Tag Archives: Gyula Szekfű

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.

Looking backward: Historical complexity and political simplification

A couple of days ago I mentioned that three historians who are attached to the Institute of History of the Hungarian Academy of Science were entrusted with deciding the fate of persons and concepts that can possibly be connected to dictatorial regimes of the twentieth century. The other day the long awaited list was made public and was met with a mix of fury and derision. By today well known historians, members of the Academy, are calling the list and its creators a disgrace to the historical profession.

Almost a month before the appearance of the infamous list András Gerő, whose specialty is the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, rang the alarm bell and predicted that nothing good would come from this enterprise because the text of the law is imprecise and because whoever wrote it has no clue about the complexity of life and thus of history.

I will summarize Gerő’s main objections. The full text of the the law can be read here, but the key sentence is that “the name of no person can be used anywhere (institutions, media organs, public places) who played a leading role in the establishment, formation, and maintenance of twentieth-century dictatorial regimes or such expression or name of an organ that can be directly related with such a regime.”

The first problem is that the law itself is sloppily formulated. On the one hand it talks about dictatorial regimes (rendszerek) in the plural when it comes to persons whereas, when talking about organizations and concepts, it uses the singular (rendszer). So, how many dictatorial regimes are we talking about? Gerő rightly states that there were three such regimes in Hungary in the twentieth century. The Soviet Republic of 1919, the 1944-45 Arrow Cross regime, and the communist regime between 1949 and 1989. The text of the preamble to the bill provides a clue to the lawmakers’ thinking. Here they talk about “dictatorships” but add that “first and foremost” they are thinking of  the communist dictatorship and the 1919 Soviet Republic lasting 133 days. Thus, the emphasis is on dictatorships of the left.

Why does any lawmaker think that such a piece of legislation is necessary in the first place? The reason is that “our streets and institutions should bear names that are worthy of the ideals of a democratic country.” However, Gerő points out, it is not only dictatorship that is opposed to the ideals of a democratic state. What if the equality of citizens is terminated in a perfectly legitimate and democratic manner? The reference here is to the Horthy regime’s anti-Jewish laws. “Without equality of citizens there is no rule of rule (jogállam).” Gerő comes to the conclusion that perhaps the lawmakers are not really familiar with the meaning of the rule of law.

Listed by Epicantus / Daria Nepriakhina

Listed by Epicantus / Daria Nepriakhina / Flickr

But, Gerő says, ignorance has its consequences. On the preliminary list were such names as Béla Kun and Tibor Szamuely, who was personally responsible for political murders during the 1919 communist interlude. Their roles in the establishment and maintenance of a dictatorship are indisputable. But Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels also appeared on the list. They were included because of their role in laying the foundation for the later Soviet regime. Since both died years before 1917, we have no idea what they would have thought of the kind of dictatorship that was established in Soviet Russia. And if Marx and Engels are blacklisted, why don’t we put Prime Minister Pál Teleki, who played a leading role in the enactment of Hungary’s anti-Jewish laws, on the same list? And if we can connect Marx and Engels with the Muscovite Mátyás Rákosi, we should certainly link the name of Bishop Ottokár Prohászka, who is considered to be the theoretician of Ferenc Szálasi’s Hungarism, with the Holocaust.

One must also should keep in mind that people might change their views over their lifetimes. Either because they genuinely had a change of heart or because they responded to a changing situation. As an example Gerő brings up Gyula Szekfű (1883-1955), the historian. His extremely influential book written in 1920, Három nemzedék: Egy hanyatló kor története (Three generations: History of a declining age), blamed the liberals of the dual monarchy for the misfortunes that befell Hungary after World War I. This book played an important role in justifying István Bethlen’s counterrevolutionary regime. Later he moved farther to the left and after 1945 he even praised Stalin’s accomplishments and the Soviet regime. From 1953 he became a member of parliament and in the last two years of his life a member of the Presidium. There’s no question that he helped maintain the communist dictatorship. Right now a street bears his name in Budapest’s District IV. Should he be banned? According to the law, if we take it seriously, yes, he should be.

The other person Gerő mentions is János Szentágothai, the famous Hungarian medical researcher. He was also a member of parliament and later a member of the Presidium during the Kádár regime. Between 1977 and 1985 he was the president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences which was a political post. After 1990 he was again a member of parliament as an MDF member. Again, he should be banned but naturally he won’t be.

