Tag Archives: Horthy regime

Karl Pfeifer: The Orbán regime takes Horthy’s Hungary as an example

I have known the dark ages of Hungary. As a child, during World War Two, I experienced first-hand Hungarian ultra-nationalism and anti-Semitism. I managed to avoid deportation and murder in Auschwitz by fleeing to Palestine in 1943, along with 49 other Jewish children.

Decades later, I returned to Hungary during the years of Communism. As a journalist writing for major Austrian newspapers, my reporting included interviewing dissidents. As a result, the Kadar regime expelled me four times from the country, the last time in 1987.

This personal history makes me extremely sensitive to current developments in Hungary and the shadows that are once again rising there.

Consider, for example, the current government campaign against the work of the Hungarian-born American billionaire George Soros. Mr. Soros’s Open Society Foundations has given more than $200 million to Hungarian groups since the fall of Communism, supporting a host of humanitarian issues—including independent groups that support human rights and are often critical of the government.

As a result, George Soros is demonized and presented as the source of all evil by the government. The rhetoric used reminds me of the anti-Semitic propaganda from my childhood, according to which the Jews were responsible for all of Hungary’s problems, like poverty, ignorance, and landless peasants.

Moreover, the government media portrays Mr. Soros as an agent of “international finance.” We know that this is a code for “Jews.” You don’t have to be explicitly anti-Semitic, you can be implicitly anti-Semitic – the message is quite clear for mainstream Hungarian society, which has never come to terms with its own prejudices against Jews.

Finally, Soros is presented by the government as responsible for mass migration to Europe. Did the 86-year-old investor really go to Syria and Iraq to politely ask people to come to Europe? This is a worldview deeply rooted in conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism.

This goes beyond the attacks on Soros. When Orbán refers to “ethnic homogeneity” as a factor of prosperity for the country, I am worried. This reminds me of a 1941 law that banned all forms of sexual intercourse between Jews and Gentiles, in the name of ethnic purity. This was done under the rule of the ultra-nationalist and Nazi collaborator Miklos Horthy. In Horthy times, anti-Semitism was a national policy. It is not the case today, but hatred against Jews has free flow and conspiracy theories are clearly targeted at the Jewish community, the largest one in Central Europe.

This poisonous rhetoric is the product of a political system that has grown increasingly authoritarian under Mr. Orbán’s Fidesz government, and it is being used by that government to strengthen its control. The Fidesz government and its allies own the majority of media outlets, including all of the TV and radio stations which have large audiences in rural Hungary, where the vast majority of the party electorate resides. Media outlets presenting views in opposition to the government are not accessible to the average Hungarian, therefore most people believe what the government propaganda tells them. And that message is straightforward: if you criticize the government, you are an enemy of the nation.

The government is now seeking to extend its power with a new law tightening controls on the funding of groups such as the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee—rights groups which receive some of their funding from…yes, George Soros’ Open Society Foundations. Thus the rhetoric of anti-Semitism is being deployed to serve the government’s ultimate political aim of consolidating its control – while supposedly remaining a democratic member of the European Union.

It’s worth remembering that under the Horthy regime too there was a parliament, and it was possible to express critical views in a handful of opposition papers. Yet that did not make the regime a democratic one.

Fidesz is a member of the European People’s Party, the club of conservative parties in the European Union. But Fidesz is not a conservative party. Conservative parties do not mobilize mass rallies to defend the “sovereignty of the Hungarian nation,” unlike in 2012 when 400,000 people took to the streets of Budapest at the urging of the government media – with the infamous anti-Semitic journalist Zsolt Bayer marching in the front rank. Conservative parties do not touch private property, unlike Fidesz, which nationalized pension funds in 2010 to finance the state’s expenditures. Conservative parties do not falsify history, unlike in Hungary where the state established the national think tank “Veritas,” downplaying the participation of Hungarians in the murder of 500,000 Hungarian Jews during the Second World War.

The upcoming law on NGOs will further silence the last opposition voices in a member state of the European Union. The government propaganda plays with the fear of “the other”: the migrants, the Jews, foreign capital. But who pays attention to Hungarians? Who is concerned about the disastrous state of healthcare and education in the country? By annihilating critical voices, the anti-NGO law will spring the trap on the real victims of the government: ordinary Hungarians.


