Tag Archives: history

Gábor Bethlen, Prince of Transylvania and a Muslim Europe

A friend called my attention to an interesting article written by Gellért Rajcsányi, one of the editors of mandiner.hu. The young right-of-center journalist gave a title that must have been shocking to Hungarian readers: “Gábor Bethlen urged a Muslim conquest of Europe.” Bethlen, prince of Transylvania (1613-1629), is one of the revered heroes of Hungary. He is considered to be a man who brought prosperity and cultural flowering to the province and who was also an extraordinarily skillful diplomat. He managed to achieve relative independence for Transylvania, wedged between the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires.

What do Hungarian school children learn about Gábor Bethlen? Practically nothing. It is easy to summarize the information provided about this perhaps most famous Transylvanian prince in the history textbook for grade 10 students. We learn that Bethlen, who “acquired the throne with the assistance of Turkish troops, had to take into consideration the requirements of Istanbul if he didn’t want his country to find itself between two fires.” Another few sentences deal with Bethlen’s involvement in the Thirty Years War against Ferdinand II, king of Hungary, his initial successes and his subsequent failures, which forced him to sue for peace (Peace of Nikolsburg/Mikulov, December 31, 1621).

The larger part of Rajcsányi’s article is a transcription of a very long letter written by Gábor Bethlen to János Rimay, Transylvanian ambassador to the Porte. The letter was written on April 11, 1621, in the middle of Bethlen’s anti-Habsburg military campaign when “more and more of Bethlen’s supporters were turning away from him” and he was forced to renounce the Hungarian crown that had been offered to him earlier.

The letter Rajcsányi published had appeared earlier in the blog “Kitalált Újkor” (Invented Modern Times). According to the author of the post, in the 1830s József Tunyogi Csapó (1789-1858), a member of the Hungarian National Academy, published all of the ambassadorial instructions of Bethlen with the exception of this incriminating one. It was discovered only recently by Sándor Papp, a historian of Hungarian-Ottoman relations at the University of Szeged.

It seems that even the conservative but until now pro-Fidesz members of the Hungarian media have become tired of the anti-refugee propaganda which endlessly repeats the great Hungarian historical sacrifices in holding back Muslim terror from Western Europe. Although this may have been true before the Battle of Mohács (1526), the picture after that date is anything but clear. Rajcsák somewhat sarcastically remarks that 150 years after Mohács “Hungary needed the contemporary international NATO forces” to get rid of the Turks, who by that time were comfortably settled in the country. All the while “such great Hungarian heroes as Imre Thököly (1657-1705), whose statue is still on Heroes’ Square, and his friends, typically in Turkish pay, did their best to hinder the armies of Christian Europe while they sacked and robbed their homeland.” Besides Thököly, there are others whose historical assessment needs correction. Clearly, Rajcsák thinks that Bethlen is one of those.

Gábor Bethlen’s statue on Heroes’ Square

Rajcsák compares this 1621 letter to a conspiracy theory concocted by today’s Hungarian far right. In such a modern transcript this document would be proof that “the Protocols of the Grand Lodge of György ‘Dark Force’ Soros” are planning the Islamization of Christian Europe. Perhaps, says Rajcsák, it would be time “to do something with our pro-kuruc/anti-labanc historiography and educational system.” On the meaning of the words “kuruc” and “labanc,” take a look at a post I wrote titled “A distorted past haunts Hungarians.”

Ágnes R. Várkonyi, professor emerita of ELTE and member of the Academy, complained recently about the lack of research on Bethlen’s diplomatic efforts. It was only lately that historians discovered that Bethlen’s great plan was the creation of a Central European Confederation that would have included Bohemia, Moravia and, Croatia.” So far, so good, but in order to achieve this goal Bethlen, as this document proves, was soliciting a Ottoman military occupation of the whole area and beyond.

Bethlen through his ambassador suggested to the Sultan (hatalmas Császár/great emperor) that he move his troops to Belgrade and from there to Nagykanizsa, on the border between the Turkish occupied territories and Royal Hungary, all the way to Graz. He emphasized that it would take only four or five days to reach Graz from Kanizsa. It is easy terrain and food is plentiful in Styria and other neighboring provinces of Austria. From there it would be easy to reach Italy and march as far as Milan (Mediolanum), which at that time was ruled by the Spanish Habsburgs. Milan would allow the Ottomans to fight against Spain both on land and on sea.

He himself, who would attack the Habsburgs from the north, would need only 30,000 Ottoman and 15,000 Tatar troops, which in his estimation would be sufficient to penetrate as far as Passau and Bavaria where he would camp and take hold of the Danube River. Bethlen hoped that even Ferdinand II could be captured in Vienna, surrounded by Hungarian-Turkish and Tatar troops. Thus Ferdinand’s realm would be a Turkish protectorate, just like Transylvania was. The sultan would be able “to buy not just one fort as his father did in Eger but a whole kingdom.”

We see no sign of the legendary Polish-Hungarian friendship in this letter because Bethlen is envisaging a massive attack on Poland by at least 100,000 Tatars, reinforced by 40,000 Turks, who would “burn, rob terribly the country all summer and fall.” The only concession Bethlen wanted to secure from the Ottomans was that the Porte “would promise that the territories of the Hungarian Crown wouldn’t be in any way altered.” If these promises are kept “we will serve the great emperor joyfully … just as Transylvania has been securely under the wings of his greatness ever since King János [Szapolyai (1487-1540)].” Soon enough, other countries would join the Ottoman Empire and thus “the whole of Europe would belong to the all-mighty emperor.”

Finally, Bethlen reminds the Porte that “we could have made peace with the Germans but, because we didn’t want to break our promises to the almighty sultan, we suffered incredible dangers in order not to violate the trust of His Mightiness.”

