Tag Archives: Gábor Ujváry

Orbán’s Veritas Institute looks at anti-Semitism in the Horthy era

It’s time to take a break from Hungarian party politics and the mess the Brexit referendum has created and talk about history. Specifically I would like say something about the recent activities of two historians working for the generously endowed Veritas Institute established by the Orbán government. The absurdity of an “Institute of Truth” serving a government doesn’t need to be spelled out, and I do hope that one day, in the not too distant future, the Institute of Truth will be thrown onto the garbage heap with the other debris Fidesz left behind.

The Veritas Institute is a large organization with 26 historians and administrative personnel who are doing research in three different areas: (1) the era of the dual monarchy (1867-1918); (2) the Miklós Horthy era (1919-1944); and (3) the post-1945 era. The two historians whom we meet most often in the pages of the daily press are Sándor Szakály, director, and Gábor Ujváry, senior research fellow.

Gábor Ujváry’s goal in life seems to be the rehabilitation of Bálint Hóman, the controversial minister of education in the 1930s. I had hoped that the Hóman case was finally closed when, in December 2015, Viktor Orbán gave up the fight for a statue of Hóman, caving under international pressure. Reluctantly he announced that no one who collaborated with the German occupying forces after March 19, 1944 can have a statue in Hungary. But, as I pointed out in my post of December 16, 2015, the idea of having a Hóman statue initially came from Viktor Orbán himself. Thus, his parliamentary announcement was a personal defeat.

Has he given up the plan to completely rehabilitate Bálint Hóman? I’m not at all sure. Ujváry’s efforts at whitewashing Hóman’s role indicate that Hóman may yet be portrayed as a hero. Ujváry is writing a book on Hóman’s life and political career, a project for which he as a member of the Miklós Horthy Era Team needed the approval of Director Sándor Szakály. The director of the Institute, as we learned recently, also finds Hóman innocent of most of the charges leveled against him.

Ujváry is a man with a mission. Instead of quietly toiling in libraries and archives, he grabs every opportunity to publicize his interpretation of Hóman’s political career–in popular magazines, in interviews, and at conferences. One of his latest salvos was a short article in the popular historical magazine Rubicon, in which he argued against the interpretations of those historians who “attack Bálint Hóman.” Among other things, he tried to justify the introduction of the numerus clausus of 1920. Since Ujváry’s targets were Mária M. Kovács and Krisztián Ungváry, the two historians answered him in Mozgó Világ in a joint article titled “Bálint Hóman in the captivity of the Truth Institute.” But Ujváry will press on, explaining to the Hungarian people what a great guy the former minister of education was. The Orbán regime’s efforts to rehabilitate Hóman unfortunately seem to be continuing with full force.

The other politically active historian of the Veritas Institute is the director himself, Sándor Szakály. About two years ago I wrote a post titled “Sándor Szakály: portrait of a historian” when Szakály in an interview called the deportation of approximately 23,000 Jews in July 1941 to German-held Soviet territories, most of whom were subsequently killed by the Germans, merely “a police action against aliens.”

Szakály burned himself pretty badly with that interview, but he is persistent. He wants to debunk mainstream historical thinking about the Horthy era and replace it with a more sympathetic interpretation. And so he decided to give another interview, this time to The Budapest Beacon. The interview is very long and covers a range of topics. I will look at only two issues, which are also part of the Hóman narrative of Gábor Ujváry. One is the assessment of Hóman as a historical figure and the second is the meaning of the numerus clausus of 1920, which restricted the number of Jews who could enter Hungarian universities.