Karl Pfeifer is an Austrian-born journalist of Hungarian Jewish origin and a member of the board of the Archives of the Austrian Resistance.
He is author of several books. A movie about his life can be seen at https://vimeo.com/124834106

March 26, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 26, 2016

Zsolt Bayer: It’s all the Jews’ fault

I have been waiting ever since February 27 for Zsolt Bayer to finish his magnum opus titled “Intolerable,” a series of articles railing against the “fact” that Jews tell the Hungarian people how to interpret their own history. I hoped that after two or three articles Bayer would wrap up his harangue against the evil influence of Jews in Hungarian history, but there is still no end in sight. Today he delivered his fourteenth installment and the third that deals with literary figures’ attraction to Nazi Germany: Ezra Pound, Louis-Férdinand Céline, Gerhart Hauptmann, and Knut Hamsun. All this to prove that anti-Semitism or an affinity with the Nazi ideology shouldn’t be a disqualification for the recognition of greatness. Earlier he quoted anti-Semitic writings from Hungarian classics in defense of the government’s decision to erect memorials to Hungarian interwar politicians like Bálint Hóman and György Donáth. The analogy of course is false because, in the case of Hóman and Donáth, we are talking about active politicians. And surely one cannot compare the groundbreaking modernist poetry of Ezra Pound to Bálint Hóman’s work on numismatics.

Bayer, however, insists that anti-Semitism after 1919 was a “natural” state of mind because of the Jewish preponderance in the leadership of the Soviet Republic. And with this assertion he absolves all anti-Semitism between the two world wars, which admittedly was widespread among writers, especially the Hungarian version of “narodniks” (népiesek). András Nyerges documented this anti-Semitism in Színrebontás (Color separation). Nyerges painstakingly combed through newspapers and periodicals of the interwar period looking for famous writers, especially those who became favorites of the party during the Kádár regime, and found plenty of evidence for both anti-Semitism and in some cases strong sympathy for the Nazi regime. Bayer wants to know why it is that “we forgive the anti-Semitism evoked by the Red Terror and the ‘revolt of the Jews’ of the best, the smartest, the most educated but we can’t forgive the same of the [ordinary Hungarian] people.”

Bayer defends the anti-Semitism of Hungarian villagers. “It is therefore time to ask the question: why are we surprised that the simple peasant whose determinant experience was that the Jews broke into his village, beat his priest to death, threatened to convert his church into a movie theater, why do we find it shocking that twenty years later he watched without pity as the gendarmes dragged the Jews away from his village?” Let’s look at the historical facts. First of all, the “Lenin boys” who showed up in the villages came from various religious backgrounds. For example, their leader, József Czerny, was a Protestant. In fact, of the 14 Lenin boys who were condemned to death on December 18, 1919, only three were listed as “izrealita.” Second, Chief Prosecutor Albert Váry claimed that there were 590 victims of the Red Terror, but later research proved that this number was far too high. Some of the listed victims actually died in battles between “revolutionaries” and “counterrevolutionaries.”

A group of Lenin boys

A group of Lenin boys

A victim of the White Terror

A victim of the White Terror

On the other hand, Miklós Horthy’s detachments killed about 1,200 people. How many of the victims were Jewish it is hard to tell, but from Pál Prónay’s diary we know that he and his detachment were actively looking for people who in their opinion were Jewish. But a lot of poor peasants who found the communist regime, especially at the beginning, attractive were also among the victims. Gergely Bödők’s article “Vörös és Fehér,” available online, reflects the most recent research on the Red and White Terrors in Hungary.

Claiming a causal link between the activities of the “Jewish” Lenin boys and the callous attitude of the Hungarian peasantry when their neighbors were dragged away is preposterous. Yet Bayer places this link at the center of his view on anti-Semitism in Hungary. The connection between the Red Terror and the peasants’ emotionless reaction “is important when we ponder the question of anti-Semitism, which poses further questions. For example, who can have a statue in this country and who can make such a decision.”

