Tag Archives: German occupation of Hungary

A critique of a political analysis on Hungary by Stratfor’s George Friedman

In the last few months I have been getting a daily newsletter from Stratfor, a private intelligence and forecasting company. No, I’m not a subscriber, and I doubt that Stratfor has many individual subscribers. Its clients are mostly institutions that feel the need for economic, military, or political analyses and forecasting.

Stratfor’s daily newsletter offers one free analysis chosen by the company. Most of the topics lie outside my field of interest, but today’s “special” aroused my curiosity: “Borderlands: Hungary Maneuvers.” The article was written by George Friedman, founder and chairman of Stratfor. Friedman received his B.A. from the City College of New York and his Ph.D. from Cornell University. For almost twenty years he was a professor of political science at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. Then in 1996 he decided to quit academe and become a strategic analyst.

Friedman was born in Budapest to Holocaust survivors, but his parents left the country when he was a small child. What he learned from his parents sitting around the kitchen table was that “except for the Germans, the vastness of evil could not have existed.” In his parents’ lessons Miklós Horthy, the Hungarian regent between 1920 and 1944, pretty much got a pass. Friedman continues to believe the history his parents taught him. To his mind, Horthy was a wily geopolitical strategist who maneuvered between Germany and the Soviet Union for quite a while. Only brute German force, blackmail, and threats against Horthy himself opened the door to mass destruction of the Hungarian Jewry.

The first half of the article tries to convince the reader that his vision of Horthy is the correct one while the second draws parallels between the Hungary of today and the times of Horthy. As he says, Horthy’s “experience is the one that Hungary’s current leadership appears to have studied.”

I will not be able to cover the whole article in this post and therefore will concentrate on Friedman’s account of the Horthy era. The appearance of this “revisionist” appraisal of Horthy is especially ill-timed because it was only a few days ago that historians of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences unanimously declared at a conference that the monument Orbán is erecting, which is supposed to make Germany alone responsible for the destruction of Hungarian Jewry, is a falsification of history. Nothing like lending a helping hand to Viktor Orbán’s project.

Friedman’s Hungary was a small, weak country that helplessly floundered between the Soviet Union and Germany, all the while trying to remain independent. “Horthy’s goal was to preserve its sovereignty in the face of the rising power of Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin.” Friedman seems to think that Horthy viewed both great powers with equal contempt. But that was not the case. In fact, until the very last moment he refused to turn to the Soviets to declare his willingness to negotiate a separate peace, whereas he was indebted to the Germans for helping Hungary regain sizable territories in Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Yugoslavia between November 1938 and April 1941. (These territories are shown in the Wikipedia map below.)

"Hungary's

As for the Jewish issue, Friedman claims that “Horthy was no more anti-Semitic than any member of his class had to be.” First of all, I’m not sure why Friedman believes there was a social imperative to be anti-Semitic. Members of Horthy’s social class may have been anti-Semitic, but they didn’t have to be anti-Semitic.

Horthy as well as the majority of Hungarian politicians and high officials wanted to rid the country of its Jewish population. Horthy didn’t want an immediate “cleansing” because without Jewish capital and know-how the Hungarian economy would have collapsed. But eventually the Hungarian anti-Semites stripped the Jews of all their worldly possessions and deported them. These Hungarians, including high officials, didn’t particularly care what happened to the Jews once they were deported. There simply had to be “a changing of the guard” (őrségváltás). Non-Jews were to take over positions held by Jews in the professions, business, and manufacturing. None of this seems to have penetrated Friedman’s consciousness.

It is at this point that we reach the crucial date of March 19, 1944, which is described this way: “Horthy fell from his tightrope on March 19, 1944. Realizing that Germany was losing the war, Horthy made overtures to the Soviets.” Let me state right here that Horthy did not make overtures to the Soviets. A small delegation talked to American and British officials in Turkey. They were told to talk to the Russians, something Horthy was reluctant to do.

Friedman’s inadequate knowledge of history is evident in practically all the sentences he writes in this article. According to him, “Hitler forced the Hungarian leader to form a new government consisting of Hungary’s homegrown Nazis, the Arrow Cross Party.” Or, a few sentences later, he writes: “He [Horthy] did not crush the Hungarian Nazis, but he kept them at bay. He did not turn on Hitler, but he kept him at bay. What Horthy did was the dirty work of decency. He made deals with devils to keep the worst things from happening. By March 1944, Horthy could no longer play the game. Hitler had ended it. His choice was between dead sons and the horror of the following year, or living sons and that same horror.” Friedman’s “parents believed that Horthy’s critics were unable to comprehend the choices he had.”

We who are more familiar with the real story realize that the account Friedman heard from his parents in addition to bits and pieces he remembers from Horthy’s memoirs have nothing to do with reality. But Friedman cannot be deterred from his preconceived notions of German-Hungarian relations and the Hungarian Holocaust. He keeps going: “Once the Wehrmacht, the SS and Adolf Eichmann, the chief organizer of the Holocaust, were in Budapest, they found the Arrow Cross Party to be populated by eager collaborators.” Of course, this isn’t true either. The eager collaborators were in fact members of the Hungarian government appointed by Horthy.

