came to history, would sanction the design of the memorial.

But the author, not for the first time, embarks on political language juggling and insinuation to discredit those who, as Ránki, establish the responsibility of Horthy and the Hungarian authorities for the deportations. The accusation that all those who criticize the role of Horthy and/or the Hungarian authorities would at the same time consider “the Hungarians” “the sole and true culprits” is nonsense. It is absurd to state that the critics would put into a subordinate role the murder of the Jews by the Germans. This is not at all what’s going on.

What’s happening rather is that the author is fighting with her own earlier statement from 1993 according to which Horthy’s responsibility cannot be even brought up because, according to the author’s assertion back then, Horthy knew nothing about the Nazis’ policies towards the Jews at the time that deportations were taking place between May and early July of 1944. According to this interpretation, even during this time Horthy’s understanding was that the Germans were taking away the Jews for labor—together with their families. According to this interpretation Horthy stopped the deportations later, in July, because only then did he find out what was truly going on—after his own daughter-in-law handed him the Auschwitz Protocols.

This is not how it happened. It can be documented that Horthy knew already as of the spring of 1943 what the Germans were doing with the deported Jews. Regardless of how disastrous Horthy’s decision after the German occupation was to give his name to the deportation of the Jews, we should consider it to be to his credit not to have handed over the Hungarian Jewry to the Germans until the moment of the occupation in March 1944, exactly because he knew what the Germans were doing with the Jews.

A draft of a letter written by Horthy to Hitler on May 7, 1943, almost a year before the German occupation, is in the archives. In this draft, referring to their meeting a few weeks earlier, Horthy wrote: “Your Excellency further reproached that the government did not proceed with the complete extermination of the Jews as thoroughly as it happened in Germany ….” It does not stand, therefore, that Horthy and his circle of advisors would not have known the intentions of the Germans.

It was the implementation of these intentions that Horthy finally gave his name to after the German occupation. This is also how the Hungarian Prime Minister of the 1920s, István Bethlen, saw it. Already in hiding, Bethlen warned Horthy that the Hungarian state became an accomplice in causing the catastrophe. During the third month of the German occupation he demanded in a secret memorandum that Horthy stop the deportations, dismiss the collaborationist Sztójay cabinet, and name a new cabinet in its place.

The task of this cabinet would be to “end this inhuman, stupid and cruel persecution of the Jews that is incompatible with the Hungarian character, with which the present cabinet soiled the name of Hungarians in the eyes of the world and which became the source of the most hideous corruption, robbery and theft. Unfortunately a major part of the Hungarian intelligentsia also got involved in it. This is a stigma that cannot be removed anymore from our good reputation, but this barbarism has to be stopped, otherwise the Christian Hungarian society will be permanently tainted.”

Since the 90s Mária Schmidt’s position on Horthy’s and the Hungarian state’s role changed somewhat: she no longer classifies Horthy and the Hungarian authorities as naive bystanders but, similarly to István Bethlen, as “accomplices.” But – maybe because of this – she now brings up new accusations against the critics of Horthy. Without any justification she accuses them with switching the order of importance between the “guilty Nazis” and the “accomplice” Hungarians.

I could analyze many other statements of the five-page-long article, but it is not worth it. At the beginning of this writing I stated that my goal was to show what lines the author crossed with her article. She crossed these lines with her treatment of the topic of the Holocaust and with the way she chose to describe the opponents of the memorial. She accuses the opponents of the memorial of treason and she states that “they would like to capitalize on their ancestors’ fate using this as a privilege that could be exchanged for benefits” and with this “they lock themselves out from our national community.” With this the author also declares that she has the right and the ability to determine who belongs to the national community and who does not. With her article she locks out from this community those who disagree with her.

Is this about anti-Semitism? To answer this question we need to evoke how the author writes about the Holocaust, because in my opinion here she also crossed a line. In her article she calls the Holocaust a “topic preferred by empires” related to which a “desired minimum” has to be, so to say, “performed.” According to the author, the “left-lib” team has no problem doing this. They “make fun of” and consider everything that is “related to the nation, to concrete Hungarian interests” as being “provincial”; after all, they “trained themselves into servile servants of points of view of the West, which means the United States, the European Union or possibly Germany.”

