The city of Székesfehérvár is in the news again. On Saturday, February 6, a few hundred neo-Nazis gathered at the Magyar Király (Hungarian King) Hotel, marched along Fő utca (Main Street), and ended their demonstration at the Church of Saint Stephen, one of the most important landmarks of the city. It is the oldest Christian church in Hungary, established in the 970s by Prince Géza, father of Saint Stephen, who was most likely crowned in this church in the year 1000.
I’m not going to waste much time on the demonstration itself. It was organized by the far-right Nazi groups we encounter most often: the Outlaws, the New Hungarian Guard, and the Youth Movement of Sixty-four Counties. The occasion for this memorial walk was the 71st anniversary of the breakout of German and Hungarian soldiers from Budapest, which had been surrounded by Soviet troops on December 24, 1944. Although Hitler specifically forbade his troops to try to escape from the city, on February 11 they decided to engage the Soviets. Of about 40,000 men only 500 managed to escape. The casualties were enormous. For details, I recommend Krisztián Ungváry’s The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006). People who sympathize with the Nazi ideology call this event “Tag der Ehre” or “Day of Honor,” and for a number of years far-right groups, including Jobbik, organized events around this time of the year. Many make a pilgrimage, a walking tour of sixty kilometers, retracing the steps of the soldiers who took part in the escape.
In the past Jobbik took part in these memorial events, and last year at a similar gathering Előd Novák, one of the most radical members of the Jobbik leadership, delivered a speech. This year, however, he changed his mind at the last minute. The reason for his decision may have been that one of the scheduled speakers was a former member of the Waffen SS. Although at the end the German visitor didn’t show, the leaders of the Hungarian neo-Nazi groups made up for his absence, delivering full-fledged Nazi speeches. One claimed that with the destruction of the Third Reich “darkness fell on Europe.” Another ended his speech with “Glory to Waffen SS!” and “Glory to Szálasi!”
These kinds of far-right groups can be found everywhere in the world, and they usually don’t pose a great danger for society as long as they aren’t protected (beyond their basic human rights) by the government. What worries me in this case are the following:
(1) Why did these groups select Székesfehérvár as their gathering place, far away from the event that took place in February 1945? Could it have something to do with the controversy over the erection of a statue of Bálint Hóman, minister of education and culture between 1932 and 1942, also in Székesfehérvár? Did these extremist groups think that the Fidesz leadership of the city that for months had defended its decision to go ahead with the project of memorializing a rabidly anti-Semitic minister who had a hand in the Horthy regime’s anti-Jewish laws would protect them and thus their demonstration would proceed undisturbed?
(2) Why did Imre Horváth, the parish priest of the Church of St. Stephen, agree to offer a mass for these Waffen SS soldiers and their Hungarian companions? I assume that for a certain amount of money anyone can order a mass for a person or a group. One of the Budapest Catholic churches offers a mass for Viktor Orbán every year, for example. But the conversation between Imre Horváth and the journalist of The Budapest Beacon aroused my suspicion. Horváth was outright antagonistic, making it clear that neither the journalist’s nor anyone else’s opinion interested him. He added: “I’m a Hungarian, a veteran, who served his country.” Horváth is 86 years old and so most likely served his country during the Rákosi period, but I guess for a nationalist it doesn’t matter that this military service was to the Stalinist People’s Republic of Hungary. His brusque manner—he eventually hung up the telephone—may well have reflected his sympathetic feelings toward these far-right groups.
But let’s return briefly to the Hóman controversy. Since we last discussed the topic two new items of interest have become public. One was something that certainly didn’t please the Orbán government. On January 27 President Barack Obama delivered a speech at a ceremony in the Israeli Embassy in Washington, marking the International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Obama emphasized that he has made fighting global anti-Semitism a priority, and in this context he brought up Hungary as a case where the United States took a stand. “It’s why, when a statue of an anti-Semitic leader from World War II was planned in Hungary, we led the charge to convince their government to reverse course,” Obama said. “This was not a side note to our relations with Hungary, this was central to maintaining a good relationship with the United States, and we let them know.”
Of course, to those who followed the Hóman affair closely this didn’t come as a surprise. Readers of Hungarian Spectrum knew about the pressure that was put on the Orbán government when three high-ranking U.S. diplomats descended on Budapest and conducted negotiations with members of the Hungarian government. However reluctantly, Viktor Orbán eventually announced that the planned statue would not be erected in Székesfehérvár because in his opinion no public figure who collaborated with the German occupiers after March 19, 1944 can possibly have a statue in a public place or a street named after him. Without U.S. pressure the Hóman statue would undoubtedly be standing in its designated place today. But, of course, the revelation by the U.S. president was embarrassing, and the Orbán government immediately denied it. In fact, the spokesman of Viktor Orbán said, the American pressure was counterproductive. The Americans would have fared better if they had remained quiet. This is just another of the brazen lies the Orbán government specializes in.
The idea for a statue of Bálint Hóman, as I pointed out earlier, did not originate with the local Bálint Hóman Society. I called attention to a speech that Orbán delivered in Székesfehérvár in May, shortly after the legal rehabilitation of Hóman. Since then, however, we have learned that Viktor Orbán’s involvement in the Hóman case goes back even further. The man who is behind the effort to whitewash Hóman’s career is István Varga, a lawyer. After Fidesz won the election in 2010 and the party had a two-thirds majority in parliament, Varga, who was a Fidesz MP at the time, wanted to call attention to Bálint Hóman’s rehabilitation in an interpellation. Tibor Navracsics, today European commissioner of education and sports, was the leader of the Fidesz delegation at the time. He chose to ignore Varga’s suggestion, most likely because he knew that the issue was a hot potato. Varga, who had been trying to get “justice” for Hóman in the previous twenty years, was devastated. At a subsequent delegation meeting, where Orbán was also present, he brought up the topic again. The idea appealed to Viktor Orbán, who told him: “Go ahead!” So, Orbán was behind both the legal rehabilitation of Bálint Hóman and the erection of the statue honoring him. Since he is the prime minister of the country, one must conclude that the Hungarian government itself supports the veneration of politicians who had a hand in the anti-Jewish laws that eventually led to the Hungarian Holocaust. I know this is a serious charge, but the facts that have emerged of late point to this conclusion.
And now let’s go back for a moment to András Cser-Palkovics, mayor of Székesfehérvár. He started his political career in Fidelitas, Fidesz’s youth movement, where for eight years he was the organization’s chairman. From 2002 on he was a Fidesz member of the Székesfehérvár city council. He was a Fidesz member of parliament between 2002 and 2014 and has been mayor of Székesfehérvár since 2010. At one point he was even the spokesman of the party. So, he is Fidesz through and through.
How did he react to the news that neo-Nazi groups were planning a demonstration in the city? He asked people not to attend the rally, adding that legally he has no right to forbid it from taking place. But then he added: “At the end of last year I asked all people to safeguard the peace in our city. Then people on the left were the ones who imported tension and conflict from Budapest. Now it is the far right that is planning to do the same thing over a historical event that has nothing to do with Székesfehérvár.” This is an incredible statement. Can the people who gathered to protest the erection of the Hóman statue be compared to the neo-Nazis who gathered two days ago to praise Szálasi and the Waffen SS? Yes, according to Cser-Palkovics, one of important members of Fidesz.
There is no question in my mind that the Orbán government’s views on anti-Semitism and the Holocaust are two-faced and insincere. Just as Mark Weitzman of the Wiesenthal Center remarked, the Hungarian authorities’ failure to condemn the event, considering that Hungary is currently chairing the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, was “an exercise in political and historical hypocrisy.” It is hard not to agree with him.