The point of this hopelessly inaccurate history is to reframe the present debate about Viktor Orbán’s governance. On the one hand are people like his parents, who blamed the Germans “for unleashing the brutishness in the Hungarians.” On the other hand are nameless people who were harsher on Horthy. This debate, he writes, “has re-entered history through Hungarian politics. Some have accused Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of trying to emulate … Miklós Horthy…. This is meant as an indictment. If so, at the university of our kitchen table, the lesson of Horthy is more complex and may have some bearing on present-day Hungary.”

I suggest that George Friedman take a refresher course.

Viktor Orbán pontificates on 1944

As controversy continues to swirl around the government’s decision to erect a monument commemorating the March 19, 1944 “occupation” of Hungary by the Third Reich,Viktor Orbán decided to explain the symbolism of the monument. If Orbán thought that this lengthy explanation would help his cause, he was mistaken. In fact, he got himself into even deeper water than before.

Thanks to the diligence of the young pro-Fidesz crew of mandiner.hu, the letter is already available in English. By and large, I will use their translation except for a few times when I think the translator misinterpreted the meaning of the original or where there are grammatical errors.

The letter is addressed to “Frau Professor Katalin Dávid.” It seems that Katalin Dávid, a ninety-two-year-old highly respected art historian, wrote something about the controversial monument which she entitled “Memorandum.” Her piece is not available online, although it was either published somewhere or circulated among friends. It seems that she was not unfriendly to the idea of erecting such a monument because Orbán profusely thanks Dávid for her “kind gesture” and notes that her style is superior to the writing of those intellectuals who “use the public tone of general contempt.” Her “Memorandum,” he writes, “is the first to avoid the bar counter of cheap political pushing and shoving that is practically unavoidable these days.” In brief, all those who oppose the erection of the monument behave like crude, presumably soused guys who shout at or even shove each other in a bar.

After expressing his opinion of Hungarian intellectuals, he goes on to share his own ideas about the history of the period. Well, the “cheap” Hungarian intellectuals immediately shot back. József Debreczeni, who is intimately familiar with Viktor Orbán’s thinking, described this pompous letter as both unbecoming and dangerous for the prime minister of a country. Debreczeni, who has a soft spot for József Antall, whom he rarely criticizes, brought up a similar mistake Antall committed when he lectured about what he personally thought of the role of Miklós Horthy. At least Antall was a historian before he became a politician.

The very first problem is that, as usual, Viktor Orbán doesn’t tell the truth about the government’s original concept for the monument and what it was supposed to stand for. He now says that the idea was always to create “a memorial to hundreds of thousands of innocent victims.” Thus, we would have a truly odd situation here: those Jewish organizations who object to the erection of the monument don’t want to see a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. Surely, that would be madness. Indeed, it would be if it were true.

But let’s go back to what the government initially wanted the monument to express. The name of the monument was simply: “German occupation of Hungary, March 19, 1944.” The description of the monument emphasized that “Archangel Gabriel [is] the man of God, symbol of Hungary.” There is not one word about victims. Moreover, the government required that “the monument must faithfully reflect the loss of Hungary’s dignity and independence and in its monumentality it must express the tragedy of the occupation that overtook the whole nation.”

But now, for Orbán, the Archangel Gabriel highlights something else as well: the anti-Christian nature of the German regime in 1944. “The invading German empire of the time swept away the two-thousand-year-old European Christian virtues and the Christian expectations and teachings with regard to politics and power, and so the victims, whether of Mosaic faith, Christian or without faith, became the victims of a dictatorship that embodied an anti-Christian school of thought. To successfully grasp this very complicated historical and spiritual structure within a sculptural composition commemorating the victims is a true creative feat.” Indeed, it would be a feat if it had any truth to it. Surely, Viktor Orbán must be confused if, while writing about the Shoa, he focuses on the anti-Christian nature of  “the German empire of the time.” As if the mass annihilation of Jewish people had much to do with the anti-Christian ideology of the Nazi regime. After all, the victims were not sent to the gas chambers because of their religion but because of their genes. (By the way, in the above sentence I changed “orthodox” to “Mosaic faith” because in this context “óhitű” refers to what Hungarians used to call “izraelita vallású.” I want to point out Orbán’s avoidance of the words “Jew/Jewish.”.)

Dialogue Viktor Orbán style Fruzsina Magyar, wife of Imre Mécs, is taken away from Szabadság tér today

Dialogue Viktor Orbán style /  Fruzsina Magyar, wife of Imre Mécs, is taken away from Szabadság tér 

From Archangel Gabriel we can now move on to the symbolism of the imperial eagle. Viktor Orbán also has a definite opinion on that subject. The question for him is whether the invaders were Nazis or Germans, and in his view the invaders were Germans. He bases this opinion “primarily … on constitutional law.” They were Germans “who at the time happened to be living their lives in a country organized according to the Nazi state structure. Differentiating between the two and assessing the implications is the business of the German people and less so that of Hungarian commentators who otherwise acknowledge German national virtues and are usually sympathetic towards the failings of others.” This is how Orbán explains why they don’t use the Nazi variation of the German imperial eagle. Thus, the message is that for the sins of Nazi Germany all living Germans are still responsible. They are the ones who must take care of that problem, says the prime minister of a country whose government and the majority of its population refuse to admit their own responsibility for the Hungarian Holocaust. As for Orbán’s remarks about those wonderful Hungarians who “are usually sympathetic toward the failings of others,” it makes me sick.

