Sándor Szakály

An attempt at character assassination but to what end?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dániel Bolgár and Krisztián Ungváry during the "debate"

Dániel Bolgár and Krisztián Ungváry during the “debate”

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

Retreat or another “peacock dance” by Viktor Orbán?

Something must have happened between yesterday afternoon and this morning in the Prime Minister’s Office. János Lázár, the minister in charge of the office, has been waging war for some time on at least two fronts, the Norwegian government and the Hungarian Jewish community. In both cases he now seems to be retreating, although his move may turn out to be, as has happened so often in the past, merely a tactical ruse–one step back and, once the glare of the spotlight dims, two steps forward.

Lázár has been trying to make changes in the original agreement regarding the disbursement of the Norwegian Funds, changes that the Norwegian government refused to accept. Then, in order to pressure the Norwegians to release the funds that they had withheld, the Hungarian government began to harass an independent foundation that was in charge of grants given to NGOs by the Norwegian Civic Funds. The latest attack, about which I wrote yesterday, was the most aggressive to date, but it did not shake the resolve of the Norwegian government. By noon today Vidar Helgesen, Norwegian minister in charge of European Union affairs, made it crystal clear that what happened yesterday in the office of the Ökotárs Foundation was unacceptable as far as his government was concerned.

Moreover, yesterday’s raids produced no damning evidence against the foundation. They will not be able to jail Veronika Móra, the director of the foundation, because she has done nothing wrong. At least, according to legal opinions I heard. It was thus high time for the government to throw in the towel.

As we know, Viktor Orbán, because naturally he is the man behind the attacks on the foundation and the NGOs, is not the kind of guy who likes to admit defeat. And he really wanted to stifle the anti-government voices being funded by the Norwegians. But the 45 billion forints the Norwegians were withholding, the bulk of their grant money that goes directly to the government, was hurting the public purse. This morning János Lázár announced that the Hungarian government will ask the European Commission to be the arbiter between the Hungarian and the Norwegian governments. Since a special EU office in Brussels has been supervising the activities of Ökotárs Foundation and has found nothing illegal about its activities, the outcome of the decision is not really in question. But at least Viktor Orbán can tell his people that, although his government is right, the bureaucrats in Brussels decided otherwise. Hungary had no choice but to oblige.

There might have been two other considerations that tipped the scales in favor of retreat. One is that, according to unnamed sources, Tibor Navracsics’s nomination has been unfavorably influenced by, among other things, the Norwegian-Hungarian controversy. Moreover, the raid on the foundation’s office, which was received with dismay abroad, coincided with the appearance of an op/ed piece in The New York Times by Philips N. Howard, a professor at the Central European University and the University of Washington, which only reinforced the commonly held view that Viktor Orbán is a man who cannot tolerate a free media. And, as the Norwegian controversy made evident, he would like to silence independent NGOs as well. The biting illustration that accompanied the article has since been reprinted in several Hungarian publications. If it had not been clear before, it had to be obvious by now that Viktor Orbán had gone too far. It was time to recall the troops.

The same thing seems to be happening on the Hungarian Jewish front. The government alienated the Hungarian Jewish community by making several controversial, unilateral moves. I wrote earlier about these government actions, starting with the appointment of Sándor Szakály as the director of a new historical institute and the designation of Mária Schmidt, director of the House of Terror, to head a new Holocaust Museum. The final straw was the decision to erect a memorial to commemorate the German occupation of Hungary on March 19, 1944. The result was a complete breakdown in communication–and trust–between János Lázár and the leaders of the Jewish community. Then, after months of silence, at the end August it became known that the government was ready to make concessions. The routinely scheduled  September meeting took place today and, indeed, it seems that the Hungarian government finally decided that it was time to come to some understanding with the Jewish community.

