I ended my yesterday’s post on a skeptical note. I didn’t think that Viktor Orbán would admit the complicity of the Hungarian government in the death of about half a million Hungarians of Jewish heritage during the Holocaust. I was pretty certain that he would have to say something on the subject during Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Budapest, especially since the Hungarian government’s campaign against George Soros, as predicted, made visible anti-Semitic sentiment in the country. But I was also more or less convinced that whatever admission of guilt takes place will not be historically accurate and therefore not totally satisfactory.
At least one Hungarian internet news site seemed to be surprised that “Viktor Orbán did it: he stood before the people and said what we really didn’t expect.” Before I go into how expected or unexpected Orbán’s announcement was, let’s take a look at the exact wording of the part of the speech where he talked about the Hungarian government’s role in the Holocaust. He began by saying that it is the duty of all Hungarian governments to protect their citizens regardless of their heritage. “At an earlier time, the government of Hungary made a mistake, nay, committed a sin when it did not protect its citizens of Jewish heritage…. During World War II, Hungary did not comply with this moral and political requirement. This is a sin because at the time we decided that instead of protecting the Jewish community, we chose collaboration with the Nazis. I made it clear to the prime minister that this can never happen again. In the future, the Hungarian government will protect all its citizens.”
I chose the translation of Pablo Gorondi of the Associated Press, with one minor change, because it was the most faithful. A correct translation here is of the utmost importance. Every word counts since, I’m sure, Viktor Orbán himself chose his text carefully. The first word I found odd was “mistake,” which is singularly out of place here. When we talk about a mistake we think of an act based on wrong judgment or deficient knowledge. Surely, this is an inappropriate word in this context. I was also somewhat baffled by his choice of the word “sin,” which is defined as a transgression of a religious or moral law. Being an accessory to murder may be a sin, but it is also a crime; it is a legal, not a moral, concept. In fact, Reuters’ summary of the speech uses “crime” instead of “sin,” perhaps because we normally think of the perpetrators of the Holocaust as criminals. In Haaretz’s interpretation, Orbán “acknowledged the crimes of his country toward Jews during the Holocaust.” Yes, we normally talk about crimes and not sins committed by those participating in the Holocaust. That’s why some of them received death sentences or long jail terms. What was Orbán’s intention when he opted for the word “sin”?
According to Israel National News, the Hungarian prime minister apologized for the country’s conduct during the Holocaust. But did he? Not really. He simply admitted that “the Hungarian government made a mistake, nay, committed a sin” and promised that in the future the Hungarian government will protect its citizens. There is something a bit strange about Orbán’s use of the singular when talking about “the Hungarian government.” Therefore, it is not at all surprising that Israel National News “corrected” Orbán’s prose and talked about “previous governments of Hungary which sinned during the Second World War when they did not protect the Jews.” Indeed, just in the year 1944, after March 19 when the Germans marched into Hungary, there were three different governments.
But the problem here is greater than sloppiness when describing events in 1944. The real problem is that Orbán narrowed his focus to the collaboration with the Germans in 1944. Discrimination against Hungarian Jewish citizens, however, didn’t start with the German-Hungarian collaboration of 1944. No German pressure was exerted on Hungary when in 1920 the National Assembly passed the first “anti-Jewish law,” the so-called numerus clausus which placed a ceiling of 6 percent on Jewish students in institutions of higher learning. That law was changed somewhat in 1928, but its essential features remained in force throughout the interwar period.
And that was just the beginning. After a few years of respite anti-Jewish measures began to be introduced again. In April 1938 it wasn’t Germany that forced the Hungarian government to limit to 20 percent the number of Jews in the so-called free professions, government jobs, commercial and industrial companies. A year later, in May 1939, came the so-called second anti-Jewish law, which extended the definition of “Jewish” on a racial basis and further limited the activities of Jewish citizens in certain categories of the economy, from 20 to 6 percent. In 1941, the Bárdossy government on its very own, without any German input whatsoever, deported about 16,000 Hungarian and foreign Jews to today’s Ukraine where they were killed by German occupying troops. In January 1942 Hungarian gendarmes and soldiers murdered 800 Jews in Novi Sad. By November 1942 about 50,000 Jewish men were conscripted into forced labor units, which subsequently were sent unarmed to the Soviet front where most of them died. In early 1943 the Kállay government removed all Jews from public and cultural life, limited their number in the economy as a whole to 6 percent. All land owned by Jews was confiscated. Should I continue?
Moreover, confining the Hungarian government’s sins to 1944 and describing them as a collaboration with the Germans is misleading. The sad fact is that the organization of transporting half a million Hungarian citizens of Jewish origin via rail to Auschwitz and other extermination camps was the sole work of the Hungarian administration and the gendarmerie. German soldiers were not involved at all. I think most Jewish Hungarians would like to see an admission from this government that the Hungarian sin wasn’t only “collaboration with the Nazis.”
If Viktor Orbán had talked about the atrocities committed against Jews by all the Hungarian governments between 1921 and 1944, then one could say he broke the silence and made a full admission of the dreadful record Hungarian governments accumulated in those years. That would have been a welcome change. But as it is, he simply repeated what President János Áder already said in April 2014 while visiting Auschwitz. I remember distinctly that at that time his admission of guilt was greeted with welcome surprise. It was news. “To understand the tragedy of 1944, we have to face ourselves,” he said. “It is still painful that the Hungarian state didn’t resist the devilish plan of the German invaders.” After March 19, 1944, “Hungary didn’t protect its citizens.”
The Orbán government obviously has a fixed time frame and a fixed vocabulary when it comes to the country’s treatment of its Jewish citizens. They are ready to go that far but no further. And even that is said with qualifications because we mustn’t forget that Fidesz included the following sentences in the preamble of the new constitution. “We date the restoration of our country’s self-determination, lost on the nineteenth day of March 1944, from the second day of May 1990, when the first freely elected organ of popular representation was formed.” In other words, Hungary is not really responsible for what happened after March 19, 1944. No soothing words declared in the presence of Benjamin Netanyahu can change that basic claim.