And with this the circle of the proof is closed. If the Holocaust is indeed a “topic of empires” in which any “performance” above a “minimum” is a priori opposed to the interests of the nation, then to prove the charge of treason it is sufficient to show that the protesters not only perform “the required minimum” related to the “topic of empires,” but they do more, possibly something else than what the author considers compatible with the national interest. And what this “required minimum” exactly consists of, is to be determined by no one else than the author.

In the past few months the government’s investments under Mária Schmidt’s control connected to the House of Fates project caused many to voice misgivings related to the author’s oeuvre, to the House of Terror and to her whole perception of history. The question was whether one could imagine the author being capable of creating a new Holocaust museum. Based on her writing, which is the subject of this article, the answer is obvious: one cannot.

The opening of the Washington, DC Holocaust Museum was preceded by fifteen years of work, research, and professional debate. The plans for the soon to open House of Fates are kept secret as of today, and the author, who also leads the preparation work of the museum, denounces those who disagree with her view of history as traitors. According to her writing, she considers the Holocaust a “topic of empires” which has a “required minimum.” She accuses others of doing exactly what she herself is doing.

She considers her position a “privilege that can be traded for benefits,” a position from which she can “force – through her power – onto the society” her own arbitrary and unsustainable narrative, while excluding the professionals and those most affected. Based on her writing we can expect that as far as the actual historical context of the Holocaust is concerned, the museum based on this philosophy will be reduced to what the author assesses to be sufficient in order to “perform” what she terms the “required minimum.”

A critique of a political analysis on Hungary by Stratfor’s George Friedman

In the last few months I have been getting a daily newsletter from Stratfor, a private intelligence and forecasting company. No, I’m not a subscriber, and I doubt that Stratfor has many individual subscribers. Its clients are mostly institutions that feel the need for economic, military, or political analyses and forecasting.

Stratfor’s daily newsletter offers one free analysis chosen by the company. Most of the topics lie outside my field of interest, but today’s “special” aroused my curiosity: “Borderlands: Hungary Maneuvers.” The article was written by George Friedman, founder and chairman of Stratfor. Friedman received his B.A. from the City College of New York and his Ph.D. from Cornell University. For almost twenty years he was a professor of political science at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. Then in 1996 he decided to quit academe and become a strategic analyst.

Friedman was born in Budapest to Holocaust survivors, but his parents left the country when he was a small child. What he learned from his parents sitting around the kitchen table was that “except for the Germans, the vastness of evil could not have existed.” In his parents’ lessons Miklós Horthy, the Hungarian regent between 1920 and 1944, pretty much got a pass. Friedman continues to believe the history his parents taught him. To his mind, Horthy was a wily geopolitical strategist who maneuvered between Germany and the Soviet Union for quite a while. Only brute German force, blackmail, and threats against Horthy himself opened the door to mass destruction of the Hungarian Jewry.

The first half of the article tries to convince the reader that his vision of Horthy is the correct one while the second draws parallels between the Hungary of today and the times of Horthy. As he says, Horthy’s “experience is the one that Hungary’s current leadership appears to have studied.”

I will not be able to cover the whole article in this post and therefore will concentrate on Friedman’s account of the Horthy era. The appearance of this “revisionist” appraisal of Horthy is especially ill-timed because it was only a few days ago that historians of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences unanimously declared at a conference that the monument Orbán is erecting, which is supposed to make Germany alone responsible for the destruction of Hungarian Jewry, is a falsification of history. Nothing like lending a helping hand to Viktor Orbán’s project.

Friedman’s Hungary was a small, weak country that helplessly floundered between the Soviet Union and Germany, all the while trying to remain independent. “Horthy’s goal was to preserve its sovereignty in the face of the rising power of Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin.” Friedman seems to think that Horthy viewed both great powers with equal contempt. But that was not the case. In fact, until the very last moment he refused to turn to the Soviets to declare his willingness to negotiate a separate peace, whereas he was indebted to the Germans for helping Hungary regain sizable territories in Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Yugoslavia between November 1938 and April 1941. (These territories are shown in the Wikipedia map below.)