The meeting that lasted for four hours was a large gathering, including 60 people representing several Jewish organizations. Yet, according to András Heisler, president of Mazsihisz, thanks to the disciplined behavior of the representatives real progress was made on all eight points that were on the agenda. Although the Jewish organizations did not change their attitude on such vital issues as the House of Fates, the government offered several peace offerings. The government promised, for example, to spend up to a billion forints to fix up Jewish cemeteries that are in very bad shape in most cities and towns. Lázár promised to invite the head of the Kúria, Hungary’s supreme court, the minister of interior, and the head of the judicial office to talk over practical moves to be taken in cases of anti-Semitic activity. Lázár seemed to be ready to discuss the renovation of the synagogue on Sebestyén Rumbach Street that might serve two functions: it will be a functioning place of worship as well as a museum. Lázár also promised to renovate the synagogue in Miskolc.

The large gathering of the Jewish Round this morning Népszava / Photo József Vajda

The Jewish Round Table this morning
Népszava / Photo József Vajda

Although all these goodies were offered to the Jewish communities, the representatives refused to change their position on the boycott of the government organized events commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust. They remained steadfast even though the government gave in on one serious bone of contention–the exhibit at the House of Fates. Lázár personally guaranteed that no exhibit will be mounted without the active cooperation of the Hungarian and international Jewish community. Interestingly, the controversial designated head of the project, Mária Schmidt, was not present.

All in all, it seems that there is a general retreat. Whether it is real or not we will find out soon enough.

Mária Schmidt: Another person who chose the wrong profession

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mária Schmidt being interviewed by Ildikó Csuhaj Source: Népszabadság

Mária Schmidt being interviewed by Ildikó Csuhaj
Source: Népszabadság

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

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

Sándor Szakály: Portrait of a historian

The “cursed” memorial to the German occupation of Hungary on March 19, 1944 is still unfinished and the daily demonstration against its erection continues. Today the small group of demonstrators was joined by thousands of DK supporters who gathered to launch a campaign of “resistance” to the world of Viktor Orbán.

No one knows when Viktor Orbán will find the time opportune to go against the majority of Hungarians who consider the proposed monument a falsification of history, but while we are waiting for the final outcome historians are debating the crucial issue of the Hungarian state’s role in the death of about 400,000 Hungarians of Jewish origin.

The two main historians representing the position of the Hungarian government are Sándor Szakály, a military historian and director of the Veritas Historical Institute, and Mária Schmidt, an alleged expert on the Hungarian Holocaust and director of the infamous House of Terror. Of the two, it is most likely Schmidt who has been playing a key role in the formulation of the Orbán regime’s view of history. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we would eventually find out that she was the one who came up with the idea of the monument which, as it turned out, became a huge headache for Viktor Orbán. In comparison, Szakály is a small fry who, unlike Mária Schmidt, has no close connection to the prime minister himself. It is possible that it was Schmidt who suggested Szakály as a good choice for the directorship of Veritas.

In the last week or so both Schmidt and Szakály have been in the news. Szakály had an interview with a young journalist of an online newspaper called Versus (vs.hu) in which he again managed to say a few things that are considered to be inflammatory by some and outright wrong by others. The interview solicited a couple of written responses, and Szakály was invited by György Bolgár of KlubRádió for a chat on his program Megbeszéljük (Let’s talk it over). For those of you who know Hungarian, I highly recommend devoting about half an hour to that conversation, which begins at 22:13 and continues in the second half hour of the program.

Szakály began his career as a historian in 1982 when he published articles in periodicals dealing with military history. His first full-fledged book, on the military elite in the last years of the Horthy regime (A magyar katonai elit: 1938-1945, Budapest: Magvető), was published in 1987 . The book is full of statistics, including the percentages of various religious denominations of high-ranking officers. Or the breakdown by age of officers of the General Staff. It seems you can find every bit of minutiae about the Hungarian military elite you ever wanted (or didn’t want) to know. Even those that matter not. But the “spirit” of that military corps is missing entirely. We don’t learn anything about their ideology and their views of the world.

