Péter Szentmihályi Szabó

The aftershocks of the Szentmihályi Szabó affair

The translation of  Péter Szentmihályi Szabó’s article on the “agents of Satan” three days ago on Hungarian Spectrum has reawakened international scrutiny into the real nature of Viktor Orbán’s regime. Immediately after the document’s publication letters started pouring into the Italian Foreign Ministry and the Italian embassy in Hungary asking the Italians not to accept Szentmihályi Szabó as Hungary’s envoy.

Yesterday morning the Jewish Telegraphic Agency published a short article in which they said:

Eva Balogh described Szentmihályi Szabó as a “raging” and “inveterate” anti-Semite. She quoted an article written by him in 2000 in the far-right Magyar Forum, called “The Agents of Satan,” which, though it doesn’t specifically use the term “Jew,” clearly describes Jews in classic anti-Semitic terms similar to those used in Nazi propaganda.

The Hungarian Jewish leadership did not immediately respond to the nomination. But a source close to the leadership of the main Jewish umbrella group Mazsihisz told JTA that the nomination was a “very unfriendly gesture from the government” during the year designated by the government as an official Holocaust Memorial Year.

Vox.com also noticed my post and quoted at some length from Szentmihályi Szabó’s infamous article, describing it as “pretty appalling stuff.” According to the journalist responsible for the article, this latest development is “especially troubling given that it happened in Hungary, where there has been a trend of anti-Semitism… [T]hough right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orbán condemns anti-Semitism, his government doesn’t have the best track record on it.”

And finally today the World Jewish Congress raised its voice in protest. Let me quote the text of the press release in full:

The head of the World Jewish Congress (WJC) on Thursday said that appointment of Hungarian far-right publicist Péter Szentmihályi Szabó as Hungary’s ambassador to Italy was “clearly an affront to Jews”. WJC President Ronald Lauder urged Italy to refuse the accreditation of Szentmihályi Szabó, who has penned anti-Semitic texts in the past.

“A man who suggests that Hungary’s Jews are ‘agents of Satan’, ‘greedy, envious, evil and ugly’ is not fit to represent his country abroad, and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán would be well-advised to withdraw this man as soon as possible and look for a person who is suitable for this job,” said Lauder.

“It is particularly sad and irritating that Hungary, which declared 2014 as Holocaust memorial year, is once again in the news with this sort of thing. How can an anti-Semite represent a government whose leader pledged a policy of zero tolerance toward anti-Semitism?” Lauder asked, referring to Orbán’s speech before the World Jewish Congress Plenary Assembly in Budapest in May 2013. He said decisions such as this would do further damage to Hungary’s reputation abroad and “not inspire confidence that the Orbán government means business when it says it will fight anti-Semitism.”

The WJC leader expressed hope that, given Italy’s history and strong commitment to fight racial hatred and anti-Semitism, the Italian government would not accept an outspoken extremist and Jew-hater as a member of the diplomatic corps in Rome.

The appointment by Budapest of the 69-year-old Szentmihályi Szabó comes after a recent decision by the Hungarian government to build a controversial World War II monument that obfuscates Hungary’s role in the deportation of Jews to the Nazi death camps in 1944.

Meanwhile Péter Szentmihályi Szabó acts as if nothing has happened. Or at least he pretends that all this “noise” doesn’t bother him a bit. Rather, he seems to be proud of his name being bandied about in the Hungarian and the foreign press. He shared his reactions in his regular column in the far-right Magyar Hírlap called “Sarkosan fogalmazva,” which is perhaps best rendered as “Not beating around the bush.”