His final words on the monument are that “from a moral perspective and with regard to the historical content of its system of allegories, this work is accurate and flawless.”

Now let’s turn to how Orbán views the role of the Hungarian government and the Hungarian people in the events of the Hungarian Holocaust. According to him, it is undisputed that “Germany bears responsibility for what happened in Hungary after 19 March 1944,” and this fact is determined by “our Fundamental Law.” That is, the new constitution which his government proposed and enacted and which claims that as of March 19, 1944 Hungary lost its sovereignty. This might be an undisputed fact for Orbán, but as we know from weeks of historical discussion on the subject it is an immensely complicated issue. Nevertheless, it is well documented that Hungarian authorities played a significant role in the events after March 19.

Hungarians who analyzed this particular part of the text found the following sentences problematic from a historical and lexical point of view. Although Orbán, after stating that Germany was responsible for the events post March 1944, also admits the responsibility of the Hungarian political leadership, he adds that in his view “the charge of collaboration and the related responsibility holds true in this case.” The word “collaboration” is odd here because the word in Hungarian means pretty much what the English meaning of the word is: “treasonable cooperation in one’s own country with an enemy occupation force.” The Hungarian definition adds that a collaborator is a traitor and that we use the term mostly for collaboration in World War II. Orbán, therefore, either doesn’t know the meaning of the word or is purposely using it to emphasize that Germany was an enemy of Hungary. Hungary’s leaders were, it seems, collaborators because they “did not initiate any form of resistance …; they did not launch a national defense or national rescue mission, they did not attempt to protect the freedom and assets of the country’s citizens, and they didn’t even have the strength to set up a government in exile.”

Note that, according to Orbán, Hungary’s leaders are guilty not because of what they did but because of what they didn’t do. It wasn’t that they actively collaborated; rather, they failed to defend the country against the German invaders. This interpretation, it seems to me, pretty well exonerates them from responsibility for the Hungarian Holocaust.

Then comes what Orbán rather mysteriously calls “the issue of cohabitation.” It took me a little while to figure out that he was talking about Jewish/non-Jewish relations in Hungary since he assiduously avoids the mention of Jews in his letter. Orbán asks, in what he describes as the most important question, “What can we do, especially our own generation born after the events who are committed to Christian values, to national self-respect and to national pride based on correct self-knowledge?” In his view Hungarians did everything they could have done. They apologized, they made reparations, “but at the same time we cannot bear a responsibility that is not ours to bear.” Without the German occupation nothing would have happened to Hungary’s Jewish population. Therefore, “without the acceptance of these facts it is difficult to imagine a sincere cohabitation based on trust in the future.”

If I interpret this last sentence correctly, Viktor Orbán tells us that Hungarian Jews and non-Jews who don’t agree with his concept of history ought to leave because “sincere cohabitation” will be impossible. This strikes me as an only lightly veiled threat of the ugliest kind. For good measure here is the last sentence: “And our generation became followers of radical, anti-communist politics because we had had enough of an insincere life built on a lack of trust.” One could ask, what does anti-communism and the lack of trust in the Rákosi and Kádár periods have to do with the relationship between the government and those who oppose Viktor Orbán’s revisionist view of history? What is he talking about? Is he accusing his opponents of ties to the “horrid” communist past? It’s possible.

This whole letter is shameful and outrageous.

 

 

 

Dissonant government voices on the Hungarian Holocaust

The Orbán government’s efforts to falsify history are proceeding full steam ahead. The “madness”–as Imre Mécs, one of the heroes of 1956, called it–continues. It looks as if Viktor Orbán refuses to listen to reason and insists on erecting a monument that depicts suffering Hungary as Archangel Gabriel at the mercy of the German imperial eagle. The originally stated purpose of the statue was to commemorate the German occupation of Hungary on March 19, 1944. After the first outburst of indignation, the monument’s rationale was changed to a commemoration of the victims, both Jewish and non-Jewish, of German aggression. There is only one problem with the whole concept. Hungary was an ally of Germany, and it was a legitimate Hungarian government that handled the deportation of about 600,000 Hungarian citizens of Jewish heritage. Not without reason, critics of the whole idea of the monument suspect that the Orbán government wants to shake off any responsibility for the Holocaust and to shift the blame entirely to Germany.

The protest around the foundation being built for the future monument has been going on for two weeks. Today about twenty people were removed and taken to police headquarters. The two best known demonstrators who were taken away are Imre Mécs, a former member of parliament who was sentenced to death as a result of his participation in the 1956 revolution, and his wife Fruzsina Magyar, a well-known dramaturgist.