Bayer finds “the canonization and glorification of the Hungarian Soviet Republic” one of the greatest sins of the Kádár regime. I who did a lot of research on that period can attest to the fact that the “proper” interpretation of the Soviet Republic had to be strictly observed in those days. By the end of the Kádár period there were few historical taboos, but Béla Kun’s regime was one. Simple facts such as the weakness of the communist party in Hungary at the time couldn’t be included in an article, as I found out from personal experience. Setting things straight after the change of regime would have been easy enough and actually such corrections have taken place through several articles, including one on the Red and White Terrors mentioned earlier. But let’s hear what Bayer has to say on the topic. “We had the misconception following the regime change that everything would be tipped in the right direction. But that’s not happened. The whole thing is simply incomprehensible.”

What is Bayer talking about? There are no taboos today. Free-wheeling historical debates go on unabated. What is it that Bayer finds lacking in interpretations of the Hungarian Soviet Republic? He wants to emphasize the Jewishness of the Hungarian Soviet Republic and to exonerate the White Terror and the anti-Semitism of the interwar period as an understandable reaction. At the same time he would like to see historians rewrite the history of the Horthy regime, which in his opinion was unfairly dealt with by historians of the 1970s and 1980s. But the “liberal” historians today, and they are in the majority, resist the pressure of the Christian-national Orbán government. This is what bothers Zsolt Bayer.

Bayer would like to remove from the Hungarian historical canon not only those who were involved in the Soviet Republic and later in the illegal communist movement but even such greats of Hungarian progressivism as Károly Polányi, Ervin Szabó, Oszkár Jászi, Ilona Duczyńska, and others who were members of the Galilei Circle. I’m pretty sure that he is not alone in Fidesz in holding this view. Since Viktor Orbán formed his government there were several attempts to obliterate these names from the national consciousness. I was actually most surprised to find a couple of streets in Szombathely and Miskolc that bear the name of Oszkár Jászi. If it depended on Bayer, his name would be removed without a second thought. The very fact that streets are named after these people or that Budapest’s public library system is named after Ervin Szabó, who was its first chief librarian, is unbearable to Bayer. These are “tormenting questions.” But what is truly excruciating is how it can happen that “the sins of a real murderer, as long as he is a left-winger and a communist, are forgiven.” The “murderer” to whom he is referring is George Lukács, the philosopher and literary critic who happened to be born in the same year as Bálint Hóman.

March 14, 2016

The afterlife of György Donáth’s bust

I would like to return to the topic of the György Donáth case I wrote about a couple of days ago in a post titled “Another attempt to erect a statue honoring an anti-Semitic racist.” There are at least three reasons for doing so. First, because since the scuffle and the aborted unveiling of the bust there have been new developments that is worth discussing. Second, right-wing publications have been filled with articles full of indignation that a small minority “dictates” the rest of the nation whom it should honor. Third, Ádám Gellért, a legal scholar and a student of history, has taken the trouble and has done some research on Donáth’s political past.

First, the bust of Donáth has been removed. Apparently, Péter Boross, former prime minster (1993-1994) and the man who is an active promoter of the rehabilitation of the “progressive elements” of the Horthy regime, decided that the bust was in danger. Two days ago I expressed my suspicion that, just as in case of Bálint Hóman’s statue, it was likely that the government contributed money for the memorial. My feeling about the source of money was correct, a fund, established by the Orbán government, contributed 15 million forints toward the cost of the bust. Boross thinks that the Donáth bust on the building where Donáth once lived at the corner of Páva utca and Üllői út is not a safe place because it would be defaced. They will erect is somewhere else considered safer.

Donath2

Only the pedestal is left

Compare that reaction to the government’s response to the erection of the memorial for the victims of the German occupation of March 19, 1944 when Viktor Orbán, ignoring the domestic and international protest, insisted its erection even if it had to be done in secret in the middle of the night. Perhaps because of the lessons learned from the Hóman controversy, the government decided on an early retreat. The other possibility is that in the Donáth case Viktor Orbán was not personally involved and therefore Boross and others could make independent decisions. In any case, it was the right step in the right direction although it would have been much smarter to forget about György Donáth’s bust altogether.

