While the world is preoccupied with Greece and Viktor Orbán’s preparations to erect a fence along the Hungarian border with Serbia, I decided to focus today on the debate over Péter Pázmány Catholic University’s decision to introduce a compulsory course on the Holocaust. Until now there was only one compulsory course, “Introduction to the Catholic Faith,” which I understand, to put it mildly, is not taken seriously by the students. According to someone who is most likely a student at PPKE, as the university is known, “it is a joke,” a course in which everybody cheats.
On May 26 Szabolcs Szuromi, the president of PPKE, in the presence of Ilan Mor, Israeli ambassador to Hungary, held a press conference, which was disrupted by two “journalists” from Alfahír and Kurucinfo. The former is the semi-official internet site of Jobbik. Kurucinfo, the virulent anti-Semitic media outlet, needs no introduction. Both men fired all sorts of provocative questions at the president and the ambassador.
The reaction of the far right didn’t surprise anyone. They especially objected to the presence and role of Ambassador Mor and to the fact that two Israeli historians, Dina Porat and Raphael Vago, had been asked to prepare the syllabus for the course. Jobbegyenes (Straight Right) accused the Hungarian government of taking orders from the Israeli ambassador when it agreed to the removal of a sign referring to “the victims of Gaza” behind the Hungarian entrant at the Eurovision competition. Moreover, according to the author, it is not PPKE’s job to teach students about the Holocaust. They should have learned that in high school.
Zsolt Bayer’s reaction was also expected. In his opinion, there is just too much talk about the Holocaust. Practically every day there is a new book, a movie, or a theater performance. A few years ago he “thought that one couldn’t sink lower” when he read in Népszabadság that grandchildren of German war criminals, with the financial help of the European Union, had arrived in Budapest asking for forgiveness from elderly survivors. In Bayer’s opinion it was a perverse idea. The souls of these youngsters are “infected with guilt.” What is going on at PPKE is also a perversion. In fact, Bayer thinks PPKE’s decision was even worse than the grandchildren’s apology.
But there were critical remarks on the left as well. The most serious criticism came from Sándor Révész. He objected to the compulsory nature of the course and predicted that “within seconds” someone will suggest “a compulsory course on Trianon, on the communist dictatorship, on religious persecution,” and so on and so forth. In fact, Gábor Vona and Dóra Duró of Jobbik already sent a letter to the president of PPKE asking for the introduction of a course on the tragedy of Trianon.
Révész also found PPKE’s decision to introduce such a course problematic because it is a well-known fact that the Catholic Church still venerates Ottokár Prohászka (1858-1927), bishop of Székesfehérvár, who was a rabid anti-Semite and the ideological precursor of Hungarism, the Hungarian version of Nazism. Révész called attention to the fact that the Hungarian Catholic Church published a collection of Prohászka’s most savage anti-Semitic writings titled My anti-Semitism in 1942. “Is PPKE ready to reevaluate the opus of Ottokár Prohászka in connection with the Holocaust?” asked Révész.
There is criticism coming from historians as well. László Karsai, a historian who has written extensively on the Holocaust, finds it strange that two Israeli scholars were invited to prepare the syllabus when there are many Hungarians qualified to do the job. Moreover, Karsai finds the syllabus as well as the readings wanting. Some books on the reading list are of inferior quality. If he had children at PPKE, he wouldn’t advise them to take the course–not that they would have a choice. He added, however, that “it is an interesting experiment that might generate some lively discussions.”
Péter György, professor at ELTE, just announced that they themselves have been thinking about creating three one-semester courses that all students of the Faculty of Arts would have to take: the cultural history of racism, social theory, and the philosophy of science. In the course on the cultural history of racism students would also study about the Holocaust. The members of the faculty realize, I think, that something went very wrong at the university since a large portion of the Jobbik leadership graduated from ELTE with a degree in history. Although they don’t want to meddle in the worldview of students, they believe that they should be able to fend off blind prejudice and racism. György admitted that “radicalism” is a very serious problem at ELTE and “the university has no other antidote than arming the students with the necessary knowledge.” He was very pleased when he heard about PPKE’s decision and he, unlike Révész, trusts the faculty of the university to face the past honestly.
It was Elek Tokfalvi, one of my favorite publicists, who was truly enthusiastic about the course. In his opinion, what happened in Hungary was unique in the history of the Holocaust because the Hungarian Jewish community’s destruction began after all the others’ had already ended. Therefore, studying the Hungarian Holocaust is warranted. Tokfalvi looks upon PPKE’s decision to introduce a course on the Holocaust as a “moral redemption” after decades of the undisturbed spread of anti-liberalism, anti-capitalism, ethnic superiority. “Therefore, it deserves praise.” In his opinion, other universities should follow PPKE’s example.” Perhaps it would also be beneficial to teach basic values that would “counterbalance the anti-Semitism of university graduates.” The same idea that Péter György is advocating.
One thing is certain. It s not enough to introduce a course on the Holocaust. As long as people like the economist Katalin Botos give lectures like the one available in part on YouTube, no change in attitudes can be expected.
It might also be a good idea if György Fodor, dean of the Divinity School, and others would take a more critical look at Ottokár Prohászka and the Catholic Church’s attitudes past and present concerning anti-Semitism and racism because, for the most part, the church leaders did very little, or nothing.