It seems unlikely that the “madness” will end any time soon. Not only will the memorial stand but Sándor Szakály, a historian with far-right political views, will remain the director of the newly created historical institute,”Veritas.” As far I as can see, this new institute will be the government’s vehicle for a revisionist interpretation of modern Hungarian history. And we can only expect more historical madness. Just wait until young historians affected by the extremist ideology of Jobbik begin writing their own revisionist interpretations of historical events.

Mazsihisz, the umbrella organization of Jewish groups, objected to Szakály’s appointment, but considering that Sándor Szakály just signed a document ensuring long-term cooperation between the Veritas Institute and the Holocaust Documentation and Memorial Center, we can be sure that Szakály’s appointment is secure. How could it happen, one might ask, that the Holocaust Documentation Center would ever sign such a document? The answer is simple. One of the first acts of the Orbán government was a personnel change at the head of the Holocaust Documentation and Memorial Center. The old appointees were fired and the new guard arrived. At that point it was clear that the Orbán government had plans for the Center. Since the Memorial Center is financially dependent on the government, Viktor Orbán thinks he has every right to run the place the way he likes. In his world there is no such thing as an independent foundation. So, while Mazsihisz stands against Szakály’s appointment, the Orbán-appointed head of the Holocaust Memorial Center, György Haraszti, signs an agreement of long-term cooperation with the head of Veritas. On the face of it, it might seem that Orbán managed to split the Jewish community, but my feeling is that most Hungarian Jews applaud Mazsihisz and have a rather low opinion of the new head of the Holocaust Memorial Center.

Last Sunday’s March for Life, a yearly gathering in remembrance of the Holocaust, was the largest ever, definitely more than 30,000 people. The crowd filled the streets between the Danube and the Eastern Station. Quite a distance. The government was represented by President János Áder, who then joined the International March for Life on a pilgrimage to Auschwitz. This year the Hungarians led the procession from Auschwitz to Birkenau because of the 70th anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust.

The Hungarian group in Auschwitz-Birkenau

The Hungarian group in Auschwitz-Birkenau

Áder made a speech there that was welcomed by all those who are critical of the Hungarian government’s attitude toward the Holocaust. Áder emphasized that the Hungarian state didn’t resist “the diabolical plan of the German occupiers”; in fact, it became its enablers. He called Auschwitz “the largest Hungarian cemetery.” He went as far as to say that “in order to understand the tragedy of 1944 we will have to take a look at ourselves.”  He added that there is no “forgiveness when a state turns against its own citizens.”

János Áder in Auschwitz-Birkenau / MTI

János Áder in Auschwitz-Birkenau / MTI

These are very strong words. The strongest I have ever heard from a member of the Orbán government. I can’t quite decide how to interpret them. I have the feeling that this was Áder’s first visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and I understand that the place makes an incredible impression on visitors. Perhaps the president changed his speech in the last minute to place greater emphasis on Hungary’s guilt than he had originally planned. Perhaps he was simply saying what he thought the pilgrims expected to hear. Perhaps he really does believe that the Hungarian government was complicit. In any case, Áder’s admission of Hungarian guilt stands in stark contrast to what Viktor Orbán, László Kövér, and Zoltán Balog think of Hungary’s anti-Semitic past. Áder didn’t look for excuses, he didn’t try to bury uncomfortable truths. Was this an example of what we call the good cop, bad cop syndrome or was it genuine? I don’t know whether we will ever be able to answer this question properly given the tight-lipped Fidesz leaders.

As for whether the Germans were true occupiers or not, here is an amusing story. A few days ago neo-Nazi groups also decided to demonstrate on Szabadág tér. Great was the panic among the anti-monument demonstrators. They were afraid of physical attacks by these skin heads. To their surprise it turned out that, just like the Budapest liberals, the neo-Nazis came to demonstrate against the monument. Why? Because, as they explained, the Germans did not occupy Hungary. How could they? Hungarians and Germans were comrades-in-arms who fought together against Bolshevism. No comment.

Week-long demonstration in Budapest was not in vain

Many people labeled the dogged effort of a small group of protesters against the erection of the proposed  monument to the victims of the German “occupation” of Hungary a waste of time and energy. What will they achieve? Nothing. They dismantled the barricade around the proposed site ten or eleven times, but work on the foundation for the monument continued unabated. The monument showing Archangel Gabriel being attacked by the German eagle will be in place before the end of May. They achieved nothing.

Well, this seems not to be the case. The protestors on Szabadság tér (Freedom Square) accomplished something, after all. This morning the US Embassy in Budapest released a statement in which the United States urges the Hungarian government “to seek an honest, open, and factual assessment of the Holocaust in Hungary [which] includes soliciting and considering the opinions of all segments of Hungarian society, and especially those who are rightly most sensitive to the government’s plans during this 70th anniversary year.” The statement also reminded the Hungarian government that it “had indicated in February it would resume dialogue after Easter with stakeholders concerned about Memorial Year plans.”