The letter is so specific and detailed that it is very difficult not to take it at face value. I agree with Rajcsányi that it would be time to start rectifying the misinterpretations of historical facts committed over the centuries.

January 7, 2017

Sándor Kerekes: A Hundred Years Later–Today

Franz Joseph, the iconic (also “apostolic”) emperor-king of Austria-Hungary, passed away in November 1916 and because of a war, a terrible war was going on full tilt, the empire had to have an emperor as soon as possible.

Franz Joseph didn’t have much luck when it came to successors. His only son, Rudolf, committed suicide in 1899. He died without an issue. Franz Joseph’s younger brother Maximilian was murdered earlier in 1867 as self-declared Emperor of Mexico. His second younger brother, Karl Ludwig, was already dead by 1899 but he had several sons, the oldest of whom was Franz Ferdinand whose sons couldn’t inherit the throne because of their father morganatic marriage.

Next in line, therefore, was the son of Franz Ferdinand’s younger brother, Otto Franz (1865-1906), Karl or Károly in Hungarian. After his father’s death in 1906, he was next-in-line to Franz Ferdinand, his uncle, and was treated accordingly.

After the death of Franz Joseph, his great uncle, he ruled in Austria as Emperor Karl I and in Hungary as Karl IV or as a contemporary document called him “the forth by this name.”  He had very little experience in statecraft because Franz Joseph didn’t share his knowledge of the politics of his realm with either Franz Ferdinand or after his death, with Karl. Like his father, he became a military officer who spent most of his military duties in Vienna and Prague where he also studied law and political science.

He was crowned king of Hungary on the 30th day of December 1916. One hundred years ago today!

This anniversary has been noted officially to such an extent by the Hungarian government that the National Museum of Hungary organized an exhibition in remembrance of the times and of the event.

I also wanted to commemorate it, so I went to the Museum to see what has been left to us from that day. Those were highly unusual times. Not only because of the rampaging war but because it was the accelerated dawn of the technological age. The coronation cortege and its horses provided a copious supply of horse manure for the streets of the Castle District, where the event took place, but at the same time, the royal couple arrived from Vienna to Budapest by train. They were chauffeured around in automobiles and journalists were standing on street corners with telephone hand pieces that could be plugged into any public phone station and were reporting practically every minute of the royals to their newspapers. Often, a new special issue of some newspaper was released just half an hour after the event, as the royal couple was completing their daily program, and the newspapers were mounting a murderously fierce competition to report the fullest and the fastest account of the royals’ doings.

When I arrived at the exhibition, I was stunned to find that making photographs is strictly forbidden. I tried to bargain about that but failed. I have no picture of my own making to offer.

The royal couple arrived by train; at the station, enormous hoopla and a lot of horse-drawn carriages waited and then ferried them to the royal castle to stay. The timing of the coronation was only a short month after the burial of the emperor, and there was very little time to decorate and prepare the district for the momentous event. However, the very able intendant of the Opera, Count Bánffy, did a splendid job of it, decorating the coronation church as well as part of the streets where the procession went. The ceremony itself was not going to be too elaborate, they surmised, because of the war and because of the economy drive that was in effect in the country. Nevertheless, the march from the castle to the coronation temple (the distance could hardly be more than 700-800 meters) took a good couple of hours as the horse-drawn carriages, filled with the courtiers, aristocrats and assorted hangers-on, with their spouses, all decked out in their historical costumes, dripping with jewels, furs and exotic feathers, made the stately possession amidst the corps of hussar units, guards of the personnel and the crown jewels, and, of course, there were the members of Parliament (upper and lower house, naturally), members of the aristocracy, the military brass; Austrian and Hungarian, all represented in brotherly unison, former, present and future members of cabinets, and not to forget the mayor and entire council of the city of Budapest. Everyone dressed in the historical, ceremonial finery. Karl IV, the “coronatus,” was riding a horse in the middle of the procession, so it took some time until his turn came to arrive and enter the Coronation Church. But enter he did, with his queen and son. The medieval church was splendidly draped inside with dark red velvet, embroidered with the double cross of the Lothringian House, tightly connected to the Habsburgs on several counts going back almost to the twelfth century. (Later the crowd ripped off and took home these crosses for souvenirs.) The coronation ceremony was open only to the invited lucky few; only by invitation. So much so, that even the prince-primate of the Catholic Church, who actually conducted the ceremony, received a written invitation.

The ceremony was relatively simple: after some prayers and propitiations, the coronandus rose from his throne, kneeled at the top step leading to the altar, and there the prince-primate and the prime minister (István Tisza) jointly placed the crown on the head of the new king. At this moment, rang out the joyful cry: long live the king! Then came the summary crowning of the queen too, her separate crown used, but her shoulder was ceremonially touched with the “holy” crown too to make the association clear.

King Charles IV taking the Royal Oath

After some more, but short prayers, the royal party exited the cathedral to the middle of the square, where a trinity statue has stood since the 1720s and there, standing on the base of the statue, four of the highest catholic priests of the country administered to him the royal oath, swearing loyalty to the Hungarian nation. The king recited the oath and on he went to the next station. For that, he mounted a lovely horse and in the middle of the procession he started back towards the castle. But just before reaching it, there was a large mound of earth, an artificial hill, paths leading to its top from four directions. The king on his horse charged and mounted this hill. Having arrived at the top, he drew his sword and made a cut towards each of the four directions of the compass, symbolizing his commitment defending the nation against any threat whatever direction it may come from.