"Hungary's

As for the Jewish issue, Friedman claims that “Horthy was no more anti-Semitic than any member of his class had to be.” First of all, I’m not sure why Friedman believes there was a social imperative to be anti-Semitic. Members of Horthy’s social class may have been anti-Semitic, but they didn’t have to be anti-Semitic.

Horthy as well as the majority of Hungarian politicians and high officials wanted to rid the country of its Jewish population. Horthy didn’t want an immediate “cleansing” because without Jewish capital and know-how the Hungarian economy would have collapsed. But eventually the Hungarian anti-Semites stripped the Jews of all their worldly possessions and deported them. These Hungarians, including high officials, didn’t particularly care what happened to the Jews once they were deported. There simply had to be “a changing of the guard” (őrségváltás). Non-Jews were to take over positions held by Jews in the professions, business, and manufacturing. None of this seems to have penetrated Friedman’s consciousness.

It is at this point that we reach the crucial date of March 19, 1944, which is described this way: “Horthy fell from his tightrope on March 19, 1944. Realizing that Germany was losing the war, Horthy made overtures to the Soviets.” Let me state right here that Horthy did not make overtures to the Soviets. A small delegation talked to American and British officials in Turkey. They were told to talk to the Russians, something Horthy was reluctant to do.

Friedman’s inadequate knowledge of history is evident in practically all the sentences he writes in this article. According to him, “Hitler forced the Hungarian leader to form a new government consisting of Hungary’s homegrown Nazis, the Arrow Cross Party.” Or, a few sentences later, he writes: “He [Horthy] did not crush the Hungarian Nazis, but he kept them at bay. He did not turn on Hitler, but he kept him at bay. What Horthy did was the dirty work of decency. He made deals with devils to keep the worst things from happening. By March 1944, Horthy could no longer play the game. Hitler had ended it. His choice was between dead sons and the horror of the following year, or living sons and that same horror.” Friedman’s “parents believed that Horthy’s critics were unable to comprehend the choices he had.”

We who are more familiar with the real story realize that the account Friedman heard from his parents in addition to bits and pieces he remembers from Horthy’s memoirs have nothing to do with reality. But Friedman cannot be deterred from his preconceived notions of German-Hungarian relations and the Hungarian Holocaust. He keeps going: “Once the Wehrmacht, the SS and Adolf Eichmann, the chief organizer of the Holocaust, were in Budapest, they found the Arrow Cross Party to be populated by eager collaborators.” Of course, this isn’t true either. The eager collaborators were in fact members of the Hungarian government appointed by Horthy.

The point of this hopelessly inaccurate history is to reframe the present debate about Viktor Orbán’s governance. On the one hand are people like his parents, who blamed the Germans “for unleashing the brutishness in the Hungarians.” On the other hand are nameless people who were harsher on Horthy. This debate, he writes, “has re-entered history through Hungarian politics. Some have accused Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of trying to emulate … Miklós Horthy…. This is meant as an indictment. If so, at the university of our kitchen table, the lesson of Horthy is more complex and may have some bearing on present-day Hungary.”

I suggest that George Friedman take a refresher course.

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.

Viktor Orbán is the real danger, not the Hungarian far right

While commentators in the western media were not at all surprised about Fidesz’s electoral sweep, they were shocked at the substantial growth of the neo-Nazi racist party Jobbik. The original name of the organization was Jobb Magyarországért Mozgalom (Movement for a Better Hungary), which eventually was shortened to Jobbik, meaning “Better.”

