It’s time to take a break from Hungarian party politics and the mess the Brexit referendum has created and talk about history. Specifically I would like say something about the recent activities of two historians working for the generously endowed Veritas Institute established by the Orbán government. The absurdity of an “Institute of Truth” serving a government doesn’t need to be spelled out, and I do hope that one day, in the not too distant future, the Institute of Truth will be thrown onto the garbage heap with the other debris Fidesz left behind.
The Veritas Institute is a large organization with 26 historians and administrative personnel who are doing research in three different areas: (1) the era of the dual monarchy (1867-1918); (2) the Miklós Horthy era (1919-1944); and (3) the post-1945 era. The two historians whom we meet most often in the pages of the daily press are Sándor Szakály, director, and Gábor Ujváry, senior research fellow.
Gábor Ujváry’s goal in life seems to be the rehabilitation of Bálint Hóman, the controversial minister of education in the 1930s. I had hoped that the Hóman case was finally closed when, in December 2015, Viktor Orbán gave up the fight for a statue of Hóman, caving under international pressure. Reluctantly he announced that no one who collaborated with the German occupying forces after March 19, 1944 can have a statue in Hungary. But, as I pointed out in my post of December 16, 2015, the idea of having a Hóman statue initially came from Viktor Orbán himself. Thus, his parliamentary announcement was a personal defeat.
Has he given up the plan to completely rehabilitate Bálint Hóman? I’m not at all sure. Ujváry’s efforts at whitewashing Hóman’s role indicate that Hóman may yet be portrayed as a hero. Ujváry is writing a book on Hóman’s life and political career, a project for which he as a member of the Miklós Horthy Era Team needed the approval of Director Sándor Szakály. The director of the Institute, as we learned recently, also finds Hóman innocent of most of the charges leveled against him.
Ujváry is a man with a mission. Instead of quietly toiling in libraries and archives, he grabs every opportunity to publicize his interpretation of Hóman’s political career–in popular magazines, in interviews, and at conferences. One of his latest salvos was a short article in the popular historical magazine Rubicon, in which he argued against the interpretations of those historians who “attack Bálint Hóman.” Among other things, he tried to justify the introduction of the numerus clausus of 1920. Since Ujváry’s targets were Mária M. Kovács and Krisztián Ungváry, the two historians answered him in Mozgó Világ in a joint article titled “Bálint Hóman in the captivity of the Truth Institute.” But Ujváry will press on, explaining to the Hungarian people what a great guy the former minister of education was. The Orbán regime’s efforts to rehabilitate Hóman unfortunately seem to be continuing with full force.
The other politically active historian of the Veritas Institute is the director himself, Sándor Szakály. About two years ago I wrote a post titled “Sándor Szakály: portrait of a historian” when Szakály in an interview called the deportation of approximately 23,000 Jews in July 1941 to German-held Soviet territories, most of whom were subsequently killed by the Germans, merely “a police action against aliens.”
Szakály burned himself pretty badly with that interview, but he is persistent. He wants to debunk mainstream historical thinking about the Horthy era and replace it with a more sympathetic interpretation. And so he decided to give another interview, this time to The Budapest Beacon. The interview is very long and covers a range of topics. I will look at only two issues, which are also part of the Hóman narrative of Gábor Ujváry. One is the assessment of Hóman as a historical figure and the second is the meaning of the numerus clausus of 1920, which restricted the number of Jews who could enter Hungarian universities.
Szakály’s limitations as a historian once again became evident when the reporter asked him about Hóman’s role as a historical figure. He either can’t or doesn’t want to go beyond a strict interpretation of the written word. Here is an example of what I mean. Historians point out that Hóman, along with many far-right politicians, remained a member of parliament even after the Szálasi takeover on October 15, 1944. Here is Szakály’s rebuttal. Hóman was not a member of the Arrow Cross parliament “because such a parliament simply didn’t exist.” It is true, he continued, that “after the Arrow Cross takeover a truncated national assembly (országgyűlés) remained in session and Hóman was a member of that body, but that doesn’t mean that he was a member of the Arrow Cross party.” Or another example of his inability to think either contextually or causally. When asked about Hóman’s attitude toward Germany and his views on the German-Hungarian alliance, Szakály announced that he doesn’t think that Hóman was in any way “a harbinger” of the German occupation because “at the time he had no political role to play.” So, the possibility that Hóman’s actions influenced events leading up to the German occupation simply doesn’t enter his mind.
The director of the Institute of Truth further manifested his astute historical thinking in responding to questions on the meaning of the numerus clausus law of 1920, which most Hungarian historians consider to be the first anti-Jewish law, not just in Hungary but in the western world. Admittedly, the law didn’t contain the words “Jew” or “Jewish,” but it was clear to everybody which group was being targeted. No other “nationality” or “ethnic group” was over-represented in Hungarian higher education. The aim of the government was to restrict the number of Jewish students to 6%, the same as the percentage of Jews in the population at large.
Szakály said that he doesn’t consider the law to be discriminatory. And why not? “Because the law stated that only those will be admitted to the universities who are absolutely dependable as far as their national loyalty and morality are concerned.” In addition to morality and patriotism, “intellectual abilities” were also considered, as well as ethnic quotas. As to whether the law was designed to restrict the number of Jews in universities, Szakály responded that “not only was the word ‘Jew’ not mentioned in the law, but at that time [Hungarian law] didn’t yet stipulate exactly what ‘Jewish’ meant.” Perhaps, he added, they meant “people who belonged to the Mosaic denomination.” It is beyond me to make sense of this gibberish.
In Szakály’s estimate, the introduction of the numerus clausus was in hindsight “unfortunate” because it violated the concept of equality before the law, but from another point of view it was “a case of positive discrimination in favor of those youngsters who had less of a chance when it came to entering an institution of higher education.” So, said the reporter, “on the one hand and on the other?” Yes, in Szakály’s mind it is that simple and thus justified.