There seems to be something every day that makes one wonder what’s going on in the heads of Hungarian government officials. At the time when Hungary’s relations with the European Union are at best rocky, when the Venice Commission has serious reservations about practically all the new laws passed by the government, and when the European Commission initiates one infringement procedure after the other against Hungary, the government is resolutely creating an atmosphere in which anti-Semitism is growing by leaps and bounds. The government moving farther and farther to the right. By now it is difficult to distinguish Fidesz from Jobbik.
The growth of this anti-Semitism cannot be separated from the steady shift to the right of the governing parties–Fidesz and its phantom coalition partner, the Christian Democratic People’s Party. I don’t have to go into the details here. I’ve already dealt with the growing Horthy cult, the inclusion of the writings of anti-Semitic writers from the interwar period in the core curriculum, the attempt to rebury József Nyirő in Romania and the strained Romanian-Hungarian relations, and finally with Elie Wiesel’s letter to László Kövér in which the Nobel Peace Prize-winning author and activist informed the speaker of the house of his return of the Grand Cross Order of Merit of the Republic of Hungary he received in April 2004.
In addition, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum issued a statement on June 14 that expressed great concern over “the Hungarian government’s rehabilitation of fascist ideologues and leaders from World War II” and called on the Hungarian government “to unequivocally renounce all forms of antisemitism and racism.” And if that weren’t enough, on June 20 U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Hannah Rosenthal published a statement on recent events in Hungary in which we can read that “the United States places great importance on combating anti-Semitism and all forms of discrimination around the world…. [and] recently, I–like many others–have noticed a disturbing increase in anti-Semitic acts and statements by various individuals in Hungary.” After the usual round of polite niceties Rosenthal returns to the meat of her statement: “The recent rehabilitation of figures from Hungary’s past who are tainted by their support for Fascism and anti-Semitism contributes to a climate of acceptance of extremist ideology in which racism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of intolerance can thrive.” She reminds the Hungarian government that it has “both an opportunity and an obligation to ensure a full and honest assessment of these historical figures as part of the national dialogue.”
To determine how seriously the Hungarian government is taking all this it is enough to read Viktor Orbán’s interview with Die Presse, the Austrian conservative paper, in which he takes absolutely no responsibility for the present situation and puts the burden on local communities. I also noticed with some amusement that Magyar Nemzet, a government paper, decided on June 18 to remember the 144th anniversary of Miklós Horthy’s birthday. What a nice round number! The article painted a positive picture of Horthy’s rule and his foreign policy while it was silent on the negative aspects.
Meanwhile the erecting of statues and renaming of streets continues. Nothing seems to divert the Hungarian government from this dangerous path. Another Horthy statue, this time a hideous looking bust, was erected in the village of Csókakő, and the square the statue stands on was renamed Greater-Hungary Square (Nagy-Magyarország tér). Getting closer and closer to the fire.
As expected, the two political sides have entirely different opinions on the significance of Elie Wiesel’s letter. Géza Szőcs, Fidesz undersecretary for cultural affairs who just resigned, is convinced that Wiesel’s gesture is part of a liberal conspiracy. Originally, when he went to Odorheiu Secuiesc/Székelyudvarhely to rebury József Nyirő, he didn’t realize “they [Hungary’s enemies, the liberals] would go that far to attack Hungary.” Otherwise, he defended Nyirő, about whose politics we learn more and more–and the more we learn the worse his views sound.
Magyar Nemzet, wisely I think, decided not to devote an editorial to the Wiesel letter. In Magyar Hírlap, on the other hand, an outrageous editorial appeared by László Szentesi Zöldi. The piece is entitled “Elie Wiesel úr és az ő keresztje” (Mr. Elie Wiesel and his cross). The upshot of the editorial is that “who gives a damn whether Wiesel gave back the grand cross or not.” Life goes on. People don’t even know who Elie Wiesel is; they don’t care “what kind of tribe he belongs to.” But they may ask, “did Gyurcsány give that darned medal to the right person?” Szentesi Zöldi’s answer is naturally that it was not the right person who received this honor because “when they picked Elie Wiesel they honored some kind of cosmopolitan attitude, unending negation, not a real life achievement.” Meanwhile Szentesi Zöldi knows so little about Wiesel that he talks about him as the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature and compares him to Henryk Sienkiewicz and William Butler Yeats.
According to Szentesi Zöldi, Mr. Wiesel is deadly boring with his old stories from the middle of the last century. For young Hungarians this is history. “We don’t understand it, we don’t appreciate it, and I may add sadly, we are even bored by these same old stories.” Wiesel “gave back something he didn’t receive from the Hungarian nation but from his closest friends. Nothing has happened by the return of the decoration and this event will have no consequence.” Otherwise, Nyirő is a much more important writer than Wiesel.
Szentesi Zöldi is quite correct. Life goes on in Hungary. In Pécs, Mihály Károlyi Street will be renamed Albert Wass Street for a mediocre writer from Transylvania who was deemed a war criminal by the Romanian courts after the war. He was a man who until his death at the age of 90 in 1998 remained faithful to his Hungarist (Arrow Cross) convictions.
Meanwhile the Jobbik delegation of the Budapest city council suggested the erection of a Bishop Ottokár Prohászka (1858-1927) statue in front of a church in District XIII. The bishop is a very controversial man because of his rabid anti-Semitism; his writings and anti-Jewish propaganda had a considerable influence on Hungarian thinking of the interwar period. The bishop became a member of parliament in 1920 and in this capacity had an important role to play in drafting and passing the numerus clausus law of 1920 that limited the number of Jewish students in the universities to 6%.
This is not the first Fidesz attempt to whitewash Ottokár Prohászka. In October 2008 Sándor Lezsák and Zoltán Balog, both Fidesz politicians, were involved in the erection of a Prohászka statue in Lakitelek, a large village, where Lezsák, a minor poet, began his teaching career in an elementary school. That event also created quite a stir. I wrote about it at the time.
Meanwhile László Kövér did answer Elie Wiesel, but no one wants to talk about it among the numerous government spokesmen. Put it this way, a “political scientist” who is a devoted Fidesz supporter only yesterday expressed his cinviction that Kövér was perfect for this task because he knows how to strike back. I do hope that our “political scientist” is wrong and Kövér did not attempt to strike back. It wouldn’t be a very good idea.