Tag Archives: anti-Semitism

The Metamorphosis of Sebastian Gorka

Perhaps today is the best time to republish my second article on Sebastian Gorka, which originally appeared in LobeLog on March 31. Gorka just had quite a row with Chris Cuomo on CNN’s “New Day,” which made a splash on the internet. The topic of the dispute was Donald Trump’s latest tweets announcing that the courts can call his immigration executive order “whatever they want,” but it’s definitely a “TRAVEL BAN!” You can decide whether Cuomo cornered Sebastian Gorka, as The Week claimed, by watching the video at the end of this post.

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As for my article, I would like to express my gratitude to Steve N., a long-time reader of Hungarian Spectrum, without whom I wouldn’t have been able to discover the curious omission of three paragraphs from the Hungarian translation of Pál Gorka’s memoirs, which were originally published in English. These are the only texts in the whole book that deal with the attitude of Gorka’s father toward Jewish Hungarians in 1944. Sebastian Gorka refers to these encounters in his interviews as proof of the Gorka family’s long-standing sympathy for Jews and Jewish causes. So, getting hold of the book was important, but I couldn’t locate it anywhere in the larger libraries in the United States. Eventually it became evident that the book is available only in Budapest. So, I asked Steve for help. He got hold of the Hungarian version and told me that there was not a word about Jews in the book. I was suspicious and asked him to do me a second favor and go to another library where the English version was located. It was Steve who discovered the curious omission and uploaded the appropriate pages in both the English and the Hungarian versions. They can be found here. I’m grateful for his selfless assistance.

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The recent efforts to transform Sebastian Gorka from a far-right Hungarian politician into an anti-Nazi liberal fighting against anti-Semitism can be added to the growing catalogue of alternative facts brought to us by the Trump administration and its supporters. Gorka, deputy assistant to President Trump, spent almost half of his adult life in Hungary. He became a U.S. citizen only five years ago.

After Gorka announced his White House appointment on Twitter on January 30, a number of articles appeared online, including some of my own, which focused primarily on Gorka’s career in Hungary. I was especially interested in his political activities in 2006-2007 and his failure to receive national security clearance from the Hungarian authorities in 2002. But it was Eli Clifton’s widely circulated Lobelog article, “Why Is Trump Adviser Wearing Medal of Nazi Collaborators?,” that prompted journalists to start digging further into Gorka’s years in Hungary.

Clifton’s piece centered on a medallion Gorka wore at one of President Trump’s inaugural balls. The medallion is the symbol of membership in an order, Vitézi Rend, established by Miklós Horthy, governor of Hungary in the interwar period, for decorated World War I veterans. Although Jewish soldiers were not officially banned from membership, in practice, as Horthy later explained, “even the bravest and most decorated Jew [was] excluded” from the Vitézi Rend. Horthy went on to proudly announce that he had been “an anti-Semite throughout [his] life.”

Clifton ascertained that during and immediately after the war years the Vitézi Rend was on the State Department’s list of organizations under Nazi influence. This classification shouldn’t have surprised anyone: Hungary was an ally of Nazi Germany and thus on enemy footing with the United States. In a subsequent article, which also appeared in Lobelog, I shed more light on the history and political profile of the order. Neither Eli Clifton nor I, it should be stressed, ever called Gorka an anti-Semite.

Gorka and the Hungarian Far Right

Another series of articles on Gorka appeared in The Forward. The first, written by Lili Bayer, provided a detailed description of Gorka’s involvement with the far right during the turbulent days in the fall of 2006 when some far-right groups tried to topple the socialist-liberal government of Ferenc Gyurcsány (2004-2009). Her summary of the events is well documented. The second, by Bayer and Larry Cohler-Esses, offered credible testimony by two high officials of the Vitézi Rend that Sebastian Gorka, contrary to his denial, was a full-fledged member of the Order and that he wears its emblem not as a memento of his deceased father but in his own right. Neither the authors nor their sources accused Sebastian Gorka himself of anti-Semitism.

During his years in Hungary, Gorka’s political connections were all on the far-right fringe of the political spectrum. For instance, his problem in 2006 with Viktor Orbán, today the nationalist and proudly illiberal prime minister of Hungary, was that Orbán had shown himself incapable of bringing down the socialist-liberal government, a government that Gorka considered to be a continuation of communist rule and therefore illegitimate. During the disturbances that erupted in September 2006, he worked with the Hungarian National Committee, whose leaders called for an uprising against the socialist-liberal government. In fact, the man who announced the group’s intentions was Tamás Molnár, who, only a few months later in February 2007, joined Gorka in founding a new political party. Their party was intended to be “truly conservative” and to stand in opposition to Orbán’s Fidesz, which, the co-founders believed, had been corrupted by the world of politics. It is this man whom his friends and defenders are now transforming into a champion of liberal democracy and a steadfast soldier against anti-Semitism.

Before looking at the arguments of his defenders, let’s see what Sebastian Gorka himself had to say over time about his involvement with the Vitézi Order and far-right groups in Hungary. It was two days after the appearance of Eli Clifton’s article that Breitbart published a video interview with Gorka. In it, he explained that his father “was awarded a decoration for his resistance to a dictatorship,” which he now wears “in remembrance” of what his family went through. Note that in this early interview Gorka avoided any mention of his father’s membership in the Vitézi Rend. He did, however, make a claim that recurs in later accounts by others: Gorka’s family was a victim of the “takeover [of Hungary] by the Nazis” as well as of the communist dictatorship. It is true that German troops occupied Hungary on March 19, 1944. But it is most unlikely the Gorka family’s life changed in any significant way as a result of this troop movement. The occupation was a generally peaceful affair. The real victims were the Jews who were herded into boxcars and shipped to Auschwitz by two efficient, viciously anti-Semitic bureaucrats of the ministry of interior who both happened to be members of the Vitézi Rend.

