The Hungarian Holy Crown, irredentism, and the right

Yesterday I read a thoughtful article in the weekly, Élet és Irodalom (Life and Literature). The author was László Karsai, the foremost Hungarian historian of the holocaust and Hungarian Jewry in general. The title of the essay was borrowed from Thomas Mann’s Joseph and his Brothers: "The well of history: The Hungarian right’s view of history."

Karsai in this fairly lengthy piece accuses the Hungarian right of falsification of history. He specifically mentions Mária Schmidt, former advisor to Viktor Orbán and currently the director of the Terror Museum; István Ihász, who works for the National Museum; Károly Vígh, the author of a thin volume on Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinszky, a politician who was both an antisemite and anti-German nationalist and who was killed by the Germans in 1944; László Tőkéczki, who teaches at the university in Budapest but spends most of his time in right-wing propaganda activity; and Konrád Salamon, the author of the most popular high school history text for twelfth grade students. (I ordered this high school textbook because I wanted to see what they teach young Hungarians. One could spend several days analyzing this textbook. Rather disheartening reading. Perhaps one day when I don’t have any current political events to reflect upon. . . . But don’t count on it.)

The falsifiers of history concentrate on the twentieth century. An obvious starting point is the Treaty of Trianon. It was not, according to these falsifiers, the result of a lost war. Rather, the culprits were the liberal Mihály Károlyi and Béla Kun, the Jewish head of the Hungarian Soviet Republic. The truth is that neither Károlyi nor Béla Kun had anything to do with the new borders, fixed way before the establishment of the communist regime (though the treaty was ratified later). The other favorite topic of the falsifiers is Governor Miklós Horthy’s role in the Hungarian holocaust. According to them, Horthy had no knowledge of the fate of the Jews in concentration camps until the summer of 1944 and, when he found out, he immediately stopped the deportation of Jews. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case.

Karsai writes at some length about the Hungarian right’s relation to Horthy. According to Karsai, for the extreme right Horthy is not important as the symbol of the ancient regime (which was authoritarian and conservative and mostly antagonistic toward right radicalism). He is revered as the leader of the country at the time when Hungary, with German and Italian help, managed to regain some of its formerly lost territories. What Karsai is getting at is that for today’s Hungarian right radicals Horthy is the symbol of irredentism.

The same can be said about the extreme right’s fascination with the Holy Crown, which in Hungarian pseudo-history is the embodiment of territorial integrity–that is, the geography of Hungary prior to 1918. In Karsai’s assessment some of the right radicals are antisemitic but all of them  are irredentists. He adds that Orbán placed an inordinate emphasis on the crown precisely because he knew that this would please the right radicals, whom he was courting. For example, during his tenure as prime minister the crown was moved from the National Museum to the parliament building.

This by itself sheds some light on Orbán’s relation to the extreme right. But what really made Karsai’s article relevant was a comment by Orbán on the same day that his essay appeared. Orbán was in Romania campaigning on behalf of László Tőkés, who is running to be a member of the Romanian delegation to the European Union. He profusely praised Tőkés as a true Hungarian who alone can represent the Hungarians of the whole Carpathian basin, including Little Hungary (Kis-Magyarország). This description of the current territory of Hungary is absolutely unknown in the Hungarian language. Historically, we can speak of Greater Hungary (Nagymagyarország), but "Little Hungary" is a linguistic invention of Orbán. Not so objectionable as "Mutilated Hungary" (Csonka Magyarország) used during the Horthy period, but nonetheless an obvious gesture to the Hungarian irredentist right radicals.

As for Tőkés’s chances, I doubt that either he or the RMDSZ’s representatives will be sitting in the European Union’s parliament any time soon.

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Paul Hellyer
I remember talking with a FIDESZ party activist about Jewish Hungarians. She was an intelligent, well-educated, person with a university degree. And she was very much a cultured person, widely read and so forth. I think the Hungarian adjective for this type of person is műveld. Anyway she was explaining to me that all the Jews were concentrated in Budapest and this was done was so they could control things more easily, or some similar rubbish. I said that the reason most Jewish Hungarians were in Budapest was because nearly all of those who lived in outside of Budapest and in the provinces prior to World War II were rounded up and sent to the gas chambers. “Oh”, she said dismissively, “I don’t know about that”, implying she was both unaware of this and at the same time it was an unimportant fact in this discussion. What struck me most about this conversation was both her ignorance of the Holocaust and unwillingness to consider any other views than her own. As I say, she was a cultured, intelligent person who would normally engage on any number of topics. But not this one, no. I recall a conversationwith a similar type… Read more »