Hard at work / Népszabadság

Hard at work / Népszabadság

It took no more than a couple of hours for The Wall Street Journal to report on the US initiative which, by the way, coincided with Mazsihisz’s own effort to resume dialogue with the Hungarian government. We have no idea what will happen, but perhaps the US’s unequivocal support for those who object to Viktor Orbán’s high-handed attitude toward Hungarian guilt may help focus the dialogue. The controversy is more than a debate over some fine points of history. The 7oth anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust could provide an opportunity for Hungarian self-assessment. Unfortunately it is precisely that self-assessment which the current Hungarian government wants to prevent.

Meanwhile there were a couple issues in connection with the demonstrations that caused quite a furor. One was an interview with András Schiffer, co-chair of LMP, who seemed to be in an even worse mood than is his usual wont a couple of days after the election. He should have been elated because, after all, his party managed to receive more than 5% of the votes and thus he and five of his colleagues will be able to take part in the work of the parliament. Yet he was morose. When asked by Olga Kálmán what he had to say about the work that had begun on the monument in spite of Viktor Orbán’s explicit promises, Schiffer answered that he had nothing to say. He called the response “disproportionate hysterics.” The opposition shouldn’t waste its energy on this monument. Instead, they should busy themselves with the current very serious problems of the country. Kálmán was so stunned that she committed a  journalistic mistake: she let her own feelings interfere with her professionalism and expressed her disapproval of Schiffer’s response, which she obviously considered callous. Right-wing papers were delighted that András Schiffer, a descendant of Holocaust survivors, shared their view on the issue and pointed the finger at Olga Kálmán. Others, mostly in opposition circles, were horrified at Schiffer’s response.

Here I would like to quote Endre Aczél, a veteran journalist with a vast knowledge of foreign affairs, domestic politics, history, and sports. Aczél remembered an old political-literary event from 1937. In that year the cream of Hungarian literati decided to issue a proclamation protesting artificially inflamed anti-Semitism. Milán Füst (1888-1967), who happened to be Jewish, refused to sign it. These were the words he used explaining his reasons for not joining his fellow writers: “There is the Jewish question and perhaps it could even be solved. But it is not the most important question of the country because there are more burning questions. . . . I will not allow all our troubles to be pilfered on account of the Jewish issue.” A year later the first anti-Jewish law was enacted. The moral of the story is obvious.

András Schiffer’s response resembles what Péter Boross, former prime minister (1993-1994), had to say in an interview on HírTV despite the fact that Boross is a right-wing nationalist and an apologist for the Horthy regime while Schiffer is allegedly a democrat.  I wrote an article about Boross’s seemingly sudden political shift after Viktor Orbán won the election in 2010. Formerly, Boross acted like a true conservative who was afraid of the extreme right. He kept bringing up stories from the 1930s and talked about the consequences of this dangerous ideology. But in the last four years Boross showed himself to be a reactionary right-winger, in many respects sharing the views of the Hungarian extreme right. So, it’s no wonder that Boross considers the demonstrations no more than a hysterical reaction of the left-leaning intelligentsia. The demonstrations are not really about the memorial; they reflect “the hatred of the left fed by their loss at the election.” In an interesting twist he accused “the demonstrators of inflaming fears, especially in older people who went through those terrible years.” So, if I understand him correctly, the demonstrators are the ones who are frightening the Jewish population who, as he added, want to live in peace. “This is an intellectual crime.” And, he added, it is these Budapest intellectuals who are partly responsible for the critical voices from abroad as well. I think, knowing Péter Boross’s ideology, that we can safely replace the adjective “Budapest” with “Jewish.”

I have no idea whether Mazsihisz’s latest effort at continuing a dialogue with the government will succeed. I don’t even know whether the United States government’s statement addressed to the Orbán government will achieve anything. But at least we can say that the efforts of the people who were on that square every afternoon were not wasted. They drew attention once again to the Hungarian government’s unwillingness to acknowledge–and to accept Hungary’s responsibility for–heinous actions of the past.

Days of protest, but the “Nazi” monument will stand in Budapest

I have been so preoccupied with the election results that I have neglected the recent tug-of-war between the Orbán government and a small group of people who desperately want to prevent the erection of a monument to commemorate the “occupation” of Hungary by German troops on March 19, 1944.

The monument depicts Hungary in the guise of the Archangel Gabriel as an innocent victim of German aggression when, in fact, Hungary was an ally of Nazi Germany. By extension, the present Hungarian government puts the blame for the Hungarian Holocaust entirely on Germany, although they do admit that some civil servants shamefully collaborated with the commandos of Adolf Eichmann. But the Hungarian government is not to be blamed because, with the occupation, Hungary lost its sovereignty. Most historians who are experts on the subject, inside and outside of Hungary, see it differently. So does the Hungarian Jewish community, whose representatives have been trying to have a dialogue with Viktor Orbán: they proposed more appropriate ways to remember the seventieth anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust. At the end of February there was a short reprieve in the “war of words” between Orbán and the Jewish community when Orbán promised to postpone the erection of the monument and offered to engage in a dialogue sometime after the Easter holidays.