Almost all the articles dealing with the election mention that “every fifth Hungarian” voted for an extremist party. Of course, this is not quite accurate because only 62% of the eligible voters actually bothered to vote, and it is a well-known fact that Jobbik followers turn out in high numbers. They even surpass Fidesz sympathizers. Nonetheless, this result must be a disappointment to Viktor Orbán, who has been trying for years to convince the West that his party is the guarantee that Hungary will not fall prey to extremists. After all, he argues, Fidesz is a party of the moderate right-of-center. On the far right are the neo-Nazis and on the left the “communists.” Naturally, with the exception of a very small communist party that hasn’t managed to get into parliament in the last twenty-four years, there are no communists in Hungary, a detail that doesn’t seem to bother the propagandists of Fidesz.

Now Orbán has to face the fact that all his efforts at weakening Jobbik’s base have failed. He thought that if he moved his own party farther and farther to the right he would be able “to steal” the Jobbik sympathizers. He showed Jobbik voters that his own government could satisfy all their demands. In his last termViktor Orbán gave numerous unexpected gifts to Jobbik. This was especially true when it came to media policy and questions of unifying the nation across borders. The rehabilitation of the Horthy regime was also originally a Jobbik demand. Moreover, it is possible that Orbán’s pro-Russian stance was inspired by Jobbik.

Despite Orbán’s best efforts, the 10% growth in Jobbik’s voting base came largely from the ranks of former Fidesz voters. On the last day of the campaign in Debrecen Orbán warned his audience that splitting their votes between Fidesz and some other party would weaken the Fidesz cause. Although he didn’t mention the party by name, it is clear that he was thinking of Jobbik. And indeed, once we have all the numbers I suspect we will find that a fairly large number of Fidesz voters split their votes between Fidesz and Jobbik. They voted for a Fidesz candidate locally but chose to use their second vote for the Jobbik list. In the final tally 100,000 more people voted for Jobbik than four years ago.

Jan-Werner Mueller in his article in The Guardian sees a correlation between the growth of Jobbik and Viktor Orbán’s pro-Russian policy. In order to understand the connection between Jobbik and Orbán’s pro-Russian policy we have to go back a bit. The first time I learned of Jobbik’s infatuation with Putin’s Russia was in 2009 when I read a study on “Russia’s Far-Right Friends.” According to this study, Jobbik’s attachment to Russia became evident for the first time during the Russian-Georgian border dispute. It also turned out that Gábor Vona, Jobbik party chairman, made at least two trips to Moscow even before 2009. Jobbik wanted “to open Hungary to eastern markets and to sell Hungarian products to Russia, China or even Iran instead of the European Union.” Jobbik also wanted to expand Hungary’s nuclear capacity and even then, the authors of the study believe, Jobbik had the Russian Rosatom in mind when it came to the Paks power plant’s expansion. Keep in mind that at this point Viktor Orbán had very different ideas about Russia, which he considered to be a danger to Europe and Hungary. It seems that Jobbik managed to convince him otherwise. He saw the light and more or less copied Jobbik’s ideas on Russo-Hungarian relations.

These moves didn’t slow the growth of Jobbik, just as government policies didn’t help the position of the conservatives vis-à-vis the extreme right in interwar Hungary. Orbán followed a policy of appeasement in dealing with MIÉP, the precursor of Jobbik, during his first government (1998-2002) just as he did in handling Jobbik. Give them what they want and perhaps they will be satisfied with Fidesz rule. That strategy didn’t work in the Horthy era as it doesn’t work now.

Viktor Orbán at the victory celebration, April 7, 2014 /Photo picture alliance/dpa

Viktor Orbán at the victory celebration, April 7, 2014 /Photo dpa

To be fair to Horthy, there’s appeasement (at a distance) and appeasement (embracing). I think we can safely say that Orbán’s ideas are closer to the extreme right today than were those of any of Horthy’s governments. After all, Orbán is a populist while Horthy and his ministers were hard-core conservatives. The leaders of the extreme right in the 1930s held some “revolutionary ideas” when it came to social policy. Many of the party’s ideologues were outright admirers of the Soviet experiment with its planned economy and egalitarian ideology. Szálasi, for example, was well versed in Marxism. For Horthy all that was anathema. It would have been unimaginable for Horthy to allow his government to conduct a pro-Russian/Soviet policy or to get too cozy with Ferenc Szálasi and his friends. On the other hand, Orbán seems quite willing to take over Jobbik’s ideas–their pro-Russian foreign policy as well as their views on modern Hungarian history–and pass them off as his own.