The Rehabilitation of Sebastian Gorka

Shortly after the Breitbart video was aired, articles appeared on Gorka’s behalf by friends and acquaintances, like David Reaboi, who portrayed Gorka as a man who “has a decades-long record as an opponent of anti-Semitism, xenophobia and anti-American sentiment in Hungary and who fought to undermine elements on the political right—even going as far as helping launch a political party to push conservative voters away from anti-Semitic parties.” From the available material, which is abundant, there are no signs of such activities and intentions. On the contrary, as I pointed out earlier, Gorka’s abortive party, Új Demokrata Koalíció (New Democratic Coalition), was an attempt to challenge Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, not an effort to undermine anti-Semitic elements on the political right. Moreover, if Gorka was so preoccupied with the growing anti-Semitism in Hungary, which he allegedly tried to stop, why did he publish a series of 12 articles in the well-known anti-Semitic weekly, Magyar Demokrata? If he was such a democrat, why did he take part in the Magyar Nemzeti Bizottság (Hungarian National Committee), which wanted to foment an uprising in order to topple the legitimate government of the country? Why did he choose one of the leaders of this group as co-founder of his political party? Things don’t add up, I’m afraid.

It looks as if Gorka managed to convince not only his friends and acquaintances here of his family’s anti-fascist past and his own struggle against Hungarian anti-Semitism but also the staff of the White House. They came to believe that Gorka’s “family literally bears the scars of anti-fascist fights” and that it is therefore inconceivable that he could possibly be “a secret Nazi cultist.” His supporters ignore credible evidence that challenges their preconceived ideas about their hero. Testimony about Gorka’s own membership in the order is ignored, while his explanation for sporting the insignia of the order and using its honorific title as a sign of devotion to his father is accepted “as a plausible explanation.” Liel Leibovitz, one of Gorka’s champions, adds in his Tablet article: “you may find this kind of devotion to be overly doting or even creepy but if you’re honest, the story here is simple and in some ways touching.” It almost sounds as if deep down he himself has some doubts about the story’s veracity.

As opposed to the documentation of Sebastian Gorka’s involvement with far-right groups in 2006-2007, no evidence is offered for this brave anti-fascist struggle by the Gorka family. I’m sorry to say that the overwhelming majority of Hungarians showed total passivity during these terrible times. Nonetheless, for David P. Goldman, who denounced the “shameful slanders against Sebastian Gorka, friend of Israel,” Gorka’s father became “a hero of the anti-fascist and anti-Communist resistance in Hungary.” It should be noted that in 1944 Paul Gorka, the hero of the anti-fascist resistance, was all of 14 years old.

Most of the pieces written on behalf of Sebastian Gorka are rife with factual errors and questionable interpretations of history. In Joel B. Pollak’s piece published in Breitbart, for example, we are told that the Order was banned by the “Soviets” because it was “an anti-communist symbol.” No, it was banned because it was considered to be one of those “pro-Hitler and other fascist political, military, para-military and other organizations on Hungarian territory conducting propaganda hostile to the United Nations.” Moreover, in his eagerness to establish the Gorka family’s anti-fascist credentials, Pollak places it in the middle of “the Nazi siege of Budapest.” Nazi siege? It would have been wise to learn the facts. Shortly before the end of the war the city was encircled by the Red Army. On the mad order of Hitler, German and Hungarian soldiers tried to defend the Hungarian capital. After 50 days and with a death toll of almost 40,000, the city, including the Budapest ghetto, was liberated. Every year, right-wing groups, including the Historic Vitézi Rend, commemorate the “Day of Honor,” February 11, 1945, when German and Hungarian soldiers inside Budapest tried to break through the Soviet lines.

Alternative Facts at Work

Bruce Abramson and Jeff Ballabon are perhaps Gorka’s most vehement defenders, and the fiercest critics of people who hold views different from their own. In their first article, “Leftist Trump Critics Play Anti-Semitism Card,” they write: “The hatchet job against the Trump Administration continues. The most recent victim is Sebastian Gorka … The charge is—surprise!—anti-Semitism. The behavior of Jewish progressives leading the attack is shameful.” In fact, the two authors created a strawman because, as pointed out above, neither the Forward nor LobeLog—nor their sources—accused Gorka himself of anti-Semitism.

In their second article, Abramson and Ballabon claim that a bad Vitézi Order existed before 1945 but that the current one promotes “Hungarian freedom from Soviet domination.” This is, I’m afraid, wrong. Today’s members swear allegiance to the same moral code that was written in the 1930s and reissued recently. Yet, according to the two authors, the current Vitézi Rend is so sensitive to Jewish causes that, “as recently as September of 2016, the Order commemorated the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, remembering the Nazis’ victims and honoring Hungarian soldiers who, despite their country being allied with the Germans, refused the Germans’ orders to put down the Uprising.” I was dumbfounded by this assertion. The writers seem to have gotten lost in the fog of war. They mixed up the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April-May 1943, in which 13,000 Jews were killed, with the Warsaw Uprising of August-September 1944, which was organized by the Polish resistance’s Home Army to liberate Warsaw from German occupation. It was the latter event’s anniversary that the Order commemorated. This mistake is symptomatic of the overreach of Gorka apologists in their efforts to create an alternative history of the Order as well as of the Gorka family.

Abramson and Ballabon’s third article, which appeared in the Jerusalem Post, gives their most complete account of Sebastian Gorka’s activities in Hungary. The authors claim that, once in Hungary, “Gorka chose his political affiliation consciously” when he became employed in the ministry of defense under the premiership of József Antall, Jr. But, according to his own father, the reason for Sebastian Gorka’s employment in the ministry was much more mundane. In his account, father and son paid a visit to the House of Parliament, where they bumped into Kálmán Kéri (1901-1994), a former high-ranking officer in the Hungarian Army and an old friend of Paul Gorka, who at the time was the oldest member of parliament. It was on his recommendation that Sebastian got a job in the ministry, which needed people with foreign language skills. Abramson and Ballabon, in a wild leap of logic, use Gorka’s employment as a civil servant in the Antall government as evidence of his attachment to the Jewish community. After all, József Antall, Sr. was recognized by Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous Among the Nations.

Although we know from the very best source, Miklós Horthy himself, that Jews were not allowed to be members of the Order during his time in office, Abrahamson and Ballabon simply cannot accept this fact. According to their account, for example, one alleged Jewish member happened to be “a friend of the Gorka family whose valuables the Gorkas hid from the Nazis. Those valuables included a medal of the Order of Vitéz.” The authors thus kill two birds with one stone here: the Order must have had Jewish members, regardless of what everybody says, and, moreover, Gorka’s grandparents hid the valuables of their Jewish friends. The apparent goal is to show the Gorka family’s long-standing commitment to the Jewish people.