Off the mound, he came, onto the next station. The spectators rushed in and collected the artificial flowers that decorated the mound on this wintry day as souvenirs, of course. The king then took off to the state luncheon. This was the most bizarre part of the ceremony. His majesties were sitting at a “u” shaped table, two bishops on their right and the prime minister with another political notability on their left. Now the top echelon of the nobility came forward with large vessels of exquisite dishes, eighteen courses in all, plus garnishing and the pickles; but none of that was served to be eaten. Oh no. It was only meant to show off the riches of the land and the prowess of the kitchen staff. Then it was taken out to be distributed amongst the worthy. At the same time, large quantities of gulyás soup were also distributed amongst the poor at several points in the city. With this last act, the coronation came to its conclusion; Hungary had a king again.

The exhibition presented a rich selection of drawings, paintings, and photographs. No other than hand-made depictions are available of the coronation from the interior of the church; because of the lighting conditions photographs could not be made. But at the same, time two enterprising newsreel companies filmed all the events outdoors; and a more than half hour long, restored newsreel is available for anyone to see.

Looking at the pageantry and the incredible profligacy and waste, it is hard to think of anything else but the reckoning that these are the death throes of this empire, these people, and these institutions altogether. Perhaps this is why it is so fascinating to see in the last hall of the exhibition the fate and the afterlife of all the participants and the artifacts. All the cheaply produced coins, the ersatz porcelain souvenirs, post cards and countless paraphernalia that survived well into the fifties, here and there. The people who participated, many of whom survived the Second World War, fell victim to the Communist government’s atrocities, and interestingly, some of the descendants of those people were identified as the makers, curators, and creators of this very exhibition I was watching.

Karl and his large family left Austria in May 1919 and settled in Switzerland. During 1921 he twice returned to Hungary in order to regain the throne but first time Horthy and the Hungarian politicians persuaded him to leave. The second time around he was forcibly moved later to the Portuguese island of Madeira. During one evening caught a cold that developed into pneumonia, and he died in 1922. Queen Zita, his wife, outlived him by an astounding 67 years.

But the most storied fate was accorded the little charming four-year-old boy, Otto, who became an ardent, conservative European politician, living to 98 years of age; and by the time he died, having seen the change of regime had resuscitated his Hungarian citizenship, and became a highly respected elder statesman. When he died in 2011, he was the last and only remaining witness of the coronation.

December 30, 2016

The centennial of Franz Josef’s death: Hungarians and the Monarchy

It was one hundred years ago, on November 21, 1916, that Franz Josef I, Austrian emperor and Hungarian king, died. His death couldn’t have been unexpected since he was 86 years old and had been on the throne for 68 years. When he died, Austria-Hungary, his creation, was slowly edging toward military collapse and revolution. His death was interpreted by his subjects as an ominous sign of the end of an era of relative prosperity for the 12 nationalities that lived within the borders of Austria-Hungary.

Austria-Hungary was an important player on the international scene. As a large country lying between Germany and Russia, it was seen as a stabilizing force. We often forget that the Monarchy was considered to be one of the great powers of the time. After all, it had a population of 51 million, larger than France’s 35 million and Great Britain’s 46 million. Economically, however, it lagged behind Great Britain and Germany.

cimer-osztrak-magyar

The centenary of Franz Josef’s death has inspired several articles in the Hungarian media that try to give a more balanced picture of Hungary’s Habsburg past. Interestingly, in Austria there is a great deal less interest in Franz Josef, mainly because Austrians at the time as well as later accused Franz Josef of partiality to the Hungarians, the Slavs, and the Jews at the expense of the Germans of the realm. On the other hand, Hungarian nationalists accused him of pro-German bias. The truth was that Franz Josef, just like all other Habsburg rulers, had only one goal in mind: to keep the multinational, multicultural empire together, without any regard to special national interests.

Perhaps because of the centenary Norbert Hofer, the presidential hopeful of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria, made a startling announcement the other day in an interview with the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter. He suggested that countries with similar historical experiences and cultures should form a bloc within the European Union. He specifically mentioned Austria, Hungary, Romania, Slovenia, Serbia, Croatia, and the Czech Republic since “Austria was in an alliance with these countries during the time of the Monarchy.” It’s not worth dwelling on Hofer’s inaccurate description of the relationship of Austria to the countries he mentioned or his erroneous geographical designation of the territory of the Monarchy. What Hofer most likely has in mind is that Austria would ally itself with the Visegrád 4 Group. But neither the Austrians nor the Visegrád 4 are ready to take such a step at the moment.

It is unlikely that anything will come of Hofer’s idea, especially if, as I very much hope, he doesn’t win the presidential election on December 4. But I found his reference to the Dual Monarchy interesting, especially in light of the many sympathetic articles in the Hungarian media about Franz Josef, the Habsburgs in general, and the Monarchy as created in 1867.

One of these is the pro-government Origo’s very sympathetic portrayal of the Monarchy in an article that appeared on November 24. The Monarchy is described here as “the first modern regional economic and constitutional integrational experiment,” something that could have played an important role even after 1918 if the monarchy hadn’t been destroyed by the allied powers.

The Monarchy in this same article is described as a “conservative-liberal political system in which basic human rights were more respected than during the Horthy period.” I should mention in passing something that the new constitutional judge, Attila Horváth, said as a commentator on a TV documentary series on the 1956 revolution called “Szabadság tér ’56.” Asked his opinion of the “őszirózsás forradalom” (Aster Revolution of Mihály Károlyi in October 1918), his first response was that it was neither “aster” because at this time of the year this particular flower doesn’t bloom nor was it a revolution because Austria-Hungary was already a democracy.

The Origo article also showers praise on the legal safeguards built into the Monarchy’s political system, which brought many benefits to its inhabitants. The article concedes that the dual system by the turn of the century had its problems but claims that they could have been remedied if Franz Ferdinand hadn’t been assassinated and the war hadn’t broken out. As opposed to many less sympathetic authors, he considers the Monarchy’s destruction one of the greatest mistakes the Entente committed. It created a power vacuum “in the heart of Europe” that was largely responsible for the rise of Hitler and the outbreak of World War II.

