This was the title of a recent article that appeared in Népszabadság. Prompting the article were two recent news items. The first, which hit the newstands on April 24, was an announcement that the council of Gyömrő, a town of 15,000 only seven kilometers from the Franz Liszt Airport and the city limits of Budapest, decided to rename its main square. Freedom Square would become Horthy Square. The council was renaming it because between 1937 and 1945 the square was called Miklós Horthy Square in honor of the governor (1920-1945) of the kingless Kingdom of Hungary. Gyömrő today is politically on the right although one wouldn’t know that by just glancing at the list of city fathers and their party affiliations. Most of them represent a local formation called Gyömrő 200 Kör. The fact that in 1937 the town decided to name the main square for Horthy leads me to believe that the inhabitants’ political outlook has remained pretty constant. Communism or no communism in between.
At first only MIÉP and later Jobbik made a serious effort to “rehabilitate” Miklós Horthy by insisting on celebrating November 16, the day Miklós Horthy and his National Army entered Budapest in 1919. The organizers even managed to find a white horse for the occasion. The Jobbik leaders also wanted to change the name of Béla Bartók Road to Miklós Horthy Road, as it was called between 1920 and 1945. But lately there are more and more signs that the “Horthy cult” is spreading beyond the far right.
I don’t want to get involved here in a discussion of Horthy’s historical role. Just as the historian Ignác Romsics pointed out in a lengthy article in Mozgó Világ, Horthy’s image has gone through several transformations. After 1989-90 there were attempts to burnish Horthy’s post-1945 image, but these efforts were largely unsuccessful, at least until 2000. According to a Medián poll from 1999, Horthy was deemed to be one of the most negative historical characters of the twentieth century, after Mátyás Rákosi and Ferenc Szálasi. However, since then there has been a slow but steady move toward a more positive public assessment of the governor.
The most notable change is that Jobbik is no longer alone in promoting Horthy’s positive image. People close to Fidesz also took up the cause. Film producer Gábor Koltay with the assistance of István Nemeskürty, who likes to call himself a historian, made a film about Horthy that was based on selective truths. Nemeskürty, who in the 1970s called Horthy a murderer, thirty years later portrayed him as someone who had nothing to do with the anti-Jewish laws or the deportation of Hungary’s Jewish citizens.
Until now there was only one street named after Horthy–in Páty, a village of 6,000 west of Budapest. The name change occurred in 2001 when Páty was led by a MIÉP mayor. Last year the Fidesz mayor of Vác (pop. 35,000) wanted to name one of city’s streets after Horthy but the majority of the city council, after a massive protest, voted the suggestion down.
And now here is the strange case of Gyömrő where most of the council seats are held by members of an organization called “Gyömrő 200 Circle.” Who are these people? Most likely they were recruited from the former Smallholders’ Party, Fidesz, and MDF. One interesting tidbit I picked up was that the mayor, Levente Zoltán Gyenes of Gyömrő 2000 Kör, prior to the elections in 2010 tried to join Fidesz but the local Fidesz organization refused to accept him.
One council member’s past is truly fascinating. In 1998 Zoltán Sas represented Fidesz on the council. In 2002 he received a seat as an MDF member. And behold, the same Zoltán Sas showed up in 2010 as a member of Jobbik. He was the one who came up with the idea of renaming the town’s square. Apparently there was only one person who abstained. All the others without any discussion voted for Sas’s proposal.
It was the Gyömrő Fidesz organization which announced the name change. A local Internet paper, Gyömrői Hírhatár, responded disapprovingly. The article pointed out that although there is no legal prohibition against naming public places for Horthy or erecting statues of him, the governor is a very divisive historical figure, and it predicted that the Gyömrő town council’s decision would create a nationwide debate. Indeed, it did.
The Gyömrő Fidesz party announced yesterday that the historian Ignác Romsics, a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, will visit the town tomorrow where he will give a lecture on “Horthy and the Horthy Regime.” They urged people to attend, especially because “some people are trying to organize demonstrations in reaction to the renaming of Gyömrő’s main square.”
What the local Fidesz party was referring to was a liberal organization, K.I.Gy.E. Pesti kerekasztal, that was calling for “a silent demonstration” on the same day that Romsics is scheduled to deliver his lecture. Portraying Horthy in an undoubtedly harsher light than Romsics will, Pesti kerekasztal published a piece by László Karsai, a historian of the Hungarian holocaust. According to the organizers of the demonstration: “Freedom is not only a square.”
And so, the debate over Miklós Horthy’s place in history continues. Since 1990 no Hungarian historian had attempted to write a full-fledged biography of Miklós Horthy until a young Ph.D. candidate, Dávid Turbucz, wrote a slim volume (Horthy Miklós, Budapest: Napvilág, 2011). From what I gather, the more moderate Hungarian right likes Turbucz’s portrait of Horthy. But even from this “more balanced” biography Horthy emerges as a man whose thinking was much closer to the radical right than to true conservatism. Although in the 1920s, under the influence of Prime Minister István Bethlen, he suppressed his attraction to right radicalism, in the final analysis he always remained the man who marched into Budapest in 1919 to punish the sinful city. Horthy in no way should serve as a model for a democratic Hungary in the twenty-first century.