Szakaly

Szakály showed the same positivistic mindset when discussing the deportation of approximately 23,000 Jews in July 1941 who, according to the Hungarian authorities, could not produce proper identification to prove they were Hungarian citizens. This event took place shortly after the German attack on the Soviet Union. The Hungarian authorities sent these unfortunate people to territories already held by the Germans. Most of them were killed by the German occupying forces. According to Szakály, “some historians consider this event to be the first deportation of Jews from Hungary,” but in his opinion it can more properly be considered “a police action against aliens.” Jewish communities demanded Szakály’s resignation from his new post as director of Veritas.

Of course, Szakály did not resign. Moreover, as he said in this latest interview, he sees no reason to resign. He used “the correct technical term.” But then he continued: “I asked Ádám Gellért [a scholar who published an important study of the event] whether he looked at the text of the regulation. Did it say that Jews had to be expelled? Or did it say that they have to be expelled because they had no citizenship? It is another matter whether it was the appropriate time during the summer of 1941 to expel those without papers. I don’t contend that it couldn’t have happened that somebody out of spite expelled such a person who did have citizenship.”

Let’s analyze these few lines from a historian’s perspective. It is clear that Szakály lacks any and all ability to analyze a historical event in its complexity. If the ordinance does not specifically say something, the issue is closed. If the document did not say that Jews were to be expelled, then clearly the intent of the authorities was simply to deport stateless persons. The fact that all those who were deported were Jews doesn’t seem to make an impression on him and doesn’t prompt him to look beyond the words of the ordinance.

But that’s not all. Let’s move on to the timing. Szakály never asks himself why the Hungarian authorities picked that particular date and location for the deportations. He admits only that it was perhaps not the most “appropriate time.” Keep in mind that Germany attacked the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941 and Hungary followed suit on the 27th. Szakály either feigns ignorance or he really is incapable of putting 2 and 2 together. The cabinet decided on the deportation of  “Galician Jews” on July 1, and on July 16 the first transports started their journey toward Soviet territories, by now occupied by German troops. In fact, the Hungarian authorities used the very first “opportunity” to get rid of some of the Jews who lived in the northeastern corner of the enlarged country. The date was calculated and planned.

And finally, the inclusion of Hungarian citizens in the transports is assumed by Szakály to be a rare occurrence committed by spiteful individuals. Naivete? Blindness? Ignorance? Or something else?

After listening to the interview with him on KlubRádió, I came to the conclusion that Szakály chose the wrong profession. He should have gone to military academy to become a fine military officer. He would know all the paragraphs of the military code by heart, and I’m sure that he would be a most obedient officer who would follow the rules and regulations to the letter. He would never question his superiors. I’m sure that he would have been a much better officer than he is a historian.

And one more thing that upset many people, for example Péter György, an esthete at ELTE, and György C. Kálmán, a literary historian at the same university. It was this sentence: “In my opinion, prior to the occupation of our country by the Germans the security of life and property of Hungarian Jewry, independently of the discriminative laws, was essentially ensured.” György interprets the above sentence to mean that, according to Szakály, “the age of anti-Jewish laws can be considered a normal state of affairs, which is the gravest falsification of 20th-century Hungarian history.” He added that since Szakály is the head of an official government institute, one could even question the present government’s responsibility.

Kálmán’s is a satirical piece that appeared in Magyar Narancs. He lists 16 paragraphs out of the many anti-Jewish laws enacted in interwar Hungary and asks Szakály whether he would feel secure in his person and his property if these laws applied to him. Here one can read all the important pieces of legislation that deprived Jews of all sorts of personal and property rights.

When confronted with György’s criticism, Szakály thought that his sentence covered the truth because he added the word “essentially” (alapvetően). It is obvious that two entirely different types of scholars stand in juxtaposition here. Szakály, who relies on a strict interpretation of texts, and György, who sees the problem in its full complexity. I have the suspicion that Szakály doesn’t really understand what György is talking about.