But then came the election, whose results Viktor Orbán described as a resounding victory, and he was again full of energy. Two days after the election workmen appeared on Szabadság tér (Freedom Square) and started building a barrier around the designated site of the monument. Soon enough activists gathered and swore they would take it down. And indeed, in the morning the workmen constructed the wall and in the afternoon the demonstrators took it down. By the second day the demonstrators had the right kind of equipment to do quite a professional job disassembling the barrier. By yesterday, the barrier had gone up six times and come down six times. Someone compared the situation to the famous Hungarian/Romanian folk ballad in which the walls that are built one day by the masons at the Fortress of Deva/Déva are destroyed by the next morning.

While this was going on, about 20 policemen stood idly by until April 14, when several of the organizers were ordered to appear at the police station and charged with defacement of property. The defacement consisted of using spray paint to write messages on the canvas that covered the metal barrier. Included among the people so charged were Zoltán Lovas, a newspaper man; Fruzsina Magyar, wife of Imre Mécs who as a young man was condemned to death after the failed revolution in 1956; and Alice Fried, a Holocaust survivor, whose “graffiti” read: “I survived the Shoa. I still want to live!” Since then Imre Mécs, who “willfully” wrote messages on the canvas, was also charged.

History falsification / spiritual well-poisioning The first on the right is Fruzsina Magyar

History falsification / Spiritual well-poisoning
Fruzsina Magyar is on the far right.

Meanwhile tourists keep inquiring what’s going on and the participants tell them that “the government wants to erect a Nazi monument and the people are protesting.” Of course, it would be far too complicated to explain to these people what is at stake here. The game of erecting and taking down the barrier will go on for a while, but meanwhile the foundation for the enormous statue of Archangel Gabriel is being built. Yes, it must stand just as ordered by the imperious Viktor Orbán. His announced deadline is May 1.

Opponents say that as soon as Viktor Orbán and his government are gone this statue will join the statues erected during the Rákosi and Kádár periods, which are now  in a kind of statue cemetery in Memento Park. Others are certain that the new monument will have to be guarded day and night because it is likely that opponents will deface this monument that they find so objectionable.

The English-language media doesn’t seem to have taken much notice of what’s going on in the heart of Budapest. I discovered only one opinion piece, by András Simonyi, former Hungarian ambassador in Washington, who finds Viktor Orbán “deaf to the uproar by the Jewish community and other decent Hungarians. He fails to show leadership and magnanimity. He is missing the opportunity to behave like a statesman.”  Statesmanship? Magnanimity? From Viktor Orbán?

By contrast, the German press has been covering the story of the monument from the beginning. After all, Germany is implicated in this story. But the Germans, unlike the Hungarians, faced up to their own past and were ready to take the blame. They also know, as do most historians, that the Germans had eager accomplices in the Hungarian Holocaust. German public radio had a segment on the controversy, “Proteste gegen Nazi-Bezatsungsdenkmal.” Yes, the description of it as a Nazi monument is spreading. In it the journalist responsible for the text accurately described the situation that awaited the German troops in Hungary. Junge Welt ran an article entitled “Orbán in the role of the victim.” Perhaps the writer who claimed that Hungarians never quite got over the fact that they lost World War II is right. Seventy years after the fact. It would be high time to do so, but self-examination is impossible as long as the Hungarian government prevents any kind of honest look at Hungary’s role in the Holocaust.

Viktor Orbán against the world as fear spreads in Hungary

Somewhat belatedly German Chancellor Angela Merkel congratulated Viktor Orbán on his electoral victory. It was yesterday afternoon that the press director of the Prime Minister’s Office released the news to MTI, and around 4 p.m. a summary of the letter appeared on the government website. Merkel emphasized that Fidesz’s large majority carries a special responsibility to use it soberly and sensitively. “In doing so, you can continue to count on Germany as a reliable partner in Europe,” the chancellor remarked. For emphasis she added: “in this spirit, I’m glad about our continued cooperation.” I think this letter was a warning to Viktor Orbán, who has already ignored Merkel’s message. If Merkel is serious about making good German-Hungarian relations dependent on Orbán’s restraint and moderation, she can start preparing for a rocky four-year period. It looks as if Orbán has no intention of slowing down. On the contrary, on day one he decided to take on the Hungarian and international Jewish community.

Those readers who are not familiar with the background of the controversial monument commemorating the German occupation of Hungary should read my many posts that deal with the matter, starting in early January. Here it is enough to say that this monument is a distortion of Hungarian history and by extension a falsification of the Hungarian Holocaust. The question is why Orbán insists on erecting this monument despite worldwide protestation. Why is he ready to face condemnation and contempt as a result of his stubbornness? As far as I can see, there can be only two answers to this question. Either his psychological make-up simply doesn’t tolerate defeat, which is a serious problem in itself, or whitewashing Hungary’s role in the Holocaust is vitally important to him.

After three days of protest, during the police passively watched demonstrators dismantle the fence built around the future site of the monument, authorities gave the green light to the police to crack down. There were several arrests today, with most likely more to follow.