Sándor Szakály at a conference on Bálint Hóman organized by the Veritas Institute

Sándor Szakály at a conference on Bálint Hóman organized by the Veritas Institute

Szakály’s limitations as a historian once again became evident when the reporter asked him about Hóman’s role as a historical figure. He either can’t or doesn’t want to go beyond a strict interpretation of the written word. Here is an example of what I mean. Historians point out that Hóman, along with many far-right politicians, remained a member of parliament even after the Szálasi takeover on October 15, 1944. Here is Szakály’s rebuttal. Hóman was not a member of the Arrow Cross parliament “because such a parliament simply didn’t exist.” It is true, he continued, that “after the Arrow Cross takeover a truncated national assembly (országgyűlés) remained in session and Hóman was a member of that body, but that doesn’t mean that he was a member of the Arrow Cross party.” Or another example of his inability to think either contextually or causally. When asked about Hóman’s attitude toward Germany and his views on the German-Hungarian alliance, Szakály announced that he doesn’t think that Hóman was in any way “a harbinger” of the German occupation because “at the time he had no political role to play.” So, the possibility that Hóman’s actions influenced events leading up to the German occupation simply doesn’t enter his mind.

The director of the Institute of Truth further manifested his astute historical thinking in responding to questions on the meaning of the numerus clausus law of 1920, which most Hungarian historians consider to be the first anti-Jewish law, not just in Hungary but in the western world. Admittedly, the law didn’t contain the words “Jew” or “Jewish,” but it was clear to everybody which group was being targeted. No other “nationality” or “ethnic group” was over-represented in Hungarian higher education. The aim of the government was to restrict the number of Jewish students to 6%, the same as the percentage of Jews in the population at large.

Szakály said that he doesn’t consider the law to be discriminatory. And why not? “Because the law stated that only those will be admitted to the universities who are absolutely dependable as far as their national loyalty and morality are concerned.” In addition to morality and patriotism, “intellectual abilities” were also considered, as well as ethnic quotas. As to whether the law was designed to restrict the number of Jews in universities, Szakály responded that “not only was the word ‘Jew’ not mentioned in the law, but at that time [Hungarian law] didn’t yet stipulate exactly  what ‘Jewish’ meant.” Perhaps, he added, they meant “people who belonged to the Mosaic denomination.” It is beyond me to make sense of this gibberish.

In Szakály’s estimate, the introduction of the numerus clausus was in hindsight “unfortunate” because it violated the concept of equality before the law, but from another point of view it was “a case of positive discrimination in favor of those youngsters who had less of a chance when it came to entering an institution of higher education.” So, said the reporter, “on the one hand and on the other?” Yes, in Szakály’s mind it is that simple and thus justified.

June 26, 2016

Fidesz and the Horthy regime: Statue for the anti-Semite Bálint Hóman?

On March 6, 2015, the Budapest municipal court rehabilitated Bálint Hóman, who had been sentenced to life imprisonment by the post-war People’s Court in 1946. The charge was that he, as a member of the Bárdossy government, voted for Hungary’s entry into the war on the side of Germany against the Soviet Union. Hóman died five years later in prison.

It was pretty much a foregone conclusion that the verdict would be reversed. First of all, Miklós Horthy had already decided on military engagement before the cabinet meeting and, second, a vote in favor of war is not a war crime, just (perhaps) a bad decision. So the court’s decision by itself was not controversial. If the story had stopped there, we wouldn’t be having a debate on the role and personality of Bálint Hóman more than five months after the verdict was announced.

Hóman (1885-1951) is best known as the co-author of a well-known, well-respected eight-volume history of Hungary published between 1938 and 1941. Hóman covered the Middle Ages. Gyula Szekfű, another great of Hungarian historiography, took over with the Hungarian Renaissance and continued all the way to the First World War.

Here I cannot give even a short description of Hóman’s political career. After all, he served as minister of education in all five Hungarian governments between 1931 and 1942. Moreover, even after he decided to leave the Kállay government, he remained a member of parliament until the bitter end. He was throughout his career a zealous supporter of a pro-German foreign policy and a steadfast and uncompromising anti-Semite who had a hand in the preparation of the so-called Jewish laws.

So, why are we still discussing the Hóman case? For two reasons. First, right after the verdict the man who was the moving force behind the retrial, a distant relative of Hóman and a former Fidesz member of parliament, announced that his next move will be to fight for the restoration of Bálint Hóman’s membership in the academy, which was taken away from him even before the sentence of the People’s Court was announced. Second, the city council of Székesfehérvár decided sometime in June that the city will erect a statue of Hóman in front of one of the local high schools. The reason for their decision was that Hóman was a member of parliament representing Székesfehérvár. The ministry of justice has already offered 15 million toward the cost, and the city plans to kick in another two million.  The city council of Székesfehérvár has a large Fidesz majority. Out of the 20-member body there are only two MSZP, one DK, one Jobbik, and three independent members. The Jobbik member voted with Fidesz on the statue issue. The council maintains that its decision to pay homage to Hóman is based on his special care for the city which elected him to represent it.

