The handwriting has been on the wall for at least a couple of months. There were changes in the makeup of the current board of the Holokauszt Emlékközpont (Holocaust Memorial Center). And with the new board it was evident that there would be other changes. For example, the executive director of the center, László Harsányi, would most likely be replaced by someone else who is more to the liking of the current regime. By now, we know at least some of the changes.
It was in January that I first mentioned András Levente Gál, undersecretary in Tibor Navracsics's ministry, who is one of Viktor Orbán's favorites. Rumor has it that Navracsics is out of favor with the prime minister, who talks to him only rarely. Instead he calls Gál, who lately has been described as a man whose ideology is close to that of Jobbik.
Two months later Gál was in the news again when László Harsányi announced that "the Holocaust Memorial Center in Budapest is under attack." It turned out that Gál had paid a visit to the permanent exhibition at the center and didn't like what he saw there. He announced in an interview that appeared on the official website of the ministry that "part of the exhibit has to be reassessed, because it is set up in such a way that Horthy marching into various cities and regions is depicted … [as having a connection] with the subsequent death marches in which people were herded to their deaths."
After that it was just question of time: László Harsányi, who had been appointed executive director of the center in 2009, was going to be sent packing. On May 19 MTI reported that the newly appointed chairman of the board, György Haraszti, a historian who teaches at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Budapest, relieved Harsányi of his job and temporarily appointed Szabolcs Szita, another historian, to take over his duties. György Haraszti told MTI that the new board has different ideas about the permanent exhibition. Moreover, Harsányi was an economist and Haraszti wants a historian to run the center.
The news spread rapidly. By the next day an English-language article circulated on the Internet with the title "Hungary sacks Holocaust museum chief." Apparently, Harsányi was given no reason for his dismissal. According to the author of the article, "the main bone of contention is a picture of Miklós Horthy, Hungary's leader from 1924 [sic] to 1944, who entered into an alliance with the German Nazis in exchange for the restoration of territories lost in 1920." The author seems to know that Szabolcs Szita is a "conservative historian." Whether he is or not I don't know. I am not familiar with his work. But I find it somewhat worrisome that according to his own admission his knowledge of foreign languages is severely limited. With the fairly low level language examinations he took in German (intermediate) and in English (beginner) I simply can't imagine how he can do serious work on the Holocaust.
As for the new chairman of the board, György Haraszti, his curriculum vitae seems much more impressive. His academic background is unusual since he began his career as a chemical engineer and it was only twelve years later that he decided that after all he wanted to be a historian. There is nothing wrong with his knowledge of foreign languages: English, German, Latin, Hebrew, and Yiddish in addition to Russian and Czech. He wrote several important books and is the author of about eighty articles. As for his political outlook, I noticed a very strong anti-communist attitude in some of his articles I managed to find online.
The story until recently seemed quite straightforward. Gál went to the Memorial Center and didn't like the thrust of the permanent exhibition. About the same time a new constitution was adopted in which the regime claims that–to quote Gál's interview in which he expressed his displeasure over the exhibition–Hungary after March 19, 1944 was "deprived of its legal capacity … [and the] German troops declared the takeover of a puppet government." This is an outright lie. It is true that German troops occupied Hungary, but they were not the ones who appointed the new Hungarian government. It was Miklós Horthy who had enough independence that when the Germans announced that they wanted Béla Imrédy to be prime minister, Horthy asked: "What? That Jew?" and instead insisted on Döme Sztójay. When the Germans wanted a far-right politician for minister of defense, Horthy refused to appoint him. Horthy was not under house arrest; he was naming high commissioners; he frequently appeared in public; he took part in military exercises; and he even knighted Döme Sztójay. So, if the new board and the executive director want to execute the desires of the Hungarian government as far as the history of 1944 and the Holocaust is concerned, they will have a very hard time reconciling historical truth with political expectations.
As for the reasons for Harsányi's departure, it seems to me that in the last day or so the new board and its chairman are trying to change the tune. They don't want to remind anyone of Gál's objections to the permanent exhibition, and they are trying find a more acceptable explanation for "sacking" Harsányi. According to Haraszti, the real problem with Harsányi was that he invited Mária Ormos, the well known historian, to be the key speaker on the Day of Remembrance when "in her opinion the sovereignty of the Hungarian state was partially limited after the German occupation." Do I hear correctly? This is exactly what the constitution and Gál are saying. Another sin of Harsányi is that he invited Zoltán Kocsis, the world-renowned pianist, to play at the center when Kocsis only recently was widely criticized for claiming that there is no antisemitism in Hungary. Again, do I hear correctly? It doesn't sound believable that these are the reasons for the government's displeasure with Harsányi's activities. There is something fishy here. But at the moment I'm at a loss to explain what's going on.