The third person is Béla Kovács, secretary-general of the Smallholders party, whom the Soviets exiled to the Gulag on February 25, 1947. In 2000, during the first Orbán administration, the government made February 25 a day of remembrance for the victims of communism. In 2002 Kovács’s statue was unveiled on Kossuth Square. Kovács became a member of Imre Nagy’s cabinet, but in 1958 he became a member of the pseudo-parliament of the early Kádár regime. He should also be banned according to a strict interpretation of the law.

The drafters of the law added that if and when there is any question concerning eligibility the case must be referred to the historians of the Academy. But if one reads the law carefully, it doesn’t allow for any doubt. The choice is either black or white, yes or no. Historians should know full well that life and therefore history is not that simple, and therefore they should not have accepted the job. Unfortunately, they did. The historians “should have told the government that this task cannot be accomplished in the spirit of academic correctness.”

They accepted the job despite the fact that Attila Pók, one of the three historians who took part in this disgraceful exercise, admitted that the law doesn’t allow for any shading or for a scientific approach and that the law was not thought through.

The government passed the buck to the Academy and the historians passed it back to the government. They excused their own participation by emphasizing that theirs was not the final word. They acted only in an advisory capacity.

The concern is growing in historical circles that “by participating in this political game they risked their academic credibility.”  As historian Gábor Gyáni said, “the historians found themselves in such an absurd situation that they had to explain why concepts like “freedom” or “republic” are not directly related to dictatorships. But at the same time they fell into such traps as declaring Maxim Gorky or Vladimir Mayakovsky supporters of a dictatorship. The former, after the assassination of Sergei Kirov in December 1934, was placed under “secret” house arrest. There were rumors that his sudden death wasn’t an accident. Mayakovsky by the late 1920s became increasingly disillusioned with the course the Soviet Union was taking and committed suicide.

Life is not as simple as Fidesz politicos imagine or as even well-known Hungarian historians think. And what if one day historians associate Viktor Orbán and the members of his government with the destruction of democracy in Hungary and with building an authoritarian regime with the assistance of a neo-Nazi party? It could easily happen.

Pursuing a quote from the “scribbler” Imre Roboz

Occasionally the detective emerges in all of us with any intellectual curiosity. That is what happened to me yesterday when for the second time I read about the Jewish Bolshevik Imre Roboz (1892-1945) in the “sterling prose” of Zsolt Bayer.

It seems that Imre Roboz always comes in handy when Bayer makes a frontal attack on Hungarian Jews who allegedly hate their own country. The first time he used a quotation from Roboz was in his op/ed piece about those Hungarian and foreign Jews who say all sorts of nasty things about Hungary. Like András Schiff or Cohn-Bendit. The title of this incredible piece was “The same stench.” It appeared in the far-right Magyar Hírlap. I wrote about this article at length earlier.

At that time I was satisfied to check the most basic details about Imre Roboz’s life and ascertain that Roboz was not “a scribbler” as Bayer claimed but a very well-known and respected theater director who was murdered by the Hungarian Nazis only a few days before the Soviet troops liberated the Hungarian capital.

Yesterday, however, my intellectual curiosity about Imre Roboz was further piqued because Zsolt Bayer invoked him again. The occasion for using the same Roboz quotation that he cited last January was of course another tirade, this time against Ákos Kertész. The same quotation and an attempt to equate all Bolshevik murderers with the Hungarian Jewry. But Bayer often reveals his ignorance of history. For example, he quotes József Cserny, the leader of the murderous Lenin Boys, as a typical case of Jewish terror. The problem is that Cserny was a Protestant shoemaker’s assistant. Bayer also tries to teach Ákos Kertész a thing or two. For example, that “we were among the first ones in Europe who emancipated the Jews.” One doesn’t have to be an expert on the history of Jewish emancipation to suspect that this is untrue. And indeed. Hungary was one of the laggards, emancipating the Jews in 1867, beating out only Bulgaria, Serbia, Spain, Portugal, and Russia (1917).

The Roboz quotation, it turns out, has had quite a career in right-wing scribbling. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) The anti-Semitic István Csurka, chairman of MIÉP, also fell in love with the Roboz quotation, which he introduced as having been written by “a newspaperman, a Jew called Imre Roboz.” Csurka quoted the passage at length in which the theater director asks: “Why should I be a good son, a faithful son of a bad and unfaithful country…. It didn’t need me, I don’t need it. My weak people, my cowardly people, contemptible people, I have nothing to do with you.” These sentences remind Csurka of the words of Ágnes Heller, János Kis, Gábor Halmai, Bálint Magyar and the others “talking about the rule of law.”

