Tag Archives: Sándor Szakály

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

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

Miklós Horthy redux

While the anti-refugee propaganda is loud and shrill, the rehabilitation of Admiral Horthy, regent of the Kingdom of Hungary (1920-1944), is quietly taking place in the background. About a month ago the website of the “Truth Institute,” my name for the Veritas Institute established by the Orbán government to set Hungarian history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries straight, advertised a conference to be held in Kaposvár on August 22 with the innocent-sounding theme “Society and culture in Hungary between the two world wars.” I became suspicious, however, when it turned out that one of the scheduled speakers was vitéz László Hunyadi, captain-general of the Order of Knights, established by Miklós Horthy to honor soldiers with a record of distinguished service in World War I. At the order of the regent, no Jew, no matter how valiantly he fought in the war, could be a member.

I became even more suspicious when I heard that the conference began with a holy mass for István Horthy, the older son of the admiral who died in an airplane accident in Russia, and for the fallen during World War II. István (Sharif) Horthy, Jr. was the guest of honor.

What the program did not reveal was that the Hungarian government, through its National Cultural Fund (Nemzeti Kulturális Alap), contributed generously to the conference which, as it turned out later, was the brainchild of the Horthy Miklós Alapítvány (Miklós Horthy Foundation). The Hungarian military was also represented by the air force band of Veszprém.

Unfortunately there is a public record of the speeches of only three speakers: the introductory words of the “chief sponsor”–Sándor Lezsák, a very minor poet in whose backyard the Magyar Demokrata Fórum was born and who today is the deputy speaker of the Hungarian parliament; István Horthy, Jr.; and Sándor Szakály, a military historian and director of the Truth Institute. Anyone who can handle the language can listen to their speeches as recorded by the cameraman of a local newspaper.

Sándor Lezsák and the knights

Sándor Lezsák and the knights

Although it was Sándor Lezsák who opened the conference, I would prefer to begin my analysis with the short speech of István Horthy, Jr., who has proved himself, on the few occasions he was called upon to speak in Hungary, to be a moderate and reasonable man. He pointed to the divide that cuts across Hungarian society and the inability of the two sides to find common ground. He expressed his hope that the conference would help bring divergent opinions closer together.

With his prepared speech in hand, what could István Horthy have been thinking when he listened to Sándor Lezsák’s introductory words, which were full of condemnation of those who don’t agree with his views? Here are a few key sentences. “Those historians, teachers, politicians, journalists who have been singing the old international songs about the white terror or Horthy’s fascism read from the scores of communism, socialism or liberalism.” A good beginning. And he continued. Of course, it is possible that “these people are misled by the long-time conductors of this anti-Horthy campaign.” It is hard to know whether the historians are the ones who are misled by these unnamed “conductors” or whether it is the historians themselves who are the evil conductors who want to discredit Miklós Horthy and his regime.

According to Lezsák, the white terror supervised by Miklós Horthy was designed to end the chaos created by the events of 1918-1919 and to bring order to the land. In his version, Horthy had nothing to do with the atrocities committed by his detachments that resulted in the deaths of approximately 1,200 people, many Jews among them. In fact, he was the one who was strong enough to put an end to the atrocities. This version of the story, alas, bears no resemblance to reality.

Lezsák, as one of the founders of MDF, inherited the narodnik (népi/népiesek) ideology of those writers and sociologists who severely criticized the Horthy regime’s agricultural policies, which created a large landless peasantry. Therefore, his only criticism of the Horthy regime was on that front, which he called “the darkest side of the regime.” A commentator criticized Lezsák for neglecting to mention the Holocaust, which surely was a much greater tragedy, but I would have been greatly surprised if he had. After all, in the official view of the Orbán regime the Hungarian government had nothing to do with the Holocaust because after March 19, 1944 Hungary ceased to be a sovereign nation. This is an untenable position. It is enough to look at the members of the Hungarian governments formed after that date and Horthy’s decision to stay in his post to demonstrate the continuity.

