Tag Archives: World War I

Viktor Orbán and the Jewish war heroes of World War I

Yesterday Viktor Orbán delivered a speech in the Jewish cemetery on Kozma utca where there is a separate section for the graves of soldiers who served in World War I. This speech was hailed by the reporter for AFP as a breakthrough because it was Orbán’s “first acknowledgment of his country’s complicity in the Holocaust.” Alas, when I got to the original text it turned out that Orbán said nothing of the sort. He simply repeated the same old mantra: there were many Hungarians who “chose evil instead of virtue, the shameful instead of the honorable.” What this regime refuses to acknowledge is that it was the Hungarian government, not just individuals, that was complicit in the Hungarian Holocaust.

Otherwise, his speech was, as István Gusztos, a frequent contributor to liberal internet sites, labeled it, “hadova,” a word of Gypsy origin meaning “empty talk.” What Gusztos particularly objected to was Orbán’s glorification of war heroes as if the Austro-Hungarian participation in World War I had anything to do with the defense of the homeland. Orbán also made the unsubstantiated claim that without the Jewish soldiers the defense of the country couldn’t have been achieved. For starters, we have no statistics whatsoever on the percentage of Jewish-Hungarian soldiers in the army. We do know, however, that Archduke Joseph regarded the Jewish soldiers as “just as good patriots and soldiers as anyone else.” (János Gyurgyák, A zsidókérdés Magyarországon [p. 95]).

As for the glorification of heroes, Gusztos has a point. Orbán spent some time complaining about history books that “even after the change of regime talk about battles that had no heroes, only victims.” Instead, in his speech he concentrated on a series of battles that eventually managed to repel the Russian army at the Uzsok/Uzhok mountain pass in the last couple of months of 1914. Yes, the Russians were eventually pushed back, but at a large cost in lives on both sides. By concentrating on this particular episode Orbán advanced his thesis that World War I was a defensive war. In fact, he envisioned a scenario in which, if the Russians had not been stopped at Uzsok, they would have marched straight to Budapest. Given the slow pace of military movements in World War I, that outcome was unlikely, but it sounds good in a political speech.

Source: 444.hu

Source: 444.hu

How did Orbán manage to transition to the Jewish theme? After all, the occasion was the refurbishing of the military section of the Kozma utca cemetery. As usual, he handled the task well. The hero of the day was Baron Samu Hazai, the minister of defense at the time of the Russian-Hungarian encounter at Uzsok. Hazai was born Samuel Kohn, but after he decided on a military career he converted and changed his name. He was a great favorite of Prime Minister István Tisza, who often gathered influential men of Jewish extraction to advise him. He even offered positions in his cabinet to Jews. His first appointment was Samu Hazai. Two years later he picked János Teleszky as minister of finance. The third Jewish member of his cabinet was János Harkányi, minister of trade. They all served for the duration of Tisza’s seven years in office.

So, Hazai was the minister of defense, but what did he have to do with the battle at Uzhok? “Our outstanding minister of defense, Baron Samu Hazai, almost from nothing managed to put together a force of 70,000 men and in a moment of great inspiration decided to send Sándor Szurmay to head the new army group.”

Well, there is another version of the story. Sándor Szurmay held the rank of lieutenant-general and since 1907 had worked in the ministry of defense. When the war broke out he wanted to join the fighting forces, but Hazai found him indispensable and, instead of letting him go to the front, made him undersecretary of defense. The patriotic Szurmay was not happy with the arrangement and eventually asked the supreme command to put pressure on Hazai, who eventually relented. Orbán was mistaken:  Szurmay was not named to head a new force but arrived at Uzhok to take charge of the troops that were already fighting there. Szurmay quickly discovered that the military situation was desperate and that without extra men the Russians couldn’t be repulsed. At his request, Hazai and Tisza “moved heaven and earth” to send the extra 70,000 men to the battle site.

Orbán didn’t get the story quite straight, but at least Samu Hazai’s name resurfaced. After all, he was the first cabinet member of Jewish origin in Hungarian history. Moreover, during his tenure he put considerable effort into the modernization of the army and was responsible for legislation introducing a more enlightened military court system. In addition, he wrote several books on military topics and translated Carl von Clausewitz’s book On War. A fairly long English-language biography of Hazai is available online.

