Tag Archives: András Gerő

Dilemmas in current Hungarian politics

On the surface it was no more than a storm in a teacup: András Gerő, historian of the Habsburg Monarchy, wrote an angry letter to a somewhat secretive organization called Szeretem Magyarországot Klub/SZMK (I love Hungary Club) because the club members gave their blessing to an invitation to Jobbik Chairman Gábor Vona to meet with the membership. What the club members were especially interested in was Jobbik’s racist and anti-Semitic past and its present change of heart.

András Gerő is not a member of the club, but he normally gets invitations to the monthly gatherings because of his earlier appearance before the group as an invited guest. Still, he decided to write a sharply-worded letter to the club in which he expressed his disapproval of the decision. In the letter he admitted that Jobbik is “a legitimate parliamentary force,” but he argued that SZMK, with this invitation, legitimizes Jobbik and its chairman. The former is a political legitimization; the latter, intellectual and moral. Moreover, SZMK’s claim that by listening to Vona the members could gain new and useful information is idle. What one can hear about Jobbik in the media is quite enough to form an opinion of this party.

Gerő often ends up in the midst of controversies of his own making. A few years ago he divided the historical community by accusing Ignác Romsics of anti-Semitism, which most observers found unwarranted. His siding with Mária Schmidt against Mazsihisz and other Jewish organizations in the altercation over the House of Fate didn’t raise Gerő’s stature in my eyes. His relationship with the Fidesz government is also hazy because he is the director of the Habsburg Historical Institute, a one-man organization (plus a secretary) with a very elegant office. The institute’s continued existence depends on the goodwill of the Orbán government. It was because of this connection that Jobbik accused Gerő of serving Viktor Orbán’s interests in trying to blacken the name of Jobbik.

I doubt that Gerő acted as an agent of Fidesz, trying to torpedo Vona’s appearance before the members of SZMK. But Fidesz certainly loved Gerő’s attack on Jobbik’s chairman since Viktor Orbán’s real enemy at the moment is Gábor Vona. First of all, although Jobbik’s move to the center has weakened the party somewhat, it still has a large following. Jobbik today is the second largest party in Hungary. Moreover, there are signs that Jobbik has acquired a powerful patron with deep pockets in the person of Lajos Simicska, who seems ready to spend a considerable amount of money to get rid of Viktor Orbán. Simicska not only helps Jobbik financially. He also shares with its leadership the large repository of his “dirty tricks” that made Fidesz into the powerful organization that it is today. Jobbik’s move to the center especially frightens Orbán because he worries that his whole political edifice might crumble if Jobbik and the left-of-center forces decide to cooperate in some manner.

When it comes to the coverage of Jobbik in the Fidesz media, the emphasis is on the extremism of Jobbik. Magyar Idők published several articles on Gerő’s letter in which it embraced the historian’s opinion that “Jobbik is the political putrefier of Hungarian society.” Magyar Idők’s editorial on the subject carried the title: “Gábor Vona bowed before the Left.” Gerő, who enjoys being in the center of these controversies, in one of his television appearances called SZMK’s invitation to Vona “political racism.”

What transpired at this contentious meeting? It is difficult to get too much information about SZMK’s gatherings. We know that it is an elite club where the recommended yearly dues are 120,000 forints (approximately $450). Members and participants are asked to be discrete, and therefore the club functions pretty much without any public mention. Last year Károly Gerendai, the founder of SZMK and the brains behind the Sziget Festival, which is one of the largest music and cultural festivals in Europe, did talk to Magyar Nemzet. There he gave some details about the membership and about the illustrious visitors who had appeared before them in the past few years, but otherwise little is known about the club’s activities. ATV got in touch with a few members, some of whom admitted that a long debate preceded Vona’s invitation. But, they said, at the end the decision was reached that “Gábor Vona is one of the most remarkable figures today in Hungarian politics who has been moving away from his earlier right radical position. We know his past, but he has a place in this club because we have many questions we would like to get answers to.” Moreover, “Gábor Vona and his party are a factor in Hungarian politics,” one of the participants said.

