István Nemeskürty, the nation’s historian

I mentioned István Nemeskürty in connection with Viktor Orbán's speech in Kötcse. If you recall, Orbán said that he was very influential in recruiting conservative intellectuals to support both Fidesz and Orbán's ideas on creating an alliance of right-wing parties. I wrote that the professor, as Orbán called him, was a dilettante who thought he was a historian. He wrote at least three books that became historical bestsellers. He discovered the genre of short books dealing with controversial topics, usually taking a "revisionist" approach. His first book, Requiem for an Army (1972), was about the total destruction of the Hungarian Second Army in 1943 at the Don River in the Soviet Union. Four years later A Forgotten Decade: 1542-1552 appeared, and after a long hiatus came Final Glance about the Horthy regime (1995).

Nemeskürty's credentials for writing these books were slim. In 1950 he earned a degree (about the equivalent of a master's degree) in Hungarian-Italian-History of Art. For six years he taught high school, most likely Hungarian literature because in those days there was no high school where they taught either Italian or art history. Between 1956 and 1959 he was an editor at one of the publishing companies. Then he discovered a niche for himself in the world of film. In 1959 became the head of MAFILM, then the only film studio in Hungary. He headed MAFILM until his retirement in 1986.

I especially remember the controversy over his book on the history of the period between 1542 and 1552. Because I don't own the volume I must rely on my memory. If I recall correctly, he took the position that the only reason the Turks managed to occupy more and more Hungarian territories and subsequently remained there for 150 years was that the Hungarian aristocrats were quarrelsome. Of course, this is nonsense. Most responsible historians of the sixteenth century are convinced that even if the much desired unity among western nations, not just Hungary, had materialized, most likely it would have been impossible to push the Turks back to the Balkan peninsula.

The two other volumes I have on hand. Comparing the two is an amusing undertaking. After all, one was written in 1972 when Nemeskürty found it politically advantageous to make the Horthy regime and its military establishment even more odious than it actually was. The upshot, according to Nemeskürty, was that the military leaders knowingly sent those peasant boys to die on the steppes of Russia. In contrast, his book Final Glance is a sugary farewell to the Horthy regime. I don't know how someone is capable of publishing two books in such stark contrast to one another. Perhaps Nemeskürty thought that people simply don't remember.

Here is an example right at the beginning of Requiem that gives an idea about the level of sophistication of István Nemeskürty as a historian. He wanted to illustrate the incredulity of sending Hungarian soldiers to fight 1,500 kilometers from home. "Outside of our borders no Hungarian soldiers had ever fought that far, unless in the crusades of András II." Then he theatrically (after all that was his home turf) asks several times: "What were they looking for there?  What were they doing there when every school child knows that the last time Hungary won a war was in 1485 when Mathias Corvinus took Vienna, but Vienna was only 40 kilometers from the border?"

In Requiem Nemeskürty casts himself as an enemy of the regime that sent the sons of the poverty-stricken landless peasants to die. As he wrote: "The losses will be great and if they are losses they should be the enemies of the ruling classes, the enemies of the 'nation.'" The whole book is full of similar accusations. We know that the Hungarian army wasn't prepared to fight in the Russian winter. They didn't have warm enough clothing or proper equipment. But it would be very difficult to prove that the ruling classes purposely sent these troops to their death because the lower classes were their enemies.

By contrast, let's look at the Final Glance (1995), which is full of praise for the man who was the commander-in-chief of the very army that was earlier described as having been wantonly destroyed. The book begins with the reburial of Miklós Horthy, his wife, and his son István on September 4, 1993. You may recall that Zsolt Bayer, then a liberal, felt at the time that the right-of-center government of József Antall sealed its own fate with that reburial. Well, Nemeskürty who hated the Horthy regime so much twenty some years earlier saw the whole thing differently. He accused the West that usually ignores Hungary of talking about the event as "the reburial of a fascist leader of a fascist country." It would be difficult to trace the origin of this quotation, but I managed to find the article that appeared about the reburial in The New York Times (September 5, 1993) and there I found nothing of the sort. Jane Perlez, the author of the article, gave a fairly accurate picture of how controversial Horthy is in Hungary. Horthy "is viewed by many as a man who presided over the deportations in 1944 of 437,000 Jews, mostly from rural areas to Auschwitz. To others, he is seen as a leader who tried to resist German demands for the mass exportation of Budapest's middle-class Jews and who was finally pushed aside by Hitler in late 1944."

For Nemeskürty the period is unequivocally positive. "A grand attempt to create a constitutional monarchy in antagonistic surroundings." And why was it necessary to cling to the monarchical form of government? Because of the "Theory of the Holy Crown." The unique role the Holy Crown had in Hungarian history brought about the development of a doctrine called the "Holy Crown Theory." This theory holds that the ultimate ruler of Hungary is not the king but the Holy Crown. For example, if a dynasty died out its land did not return to the king (from whence it came) but to the crown. Verdicts were declared in the name of the Holy Crown and not the king, and during those troublesome times when the country had no king the civil leaders swore allegiance to the Holy Crown.

Fast forwarding, if anyone takes the trouble to read some of of the ruminations of Jobbik politicians on Hungarian history, the theory of the Holy Crown crops up often. The constitution is supposed to be scrapped and "the modern theory of the Holy Crown," as one Jobbik politician described it, introduced in its place.

It is not so difficult to get from Nemeskürty to Fidesz and even Jobbik. The only thing I still don't understand is how anyone with any intellectual integrity can write two books roughly two decades apart on almost the same topic with entirely different conclusions. From an evil regime to a benign monarchy with a loving governor, Miklós Horthy. That I find disgusting. Sure, we all change over time. But that much?

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Vándorló
Guest

@ESBalogh: I think with extremism, holding diametrically opposed opinions and beliefs is part of the course. Reminds me of Eduardo Rózsa-Flores who was the last KISZ (communist) secretary at ELTE then later the editor of the nationalist portal Jobbik.net (we could include Csurka, Orbán and many others in this bi-polar category).
But he was also responsible for setting up Hungarian Jewish Cultural Association (an Opus Dei member) and later the Vice-President of the Hungarian Islamic Community (they still have a tribute to him on Iszlam.com): http://hvg.hu/vilag/20090417_boliviai_elnok_merenylet_magyar

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Vandorlo, your point is well taken. The only thing I can’t get over is that he published Last Glance after Requiem. He could have picked some other topic. Perhaps less obvious.

Peter Koroly
Guest
@a doctrine called the “Holy Crown Theory.”@ This doctrine with the maps of old Hungary before 1918 and before the foreign minister of the Horthy regime signed the Trianon peace treaty is in my modest opinion a “mythical Lebensraum Theory”. Only fools can believe, that Hungarians can rule again as they ruled before 1918. Prof. Balogh you yourself have shown the map of 1910 census. A Hungarian majority was only achieved, because many Jews (and Germans) declared to be of Hungarian mother tongue. There was a certain pressure. Reading about subject matter the excellent book of Prof. Braham, I found it interesting, that Hungarians asked the Jews of Karpato-Ukraine – most of them spoke Jiddish – to declare to have Hungarian as mother tongue. As a reward the Horthy administration decided to deport them first. I have spoken in 1989 with some Jews in Ushgorod, who survived and they told me this story years before I’ve read Braham. It is of course the privilege of Politicians and others not to learn anything from experience. Hegel – if I remember correctly, or was it Karl Marx who quoted Hegel? – said, that History turns out to be first time a tragedy… Read more »
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