Actually, Szentmihályi Szabó exaggerates somewhat. Only about three dozen articles appeared about him, mostly in the liberal press. None in Magyar Nemzet or Válasz. Naturally, Magyar Hírlap, his own paper, reported disapprovingly that “Gyurcsány and Co. are asking Europe’s help in the matter of Péter Szentmihályi Szabó” and republished DK’s protest released by the party’s press department. In addition, László Domonkos, a journalist who since 1990 has written a number of books for far-right publishing houses, expressed his absolute delight that “István Csurka’s comrade-in-arms” received the honor of being able to represent Hungary in Rome. The late István Csurka was a self-professed anti-Semite who established MIÉP (Magyar Igazság és Élet Pártja/Party of Hungarian Truth and Justice) in 1993. Domonkos, I might add, wrote a biography of Csurka (Kárpátia Studió, 2012). He is on the editorial board of Trianoni Szemle (Trianon Review) and a frequent contributor to Nagy Magyarország (Greater Hungary).

Publication of the Committee on European Affairs responsible for the nomination of  Péter Szentmihályi Szabó

Publication of the Committee on European Affairs which was responsible for the nomination of Péter Szentmihályi Szabó

And finally, let me talk about an article written by Attila Ara-Kovács, a journalist and former diplomat, in Magyar Narancs where he has a regular column, “Diplomáciai jegyzet” (Diplomatic Notes). His latest piece is on Szentmihályi Szabó’s appointment. Its title is “To Rome with Love,” a reference to the Woody Allen movie of the same name.

Ara-Kovács, who is very well informed, suspects that there are serious differences of opinion over the direction of Hungarian foreign policy within Fidesz circles. The more conservative members have been worried about the worsening relationship between the Orbán government and the West. The first sign of discontent appeared in 2012 when it became clear that Orbán was taking Hungary in a direction that these conservative supporters or diplomats found injurious to the interests of the country. Turning to the East was bad enough, but when this new orientation culminated in the Putin-Orbán summit and the subsequent loan agreement, this was too much for these people who not surprisingly harbor anti-Russian sentiments from the days of the Kádár regime and are suspicious of Putin’s intentions. Then came what Ara-Kovács calls “the massacre” in the Foreign Ministry when about 200 people arrived from Tibor Navracsics’s Ministry of Administration and Justice and Péter Szijjártó’s Office of the Prime Minister. Naturally, a lot of old hands were fired to make place for the newcomers.

And now we come to the question of the source of the leak about the nomination of Péter Szentmihályi Szabó. Parliament is not in session, but the chairman of the Committee on European Affairs called the members together for an extraordinary session to discuss this particular nomination. The chairman of the committee is Richárd Hörcsik, who has been a member of parliament ever since 1990 when he belonged to the right-of-center Magyar Demokrata Fórum (MDF). Neither the Demokratikus Koalíció nor Együtt-PM is represented on this committee. There is one Jobbik member and two MSZP members. It turned out that both MSZP members, István Józsa ad Bertalan Tóth, were absent. Thus, the news that spread like wildfire about the committee giving its blessing to Péter Szentmihályi Szabó’s nomination must have come either from Jobbik or more likely from one of the Fidesz members of the committee. It looks as if this nomination was too much for somebody who seems to be worried about the foreign policy direction of the third Orbán government.

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The other side of Péter Szentmihályi Szabó: An ardent communist

There is more to Péter Szentmihályi Szabó, the presumed future Hungarian ambassador to Italy, than meets the eye. The picture is complete only if we take a look at the man’s career during the Kádár regime, which he was allegedly ready to fight, if necessary with weapon in hand.

Péter Szabó, who changed his name to Péter Szentmihályi Szabó, was born on January 8, 1945. According to an interview he gave in 2000, his father, Károly Szabó, studied to be a  lawyer but in the 40s worked as a journalist for a “right-wing paper.” “Luckily” the offices of this unnamed newspaper were bombed during the war, and all traces of his father’s association with the paper disappeared. This way “the communists couldn’t molest him,” as the son remarked. What the father did after the war is not clear except that he was “an archaeologist of language” who wrote a book on the relationship between the Hungarian and the Etruscan languages. It was posthumously published by Karpatia Press, which specializes in far-right and wacky books.