Abrahamson and Ballabon criticize The Forward for neglecting to read Paul Gorka’s book titled Budapest Betrayed,  because there they would have found “several steps that he himself as an adolescent and his family had taken to help protect Jewish friends during the war.” Well, I managed to get hold of the book, both in its original English version published in Great Britain in 1986 and its Hungarian translation from 2002.

The stories that Abrahamson and Ballabon recount appear in a chapter describing Paul Gorka’s interrogation in 1950 in connection with his passing information to British intelligence. One of his interrogators, whom he suspected of being Jewish, “was quietly impressed by my stories and this could have been one of the reasons for his fairly civilized behaviour towards me.”  Under the circumstances, can these “stories” be taken at face value? I don’t know, but it is troubling that the four paragraphs dealing with Paul Gorka’s interaction with this interrogator and the stories he told him about protecting Jews during the Nazi occupation are curiously missing from the Hungarian translation of the book. The question is why. Perhaps Gorka’s defenders could offer “a plausible explanation.”

Finally, I should mention that the Hungarian government has already gotten in touch with Sebastian Gorka, whom the Orbán government is hoping to use as a direct line to the White House. I assume that the opinion piece published in defense of Gorka last month in The Hill by Tibor Navracsics, former deputy to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (2010-2014) and currently European Union commissioner for education, culture, youth and sport, was meant as a preamble to future cooperation between the Budapest government and Sebastian Gorka. Navracsics in this article went out of his way to praise the man who was once an insistent critic of Viktor Orbán as an incompetent and ineffectual party leader. Navracsics even claimed that he had “watched with admiration as [Gorka] found a new home and rose so rapidly to the highest of policy positions,” which, considering Gorka’s relative obscurity before his appointment, is doubtful. In any case, Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó already had a meeting with Gorka in Washington, and Gorka was present at the opening of the new Hungarian Embassy. We may be seeing the beginning of a beautiful friendship between Gorka, a former editor of Breitbart News, and Viktor Orbán, the illiberal prime minister of Hungary who is most often compared to Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Marine Le Pen.

June 5, 2017

Spotlight on Sebastian Gorka’s Controversial Medal

Today I am republishing a piece I wrote for LobeLog, a foreign policy internet site, which appeared on February 24, 2017. It was a follow-up to the couple of Hungarian Spectrum posts I had done on Sebastian Gorka–the first, “Sebastian Gorka’s road from Budapest to the White House” and the second, “Sebastian L. von Gorka’s encounter with the Hungarian National Security Office.” At this point, we knew relatively little about this man, whom many consider to be something of an adventurer.

Since then, Lili Bayer, working out of Budapest, has done an enormous amount of investigative work. She published several articles on Gorka’s past in The Forward. I especially recommend her first article, “Senior Trump aide forged key ties to anti-Semitic groups in Hungary,” and another titled “Controversial Trump aide Sebastian Gorka backed violent anti-Semitic militia.”

Gorka’s Hungarian past has been the subject of immense interest, as the number of articles that have appeared in the past three months attests. The essay below was intended to inform readers what Miklós Horthy’s Vitézi Rend (Order of Knights) was all about. I might add that Gorka has consistently denied that he was a member of the order, although the evidence to the contrary is quite convincing.

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Sebastian Gorka, deputy assistant of President Donald Trump and member of a new White House team, the Strategic Initiatives Group, has been receiving an increasing amount of attention in the last few weeks. Julianne Smith, a former national security adviser to Vice President Joseph Biden, worries about both the existence of this new group and Sebastian Gorka’s presence in it. Counterterrorism experts are particularly concerned about Gorka’s ideas that Islam as a religion cannot be separated from the ideology of terror. Knowledgeable people in the field consider his ideas on Islam dangerous and a radical departure from U.S. policy over the last 17 years.

Several U.S. journalists who have dug into Sebastian Gorka’s past have been puzzled by his proud embrace of his Hungarian roots. Why did he appear at the inaugural ball in a strange braided outfit with an equally strange medallion and decoration? Eli Clifton of LobeLog identified the medallion as one bestowed by the Order of Knights (Vitézi Rend), a group established by Miklós Horthy, regent of Hungary between 1920 and 1944. A day later Allegra Kirkland of Talking Points Memo quoted a Hungarian historian who was less certain about its provenance.

By now we can state with confidence that the medallion is indeed the identifying object of the Order, as Sebastian Gorka himself admitted in a short Breitbart video appearance. He explained that on special occasions he wears the medallion and decoration, which his father received in appreciation of his suffering as a political prisoner between 1950 and 1956. But there is a more complete version of the story that needs telling.

Origins of Vitézi Rend

Miklós Horthy established the Order of Knights to bestow the honor of knighthood on highly decorated World War I veterans. The “captain-general” of the Order was Horthy himself. Although the Order’s leaders today claim that it was always apolitical, they end up describing it as a right-wing, conservative body that promotes Hungary’s military tradition. Unfortunately, this military tradition also includes Hungary’s participation in World War II on the side of Nazi Germany.

Only a few days ago members of the Order marched along with extreme right-wing groups to commemorate the “Day of Honor,” February 11, 1945, when German-Hungarian soldiers in an encircled Budapest tried to break through the Soviet lines. Imre Marosvári, the captain of the Order in Budapest, honored the 72nd anniversary of the event with an unrealistic, pro-German description of the military situation in 1945. The primary concern of these brave soldiers, he said, was to slow down the Soviet advance in order to give the Germans time to develop their “new weaponry.” I assume he is talking about the atomic bomb. He also had harsh words for the Allies. According to him, the American and British air raids were inhumane and cruel and turned the civilian population against the Allies.

