Tag Archives: Veritas Institute

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mrs. István Horthy, née Ilona Edelsheim Gyulai in1942

Mrs. István Horthy, née Ilona Edelsheim Gyulai in 1942

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

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

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

Sándor Török (1904-1985)

Sándor Török (1904-1985)

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

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

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

July 2, 2016

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

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

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

Today, as the first topic of this post, I’m going to look briefly at the afterlife of Szakály’s unacceptable interpretation of the so-called numerus clausus, which limited the number of Jewish students to a mere 6% of the entering university classes. In Szakály’s opinion, the introduction of the law was unfortunate because it violated the concept of equality before the law, but from another point of view it was “a case of positive discrimination in favor of those youngsters who had less of a chance when it came to entering an institution of higher education.” The opposition parties immediately demanded Szakály’s resignation, and three days after the interview MAZSIHISZ, the umbrella organization serving various Jewish religious groups, also issued a statement in which it especially decried the insensitivity and indifference that Szakály displayed toward the victims of the Holocaust.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What will Viktor Orbán say if Hungarians are discriminated?

What will Viktor Orbán say if Hungarians are discriminated against?

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

June 30, 2016

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.

No rest for the weary: A busy summer in Hungarian politics

During the summer everything slows down. Soon members of parliament will leave for their summer holidays. Certain programs on KlubRádió will suspend broadcasting for the next two or three months, and ATV has only skeleton programming. One would think that political life must be really boring in Hungary. Nothing to discuss or analyse. But the funny thing is that there are so many topics worth thinking about or investigating that I simply cannot keep up with them. At the same time I don’t want to ignore them, so I decided to cover two topics today.

The Biszku case

You may recall that sometime at the end of May the Budapest appellate court ruled that the verdict of the court of first instance, which had sentenced Béla Biszku, János Kádár’s first minister of the interior, to a three-year prison term, was null and void. The fault lay with both the Budapest Prosecutor’s Office, which prepared the case, and the lower court judge who most likely felt pressured to produce quick results. Even Ádám Gellért, the young lawyer who was responsible for Biszku’s indictment, had to admit that the case the prosecutors came up with was unspeakably poorly prepared. The appellate judge had only two options: either to throw the case out or to acquit Biszku.

The reaction of the Budapest chief prosecutor, Tibor Ibolya, was not that of a “shrinking violet,” as his family name would indicate. (I saw him in action once with Olga Kálmán and in fact recommended viewing this interview in one of my earlier posts.) In his frustration and anger, he accused Biszku’s defense lawyer of “making a clown with cap and bells out of the court, which, instead of objecting, assisted him.”

The chief prosecutor of Budapest is not the only one who is upset. Ádám Gellért is also frustrated. At a conference held today, he offered a dangerous suggestion: a law should be enacted that would transform political responsibility into a criminal act under certain circumstances. A right-wing historian, Tibor Zinner (Veritas Institute), went even further. He wouldn’t mind having a law that would allow the sentencing of people already dead.

Since Biszku is 94 years old, by the time the prosecutors, judges, legal scholars, and historians decide what can be done with high-ranking communist politicians who may be responsible for the deaths of people after the uprising of 1956, he will most likely be dead.

What’s happening with the Hungarian Gripens?

During the first Orbán government (1998-2002), under mysterious circumstances, Viktor Orbán went against the advice of his military advisers and acquired 16 Gripen fighter planes. The cabinet had been expecting an announcement that Hungary would purchase F16 planes from the United States. Instead, out of the blue, Orbán announced that he had decided on the Swedish Gripens. The decision was suspicious at the time, but it became even more so after we learned that the Saab Group, manufacturer of the Gripens, was quite generous when it came to “convincing” its customers. I wrote about the Gripen scandal at least three times: in August 2007, March 2009, and September 2012.

Now we have a Gripen scandal of a different nature. On May 19, one of the 16 fighter planes was totally destroyed while taking part in an exercise in the Czech Republic. The Hungarian public has learned nothing since about the cause of the accident. The Hungarian planes are leased because the country’s finances didn’t allow for an outright purchase. The original arrangement was that after a certain period Hungary would be able to take full possession of the fleet. But eventually it became clear that the country couldn’t even keep up with its monthly payments. In any event, the plane, which is a total loss, is probably a further strain on the Hungarian military budget. The financial situation of the military is so bad that, as Magyar Nemzet sarcastically remarked, although the planes have been in Hungary for nine years, “they didn’t manage to buy a single bomb for them.”