As for Péter Szabó’s early life, we have little to go on except what he revealed about himself. When you try to put the story together, however, troubling questions emerge about the truthfulness of the man. The main problem is with his contention that in 1961, while he was a student at the famous Benedictine high school in Pannonhalma, he organized a day of remembrance for the fifth anniversary of the October Revolution of 1956. Consequently, the story goes, he was not only expelled from Pannonhalma but was barred from all Hungarian high schools. He claims that after this incident he was under constant police surveillance and had to work as a manual laborer. He eventually finished high school at night. The problem with this story is that Szabó finished high school in 1963, exactly when he was supposed to. Moreover, he was immediately admitted to ELTE as a Hungarian-English major. It is hard to fathom that the regime was that lenient with someone who a couple of years earlier was barred from every high school in the country.

Szabó came up with the following explanation about his speedy entrance to university. As a third-year high school student he was the national winner of the annual high school literature competition and therefore did not have to take an entrance exam. He “just marched in,” as he said in the interview. That does not ring true either. If Szabó’s story about his expulsion is correct, he spent only two months as a student during the school year of 1961-62, and that is mighty little time to end up the winner of a national competition. And that’s not all. In the same interview he recounted his first meeting with a well-known writer, adding that he was seventeen at the time and “still a student.” The problem is that this had to be in 1962 when, according to his own recounting, he was no longer a student. So much for Péter Szabó’s veracity.

One of Szentmihályi's sciene fictions Visitor from Infinity (1989)

One of Szentmihályi’s science fiction books
Visitor from Infinity (1989)

Szentmihályi Szabó poses as an ardent enemy of communism. In the interview he said that he “as a young man could never understand how people allowed all those things that would happen to us. [He] decided that he would not allow [the communists] to do the same to him and when the time comes [he] will not shirk from taking part in an armed struggle.” He was still a small boy when he cut out the biographies and pictures of “those horrible politicians” from Szabad Nép, the official paper of the communist party during the Rákosi period, because “politics interested him terribly.”

Indeed, it must have interested him because during his university years he joined KISZ (‘Magyar Kommunista Ifjúsági Szövetség) and later even became KISZ secretary of the politically important organization Írószövetség (Writers’ Union). In the interview he quickly added that he was removed from the position because of his counterrevolutionary and clerical activities. He also wants us to believe that in 1975 on the hundredth anniversary of Endre Ady’s birth (Ady was actually born in 1877) he declared in a speech that as long as Hungary is occupied by Soviet troops one cannot really speak about Ady’s work. But again, luckily his friends managed to save his skin.

A quick glance at some of the evidence, however, shows a very different Szabó who by that time had changed his rather common name to Péter Szentmihályi Szabó. In 1969 the editorial board of Új Írás, a literary magazine, sent out a questionnaire to young writers about their attitudes toward socialist Hungary. Szentmihályi Szabó answered, “I’m so glad that I can be a Hungarian here and now in socialism. Very exciting times. An age that poses great challenges.”

Or here is something else from 1973 that came to light only a couple of years ago when the historian György Németh was researching the history of the Attila József Circle, a gathering of young writers and poets in the 1970s.  It is a letter Szentmihályi Szabó wrote to “Dear Uncle Pista”–most likely István Király, the literary historian and an expert on Endre Ady. The letter can be found in the papers of György Aczél, the man responsible for cultural policies throughout the Kádár years. But before I quote the relevant passage, I have to provide some background.

It was in 1973 that Miklós Haraszti, later one of the founders of SZDSZ, who was 28 years old at the time wrote a sociological study of his own experiences as a blue-collar worker in Ganz-Mávag and in the Vörös Csillag Traktorgyár. The manuscript of Darabbér (Piecework) was confiscated by the authorities, and Haraszti had to stand trial: he received a suspended sentence of eight months. The book was eventually translated into eleven languages, but in Hungary it could appear only in 1989. In the “Dear Uncle Pista” letter Szentmihályi Szabó assures the addressee of his devotion to communist ideals, and he is especially angry over those pseudo-leftist rebels (specifically Haraszti) who turned against the Kádár regime. He is outraged because “we know that Haraszti is an enemy of the regime, our enemy.” Oh, yes, these are the words of the great counterrevolutionary Szentmihályi Szabó who would be ready to fight the communists with weapon in hand.

