Here we go again–another statue, another controversy. The figure being honored this time is György Donáth, whose name is not exactly a household word in Hungary. Although high school textbooks may have included a few sentences about Bálint Hóman, in vain would you look for Donáth, who was a minor figure in Hungarian far-right circles between 1938 and 1945.
History buffs interested in the 1945-1948 period might have encountered his name in connection with a series of trials that eventually led to the annihilation of the Smallholders’ Party, which at the first free elections after the war won an absolute majority but was nonetheless forced to form a coalition government in which the Magyar Kommunista Párt (MKP) held three portfolios. The first of these trials, inspired by the Communist Party, was the so-called Donáth trial. It resulted in a death sentence for Donáth and long prison terms for others.
At least two books deal with the political climate that led to the usurpation of political power by the Muscovite Communists who arrived with the Soviet troops. The 1956 Institute published a book of documents preceded by a lengthy study of the background of the trials by István Csicsery-Rónay and Géza Cserenyey, both former members of the group known as “Magyar Közösség” (Hungarian Community) whose leadership, among them György Donáth, was named in the trials. Mária Palasik’s book on the 1944-1945 period, published in 2000, includes a fairly long chapter on the Magyar Közösség. And Nóra Szekér wrote a Ph.D. dissertation, “A Magyar Közösség története,” in 2009.
We have a fair idea of the political views of this group since most of its members had earlier belonged to a secret organization called “Magyar Testvéri Közösség” (Hungarian Brotherly Community), established in 1925. Its original members came from Transylvania, and some of them were Hungary’s first national socialists. There was no question about the racist nature of the group. To be eligible to join one had to have a father and grandfather of pure Hungarian blood. No Germans or Croats need apply. Jews naturally couldn’t join, but even having a Jewish wife meant disqualification.
Donáth joined the group in 1939 at roughly the same time as he joined Béla Imrédy’s Magyar Élet Mozgalom (Movement of Hungarian Life). During 1943-44 he was editor of the far-right magazine Egyedül vagyunk (We are alone). Although his political career is not well documented, most likely he was unjustly condemned to death in 1947. Nonetheless, his activities between 1938 and 1945 are such as to preclude a statue ever being erected in his memory anywhere in Hungary, especially not only a few steps from the Holocaust Memorial Center.
It was the Politikai Elítéltek Közössége (Community of Political Prisoners) that came up with the idea of honoring Donáth. But just as it turned out that the planned Hóman statue was actually financed by the government, we cannot rule out the possibility that the former political prisoners received some financial help from the Orbán government. One thing is sure: Fidesz and its friends were heavily involved in the unveiling that was supposed to take place on February 24. Gergely Gulyás, deputy chairman of Fidesz, was supposed to deliver the eulogy, and Péter Boross, who has lately been behind the rehabilitation efforts of certain officials from the Horthy period, was also on hand.
At the end nothing came of the unveiling because some of the people who came to honor Donáth attacked the demonstrators against the statue. After a brief scuffle Gergely Gulyás called for a retreat. The incident was duly reported by Reuters. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency also published an article in which the reporter not only told the story of the present controversy but also reminded readers of the Hóman case and “another controversial commemorative project—a statue dealing with Hungary under the rule of Nazi Germany and its pro-Nazi collaborators.”
One must ask why the Orbán government insists on provoking the Hungarian and international Jewish community with its repeated attempts to whitewash historical characters with dubious pasts. Is it simple ignorance or is it a deliberate attempt to rewrite history? Perhaps sometime in the future we will have a clearer idea of what motivates Viktor Orbán.
My knowledge of the Magyar Közösség and its predecessor is limited, but I found some of the comments by István Csicsery-Rónay about Donáth intriguing. Although most of the people involved in the affair of 1947 didn’t want to restore the Horthy regime, as the prosecutors claimed, “such an outcome could be imagined by certain members of the group.” As he writes, “everybody could see the difference” between the more upstanding members of the group and the more radical faction, which included Donáth. Among the latter was István Szent-Miklósy, who drafted a general military order for the day when the Russian troops leave the country. This order included the takeover of the Hungarian army by members of the Magyar Közösség. In addition, the general order included the restoration of the legal continuity that was broken on March 19, 1944. At this point Csicsery-Rónay remarks that everybody was stunned with the exception of Donáth, because this doctrine was his hobbyhorse. Donáth’s “naïve theory about legal continuity” was one of the justifications for his death sentence because the judges interpreted it as a non-recognition of the existing order which must be overthrown by military means. Csicsery-Rónay’s book was written in 1998, and therefore he couldn’t have known that this “naïve theory about legal continuity” would one day find its way into Viktor Orbán’s new constitution.
Among the numerous documents related to the trials, Csicsery-Rónay published a couple of pages from Donáth’s last plea before the court, which apparently lasted five hours. In this brief section we can see that Donáth’s racism and anti-Semitism were as strong after the Holocaust as before. He defended his involvement with the program of the “race defense movement” (fajvédelem) because it was “the defense of a degraded people.” Later in his plea Donáth lectured the court, saying that “I am talking about Marxism which is of German origin because after all Marx lived in Germany. The fact that Marx was of Jewish origin is irrelevant in the opinion of the prosecution because we make no distinction between races.” Unlike, I assume, he did.
Surely this man, even if he was put to death for a crime he didn’t commit, doesn’t deserve a statue.