I arrived at today’s topic in a circuitous way. I had already decided to pick a historical topic, but first I thought I would say a few words about Ervin Szabó (1877-1918). He was an early adherent of anarcho-syndicalism but is best known as the chief librarian of the Budapest public library that is named after him. Shortly after István Tarlós (Fidesz) became lord mayor of the city, he was confronted with demands that Szabó’s name be removed from the Ervin Szabó Library and the square where the central library stands. Tarlós, who is easily swayed when it comes to changing street names which he finds politically objectionable, this time had the good sense to resist.
Árpád Szakács, the man who led the campaign against Ervin Szabó in 2010, is still at it, six years later. The only difference is that instead of writing in Magyar Nemzet he now writes in Magyar Idők. Tempora mutantur et nos mutamur in illis. Back in 2010 I checked out Szakács’s academic qualifications to be a historian and found none.
Reading Szakács’s renewed attacks on Szabó as an extreme left-wing thinker, I thought I should acquaint readers with Szabó’s work and his importance in Hungarian intellectual history. But then I found something that was much more intriguing. Szakács correctly noted that Szabó and other members of the Galilei Circle were involved in planning the assassination of Prime Minister István Tisza (1861-1918). His resignation as prime minister, however, made their plan obsolete. But then, Szakács continues, “the fourth successful assassination attempt on October 31, 1918 was also connected to the Galilei Circle.”
The original official investigation of the assassination didn’t get very far because of the turbulent times, but the case was eventually reopened in 1920-1921. There were two separate trials, one military and another civilian. At the military trial dozens and dozens of witnesses were called, but most of them knew practically nothing first-hand about the case. Yet two of the accused received death sentences while a third faced a fifteen-year jail sentence. The civilian court sentenced Pál Kéri (1882-1961), a renowned journalist, to death and Marcell Gaertner, a chemical engineer, to 14 years. István Friedrich, former prime minister of Hungary, and László Fényes, former member of parliament, were acquitted.
I have a special interest in this trial because I spent a lot of time trying to make sense of the very confusing domestic political scene in the fall of 1919 when István Friedrich was prime minister. Friedrich had a lot of enemies, on both the right and the left. When I first learned that he was accused of aiding and abetting in the assassination of István Tisza, I immediately thought of a trial Hungarians call “koncepciós per.” The Hungarian term is a more precise description of a show trial because in such cases the “concept” that dictates the direction of the trial has already been determined.
I had microfilm copies of contemporary newspapers which daily described the details of the Tisza trial. I must admit that my head was spinning after reading some of the testimony. Although dozens of witnesses were called to testify, the prosecutor’s case was based on the testimony of only two witnesses: Sándor Hüttner, a first lieutenant, and László Sztanykovszky, an ensign. As Miklós Komjáthy, a legal historian, noted, their testimony, which changed several times, “had the stamp of obvious coaching.” Hüttner admitted that “by now I can’t separate what I know for a fact from what I heard from others.” The charges against Pál Kéri were outright fabrications. Yet he was condemned to death.
Both trials were a travesty, and the suicide of the investigation judge, which happened between the end of the military and the beginning of civilian trial, added to the suspicion that all was not well with the Tisza case. Before his suicide the judge complained that “he wasn’t allowed to do his job and his superiors were not satisfied with his investigating methods.”
Kéri’s speech before sentencing was moving. He told the court that he knows as much about Tisza’s assassination as what he read in the newspapers. With special pride he recalled that his engraver grandfather, who produced the Hungarian government’s first bills, the so-called “Kossuth bankók,” also ended up in jail after the failure of the 1848-1849 revolution and war of independence.
The fact is that we still don’t know who killed István Tisza. Perhaps we never will, but one thing is certain: it was not Pál Kéri who organized the plot, if there was a plot at all. Kéri escaped death by being rescued by Soviet Russia in a prisoner-of-war swap. Kéri, not being a communist, left Russia and settled in Vienna, where he became the editor of Bécsi Magyar Újság and later wrote for Austrian left-wing publications. After the rise of Hitler, he came to the United States via Spain and Portugal. He died in 1961 in New York.
Historians who studied the documents of the trial, Tibor Hajdu and Ferenc Pölöskei, are certain that it was the first “koncepciós per” (show trial) in the history of the country. Komjáthy is convinced that the real target was the October 1918 revolution and the democratic republic it established. Kéri was just its symbol.
On the other side are people like Gábor Vincze, editor of Nagy Magyarország (Greater Hungary), a historical magazine, which is described as conservative and Hungaro-centric. (One cannot help wondering who finances the so-called scientific workshop that produces this very expensive-looking magazine.) Another historian who holds that the trial was fair is Zoltán Maruzsa, president of the Association of Friends of István Tisza.
Árpád Szakács, whose work inspired me to write this post, is the editor-in-chief of a far-right historical internet site called tortenelemportal.hu. He gave an interview to Magyar Demokrata, a far-right publication, in which he claimed that Hungarian historiography needs a total change of direction, something like Orbán’s revolution in the voting booths. He made no secret of his low opinion of those “older historians” who are not as well prepared as his generation. The work of these historians no longer serves the present and so should be discarded.
It would be fine if these people seriously investigated, for example, the Tisza trial and offered a credible argument against the earlier view that the trial was a sham. But no, Gábor Vincze offers as evidence the fact that “István Friedrich was acquitted.” Moreover, in order to label it a show trial, the court should have declared Mihály Károlyi, the president of the national council at the time of István Tisza’s assassination, guilty of aiding and abetting “when nothing of the sort happened.” Of course, these so-called arguments prove nothing. And Zoltán Mazsura contends that “after all, nobody was sentenced who was not guilty,” conveniently forgetting about Pál Kéri, who could have ended up in the gallows if not rescued by the Soviets.
Historical debates are healthy and necessary, but I wish that the “revisionists” would be slightly better prepared and not motivated by political considerations.