Governor Miklós Horthy, Hungary’s regent between 1920 and 1944, is in the news again thanks to the Keresztény Értelmiségiek Szövetsége/KÉSZ (Association of Christian Professionals), whose Budapest downtown chapter decided to hold a “memorial mass” in honor of the governor and his daughter-in-law, Countess Ilona Edelsheim-Gyulai, “who were born 150 and 100 years ago respectively.” The connection between the leaders of KÉSZ and the Orbán government is very close. For instance, KÉSZ held its most recent conference in the former chamber of the Hungarian Upper House in the parliament building. Viktor Orbán was the keynote speaker with a ringing speech about the dangers threatening Christian Europe.
This “memorial mass” is an annual affair, normally held at this time of the year. The idea for it most likely came from the long-standing president of the organization Zoltán Osztie, a Catholic priest of decidedly reactionary views. He is known for his hatred of liberalism, which he calls the result of “the devil’s destructive fury.” He is a great admirer of the Horthy regime because, under Horthy, the relationship between church and state was the closest in Hungary’s modern history. He finds the anti-Semitic Prime Minister Pál Teleki, the extreme right-wing Bálint Hóman, and Ottokár Prohászka, the spiritual father of Hungarism, “wonderful people who with the help of God resurrected the dead, mutilated country.” His church in District V has been the scene of several memorial masses for Horthy, not just by KÉSZ but, for example, by an organization called Nobilitas Carpathiae, which is maintained by the noble families of Upper Hungary — that is, Slovakia. You get the idea.
Not every year, but on occasion, the media has picked up on Osztie’s penchant for holding masses for Horthy despite Orbán’s most recent word on the subject: Horthy should not be honored because he remained in his post after the German occupation of the country on March 19, 1944. This obviously hasn’t deterred Osztie, who is fond of celebrating masses to honor former and present politicians. In 2013, for example, he sent out invitations to a mass of thanksgiving in honor of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s fiftieth birthday. Here and there the Hungarian media semi-jokingly reported on his activities.
But no one found this year’s announcement of the “memorial mass” that was supposed to take place on January 27 amusing. Since 2005 January 27 has been recognized as Holocaust Memorial Day. It was on that day in 1945 that the Red Army liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau. That a priest would celebrate a mass in remembrance of Horthy on Holocaust Memorial Day was jarring enough. But when the public found out that Sándor Lezsák, one of the vice-presidents of parliament, Péter Boross, former prime minister, and Sándor Szakály, director of the Veritas Institute, the Orbán regime’s very own historical research group, would be delivering speeches, presumably in praise of Horthy, a well-deserved storm of protest broke out.
András Heisler, president of Mazsihisz, the umbrella organization of Jewish groups, wrote a letter to Sándor Lezsák in which he expressed his serious misgivings about the Hungarian government’s involvement in the affair. Heisler pointed out that “everybody deserves prayers for their salvation and every religious community has the right to offer them. But doing that on Holocaust Memorial Day requires a falsification of history.” Miklós Horthy was complicit in the deaths of the overwhelming majority of Hungarian Jewry.
Heisler’s letter didn’t change the minds of the invited guests or the organizer, who presumably would have been officiating at the mass. Osztie claimed that they were unaware of the day’s significance, but he announced that the “memorial mass” will also be celebrated for the victims of the Holocaust. In fact, according to the organizers, “the goal of our mass is to prove that there is no contradiction between honoring the governor and remembering the victims.” But as an editorial in Szombat, a Jewish periodical, pointed out, how can one honor a man who assisted in the deportation of all Hungarian Jews living outside of Budapest?