A long interview with Iván Bertényi, researcher at the Historical Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, who is currently the deputy director of the Collegium Hungaricum in Vienna, also reveals that a serious reevaluation of the period has been taking place in Hungary over the last twenty to thirty years. In brief, a less Hungary-centric historical assessment has been emerging. In its place greater emphasis is put on Austria-Hungary as a single political entity. Bertényi is critical of the Hungarian view that refuses to recognize that Franz Josef was the ruler of diverse peoples and not just the king of Hungary. This is an interesting development at a time when one of the Orbán government’s most effective weapons is its nationalism, claiming that without well-defined nation-states with borders national survival is not assured. While nationalism is sweeping across Hungary, serious historians of the period are reevaluating Franz Josef’s role as a supranational ruler who “worked assiduously and altruistically for the welfare of all peoples of his empire.”

Finally, an article by Péter Techet that appeared in Magyar Nemzet is perhaps the most enthusiastic about the Monarchy and Franz Josef. “In vain did the historians of the successor states depict the Monarchy as the ‘jail of nations.’ A Slovenian in Trieste, a Ruthenian in Subcarpathia, a German in Voivodina, a Jew in Lvov has never had as many rights and opportunities in the twentieth century as in the to this day often disparaged Austro-Hungarian Monarchy,” he writes. In his opinion, the “states created after 1918 oppressed the nationalities and were too weak against the Russian and German dangers.”

As for the breakup of the Monarchy, Techet claims that “the nationalism of the nationality groups was restricted to small groups of intellectuals. Ordinary folks who were proud of their own culture, language, and religion wanted to live their lives within the borders of the Monarchy.” Naturally, a lot of historians and politicians would debate Techet’s interpretation of the reasons for the breakup of the Monarchy, but those who agree with him point to the fact that, despite incredible hardship, the multinational army of the Monarchy remained intact until the final defeat.

It is possible that Techet’s enthusiasm for the Habsburg past stems from his longing for “a period when multiculturalism … was not an abstract liberal slogan but everyday reality.” One must keep in mind, however, that this view is shared by very few Hungarians–those who think that the European Union should have a structure similar to that of the Monarchy, which would be a version of a United States of Europe.

November 27, 2016

A historical debate on the Tisza trial, 1920-1921

I arrived at today’s topic in a circuitous way. I had already decided to pick a historical topic, but first I thought I would say a few words about Ervin Szabó (1877-1918). He was an early adherent of anarcho-syndicalism but is best known as the chief librarian of the Budapest public library that is named after him. Shortly after István Tarlós (Fidesz) became lord mayor of the city, he was confronted with demands that Szabó’s name be removed from the Ervin Szabó Library and the square where the central library stands. Tarlós, who is easily swayed when it comes to changing street names which he finds politically objectionable, this time had the good sense to resist.

Árpád Szakács, the man who led the campaign against Ervin Szabó in 2010, is still at it, six years later. The only difference is that instead of writing in Magyar Nemzet he now writes in Magyar Idők. Tempora mutantur et nos mutamur in illis. Back in 2010 I checked out Szakács’s academic qualifications to be a historian and found none.

Reading Szakács’s renewed attacks on Szabó as an extreme left-wing thinker, I thought I should acquaint readers with Szabó’s work and his importance in Hungarian intellectual history. But then I found something that was much more intriguing. Szakács correctly noted that Szabó and other members of the Galilei Circle were involved in planning the assassination of Prime Minister István Tisza (1861-1918). His resignation as prime minister, however, made their plan obsolete. But then, Szakács continues, “the fourth successful assassination attempt on October 31, 1918 was also connected to the Galilei Circle.”

The original official investigation of the assassination didn’t get very far because of the turbulent times, but the case was eventually reopened in 1920-1921. There were two separate trials, one military and another civilian. At the military trial dozens and dozens of witnesses were called, but most of them knew practically nothing first-hand about the case. Yet two of the accused received death sentences while a third faced a fifteen-year jail sentence. The civilian court sentenced Pál Kéri (1882-1961), a renowned journalist, to death and Marcell Gaertner, a chemical engineer, to 14 years. István Friedrich, former prime minister of Hungary, and László Fényes, former member of parliament, were acquitted.

I have a special interest in this trial because I spent a lot of time trying to make sense of the very confusing domestic political scene in the fall of 1919 when István Friedrich was prime minister. Friedrich had a lot of enemies, on both the right and the left. When I first learned that he was accused of aiding and abetting in the assassination of István Tisza, I immediately thought of a trial Hungarians call “koncepciós per.” The Hungarian term is a more precise description of a show trial because in such cases the “concept” that dictates the direction of the trial has already been determined.

I had microfilm copies of contemporary newspapers which daily described the details of the Tisza trial. I must admit that my head was spinning after reading some of the testimony. Although dozens of witnesses were called to testify, the prosecutor’s case was based on the testimony of only two witnesses: Sándor Hüttner, a first lieutenant, and László Sztanykovszky, an ensign. As Miklós Komjáthy, a legal historian, noted, their testimony, which changed several times, “had the stamp of obvious coaching.” Hüttner admitted that “by now I can’t separate what I know for a fact from what I heard from others.” The charges against Pál Kéri were outright fabrications. Yet he was condemned to death.

Both trials were a travesty, and the suicide of the investigation judge, which happened between the end of the military and the beginning of civilian trial, added to the suspicion that all was not well with the Tisza case. Before his suicide the judge complained that “he wasn’t allowed to do his job and his superiors were not satisfied with his investigating methods.”

