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.
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.