The Order still follows its original goals, which among other things aimed “to secure the lordship of the Hungarian race, which could strike down all subversive, anti-national efforts with formidable force.” From its inception the Order was an irredentist organization, whose slogan is still: “I believe in one God, I believe in one country, I believe in the divine everlasting truth, I believe in the resurrection of Hungary,” which means the recreation of Hungary according to its pre-1918 borders. As Hungarian historian Szilárd Tátrai pointed out in a recent article, the ideology and policies of the Order were a faithful reflection of all the key attributes of the Horthy regime. Therefore, nobody should be surprised that the U.S. State Department considered the Order to be an organization under German influence. After all, they argued, Hungary was an ally of Nazi Germany.

The Order was organized along military lines. Under Horthy as captain-general were eight nationwide regional captains. Every county had a captain of its own, and every “járás,” a smaller administrative unit, had a lieutenant. The knight had to observe a strict political and moral code, and unmarried knights had to submit for scrutiny details about their future wives’ families. The male children of knights were required to enroll in the Levente Movement, designed to give military training to Hungarian boys between the ages of 12 and 21. Since the title of knight was inheritable by the oldest male child, the “ideological preparation” of the next generation of knights was considered to be of the utmost importance.

The Order’s Political Associations

Although Hungarians of Jewish extraction were not officially excluded from the Order, in practice they were barred from membership. Here is what Miklós Horthy, the captain-general of the order, had to say on the subject in a letter written in October 1940: “A ‘Vitéz’ may marry with a license only, and persons of alien stock are received only when this person is a 100 per cent Hungarian as to feeling, is reliable and applies himself for the Magyarization of his name. Even the bravest and most decorated Jew is excluded.” Those sentences were followed by Horthy’s infamous claim that “as regards the Jewish problem, I have been an anti-Semite throughout my life. I have never had contact with Jews.”

Although apologists of the Order bring up the couple of high government officials and military men who at the very end turned against the German and Hungarian Nazis, these people were few and far between. Even the official history admits that many knights committed war crimes. For example, “unfortunately the organizers of the bloodbath in Novi Sad (Újvidék) were members of the Order of Knights.” Approximately 3,500 Serbs and Hungarian Jews lost their lives in Novi Sad in 1942. The organizers of this carnage, who thanks to Horthy could await their trial as free men, escaped to Germany only to return with the German troops in 1944. Two men who were instrumental in organizing the transports that carried more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews to their death in 1944 were also knights: László Endre and László Baki.

Horthy died in February 1957 in Estoril, Portugal. But shortly before his death he was still thinking about the future role of the Order, whose “calling is the rebuilding of a new Hungarian future.” With his death, émigré knights began to reorganize the Order, and it soon spread among Hungarians worldwide. The reorganized Order introduced an important change in the admission procedures: heroes of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution could also become knights. Because of this new policy (loosely interpreted), Sebastian Gorka’s father, Pál Gorka, became eligible for admission to the Order of Heroes. His investiture, in 1979, apparently took place in Great Britain, to which he had escaped after the defeat of the uprising by Soviet troops.

Today there is not one Order of Knights but two because the leaders of the organizations are badly split on several issues. One group is called “Vitézi Red” (Order of Knights) while the other is known as “Történelmi Vitézi Rend” (Historical Order of Knights). The split occurred after the center of the Order moved back to Hungary. Pál Gorka and most likely Sebastian Gorka as well were invested in the Historical Order of Knights led by László Hunyadi, its captain-general.

Knights in inter-war military uniforms teach youngsters about the use of weaponry

Gorka’s Connection to the Order

As for Pál Gorka and his knighthood, I have pieced together his story from bits of information that he and his son provided. The stories, I’m afraid, don’t always jibe. The elder Gorka was arrested in 1950, but the duration of his sentence is not at all clear. When Pál Gorka was interviewed by David Irving, the well-known Holocaust denier, for his book on the Hungarian revolution of 1956, he claimed that he had been sentenced to life imprisonment for espionage because “one of his cell’s couriers was shot on the frontier, and papers found on him enabled the AVH [the Hungarian state security] to break the network.” However, in a Hungarian-language article that appeared in August 2002, he said that he had received a ten-year sentence and that Kim Philby, the notorious British spy, had betrayed him and his comrades.

In that same 2002 interview Pál Gorka also talked about his part-time work for the British government. For 30 years he helped the authorities vet newly arrived political refugees from Hungary. He seems to have been active in the local Hungarian community. For example, he represented the British-Hungarian community in the World Federation of Hungarians and in that capacity attended the Third World Congress of the Federation in Budapest in 1992.

Another intriguing aspect of the Gorka family’s life in Great Britain is their relationship to David Irving, a revisionist historian who tried to clean away the “years of grime and discoloration from the façade of a silent and forbidding monument” to reveal the real Hitler. His 1977 book, Hitler’s War, tried to whitewash Hitler while blaming the allies for escalating the war. Irving was prolific, coming out with a new book practically every year. Eventually, he decided to write a book on the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, which he published in 1981 under the title Uprising! One Nation’s Nightmare, 1956. The massive 740-page book is available online. Irving’s conclusion is that the revolt was “primarily an anti-Jewish uprising,” a gross misrepresentation of the facts. He interviewed a lot of people both in Hungary and abroad who had a role to play in the events. Although Pál Gorka, who had been freed from jail a few days after the outbreak of the uprising, certainly wasn’t a key player, he got at least a couple of footnotes. More interesting was the introduction where Irving thanked his three interpreters, one of whom was Susan Gorka, Pál’s wife and Sebastian’s mother. Considering that Irving, according to his own admission, spent about six years off and on doing research on this book and knew not a word of Hungarian, Susan Gorka must have worked with the author fairly closely.

Returning to the issue of the medallion, I would like to correct Sebastian Gorka’s somewhat misleading description of how his father acquired the medallion. The medallion is not bestowed by the Order in recognition of some heroic deed. It is tangible proof of membership in the Order. A person must apply for membership and must be approved by the leadership of the Order. Presumably, Pál Gorka was approved because he was a “hero” of 1956 who adhered to the precepts of the Order. Moreover, once a person undergoes the process of investiture he is expected to be an active participant in the organization. Pál Gorka was probably an active member of the organization when the Gorkas lived in Great Britain. He was certainly active after his return to Hungary. He and his wife settled in Sopron, a town close to the Austrian border, where he worked on behalf of the Order under Kornél Pintér, “territorial tribe captain” of the region. In the last ten years of his life he served as “knight lieutenant” on the county level.

