During the Kádár regime relatively few biographies of politicians from the Horthy period appeared. One reason was the Marxist belief that political leaders play relatively minor roles in history. A second reason was that it was somewhat risky to write a political biography of a counterrevolutionary figure. No reputable professional historian would write a biography of Miklós Horthy, for example. In fact, we are still waiting for such a work. However in the last fifteen years or so several serious biographies of well-known politicians of the Horthy regime have appeared. To mention only two: a political biography of István Bethlen written by Ignác Romsics, perhaps the best historian of the period, and another one of Pál Teleki, twice prime minister who committed suicide in 1941 when Hungary agreed to take part in the German attack on Yugoslavia. The author of Teleki Pál (Budapest 2005) is a young historian, Balázs Ablonczy, a former student of Romsics.
Teleki is a highly controversial character mostly because of his intense “scientific” antisemitism. It was during his first premiership (1920-1921) that the infamous law, known as numerus clausus, was prepared by the Hungarian government and voted on by an overwhelming majority of parliament. This law fixed university quotas according to nationality and religion. The law’s real purpose was to limit the number of Jewish students. But here I don’t want to focus on Teleki but rather on the political situation when he first became prime minister in July 1920.
The Hungarian Soviet Republic came to an end when the Red Army attacked the Romanian troops that had already advanced as far as the left bank of the Tisza River. The Romanians, who were itching to get rid of the communists and occupy the Hungarian capital, counterattacked and within a few days were in Budapest. Meanwhile, the Hungarian counterrevolutionaries under the military leadership of Admiral Miklós Horthy moved from the southern town of Szeged and advanced as far as Lake Balaton where in the town of Siófok Horthy established the headquarters of the National Army. The members of the National Army were an interesting lot: the whole army consisted only of officers whose political views were fiercely anticommunist. These officer detachments went from village to village looking for former supporters of the Soviet Republic whom they often executed on the spot. Once the Romanians left Budapest in November and Horthy moved in, some of these detachments continued their murderous ways. Eventually there was a legitimate government recognized by the Great Powers. But it was unable to put an end to the activities of these detachments because they enjoyed the protection of Horthy, by then the governor of the country.
There is a frightening parallel between right radicalism in the summer and fall of 1920 and Hungary today where groups are targeted and representatives of those groups attacked. In 1920 the primary targets were Jews, today mostly Gypsies and gays (though Jews aren’t immune).
To go back in time and flesh out the story a bit. Radical groups comprised of former officers, young no-goods, and university students became especially active after the Treaty of Trianon was signed during the summer of 1920. In July, for example, about 30 right radicals broke into the Café Club and attacked the patrons. One of the victims, a bank director, died as a result of the eight dagger wounds he received. A lawyer who happened to be walking nearby was shot to death. Considering that Café Club was situated on Lipót körút, in the middle of a heavily Jewish district of Pest, it was clear who the targets were. At least the perpetrators were caught a month later and received sentences of more than ten years. However, a few months later another mob attack occurred at the same Café Club. Members of the “patriotic mob” badly beat the customers.
As I was reading about these horrendous stories from 1920 it was hard not to think of the repeated atrocities committed in our time. Then, largely due to the efforts of Teleki and his successor Bethlen, the murderous activities of these radical groups were stopped and the Hungarian radicals were pushed into the background. One can only hope that the same will happen now, but such an outcome would need the active support of the opposition. I’m really curious when Viktor Orbán will realize that it’s in his best intererst to help put an end to the activities of the extreme right-wing groups. Perhaps at the moment he thinks that the goverment’s inability to act forcefully will help his party. However, today’s political advantage might turn into a serious disadvantage later. Most of these radicals are almost as dissatisfied with Viktor Orbán as they are with Ferenc Gyurcsány. They consider him too liberal, too beholden to Israel, the United States, and the multinationals. One day they might turn against him and then what? Will a couple of slaps on the face be enough as Viktor Orbán thinks? I very much doubt it.