Magyar Idők’s editorial recalled that in 2011 Gergely Karácsony, then still a member of LMP, suggested a temporary strategic alliance among all the opposition parties, including Jobbik, which could easily defeat Fidesz and gain a two-thirds majority. After a few months of “housecleaning” and a new more proportionate electoral law, the parliament could be dissolved and new elections could be held. This strategy has been in the air ever since. Miklós Haraszti, without suggesting a temporary alliance with Jobbik, is also thinking along the same lines: to force Fidesz in some way to accept a new electoral law. Lajos Bokros, when he talks about the magic 500 days which would be enough to get rid of the most objectionable pieces of Fidesz legislation, after which new elections could be held, is also proposing a variation of the same theme. And this is exactly what Viktor Orbán is worried about because, if that materializes, if Vona were able to convince the socialist-liberal parties that he is no longer the man they had known for years, Fidesz’s chances of winning the election, at least as things stand right now, would be nil.

Moreover, there are a lot of ordinary citizens who consider Orbán’s removal so important that they believe a temporary alliance with Jobbik is still preferable to perhaps decades of Orbán’s fascistoid one-party system. Ferenc Gyurcsány talked about this more than a year ago. After seeing that, at a couple of by-elections, citizens were ready to maximize their votes by voting for the candidate most likely to win and ignoring party affiliations, he wondered whether left-right cooperation might materialize. As he put it, “I wouldn’t have any enthusiasm for it, but I can no longer rule out the possibility of the opposition parties’ joining forces in the interest of getting rid of the present government. This regime might have a very strange end.”

At present no one contemplates such a joint action involving Jobbik. In fact, Gyurcsány’s party is one of the loudest in excluding any such possibility. On the other hand, apparently Vona told his SZMK audience that “Jobbik is ready to cooperate with anyone against Fidesz and specifically mentioned LMP as a possible ally.” Mandiner, a right-wing publication, noted that Vona and his audience especially saw eye to eye when it came to the person of Viktor Orbán. As the paper’s source claimed, “the audience and the party chairman outdid each other in their invectives against Orbán.”

Jobbik joined the other parties when it came to the “national minimum” on healthcare, and today the Közös Ország Mozgalom announced that they had received assurances from Dóra Duró, a Jobbik MP, that the party will take a look at the electoral law in its final form and will make a decision as to whether they are ready to support it. No one can see into the future, but there are signs of left and right pulling in the same direction.

September 25, 2017

An attempt at character assassination but to what end?

On the surface, today’s topic is history or to be more precise a historical debate, the kind that normally interests only historians who are experts in a given period or subject. Debates usually take place in seminar rooms or at conferences. They are actually peer reviews. And, of course, before the publication of a book, the author as well as the publisher will ask people who are familiar with the topic to read the manuscript and critique it. Even book reviews that appear in scientific journals are read only by the initiated few.

In Hungary, however, these so-called scientific debates often end up in the popular press because some professional historians are also public figures who appear on TV or write in newspapers. For example, a highly public debate took place in 2012 when András Gerő accused his fellow historian, the respected Ignác Romsics, of anti-Semitic discourse. The “debate,” in which more than two dozen people participated, lasted over six months.

That debate was on balance a civilized discussion, but what I’m writing about today is more like “character assassination.” At least, that’s what the normally pro-government Válasz called it. And that’s something, considering that the target of the character assassination is Krisztián Ungváry, who called Mária Schmidt, adviser to Viktor Orbán on matters of history, the “keretlegény” of the Hungarian historical profession. “Keretlegény” was an armed soldier who guarded and supervised Jews called up to serve in the labor battalions during World War II.

short piece by Ungváry, “The Living Horror” (Az élő borzalom), appeared on this blog.  It was about the memorial the Hungarian government insisted on erecting despite very strong opposition by historians, the Jewish community, and all those who would like Hungarians to face historical facts instead of hiding behind a falsified history of the Hungarian Holocaust.

Ungváry made a name for himself with a book which has since been translated into both English and German, The Siege of Budapest. In 2013 he came out with another large work, A Horthy-rendszer mérlege: Diszkrimináció, szociálpolitika és antiszemitizmus (The balance sheet of the Horthy regime: Discrimination, social policy and anti-Semitism in Hungary).  The book received the Academy Prize and is now under consideration for Ungváry’s award of an academic doctorate, which in Hungary is considered to be higher than a Ph.D.