The third speech was delivered by Sándor Szakály, whose main theme was revisionism, which was supported by all segments of Hungarian society.  In his view no inter-war government would have survived that abandoned the idea of revising the Treaty of Trianon. As far as public sentiment was concerned, Szakály has a point, but what he failed to mention was the Hungarian government’s very effective propaganda. It eventually led to a situation that prompted even John F. Montgomery, U.S. minister to Hungary between 1933 and 1941 and a friend of Horthy, to remark that “the Hungarian people were not quite sane” on the subject of the Treaty of Trianon. Szakály’s conclusion was that since nothing but a revisionist foreign policy was possible, Hungary had to rely on those great powers that were ready to help, and they were Germany and Italy. End of discussion.

It’s too bad that no one reported on some of the other lectures. For example what István Ravasz, a military historian, had to say about “the Hungarian casus belli” on July 26, 1941, when Hungary entered the war on the side of Germany against the Soviet Union. Or how Zalán Bognár, who teaches at the Gáspár Károli Hungarian Reformed University, handled the German occupation of Hungary. The title of his speech sounds intriguing: “Arrow Cross takeover, deportations, counter-measures.” What kinds of counter-measures could he possibly be talking about?

All in all, the task of rewriting the history of the interwar period is under way. And this is only the beginning. The Truth Institute is publishing several books that I’m sure are destined to replace monographs about the period by well-known historian. It’s enough to visit the website of the Veritas Institute. They are busy revisionists.

An attempt at character assassination but to what end?

On the surface, today’s topic is history or to be more precise a historical debate, the kind that normally interests only historians who are experts in a given period or subject. Debates usually take place in seminar rooms or at conferences. They are actually peer reviews. And, of course, before the publication of a book, the author as well as the publisher will ask people who are familiar with the topic to read the manuscript and critique it. Even book reviews that appear in scientific journals are read only by the initiated few.

In Hungary, however, these so-called scientific debates often end up in the popular press because some professional historians are also public figures who appear on TV or write in newspapers. For example, a highly public debate took place in 2012 when András Gerő accused his fellow historian, the respected Ignác Romsics, of anti-Semitic discourse. The “debate,” in which more than two dozen people participated, lasted over six months.

That debate was on balance a civilized discussion, but what I’m writing about today is more like “character assassination.” At least, that’s what the normally pro-government Válasz called it. And that’s something, considering that the target of the character assassination is Krisztián Ungváry, who called Mária Schmidt, adviser to Viktor Orbán on matters of history, the “keretlegény” of the Hungarian historical profession. “Keretlegény” was an armed soldier who guarded and supervised Jews called up to serve in the labor battalions during World War II.

short piece by Ungváry, “The Living Horror” (Az élő borzalom), appeared on this blog.  It was about the memorial the Hungarian government insisted on erecting despite very strong opposition by historians, the Jewish community, and all those who would like Hungarians to face historical facts instead of hiding behind a falsified history of the Hungarian Holocaust.

Ungváry made a name for himself with a book which has since been translated into both English and German, The Siege of Budapest. In 2013 he came out with another large work, A Horthy-rendszer mérlege: Diszkrimináció, szociálpolitika és antiszemitizmus (The balance sheet of the Horthy regime: Discrimination, social policy and anti-Semitism in Hungary).  The book received the Academy Prize and is now under consideration for Ungváry’s award of an academic doctorate, which in Hungary is considered to be higher than a Ph.D.

The man who decided to attack Krisztián Ungváry is Dániel Bolgár, a young teaching assistant who hasn’t yet finished his Ph.D. dissertation. He has been described as “a talented man with a bright future,” but the general consensus is that this time he went too far for his own good. One thing is sure: it takes guts for a TA to take on an established, respected scholar.

What makes the story especially interesting is that Bolgár’s TA job is in András Gerő’s department at ELTE. Gerő a few years ago established a Habsburg Institute which is heavily subsidized by the government through the XXI Century Institute, headed by the aforementioned Mária Schmidt. In general, Gerő tries to court right-wing historians favored by the government. For example, Sándor Szakály, who was named director of the newly established Veritas Historical Institute, is on the board of Gerő’s Habsburg Institute. Gerő is deeply indebted to Schmidt and comes to her defense every time she is criticized. And she has a lot of critics: practically all Hungarian Holocaust scholars.

People suspect that the present debate is not so much about Ungváry’s book, which I think is an important contribution to the topic of anti-Semitism between the two world wars, but about the irreconcilable differences between the historical views of the right and the left when it comes to the evaluation of the Horthy regime. The clever twist in this game is that the accusations against Ungváry come in the guise of anti-Semitism, of which he is certainly not guilty.