In any case, Sándor Lezsák was not moved by Heisler’s letter. He announced that, in accordance with plans, he will attend and deliver his speech. Péter Boross was a bit more circumspect, although he also planned to attend. In his interpretation, the scheduling of the “memorial mass” was a mistake, but, as he said, he “hates cowardice” and is ready to take the consequences of that decision. He was planning to talk about the German occupation, the deportation of Hungarian Jews, and the victims of the Holocaust. And he would talk about Horthy, “who alone was brave enough to stop the deportation of Jews.” Without going into the historical details, let me simply say that this assertion by Boross is without foundation.
But then something happened behind the scenes. In short order, Zoltán Osztie announced that neither the mass nor a remembrance will be held in his church. Of course, he blamed those “who are full of hate and divide the country and create hysteria” for the upheaval when nothing extraordinary happened. The event has been part of a yearly routine.
This sudden change of heart looked suspicious, and questions were raised about the person or persons behind the decision to cancel the event. Given the centralized nature of Orbán’s political system, in which almost everything originates with the prime minister, people suspected that Orbán, who is very sensitive about his regime being labeled anti-Semitic, felt that it was time to intervene. Perhaps his decision was expedited by Rabbi Slomó Köves’s condemnation of the memorial mass. Köves is the “executive” rabbi of the Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation, which is an affiliate of Chabad Lubavitch. He is certainly Viktor Orbán’s favorite Jewish religious leader. Orbán might not be moved by Mazsihisz, but Köves’s community is something else.
The other possibility is that Viktor Orbán was helped along in coming to the conclusion that this memorial mass must be cancelled by Ronald S. Lauder, head of the World Jewish Congress, who, according to the Israel National News, “urged Orbán to personally intervene” because he found it “truly disturbing that the event is being given legitimacy through the participation of a high dignitary of Hungary,” meaning Sándor Lezsák. Then today, Népszava learned that Cardinal Péter Erdő, archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest and primate of Hungary, personally asked Zoltán Osztie to cancel the event. Apparently, Osztie confirmed that he acted at Erdő’s request. That may be so, but I suspect that Erdő received, if not an order, strong prodding from Viktor Orbán himself.
Finally, a question and observation about the aborted memorial mass. Zsuzsanna Toronyi, director of the Hungarian Jewish Museum and Archives, asked an obvious question in a television interview. Why would Horthy, who came from a long line of devoted Protestants with roots in the Hungarian Reformed Church, be honored by a Catholic mass? He married a deeply religious Catholic, but his sons were baptized in a Hungarian Reformed Church. His son, István, who also married a Catholic, insisted on a Protestant wedding.
The observation comes from someone well versed in Catholic affairs. According to János Dobszay, in Catholic liturgy there is no such thing as a “memorial mass,” although one can celebrate mass for the salvation of the soul of a deceased person. Moreover, given the fact that politicians were invited, the event became a political affair. As a result, Osztie acted against the rules and regulations of the Catholic Church. John Paul II, in his Redemptionis Sacramentum, clearly states that “It is not permissible to link the celebration of Mass to political or secular events, nor to situations that are not fully consistent with the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. Furthermore, it is altogether to be avoided that the celebration of Mass should be carried out merely out of a desire for show, or in the manner of other ceremonies including profane ones, lest the Eucharist should be emptied of its authentic meaning.”
Finally, I would like to call attention to a short opinion piece by Tamás Bauer, one of my favorite Hungarian commentators, which appeared today in HVG. Fine, so “there is no mass, there will be no demonstration. Can we be relieved? Of course not,” starts Bauer. Would it be all right if Osztie and friends set another date for their “memorial mass”? Of course it wouldn’t be. By focusing on the date of the gathering, the discussion dealt only with Horthy’s responsibility for the Jewish victims when he was guilty of so many other things as well: anti-Semitism throughout the years between 1920 and 1944, anti-Jewish laws, revisionist foreign policy, entering the war against the Soviet Union, sending poorly equipped soldiers to the front, and herding Jews into labor battalions. All people who find Orbán’s regime abhorrent should stand fast against the Horthy cult that has been cultivated by Fidesz politicians, including Viktor Orbán.