Two more thoughts on this speech. One sentence in particular caught my eye: “The road that led from the heroic Hungarian Jews’ comradeship to the concentration camps is incomprehensible.” I guess if it’s incomprehensible, the fate of Hungarian Jews from 1919 to 1944 doesn’t have to be, in fact can’t be explained. He said merely: “Walking around these graves it is incomprehensible that there was a political system in Hungary after World War II that wanted to eradicate even the memory of the soldiers buried here.” What a leap, and how telling.

The other interesting passage dealt with peace in our time. European countries worked hard to create peace after “the wars of nation states.” And “we must never forget that we must defend this peace every day so we wouldn’t become like the ‘sleepwalkers’ of Europe in 1914.” This passage can be interpreted in two different ways, I think. One interpretation is that Orbán here hails the European Union as the replacement for the warring nation states. This might be a friendly gesture toward Brussels. On the other hand, one might think of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, in which case Orbán is urging some kind of understanding with Russia at the expense of Ukraine. I don’t know which interpretation, if either, is applicable. Orbán’s double talk is difficult to decipher. 

August 22, 1914

A change of pace. What else can we say about Viktor Orbán after his three recent public appearances and his decision to share his vision and wisdom with the world? Instead, let’s talk about history.

I must have mentioned how great the interest is in Europe on the 100th anniversary of World War I. German and Austrian papers in particular have been spending considerable time and energy telling their readers about events a hundred years ago. Often on a daily basis.

Hungarians who are so terribly interested in history seem to spend less time on the Great War, as it was called at the time. However, there is a company called Arcanum Adatbázis Kft. that specializes in the digitization of documents, maps, paintings, etc. They just offered free access to the issues of five Hungarian newspapers published one hundred years ago. I took advantage of the offer and read the August 22, 1914 issue of Népszava, the newspaper of the Hungarian Social Democratic Party. Today I’ll share some of that hundred-year-old news.

Before I embark on my project let me note that the Hungarian social democrats, just like other social democratic parties all over Europe, forgot about their internationalism after the outbreak of the war and became enthusiastic supporters of the war effort. Thus no one should be surprised about Népszava‘s patriotism and its fierce attack on tsarist Russia. After all, Russia’s oppressive regime was one of the justifications for socialist support of the war effort.

I should also mention that by coincidence I happened to pick a day that is described by historians as the war’s “deadliest.” It was on August 22, 1914 near Ardennes and Charleroi that the French army lost 27,000 men. It was a much larger loss than the one the British suffered in the Battle of Somme, which is usually cited as the war’s worst. The Battle of the Ardennes lasted three days, between August 21 and 23. Keep in mind that the articles in Népszava, a morning paper, were most likely written the night before.

Népszava was a slim paper in those days, ten pages in all, but six of these were devoted to the war. Headlines: “The German army destroyed the French. The troops of the Monarchy advance in Russia. Revolution broke out in the empire of the hangman Tsar.”

The paper enthusiastically announces that the German advance this time is even swifter than it was during 1870-1871 and optimistically predicts that “the war will soon be over.” The first decisive battle has taken place. Although it was not on French territory, as was predicted, it was very close, only 12 kilometers from the border. “Brussels already belongs to the Germans”; this occupation was a magnificent military achievement. Liège is also in German hands.  “The German army will soon move all the way to the North Sea.”

The situation on the ground was not so rosy. Here are a few lines from a German soldier’s diary entry: “Nothing more terrible could be imagined…. We advanced much too fast–a civilian fired at us–he was immediately shot–we were ordered to attack the enemy flank in the forest beeches–we lost our direction–the men were done for–the enemy opened fire–shells came down on us like hail.”

Népszava, like the other papers, spends considerable time accusing the enemy of all sorts of beastly things. According to the paper, German soldiers write letters home in which they tell stories about the cruelty of the French toward prisoners of war. For example, “they cut both hands, poked the eyes out, and tore out the tongue” of a German prisoner.