According to the rules of the Order, inheritance of the title is not automatic. The eldest son must be approved by the Board of the Order. One cannot just “inherit” the medallion and use it “in memory” of one’s father. If we can believe Kornél Pintér, the “tribe captain,” Sebastian is a full-fledged member of the Order in his own right. That’s why Pintér is so proud that “one of our fellow members is now in the White House.”

June 2, 2017

Today’s extra: Who is a “financial speculator?”–János Lázár explains

Vice President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans, in an interview with Die Zeit, agreed with the interviewer that Viktor Orbán’s description of George Soros as an American financial speculator “clearly had anti-Semitic undertones.” Members of the Hungarian government were indignant. Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó demanded Timmermans’ resignation.

Last week János Lázár was asked about Timmermans’ allegedly unfounded accusation. A friend of mine extracted two telling sentences from his answer to a question pertaining to the topic. Of technical necessity, I posted the two videos as links, so those who would like to hear Lázár in the original (over and over) will have to click on the two links below. For those who don’t know the language I’ve translated these two sentences.

(1) Historical experience. “It is historical experience that financial speculators usually ward off criticism of their financial activities by saying that it is anti-Semitism.”

(2) Speculators steal other people’s money. “Every financial speculator, if you look over the last 100 years, usually defends himself by [charging his critics with anti-Semitism]. He steals other people’s money, after which he calls those who demand their money back anti-Semites.”

So, did Orbán’s remarks have anti-Semitic undertones or not? What do you think?

Karl Pfeifer: The Orbán regime takes Horthy’s Hungary as an example

I have known the dark ages of Hungary. As a child, during World War Two, I experienced first-hand Hungarian ultra-nationalism and anti-Semitism. I managed to avoid deportation and murder in Auschwitz by fleeing to Palestine in 1943, along with 49 other Jewish children.

Decades later, I returned to Hungary during the years of Communism. As a journalist writing for major Austrian newspapers, my reporting included interviewing dissidents. As a result, the Kadar regime expelled me four times from the country, the last time in 1987.

This personal history makes me extremely sensitive to current developments in Hungary and the shadows that are once again rising there.

Consider, for example, the current government campaign against the work of the Hungarian-born American billionaire George Soros. Mr. Soros’s Open Society Foundations has given more than $200 million to Hungarian groups since the fall of Communism, supporting a host of humanitarian issues—including independent groups that support human rights and are often critical of the government.

As a result, George Soros is demonized and presented as the source of all evil by the government. The rhetoric used reminds me of the anti-Semitic propaganda from my childhood, according to which the Jews were responsible for all of Hungary’s problems, like poverty, ignorance, and landless peasants.

Moreover, the government media portrays Mr. Soros as an agent of “international finance.” We know that this is a code for “Jews.” You don’t have to be explicitly anti-Semitic, you can be implicitly anti-Semitic – the message is quite clear for mainstream Hungarian society, which has never come to terms with its own prejudices against Jews.

Finally, Soros is presented by the government as responsible for mass migration to Europe. Did the 86-year-old investor really go to Syria and Iraq to politely ask people to come to Europe? This is a worldview deeply rooted in conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism.

This goes beyond the attacks on Soros. When Orbán refers to “ethnic homogeneity” as a factor of prosperity for the country, I am worried. This reminds me of a 1941 law that banned all forms of sexual intercourse between Jews and Gentiles, in the name of ethnic purity. This was done under the rule of the ultra-nationalist and Nazi collaborator Miklos Horthy. In Horthy times, anti-Semitism was a national policy. It is not the case today, but hatred against Jews has free flow and conspiracy theories are clearly targeted at the Jewish community, the largest one in Central Europe.

This poisonous rhetoric is the product of a political system that has grown increasingly authoritarian under Mr. Orbán’s Fidesz government, and it is being used by that government to strengthen its control. The Fidesz government and its allies own the majority of media outlets, including all of the TV and radio stations which have large audiences in rural Hungary, where the vast majority of the party electorate resides. Media outlets presenting views in opposition to the government are not accessible to the average Hungarian, therefore most people believe what the government propaganda tells them. And that message is straightforward: if you criticize the government, you are an enemy of the nation.

The government is now seeking to extend its power with a new law tightening controls on the funding of groups such as the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee—rights groups which receive some of their funding from…yes, George Soros’ Open Society Foundations. Thus the rhetoric of anti-Semitism is being deployed to serve the government’s ultimate political aim of consolidating its control – while supposedly remaining a democratic member of the European Union.

It’s worth remembering that under the Horthy regime too there was a parliament, and it was possible to express critical views in a handful of opposition papers. Yet that did not make the regime a democratic one.

Fidesz is a member of the European People’s Party, the club of conservative parties in the European Union. But Fidesz is not a conservative party. Conservative parties do not mobilize mass rallies to defend the “sovereignty of the Hungarian nation,” unlike in 2012 when 400,000 people took to the streets of Budapest at the urging of the government media – with the infamous anti-Semitic journalist Zsolt Bayer marching in the front rank. Conservative parties do not touch private property, unlike Fidesz, which nationalized pension funds in 2010 to finance the state’s expenditures. Conservative parties do not falsify history, unlike in Hungary where the state established the national think tank “Veritas,” downplaying the participation of Hungarians in the murder of 500,000 Hungarian Jews during the Second World War.

The upcoming law on NGOs will further silence the last opposition voices in a member state of the European Union. The government propaganda plays with the fear of “the other”: the migrants, the Jews, foreign capital. But who pays attention to Hungarians? Who is concerned about the disastrous state of healthcare and education in the country? By annihilating critical voices, the anti-NGO law will spring the trap on the real victims of the government: ordinary Hungarians.


Karl Pfeifer is an Austrian-born journalist of Hungarian Jewish origin and a member of the board of the Archives of the Austrian Resistance.
He is author of several books. A movie about his life can be seen at https://vimeo.com/124834106

March 26, 2017

Neo-Nazis, Hungarists, and anti-Semites

I have written twice about far-right, neo-Nazi groups which at this time of the year gather to commemorate the anniversary of the breakout of German and Hungarian soldiers from Buda, which had been completely surrounded by Soviet troops between December 24 and 27, 1944. What followed was the siege of Budapest, one of the bloodiest encounters of World War II. Hitler specifically forbade his troops to retreat in the face of the encirclement or to escape after it was in place.