And then, less than a month later, another accident happened, this time in Kecskemét, the Hungarian airbase. The plane is not totaled, only damaged, but the pilot who had to catapult from the plane, just like a colleague in the Czech Republic, injured his spine. This time, it looks as if the accident was due to technical difficulties. Something is very wrong with either the Gripens or the Hungarian airmen and servicemen, or both.

After the accident in Kecskemét

After the accident in Kecskemét

Imre Szekeres (MSZP), minister of defense between 2006 and 2010, commented on these accidents on Facebook. According to him, perhaps the biggest problem is the lack of flying time. Szekeres suspects that there is not enough money for fuel. The pilot of the plane that was damaged in Kecskemét had eight hours in the air this year. Moreover, apparently it is not known how many planes are actually flyable. Two are definitely not, but there was a third plane that was returning from Sweden where its pilot had received flying instruction. It never reached the Kecskemét base but had to force land in Košice/Kassa. No one knows in what shape that plane is.

The Hungarian Air Force, with its inexperienced pilots and its ailing planes, will soon be responsible for the defense of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Beginning in August, it will be spending four months on a Lithuanian airbase. Since these countries don’t have air defense capabilities, other NATO countries protect them on a rotating basis. We can only pray that no one decides to attack any of these countries between August and November.

Viktor Orbán shapes the Holocaust Memorial Year

While Viktor Orbán was composing his letter, described by the philosopher Ágnes Heller as the handiwork of Moliére’s Tartuffe, the pious fraud who managed to fool his benefactor and his wife with his pretensions of divine authority, the Orbán regime’s political machine continued preparing the ground for its own version of the Holocaust Memorial Year, for the most part unadulterated by Jewish input.

Today I’ll focus on two events: (1) the agreement of cooperation between the Veritas Institute and the Holocaust Documentation and Memorial Center and (2) the meeting between members of the government and representatives of Mazsihisz, the umbrella organization for several Jewish communities. As I already noted a few days ago, the Veritas Historical Institute, directed by Sándor Szakály, and the Holocaust Documentation and Memorial Center, represented by György Haraszti, chairman of the board, signed an agreement of cooperation. Leaders of Mazsihisz and other Jewish organizations were stunned. Szakály and Haraszti have already agreed on some conferences that will be jointly sponsored by the two institutions.

The first conference will deal with the period between the German and Russian “occupations.” A sidenote: The word used in connection with the arrival of the Soviet troops is a matter of controversy of an ideological nature. There is no question that for the remaining Jewish population of Hungary the Soviet arrival was a “liberation” (felszabadulás), and therefore the Holocaust Center’s acquiescence in using the word “occupation” (megszállás) is unfortunate. Although admittedly most non-Jewish Hungarians feared the arrival of the Soviet troops, calling the event a foreign occupation is simplistic. It does, however, jibe with the Hungarian constitution’s (and Orbán’s) view of Hungary’s lost independence. The Germans took it away in 1944, and after the war the Allies that defeated Hitler’s Germany (which, after all, included the Soviet Union) continued to deny Hungary its independence. Hungary was a powerless, and hence innocent, nation; all the power, and all the responsibility, lay in the hands of its occupiers.

Monument of the March for Life, Budapest / Work of Zénó Kelemen

Monument of the March for Life, Budapest / Work of Zénó Kelemen

Now back to the controversial agreement between the Veritas Institute and the Holocaust Center. Historian Szabolcs Szita, the temporary director of the Holocaust Center, knew nothing about the negotiations between Haraszti and Szakály. Szita was named director three years ago and his appointment is coming to an end on May 3. No one knows who his successor will be. One thing is sure: he wasn’t encouraged to reapply. György Haraszti, on the other hand, obviously has very good relations with the Orbán government. He was named chairman of the board shortly after the election of 2010. He is also a professor at the Országos Rabbiképző–Zsidó Egyetem, the rabbinical school and Jewish university that is under the supervision of Mazsihisz.