Second, quite a few opinion pieces appeared in the far-right press that expressed the authors’ outrage at the Hungarian left’s and the Jewish community’s condemnation of a man who was “the first victim of the Stalinist-type show trials” and who at his trial testified that his name in no way can be connected to anti-Semitism. Moreover, again quoting from Donáth’s last plea, he disapproved of both national socialism and fascism. According to the author, Sándor Faggyas, a right-wing journalist currently working at Magyar Hírlap, “Donáth’s cardinal sin,” according to the ignorant and hysterical left, “was that he had been a Christian politician who defended the Hungarian people and who participated in the secret organization called Magyar Közösség.” We will see later that Faggyas was mistaken on both accounts.

Naturally, Zsolt Bayer, the professional anti-Semite and old friend of Orbán with a long Fidesz past from the very beginnings of the party, couldn’t have remained quiet when a good Christian is being maligned by “the descendants of the rubble of 1919 and 1945, who if they could would kill again with pleasure just as their predecessors did,” furtively pointing the finger at Hungarian Jewry. It is intolerable that Hungarians are forced to view history through the “annals of Jewish sufferings.” Bayer promised us a second installment of his opinion piece titled “Intolerable.” I assume he will continue to quote from Donáth’s last plea that indeed showed great bravery.

I indicated in my first piece on Donáth that we know very little about the man aside from his involvement in Magyar Közösség. Several books or chapters of books were devoted to that secret organization but no one has searched through documents looking for Donáth’s political views prior to 1945. Because of the favorable impression his plea made on those who studied the story of the Közösség drew a favorable portrait of him. However, even on the basis of these available secondary sources I had an uneasy feeling that Donáth’s life most likely has a very dark side. I suggested that someone close to the available sources should do some serious research and write at least a longish scholarly article on the man’s past. Well, the first step was taken by Ádám Gellért yesterday when he published an article full of quotations from Donáth’s speeches delivered in parliament. Clearly, this is just a first stab at learning more about Donáth because in addition being a member of parliament, he was also the publisher of an extreme right-wing magazine, Egyedül Vagyunk (We are alone) and therefore he must have written scores of opinion pieces for the magazine. Egyedül Vagyunk was a notorious anti-Semitic publication whose editorial board included such war criminals as Béla Imrédy, Andor Jaross, and Ferenc Rajniss, who all were condemned to death in 1946. Andor Jaross was in charge of the deportation of Hungary’s Jewish citizens to Auschwitz where most of them were murdered. These were the people Donáth kept company with. After the fall of the Szálasi regime Donáth was arrested but after a few months was let go.

On the basis of the quotes Gellért unearthed we can safely say that despite Donáth’s protestation he was both an anti-Semite and a follower of the Hungarian version of national socialism or fascism, Ferenc Szálasi’s Arrow Cross Party. He imagined the establishment of a “Hungarian Empire” (birodalom) which would “in its size” equal Hungary before 1918 but in contents it would be very different. It would be built on truly Hungarian traditions. He considered “national socialism or fascism” vastly superior to democracy because the former ones are better suited for the creation of “a healthy hierarchy.” What did he mean by “healthy hierarchy”? It seems that what he actually had in mind was the exclusion of all Jews which the first anti-Jewish law in his opinion didn’t ensure. Stricter laws were necessary which were already under preparation and which “will perhaps achieve better results.” He was thinking about the second anti-Jewish law

When Béla Varga of the Smallholders Party spoke against an amendment to the marriage law that forbade marriage between Jews and Gentiles Donáth became truly animated. Varga thought that “50% of Hungarian blood, plus the sacrament of baptism surely can balance the 50% Jewish blood” Donáth exclaimed: “The Negro will not become white either.” Or when liberal Károly Rassay argued against the second anti-Jewish law, pointing out that it is against the interests of the nation and that “it is impossible to speak of a pure Magyar race” Donáth interjected: “Unfortunately! Not pure. We must purify it! We will purify it!” Or, Donáth didn’t consider the ban on mixed marriages quite satisfactory because it didn’t specifically cover children born out of wedlock. This omission, he argued, “on the one hand, gives encouragement to sexual intercourse outside of marriage and, on the other doesn’t punish its evasion.”