The Pest ghetto was liberated on January 17, but fighting on the Buda side was just beginning. Between January 20 and February 11 about 13,000 soldiers were killed or captured. Under these circumstances, attempting a breakout was a suicidal undertaking. Indeed, over 19,000 soldiers were killed in the attempt and only 700 individuals managed to break through the Soviet lines.

Every year domestic and foreign extremists, neo-Nazis, remember the event. The commemoration includes a short demonstration studded with speeches in addition to the so-called “breakout tours.” A breakout tour is a walk, something of an obstacle course, along the route the escapees took. It is 56 km long and must be finished within 18 hours. Naturally, this event takes place in Buda and the surrounding hills. There was only one exception: last year for some strange reason the demonstration was held in Székesfehérvár, far away from the place where this madness happened.

Since 1997 thousands have gathered every February for what they call the “Day of Honor” or “Becsület napja.” The man who came up with the idea for the commemoration was István Győrkös, leader of the National Front (Nemzeti Arcvonal). Last October Győrkös shot and killed a Hungarian policeman who was checking Győrkös’s house for illegal weapons. Members of the National Front did not attend the event this year, but the Army of Outlaws and László Toroczkai’s Sixty-Four Counties group once again participated.

Viktor Orbán was extremely critical of the socialist-liberal administration which allowed these demonstrations to take place, and he promised that once he becomes prime minister again he will put an end to these neo-Nazi, Arrow Cross, and Hungarist demonstrations. Of course, the demonstrations have continued. The neo-Nazis go to the police station and announce their plans, and the police say “go ahead.”

The only thing that has happened since 2010 is that Nazi and Communist symbols were outlawed, demonstrators were forbidden to cover their faces, and it became illegal to wear a uniform. So, what happened on February 11 this year? The mostly young neo-Nazis appeared in black uniform-like outfits, some of them covered their faces, and they wore the forbidden neo-Nazi symbols.

The media reported that about 600 mostly young people participated who, as Népszava noted, “wouldn’t be insulted to be called neo-Nazis or neo-Arrow Cross men.” In addition to the Hungarian contingent there were quite a few Germans and Italians. One could also see a few Polish flags and so-called Szekler flags from Romania.

One can gauge the ideology of these groups by listening to any of the speeches. One of the speakers assessed the significance of the 1945 event this way: “We didn’t win, but in every little sacrifice there was the potential for victory.” Zsolt Tyirityán of the Army of Outlaws said that “the world is determined by a struggle for Lebensraum.” He ended his speech with “Recognition of and due respect for the Waffen SS! Glory to the Waffen SS!”

The “troops” are ready for their tour, February 11, 2017

A couple of days later Mazsihisz, the umbrella organization of Jewish religious groups, issued a somewhat resigned statement about the sad fact that “one can celebrate the enemies of the Hungarian people, the German Nazis and Hungarian Arrow Cross men, who blew up the bridges of the Hungarian capital and who caused so much suffering to its inhabitants…. But to hoist a flag with a swastika, to wear an armband with a swastika, to generate fear is prohibited and punishable according to the law.” Because anyone who places a Nazi flag on a light fixture makes it clear that he approves of the Holocaust. Mazsihisz asked the police to investigate the case.

Since then, the president of Mazsihisz, András Heisler, paid a visit to Viktor Orbán. The meeting had been arranged a month earlier and was supposed to be a financial discussion about the rebuilding of a Budapest synagogue that was recently devastated by fire and a Jewish Hospital specializing in gerontology. However, in light of the latest neo-Nazi demonstration, Heisler brought up the Jewish community’s concerns. Apparently, Orbán showed real or feigned surprise about the passivity of the police and promised to find ways, just like in earlier years, to prevent the display of such Nazi symbols.

If the ministry of interior could handle these situations in the past, how could it happen that this year the police calmly looked on while Nazi flags and swastikas were being displayed? One hypothesis is that László Toroczkai’s Sixty-Four Counties group participated. Toroczkai is the vice president of Jobbik, the party that is the target of Fidesz’s political wrath at the moment. In this struggle, it would come in handy to show that Gábor Vona’s move away from anti-Semitism is nothing but a political trick without any substance.

Finally, there is an unsigned opinion piece in Népszava, the oldest Hungarian-language daily in the United States. The title is “The promises of a selective anti-Semite.” The American Népszava is known to be highly critical of Viktor Orbán and his regime. This piece contends that Orbán has “problems only with liberal, secular Jews who infect decent Hungarian Christians with their liberal ideas.” He has no problems, the article contends, with observant Jews who “don’t mix” with the “members of the host country.” He doesn’t hate them because they don’t pose a threat to him. He likes talking to the leaders of Chabad who hate secular Jews as much as he does. Our anonymous author believes that Orbán’s ill feelings toward Jewish intellectuals stem from the fact that “they didn’t accept him” and therefore “he has developed an inferiority complex.” The author goes so far as to describe Orbán’s entire political career as a struggle to win over Hungarian Jewish intellectuals inside and outside of Hungary.

I actually toned down Népszava’s article somewhat. In fact, the author calls Orbán someone “who was an anti-Semite first and only later found the anti-Semitic ‘Christian’ ideology.” This is certainly a bold thesis, which many will doubt. Viktor Orbán is a master of double talk, so no one will ever catch him saying anything, at least in public, that could be labelled as being outright anti-Semitic.

February 16, 2017

“Keep quiet”–A documentary on Csanád Szegedi’s conversion from anti-Semite to observant Jew

A couple of weeks ago I received a DVD preview copy of the just released documentary “Keep Quiet,” directed by Joseph Martin and Sam Blair and distributed by Kino Lorber, Inc. The documentary deals with Csanád Szegedi, one of the most outspoken anti-Semites in the far-right Jobbik party, who at the pinnacle of his political career was confronted with the fact that he is actually Jewish. He became a practicing Orthodox Jew soon after his expulsion from Jobbik.