After the Battle of Ardennes

After the Battle of Ardennes

On the Russian front the newspaper is unable to come up with such spectacular victories. The report simply says that “the Russians have been unable to cross the border of Bukovina,” which was  part of Austria-Hungary until 1918. As for the paper’s claim of a revolution in the Crimea, that might have been only wishful thinking on the part of the Hungarians because history books do not seem to know about it.

It is interesting to read about Russian-Ukrainian relations from the perspective of 1914. The paper points out that there are 30 million Ukrainians living in Russia who look upon this war as “a war of independence.” These oppressed Ukrainians are looking forward to the day when they can join their four million Ruthenian brethren who live in Austria-Hungary.

A Hungarian paper would naturally spend considerable time on the war next door, in Serbia. They relate stories coming from returning wounded soldiers and prisoners of war. According to a Hungarian lieutenant, the Hungarians “decimated” the Serbian forces. Those who were not killed escaped in the direction of Podgorica (in Montenegro) and Ada (Serbia). However, some soldiers climbed trees and kept shooting at the Hungarian troops. He claimed that the Serbs are cowardly and brutish soldiers who leave their own wounded men behind. The Serbs, according to the paper, don’t have too many fatalities, but they do have a lot of wounded soldiers. Two of them were brought to Budapest. They told the Hungarians that they did not want to join the army but their officers forced them with revolvers. These two also claimed that the army is tired, but the officers are trying to convince them to go on because the Russians will be coming momentarily.

A fair number of Serb prisoners of war arrived in Hungary already by late August.  The paper talks about 300 prisoners in Esztergom. Apparently another 3,000 were on their way, being transported by ship.

All in all, the usual war psychosis. The enemy is vile, cowardly, cruel while our side is brave and wonderful. Our victories are magnified, the enemy’s minimized. Hopes center around a Ukrainian uprising so they can join the Ukrainians living in the Monarchy. There is also speculation of a revolution in Russia. Much time is spent on the weariness, disillusionment, and hardships in the enemy country. This is especially the case when it comes to stories about Serbia.

Finally, something the journalists of Népszava did not know when they put the newspaper together. It was on August 22, 1914 that Austria-Hungary declared war on Belgium. A bit late, don’t you think?

István Tisza and the National Party of Work revived

On Monday, on the newly reconstructed Kossuth Square another old/new statue of István Tisza (1861-1918) was unveiled by Viktor Orbán. Few people were curious enough to stand in 40ºC (104ºF) heat to witness the great moment but Viktor Orbán, about half an hour later, delivered another ringing speech.

Tisza, who was prime minister of Hungary twice, once between 1903 and 1905 and again between 1913 and 1917) was not a popular man while he was alive. Already before he became prime minister, Endre Ady as a young newspaperman in Nagyvárad/Oradea, wrote an article in which he described Tisza as the most unpopular politician in Bihar/Bihor County. Tisza was assassinated on October 31, 1918 by roaming armed soldiers, and prior to that time there were three other attempts on his life. Ady, in one of his famous poems, called Tisza “the madman of Geszt,” Geszt being the center of the Tisza family’s landholdings in Bihar.

The Tisza statue that now graces Kossuth Square is a reproduction of the statue that was erected on April 22, 1934 and that was damaged during World War II. (The 5m tall István Tisza was not damaged, but his later “admirers” toppled it and not surprisingly the new regime after 1945 did not restore it.) The statue is monumental, and here the word “monumental” does not imply greatness. On the contrary, artistically speaking the general consensus is that it is a singularly worthless, if not outright hideous, work of overwhelming size–17 m tall with a huge lion on top. It is the work of  György Zala, who created the original Archangel Gabriel statue on Heroes’ Square.

The original statue / Source Magyar Hírlap

The original statue / Source: Magyar Hírlap

Since István Tisza was murdered on the very first day of the 1918 revolution, the “counterrevolutionaries” soon came to adulate him. István Deák, the well-known American-Hungarian historian, described him as “steadfast, cunning, intelligent, cautious, and tolerant if necessary, but just as often ruthless. A pessimist by temperament, he was nevertheless imbued with a fanatical belief in the divine mission of the nobility which, in his eyes, was identical with the nation.” Others have viewed him as a social reactionary who stubbornly opposed the breakup of the large landed estates as well as even the most modest reform proposals–for instance, one that would have granted suffrage to soldiers fighting at the front. At this time approximately 10% of the population was eligible to vote in Hungary as opposed to the Austrian part of the Monarchy where there was practically universal male suffrage.