As a result of his agreement with the Horthy-loving Szakály, a man Mazsihisz demanded the government replace with a more reputable historian, Haraszti was asked to leave all his positions at the rabbinical school at the end of the current academic year. I’m not worried about his future, however. The Orbán government takes good care of its own. As for topic two, at the request of Viktor Orbán a meeting with the leaders of Mazsihisz was arranged for April 30th, the same day Orbán released his letter to Katalin Dávid. The government was represented by Viktor Orbán, János Lázár, and Zoltán Balog. Mazsihisz sent its president, András Heisler; Péter Tordai, the president of the Budapest Jewish Community (BZSH); and Péter Kardos, chief rabbi of Hungary and a Holocaust survivor.

The meeting was described as a long and “frank” discussion. We all know what “frank” means in this context: the discussion was less than pleasant and it led practically nowhere. As far as the monument is concerned, it is not negotiable because Viktor Orbán “has no room to maneuver.” He cannot give up the original concept. This is very strange reasoning. Who is forcing him to erect the monument? Surely, nobody. What he might have had in mind was that because of his stubbornness he maneuvered himself into a corner from which he cannot extricate himself without losing face.

Some people might argue that Orbán feels so strongly about the issue that scrapping the monument and the idea behind it would shake the very foundations of his worldview. I doubt it. He is anything but a man of firm beliefs. He belongs to the church of “what works now.” The only promise the leaders of the Mazsihisz delegation received was that in establishing the House of Fates “they together will make a last attempt to create a system of cooperation that will ensure the true depiction of history in accordance with Hungarian Jewish perspectives.”

In certain circles this agreement was hailed as a sign of Viktor Orbán’s willingness to compromise. I am not that optimistic. I fear that the gulf between the two views is so great that it cannot be bridged. I will be most surprised if talks between government representatives and supporters, such as Mária Schmidt and György Haraszti, and Mazsihisz, supported by most historians of the Holocaust, can possibly arrive at a common ground.

Szakály’s appointment, according to Mazsihisz’s brief description of the meeting, was not on the agenda. On the other hand, the Mazsihisz leaders offered some preliminary plans for a “House of Coexistence” which Mazsihisz suggested as an alternative to the House of Fates. Again, I have the feeling that this is a dead issue. As is clear from the agenda of the conversation, the creation of the House of Fates is going ahead. A House of Coexistence would be another establishment costing additional money. I doubt that Viktor Orbán is in the mood to give such a gift to Mazsihisz and the Jewish communities it represents. Especially not after Jewish communities supported the two-week-long demonstration against his “accurate and flawless” monument.

Viktor Orbán finally sent an answer, but the Jewish community’s boycott is still on

The deadline had long passed and Viktor Orbán’s promised answer to Mazsihisz’s three demands to ensure their participation in the events of the Holocaust Memorial Year still hadn’t arrived. So, it’s no wonder that Népszabadság headlined one of its articles “Orbán is ruminating.” And indeed, I don’t think that it was easy for a man who is not accustomed to retreating to admit that, despite all the power he acquired within the country, he might have to back down on the idea of erecting a monument to the German “occupation” of Hungary on March 19, 1944.

On February 16, in his “state of the nation” speech, he was still adamant and denounced those who “dare to tell us what we should or should not do, or what and how we should remember.” Commentators were convinced that Orbán would stand fast and wouldn’t give an inch.

There were other signs, however, that those harsh words were only for show. Zoltán Balog told ATV on Tuesday that the topic will most likely be “discussed” on Wednesday at the cabinet meeting. Mind you, we know from an earlier Balog interview that “discussing” something at the cabinet meeting means that all those present simply lend their support to Viktor Orbán’s decision. Still, he wasn’t the only one who indicated that the infamous memorial might not be in place on Szabadság tér on March 19. István Pálffy (KDNP) also suggested that it would be impossible to erect the structure given time constraints. Presumably they knew something even before the cabinet meeting.

Although word about the postponement became official only last night, the well-informed Ildikó Csuhaj of Népszabadság already knew about the decision a few minutes after the cabinet meeting. Her sources indicated that there was intense international pressure on the government, including German disapproval. Israel also made its feelings known by requesting the newly appointed Hungarian ambassador to have a heart to heart with officials of the Israeli foreign ministry.