These professional historical debates are far too esoteric for outsiders to judge. For example, Bolgár’s initial criticism, which he first published in Magyar Narancs, concentrated on statistical data from the 1930s about the economic status of Hungarian Jewry. At this time he did not accuse Ungváry of plagiarism, I suspect because otherwise Magyar Narancs wouldn’t have published his article. The title, however, was telling: “Tale about Jewish prosperity.” Ungváry, following virtually every Hungarian historian who has ever dealt with the topic, shows through statistical analyses and indirect evidence that the Jewish population was better off than Hungary’s non-Jewish inhabitants. There are many well-founded reasons for that claim: Hungarian Jews were better educated than the average, a great number of them belonged to the middle or the professional classes, and their representation in the peasantry was minuscule. (Almost 60% of the total population belonged to that economic group.) There is nothing revolutionary about the thesis. It’s practically self-evident, but Ungváry devotes about 80 pages to proving his point by approaching the question from different angles.

Bolgár accuses Ungváry of using the statistics of anti-Semitic authors, like Alajos Kovács who was at the time the head of the Central Statistical Office. Bolgár concludes that there are no reliable statistics whatsoever on this question, and he in fact suspects that the Jewish population on the whole was poorer than non-Jews which is, of course, total nonsense. Ungváry answered, a rebuttal that couldn’t be left unanswered by Bolgár, and then Ungváry wrote a final piece entitled “Insinuation.” In order to understand the argument of both sides a little better, I recommend reading these articles.

Dániel Bolgár and Krisztián Ungváry during the "debate"

Dániel Bolgár and Krisztián Ungváry during the “debate”

But this was only a warm-up for Dániel Bolgár. Ungváry decided to invite Bolgár for a discussion, which took place a few days ago and which is available on the Internet. Bolgár delivered a speech that lasted two hours, in which he accused Ungváry of outright plagiarism. He compared him unfavorably to a “village elementary school teacher who writes the history of his village.” According to Válasz, it was clear from the very first minute that Bolgár not only wanted to criticize Ungváry but to “totally destroy him.” The reporter simply didn’t understand why Ungváry didn’t get up and leave. Instead, he sat next to Bolgár, quietly taking occasional notes.

I admired Ungváry’s behavior. I certainly couldn’t have withstood such an attack without raising my voice. It’s a long haul, but if you have some time, please watch this video.

The other official participant in the discussion was Viktor Karády, the well-known expert on the social history of Hungarian Jewry in the Horthy-period who lives in France. Unfortuntely, he is also the quiet type. Occasionally he was cut off before he could finish his sentence. Bolgár must have invited some people who had problems with Ungváry’s book, who also shouted Karády and Ungváry down for another half an hour if not longer. One of them announced that the book “is about nothing.” I suspect that the man is an apologist for the Horthy regime and finds Ungváry’s thesis unacceptable. What is the thesis? That behind the anti-Jewish government measures was the desire for a distribution of wealth from Jewish to non-Jewish hands. The book is about “intellectual antecedents of depredation of the Jewry.” It seems that a lot of people find this thesis unacceptable.

Ungváry may have remained quiet during the debate, but he struck back in print. He wrote a piece for the conservative Mandiner from which we learn that Bolgár tried to publish his findings in a serious historical journal but the quality of his work was found wanting.

Retreat or another “peacock dance” by Viktor Orbán?

Something must have happened between yesterday afternoon and this morning in the Prime Minister’s Office. János Lázár, the minister in charge of the office, has been waging war for some time on at least two fronts, the Norwegian government and the Hungarian Jewish community. In both cases he now seems to be retreating, although his move may turn out to be, as has happened so often in the past, merely a tactical ruse–one step back and, once the glare of the spotlight dims, two steps forward.

Lázár has been trying to make changes in the original agreement regarding the disbursement of the Norwegian Funds, changes that the Norwegian government refused to accept. Then, in order to pressure the Norwegians to release the funds that they had withheld, the Hungarian government began to harass an independent foundation that was in charge of grants given to NGOs by the Norwegian Civic Funds. The latest attack, about which I wrote yesterday, was the most aggressive to date, but it did not shake the resolve of the Norwegian government. By noon today Vidar Helgesen, Norwegian minister in charge of European Union affairs, made it crystal clear that what happened yesterday in the office of the Ökotárs Foundation was unacceptable as far as his government was concerned.