There is a paper thin line between Jobbik and Fidesz. I know that the western media is preoccupied with the growth of Jobbik, but I think everybody would be better off realizing that the real problem is Fidesz and the system Viktor Orbán created. Jobbik will be in opposition, but Viktor Orbán, who often carries the Jobbik banner, has practically unlimited power. He is the much greater danger, not Gábor Vona.

András Schweitzer: Factors that made Hungary a borderline democracy (and are likely to stay)

András Schweitzer is a journalist who has been working for HVG since 1999. Currently he is on leave of absence. Since June 2013 he and his family have been living in Brussels.

In addition to being a journalist he is also scholar with a Ph.D. in political science who is currently working on completing a second Ph.D. in history. For a number of years he has been involved with a historical research project for the 1956-Institute.

* * *

According to the official rhetoric, the profound constitutional and political restructuring by the second Fidesz government (2010-2014) aimed to put an end to two decades of post-communist meandering and to finish off the remaining legacy of state-socialism. However the actual legal and economic changes constitute more an illiberal turn back to the bad old days. Of all the countries that joined the West in the Annus mirabilis of 1989 Hungary returned to exist again in history in the Fukuyama sense.

It is logical but inadequate to blame the global financial crisis for this unfortunate chain of events. The corruption of the Hungarian democratic political and market-oriented economic system had already been going on years before it. The dramatic transformation should instead be attributed to the following factors.

1. As an unfortunate coincidence the Hungarian democratic opposition did not have a single outstanding politician comparable to Czechoslovak Václav Havel or Polish Lech Walesa when the Wall fell.  István Bibó, a brilliant scholar and deeply convicted democrat (the once spirited state minister of the Imre Nagy government in the heroic days of 1956) could have been such a character acceptable to all main dissident groups – but he died a decade too early. Of the sizeable pool of dissenters, Machiavellian and confrontational Viktor Orbán happened to be the most talented and ambitious, who managed to politically survive the last quarter of century by being both harsh with the opponents and attentive to popular expectations. He showed signs of wanting to concentrate political and economic power in his hands already after he had first become prime minister in 1998, but it was the two-third majority between 2010 and 2014 which made it achievable for him.

2. Skepticism is a widely prevalent attitude in Hungary and yet voters have always showed affinity for political illusions. Research shows that the correlation between the level of government spending and the election cycles in Hungary is significantly higher than in other East-Central European countries. Elections have increasingly become promise-contests where honest players (at the beginning Fidesz included) had no chance to win. Politicians had to learn this lesson or leave the scene. After winning with excessive election pledges in 2002 and 2006 the Socialists found themselves in a difficult position: first they tried to be true to their promises and accumulated a budget deficit reaching 10% of the GDP, then after the 2006 elections, when this was no longer feasible without an immediate financial crisis, Ferenc Gyurcsány admitted he had lied about the state of the economy and introduced tough austerity measures. This became an important reason for the increasing popularity of Fidesz.

3. Despite all the good intentions and creative solutions at its crafting, the complex election system of 1989 was unfit for Hungary. In a country where people tend to vote for candidates mostly according to their party affiliations and where there are no significant regional differences in voting patterns even the party list leg of the system and the additional compensation list could not guarantee proportionality. In a single party list system, which would be the proper alternative for Hungary, Fidesz would have won a simple majority of just over 50% in 2010, but the actual electoral system transformed this into a two-thirds win which is the legal limit to changing the constitution. The new rules made the 2014 election results even more unproportional: with more weight given to the first-past-the-post leg the system guaranteed about two-thirds of the seats to Fidesz with less than 50 percent of the votes. (It is typical of the relatively uniform Hungarian voting behavior that in a Westminster-style system Fidesz would have had a 98% majority in the 2010-2014 parliament as its candidates won in 173 out of 176 districts. The election result of last Sunday showed a similar pattern of homogeneity: with the exception of a few electoral districts in Budapest, Miskolc and Szeged the whole country turned orange again.)