During the debate on the third anti-Jewish law he made a fairly long speech out of which I will quote some of the most important sentences. Donáth was describing the difficulties the Imrédy government had to face when hundreds of laws had to be enacted during a very short time, “making up for the omissions of 20-50 or even 100 years.” All that has to be done in the middle of the war and during the building a new Hungarian empire. “We must bring up a new generation of the intelligentsia … now that a large segment of the present intellectual elite is being excluded as in our opinion, these people should have no place among Hungarian intellectuals.” Let’s face it, György Donáth was a maniacal anti-Semite. Not what Zsolt Bayer tried to make him at the end of his article. “Was György Donáth an anti-Semite? Yes, he was. Just as other innumerable great and talented men without whom no Hungarian culture and history would exist: Sándor Petőfi, Ferenc Herczeg, Dezső Kosztolányi, Sándor Márai, László Németh, Gyula Illyés, and Zsigmond Móricz.” How Petőfi could be listed here is beyond me because Petőfi in fact raised his voice against German citizens of Pest who refused to accept Jews into the national guard.

According to Bayer, the accusation of anti-Semitism is often unfounded. Surely, in case of György Donáth it wasn’t. But as far as Bayer is concerned “the Jews who were unfortunately overrepresented in the revolt of the rats and the mass murderers in 1919—against the will and the wishes of the majority of Jews–themselves ‘succeeded’ to gain the deep antipathy and anger of the majority.” In this all these outstanding Hungarians’ anti-Semitism is perfectly understandable.

February 27, 2016

October 23, 1992: The first signs of a growing Hungarian extreme right

Today I’m moving back in time, to 1992, when President Árpád Göncz was set to deliver a speech commemorating the anniversary of the outbreak of the 1956 revolution. He never delivered that speech because some of the people who gathered there simply didn’t allow him. This was the first public appearance after the change of regime of the Hungarian far right, some of whom a year later joined István Csurka’s anti-Semitic MIÉP (Magyar Igazság és Élet Pártja/Hungarian Party of Justice and Life).

For the last few days I have been reading, more or less simultaneously, two biographies of József Antall, Hungary’s prime minister between 1990 and 1993: Sándor Révész’s critical Antall József távolról (József Antall from afar) and József Debreczeni’s sympathetic A miniszterelnök. Révész is a liberal journalist. Debreczeni is today one of the deputy chairmen of the Demokratikus Koalicíó. During the period he is writing about, he was a member of the top leadership of Antall’s party, the Magyar Demokrata Fórum. Révész was able to watch Antall only from afar while Debreczeni was in constant contact with him. Debreczeni was and still is a great admirer of Antall, and in his book he paints a portrait of a man who as a private person was very different from his public persona. Thus, we get closer to Antall the person in the Debreczeni portrait while we have a much clearer view of him as a prime minister in Révész’s biography.

Debreczeni doesn’t spend much time on the aborted speech, which upset the Hungarian left, especially the politicians of the liberal SZDSZ (Szabad Democraták Szövetsége/Association of Free Democrats). In his interpretation, Göncz’s old comrades from 1956 turned against the president because he refused to sign a piece of legislation that demanded prosecution of offenses committed between December 21, 1944 and May 2, 1990 by high-level communists, with no statute of limitations. Göncz, who certainly had no love for the communists who had condemned him to life imprisonment, had his doubts about the bill’s constitutionality and therefore sent it on to the Constitutional Court for review. The court’s chief justice was László Sólyom, who cannot be accused of leftist sympathies. The court found the bill unconstitutional.

Debreczeni blames the liberal press for conjuring up conspiracy theories about the aborted speech. They stated, suggested, or supposed that the incident was organized and that in the final analysis the Antall government was responsible for what happened. In Debreczeni’s view, these people were not Nazis; they were disappointed 56ers who wanted justice. (pp. 308-309)

Révész devotes more space to the events of October 23, 1992 (pp. 174-176). From his summary of what happened prior to the incident, we learn that the organizations made up of former 56ers who attended the event were all followers of István Csurka, who had organized several demonstrations earlier demanding Göncz’s resignation. These were the organizations the Ministry of Interior consulted in connection with the celebrations. Many of these groups held separate celebrations ahead the official one where Péter Boross, later briefly prime minister, and Lajos Für, minister of defense, made speeches. People who had attended those demonstrations plus some skinheads came to the event where Göncz was supposed to speak, and they came in an organized fashion, under police protection. Together, Révész contends, they constituted the bulk of those who turned against Göncz. Boross even invited the border guards to attend, apparently “as part of their patriotic education.” According to Sándor Pintér, who was chief of police at the time, “as if on a signal … 800-1,000 people at once started to yell, boo, clap … it certainly seemed like a concerted action.”