After the decision was reached, Orbán wrote his long-awaited letter to the leaders of Mazsihisz. In it he mentioned, as Fidesz politicians always do, that the Holocaust Center was established during the first Orbán government and that it was during his first term that they declared April 16 to be the day devoted to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust. On the other hand, he completely ignored the controversy surrounding the Holocaust Memorial Year: the falsification of historical facts symbolized by the planned monument, the appointment of a far-right historian to a newly established institution called Veritas who considers the Kaments-Podolskii deportations and murders of mostly Hungarian Jews a simple “police procedure,” and the concept and the person in charge of the planned House of Fates. Instead, Orbán claimed that the reason for postponing the erection of the “Gabriel” statue is the campaign season for national and EU elections that takes place between February 15 and May 25.

The contents of this letter didn’t make the slightest difference as far as the leaders of Mazsihisz were concerned. They announced that there is nothing in this letter that would necessitate calling together the entire leadership which decided on the boycott in the first place. This is only a postponement of the statue, with no mention made of the two controversial historians, Sándor Szakály of Veritas and Mária Schmidt of the House of Fates.

Gordon Bajnai agreed with the Jewish leaders. He called the postponement of the erection of the monument no more than a “cynical avoidance of conflicts before the election” which does not address the core problem: “Falsification of history still remains falsification of history two or three months later.”

Two fundamentally opposing historical views are clashing here, and in my opinion truth is not on the Orbán government’s side even if they decided to name their new historical institute Veritas. I want to make one thing clear. It is not only the Jewish community that cannot accept the Orbán government’s efforts to rehabilitate the Horthy regime. More enlightened members of Hungarian society, both Jewish and non-Jewish, are only too aware of the respective Hungarian governments’ roles between 1920 and 1944 that resulted in the deaths of millions of Jews and non-Jews.

Some people are not surprised that in the last twenty-five years perhaps the majority of Hungarians refused to look critically at their own past. After all, they say, it is a painful process, and it took at least that many years for the Germans to do the same. So far so good, but the difference is that now, twenty-five years after the regime change, instead of turning the corner and facing harsh facts, the Orbán government is doing everything in its power to prevent the kind of dialogue that might result in a fair assessment of Hungary’s twentieth-century history. In fact, it is undoing the fairly sophisticated re-examination of the past that already began to take place in the second half of the Kádár regime. Admittedly, publications on the Holocaust and in general on Jewish affairs are much more numerous today than in the 1970s and 1980, but I still have some very valuable books from those days in my own library.

Finally, I would like to talk briefly about two issues. Today Ilan Mor, Israeli ambassador to Hungary, and Sándor Pintér, minister of interior, gave out decorations to those who saved Jewish lives at their own peril during the Holocaust. Ambassador Mor bestowed the Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations awards to the children or grandchildren of ten Hungarians. Alongside the Israeli awards, Sándor Pintér gave out decorations “For Bravery.” I didn’t find a lot of information on this bravery award except that it is given to firefighters. Even a German Shepherd dog received it not so long ago.

Mihály and Szabolcs Fekete-Nagy at the award ceremony

Mihály and Szabolcs Fekete-Nagy at the award ceremony

One of the awardees was Béla Fekete Nagy (1904-1983), a well-known painter, whose two sons were at the ceremony to receive their father’s posthumous award. Mihály and Szabolcs  Fekete-Nagy accepted the Yad Vashem award but would not accept the “For Bravery” decoration from Sándor Pintér. Mihály delivered a speech which the cameramen muffled, but the message was that they would defile the memory of their father if they accepted the decoration from the minister of interior of the Orbán government.

I also just learned that in the last four or five months the government allegedly stopped all subsidies to the Holocaust Memorial Center with the result that this month the Center cannot even pay the meager salaries to its employees. This stoppage of funds might be a bureaucratic mix-up, but given the present tense relations between the government and the Jewish community it might be more than that. Perhaps the goal is to put pressure on the Holocaust Center to convince Mazsihisz to be less rigid and make a deal with the Orbán government. Or there might be another explanation. As we have learned, the Orbán government had rather strong objections to the leadership and concept of the Center. Since, as Mizsihisz argued, two Holocaust centers in one city are not really necessary and since this administration came forth with the idea of the House of Fates, it might want to marginalize or eliminate the Holocaust Memorial Center. I’m just guessing, but whatever the reason it most likely reflects the Orbán government’s two-faced attitude toward the Hungarian Jewish community.