Proposed statue of Bálint Hóman Another hideous statue for a Horthy era poliician

Proposed statue of Bálint Hóman
Another hideous statue for a Horthy era politician

Although many articles have appeared debating whether Hóman’s membership in the academy should be restored and whether he should have a statue in Székesfehérvár or anywhere else, here I will talk about two historians’ reactions: Gábor Ujváry, who is an enthusiastic defender of Hóman, and Mária M. Kovács, who thinks that Hóman doesn’t deserve either to be included on the list of academy members or to have a statue anywhere in Hungary.

Ujváry is an associate of the “Institute of Truth” (Veritas Institute), a creation of the Fidesz government. Therefore it is not at all surprising, given the Orbán government’s predilection for defending the Horthy regime, that in his eyes Hóman is an innocent victim. For good measure, Ujváry wrote two articles, one in Magyar Nemzet and another a few days later in Napi Gazdaság. Since he mentioned Mária M. Kovács by name, she was given the opportunity to answer him in today’s Magyar Nemzet.

So, let’s see what Ujváry’s points are in defense of Hóman. First, he argues that Hóman shouldn’t be judged by today’s standards. Moreover, his critics are unfamiliar with the facts. For example, Hóman had nothing to do with the 1938 first Jewish law. People accuse him of pro-Nazi sentiments when, in fact, he was a critic of national socialism. Ujváry admits that in foreign policy matters Hóman was pro-German, but this was because he believed that only through cooperation with Germany could Hungary safeguard her independence. He may have been an anti-Semite but in 1944, after the German occupation, he saved some of his Jewish friends.

As far as Hóman’s anti-Semitism is concerned, his was not anti-Semitism in the modern sense. Moreover, his anti-Semitism wasn’t a “defining” or “determining” feature of his activities. In any case, he wasn’t a hard-core anti-Semite. On the contrary, “his anti-Semitism never exceeded the limits of ‘moderate anti-Semitism.'” Moreover, he knew nothing about the horrors of Auschwitz, and not in his wildest dreams could he have imagined what would happen to the Hungarian Jewry in 1944-45.

Until 1938 Hóman kept away from party politics and concentrated only on improving the country’s educational facilities. That year, however, he came to the conclusion that Hungary, because of its geopolitical position, could choose only between two bad alternatives, and he viewed Germany as a better choice than the Soviet Union.

Ujváry supports the erection of a statue for Hóman in Székesfehérvár as a special case because of Hóman’s close relations with the city.

Mária M. Kovács concentrates on the historical facts and supports them with facsimiles of original documents. According to these documents, Hóman had an important role to play in the preparation of both Jewish laws. Interestingly enough, Ujváry a few years ago admitted that “unfortunately” Hóman had a hand in the creation of both laws, but by now, it seems, he has changed his mind.

On February 1, 1938, Hóman passed on to Prime Minister Kálmán Darányi his plans for a new law restricting the rights of the Hungarian Jews. A month later Darányi announced that a Jewish law was in the works. The next day Hóman gave some of its details in a speech. The Jews, he said, have a “disproportionate influence and share” in the spheres of the economy, industry, commerce, banking, in cultural life and the media. “We have the legal means to remedy this situation.”

After the introduction of the first Jewish law Hóman became a member of the so-called “Jewish Committee,” whose job it was to draft a second Jewish law. But by 1940 he found some of the provisions of this second law inadequate. During a parliamentary debate he expressed his agreement with an Arrow Cross member of parliament that the 6% Jewish quota in universities and high schools was not stringent enough; Jews should be completely barred from these educational institutions.