Of course, I’m familiar with the story of Csanád Szegedi because his drama played out in front of our eyes in 2012, but I still watched the movie with fascination. Perhaps because of his past in politics, Szegedi feels comfortable in front of the camera and is surprisingly articulate. His facility with language and the excellent direction make the film move smoothly.

After watching Szegedi up close and personal, instead of seeing him as a far-right firebrand giving political speeches, I feel more sympathy for him now than I did before. Of course, I share many of the concerns of those who are less than convinced about both Szegedi’s story and his transformation. One of the main reasons for people’s distrust is the extreme nature of his conversion. We know hundreds of cases of people who one day, almost by accident, discover that they are Jewish, yet they don’t join an ultra-Orthodox (Lubavitch/Chabad ) community, especially since Chabad fundamentalism is alien to Hungarian Jewry.

Csanád Szegedi in the uniform of Magyar Gárda “Hungary belongs to the Hungarians”

The documentary clarifies the reasons for Szegedi’s odd choice of Chabad orthodoxy. First, though certainly not a defining reason, he believes that his grandmother, despite her very vague recollections of her childhood, was brought up in an Orthodox home. I do hope he realizes that the Orthodox community in Miskolc, where the family is from, had little to do with Chabad. Second, the pragmatic reason: no other Jewish group was ready to take him in. And third, the psychological reason. Szegedi talks at length of his need to belong to a close-knit group, which he found in Jobbik, the movement he joined in 2003 at the age of 21 while a student at the Catholic Péter Pázmány University in Budapest. His father, who, by the way, is absent from the film altogether, while we meet his Jewish grandmother and mother, is a committed right-winger. At the dinner table Csanád soaked up all the right-wing nationalistic views of his father. It seems that in high school he again found himself among boys who shared his views. Therefore, it is not at all surprising that as soon as Jobbik was established as a youth movement, Szegedi joined the group.

Belonging to a community is extremely important to Szegedi. Without the warmth that such a close-knit community provides, he is lost. And once he was tossed out of Jobbik, he was utterly destroyed. Not just because his political career came to an abrupt end but because he was cut loose. He was suddenly outside of a circle where he felt at home. He even contemplated suicide.

Szegedi’s need for belonging and acceptance led him to the odd choice of the tiny ultra-Orthodox Chabad community in Hungary. Baruch Oberlander, a transplant from Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, was the only one who was ready to forgive his sins and show him the road to redemption. No other Jewish group wanted anything to do with him. It is enough to watch the angry crowd that confronted Oberlander in Montreal in 2013 after listening to the speech that Szegedi wrote. (Szegedi had been deported from Canada before he could deliver his speech in person.) His speech didn’t convince the crowd. They were furious and practically attacked the poor rabbi. Even Oberlander admits that his decision to accept Szegedi into the Chabad community was controversial.

Csanád Szegedi with Rabbi Barruch Oberlander

Perhaps what got less than adequate coverage in the film is Szegedi’s extreme Hungarian nationalism. His own given name “Csanád” is one of those Hungarian names that became fashionable in the last 30 years or so. Nationalistic Hungarian parents chose ancient Hungarian names for their children. There couldn’t have been too many Csanáds in the eighties when Szegedi was born. In 1972, for example, when a book was published on “suggested” and “acceptable” given names, only one Csanád was born in the whole country. Szegedi himself was so enamored with old Hungarian names that he published a book on the subject in 2002: The Complete Repository of Given Names of Hungarian Origin—More Than 8,400 Ancient Names of Hungarian Origin. In a long interview, given in 2015, he described himself as a “proud Hungarian Jew.” His second book’s title is I Believe in the Resurrection of Hungary, a line from a revisionist three-line Hungarian Creed: “I believe in God, I believe in one country: / I believe in the divine everlasting truth, / I believe in the resurrection of Hungary.”

Many people in Hungary simply don’t believe that Csanád was totally ignorant of his Jewish heritage. One reason for this disbelief is Szegedi’s own public comments after one of his colleagues confronted him in 2012. In addition, newspapers reported wildly divergent stories about his knowledge of the true facts. In the film he admits that he knew that his grandmother was adopted by a Jewish family called Klein but, as far as he knew, she herself was not Jewish. In the course of the film, we find out that the parents of Szegedi’s grandmother died in the Holocaust while she herself survived Auschwitz. After her return her only surviving uncle adopted her.

We don’t learn much about the family dynamics. Why the absence of the father? How much did the father know about his wife’s Jewishness? Why did the grandmother and the mother take so lightly Csanád’s loud and insistent anti-Semitism? Why didn’t they try to explain to the young man that anti-Semitism is unacceptable? One understands that, given what happened, many Jews wanted to hide their true identity. They just “kept quiet,” as Szegedi’s grandmother explained her silence. But they didn’t have to give away their secrets in order to teach Csanád the norms of decent human behavior.

So, many questions remain about Csanád Szegedi and his family, but I think I got to know him much better thanks to this fascinating documentary. In September 2016 the Jewish weekly Szombat reported that the World Zionist Organization and a Hungarian Chabad organization called Tett és Védelem Alapítvány (Action and Defense Foundation) had organized a conference on fighting anti-Semitism. Here apparently Szegedi announced that he had already filed all the necessary papers in preparation for his Aliyah to Israel. Yet, at the end of the film he admitted that he doesn’t know whether he will be committed to ultra-orthodoxy for the rest of his life.

Anne Applebaum, the American-Polish journalist who has written extensively about communism and about Central and Eastern Europe, gives excellent commentaries throughout the film. It is a thought-provoking production, and I’m glad that I had the opportunity to preview it.

February 12, 2017

Gábor Vona and the transformation of Jobbik

Great was my surprise this morning when I discovered that Gábor Vona, chairman of the right-wing party earlier known for its anti-Semitism and its condemnation of Israel as a terrorist state, had announced that Jobbik from now on “will respect Israel’s right to exist, form its own identity, opinions and articulate its interests.” As the Reuter’s headline put it: “Jobbik ditches far-right past” in order to be taken seriously as a challenger to Viktor Orbán at next year’s national election.