Moreover, yesterday’s raids produced no damning evidence against the foundation. They will not be able to jail Veronika Móra, the director of the foundation, because she has done nothing wrong. At least, according to legal opinions I heard. It was thus high time for the government to throw in the towel.

As we know, Viktor Orbán, because naturally he is the man behind the attacks on the foundation and the NGOs, is not the kind of guy who likes to admit defeat. And he really wanted to stifle the anti-government voices being funded by the Norwegians. But the 45 billion forints the Norwegians were withholding, the bulk of their grant money that goes directly to the government, was hurting the public purse. This morning János Lázár announced that the Hungarian government will ask the European Commission to be the arbiter between the Hungarian and the Norwegian governments. Since a special EU office in Brussels has been supervising the activities of Ökotárs Foundation and has found nothing illegal about its activities, the outcome of the decision is not really in question. But at least Viktor Orbán can tell his people that, although his government is right, the bureaucrats in Brussels decided otherwise. Hungary had no choice but to oblige.

There might have been two other considerations that tipped the scales in favor of retreat. One is that, according to unnamed sources, Tibor Navracsics’s nomination has been unfavorably influenced by, among other things, the Norwegian-Hungarian controversy. Moreover, the raid on the foundation’s office, which was received with dismay abroad, coincided with the appearance of an op/ed piece in The New York Times by Philips N. Howard, a professor at the Central European University and the University of Washington, which only reinforced the commonly held view that Viktor Orbán is a man who cannot tolerate a free media. And, as the Norwegian controversy made evident, he would like to silence independent NGOs as well. The biting illustration that accompanied the article has since been reprinted in several Hungarian publications. If it had not been clear before, it had to be obvious by now that Viktor Orbán had gone too far. It was time to recall the troops.

The same thing seems to be happening on the Hungarian Jewish front. The government alienated the Hungarian Jewish community by making several controversial, unilateral moves. I wrote earlier about these government actions, starting with the appointment of Sándor Szakály as the director of a new historical institute and the designation of Mária Schmidt, director of the House of Terror, to head a new Holocaust Museum. The final straw was the decision to erect a memorial to commemorate the German occupation of Hungary on March 19, 1944. The result was a complete breakdown in communication–and trust–between János Lázár and the leaders of the Jewish community. Then, after months of silence, at the end August it became known that the government was ready to make concessions. The routinely scheduled  September meeting took place today and, indeed, it seems that the Hungarian government finally decided that it was time to come to some understanding with the Jewish community.

The meeting that lasted for four hours was a large gathering, including 60 people representing several Jewish organizations. Yet, according to András Heisler, president of Mazsihisz, thanks to the disciplined behavior of the representatives real progress was made on all eight points that were on the agenda. Although the Jewish organizations did not change their attitude on such vital issues as the House of Fates, the government offered several peace offerings. The government promised, for example, to spend up to a billion forints to fix up Jewish cemeteries that are in very bad shape in most cities and towns. Lázár promised to invite the head of the Kúria, Hungary’s supreme court, the minister of interior, and the head of the judicial office to talk over practical moves to be taken in cases of anti-Semitic activity. Lázár seemed to be ready to discuss the renovation of the synagogue on Sebestyén Rumbach Street that might serve two functions: it will be a functioning place of worship as well as a museum. Lázár also promised to renovate the synagogue in Miskolc.

The large gathering of the Jewish Round this morning Népszava / Photo József Vajda

The Jewish Round Table this morning
Népszava / Photo József Vajda

Although all these goodies were offered to the Jewish communities, the representatives refused to change their position on the boycott of the government organized events commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust. They remained steadfast even though the government gave in on one serious bone of contention–the exhibit at the House of Fates. Lázár personally guaranteed that no exhibit will be mounted without the active cooperation of the Hungarian and international Jewish community. Interestingly, the controversial designated head of the project, Mária Schmidt, was not present.

All in all, it seems that there is a general retreat. Whether it is real or not we will find out soon enough.