Today István Tisza is regaining the popularity he enjoyed during the Horthy period. I discovered a hospital named after him, and there is an István Tisza Association whose members describe him as a great liberal. His admirers usually point out that he was the only politician of the Dual Monarchy who initially opposed the war. What they neglect to tell is that once he decided that the Monarchy must take part in the conflict, he became its strongest supporter until, in 1917, he announced in parliament: “Gentlemen, we have lost this war.”

Tisza Istvan2

And in living color today / Source: temesvarihirek.ro

So, let’s see what Viktor Orbán had to say about István Tisza and his “message” for our own age. (Politicians always discover messages sent from bygone days to the present!) Well, Tisza’s message seems to be that after a disastrous liberal period, Hungarians can now build a successful “national period” which has been prepared for by Viktor Orbán’s government in the last four years. The toppling of statues usually signals the end of a regime, while the erection of new statues signifies a regime’s beginning.

Orbán often finds a fleeting theme in the life of a historical figure and out of it creates an entire political philosophy for the man. In this case, it occurred to him that the name of the party István Tisza established might come in handy to help define his connection with Tisza. Tisza’s party was called the National Party of Work. As we know, one of Orbán’s favorite themes is that society should be based on work as opposed to financial speculation; moreover, he stands solidly on a national platform. He emphasized in his speech that a party that stands for work does not have to be communist or socialist, it can also be national. According to Orbán, Tisza knew and fought against liberalism and socialism in the name of the nation. Just as he himself had to rebuild the country after a disastrous liberal period.

Oh yes, those liberals and socialists. They gave the Hungarian political elite of Tisza’s time a lot of trouble, and today these “self-appointed democrats attack us in the name of some foggy notion of European identity.” But he can tell them what Tisza told his liberals and socialists. “We admit that we stand on a national basis. According to some super modern critics we are nationalists … and they talk about nationalist prejudices. We don’t care about the flourishing of mankind if it is not connected to the progress, flowering, greatness of the Hungarian nation.” Tisza explained that the destiny of the Hungarian nation was assured by taking over only certain “healthy buds of western culture” which were then stamped with the Hungarian national character and the special conditions existing in the Carpathian Basin.

As usual, Orbán’s speechwriters culled the writings of István Tisza to find the perfect quotations. But there is a serious problem with all that gazing at the past. Getting inspiration from a bygone day and quoting nationalistic speeches uttered a hundred years ago does not justify an anachronistic worldview. And it certainly does not justify an attempt to recreate a one-party system. As Freedom House correctly noted, another year of Viktor Orbán’s rule and Hungary will no longer be considered a democracy.

A one-party system is a one-party system quite independently of its ideology. Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, the Soviet Union, the countries of the Soviet bloc after World War II were all dictatorships of various degrees of harshness. Viktor Orbán is now building a “national” dictatorship and unveiling the appropriate statues to mark his new regime.

The siege of Budapest: Neo-Nazis remember the “breakthrough” of February 11, 1945

Every year around this time the Hungarian press is full of stories about far-right groups celebrating the “breakthrough” of German and Hungarian forces on February 11, 1945 from the city of Budapest, which was surrounded by Soviet troops on all sides.

If you can get hold of Krisztián Ungváry’s book entitled Budapest ostroma (1998), which was also translated into English (The Siege of Budapest) and German (Die Belagerung Budapest), by all means do so because it is a fascinating book and the story of the “breakthrough” is gripping. Here I will very briefly relate what happened.

The siege of Budapest, which lasted 64 days all told, was one of the bloodiest encounters of the war. Hitler forbade the German military to abandon the city or to try to escape before the total encirclement of Budapest took place. The German commander of the city was Karl Pfeffer-Wildenbruch, who was not brave enough to defy the Führer until it was too late.

Between December 24 and December 27 the Red Army managed to surround the Buda side of the city. The Soviets reached Pest in January and by January 17 they liberated the Pest ghetto. The siege of Buda started on January 20 and lasted until February 11. It was on that day that Pfeffer-Wilderbruch finally decided to try to break through the enemy lines.