A book review of “the much sought after best-seller of this year’s book week,” Francia Kiss Mihály élete és halála (Life and Death of Mihály Francia Kiss) by László Domonkos, also repeats the words of the Hungarian-hater Imre Roboz. Keep in mind that the “hero” of the Domonkos’s book, Mihály Francia Kiss, was a murderous counterrevolutionary who was sentenced to death in 1945 but escaped his fate by hiding until 1957.

Károly Szalay, a frequent contributor to Magyar Demokrata, writing on January 22, 2011, brought up Roboz in connection with the “red emigration.” He claims that he just happened to read Elemér Mályusz’sVörös emigráció (1931) where he found the same quotation Bayer cited only three weeks earlier. Szalay seems to know that Roboz wasn’t a writer as Bayer claimed but a “busy-body [mitugrász] theater director.”

The Hungarist (Arrow Cross) László Tompó (Brother Tompó) suggests reading Elemér Mályusz’s book on the red emigration which, although written in 1931, was reprinted in 2006 by Attraktor Press. One can buy it in bookstores specializing in far-right publications and can also order it from a website called “Nemzeti Könyvek boltja.”

Assuming that Imre Roboz was part of the “red emigration” in Vienna after 1919, he couldn’t have stayed there for long because on October 12, 1920 Pesti Hírlap announced that a certain Ben Blumenthal from New York had negotiated a deal between the United Play Corporation and Vígszinház, the famous Budapest theater. Blumenthal had to return to New York, but in his absence his lawyer, Mór Bedő, and Imre Roboz, director of Projetograph, were designated to represent him. According to the deal, Roboz would be the director of Vígszinház. Not only must Roboz have returned to Hungary after only a few months, but surely his “sins” couldn’t have been that grave because at this point counterrevolutionary atrocities were daily occurrences and yet he was a respectable member of Budapest’s cultural life only a year after the fall of the Hungarian Soviet Republic.

Only a few days ago Múlt-kor, a historical website, announced that an old Hungarian film from 1917 called “Az utolsó hajnal” (The last dawn) was recovered and placed in the Hungarian film archives. From the article we learn that “‘Hungarian film was the child of the war’ as Imre Roboz, the Hungarian film producer of the teens said.” Raphael Patai’s book entitled The Jews of Hungary: History, Culture, Psychology describes Imre Roboz as “another multitalented man whose career included the ownership of a cabaret…. He started as secretary of the Projectograph Film Company, then became editor of the first Hungarian motion picture magazine, Mozgófénykép Hiradó (Motion Picture News), and went on to direct the Phoenix Film Company and the Apollo Cabaret. In 1921 he also became director of the Vigszinház.”

As for Elemér Mályusz (1898-1989), he was a renowned medieval historian whose work, as long as he stayed with the Middle Ages, was outstanding although somewhat on the nationalist side. He and Gyula Szekfű, another giant of Hungarian historiography, were at odds over the essence of Hungarian history. Szekfű looked at progressivism as being intertwined with Hungary’s connection with Vienna while Mályusz was searching for models for Hungary in the East. He envisaged some kind of singular Hungarian road whose inspiration was the semi-independent Transylvania.

If Mályusz had stuck to history he would have had fewer troubles after 1945. Unfortunately he was not only an anti-communist and an anti-Semite but also an admirer of Hitler’s Germany. Thus, after the war Mályusz got into trouble because of two books he wrote. One was Vörös emigráció (also translated into German as Sturm auf Ungarn. Volkskommissäre und Genossen im Auslande and into English under the title The Fugitive Bolsheviks). This is the book from which publicists of the Hungarian extreme right like to quote. The other was a series of articles, later published in book form under the title A magyar történelemtudomány (1942; Hungarian Historiography). In these articles he talked about deporting the Jews from the country in order “to shape a life truly our own.” He talked approvingly about the German solution to the “Jewish question.”

Historian István Papp, who wrote an article about Mályusz’s troubles with the political police in 1945, remarks that A vörös emigráció was Mályusz’s worst effort. During his questioning Mályusz told the investigators that it was Pál Teleki, former prime minister, who asked him and Gyula Szekfű to write such a book. The original idea was that Mályusz would write about the events themselves while Szekfű would provide the ideological background. In the end Szekfű bailed out and thus Mályusz came to be the sole author. Teleki took care of the publication of the work into German and English. Surely, on money supplied by the Hungarian government. After 1945 Mályusz was relieved of his professorship, but eventually he was rehabilitated and became a senior researcher at the Hungarian Academy’s Historical Institute.

And a final word on Imre Roboz. His daughter, the painter Zsuzsi Roboz, in 1991 established an Imre Roboz Prize for actors or actresses of Vígszinház who beyond their performances on the stage spread the good name of the theater by pursuing public roles.

September 11, 2011