Kéri’s speech before sentencing was moving. He told the court that he knows as much about Tisza’s assassination as what he read in the newspapers. With special pride he recalled that his engraver grandfather, who produced the Hungarian government’s first bills, the so-called “Kossuth bankók,” also ended up in jail after the failure of the 1848-1849 revolution and war of independence.

The fact is that we still don’t know who killed István Tisza. Perhaps we never will, but one thing is certain: it was not Pál Kéri who organized the plot, if there was a plot at all. Kéri escaped death by being rescued by Soviet Russia in a prisoner-of-war swap. Kéri, not being a communist, left Russia and settled in Vienna, where he became the editor of Bécsi Magyar Újság and later wrote for Austrian left-wing publications. After the rise of Hitler, he came to the United States via Spain and Portugal. He died in 1961 in New York.

Historians who studied the documents of the trial, Tibor Hajdu and Ferenc Pölöskei, are certain that it was the first “koncepciós per” (show trial) in the history of the country. Komjáthy is convinced that the real target was the October 1918 revolution and the democratic republic it established. Kéri was just its symbol.

On the other side are people like Gábor Vincze, editor of Nagy Magyarország (Greater Hungary), a historical magazine, which is described as conservative and Hungaro-centric. (One cannot help wondering who finances the so-called scientific workshop that produces this very expensive-looking magazine.) Another  historian who holds that the trial was fair is Zoltán Maruzsa, president of the Association of Friends of István Tisza.

Árpád Szakács and Gábor Vince, two of the revisionist historians

Árpád Szakács and Gábor Vincze, two of the revisionist historians

Árpád Szakács, whose work inspired me to write this post, is the editor-in-chief of a far-right historical internet site called tortenelemportal.hu. He gave an interview to Magyar Demokrata, a far-right publication, in which he claimed that Hungarian historiography needs a total change of direction, something like Orbán’s revolution in the voting booths. He made no secret of his low opinion of those “older historians” who are not as well prepared as his generation. The work of these historians no longer serves the present and so should be discarded.

It would be fine if these people seriously investigated, for example, the Tisza trial and offered a credible argument against the earlier view that the trial was a sham. But no, Gábor Vincze offers as evidence the fact that “István Friedrich was acquitted.” Moreover, in order to label it a show trial, the court should have declared Mihály Károlyi, the president of the national council at the time of István Tisza’s assassination, guilty of aiding and abetting “when nothing of the sort happened.” Of course, these so-called arguments prove nothing. And Zoltán Mazsura contends that “after all, nobody was sentenced who was not guilty,” conveniently forgetting about Pál Kéri, who could have ended up in the gallows if not rescued by the Soviets.

Historical debates are healthy and necessary, but I wish that the “revisionists” would be slightly better prepared and not motivated by political considerations.

October 31, 2016

Brazen falsification of the history of ’56 by the Orbán regime

Yesterday I wrote that because of the political eclecticism of the October Revolution it is easy for people to use those days for their own political ends by latching onto one ideological strain or another. But interpretation, even if in this case necessarily reductionist, is one thing; blatant falsification of history is quite another. Unfortunately, it is the latter that’s going on in Hungary today.

Just to show the scope of the systematic rewriting, and distortion, of the history of the revolution, I will cite two recent examples. The first is an article from the notorious 888.hu, a news site that is supposed to capture the imagination of pro-Fidesz millennials and post-millennials. The other is an exhibit put together by the so-called historians of the House of Terror, whose director is Mária Schmidt, the grand master of historical falsification.

Last night I read an article that enraged me, titled “Gyurcsány falsifies the historical memory of ’56 with pathological cynicism.” His sin? He dared to say, while laying a wreath at one of the monuments to the revolution: “While the revolution of Imre Nagy aimed at advancing the homeland, the current prime minister’s references to his name, memory and legacy are a desecration of this immaculate revolution. It is naked blasphemy.” He added that “while the revolution of Imre Nagy was the revolution of freedom and democracy, the current Hungarian prime minister is the leader of the counterrevolution.”

I perfectly understand that a government-financed publication is unhappy about Ferenc Gyurcsány’s assessment of both the 1956 revolution and Viktor Orbán’s political role. But what followed in the article is the crudest distortion of historical facts. One may argue about the role of Imre Nagy in the early 1950s, but to claim that “neither the majority of historians nor the Hungarian people have ever considered” Nagy to have an important role in the revolutionary period or after is simply preposterous. I was astonished to read that “it was only an accident that Imre Nagy headed the provisional government and it was only his execution that made him more or less an honored historical character.” Further, the author of this incredible piece of prose claims that the only reason Nagy accepted martyrdom was his alleged knowledge that even if he resigned as prime minister, he would have been executed by his communist comrades.

This is, of course, a pack of lies. After 1954 the whole country pinned its hopes on Imre Nagy, and that huge crowd in front of the parliament building on October 23 stood there for hours, not moving an inch until the party chiefs inside the building produced him. Once he spoke, the crowd dispersed peacefully. To say that Nagy played only an accidental role in the revolution is such an incredible claim that it takes one’s breath away.

And now let’s move on to a much more serious act of falsification of ’56. It is more egregious than the 888.hu’s scribbler’s fantasies about ’56 because it was committed by so-called historians. Readers of Hungarian Spectrum have been exposed to enough articles by Mária Schmidt, the director of the House of Terror, to know not to expect much from anyone who works for that institution. In fact, it itself is a crude falsification of history.