In a memo to Prime Minister Pál Teleki, Hóman stated that all Jews as well as people associated with Jews are enemies of the Hungarian government, which means that no Jew should be tolerated in the civil service, in the judiciary, or in the schools, and they should be deprived of their leading role in economic life. “The present law is bad and therefore we must create another law that is based on race.” In 1941 he came up with another anti-Jewish proposal. This time he suggested depriving the Jewish religious community of its equal status with the other accepted religions like Catholicism, Hungarian Reformed, etc. It took a while, but by the spring of 1942 Hóman’s proposal became law. Hóman resigned in July 1942, but not before he had made sure that Jews were not allowed to join sports clubs.

After 1942 he was no longer a member of the cabinet, but he retained his seat in parliament. On February 29, 1944, he sent a memorandum to Prime Minister Miklós Kállay in which he demanded the deportation of the Jews because the Soviet troops were getting closer to the borders of Hungary. Keep in mind that this was almost a month before the arrival of the German troops on March 19. After the occupation, he joined a parliamentary group created to prevent Hungary’s possible break with the Germans, a move that Horthy and some of the men around him were contemplating.

According to Mária M. Kovács, “statues are customarily erected for people who can count on the respect of posterity. Bálint Hóman is not one of them.”

Ujváry’s arguments are not convincing, and they are unsupported by documentary evidence. Kovács sticks to the facts. A biography of Hóman might be a worthwhile undertaking (though preferably not by anyone in the Institute of Truth), but before that the Hungarian government should abort the Székesfehérvár city council’s ill-conceived idea of erecting a statue of Bálint Hóman. It could effectively do that by rescinding the ministry of justice’s offer of 15 million forints for the statue. Mazsihisz, the umbrella organization of several Jewish groups, greatly objects to the project, and now that Mazsihisz’s relations with the government have been on the mend, I don’t think it is wise to start another fight over memorializing Bálint Hóman.

Bálint Hóman is rehabilitated

Among the best-known Hungarian historians of the twentieth century were “Hóman-Szekfű.” The two last names grew together, something like Ilf-Petrov or Gilbert and Sullivan. They were the authors of a monumental eight-volume history of Hungary, published between 1928 and 1941. The first three volumes were written by the renowned medievalist Bálint Hóman (1885-1951), the other four by Gyula Szekfű (1883-1955). The last volume contains a detailed index. Although Hóman-Szekfű is available online today, I’m still thrilled that I managed to buy a set in the late sixties in Budapest.

Both men studied history at the University of Budapest, at about the same time, and both eventually taught at the same university. But the two men had very different ideas about Hungary’s place in the world before 1918. Hóman was more of a “kuruc” who favored an independent Hungary, while Szekfű was more of a “labanc,” a supporter of the liberal Hungarian governments loyal to the constitutional structure that came into being in 1867. After World War I Szekfű’s sympathies lay with Great Britain and the United States while Hóman became increasingly pro-German.

Bálint Hóman might have been a good historian, but as a politician he failed miserably and eventually ended up serving a life sentence for his political beliefs. In 1930 he accepted the position of minister of education in the Gömbös and Darányi governments (1932-1938) and later in the Teleki, Bárdossy, and Kállay governments (1939-1942). After the declaration of war he stood by his strong belief that Hungary’s place was on Germany’s side and disapproved of the Hungarian government’s timid steps to make a separate peace with the Allies. Hóman remained a member of parliament even after October 15, 1944 and then, with Ferenc Szálasi and the Arrow Cross leaders, fled to the West. He was captured by the Americans in Germany and sent back to Hungary. In 1946 the people’s court sentenced him to life imprisonment. One of the charges against him was signing the declaration of war against the Soviet Union. He died in prison in 1951.

Ever since the regime change first Hóman’s son and after his death a collateral relative worked assiduously to annul the verdict of the people’s court, whose proceedings admittedly left a great deal to be desired by normal judicial standards. We don’t know all of the charges that the people’s court brought against him. But the court that considered his rehabilitation and that ultimately, on March 6th of this year, declared Hóman innocent seems to have concentrated only on his participation in the June 26, 1941 cabinet meeting that decided on war against the Soviet Union. That is, however, unlikely to have been the only charge originally brought against him. Otherwise, all of the members of Bárdossy’s cabinet should have ended up in jail. But of the nine people present at the cabinet meeting, which included Prime Minister László Bárdossy, it was only Bárdossy, Hóman, and Lajos Reményi-Schneller who were found guilty by the people’s courts. All of the others, with the exception of Ferenc Keresztes-Fischer who subsequently lived in emigration, died of natural causes in the 1950s and 1960s in Hungary. One of them, a chemist, actually became a full member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in 1946. And so we must assume that the guilty verdict rendered against Hóman in 1946 couldn’t have been based only on his being present at that crucial cabinet meeting.