While the tug of war over the erection of the monument continues, we should talk about another topic. Fear. A day before the election, Lili Bayer, a young researcher on Hungarian politics wrote a piece on the “return of fear” in Hungary. Let me quote her:

One element missing in much of the coverage of Hungary, however, has been the rise of fear in Hungarian society. A few outspoken Hungarian journalists have come out and spoken about their experiences of being intimidated and censored, especially in the state-run media, where some topics are considered off-bounds. Some former state employees, from ex-Fidesz agriculture official József Ángyán to bureaucrats at the Central Bank have described corruption and intolerance of dissident opinion throughout the government bureaucracy. Some of the country’s most talented television hosts and policy experts have lost their jobs. Fidesz and its oligarch supporters control not only the state bureaucracy and most of the media, but also many businesses and all government contracts. Husbands, wives, and friends of opposition figures have therefore become unemployable. As a result, some Hungarians have come to fear speaking their minds.

The fear extends beyond ministries and media institutions. It is present in private corporations, in schools, and in households across the country. At its root, the fear comes from the decline of Hungary’s democratic institutions and the lack of checks on the Fidesz party’s power. Fidesz has used its two-thirds majority in parliament over the past four years to gain control over nominally independent institutions. The Media Council, which oversees both state-owned and private news outlets, is dominated by Fidesz loyalists. Justices from the country’s top court have been forced out to make way for Orbán’s appointees, thus undermining the judiciary’s ability to act as a check on the government’s actions. There is therefore no institution to protect those fired on political grounds, no one willing to start a formal inquiry into censorship.

The fear is not, of course, comparable to the fear of Chinese, Uzbeks, or Iranians, who live under the rule of much stronger and more authoritarian regimes. But the return of fear to Hungary after a two-decade absence is significant. It impacts the daily lives of millions, and has no place in a modern democratic society. The existence of this kind of fear in the European Union should ring alarm bells across the continent.

An increasing number of articles are appearing in Hungary that talk about fear, in Hungarian “egzisztenciális félelem” (fear for one’s livelihood). This fear is widespread. That’s why in the past four years the teachers’ unions could not get too many people on the streets. That’s why these same teachers cannot be enticed to strike. That’s why so many people refuse to answer the questions of public opinion firms. People notice that cameramen are hard at work at demonstrations, and they are convinced that these pictures will be used against them one day. People are afraid that their telephone conversations are no longer private. There were instances when Fidesz propaganda messages arrived on cell phones whose numbers were not public. I heard about cases where university students were threatened by their dean to stop their political activities. Naturally, these political activities were on behalf of the parties of the democratic opposition.  At opposition gatherings one can see mostly people of retirement age. We know that young people all over the world are not terribly interested in politics, but there is another reason. Younger people are worried about their jobs as civil servants, doctors, or teachers.

There is another kind of fear that affects entire communities. Take, for instance, the city of Esztergom. The city had a famously bad Fidesz mayor before 2010. Esztergom is a conservative city, but even the good burghers of Esztergom had enough of the mayor. In October 2010 with a large majority they voted for an independent newcomer to politics, a woman. The people of Esztergom thought, however, that the mayor was only a bad apple among the otherwise wonderful Fidesz local politicians and voted overwhelmingly for Fidesz candidates for the city council. Subsequently the Fidesz majority did everything in its power to prevent the new mayor from carrying out her duties. And the government decided to punish the city for voting one of their own out of office. This time Esztergom voted solidly for the Fidesz candidate. They learned that voting against Fidesz is dangerous and counterproductive.

This morning one of Hungarian Spectrum‘s commentors sent me a video. It is a recording of a ten-minute segment of the Fidesz gathering in Debrecen where Viktor Orbán made his last campaign appearance. Before his speech an elderly gentleman with a monumentally large moustache recited a poem written byRudolf Kotzián. The elderly gentleman turned out to be Zsolt Dánielfy, a member of the Csokonai Theater of Debrecen. Keep in mind that Attila Vidnyánszky, the Fidesz favored new director of the Hungarian National Theater of rightist leanings, used to be the director of the Debrecen theater.  Kotzián seems to specialize in bad nationalistic poems, some of which are available on a rather obscure site called Eugen. The poem recited here is a frightening warning of what lies ahead for those who don’t vote for Fidesz. Kotzián might be off his rocker, but the organizers of the gathering surely knew the content of his poem and gave their blessing to having it recited. What is the message? “You will be treated the way you voted.” If you vote against this regime, look around, you will see what happens to you. This message is repeated ad nauseam until the fear of God is pounded into those brave souls who stand up against this power.

Zsolt Dánielfy recites Rudolf Kotzián's poem on April 5, 2014, Debrecen

Zsolt Dánielfy recites Rudolf Kotzián’s poem on April 5, 2014, Debrecen

There is also an entirely new police force whose members with their black outfits and masks are a frightening sight. By now there are almost a thousand of them. Why Hungary needs such a force is a mystery. Officially, it is supposed to be an anti-terrorist unit, but surely the terrorist threat to Hungary is minimal. The country doesn’t need a force of a 1,000 heavily armed men against non-existent terrorists. In reality, this task force has only one purpose: the protection of Viktor Orbán. What is Viktor Orbán afraid of? The people. And what are the people afraid of? Viktor Orbán. This is where we are in April 2014.