A couple of days ago I devoted a post to Gábor Vona’s Hanukkah greetings to heads of religious organizations. One of the recipients was Slomó Köves, head of the Chabad-based Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregations. Köves was taken aback by the “gesture” because of the strongly anti-Semitic past of Jobbik and its leader. An exchange of open letters followed Vona’s original message, which prompted a lively public debate.

What I didn’t mention in my post was an article written by T. Gábor Szántó, editor-in-chief of Szombat (Sabbath and also the Hungarian word for Saturday), who gave some advice to Vona about “how Jobbik could become part of a civilized, democratic society.” While Szántó acknowledged Jobbik’s “slow metamorphosis” and the “expulsion of the most extremist members of the leadership,” he noted that “Jobbik bears serious responsibility for the legitimization of anti-Semitic discourse in Hungarian public life.” Such transformations have also been observed in West European far-right parties, he noted, but the Hungarian extreme right is still very much behind in this respect.

If Jobbik wants to become a respectable, civilized, democratic force, the party and its forums must turn against their former views. To achieve that goal, first they must define their attitude toward the Holocaust and accept the Hungarian state’s responsibility for acts against its Jewish citizens in 1944. Second, they must clarify their party’s relationship to openly anti-Semitic and racist groups and forums. And finally, they should articulate their views on Israel’s right to exist and on the fundamentalism and terror of Islam that threatens the values of the western world. After such changes, assuming these changes remain permanent elements of Jobbik’s political views, one might discuss the possibility of a dialogue between the Jewish community and Jobbik.

It looks as if Vona took Szántó’s advice to heart. Jobbik a few years ago was guilty of holding all three unacceptable political positions that Szántó outlined. Let’s start with Jobbik’s attitude toward the State of Israel. I could, of course, find hundreds of examples. But here’s one, from 2012: a demonstration in front of the Israeli Embassy. The demonstration was organized to call attention to an Israeli attack on Gaza. Here, Vona, with a Palestinian scarf around his neck, said that while Israel constantly talks about the Holocaust, it maintains, with the assistance of the United States, the world’s largest concentration camp, Gaza. He suggested making a list of “Israeli capital” that exists in Hungary. He claimed that Viktor Orbán during his first administration signed a pact with Poland and Germany, according to which in case of trouble these three countries can settle 500,000 Israelis. He called Israel a terrorist state and said that all Hungarian politicians must be vetted to find out who are dual Israeli and Hungarian citizens.

A year later Vona had quite an exchange with Ilan Mor, the Israeli ambassador. The reason for the spat was Mor’s letter complaining about the decoration an openly anti-Semitic reporter at Echo TV received from the Hungarian government. Vona saw “in Ilan Mor’s behavior the Jews’ aspiration for world domination.” He assured Mor that he “will never be Israel’s dog as all the other parties” in Hungary are. Once Jobbik governs the country “we will politely send you [meaning Mor] home.”

As for Jobbik’s admiration for Islam and Muslim nations, this had been well known even before they won something like 16% of the popular vote in 2010. At a conference in November 2009 Vona astonished his audience by talking about Iranian-Jobbik ties. By the end of 2010 Vona published a fairly lengthy treatise on his views of the Muslim world, in which he recalled that as a university student he attended a youth conference in Yemen where he realized the plight of those people. His opponents think that this sympathy for Islam “is just more proof of [his] anti-Semitism.” But, he insisted, his admiration for Islam has nothing to do with his alleged anti-Semitism. It is rooted in his reading, which led to his realization that the Renaissance and the Enlightenment ruined European society, which had been pure and good in the Middle Ages. I gather from this that what he admired in Islam was its reliance on tradition and the negation of modernity.

By 2012 the western press discovered that Jobbik’s leader was infatuated with Islam. The International Business Times found an article in The Morocco World News which quoted Vona saying that “Islam is the last hope for humanity in the darkness of globalism and liberalism.” In the same speech he talked about Russia, Turkey, and Hungary as “the three nations [which] are European and Asian at the same time, due to their history, fate, and disposition…. These nations are destined to present the Eurasian alternative.”

However, as Christopher Adam of the Hungarian Free Press noted last summer, “the Hungarian right’s fascination with, and relative respect for, Islam is coming to an end, perhaps as a result of the Charlie Hebdo killings in France earlier this year and maybe even more so due to the large waves of Muslim refugees fleeing Syria and Afghanistan.”

Outright Holocaust denial was never Jobbik’s official dogma, but there were many signs that the party and its leader considered it to be an overblown topic. Here is a good example. In 2010 Vona said in one of his speeches that all that talk about the Holocaust was coming out of his ears (a könyökén jön ki). In a note he wrote on his Facebook page on October 3, 2013, he reacted to a lecture János Martonyi had given at an international conference on “Jewish life and anti-Semitism in today’s Europe” organized by the Tom Lantos Institute in Budapest. Vona suspected that because of the seventieth anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust and the coming elections the topic of the Holocaust will be center stage. Unfortunately, said Vona, the goal of these events will be not peaceful remembrances but the creation of a sense of guilt. Therefore, Vona warned his followers to be cautious and not fall for provocations. Jobbik supporters shouldn’t give any ammunition to their adversaries.

I have not encountered any admission of the Hungarian government’s responsibility for what happened in 1944 by either Vona or any other leading member of Jobbik. However, we ought to keep in mind that Fidesz stated in its constitution that the Hungarian government was not responsible for the Holocaust, and therefore I think it would be unrealistic to expect more from Vona’s Jobbik.

I didn’t collect all this information on the anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli views of Jobbik to deny Vona’s change of heart. In almost all of his comments lately he has compared the old Jobbik to a teenager who has done a lot of stupid things. But, he says, this teenager has now grown up. Reading through his essay on Islam, my first reaction was that he was a very confused man who was trying to find some coherence in his world but was just grasping at straws, ending up with an incoherent philosophical mess. When he was talking about his favorite writers–Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Mircea Eliade, Rüdiger Safranski, Konrad Lorenz and “his all-time favorite, Meister Eckhart,” I had the distinct feeling of intellectual confusion which then was unfortunately translated into political action. Let’s hope that he is correct and that he has grown up. And that his party has grown up with him.

January 17, 2017