Viktor Karády

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.