A few years later he wrote a poem that was published in a volume of poetry entitled Dream of the Mind (Budapest: Szépirodalmi, 1977). Here is a rough translation.

Ungraceful Prayer to Communism

Where are you idling, Communism
my happiness, my pure love?
Our happiness, our pure love.
Horn of plenty! The table of the law!
The spiritual light!
Eat, drink, hug, sleep!
Measure yourself with the infinite!
Instead of exclamation marks
question marks falling on us,
I known it is not urgent.
Just like the apocalypse, only
to the prophets:
your unfulfillment
does not cause sorrow to many.
Where are you idling communism?
The productive forces, the relations of productions,
rattling machines,
and the conscience… subconscious
the state does not want to fade away.
Where are you idling communism?
Spring follows Spring,
my children-eyes blink old;
communism, you, promised,
strain your every muscle,
shake off the parasites.
Communism, grow, my little child.

This same man is now the greatest enemy of the “communists,” the liberals, and the Jews. Actually, he would have gladly accepted the socialist system minus the Soviets and their “henchmen.” “To this day I consider socialism more just than this money-centered capitalism without any ideology.”

I would wager to say that Szentmihályi Szabó was a happier man in the 1960s and 1970s than he is today. In fact, he says in the interview that “those who did not live then can’t really understand that period. It was a much more interesting time than today…. Writers could bargain because Hungary was much more important to the West then…. Every word uttered had weight. The West watched what we wrote…. Who is interested today in what a Hungarian writer has to say?” A disappointed man whose discontent has morphed into hatred and who finds scapegoats in communists and Jews (perhaps the two are intertwined in his mind) for his own shortcomings.

A raging anti-Semite will be Hungary’s ambassador in Rome

Late Sunday night the media learned that Péter Szentmihályi Szabó, a mediocre poet and political commentator of the far right, will be Hungary’s next ambassador to Rome. Two opposition parties, Democratic Coalition and Együtt-PM, immediately protested against the appointment, pointing out that over the last two decades the nominee has been publishing in such far-right papers as István Csurka’s Magyar Fórum, Kárpátia, and Nemzetőr. Currently, he has a regular column in the far-right Magyar Hírlap and is also a regular on Echo TV, another far-right organ.

Tibor Navracsics and Péter Szentmihályi Szabó The foreign minister is delighted

Tibor Navracsics and Péter Szentmihályi Szabó
The foreign minister is delighted

There were commentators whose “breath was taken away” when they heard the news of Szentmihályi Szabó’s imminent ambassadorial appointment. A blogger expressed himself more strongly: “Viktor Orbán happened to appoint a rat to be ambassador to Rome.” One thing is sure: Szentmihályi Szabó is an inveterate anti-Semite. Pure and simple. So, it is a rather ironic Orbánite gesture to appoint such a man to an important post in the Memorial Year of the Holocaust.

I could hopscotch from article to article penned by this man, but perhaps it would be more useful to translate one of his memorable pieces that appeared in Magyar Fórum on December 14, 2000.

Meet Viktor Orbán’s choice for ambassador to Italy.

* * *

Péter Szentmihályi Szabó : The Agents of Satan

I don’t know, I don’t understand why they hate us so much. They live here in Hungary, they speak and write in Hungarian, but they loathe us. I really don’t understand why they stay if it is that bad here, in this welcoming country that is so foolishly patient. It is not difficult to recognize them because they are cowardly and impertinent at the same time. Money is their God, their mother tongue in which they have trusted from time immemorial. Dark circles under their eyes, flabby skin, clammy palms, cold feet, freakish smiles give them away. They can be found everywhere on the earth. They are the agents of Satan. They arouse fear and they live off of fear. They create turmoil and discord. They are constantly packing, yet they don’t leave. Are they foreign spirits whose mission is to destroy the local communities? International criminals who, following Marx and Lenin, decided to enslave mankind? Eternally homeless folk condemned to be constant wanderers? They are the debt collectors. The ones who first figured out that money “works” without labor although there are no goods behind the merchandise, only a piece of metal, a piece of paper, or by now only a digital symbol on the computer. Everybody is afraid of them, yet they dread those who fear them. The world’s strongest army guards their security, and yet they still don’t dare to get close to those whose rights they defend so loudly.