Homan

Besides concentrating exclusively on his role as a cabinet member, the court in the retrial heard evidence from only one side of the political spectrum. The sole “historical expert” was Gábor Ujváry, a historian working for the Veritas Historical Research Institute. Ujváry’s expert opinion on the events of 1941-42 reflected the views of the right. Here are a few examples. Hungary’s declaration of war against the Soviet Union came after the bombing of Kassa/Košice, a city that belonged to Hungary at the time. To this day it remains a mystery which country’s planes dropped 29 bombs on the city. Ujváry seems to be pretty certain that they were Soviet planes, which had been sent to bomb the Slovak city of Presov/Eperjes but got lost and ended up 36 km. away. In the Kádár regime it was more or less accepted that they were German planes because the German military wanted to force the somewhat unwilling Hungarian government to enter the war on the German side. This version was based on the testimony of Colonel Ádám Krúdy, the commander in charge of the Košice airport, who reported to Bárdossy that the planes had yellow stripes painted on their wings and fuselages, which identified them as planes belonging to the Axis powers.

Ujváry also claimed that only a falsified version of the transcript of the actual cabinet meeting is available, and thus Hóman’s “intentions” cannot be ascertained. It is possible, the prosecutor suggested, that he was faced with a fait accompli. Moreover, he continued, basing his argument on the historian’s expert testimony, “in those days one had two bad choices: either Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union.”

Gyula Juhász, a respected historian who wrote during the Kádár period, had a different take on the cabinet meeting. In his book on the foreign policy of the Teleki government, he noted that Bárdossy had indeed falsified the transcript in order to minimize his own responsibility and that he left out those parts that contained comments that were against the declaration of war. Juhász nonetheless claims to have known that Ferenc Keresztes-Fischer spoke several times against the proposal and that he was supported by József Varga and Dániel Bánffy, while Bálint Hóman, Lajos Reményi-Schneller, and Károly Bartha “enthusiastically supported” the declaration of war.

The events that led to Hungary’s decision to join the war on the side of Germany against the Soviet Union remain murky, and determining culpability in such circumstances is always a difficult proposition. I therefore think that calling just one expert witness from the Veritas Institute was unacceptable. The court should have gotten another historian with a possibly different interpretation of the events. I also found it odd that the prosecutor spoke as if he were the lawyer for the defense. Overturning the verdict of one questionable trial by means of another is no remedy.

By now everybody assumes that Hóman will also be reinstated as a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. However, László Lovász, the well-known mathematician and currently president of the Academy, said in a recent interview that if a group of academicians brings the question to the floor and if there is a vote, “the Academy must distance itself from the ideas promulgated by Hóman.” Historian Mária M. Kovács goes even further. She quotes from the Academy’s ethical codex, which states that the Academy demands from its members “the utmost respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Given Hóman’s rabid anti-Semitism, his eligibility is questionable, she argues. After all, he had a hand in the formulation of the first anti-Jewish law, which he himself sponsored in the parliament. When one of his fellow ministers, Andor Lázár, minister of justice, expressed his disapproval of the proposed law, Hóman called for his resignation. A month before the German occupation he demanded the deportation of all Hungarians of Jewish origin. In brief, she contends, he is not qualified to be a member of the Academy.

Sándor Révész of Népszabadság, a day after the court had rehabilitated Hóman, wrote that his proponents on the government side want to restore Hóman’s honor by this decision, but that can be done only with “the restoration of the honor of Nazi Germany, Hitler, the leaders of the Arrow Cross and mass murderers.” Right now there certainly seems to be an attempt to forget about Hóman’s real sins.