4. Liberal democracy and free market economy did not produce a general sense that things are looking up as a result of economic reform (which would have been a necessary ingredient of the success of transformation according to the insightful prophesy of Ralf Dahrendorf), and there has been an illiberal downslide in public opinion. The failure of half-implemented liberal policies was used as an argument against liberal ideals. It was claimed that “neoliberal” openness and privatization resulted in foreign intrusion and the cheap selling out of the country’s wealth; tolerance increased crime; multiculturalism endangered the country’s cultural character; preference for market mechanisms brought unemployment and oligarchs; protection of civil rights brought inefficient government. Capitalizing on and enforcing this sentiment, left and right political groups sometimes joined forces in measures to undermine the third (liberal) power block, which practically disappeared by 2010.

"In the footsteps of our fathers" / Magyar Narancs

“In the footsteps of our fathers” / Magyar Narancs

5. Unlike the short 20th century Czech history, which could be schematized as the interwar democratic “good guys” being followed by the communist “bad guys” Hungarian heavy weight political leaders of the era – Miklós Horthy and János Kádár – are both controversial figures. Numerous Hungarians tend to forgive the interwar governor for being complicit in the extermination of hundreds of thousands of Jews by claiming that he resisted deportation until the German occupation, which, in turn, didn’t leave him much choice. Many exonerate Kádár for his crimes as a communist dictator by emphasizing that he managed to construct the “happiest barrack” in the Soviet camp. As opposed to the Polish, the Czech or the Slovak context, Hungarian history lacks the heritage of a wide scale popular anti-fascist movement, and the revolutionary fever of 1956 also faded with the subsequent decades of a relatively mild dictatorship. A democratic role model is generally missing from Hungarian political consciousness. Horthy gained legitimacy by being the admiral of the nation who held the steering wheel of the Hungarian mothership against a sea of powerful enemies (even if the nation suffered a devastating defeat at the end). Kádár was made popular by providing welfare to the widest possible masses (even if this led to a crippling debt burden by 1989). Already the first democratically elected government capitalized on the earlier dormant nostalgia for the Horthy era, which has steadily grown stronger ever since, while Socialists never dared to dissociate themselves from widely popular János Kádár.

6. The Inglehart–Welzel Cultural Map of the World based on findings of World Value Survey reveals a remarkable cultural pattern: of all the countries of “Catholic Europe” (other ex-communist states like Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia included) Hungary scores the highest on having  “survival” instead of “self-expression” values. This puts the country the furthest away from leading democracies of “Protestant Europe” and the “English-speaking” world and the closest to Serbia, Albania, and Macedonia. Survival values are indeed reflected in prevalent ideas of Hungarian political life: yearning for economic paternalism instead of a free market (stemming from the existential fear of individuals) and ethno-nationalist sentiments instead of tolerance (stemming from the collective existential fear of the nation). Kádár’s ways to gain legitimacy well fits the former whereas those of Horthy go hand in hand with the latter.

7. Sixteen years ago it was Hungary’s northern neighbor, Slovakia that was generally considered to be a laggard among the transition nations of East-Central Europe, with a populist unchecked majority rule in an unconsolidated democracy. At that time however the fear that Slovakia would be left out of NATO and EU enlargement served as a wakeup call to the people who in the 1998 elections ousted Vladimír Mečiar’s authoritarian-populist government. Unfortunately, lacking similar incentives, the equally strong signals from Western democracies to Hungary don’t seem to have a substantial effect. While numerous Hungarian individuals contributed greatly to world civilization (usually after emigrating from the country) the wider public has traditionally been quite inattentive to the outside world. Hungary is perceived by many to be an island in the German, Latin and Slavic seas, a feeling reinforced by the living grievances of the post-WWI events when Hungary lost two-thirds of its historic territory and more than 3 million ethnic Hungarians found themselves in foreign countries. The so-called Trianon-tragedy is usually blamed on disingenuous neighbors and conspiring great powers. The island feeling is also existent on the individual level: surveys have for decades shown an extremely high level of individualist sentiment and low-level of trust among Hungarians which hampers effective social cooperation.