Everything was prepared but the speech was not delivered

Everything was prepared but the speech was not delivered

According to the conservative interpretation, there were no more than 60-70 skinheads, but about 3,000-4,000 people turned against Göncz. The skinheads were perhaps extreme right-wingers, maybe even Nazis, but the rest were good middle-class citizens, heroes of the 56 revolution. The liberals see it differently. They lump all these groups together as part of the growing extreme right which soon found its voice in István Csurka’s MIÉP. These people were not only anti-Semitic; they were irredentist and thoroughly anti-democratic.

Debreczeni, who is no fan of Göncz, blames the president for accepting this liberal view of the events because it meant that he could also accept the communist interpretation of 1956 as a fascist uprising. Of course, this interpretation would be valid only if we accepted these organizations’ claim to their primacy in the revolution.

Why is all this important today? Rereading Révész’s book is a revelation. All those far-right political views I find repulsive today were already taking hold in Hungary in the early 1990s. And just like now, although not to such an extent, perhaps the majority of the government members aided and sympathized with these groups. Although Antall himself was committed to western democracy, most of his cabinet members were not. Lajos Für, who was close to the groups that wreaked havoc during Göncz’s speech, was later involved with Jobbik’s paramilitary Hungarian Guard. Péter Boross today is the honorary chairman of the Veritas Institute and is an apologist for the Horthy regime, including its racism. In September 1993, when Miklós Horthy was reburied in Kenderes, seven ministers of the Antall government were in attendance.

Today, a lot of people bemoan the fact that Hungary has no moderate right-of-center conservative party. It doesn’t because the country has mighty few democratically minded conservatives. In MDF the few moderates lost out to the likes of Csurka, Boross, and Für.

In the early 1990s, however, the far-right wing of MDF was not strong enough to impose its will on Hungarian political life. What it needed, and eventually got, was a leader like Viktor Orbán with the power and the determination to create an illiberal, xenophobic state.

The Norway Funds and the statue of Bálint Hóman: two defeats for the Hungarian government?

The European Union should learn something from Norway. Although it took a year and a half of furious attacks on Norway and the NGOs that receive grants from the Norway Funds, the Orbán government surrendered. It capitulated because Viktor Orbán, János Lázár, and Nándor Csepreghy finally realized that Norway was unmovable. As long as the Hungarian government insisted on controlling the grants awarded to NGOs, the Norway Funds refused to release any money to Hungary. Norway froze 1533.3 million euros worth of assets on May 7, 2014. At the end, Orbán & Co. realized that further fighting was useless and they were running out of time. If they continued their useless battle, they wouldn’t get the money originally allocated to Hungary. “Money talks,” or as the Hungarian proverb says, “money talks, the dog barks.”

This was a total defeat. Csepreghy’s insistence that “the Hungarian government still believes that some of the funds have been used illegally” did nothing to blunt its edge.

A day after the statement acknowledging the “agreement” on the Norway Fund, the mayor of Székesfehérvár, András Cser-Palkovics, made an announcement. He indicated that he was prepared to retreat, at least partially, on the controversial issue of erecting a statue of Bálint Hóman, a historian who served as minister of education between 1932 and 1942. I wrote at least three or perhaps even four posts on Hóman, and therefore I’m sure that most of my readers are thoroughly familiar with his career. He was one of the most zealous promoters of the German-Hungarian alliance in addition to having had a hand in the drafting of the so-called Jewish laws. He was declared a war criminal in 1946 and died in prison in 1951.

In my last post on the Hóman case I explained that although it was a so-called independent foundation that came up with the idea of erecting a statue of Hóman, this foundation had received grants from the Orbán government, directly or indirectly, from its very inception. The foundation’s initiative was supported by the mayor and the Fidesz-majority city council, which was most likely also responsible for securing a 15 million forint grant from the ministry of justice specifically allocated for the statue. It had to be known, if not in Székesfehérvár certainly in Budapest, that such a move would be contentious. Yet the Orbán government decided to fund the project.