Meanwhile Mária Schmidt is fighting against all the historians who don’t agree with her. Just lately she gave several interviews on ATV and Klubrádió, and in today’s Népszabadság she has a long interview with Ildikó Csuhaj. Feeling under attack, she has been lashing out against all her colleagues. An interesting psychological study which I will leave for tomorrow.

Viktor Orbán shapes the Holocaust Memorial Year

While Viktor Orbán was composing his letter, described by the philosopher Ágnes Heller as the handiwork of Moliére’s Tartuffe, the pious fraud who managed to fool his benefactor and his wife with his pretensions of divine authority, the Orbán regime’s political machine continued preparing the ground for its own version of the Holocaust Memorial Year, for the most part unadulterated by Jewish input.

Today I’ll focus on two events: (1) the agreement of cooperation between the Veritas Institute and the Holocaust Documentation and Memorial Center and (2) the meeting between members of the government and representatives of Mazsihisz, the umbrella organization for several Jewish communities. As I already noted a few days ago, the Veritas Historical Institute, directed by Sándor Szakály, and the Holocaust Documentation and Memorial Center, represented by György Haraszti, chairman of the board, signed an agreement of cooperation. Leaders of Mazsihisz and other Jewish organizations were stunned. Szakály and Haraszti have already agreed on some conferences that will be jointly sponsored by the two institutions.

The first conference will deal with the period between the German and Russian “occupations.” A sidenote: The word used in connection with the arrival of the Soviet troops is a matter of controversy of an ideological nature. There is no question that for the remaining Jewish population of Hungary the Soviet arrival was a “liberation” (felszabadulás), and therefore the Holocaust Center’s acquiescence in using the word “occupation” (megszállás) is unfortunate. Although admittedly most non-Jewish Hungarians feared the arrival of the Soviet troops, calling the event a foreign occupation is simplistic. It does, however, jibe with the Hungarian constitution’s (and Orbán’s) view of Hungary’s lost independence. The Germans took it away in 1944, and after the war the Allies that defeated Hitler’s Germany (which, after all, included the Soviet Union) continued to deny Hungary its independence. Hungary was a powerless, and hence innocent, nation; all the power, and all the responsibility, lay in the hands of its occupiers.

Monument of the March for Life, Budapest / Work of Zénó Kelemen

Monument of the March for Life, Budapest / Work of Zénó Kelemen

Now back to the controversial agreement between the Veritas Institute and the Holocaust Center. Historian Szabolcs Szita, the temporary director of the Holocaust Center, knew nothing about the negotiations between Haraszti and Szakály. Szita was named director three years ago and his appointment is coming to an end on May 3. No one knows who his successor will be. One thing is sure: he wasn’t encouraged to reapply. György Haraszti, on the other hand, obviously has very good relations with the Orbán government. He was named chairman of the board shortly after the election of 2010. He is also a professor at the Országos Rabbiképző–Zsidó Egyetem, the rabbinical school and Jewish university that is under the supervision of Mazsihisz.

As a result of his agreement with the Horthy-loving Szakály, a man Mazsihisz demanded the government replace with a more reputable historian, Haraszti was asked to leave all his positions at the rabbinical school at the end of the current academic year. I’m not worried about his future, however. The Orbán government takes good care of its own. As for topic two, at the request of Viktor Orbán a meeting with the leaders of Mazsihisz was arranged for April 30th, the same day Orbán released his letter to Katalin Dávid. The government was represented by Viktor Orbán, János Lázár, and Zoltán Balog. Mazsihisz sent its president, András Heisler; Péter Tordai, the president of the Budapest Jewish Community (BZSH); and Péter Kardos, chief rabbi of Hungary and a Holocaust survivor.