Between 2010 and 2014 Orbán’s government created a peculiar system, which could be called a borderline democracy. It walks the rope of taking all possible undemocratic measures to ensure its power (from gerrymandering through concentrated denigration campaigns to limiting free press) while at the same time trying to maintain all the formal legal criteria of democracy. In order to produce laws that serve its political interests but don’t contradict EU legislation it collects and connects “worst practices” from other European countries (to use a term EU-expert Györgyi Kocsis used in early 2011 about the new media law). Having changed the electoral system to its liking, having filled political posts with friends and clients, having an overwhelmingly friendly media, it had a remarkably wide array of potential measures to ensure its decisive win at the 2014 elections. It must be noted however, that even if the democratic left had won in 2014, this would not have meant a quick return to democratic normalcy. Instead, the political fight and cold civil war that characterized the years 2006-2010 would have come back.

During the last 25 years politicians on the left and right have learned the lesson of being popular by being populist. As liberal parties were disappearing incumbents have managed to gain an ever greater pool of supporters. Orbán’s 2014 victory is the second time in a row (after the 2006 narrow win of Gyurcsány) when a party and a prime minister were given a second term. Orbán’s government successfully combined Kádár’s and the Horthy’s approaches to gain support – its actions and rhetoric were at times more socialist than those of the Socialists and more nationalist than those of the nationalists. It also managed to bleed out its opponents on the left and on the right by a thousand cuts (from discovering and publicizing awkward information about their politicians through starting legal procedures against them to strictly limiting their channels to address a wider audience or even to collect and use campaign money) but its voter base diminished since 2010 nevertheless. In the future more resources may be needed to successfully apply similar techniques, therefore further political and economic centralization and an increase in the confrontational rhetoric is likely to come in the run up to 2018.

Written on October 27, 2013, updated on April 7-8, 2014

Israel and the international Jewish community want deeds, not words

The controversy over the government’s plans for the Holocaust Memorial Year is not subsiding. It was a week ago that Mazsihisz, the umbrella organization representing about a dozen Jewish groups, said that they will boycott the project as long as the government insists on moving ahead with the current plans. Three issues were in contention. First, they disapproved of the appointment of Sándor Szakály, a right-wing military historian, as head of a new historical institute named Veritas. Second, they wanted to be consulted in connection with a new Holocaust Museum named the House of Fates and expressed some doubts about the suitability of Mária Schmidt as the overseer of the project. Finally, they violently objected to the monument to be erected as a memorial to the German “occupation” of Hungary on March 19, 1944. The monument depicts Hungary as an innocent victim of Germany, as a country that lost its sovereignty and was thus absolutely innocent in the murder of about half a million Hungarian Jews.

For a few hours people who are against the Orbán government’s attempts at falsifying history were ecstatic . They praised Mazsihisz’s courageous new leadership. But the next day the government made public a letter Viktor Orbán had received from Mazsihisz which created a huge storm within the Jewish community. It seems to me that the majority of people who publicly expressed their opinions believed that the top leaders of Mazsihisz had recanted on their earlier stance. Accusations of treachery could be heard.

What were the problems with the letter that made so many people unhappy? One was the style of the letter, which a lot of people found too servile. The repeated “Igen Tisztelt Miniszterelnök Úr” (Very much honored Mr. Prime Minister) was too much for those who think very little of Viktor Orbán. The other objection was the omission of Sándor Szakály’s name from the document. Did this mean that Mazsihisz was abandoning its insistence on the removal of the controversial historian who thinks so highly of the Hungarian gendarmerie, the ones primarily responsible for leading Jewish victims to boxcars to be shipped to Auschwitz? Some leading Jewish activists, like Tamás Suchman, formerly MSZP member of parliament, insisted on the resignation of András Heisler, Péter Tordai, and Gusztáv Zoltai who signed the letter.