The man who decided to attack Krisztián Ungváry is Dániel Bolgár, a young teaching assistant who hasn’t yet finished his Ph.D. dissertation. He has been described as “a talented man with a bright future,” but the general consensus is that this time he went too far for his own good. One thing is sure: it takes guts for a TA to take on an established, respected scholar.

What makes the story especially interesting is that Bolgár’s TA job is in András Gerő’s department at ELTE. Gerő a few years ago established a Habsburg Institute which is heavily subsidized by the government through the XXI Century Institute, headed by the aforementioned Mária Schmidt. In general, Gerő tries to court right-wing historians favored by the government. For example, Sándor Szakály, who was named director of the newly established Veritas Historical Institute, is on the board of Gerő’s Habsburg Institute. Gerő is deeply indebted to Schmidt and comes to her defense every time she is criticized. And she has a lot of critics: practically all Hungarian Holocaust scholars.

People suspect that the present debate is not so much about Ungváry’s book, which I think is an important contribution to the topic of anti-Semitism between the two world wars, but about the irreconcilable differences between the historical views of the right and the left when it comes to the evaluation of the Horthy regime. The clever twist in this game is that the accusations against Ungváry come in the guise of anti-Semitism, of which he is certainly not guilty.

These professional historical debates are far too esoteric for outsiders to judge. For example, Bolgár’s initial criticism, which he first published in Magyar Narancs, concentrated on statistical data from the 1930s about the economic status of Hungarian Jewry. At this time he did not accuse Ungváry of plagiarism, I suspect because otherwise Magyar Narancs wouldn’t have published his article. The title, however, was telling: “Tale about Jewish prosperity.” Ungváry, following virtually every Hungarian historian who has ever dealt with the topic, shows through statistical analyses and indirect evidence that the Jewish population was better off than Hungary’s non-Jewish inhabitants. There are many well-founded reasons for that claim: Hungarian Jews were better educated than the average, a great number of them belonged to the middle or the professional classes, and their representation in the peasantry was minuscule. (Almost 60% of the total population belonged to that economic group.) There is nothing revolutionary about the thesis. It’s practically self-evident, but Ungváry devotes about 80 pages to proving his point by approaching the question from different angles.

Bolgár accuses Ungváry of using the statistics of anti-Semitic authors, like Alajos Kovács who was at the time the head of the Central Statistical Office. Bolgár concludes that there are no reliable statistics whatsoever on this question, and he in fact suspects that the Jewish population on the whole was poorer than non-Jews which is, of course, total nonsense. Ungváry answered, a rebuttal that couldn’t be left unanswered by Bolgár, and then Ungváry wrote a final piece entitled “Insinuation.” In order to understand the argument of both sides a little better, I recommend reading these articles.

Dániel Bolgár and Krisztián Ungváry during the "debate"

Dániel Bolgár and Krisztián Ungváry during the “debate”

But this was only a warm-up for Dániel Bolgár. Ungváry decided to invite Bolgár for a discussion, which took place a few days ago and which is available on the Internet. Bolgár delivered a speech that lasted two hours, in which he accused Ungváry of outright plagiarism. He compared him unfavorably to a “village elementary school teacher who writes the history of his village.” According to Válasz, it was clear from the very first minute that Bolgár not only wanted to criticize Ungváry but to “totally destroy him.” The reporter simply didn’t understand why Ungváry didn’t get up and leave. Instead, he sat next to Bolgár, quietly taking occasional notes.

I admired Ungváry’s behavior. I certainly couldn’t have withstood such an attack without raising my voice. It’s a long haul, but if you have some time, please watch this video.

The other official participant in the discussion was Viktor Karády, the well-known expert on the social history of Hungarian Jewry in the Horthy-period who lives in France. Unfortuntely, he is also the quiet type. Occasionally he was cut off before he could finish his sentence. Bolgár must have invited some people who had problems with Ungváry’s book, who also shouted Karády and Ungváry down for another half an hour if not longer. One of them announced that the book “is about nothing.” I suspect that the man is an apologist for the Horthy regime and finds Ungváry’s thesis unacceptable. What is the thesis? That behind the anti-Jewish government measures was the desire for a distribution of wealth from Jewish to non-Jewish hands. The book is about “intellectual antecedents of depredation of the Jewry.” It seems that a lot of people find this thesis unacceptable.