Pharisees, hypocrites, agents of Satan. They are in every party, in every church, in every community. They are ready for every betrayal because they are empty. They have no God, no nation, no people, no homeland, no Weltanschauung, only bank accounts. They don’t even have families, only temporarily. Their families are replaceable. They use everything, but nothing is theirs. And they clearly realize that. I am listening to the naive official statements about the forthcoming law on Hungarians living in the neighboring countries. One can hear the mistaken centuries-old notion being repeated: “a Hungarian is one who considers himself to be a Hungarian.” Oh my Lord, any member of any reasonably cultured nation would have a hearty laugh hearing this! Is someone who calls himself an Englishman, a Frenchman, a German, an American actually an Englishman, a Frenchman, a German or an American? In that case, our Roma in Strasbourg would have abandoned us a long time ago…. The agents of Satan are the devotees of globalism; they are not attached to their names, to their firms, to their own homeland. They have no attachment, only bank accounts. They are born traitors because they have never had their own country. They are in every radio and television station where they bray among themselves speaking in a nasal sing-song way and slimily blurring their r’s. They live off their fears. They are professional worriers. They are internationalists and cosmopolitans. Faithful friends of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Lukács, and György Aczél.

Descendants of Rákosi, the jailers of the “guilty” Hungarian nation. Members of the State Security forces, members of detachments, worker guardists. Approximately 200,000 people who call themselves Hungarian who have not cleared out of the country yet because after 1989 they realized that the stupid Hungarian people don’t harbor vengefulness. The two million former unskilled laborers understand only the demagoguery of MSZP and SZDSZ. Viktor Orbán is the same target as József Antall or Péter Boross, or for that matter István Csurka were.  The agents of Satan play games with us and have a grand time at it. They slap us in the face and call us to account that we, in an intolerant and very unchristian-like manner, don’t turn the other cheek. They are the ones who are most indignant when somebody tries to put an end to the greedy acquisition of Hungarian real estate by foreigners; they are the ones for whom abortion and drugs are human rights. They have more than one passport, preferably the kind that has no extradition treaty with Hungary–security foremost. They live in castles, they have servants, but they are great friends of the homeless, the Roma, the needy. From a distance and only in words. If they see some gain in getting involved with Hungarian issues, like, for example the millennial celebrations, then they reluctantly join in. They think everybody can be bought, because they themselves can be, always by the kilo. They are greedy, envious, evil–and ugly. Countenance is the mirror of the soul, but their mirror is a tarnished one. They are callous. Condemned souls for whom there is no resurrection. It is likely that Satan bestows such agents on all nations, ones who not only prey on them but also lecture the nations as if they were stupid primitive domestic animals. Hell is waiting for their return.

German-Hungarian cooperation in the destruction of the Hungarian Jewry

Yesterday I wrote about the Orbán government’s bizarre plan to erect a statue to commemorate the occupation of Hungary by the German army. Since then a flash mob was organized on Szabadság tér where the memorial will be placed and several more people expressed their misgivings about the very idea.

Magyar Nemzet was content to republish the official explanation, according to which the monument will pay homage to the spirit of the new constitution’s preamble which points to Hungary’s loss of sovereignty on March 19, 1944. It seems, however, that even this pro-government paper found the explanation meaningless and hence came up with an imaginative headline: “The government honors every Hungarian victim.” That is, if we are to believe Magyar Nemzet, this monument is a gesture to the victims of the Holocaust.

Magyar Hírlap, a paper to the right of Magyar Nemzet, ran a fairly lengthy op/ed piece by Péter Szentmihályi Szabó, a poet and writer of far-right political views. He, as opposed to historians specializing in the period, is certain that “the German occupation eliminated even the appearance of Hungarian independence, made it impossible to sign a separate peace and made the territory of the country a battleground.” According to Szentmihályi Szabó, placing the new memorial on the same square as the monument to the Soviet liberation of Hungary is an excellent idea because it emphasizes the geopolitical impossibility of a good decision on the part of the Hungarian government.