Photo by Gabriella Csoszó / FreeDoc

Photo by Gabriella Csoszó / FreeDoc

The story is as follows. Viktor Orbán put Mária Schmidt in charge of the sixtieth anniversary celebrations of the ’56 revolution. She received 13.5 billion forints for proper celebrations all over the world. The House of Terror also received money to erect a picture gallery of sorts in front of its building on Andrássy út for the edification of passers-by. The exhibit is attractive. The only problem is that the most important actors of the revolution are missing: all those whose political views don’t conform to the present regime’s requirements. When including a person “on the wrong side” is unavoidable, like in the picture gallery of those executed, the historians of the House of Terror made sure that everybody would understand that the martyrdom of the “communists” was not the same as that of the rest. Of the 226 people executed, only three are identified by political affiliation (in all three cases, “communist politicians”): Imre Nagy, Géza Losonczy, and Miklós Gimes. As for the rest of the story of the revolution, important political actors simply don’t appear, as if they never existed.

There is a small civic group which calls itself “Eleven Emlékmű” (Live Memorial). It grew out of the circle of people who have been holding a vigil at the infamous memorial erected to commemorate the occupation of Hungary by German troops on March 19, 1944. They were the ones who first became aware of the lopsided presentation of the events of the October revolution. Mária Vásárhelyi, daughter of Miklós Vásárhelyi, one of the prominent participants in the revolution, and Adrienn Molnár were responsible for providing the names of those who, as a result of the present Hungarian regime’s “purification” efforts, either became non-persons or were singled out as communist politicians. The list consists of 60 names. Here I will list only the best-known.

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István Bibó (1911-1979), Hungary’s most notable politician in the 20th century, minister without portfolio in the last Nagy government. He received life imprisonment.

Tibor Déry (1894-1977), writer. He received nine years in 1957 for his role during the revolution and for his opposition to the Kádár regime.

Ferenc Donáth (1913-1986), politician who was jailed between 1951 and 1954. Close associate of Imre Nagy. He received a jail sentence of 12 years.

István Eörsi (1931-2005), writer, poet, translator. Worked as a journalist during the revolution. He originally received eight years.

Miklós Gimes (1917-1958), journalist. During the revolution he was the editor of a new newspaper called Magyar Szabadság. After November 4 he published a samizdat paper called Október Huszonharmadika. He was executed along with Imre Nagy.

Árpád Göncz (1921-2015), politician, agriculturist, writer, translator, president of Hungary (1990-2000). He originally received a life sentence.

Sándor Haraszti (1897-1982), journalist, politician. In 1951 he was sentenced to death but in 1954 that was changed to a life sentence and later he was set free. On October 31 he was named editor-in-chief of Népszabadság. In November he was deported to Romania. In 1958 he was sentenced to six years.

György Heltai (1914-1994), lawyer, politician. As deputy foreign minister he worked to prepare Hungary for its withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact. He emigrated, and between 1959 and 1963 was head of the Imre Nagy Institute in Brussels.

Anna Kéthly (1889-1976), social democratic politician who had an important role to play in the reorganization of the Social Democratic Party during the revolution. She was a member of Imre Nagy’s last ministry. She traveled to the Vienna conference of the II International in November and failed to return home. Abroad she became president of the Hungarian Revolutionary Council.

Sándor Kopácsi (1922-2001), police chief of Budapest who sided with the revolution. He was second-in-charge of the National Guard, which was headed by Béla Király, who by the way later became an adviser to Viktor Orbán. Király, of course, made it to the House of Terror display. Kopácsi was sentenced to life, a sentence that was commuted in 1963. In 1975 he emigrated to Canada.

Béla Kovács (1908-1959), Smallholder politician arrested by the Russians in 1947 and exiled to the Soviet Union. He was released only in April 1956. He was active in the revival of the Smallholders’ Party during the revolution and between October 27 and November 2 was minister of agriculture in the second and the third Nagy governments.

György Litván (1929-2006), historian who belonged to the opposition that centered around Imre Nagy after 1955. He was a member of the Revolutionary Committee of the Hungarian Professionals. He received six years.

Géza Losonczy (1917-1958), journalist, politician, organizer of the Petőfi Kör, member of the closest circle around Imre Nagy. He was named minister without portfolio on October 30 when Imre Nagy announced the end of the one-party system. He began a hunger strike in jail, where he died under unclear circumstances.

Pál Maléter (1917-1958), army officer, minister of defense in the last Nagy government. He was abducted during his negotiations with the Soviet leadership. He was condemned to death and was executed.

István Marián (1924-2004), army officer, head of the military department of the Budapest Engineering University who became one of the leaders of the Association of Hungarian University and College Students. He originally received a life sentence, which was commuted in 1963.

Imre Mécs (1933-), electrical engineer, active in the organization of the National Guard. In 1959 he was condemned to death, a sentence that was changed to life. He was released in 1963.

Imre Nagy (1896-1958), prime minister and foreign minister. On November 4 he and his close associates escaped to the Yugoslav Embassy, which they left on November 22 with a letter of protection from János Kádár. They were immediately arrested by the Soviets who deported them to Romania. Nagy was brought back to Hungary in April 1957 and was condemned to death on June 15. The next day he was executed.

József Szilágyi (1917-1958), politician. He joined the Imre Nagy faction in 1953. One of the organizers of the demonstration on October 23. First he worked together with Kopácsi at police headquarters and later he was the head of Imre Nagy’s secretariat. He was among those who found temporary shelter in the Yugoslav Embassy. He was also condemned to death and executed.

Zoltán Tildy (1889-1961), Hungarian Reformed minister, head of the Smallholders Party. From October 25 he served as deputy prime minister in the Nagy government. He received six years but was granted clemency in 1959.

Miklós Vásárhelyi (1917-2001), journalist. Close associate of Imre Nagy. He took part in the organization of the Petőfi Kör. On November 1 he became the press secretary of the Nagy government. He received five years. In 1990 he became a member of parliament in the first free elections.