Ungváry may have remained quiet during the debate, but he struck back in print. He wrote a piece for the conservative Mandiner from which we learn that Bolgár tried to publish his findings in a serious historical journal but the quality of his work was found wanting.

The House of Árpád and nationalism

I made a note to myself a couple of weeks ago to write a post on András Gerő’s “The House of Árpád and Nationalism,” which appeared in the April 26 issue of Élet és Irodalom. But then there were too many current events that I wanted to cover and the post on history was postponed. Soon enough, however, the past became present–and political. As Zsófia Mihancsik noted in her article, Ádám Pozsonyi, a contributor to the right-wing pro-government paper Demokrata, found the essay I liked so much an abomination that “reviled the House of Árpád.”

Considering that Élet és Irodalom is a subscription-based publication, which limits its accessibility, I thought I should summarize the article so that readers of Hungarian Spectrum can see what is considered to be unacceptable historical scholarship in extreme-right circles.

It is a historical commonplace that nationalism and the idea of the nation state are relatively new phenomena. Before the eighteenth century the organization of society was based on a feudal hierarchy, at the top of which was the king who at least in theory “owned” the land that he considered his domain. His subjects were loyal to him personally, not to the nation.

In the late eighteenth century all that changed and with it came “nationalized” historical scholarship. It was at this time that the concept of the House of Árpád emerged. Two members of the Jesuit school of Hungarian historiography, György Pray (1723-1801) and István Katona (1732-1811), coined the term “House of Árpád” to refer to the kings who ruled the Kingdom of Hungary between 1000 and 1301.

What did the twenty-three kings who reigned between these two dates actually call themselves? Simon Kézai in his Gesta Hunnorum et Hungarorum (circ. 1282) calls them the Clan of Turul (de genere turul). As far as we know, the members of the House of Árpád called themselves “the family or clan of the saintly kings” because there were indeed many. The list is quite impressive.

Hungarian historiography of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries considered the House of Árpád to be a Hungarian dynasty as opposed to the dynasties that followed: the Anjou, the Jagellonian or the Habsburg. The distinguishing criterion they invoked was linguistic. In the first half of the nineteenth century being Hungarian primarily meant that Hungarian was one’s mother tongue. The whole Reform period–the three or four decades before the 1848 Revolution–was accompanied by linguistic reform as well. The reformers wanted to build a cultured nation by making the language capable of transmitting modern western ideas.

Language is, however, a flawed criterion of what it means to be a Hungarian. Even a foreigner could become a Hungarian if he identified with the national cause. Take, for instance, the thirteen generals who were executed in Arad on October 6, 1849. Among them were several whose mother tongue was not Hungarian, but today they are considered to be Hungarian patriots who died for the national cause.

Nineteenth-century depiction of Árpád It can be found at a website named "for real hungarians network

Nineteenth-century depiction of Árpád
It can be found on the website “for real Hungarians network”

By the twentieth century the notion arose–a notion with horrific consequences–that belonging to a nation was tied to ethnicity. A true Hungarian would be an ethnic Hungarian.

By either of these criteria the House of Árpád wouldn’t be genuinely Hungarian. First of all, Hungarian kings, just as their counterparts elsewhere, married foreigners. Marriages were arranged on the basis of foreign policy considerations. Gerő couldn’t find one “Hungarian” spouse among the Árpád kings. So, as far as ethnicity is concerned, they were a very mixed lot. And, as far as their language is concerned, it is unlikely that they were monolingual. After all, their mothers came from all over Europe and usually with a large entourage. Some of them spent considerable time abroad. Péter Orseolo, the successor to Stephen, in Italy; Géza I in Poland; Béla III in the Byzantine Empire.

The kings of the Árpád dynasty were Hungarian kings in the constitutional sense; that is, they were the rulers of the Kingdom of Hungary. But so were the Anjous, the Jagellonians, and the Habsburgs. Yet in Hungarian historiography the House of Árpád was long considered to be more “national” than the other dynasties.