Even without a detailed knowledge of German-Hungarian relations during the 1930s and 1940s it is obvious that Szentmihályi Szabó doesn’t know what he is talking about. We can’t really speak of “occupation” in the classical meaning of the word because, after all, sending German troops to Hungary came about with Miklós Horthy’s consent. No notes were taken of the conversation between Hitler and Horthy in Klessheim, but it can be reconstructed fairly well. Horthy wasn’t threatened as one recent article claimed. And the main topic wasn’t the deportation of Hungary’s Jewry, although Hitler demanded 50,000 men to work in Germany, which Horthy agreed to. As for making a separate peace with the Russians, Szentmihályi should know that this idea was abhorrent to Horthy, who was a fierce anti-communist. He didn’t entertain the idea until the Soviets were on Hungarian soil. As for the German occupation being the reason that Hungary became a battleground, this is also a patent misinterpretation of history. As the Soviet Union moved westward it engaged the remaining members of the Axis powers, which included the Hungarian army.

Hitler and Horthy

Horthy instructed the Hungarian military and public officials to cooperate with the German forces. The Germans couldn’t complain about the Hungarian attitude. Or, if they had any complaint it was about the Hungarian eagerness to get rid of as many Hungarian Jews as possible. Auschwitz wasn’t prepared for the onslaught that Hungarian officials sent. They were ready for one transport of 3,000 a day, but the undersecretary of the Ministry of Interior which handled the deportation sent six transports a day. The Germans eventually managed to convince their Hungarian friends to send no more than four transports daily. And the old story that Horthy was so despondent and so discouraged that he completely withdrew from the affairs of state is also inaccurate. There are documents that attest to the fact that on April 13, 1944 he approved sending the 50,000 Jewish workers to Germany as he promised in Klessheim.

The op/ed piece that appeared in HVG yesterday (“Monument to the Hungarian Collaborators”) is pretty close to the truth. Adolf Eichmann’s staff, including even the drivers, was no larger than 60-80 men. They had to rely exclusively on Hungarian cooperation. In fact, Hungary was so well organized that the Germans themselves were surprised. Given the well-oiled machine, the consensus is that the deportation of Hungarian Jews had been worked out in detail ahead of time. The Germans in occupied countries let the local forces do the dirty work, and “solutions” varied from country to country. In Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, and France the local authorities chose paths that enabled most of their Jewish population to survive. If the Hungarian authorities had been less eager to get rid of their Jewish compatriots the result might have been very different. Just as in July when Horthy halted the deportation of Budapest’s Jewish population, he could have forbidden it in April with the possible exception of the 50,000 workers he promised to Hitler. Or, if the local authorities had sabotaged or slowed down the process, the number of victims could have been much smaller. But about 200,000 people were obediently working to fulfill the Hungarian plan. Krisztián Ungváry figured out that if the Hungarian authorities had stuck to the quota the Germans wanted (3,000 a day) 267,000 people would have survived the ordeal.

Historians studying the period find that the deportation was welcomed by the overwhelming majority of the Hungarian people. Yes, there were a few people who tried to save lives, but the majority approved the segregation and eventual removal of the Jewish population. In Veszprém the Catholic Church even organized a Te Deum mass to celebrate the deportation. There was wide consensus on the “Jewish question,” especially when it became clear that it was the Hungarian state that was the main beneficiary of the destruction of the Hungarian Jewry. Mind you, eventually some of the confiscated material was destroyed, lost, or stolen.

Hungarian historians have done an incredible amount of research on the subject in the last thirty-forty years, and I’m sure that thousands more articles and books will appear on seemingly every aspect of the question in the future. So, the problem is not a lack of knowledge. The trouble is that that information simply doesn’t penetrate the consciousness of the wider public, most likely because they don’t want to hear about all the horrors that took place in their country with Hungarian complicity. It is easier to say that the Hungarian government and the Hungarian people could do nothing to prevent the German atrocities.