Mária Schmidt: Another person who chose the wrong profession

Ever since June 26, when Mária Schmidt, director of the House of Terror and a close associate of Viktor Orbán, wrote an article that one of her critics called “fulminating,” a tsunami of articles, blog notes and comments has appeared in the Hungarian media. I wrote about the article in detail on June 29, and many other pieces followed in Hungary. I am happy to announce that the English translation of this controversial article is now available.

Let me sample a few of the reactions by bloggers: “We have always suspected that she is vicious and stupid, but now for some strange reason she decided to let the whole world know it.” Or, “On five long pages she is raving, sometimes with unbridled fury and hatred” which can be described in one simple obscene sentence in a comment on the Internet. Or, I saw a note by Balázs Láng, an actor, on Facebook. In it, he compares Mária Schmidt to Clara Zachanassaian in Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s play The Visit (Der Besuch der alten Dame). Mária Schmidt, whose businessman husband died young, is a very wealthy woman. Láng continues: “Reading Schmidt’s lines, the heroine of Dürrenmatt is mercy, love, and humanity itself in comparison. The article of the Hungarian heiress is ‘In the captivity of the past’ and she leaves no doubt that in that jail she is the screw.”

Then there are others that must hurt more because they come from fellow academics. The first serious criticism came from György C. Kálmán, a literary historian, who wrote an article not really about the infamous piece by Schmidt but about a television interview that followed its appearance. As you will see, Schmidt has been very busy in the last couple of weeks trying to defend the views she expressed in her article. She has been singularly unsuccessful. Kálmán in this article can hardly find words to describe his reactions to this interview because “everything that leaves that lady’s mouth is illogical, confusing, primitive, discontinuous, and obscure even within her own parameters.” The delivery is “emotional, overstrung, full of indignation, resentment, and saccharine.” And finally, the greatest blow that anyone can deliver, Kálmán gingerly suggests that Mária Schmidt’s “intellectual powers” are wanting. That perhaps she does not understand, or at least doesn’t understand fully, what she is talking about.

Even more upsetting for Mária Schmidt must have been an article by Mária M. Kovács, a fellow historian who is currently professor and director of the Nationalism Studies Program at the Central European University in Budapest. Readers of Hungarian Spectrum should be familiar with her name because we talked about a recent book of hers on the infamous numerus clausus of 1920 that restricted the enrollment of Jewish students at institutions of higher education. Her article in Népszabadság is entitled simply “Schmidt.” It is a very hard-hitting piece of writing; I strongly suggest that anyone with some knowledge of Hungarian read it in the original. Here I can only summarize her most important points.

Mária M. Kovács calls Schmidt’s writing in Válasz a provocation and a declaration  of war. In her opinion, the author of that article crossed a line. One area in which she overstepped the limit of acceptable discourse  is her handling of the Holocaust. In her article Schmidt talks about the Holocaust as “one of the preferred topics of the empire,” meaning the United States, the European Union and Germany, and says that the empire “demands a minimum” that “must be fulfilled.” The Hungarian left-liberals wholeheartedly serve the interests of this empire to the exclusion of the interests of their own country. In fact, they not only fulfill the West’s demands, they overachieve in their servility. And since the Holocaust is one of the favored topics, the attitude of the Hungarian liberals and socialists toward the Holocaust is also overdrawn. The other area where Schmidt crossed the line is her calling anyone who is against the erection of the memorial to the German occupation of Hungary in 1944 a traitor who acts against the nation’s interests.

Mária Schmidt and Mária M. Kovács were both guests on György Bolgár’s program on KlubRádió. Kovács’s conversation with Bolgár took place on July 9 from 25:36 in the first part of the program. On the following day, one can hear Schmidt’s less than cogent discussion from 23:23, again in the first part of the program.

Since then Mária Schmidt had an interview with Ildikó Csuhaj of Népszabadság with the telling title: “And my sensitivity doesn’t matter?” It is clear from the interview that she feels threatened by other historians’ criticism of her position on Hungary’s role in the Hungarian Holocaust. Instead of trying to come up with facts that would bolster her views, she lashes out against such highly respected historians as László Karsai and Krisztián Ungváry. When the journalist pointed out that these two historians did not say, as Schmidt claims, that the Hungarians were more guilty than the Germans, this was her answer: “Questioning the loss of sovereignty covers politically motivated malice, or at least ignorance, low professional standards.” She is the good historian while the others are inferior, ignorant, and full of malice.