It was only today that I discovered that the reburial of Hóman’s remains took place in October 2001, during the tenure of the first Orbán government, and that several important government officials attended this event, including Ibolya Dávid, then minister of justice, Zoltán Rockenbauer, minister of culture, and József Pálinkás, minister of education. The Fidesz political leadership has obviously been toying with the idea of rehabilitating Hóman for some time. Perhaps they decided that among the many dubious political figures of the Horthy era Hóman might be acceptable because of his stature as a historian.

Although the initial media reaction hailed Cser-Palkovics’s announcement as a great triumph for those organizations at home and abroad that opposed the erection of a statue, I would suggest a somewhat more cautious reaction to his words. He simply asked the Hóman Foundation to think over the erection of the statue, “keeping in mind the interests of the country and the city.” The initiative came from a civic organization and therefore the fate of the statue is in their hands. “If the Bálint Hóman Foundation still decides to erect the planned work, which in a democracy it has the right to do, then in the name of Székesfehérvár we will ask the foundation to repay the public money it has received from the Hungarian government and the city, to the extent it is able, in order to acquit the city and the country of unjust attacks.”

There’s a lot packed into these sentences. First of all, although we can be certain that the decision on the Hóman statue was reached at the highest political level, no top official of the Orbán government had to stand up and admit defeat. The mayor of Székesfehérvár did the job. Second, the statue is most likely already cast in bronze and waiting to be installed on December 29, Hóman’s birthday. The artist was already paid or will have to be paid soon. The Hóman Foundation has no money over and above the 15-17 million forints it received from the ministry of justice and the city. So, as far as I can see, they would not be able to pay back anything. Third, it might be possible to erect the statue on public property. This would not be the first time that such a thing happened in Hungary. Just think of the Horthy statue in Csókakő. And fourth, what does Cser-Palkovics mean by “unjust” attacks? Does he mean that Hóman was not a viciously pro-German anti-Semite who was responsible, along with his fellow politicians, for the Jewish laws?

Anti-statue forces put up their own memorial

Anti-statue forces put up their own memorial

As for Viktor Orbán’s role in this affair, let me quote from Ildikó Lendvai’s op/ed piece in today’s Népszava. “The government is in trouble. On the one hand, it doesn’t want to get to be known as a Nazi sympathizer, especially now when Orbán is eyeing a leading position in Europe. On the other hand, it doesn’t want to be at loggerheads with those who want to see a Hóman statue erected. Therefore, it pretends that it has nothing to do with this ‘local’ affair even though in the past the foundation received millions from the government….The cult of Hóman seemed like an excellent fly catcher to attract the extreme right. But the scandal has become far too big and those who protest seem to be winning…. Perhaps they have given up on this statue, but the historical brainwashing continues.”

I would go even further. There is a good likelihood that this statue will stand somewhere, even if not on Béla Bartók tér in Székesfehérvár. I would also wager to say that no money will ever be paid back to the ministry of justice and the city of Székesfehérvár. And then who really won? Alas, once again, Viktor Orbán and his friends.

Viktor Orbán and the “Christian-National Idea”

“Christian and national.” These two concepts are frequently bandied about by Viktor Orbán. Every time I hear him talking about these concepts in such glowing terms I wonder whether he is aware of the meaning of the “keresztény-nemzeti eszme” or Christian-National Idea. I also wonder whether he ever contemplates the contradiction inherent in coupling these two terms. After all, Christianity is considered to be a universal, supranational concept while “national” is a notion applicable to the particular. This is especially true for the Catholic Church, which even carries the idea of universality in its name.

I also wonder whether non-Hungarians fully understand the true meaning of the term in the Hungarian historical context. Most likely not. The “Christian-National Idea” was the dominant ideology of the Horthy era, and therefore the use of the term should be avoided. Opinions on the nature of the Horthy regime may vary, but I think it is universally acknowledged that it was an authoritarian system that granted only limited political rights to its citizens. Surely, returning to the ideals and practices of such a regime in the name of democracy is more than bizarre and retrograde. It is incompatible with Hungary’s membership in the European Union.