I would most likely have been outnumbered with my own opinion that sending a letter, admittedly one less servile than the letter Mazsihisz sent to Orbán, was a good move. I talked about my feelings on the subject once already. The suggestion of establishing a House of Co-existence devoted to the symbiosis of Jewish and non-Jewish cultures in Hungary is a wonderful idea. I interpreted the absence of Szakály’s name in the letter as an indication that his appointment was not subject to negotiation; he had to go. As for the  monument, Mazsihisz asked that its very concept be revised. Their position was strengthened by the support of  the Hungarian Academy of Sciences’s Division of Philosophy and History which declared that the monument gives a false impression of the history of the German “occupation” and Hungary’s position vis-à-vis Germany between March and October 1944.

But this was not the only reason for public outcry. Ilan Mor, Israeli ambassador to Hungary, gave an interview to Heti Válasz, a right-wing weekly, on February 12. In this interview Mor announced that he “has no doubt about the good intentions of the government” and spoke critically of Mazsihisz. Unfortunately, the interview is not yet available in its entirety on the Internet, but Mazsihisz didn’t take too kindly to Mor’s remarks. Gusztáv Zoltai, one of the three who signed the letter to Orbán, responded that “although we think very highly of the Israeli ambassador, we are an independent religious community in Hungary. We have very good relations with the Israeli ambassador but he should not make declarations in our name. It is our job and we disagree with him.” Well, this is clear enough.

To c0mplicate matters, a day after Mor’s interview the Hungarian ambassador was summoned by the Israeli foreign ministry. The topic was rising anti-Semitism in Hungary, but Rafi Schutz, deputy-director-general for Europe, also brought up the Orbán government’s attempt to rehabilitate Miklós Horthy, “who was complicit in the mass deportations of Jews to Nazi death camps in 1944, which resulted in the deaths of around 450,000 Hungarian Jews.” The infamous monument didn’t escape the attention of the Israeli foreign ministry either: “Hungary’s whitewashing of history has included plans to build a massive monument commemorating the 1944 invasion of Hungary by the Nazis, which is seen as an attempt to portray Hungary as a victim rather than an active partner of the Nazis. … The recent trends of historical whitewashing raise concerns in Israel, particularly since Hungary decided to hold a series of events memorializing the Holocaust. While the Jewish state initially supported the decision, it now fears the trends throw such efforts into doubt as further attempts to rewrite history.” Rafi Schutz added that Hungary was chosen to chair the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) starting in March 2015, but doubts are now being raised “about Hungary’s ability to properly preserve the memory of the Holocaust.” Strong language.

Thus the Israeli government stood squarely behind Mazsihisz while Israel’s ambassador to Hungary, believing in the trustworthiness of the Hungarian government, criticized the organization for its stridency. I think Ilan Mor is too charitable to the government.

Yesterday Ronald S. Lauder, head of the World Jewish Congress, wrote an article that appeared on Népszabadság‘s op/ed page. Lauder is heavily involved in Hungarian affairs on account of his mother, Estee Lauder, who was born and brought up in a Hungarian Jewish household in the United States. Among other things, Lauder established the Lauder Javne School, a Jewish educational institution that houses a kindergarten, an elementary school, a gymnasium, and a conservatory. He was also involved in the project to build a resort complex with an attached casino at Lake Velence in Sukoró which was torpedoed by Viktor Orbán, then still in opposition.

deedsLauder’s article bears the title: “To unify, not to divide.” In it he announced that the decision of Mazsihisz is fully supported by the World Jewish Congress. He expressed his disappointment that instead of remembrance of the victims, the Hungarian government is trying to rewrite history. The year 2014 was an opportunity for Viktor Orbán to confirm his good intentions hitherto only expressed in words by deeds. László Kövér accused Hungarian Jewry of “standing by the left again.” The Holocaust for the Jewish people is not a question of left or right and the government must make sure that it is not.

According to Lauder, it is worrisome that the Hungarian government is sending out contradictory messages: it recognizes the country’s responsibility in the deportation of Jews on the one hand and, on the other, it wants to erect a memorial which is offensive to Jews. The picture that has emerged of Hungary in America, Europe, and Israel is completely negative.

Viktor Orbán remains silent.