During the interview, the journalist concentrated mostly on questions concerning Hungarian-German relations during 1944 and before. When she mentioned Randolph Braham’s name in connection with Hungary’s status as an ally of Germany, Schmidt lost her temper: “Let’s leave all that talk about ‘allies.’ In the case of Sándor Szakály the problem was that he used the contemporary designation … What kind of thinking is exhibited when someone talks about a real alliance when the elephant allies himself with the mouse?” When the journalist retorted by saying that “formally” Germany and Hungary were allies, the answer was: “Please, formally we can also speak of a police action against aliens.” Dangerous to use contemporary designations in one case but not the other. I guess that means that Germany and Hungary were not really allies.

Mária Schmidt being interviewed by Ildikó Csuhaj Source: Népszabadság

Mária Schmidt being interviewed by Ildikó Csuhaj
Source: Népszabadság

During the conversation the topic of nation and its detractors came up and the journalist remarked that calling people enemies of their own nation is a very serious accusation. Well, it seems that even Schmidt realized that she went too far here and claimed in this interview that what she actually wanted to say was that these people were “enemies of the nation-state.” However, the reporter kept talking about Schmidt’s original wording: “people who are enemies their own nation.” At this point Schmidt became annoyed: “Why are you talking about anti-nation sentiments? I was talking about antagonism toward the idea of the nation-state. Let’s fix this before anyone puts words in my mouth.” Unfortunately for Schmidt, nobody put these words in her mouth; she uttered them herself.

At the end the reporter brought up the fact that the Yad Vashem Institute no longer supports Mária Schmidt’s project, the House of Fates. Moreover, one of the associates of the Institute apparently said at one point that “it is time to get rid of this institute and this woman.” Schmidt assured her interlocutor that this woman no longer works at Yad Vashem. As if her alleged departure had anything to do with her less than polite words about Mária Schmidt. As for her next project, the House of Fates, she is still trying to convince people to work with her. A few more interviews like the ones she has been giving and I can assure her that no one will be willing to do anything with her that is connected to the Hungarian Holocaust.

Sándor Szakály: Portrait of a historian

The “cursed” memorial to the German occupation of Hungary on March 19, 1944 is still unfinished and the daily demonstration against its erection continues. Today the small group of demonstrators was joined by thousands of DK supporters who gathered to launch a campaign of “resistance” to the world of Viktor Orbán.

No one knows when Viktor Orbán will find the time opportune to go against the majority of Hungarians who consider the proposed monument a falsification of history, but while we are waiting for the final outcome historians are debating the crucial issue of the Hungarian state’s role in the death of about 400,000 Hungarians of Jewish origin.

The two main historians representing the position of the Hungarian government are Sándor Szakály, a military historian and director of the Veritas Historical Institute, and Mária Schmidt, an alleged expert on the Hungarian Holocaust and director of the infamous House of Terror. Of the two, it is most likely Schmidt who has been playing a key role in the formulation of the Orbán regime’s view of history. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we would eventually find out that she was the one who came up with the idea of the monument which, as it turned out, became a huge headache for Viktor Orbán. In comparison, Szakály is a small fry who, unlike Mária Schmidt, has no close connection to the prime minister himself. It is possible that it was Schmidt who suggested Szakály as a good choice for the directorship of Veritas.

In the last week or so both Schmidt and Szakály have been in the news. Szakály had an interview with a young journalist of an online newspaper called Versus (vs.hu) in which he again managed to say a few things that are considered to be inflammatory by some and outright wrong by others. The interview solicited a couple of written responses, and Szakály was invited by György Bolgár of KlubRádió for a chat on his program Megbeszéljük (Let’s talk it over). For those of you who know Hungarian, I highly recommend devoting about half an hour to that conversation, which begins at 22:13 and continues in the second half hour of the program.

Szakály began his career as a historian in 1982 when he published articles in periodicals dealing with military history. His first full-fledged book, on the military elite in the last years of the Horthy regime (A magyar katonai elit: 1938-1945, Budapest: Magvető), was published in 1987 . The book is full of statistics, including the percentages of various religious denominations of high-ranking officers. Or the breakdown by age of officers of the General Staff. It seems you can find every bit of minutiae about the Hungarian military elite you ever wanted (or didn’t want) to know. Even those that matter not. But the “spirit” of that military corps is missing entirely. We don’t learn anything about their ideology and their views of the world.