The meeting was described as a long and “frank” discussion. We all know what “frank” means in this context: the discussion was less than pleasant and it led practically nowhere. As far as the monument is concerned, it is not negotiable because Viktor Orbán “has no room to maneuver.” He cannot give up the original concept. This is very strange reasoning. Who is forcing him to erect the monument? Surely, nobody. What he might have had in mind was that because of his stubbornness he maneuvered himself into a corner from which he cannot extricate himself without losing face.

Some people might argue that Orbán feels so strongly about the issue that scrapping the monument and the idea behind it would shake the very foundations of his worldview. I doubt it. He is anything but a man of firm beliefs. He belongs to the church of “what works now.” The only promise the leaders of the Mazsihisz delegation received was that in establishing the House of Fates “they together will make a last attempt to create a system of cooperation that will ensure the true depiction of history in accordance with Hungarian Jewish perspectives.”

In certain circles this agreement was hailed as a sign of Viktor Orbán’s willingness to compromise. I am not that optimistic. I fear that the gulf between the two views is so great that it cannot be bridged. I will be most surprised if talks between government representatives and supporters, such as Mária Schmidt and György Haraszti, and Mazsihisz, supported by most historians of the Holocaust, can possibly arrive at a common ground.

Szakály’s appointment, according to Mazsihisz’s brief description of the meeting, was not on the agenda. On the other hand, the Mazsihisz leaders offered some preliminary plans for a “House of Coexistence” which Mazsihisz suggested as an alternative to the House of Fates. Again, I have the feeling that this is a dead issue. As is clear from the agenda of the conversation, the creation of the House of Fates is going ahead. A House of Coexistence would be another establishment costing additional money. I doubt that Viktor Orbán is in the mood to give such a gift to Mazsihisz and the Jewish communities it represents. Especially not after Jewish communities supported the two-week-long demonstration against his “accurate and flawless” monument.

Viktor Orbán finally sent an answer, but the Jewish community’s boycott is still on

The deadline had long passed and Viktor Orbán’s promised answer to Mazsihisz’s three demands to ensure their participation in the events of the Holocaust Memorial Year still hadn’t arrived. So, it’s no wonder that Népszabadság headlined one of its articles “Orbán is ruminating.” And indeed, I don’t think that it was easy for a man who is not accustomed to retreating to admit that, despite all the power he acquired within the country, he might have to back down on the idea of erecting a monument to the German “occupation” of Hungary on March 19, 1944.

On February 16, in his “state of the nation” speech, he was still adamant and denounced those who “dare to tell us what we should or should not do, or what and how we should remember.” Commentators were convinced that Orbán would stand fast and wouldn’t give an inch.

There were other signs, however, that those harsh words were only for show. Zoltán Balog told ATV on Tuesday that the topic will most likely be “discussed” on Wednesday at the cabinet meeting. Mind you, we know from an earlier Balog interview that “discussing” something at the cabinet meeting means that all those present simply lend their support to Viktor Orbán’s decision. Still, he wasn’t the only one who indicated that the infamous memorial might not be in place on Szabadság tér on March 19. István Pálffy (KDNP) also suggested that it would be impossible to erect the structure given time constraints. Presumably they knew something even before the cabinet meeting.

Although word about the postponement became official only last night, the well-informed Ildikó Csuhaj of Népszabadság already knew about the decision a few minutes after the cabinet meeting. Her sources indicated that there was intense international pressure on the government, including German disapproval. Israel also made its feelings known by requesting the newly appointed Hungarian ambassador to have a heart to heart with officials of the Israeli foreign ministry.

After the decision was reached, Orbán wrote his long-awaited letter to the leaders of Mazsihisz. In it he mentioned, as Fidesz politicians always do, that the Holocaust Center was established during the first Orbán government and that it was during his first term that they declared April 16 to be the day devoted to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust. On the other hand, he completely ignored the controversy surrounding the Holocaust Memorial Year: the falsification of historical facts symbolized by the planned monument, the appointment of a far-right historian to a newly established institution called Veritas who considers the Kaments-Podolskii deportations and murders of mostly Hungarian Jews a simple “police procedure,” and the concept and the person in charge of the planned House of Fates. Instead, Orbán claimed that the reason for postponing the erection of the “Gabriel” statue is the campaign season for national and EU elections that takes place between February 15 and May 25.