Here are some figures to give you an idea of the desperate situation in which the German and Hungarian troops found themselves. On December 24, that is before the total encirclement, there were approximately 79,000 soldiers in the city. During the siege of Pest 22,000 were either captured or killed. In Buda the number of dead and captured was approximately 13,000 prior to February 11. On that fateful day there were only 43,900 soldiers left, and of that number 11,600 were wounded.

During the breakthrough attempt 19,200 soldiers died. Only 700 managed to join the Germans west of the Soviet line. Pfeffer-Wilderbruch, the German commander, was captured by the Soviets and in August 1949 was sentenced to 25 years of hard labor. After Stalin’s death, however, he was released to West Germany along with 10,000 other German prisoners of war. The Hungarian commander, Iván Hindy, was also captured and subsequently was sentenced to death by the Hungarian People’s Courts. In 1946 he was executed. A neo-Nazi Hungarian site, by the way, lists all those who were executed for war crimes by Hungarian courts in 1946.

So, this is the day Hungarian neo-Nazis remember every year in early February. This year, however, talk about the “breakthrough” began even earlier. In January someone discovered on a list of walking tours sponsored by the City of Budapest Kitörés 60,  a tour organized every year on the anniversary of the “breakthrough” during the weekend closest to February 11. Participants follow the route of those 700 individuals who managed to break through the Soviet lines. According to the information on their website, the walking tour is over 57 km, which participants must complete in 18 hours. Just to give you an idea of how popular this tour is, last year more than 1,000 people paid 2,000 forints each to participate. According to their Internet site, the walking tour is organized “every February in remembrance of those Hungarian and German soldiers who in World War II heroically defended Budapest and Western Europe from the Bolshevik Red Army.”

Participants are gathering for their yearly tour following the German and Hungarian troops "breakthrough" on February 11, 1944

Participants are gathering for their yearly walking tour following the route of the German and Hungarian troops’ “breakthrough” on February 11, 1945

“Kitörés 60” didn’t attract too much attention until now, although the walking tour has been held since 2005. If they hadn’t made the mistake of listing themselves together with other walking tours sponsored by the City of Budapest, most likely no one would have paid any attention to these neo-Nazi enthusiasts.

Another interesting bit of information came to light in connection with this walking tour. Zoltán Moys, son-in-law of Sándor Lezsák (Fidesz), deputy speaker of the Hungarian parliament, is the founder of a group called Börzsöny Akciócsoport which is behind the tours. Zoltán Moys has a company that produces television shows for the public, actually state, television stations MTV and Duna TV. He is behind such far-right programs as “Hagyaték (Inheritance) about which I wrote earlier. My post’s title was “Neo-Nazi/Jobbik programs on Duna TV: The Orbán government has no objection.” At that point I didn’t know that Lezsák’s own son-in-law was the producer of this unspeakable program where Sándor Szakály also makes frequent appearances. I place Lezsák at the very far right of the ideological spectrum of Fidesz; he would actually find himself much more at home in Jobbik.

This year some Hungarian neo-Nazis planned another, more modest celebration. The Budapest anti-Fascist group learned about it and went out to protest. The celebrants were supposed to have gathered on Clark Ádám tér at the Lánchíd. But the police, fearing a clash between the neo-Nazis and the anti-Fascists, closed off the square and with it the bridge from Pest to Buda. A lot of the participants managed to get to Buda only in a roundabout way. Eventually they gathered on Kapisztrán tér. They marched the short distance from Kapisztrán tér to Dísz tér and back to the tune of World War II German and Hungarian marches. Speeches at the gathering lauded the heroes who died “for Christian Europe.” Meanwhile the anti-Fascists gathered on Dózsa György tér and walked to the Castle district with a police escort. To keep the two groups away from each other the anti-Fascists were stopped in front of the German embassy.

Actually, if I were one of the members of the Budapest anti-Fascist group, I would be much more worried about the walking tour organized by the man who produces falsified accounts of Hungarian history from a far right perspective than the gathering of a few skinheads with swastikas tattooed on their necks. The neo-Nazi Zoltán Moys and his friends who produce programs for the state television stations are much more dangerous to Hungarian democracy than the few guys marching in military formation.