On March 6, 2015, the Budapest municipal court rehabilitated Bálint Hóman, who had been sentenced to life imprisonment by the post-war People’s Court in 1946. The charge was that he, as a member of the Bárdossy government, voted for Hungary’s entry into the war on the side of Germany against the Soviet Union. Hóman died five years later in prison.
It was pretty much a foregone conclusion that the verdict would be reversed. First of all, Miklós Horthy had already decided on military engagement before the cabinet meeting and, second, a vote in favor of war is not a war crime, just (perhaps) a bad decision. So the court’s decision by itself was not controversial. If the story had stopped there, we wouldn’t be having a debate on the role and personality of Bálint Hóman more than five months after the verdict was announced.
Hóman (1885-1951) is best known as the co-author of a well-known, well-respected eight-volume history of Hungary published between 1938 and 1941. Hóman covered the Middle Ages. Gyula Szekfű, another great of Hungarian historiography, took over with the Hungarian Renaissance and continued all the way to the First World War.
Here I cannot give even a short description of Hóman’s political career. After all, he served as minister of education in all five Hungarian governments between 1931 and 1942. Moreover, even after he decided to leave the Kállay government, he remained a member of parliament until the bitter end. He was throughout his career a zealous supporter of a pro-German foreign policy and a steadfast and uncompromising anti-Semite who had a hand in the preparation of the so-called Jewish laws.
So, why are we still discussing the Hóman case? For two reasons. First, right after the verdict the man who was the moving force behind the retrial, a distant relative of Hóman and a former Fidesz member of parliament, announced that his next move will be to fight for the restoration of Bálint Hóman’s membership in the academy, which was taken away from him even before the sentence of the People’s Court was announced. Second, the city council of Székesfehérvár decided sometime in June that the city will erect a statue of Hóman in front of one of the local high schools. The reason for their decision was that Hóman was a member of parliament representing Székesfehérvár. The ministry of justice has already offered 15 million toward the cost, and the city plans to kick in another two million. The city council of Székesfehérvár has a large Fidesz majority. Out of the 20-member body there are only two MSZP, one DK, one Jobbik, and three independent members. The Jobbik member voted with Fidesz on the statue issue. The council maintains that its decision to pay homage to Hóman is based on his special care for the city which elected him to represent it.
Although many articles have appeared debating whether Hóman’s membership in the academy should be restored and whether he should have a statue in Székesfehérvár or anywhere else, here I will talk about two historians’ reactions: Gábor Ujváry, who is an enthusiastic defender of Hóman, and Mária M. Kovács, who thinks that Hóman doesn’t deserve either to be included on the list of academy members or to have a statue anywhere in Hungary.
Ujváry is an associate of the “Institute of Truth” (Veritas Institute), a creation of the Fidesz government. Therefore it is not at all surprising, given the Orbán government’s predilection for defending the Horthy regime, that in his eyes Hóman is an innocent victim. For good measure, Ujváry wrote two articles, one in Magyar Nemzet and another a few days later in Napi Gazdaság. Since he mentioned Mária M. Kovács by name, she was given the opportunity to answer him in today’s Magyar Nemzet.
So, let’s see what Ujváry’s points are in defense of Hóman. First, he argues that Hóman shouldn’t be judged by today’s standards. Moreover, his critics are unfamiliar with the facts. For example, Hóman had nothing to do with the 1938 first Jewish law. People accuse him of pro-Nazi sentiments when, in fact, he was a critic of national socialism. Ujváry admits that in foreign policy matters Hóman was pro-German, but this was because he believed that only through cooperation with Germany could Hungary safeguard her independence. He may have been an anti-Semite but in 1944, after the German occupation, he saved some of his Jewish friends.
As far as Hóman’s anti-Semitism is concerned, his was not anti-Semitism in the modern sense. Moreover, his anti-Semitism wasn’t a “defining” or “determining” feature of his activities. In any case, he wasn’t a hard-core anti-Semite. On the contrary, “his anti-Semitism never exceeded the limits of ‘moderate anti-Semitism.'” Moreover, he knew nothing about the horrors of Auschwitz, and not in his wildest dreams could he have imagined what would happen to the Hungarian Jewry in 1944-45.
Until 1938 Hóman kept away from party politics and concentrated only on improving the country’s educational facilities. That year, however, he came to the conclusion that Hungary, because of its geopolitical position, could choose only between two bad alternatives, and he viewed Germany as a better choice than the Soviet Union.
Ujváry supports the erection of a statue for Hóman in Székesfehérvár as a special case because of Hóman’s close relations with the city.
Mária M. Kovács concentrates on the historical facts and supports them with facsimiles of original documents. According to these documents, Hóman had an important role to play in the preparation of both Jewish laws. Interestingly enough, Ujváry a few years ago admitted that “unfortunately” Hóman had a hand in the creation of both laws, but by now, it seems, he has changed his mind.
On February 1, 1938, Hóman passed on to Prime Minister Kálmán Darányi his plans for a new law restricting the rights of the Hungarian Jews. A month later Darányi announced that a Jewish law was in the works. The next day Hóman gave some of its details in a speech. The Jews, he said, have a “disproportionate influence and share” in the spheres of the economy, industry, commerce, banking, in cultural life and the media. “We have the legal means to remedy this situation.”
After the introduction of the first Jewish law Hóman became a member of the so-called “Jewish Committee,” whose job it was to draft a second Jewish law. But by 1940 he found some of the provisions of this second law inadequate. During a parliamentary debate he expressed his agreement with an Arrow Cross member of parliament that the 6% Jewish quota in universities and high schools was not stringent enough; Jews should be completely barred from these educational institutions.
In a memo to Prime Minister Pál Teleki, Hóman stated that all Jews as well as people associated with Jews are enemies of the Hungarian government, which means that no Jew should be tolerated in the civil service, in the judiciary, or in the schools, and they should be deprived of their leading role in economic life. “The present law is bad and therefore we must create another law that is based on race.” In 1941 he came up with another anti-Jewish proposal. This time he suggested depriving the Jewish religious community of its equal status with the other accepted religions like Catholicism, Hungarian Reformed, etc. It took a while, but by the spring of 1942 Hóman’s proposal became law. Hóman resigned in July 1942, but not before he had made sure that Jews were not allowed to join sports clubs.
After 1942 he was no longer a member of the cabinet, but he retained his seat in parliament. On February 29, 1944, he sent a memorandum to Prime Minister Miklós Kállay in which he demanded the deportation of the Jews because the Soviet troops were getting closer to the borders of Hungary. Keep in mind that this was almost a month before the arrival of the German troops on March 19. After the occupation, he joined a parliamentary group created to prevent Hungary’s possible break with the Germans, a move that Horthy and some of the men around him were contemplating.
According to Mária M. Kovács, “statues are customarily erected for people who can count on the respect of posterity. Bálint Hóman is not one of them.”
Ujváry’s arguments are not convincing, and they are unsupported by documentary evidence. Kovács sticks to the facts. A biography of Hóman might be a worthwhile undertaking (though preferably not by anyone in the Institute of Truth), but before that the Hungarian government should abort the Székesfehérvár city council’s ill-conceived idea of erecting a statue of Bálint Hóman. It could effectively do that by rescinding the ministry of justice’s offer of 15 million forints for the statue. Mazsihisz, the umbrella organization of several Jewish groups, greatly objects to the project, and now that Mazsihisz’s relations with the government have been on the mend, I don’t think it is wise to start another fight over memorializing Bálint Hóman.