Szakaly

Szakály showed the same positivistic mindset when discussing the deportation of approximately 23,000 Jews in July 1941 who, according to the Hungarian authorities, could not produce proper identification to prove they were Hungarian citizens. This event took place shortly after the German attack on the Soviet Union. The Hungarian authorities sent these unfortunate people to territories already held by the Germans. Most of them were killed by the German occupying forces. According to Szakály, “some historians consider this event to be the first deportation of Jews from Hungary,” but in his opinion it can more properly be considered “a police action against aliens.” Jewish communities demanded Szakály’s resignation from his new post as director of Veritas.

Of course, Szakály did not resign. Moreover, as he said in this latest interview, he sees no reason to resign. He used “the correct technical term.” But then he continued: “I asked Ádám Gellért [a scholar who published an important study of the event] whether he looked at the text of the regulation. Did it say that Jews had to be expelled? Or did it say that they have to be expelled because they had no citizenship? It is another matter whether it was the appropriate time during the summer of 1941 to expel those without papers. I don’t contend that it couldn’t have happened that somebody out of spite expelled such a person who did have citizenship.”

Let’s analyze these few lines from a historian’s perspective. It is clear that Szakály lacks any and all ability to analyze a historical event in its complexity. If the ordinance does not specifically say something, the issue is closed. If the document did not say that Jews were to be expelled, then clearly the intent of the authorities was simply to deport stateless persons. The fact that all those who were deported were Jews doesn’t seem to make an impression on him and doesn’t prompt him to look beyond the words of the ordinance.

But that’s not all. Let’s move on to the timing. Szakály never asks himself why the Hungarian authorities picked that particular date and location for the deportations. He admits only that it was perhaps not the most “appropriate time.” Keep in mind that Germany attacked the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941 and Hungary followed suit on the 27th. Szakály either feigns ignorance or he really is incapable of putting 2 and 2 together. The cabinet decided on the deportation of  “Galician Jews” on July 1, and on July 16 the first transports started their journey toward Soviet territories, by now occupied by German troops. In fact, the Hungarian authorities used the very first “opportunity” to get rid of some of the Jews who lived in the northeastern corner of the enlarged country. The date was calculated and planned.

And finally, the inclusion of Hungarian citizens in the transports is assumed by Szakály to be a rare occurrence committed by spiteful individuals. Naivete? Blindness? Ignorance? Or something else?

After listening to the interview with him on KlubRádió, I came to the conclusion that Szakály chose the wrong profession. He should have gone to military academy to become a fine military officer. He would know all the paragraphs of the military code by heart, and I’m sure that he would be a most obedient officer who would follow the rules and regulations to the letter. He would never question his superiors. I’m sure that he would have been a much better officer than he is a historian.

And one more thing that upset many people, for example Péter György, an esthete at ELTE, and György C. Kálmán, a literary historian at the same university. It was this sentence: “In my opinion, prior to the occupation of our country by the Germans the security of life and property of Hungarian Jewry, independently of the discriminative laws, was essentially ensured.” György interprets the above sentence to mean that, according to Szakály, “the age of anti-Jewish laws can be considered a normal state of affairs, which is the gravest falsification of 20th-century Hungarian history.” He added that since Szakály is the head of an official government institute, one could even question the present government’s responsibility.

Kálmán’s is a satirical piece that appeared in Magyar Narancs. He lists 16 paragraphs out of the many anti-Jewish laws enacted in interwar Hungary and asks Szakály whether he would feel secure in his person and his property if these laws applied to him. Here one can read all the important pieces of legislation that deprived Jews of all sorts of personal and property rights.

When confronted with György’s criticism, Szakály thought that his sentence covered the truth because he added the word “essentially” (alapvetően). It is obvious that two entirely different types of scholars stand in juxtaposition here. Szakály, who relies on a strict interpretation of texts, and György, who sees the problem in its full complexity. I have the suspicion that Szakály doesn’t really understand what György is talking about.

Meanwhile Mária Schmidt is fighting against all the historians who don’t agree with her. Just lately she gave several interviews on ATV and Klubrádió, and in today’s Népszabadság she has a long interview with Ildikó Csuhaj. Feeling under attack, she has been lashing out against all her colleagues. An interesting psychological study which I will leave for tomorrow.