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After going through these names, one wonders what remained of the October Revolution as chronicled by the historians of the House of Terror. I fear not much.

October 24, 2016

The Veritas Institute’s legends and myths about the Hungarian Holocaust

Let’s return to history today for at least two reasons. The first is that as time goes by it is becoming increasingly apparent that the Orbán government, by setting up a number of historical institutes, is trying to create “an alternative history” of modern Hungary between 1867 and 1989. These are the years whose historical interpretation still has political relevance. It is the history of these 120 years that the Orbán government wants to rewrite with the assistance of about 20 historians willing to do the job. This is a much more serious threat than most people realize. The second reason for returning to Sándor Szakály’s interview with The Budapest Beacon is that I could cover only one small segment of the conversation, about the “first anti-Jewish law,” as Mária M. Kovács, author of a book on the numerus clausus of 1920, called it. But Szakály’s other responses, all related to Jewish-Hungarian history and the Holocaust, also tell a lot about the mindset of these historical revisionists.

A large portion of Szakály’s apologia of the Horthy regime’s Jewish policies dealt with how much and when Miklós Horthy and his entourage knew about the “final solution.” Here he was arguing against László Karsai’s long-held view, supported by strong documentary evidence, that members of the Hungarian government knew about the death camps as early as the fall of 1942.

Karsai, in a lengthy article that appeared in the March 2007 issue of Beszélő (Interlocuter), dissected the most common “legends and myths” about Miklós Horthy’s tenure as governor of Hungary. A special section was devoted to his activities during 1944. One common legend is that Horthy’s daughter-in-law, Mrs. István Horthy née Countess Ilona Edelsheim Gyulai, gave him the so-called Auschwitz Reports, a collection of eyewitness accounts of two Jewish inmates from Slovakia who had managed to escape, only on July 3. Whereupon, the legend continues, he immediately called Colonel Ferenc Koszorús, a trusted officer, to the capital. His task was to expel the gendarmerie from Budapest in order to avert the deportation of the city’s Jewish population.

The Veritas Institute’s mission is to perpetuate these myths and legends. Szakály takes it for granted that Ilona Horthy’s information about the events of July 3, which she wrote about in her memoirs published in 2001, almost sixty years later, is accurate despite documentary evidence to the contrary. Szakály also doubts Karsai’s interpretation that Horthy intended only to suspend the deportations, not to end them. Szakály will believe Karsai on that score only if his fellow historian can produce “a document with Horthy’s signature which states that the governor wants to begin the deportations anew in August.” A typical demand from the positivist Szakály, who at the same time admits that “certain ‘promises’ were given [to the Germans] by Horthy, Döme Sztójay, and Andor Jaross.”

What documents does László Karsai cite in support of his thesis that important members of the government knew about the German extermination of Jews in Germany and in German-occupied territories? The first is a conversation between Döme Sztójay, the anti-Semitic Hungarian minister to Berlin, and György Ottlik, editor-in-chief of Pester Lloyd, in August 1942, during which Sztójay admitted that sending Hungarian Jews to Germany “doesn’t mean deportation but extermination.” Ottlik immediately reported this intelligence to Prime Minister Miklós Kállay. A few months later Sztójay told a German diplomat that Kállay “is somewhat worried about sending Hungarian Jews to Germany because he fears that ‘their continued existence’ is not assured.” So, Kállay got the message. In the same year the ministry of interior also received information through detectives about Germans starving Jews to death. But if that isn’t sufficient to convince Szakály, there is direct proof that Horthy knew about the death camps way before July-August 1944. The revelation is contained in the draft of a letter by Horthy to Hitler—actually prepared by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs—dated May 7, 1943. One of the sentences in the letter read: “A further reproach of Your Excellency was that the [Hungarian] government has failed to take as far-reaching an action in the extirpation of the Jews as Germany had taken, or as would appear desirable in other countries.” (The Confidential Papers of Admiral Horthy, p. 255) This sentence was subsequently deleted from the final version.

Mrs. István Horthy, née Ilona Edelsheim Gyulai in1942

Mrs. István Horthy, née Ilona Edelsheim Gyulai in 1942

Ignoring this evidence, Szakály in his interview insists that “neither the great majority of the Jewry nor the Hungarians knew what was happening with the deportees,” even though the Auschwitz Reports reached Budapest in April of 1944.

And what  evidence does his advance for his position? Not even the Veritas apologists can base their defense of Horthy on his memoirs (1957). Horthy’s  short description of events between March and October 1944 is rife with   mistakes and/or willful distortions. He claims that “not before August did secret information reach me about the truth about these extermination camps. It was [Lajos] Csatay, the Minister of War, who raised the matter at a Cabinet meeting” (p. 219).

But Szakály accepts the account of Horthy’s daughter-in-law, the widow of István Horthy, according to whom it was her “informant,” Sándor Török, the representative of the Christian Jews’ Association, who gave her the Auschwitz Reports on July 3. Three days later, she noted, on July 6, Horthy stopped the transports heading to Germany (Ilona Edelsheim Gyulai, Becsület és kötelesség, p. 263).

Sándor Török (1904-1985)

Sándor Török (1904-1985)

It seems that Ilona Horthy collected information for her memoirs from an ordinary appointment book, with only a few notations. She came to the conclusion that the crucial day had to be July 3 because she had underlined that day. My reaction upon reading the passage was the same as Karsai’s. On the basis of an underlined date, which might signify anything, one cannot recreate events with any certainty. In any case, she is not an objective observer. In her book she tries to show her father-in-law in the best possible light. For example, just as Horthy wants us to believe that he “lacked the means to check or thwart the joint action of the Germans and the Ministry for Home Affairs,” Ilona Horthy portrays Miklós Horthy as completely isolated. In her description he knows nothing about what’s going on. She writes that he tried to prevent the transports from leaving, but he could do nothing because they left in secret. That’s not how I remember it. So, there are many reasons not to use her as a reliable source.

