As controversy continues to swirl around the government’s decision to erect a monument commemorating the March 19, 1944 “occupation” of Hungary by the Third Reich,Viktor Orbán decided to explain the symbolism of the monument. If Orbán thought that this lengthy explanation would help his cause, he was mistaken. In fact, he got himself into even deeper water than before.
Thanks to the diligence of the young pro-Fidesz crew of mandiner.hu, the letter is already available in English. By and large, I will use their translation except for a few times when I think the translator misinterpreted the meaning of the original or where there are grammatical errors.
The letter is addressed to “Frau Professor Katalin Dávid.” It seems that Katalin Dávid, a ninety-two-year-old highly respected art historian, wrote something about the controversial monument which she entitled “Memorandum.” Her piece is not available online, although it was either published somewhere or circulated among friends. It seems that she was not unfriendly to the idea of erecting such a monument because Orbán profusely thanks Dávid for her “kind gesture” and notes that her style is superior to the writing of those intellectuals who “use the public tone of general contempt.” Her “Memorandum,” he writes, “is the first to avoid the bar counter of cheap political pushing and shoving that is practically unavoidable these days.” In brief, all those who oppose the erection of the monument behave like crude, presumably soused guys who shout at or even shove each other in a bar.
After expressing his opinion of Hungarian intellectuals, he goes on to share his own ideas about the history of the period. Well, the “cheap” Hungarian intellectuals immediately shot back. József Debreczeni, who is intimately familiar with Viktor Orbán’s thinking, described this pompous letter as both unbecoming and dangerous for the prime minister of a country. Debreczeni, who has a soft spot for József Antall, whom he rarely criticizes, brought up a similar mistake Antall committed when he lectured about what he personally thought of the role of Miklós Horthy. At least Antall was a historian before he became a politician.
The very first problem is that, as usual, Viktor Orbán doesn’t tell the truth about the government’s original concept for the monument and what it was supposed to stand for. He now says that the idea was always to create “a memorial to hundreds of thousands of innocent victims.” Thus, we would have a truly odd situation here: those Jewish organizations who object to the erection of the monument don’t want to see a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. Surely, that would be madness. Indeed, it would be if it were true.
But let’s go back to what the government initially wanted the monument to express. The name of the monument was simply: “German occupation of Hungary, March 19, 1944.” The description of the monument emphasized that “Archangel Gabriel [is] the man of God, symbol of Hungary.” There is not one word about victims. Moreover, the government required that “the monument must faithfully reflect the loss of Hungary’s dignity and independence and in its monumentality it must express the tragedy of the occupation that overtook the whole nation.”
But now, for Orbán, the Archangel Gabriel highlights something else as well: the anti-Christian nature of the German regime in 1944. “The invading German empire of the time swept away the two-thousand-year-old European Christian virtues and the Christian expectations and teachings with regard to politics and power, and so the victims, whether of Mosaic faith, Christian or without faith, became the victims of a dictatorship that embodied an anti-Christian school of thought. To successfully grasp this very complicated historical and spiritual structure within a sculptural composition commemorating the victims is a true creative feat.” Indeed, it would be a feat if it had any truth to it. Surely, Viktor Orbán must be confused if, while writing about the Shoa, he focuses on the anti-Christian nature of “the German empire of the time.” As if the mass annihilation of Jewish people had much to do with the anti-Christian ideology of the Nazi regime. After all, the victims were not sent to the gas chambers because of their religion but because of their genes. (By the way, in the above sentence I changed “orthodox” to “Mosaic faith” because in this context “óhitű” refers to what Hungarians used to call “izraelita vallású.” I want to point out Orbán’s avoidance of the words “Jew/Jewish.”.)