István Deák: A monument of self-pity and self-justification

DeakIstván Deák is perhaps the best known Hungarian-born historian in the United States. His first book dealt with Weimar Germany (Weimar Germany’s Left-wing Intellectuals [1968]). He then moved on to Lajos Kossuth and the 1848 Hungarian revolution (The Lawful Revolution, 1848-1849 [1979]). His next book was on the Habsburg military (Beyond Nationalism: A Social and Political History of the Habsburg Officer Corps, 1848-1918 [1990]). He also wrote about Europe in the 1930s (Essays on Hitler’s Europe [2001]). He edited and partly wrote, together with Jan T. Gross and Tony Judt, a book entitled The Politics of Retribution in Europe: World War II and Its Aftermath, published in 2000. His latest book which will appear sometime soon is entitled Europe on Trial: Collaboration, Accommodation, Resistance, and Retribution during and after World War II. István Deák is Seth Low Professor Emeritus at Columbia University. I should also mention that he was one of the readers of my Ph.D. dissertation.

* * *

When German troops marched into Hungary, in March 1944, they did so primarily to prevent the Hungarians from breaking away from Germany. Miklós Kállay’s government under Regent Miklós Horthy was not alone in preparing for a breakaway. Among Germany’s European comrades-in-arms, Finland, Romania, and Bulgaria were getting ready to take the same step. Italy had preceded all of them by almost a year, if not quite successfully, and only the Slovak and Croatian governments made no attempt to capitulate. However, in the spring of 1944, the Slovak military leadership was already preparing to turn against the Germans and its own government, and the Croatian fascist Ustasha regime was steadily losing its power and importance while Tito’s Communist partisan army was gradually taking over. By the summer, it already came to fighting between the Germans and the Slovak insurgents; civil war was raging in Croatia and Romania; Finland and Bulgaria had not only left the German alliance but by September were waging war against the Third Reich. The three countries together sent hundreds of thousands of soldiers to fight against the Germans.

The Hungarian breakaway attempt failed because neither the social elite nor the majority of the people wanted it to happen; the invading Germans were welcomed everywhere in March 1944. That there was no armed resistance was not only because instructions to that effect came from Regent Horthy or from the government but also because the Hungarians regarded the Germans as old and loyal allies against Bolshevism, the Slavic and Romanian neighbors, and the Jews. The current Hungarian government’s contention that the occupying Germans oppressed the Hungarian people, that the country became a victim, and that it lost its independence is a rekindling of the same false Communist propaganda that excused “the people” and put all the blame on the “traitor landlords and capitalists.”

Following the arrest of a few hundred liberal, conservative, and other anti-Nazi politicians, the invading German army units were able to continue their march toward the Russian front, while in Hungary the new Sztójay-government, consisting largely of veterans of earlier Horthy-regime cabinets, mobilized the population, industry, and agriculture for the final showdown in the war. At the same time, the new government, drawing on the technical advice of a tiny SS detachment, embarked at a dizzying speed on the drastic solution of the “Jewish Question”, i.e. the humiliation, segregation, despoliation, and deportation of eight hundred thousand Jewish citizens. The deportation of the Jews to Auschwitz allowed for the largest redistribution of wealth in Hungarian history, shortly to be followed by the Communists’ even greater wealth redistribution.

Such sporadic and hesitant steps as the suspension, in July 1944, of the deportation of the Jews of Budapest and of the Jewish labor servicemen, and Regent Horthy’s surrender attempt in October, did not change the determination of the country’s political and military elite to remain loyal to the German alliance. This explains why they complied even with such outrageous German wishes as that, in order to delay the Red Army’s advance toward Vienna, the Hungarian army participate in the defense and thus the destruction of Budapest; also that the Hungarian government voluntarily hand over to the Germans a significant proportion of the national wealth. To regard all this as suffering brought upon the Hungarians by German oppression is absurd and a falsification of history. It is wrong to speak simultaneously of Hungary’s and Germany’s heroic struggle against the Bolshevik enemy and at the same time complain about German oppression.

The planned monument to the German occupation and the underlying notion of self-justification can cause serious damage to the country’s image. It is true that Hungary is not alone in suffering from a mania of self-pity and self-justification: the Ukrainians, Romanians, Czechs, Slovaks and Serbs did not get much further than that either. However, what is going on in Hungary today, where the official leadership both apologizes for the sins committed by the Hungarian state against the Jews and points an accusatory finger at everyone but its own country, creates an impossible and dangerous public mood. It is infantile to perpetually accuse the West of conspiracy, to attack the United States with arguments once used by the nationalist Horthy and the Communist Rákosi regimes, and to harbor perpetual grievances. The West is not rushing towards intellectual, moral, and financial bankruptcy; its main concern is surely not how to put the Hungarian people in chains.

A more rational attitude on both sides is, of course, warranted: so long as this article can appear in Hungary, and while the Hungarian ambassador to the United Nations asks for forgiveness from the Hungarian Jews on behalf of the Hungarian state, one cannot speak either of political dictatorship or of official anti-Semitism in Hungary. Would that the government and its faithful followers remind themselves not to engage in collective hysteria!

István Deák
Columbia University

January 2014