Sándor Török, the man who delivered the Auschwitz Reports to Ilona Horthy, was already a well-known writer at the time who had published nine books by 1940. Before he died in Budapest in 1985, he wrote at least two books which contained autobiographical details from 1944-1945. I wouldn’t mind reading them.

And, a footnote, János Lázár, while insisting that he should not get involved in a historical debate, suggested that one day “the two sides will reach consensus on these issues.” Sure, they will meet half way. What a total misunderstanding of what history is all about.

July 2, 2016

Anti-semitism, racism, Huxit, or just a bad dream?

A few days ago I was toying with the idea of returning to my discussion of interwar Hungarian history as portrayed by Sándor Szakály, director-general of the government’s very own historical institute, brazenly named Veritas Research Institute. But we have all been preoccupied with the disruptive present.

The reason I wanted to go back to Sándor Szakály’s interview with The Budapest Beacon was because, as I indicated earlier, he gave an account of the Hungarian Holocaust that I knew would prompt rebuttals from academic historical circles. I was right. László Karsai, one of the foremost historians of the Hungarian Holocaust, tried to set the record straight about such critical points as when Miklós Horthy knew about the true fate of those Hungarian Jewish citizens who were sent in cattle cars to Auschwitz. I hope to return to that part of the Szakály interview sometime in the future.

Today, as the first topic of this post, I’m going to look briefly at the afterlife of Szakály’s unacceptable interpretation of the so-called numerus clausus, which limited the number of Jewish students to a mere 6% of the entering university classes. In Szakály’s opinion, the introduction of the law was 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.” The opposition parties immediately demanded Szakály’s resignation, and three days after the interview MAZSIHISZ, the umbrella organization serving various Jewish religious groups, also issued a statement in which it especially decried the insensitivity and indifference that Szakály displayed toward the victims of the Holocaust.

This time the government moved fast. Yesterday there was a meeting of the Jewish Civic Roundtable (Zsidó Közösségi Kerekasztal), comprised of Jewish leaders and members of the government, where Nándor Csepreghy, deputy to János Lázár, distanced the government from Sándor Szakály’s assertions. He indicated that János Lázár, who had left the meeting before the topic was brought up, was ready to discuss the matter further with MAZSIHISZ.

Naturally, this was not the end of the story. This afternoon János Lázár at his regular Thursday press conference announced the dismissal of László L. Simon, undersecretary in charge of the reconstruction of important historical monuments, and the “retirement” of Mrs. László Németh, undersecretary in charge of financial services and the post office. It was in connection with these dismissals that a reporter asked Lázár about the status of Sándor Szakály. The answer was that “in historical matters the government mustn’t take sides.” If a “scientific opinion” offends the interests or sensibilities of a community, then that group should exercise its rights against the offender. He himself is completely satisfied with Szakály’s work as director-general of the Veritas Institute.

I often see cautious journalists talking about organizations as being “close to Fidesz and/or the government.” Their circumspection is warranted. In the past, several law suits have been initiated against media outlets for not choosing their words carefully. But, in my opinion, there is no need to beat around the bush in the case of the Veritas Institute. It is a government research center, pure and simple. The Orbán government doesn’t even try to hide the fact the “employer” of the Veritas Institute is the government, which is represented by János Lázár. The law that established the institute in 2013 clearly states that it is Lázár who can appoint and/or dismiss the director-general, his two deputies, and the financial director of the institute. Mind you, the law also claims that the institute “functions independently,” but as long as the head of the Prime Minister’s Office can hire and fire the leadership of the institute one cannot talk about independence in any meaningful sense of the word.

János Lázár’s press conference made headlines not because of his praise of Szakály but because, in response to a question, he weighed in on how he would vote if a referendum were held in Hungary about exiting from the European Union. He said that he “wouldn’t be able to vote to remain in the European Union in good conscience” (jó szívvel). Of course, he immediately tried to blunt the sharpness of his statement by adding that he is still very much a supporter of Europe although he greatly objects to what’s going on in Brussels.

All democratic opposition parties immediately responded to Lázár’s outrageous remark. MSZP, DK, and Együtt, independently from one another, interpreted the announcement as an admission that the Orbán government wants to lead the country out of the union and that holding the referendum on refugee quotas is a first step in this direction. This idea is not at all new. Ever since Orbán announced the referendum, opposition leaders have warned the public of the dangers of participating in a vote that might be used by the Orbán government as an endorsement of their hidden agenda.

The government naturally denies the existence of such a plan. I am inclined to believe them. I find it difficult to imagine that the Orbán government would willingly forgo billions of euros and risk the political, economic, and social upheaval that would undoubtedly follow Hungary’s departure from the European Union.

What will Viktor Orbán say if Hungarians are discriminated?

What will Viktor Orbán say if Hungarians are discriminated against?

We have discussed at some length British xenophobia and racism as well as the reluctance of British politicians to point to racism as one of the reasons the Brits voted for Brexit. Well, Hungarian politicians don’t worry about appearances. Moreover, as Orbán has stressed often enough, they loathe politically correct speech. They like “honest talk,” which is missing in Western European countries. Thus, Lázár had no problem saying that “although there may be some demographic difficulties [in Hungary], the Hungarian government intends to remedy the situation not with African migrants but with Hungarians from the neighboring countries.” Fidesz politicians are not ashamed to share their racism in public. Yet during the same press conference he insisted on the rights of the mostly East European economic migrants in Great Britain, whose presence was at least in part responsible for the Brexit vote.

June 30, 2016