From Archangel Gabriel we can now move on to the symbolism of the imperial eagle. Viktor Orbán also has a definite opinion on that subject. The question for him is whether the invaders were Nazis or Germans, and in his view the invaders were Germans. He bases this opinion “primarily … on constitutional law.” They were Germans “who at the time happened to be living their lives in a country organized according to the Nazi state structure. Differentiating between the two and assessing the implications is the business of the German people and less so that of Hungarian commentators who otherwise acknowledge German national virtues and are usually sympathetic towards the failings of others.” This is how Orbán explains why they don’t use the Nazi variation of the German imperial eagle. Thus, the message is that for the sins of Nazi Germany all living Germans are still responsible. They are the ones who must take care of that problem, says the prime minister of a country whose government and the majority of its population refuse to admit their own responsibility for the Hungarian Holocaust. As for Orbán’s remarks about those wonderful Hungarians who “are usually sympathetic toward the failings of others,” it makes me sick.
His final words on the monument are that “from a moral perspective and with regard to the historical content of its system of allegories, this work is accurate and flawless.”
Now let’s turn to how Orbán views the role of the Hungarian government and the Hungarian people in the events of the Hungarian Holocaust. According to him, it is undisputed that “Germany bears responsibility for what happened in Hungary after 19 March 1944,” and this fact is determined by “our Fundamental Law.” That is, the new constitution which his government proposed and enacted and which claims that as of March 19, 1944 Hungary lost its sovereignty. This might be an undisputed fact for Orbán, but as we know from weeks of historical discussion on the subject it is an immensely complicated issue. Nevertheless, it is well documented that Hungarian authorities played a significant role in the events after March 19.
Hungarians who analyzed this particular part of the text found the following sentences problematic from a historical and lexical point of view. Although Orbán, after stating that Germany was responsible for the events post March 1944, also admits the responsibility of the Hungarian political leadership, he adds that in his view “the charge of collaboration and the related responsibility holds true in this case.” The word “collaboration” is odd here because the word in Hungarian means pretty much what the English meaning of the word is: “treasonable cooperation in one’s own country with an enemy occupation force.” The Hungarian definition adds that a collaborator is a traitor and that we use the term mostly for collaboration in World War II. Orbán, therefore, either doesn’t know the meaning of the word or is purposely using it to emphasize that Germany was an enemy of Hungary. Hungary’s leaders were, it seems, collaborators because they “did not initiate any form of resistance …; they did not launch a national defense or national rescue mission, they did not attempt to protect the freedom and assets of the country’s citizens, and they didn’t even have the strength to set up a government in exile.”
Note that, according to Orbán, Hungary’s leaders are guilty not because of what they did but because of what they didn’t do. It wasn’t that they actively collaborated; rather, they failed to defend the country against the German invaders. This interpretation, it seems to me, pretty well exonerates them from responsibility for the Hungarian Holocaust.
Then comes what Orbán rather mysteriously calls “the issue of cohabitation.” It took me a little while to figure out that he was talking about Jewish/non-Jewish relations in Hungary since he assiduously avoids the mention of Jews in his letter. Orbán asks, in what he describes as the most important question, “What can we do, especially our own generation born after the events who are committed to Christian values, to national self-respect and to national pride based on correct self-knowledge?” In his view Hungarians did everything they could have done. They apologized, they made reparations, “but at the same time we cannot bear a responsibility that is not ours to bear.” Without the German occupation nothing would have happened to Hungary’s Jewish population. Therefore, “without the acceptance of these facts it is difficult to imagine a sincere cohabitation based on trust in the future.”
If I interpret this last sentence correctly, Viktor Orbán tells us that Hungarian Jews and non-Jews who don’t agree with his concept of history ought to leave because “sincere cohabitation” will be impossible. This strikes me as an only lightly veiled threat of the ugliest kind. For good measure here is the last sentence: “And our generation became followers of radical, anti-communist politics because we had had enough of an insincere life built on a lack of trust.” One could ask, what does anti-communism and the lack of trust in the Rákosi and Kádár periods have to do with the relationship between the government and those who oppose Viktor Orbán’s revisionist view of history? What is he talking about? Is he accusing his opponents of ties to the “horrid” communist past? It’s possible.
This whole letter is shameful and outrageous.