Another day, another speech. Yes, Viktor Orbán delivered another speech which, with the exception of one short passage, was nothing more than his usual collection of clichés about “those people whose aim is the transformation of Europe’s cultural subsoil, which will lead to the atrophy of its root system.”
The occasion was the opening of the newly renovated, sumptuous house of Kuno Klebelsberg, minister of education between 1922 and 1931, in Pesthidegkút, today part of District XII of Budapest. Along with István Bethlen, prime minister between 1921 and 1931, Klebelsberg was his favorite politician of the interwar period. Neither of them was a champion of democracy, but they stood far above the average Hungarian politicians of the period. I devoted a post to Klebelsberg in 2011 when the government decided that the new centralized public school system would be overseen by a monstrous organization called Klebelsberg Intézményfenntartó Központ (KLIK).
As I said, there was only one passage in the whole speech that will not easily be forgotten. After describing the 1920s and 1930s as “a grave touchstone” of Hungarian history, Orbán said that the nation was able to survive thanks to “some exceptional statesmen like Governor Miklós Horthy, Prime Minister István Bethlen, and Kuno Klebelsberg.” Thanks to them, “history didn’t bury us under the weight of the lost war, the 133 days of red terror, and the Diktat of Trianon. Without the governor there is no prime minister, and without the prime minister there is no minister. Even Hungary’s dismal role in World War II cannot call into question this fact.” Jaws dropped even at the conservative Válasz, which called Horthy’s description as an exceptional statesman “a historical hornet’s nest” which will be followed by a long, far-reaching, and most likely acrimonious debate.
Maybe we could quibble over whether István Bethlen was a statesman, but that Miklós Horthy was not is certain, and not just because of his dismal political career. When we think of a statesman we think of a highly respected, influential politician who exhibits great ability, wisdom, and integrity. None of these fits Miklós Horthy. He was a narrow-minded man without any political experience. Why did Orbán feel it necessary to join Horthy to Bethlen and Klebelsberg as great statesmen of the interwar period, especially by employing such twisted logic? One cannot think of anything else but that he has some political reason for his “re-evaluation” of Horthy.
This interpretation is new because it wasn’t a terribly long time ago when, in the wake of the Bálint Hóman statue controversy in Székesfehérvár in December 2015, Orbán said in parliament that he couldn’t support the erection of the Hóman statue because the constitution doesn’t allow anyone to be honored who held political office after March 19, 1944, because any political activity after that date meant collaboration with the oppressors, i.e. the Germans. For that reason, he wouldn’t support a statue for Governor Miklós Horthy either. So, this is quite a leap, which may have even international consequences. Although Horthy was not officially declared to be a war criminal, historical memory has not been kind to him. I am certain that the news that Viktor Orbán embraced Miklós Horthy as one of the great Hungarian statesmen of the twentieth century will be all over the international media.
The Hungarian reaction in anti-Fidesz circles was that Orbán’s change of heart as far as Horthy is concerned has something to do with his desire to weaken Jobbik, a party which has been most fervent in its rehabilitation efforts on behalf of Miklós Horthy. Orbán has been waging a war against Jobbik for some time, and Jobbik’s very effective billboards infuriated him. He wants to destroy Vona and his party. He is vying for Jobbik votes by courting far-right Jobbik supporters who might be dissatisfied with Vona’s new, more moderate policies. Perhaps Horthy will do the trick.
As far as Horthy’s political abilities are concerned, his best years were the first ten years of his governorship when he had the good sense to let Bethlen run the affairs of state. Every time he was active in politics he made grievous mistakes or worse, be it in the years 1919 and 1920 or in the second half of the 1930s and early 1940s.
You may have noticed that Orbán talked about the red terror but didn’t mention the white terror that was conducted by Horthy’s so-called officer detachments (különítmények). They roamed the countryside and exercised summary justice against people they suspected of support for or participation in the Hungarian Soviet Republic. Horthy knew about their activities and most likely even encouraged them. The number of victims of white terror was about three times the number of those who were killed by the so-called Lenin Boys.
Horthy’s election to the position of governor was mostly due to the fact that the only military force that existed in the country in late 1919 and early 1920 was his detachments. Politicians were worried about the possibility of a military coup. Horthy expressed his impatience with the politicians several times as they tried to hammer out a coalition government the allies would accept. And his officers made it clear that it is Horthy or else. His political views at that time were identical to those of his far-right officers who later claimed that they were the first national socialists in Europe.
Horthy’s real inability as a politician came to light when the world was edging toward a new world war. Perhaps his greatest sin was Hungary’s declaration of war against the Soviet Union. He volunteered Hungary’s military assistance when Germany didn’t even press for it. He also bears an immense responsibility for the Hungarian Holocaust when, after the German occupation on March 19, 1944, the government he appointed sent half a million Hungarian Jewish citizens to their death while he himself did nothing. And we know that he could have prevented it, as he was able to stop the transports later, mind you only after 450,000 Jewish citizens had already been sent to die in Auschwitz and other extermination camps.
Orbán’s decision to declare Horthy a national hero shows the true nature of his regime.