Let’s return to history today for at least two reasons. The first is that as time goes by it is becoming increasingly apparent that the Orbán government, by setting up a number of historical institutes, is trying to create “an alternative history” of modern Hungary between 1867 and 1989. These are the years whose historical interpretation still has political relevance. It is the history of these 120 years that the Orbán government wants to rewrite with the assistance of about 20 historians willing to do the job. This is a much more serious threat than most people realize. The second reason for returning to Sándor Szakály’s interview with The Budapest Beacon is that I could cover only one small segment of the conversation, about the “first anti-Jewish law,” as Mária M. Kovács, author of a book on the numerus clausus of 1920, called it. But Szakály’s other responses, all related to Jewish-Hungarian history and the Holocaust, also tell a lot about the mindset of these historical revisionists.
A large portion of Szakály’s apologia of the Horthy regime’s Jewish policies dealt with how much and when Miklós Horthy and his entourage knew about the “final solution.” Here he was arguing against László Karsai’s long-held view, supported by strong documentary evidence, that members of the Hungarian government knew about the death camps as early as the fall of 1942.
Karsai, in a lengthy article that appeared in the March 2007 issue of Beszélő (Interlocuter), dissected the most common “legends and myths” about Miklós Horthy’s tenure as governor of Hungary. A special section was devoted to his activities during 1944. One common legend is that Horthy’s daughter-in-law, Mrs. István Horthy née Countess Ilona Edelsheim Gyulai, gave him the so-called Auschwitz Reports, a collection of eyewitness accounts of two Jewish inmates from Slovakia who had managed to escape, only on July 3. Whereupon, the legend continues, he immediately called Colonel Ferenc Koszorús, a trusted officer, to the capital. His task was to expel the gendarmerie from Budapest in order to avert the deportation of the city’s Jewish population.
The Veritas Institute’s mission is to perpetuate these myths and legends. Szakály takes it for granted that Ilona Horthy’s information about the events of July 3, which she wrote about in her memoirs published in 2001, almost sixty years later, is accurate despite documentary evidence to the contrary. Szakály also doubts Karsai’s interpretation that Horthy intended only to suspend the deportations, not to end them. Szakály will believe Karsai on that score only if his fellow historian can produce “a document with Horthy’s signature which states that the governor wants to begin the deportations anew in August.” A typical demand from the positivist Szakály, who at the same time admits that “certain ‘promises’ were given [to the Germans] by Horthy, Döme Sztójay, and Andor Jaross.”
What documents does László Karsai cite in support of his thesis that important members of the government knew about the German extermination of Jews in Germany and in German-occupied territories? The first is a conversation between Döme Sztójay, the anti-Semitic Hungarian minister to Berlin, and György Ottlik, editor-in-chief of Pester Lloyd, in August 1942, during which Sztójay admitted that sending Hungarian Jews to Germany “doesn’t mean deportation but extermination.” Ottlik immediately reported this intelligence to Prime Minister Miklós Kállay. A few months later Sztójay told a German diplomat that Kállay “is somewhat worried about sending Hungarian Jews to Germany because he fears that ‘their continued existence’ is not assured.” So, Kállay got the message. In the same year the ministry of interior also received information through detectives about Germans starving Jews to death. But if that isn’t sufficient to convince Szakály, there is direct proof that Horthy knew about the death camps way before July-August 1944. The revelation is contained in the draft of a letter by Horthy to Hitler—actually prepared by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs—dated May 7, 1943. One of the sentences in the letter read: “A further reproach of Your Excellency was that the [Hungarian] government has failed to take as far-reaching an action in the extirpation of the Jews as Germany had taken, or as would appear desirable in other countries.” (The Confidential Papers of Admiral Horthy, p. 255) This sentence was subsequently deleted from the final version.
Ignoring this evidence, Szakály in his interview insists that “neither the great majority of the Jewry nor the Hungarians knew what was happening with the deportees,” even though the Auschwitz Reports reached Budapest in April of 1944.
And what evidence does his advance for his position? Not even the Veritas apologists can base their defense of Horthy on his memoirs (1957). Horthy’s short description of events between March and October 1944 is rife with mistakes and/or willful distortions. He claims that “not before August did secret information reach me about the truth about these extermination camps. It was [Lajos] Csatay, the Minister of War, who raised the matter at a Cabinet meeting” (p. 219).
But Szakály accepts the account of Horthy’s daughter-in-law, the widow of István Horthy, according to whom it was her “informant,” Sándor Török, the representative of the Christian Jews’ Association, who gave her the Auschwitz Reports on July 3. Three days later, she noted, on July 6, Horthy stopped the transports heading to Germany (Ilona Edelsheim Gyulai, Becsület és kötelesség, p. 263).
It seems that Ilona Horthy collected information for her memoirs from an ordinary appointment book, with only a few notations. She came to the conclusion that the crucial day had to be July 3 because she had underlined that day. My reaction upon reading the passage was the same as Karsai’s. On the basis of an underlined date, which might signify anything, one cannot recreate events with any certainty. In any case, she is not an objective observer. In her book she tries to show her father-in-law in the best possible light. For example, just as Horthy wants us to believe that he “lacked the means to check or thwart the joint action of the Germans and the Ministry for Home Affairs,” Ilona Horthy portrays Miklós Horthy as completely isolated. In her description he knows nothing about what’s going on. She writes that he tried to prevent the transports from leaving, but he could do nothing because they left in secret. That’s not how I remember it. So, there are many reasons not to use her as a reliable source.
Sándor Török, the man who delivered the Auschwitz Reports to Ilona Horthy, was already a well-known writer at the time who had published nine books by 1940. Before he died in Budapest in 1985, he wrote at least two books which contained autobiographical details from 1944-1945. I wouldn’t mind reading them.
And, a footnote, János Lázár, while insisting that he should not get involved in a historical debate, suggested that one day “the two sides will reach consensus on these issues.” Sure, they will meet half way. What a total misunderstanding of what history is all about.