The contents of this letter didn’t make the slightest difference as far as the leaders of Mazsihisz were concerned. They announced that there is nothing in this letter that would necessitate calling together the entire leadership which decided on the boycott in the first place. This is only a postponement of the statue, with no mention made of the two controversial historians, Sándor Szakály of Veritas and Mária Schmidt of the House of Fates.

Gordon Bajnai agreed with the Jewish leaders. He called the postponement of the erection of the monument no more than a “cynical avoidance of conflicts before the election” which does not address the core problem: “Falsification of history still remains falsification of history two or three months later.”

Two fundamentally opposing historical views are clashing here, and in my opinion truth is not on the Orbán government’s side even if they decided to name their new historical institute Veritas. I want to make one thing clear. It is not only the Jewish community that cannot accept the Orbán government’s efforts to rehabilitate the Horthy regime. More enlightened members of Hungarian society, both Jewish and non-Jewish, are only too aware of the respective Hungarian governments’ roles between 1920 and 1944 that resulted in the deaths of millions of Jews and non-Jews.

Some people are not surprised that in the last twenty-five years perhaps the majority of Hungarians refused to look critically at their own past. After all, they say, it is a painful process, and it took at least that many years for the Germans to do the same. So far so good, but the difference is that now, twenty-five years after the regime change, instead of turning the corner and facing harsh facts, the Orbán government is doing everything in its power to prevent the kind of dialogue that might result in a fair assessment of Hungary’s twentieth-century history. In fact, it is undoing the fairly sophisticated re-examination of the past that already began to take place in the second half of the Kádár regime. Admittedly, publications on the Holocaust and in general on Jewish affairs are much more numerous today than in the 1970s and 1980, but I still have some very valuable books from those days in my own library.

Finally, I would like to talk briefly about two issues. Today Ilan Mor, Israeli ambassador to Hungary, and Sándor Pintér, minister of interior, gave out decorations to those who saved Jewish lives at their own peril during the Holocaust. Ambassador Mor bestowed the Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations awards to the children or grandchildren of ten Hungarians. Alongside the Israeli awards, Sándor Pintér gave out decorations “For Bravery.” I didn’t find a lot of information on this bravery award except that it is given to firefighters. Even a German Shepherd dog received it not so long ago.

Mihály and Szabolcs Fekete-Nagy at the award ceremony

Mihály and Szabolcs Fekete-Nagy at the award ceremony

One of the awardees was Béla Fekete Nagy (1904-1983), a well-known painter, whose two sons were at the ceremony to receive their father’s posthumous award. Mihály and Szabolcs  Fekete-Nagy accepted the Yad Vashem award but would not accept the “For Bravery” decoration from Sándor Pintér. Mihály delivered a speech which the cameramen muffled, but the message was that they would defile the memory of their father if they accepted the decoration from the minister of interior of the Orbán government.

I also just learned that in the last four or five months the government allegedly stopped all subsidies to the Holocaust Memorial Center with the result that this month the Center cannot even pay the meager salaries to its employees. This stoppage of funds might be a bureaucratic mix-up, but given the present tense relations between the government and the Jewish community it might be more than that. Perhaps the goal is to put pressure on the Holocaust Center to convince Mazsihisz to be less rigid and make a deal with the Orbán government. Or there might be another explanation. As we have learned, the Orbán government had rather strong objections to the leadership and concept of the Center. Since, as Mizsihisz argued, two Holocaust centers in one city are not really necessary and since this administration came forth with the idea of the House of Fates, it might want to marginalize or eliminate the Holocaust Memorial Center. I’m just guessing, but whatever the reason it most likely reflects the Orbán government’s two-faced attitude toward the Hungarian Jewish community.

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.