After the communist takeover, Marxist  historians pretty well excluded “the nation” from consideration and concentrated on class struggle and economic conditions. In consequence, the description of the Árpád dynasty as a national dynasty disappeared from historical dialogue. And after the Marxist interlude in Hungarian historiography, as historians delved deeper into the Middle Ages, they saw no compelling reason to revive the concept of a national dynasty.

But even though mainstream historians find the notion of a national dynasty intellectually indefensible, proponents of “alternative history” embrace it wholeheartedly. For these people, who are not really historians or just marginally so, making the kings of the House of Árpád true Hungarians is very important. These “Hungarian kings” worked for the good of the country, whereas the foreigners by and large set out to ruin it. The worst culprits were the Habsburgs, whom one such author, Lajos Darai, accuses of wanting to obliterate the Hungarian past. Others claim that there were “secret forces” that stood behind the Habsburgs whose intention was to make Hungary a colony of Austria. “For four hundred years the crowned heads of Hungary fought a war against the Hungarians.” The implication is that these secret forces were manipulated by Jews.

Moreover, a pseudo-linguist in a paper about Hungarian’s affinity with Etruscan comes to the startling conclusion that Ármin Vámbéry, the famous Turkologist of the nineteenth century, was in fact the hired hand of Franz Joseph II, who instead of telling the truth about Hungarian-Etruscan relations sent the Hungarians to Asia at the emperor-king’s orders. Another self-appointed historian, István Szatmári, goes even further when he claims that the Habsburgs were Jewish. According to him, the Habsburg family came from the “rich Roman Jewish family called Pierleone whose members arrived in Switzerland via Genoa and bought the decrepit castle of the Habsburgs.”

The practitioners of alternative history unfortunately are making headway in Hungarian right-wing thinking. The spokesmen for the “us and them” theories don’t even leave the early kings alone. These kings are forced to play a role in the “nationalized” history of the new Hungarian far right.

Looking backward: Historical complexity and political simplification

A couple of days ago I mentioned that three historians who are attached to the Institute of History of the Hungarian Academy of Science were entrusted with deciding the fate of persons and concepts that can possibly be connected to dictatorial regimes of the twentieth century. The other day the long awaited list was made public and was met with a mix of fury and derision. By today well known historians, members of the Academy, are calling the list and its creators a disgrace to the historical profession.

Almost a month before the appearance of the infamous list András Gerő, whose specialty is the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, rang the alarm bell and predicted that nothing good would come from this enterprise because the text of the law is imprecise and because whoever wrote it has no clue about the complexity of life and thus of history.

I will summarize Gerő’s main objections. The full text of the the law can be read here, but the key sentence is that “the name of no person can be used anywhere (institutions, media organs, public places) who played a leading role in the establishment, formation, and maintenance of twentieth-century dictatorial regimes or such expression or name of an organ that can be directly related with such a regime.”

The first problem is that the law itself is sloppily formulated. On the one hand it talks about dictatorial regimes (rendszerek) in the plural when it comes to persons whereas, when talking about organizations and concepts, it uses the singular (rendszer). So, how many dictatorial regimes are we talking about? Gerő rightly states that there were three such regimes in Hungary in the twentieth century. The Soviet Republic of 1919, the 1944-45 Arrow Cross regime, and the communist regime between 1949 and 1989. The text of the preamble to the bill provides a clue to the lawmakers’ thinking. Here they talk about “dictatorships” but add that “first and foremost” they are thinking of  the communist dictatorship and the 1919 Soviet Republic lasting 133 days. Thus, the emphasis is on dictatorships of the left.

Why does any lawmaker think that such a piece of legislation is necessary in the first place? The reason is that “our streets and institutions should bear names that are worthy of the ideals of a democratic country.” However, Gerő points out, it is not only dictatorship that is opposed to the ideals of a democratic state. What if the equality of citizens is terminated in a perfectly legitimate and democratic manner? The reference here is to the Horthy regime’s anti-Jewish laws. “Without equality of citizens there is no rule of rule (jogállam).” Gerő comes to the conclusion that perhaps the lawmakers are not really familiar with the meaning of the rule of law.

