As soon as Viktor Orbán triumphantly returned as prime minister, this time with a two-thirds majority, the new administration began to obliterate those street names that honored people who could be associated with the Kádár regime or the Soviet Union. Actually, by this time not too many such street names had survived; most of the objectionable ones had been changed already in the early 1990s. They overlooked a few, though. For example, in 1993 I was surprised to see that in Pécs there was still a Zója utca, named after Zoya Kosmodemayanskaya, the famous partisan, who posthumously became a Hero of the Soviet Union. In fact, it is still called Zója utca. I don’t know how the watchful Fidesz municipal administration missed this short street. Moreover, even Fidesz initially overlooked Marx utca, a mistake that was remedied in 2012 when it was renamed Albert Wass utca after the man who was sentenced to death in absentia for war crimes by a Romanian court after World War II.
You may recall that the government eventually turned to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences for guidance about which street names could be tolerated and which could not. Confusion reigned in city halls as diligent officials pondered whether Béke (Peace), Alkotmány (Constitution), and Szabadság (Freedom) could be left alone or had to be changed.
Moszkva tér fell victim to a name change, as did Roosevelt tér. The idea of renaming Roosevelt Square, I’m almost certain, came from the highest echelons of Fidesz. If I had to guess, I would point to László Kövér as the man who was most bothered by having a square named after FDR, whom he most likely blamed, unjustly by the way, for Hungary’s ending up behind the iron curtain. The odium of starting the procedure fell to József Pálinkás, at the time president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, which happened to be located on Roosevelt Square. It’s outrageous, Pálinkás announced, that the square doesn’t bear the name of the Academy’s founder, István Széchenyi. Mind you, just to complicate matters, two streets north of the Academy there was already a Széchenyi utca.
The removal of Roosevelt’s name from one of the nicest spots in downtown Budapest was an unfriendly gesture toward the United States. It couldn’t be interpreted any other way. But it also carried a larger political message: the United States, which had been an ally of the Soviet Union, was not a friend of Hungary, just as the Soviet troops were not its liberators. Such an interpretation, however, left Hungary squarely on the side of Nazi Germany.
When we thought that at last the frenzy of street name changes had died down, the Christian Democrats, who don’t seem to have enough on their plate, realized that there are still some buildings that were named after the wrong people. After weeks of wrangling, it was decided that the famous Ságvári Gymnasium in Szeged must change its name. As a student, Endre Ságvári (1913-1944) became interested in Marxism. First he was a member of the Hungarian Social Democratic Party, and later, in 1940, he joined the illegal communist party. During the war he organized anti-war rallies, and after the German occupation he was one of the few who tried to organize a resistance movement against the Germans. He was tracked down by the authorities, and on July 27 he was surrounded by four gendarmes, on whom he pulled a gun. He wounded three of them. After throwing his gun away, he ran out of the building but was mortally wounded by one of the gendarmes. One of the four gendarmes also died later in the hospital.
In 1959 one of the gendarmes was condemned to death for Ságvári’s murder, but in 2006 the Supreme Court annulled the verdict, claiming that the gendarmes acted legally. The decision created a huge debate because, in this case, the Hungarian state, despite German occupation, must have functioned as a sovereign country, which today the Orbán government hotly disputes. Surely, one can’t have it both ways.
There were only two people in the whole of Hungary who, weapon in hand, turned against those who tried to arrest them: Endre Ságvári and Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinszky, a member of parliament, who waited with a pistol when members of the Gestapo came to arrest him. Scores of streets, hospitals, and schools are named after Bajcsy-Zsilinszky, but Ságvári has been deemed an ordinary criminal.
Fine, one could say, Ságvári’s case is debatable. But a dormitory named after Gyula Ortutay (1910-1978), a well-known ethnographer who was minister of religion and education between 1947 and 1950, must also be renamed. Ortutay’s political career after that date was minimal. He played some role in a politically insignificant Patriotic People’s Front and was a member of the so-called Presidential Council, a body whose members represented trade unions, various nationalities, and parties that had existed before the introduction of the one-party system. Ortutay was a member of the Smallholders’ Party before 1948. I really wonder how far this government’s zealous anti-communists are planning to go.
On the other hand, the regime has no problems with the dozens and dozens of Catholic schools named after Ottokár Prohászka (1858-1927), bishop of Székesfehérvár from 1905 until his death. He is known for his vicious anti-Semitism. In his book Zsidókérdés Magyarországon (The Jewish question in Hungary), János Gyurgyák described Prohászka’s influence as “tragic for Hungarian intellectual and political life.” Hungarian anti-Semitism in the twentieth century cannot be understood without referencing Prohászka. But, I guess, it is perfectly acceptable to use him as a model for future generations. I would be curious to know what these schools’ administrators and teachers tell their students about Ottokár Prohászka.