But the notion of the Christian-National Idea should be avoided for another reason: historically, in the Hungarian context, “Christian” meant not someone who professes belief in Jesus as Christ and follows a religion based on his teachings but someone who is “not Jewish.” Strengthening the Christian middle class, which was one of the Horthy regime’s aims, meant preventing the social and economic advancement of Hungarian Jews by blocking their way to higher education.  During the interwar years the churches enthusiastically assisted in the propaganda of the Christian-National Idea and, as the historian Miklós Szabó put it, “they allowed the name of Christianity to be used as a cover-up for anti-Semitism.”

I find it odd that a government that vehemently protests every time it is accused of being anti-Semitic would turn to the Christian-National Idea, one of whose most important elements was anti-Semitism. The other components were revisionism, anti-liberalism, anti-communism, and conservatism. Under the present circumstances revisionism is out of the question, but Orbán and his fellow politicians in Fidesz solved that problem by the “virtual unification of the nation” across borders. To demonstrate the idea of a nation one and indivisible, among the Fidesz European Parliamentary members there are four ethnic Hungarians from outside of Hungary: from Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, and Serbia. The other two components of the Christian-National Idea–anti-liberalism and anti-communism–are at the core of the present Hungarian political system. Conservatism, however, has been replaced by a far-right ideology with many references to the peaceful revolution in 2010. Just as a commentator said the other day, it matters not whether the prime minister of Hungary is Viktor Orbán of Fidesz or Gábor Vona of Jobbik. Their ideologies are indistinguishable.

Viktor Orbán’s references to nation, nationalism, and Christianity are abundant, and here I would like to quote only a few that I find most jarring. About a year ago he claimed that “Christian culture is the unifying force of the nation.” It gives “the inner essence and meaning of the state.” And he added that “that’s why we declare that Hungary will either be Christian or not at all.” Or, here is another take on the theme: Hungarians are Europeans not because Hungary is geographically part of Europe but again “because we are Christians.” I won’t even try to make sense of all this, although such ideas even got into the preamble to the Fidesz constitution of 2011: “We recognize the role of Christianity in preserving nationhood.”

Vktor Orbán's view of the world

Vktor Orbán’s view of the world

By now, as we learned from Viktor Orbán’s speech at Kötcse, the Christian-National Idea is a political creed that he wants to apply to the whole of Europe. The refugee crisis offered Viktor Orbán an opportunity to lead a movement that will replace the liberal blah blah with the Christian-National Idea. I very much doubt that anything will come of Viktor Orbán’s ambitious dreams, but I must say that it would be an interesting twist of fate if the reactionary Horthy regime’s Christian-National Idea became the dominant ideology of the future European Union.

Just like Horthy during the interwar period, Orbán found enthusiastic supporters for his Christian-National Idea among the church leaders. The most important clerical spokesman for the state ideology of the Horthy regime was Ottokár Prohászka (1858-1927), an early representative of Christian socialism. Because of Prohászka’s vicious anti-Semitism, the Catholic Church didn’t promote his ideas after 1945, some of which were actually quite progressive socially. Since 1990, however, the Catholic Church has embarked on a rehabilitation of Prohászka. By now numerous schools are named after him, and his statues and busts are all over the country. He was the one, by the way, who coined the word “Hungarism” that later was used by Ferenc Szálasi to describe his Hungarian style of national socialism. His writings are full of references to the necessity of a Christian-national Hungary that must battle against Jewish influences that would, left unchecked, lead to the destruction of the nation. Prohászka was one of the forces behind the introduction of the numerus clausus of 1920 that fixed the Jewish presence in higher education at 5%.

In brief, the Christian-National Idea is a loaded concept full of the worst instincts of the Hungarian far right, going back at least a century. There are a number of commentators who claim that Viktor Orbán and his cohorts have no definable ideology. They have only one aim: to remain in power. They adjust their propaganda accordingly. They are simple populists. The recurring theme of the “Christian and National Idea,” however, indicates to me that they wittingly or unwittingly sympathize with the ideology of the Hungarian far right of the interwar period, an ideology that bore striking resemblances to fascism and national socialism.