Listed by Epicantus / Daria Nepriakhina

Listed by Epicantus / Daria Nepriakhina / Flickr

But, Gerő says, ignorance has its consequences. On the preliminary list were such names as Béla Kun and Tibor Szamuely, who was personally responsible for political murders during the 1919 communist interlude. Their roles in the establishment and maintenance of a dictatorship are indisputable. But Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels also appeared on the list. They were included because of their role in laying the foundation for the later Soviet regime. Since both died years before 1917, we have no idea what they would have thought of the kind of dictatorship that was established in Soviet Russia. And if Marx and Engels are blacklisted, why don’t we put Prime Minister Pál Teleki, who played a leading role in the enactment of Hungary’s anti-Jewish laws, on the same list? And if we can connect Marx and Engels with the Muscovite Mátyás Rákosi, we should certainly link the name of Bishop Ottokár Prohászka, who is considered to be the theoretician of Ferenc Szálasi’s Hungarism, with the Holocaust.

One must also should keep in mind that people might change their views over their lifetimes. Either because they genuinely had a change of heart or because they responded to a changing situation. As an example Gerő brings up Gyula Szekfű (1883-1955), the historian. His extremely influential book written in 1920, Három nemzedék: Egy hanyatló kor története (Three generations: History of a declining age), blamed the liberals of the dual monarchy for the misfortunes that befell Hungary after World War I. This book played an important role in justifying István Bethlen’s counterrevolutionary regime. Later he moved farther to the left and after 1945 he even praised Stalin’s accomplishments and the Soviet regime. From 1953 he became a member of parliament and in the last two years of his life a member of the Presidium. There’s no question that he helped maintain the communist dictatorship. Right now a street bears his name in Budapest’s District IV. Should he be banned? According to the law, if we take it seriously, yes, he should be.

The other person Gerő mentions is János Szentágothai, the famous Hungarian medical researcher. He was also a member of parliament and later a member of the Presidium during the Kádár regime. Between 1977 and 1985 he was the president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences which was a political post. After 1990 he was again a member of parliament as an MDF member. Again, he should be banned but naturally he won’t be.

The third person is Béla Kovács, secretary-general of the Smallholders party, whom the Soviets exiled to the Gulag on February 25, 1947. In 2000, during the first Orbán administration, the government made February 25 a day of remembrance for the victims of communism. In 2002 Kovács’s statue was unveiled on Kossuth Square. Kovács became a member of Imre Nagy’s cabinet, but in 1958 he became a member of the pseudo-parliament of the early Kádár regime. He should also be banned according to a strict interpretation of the law.

The drafters of the law added that if and when there is any question concerning eligibility the case must be referred to the historians of the Academy. But if one reads the law carefully, it doesn’t allow for any doubt. The choice is either black or white, yes or no. Historians should know full well that life and therefore history is not that simple, and therefore they should not have accepted the job. Unfortunately, they did. The historians “should have told the government that this task cannot be accomplished in the spirit of academic correctness.”

They accepted the job despite the fact that Attila Pók, one of the three historians who took part in this disgraceful exercise, admitted that the law doesn’t allow for any shading or for a scientific approach and that the law was not thought through.

The government passed the buck to the Academy and the historians passed it back to the government. They excused their own participation by emphasizing that theirs was not the final word. They acted only in an advisory capacity.

The concern is growing in historical circles that “by participating in this political game they risked their academic credibility.”  As historian Gábor Gyáni said, “the historians found themselves in such an absurd situation that they had to explain why concepts like “freedom” or “republic” are not directly related to dictatorships. But at the same time they fell into such traps as declaring Maxim Gorky or Vladimir Mayakovsky supporters of a dictatorship. The former, after the assassination of Sergei Kirov in December 1934, was placed under “secret” house arrest. There were rumors that his sudden death wasn’t an accident. Mayakovsky by the late 1920s became increasingly disillusioned with the course the Soviet Union was taking and committed suicide.

Life is not as simple as Fidesz politicos imagine or as even well-known Hungarian historians think. And what if one day historians associate Viktor Orbán and the members of his government with the destruction of democracy in Hungary and with building an authoritarian regime with the assistance of a neo-Nazi party? It could easily happen.