Can Europe Make It?

Hungary's Fidesz and its 'Jewish Question'

Hungary’s Fidesz government may not have pursued a state-sponsored policy of anti-Semitism. However, it has indulged in outrageous historical revisionism; failed to censure anti-Semitism from high within its own ranks; and screwed up its official commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust in Hungary.

Bernard Rorke
22 September 2014

Part of a memorial/protest by citizens of Budapest against the whitewashing of the role of Hungary in the Holocaust. Flickr/Karli Iskakova. Some rights reserved.

Six days after the October 15th Arrow Cross coup in 1944, the 60-year-old writer Ernõ Szép was dragged away for forced labour by Hungarian fascists from his ‘yellow star’ house in Budapest’s Pozsony utca. In his memoir The Smell of Humans, he recounts the fate of a fellow prisoner, a seventy-year-old former senior railway official, and a severe diabetic: 

“He had fainted, the doctor had not been able to revive him. The corporal, after putting two bullets in him, had kicked his body into a ditch. We marched on in silence … This was how a life was extinguished now: no announcement, no glass hearse with wreaths, no high-flown funeral orations, no family members in mourning, no old friends around to cast a lump of earth into your grave.” 

The house from which Szép was taken was one of almost 2000 apartment ‘yellow star’ buildings in the city. These buildings had been marked out by a mayoral decree in June 1944. Some 220,000 Jews were obliged to leave their own apartments by midnight June 21 and move into these designated buildings marked with “a six-pointed canary yellow star measuring 30 centimetres in diameter.” 

“Watching how Jews are being erased from the official Holocaust commemoration, we decided to provide an alternative,” said historian István Rév, who led Open Society Archives city-wide initiative that culminated in Yellow-Star Houses Remembrance Day on June 21, the seventieth anniversary of the forced mass relocation of Budapest Jews into the yellow-star houses. As Rév described it: 

“Budapest came alive with commemorative events planned and held by the people of this city. From this, we can all conclude that it is simply not enough to protest when the powers that be try to use, abuse and falsify the facts of our shared history for political ends. It is up to us to remember, to understand and to comprehend the past: this is our shared moral, civic and human duty. Our shared history, and thus this city, are ours.”

This was the largest public act of commemoration in a year otherwise fraught with controversy and conflict. Originally, the announcement by the government that 2014 would be marked by official commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust in Hungary was widely welcomed. By late 2013 concerns about the government’s actual intentions and motives were mounting; by January 2014 when the government declared its intent to erect a monument to commemorate all the victims of the German occupation in Budapest’s Szabadság Tér (Freedom Square), relations between government, and Jewish representatives and civil society had plummeted to an historic low.

A few months earlier it had all seemed more promising for Fidesz. In October, as part of an effort to dispel growing international perceptions that it was weak on combating anti-Semitism, Fidesz had hired a powerful New York public relations outfit to reach out to the Jewish community; pledged to make 2014 a year of Holocaust commemoration; and made a series of very public, high level admissions of state responsibility for the deportation of at least 450,000 Hungarian Jews to the Nazi death camps. 

At the conference Jewish life and anti-Semitism in Budapest in October, Deputy Prime Minister Tibor Navracsics stated that it was time for Hungarians to accept their responsibility for their role in the Holocaust. This was followed on January 24th by a declaration at the United Nations by Hungarian Ambassador Csaba Kőrősi: 

“We owe an apology to the victims because the Hungarian state was guilty for the Holocaust. Firstly because it failed to protect its citizens from destruction and secondly because it helped and provided financial resources to the mass murder.”

A couple of days later Hungarian President János Áder issued a statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day which spoke of the guilt of the collaborating state authorities in “the inhuman suffering, humiliation and death of close to half a million of our compatriots.”

All fine and unambiguous but more seasoned observers of Hungarian politics were not taken in by what some saw as high-profile theatrics. After all there were plenty of reasons why Fidesz needed to hire a heavyweight PR company ‘to reach out’ to Jewish communities in the first place, and plenty of occurrences where the smear of moral turpitude was such that many simply disbelieved Fidesz declarations of zero tolerance towards anti-Semitism. 

In October 2011, protests erupted at the news that Fidesz Budapest Mayor, István Tarlós had vetoed a 6-2 majority on a panel to force through the appointment of Jobbik supporter György Dörner as director of the city’s Új Színház (New Theatre). In his application he stated his intent to put an end to "degenerate, sick, liberal hegemony,” that “Hungarians will declare war on the liberal entertainment state, which has sunk to the brothel level”. He also stated that he intended to run the theatre together with Hungary’s best-known Nazi and anti-Semite, MIÉP leader István Csurka. As philosopher Ágnes Heller put it, “a theatre had been handed to the far right, and racists”. 

German conductor Christoph von Dohnányi cancelled a guest appearance at the State Opera, and the Academy of the Arts in Berlin sent a letter to Budapest to protest "the anti-Semitic views of the politician and author Csurka and the pro-fascist proximity to the Jobbik Party of theatre director Dörner." Tarlós brusquely dismissed the protest and replied that he would not tolerate the Berlin academy's "meddlesome" letter.

More recently, Human Resources Minister Zoltán Balog followed up an obtuse and offensive denial that Roma were deported from Hungary during WWII (it was the Austrians apparently!) with a warning to the Roma community not to focus on these wartime experiences in the way that the country’s Jewish population has focused on the Shoah, for fear that they too may end up displaying “signs of schizophrenia.” 

This was but the latest blunder from Balog who back in 2008 at the inauguration of a statue of Catholic bishop Ottokár Prohászka, described the bishop as someone who worked for the spiritual renewal of Christians in Hungary, and reminded those present of the need to defend that the Christian faith, for without it, “Hungarians will survive only in the biological sense." 

Prohászka, elsewhere described as the founder of modern anti-Semitism in Hungary, wrote in 1919 “that the Jews are eating us up and we have to defend ourselves against this bedbug epidemic … Here we are dealing with the rampage of a cunning, faithless, and immoral race, a bedbug invasion, a rat campaign. There is only one question: How do we defend ourselves?”

In 2009, as recently recounted in the Hungarian Free Press, Balog told visiting Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, that Hungarians “will not tolerate” that the sufferings of Jewish people are used to distract attention from “the difficult problems of our country.” Concerning Hungary’s responsibility for the mass deportations of Jews, Mr. Balog stated that the nation is constantly defending itself “against false accusations.”

In March 2013, Balog handed out government awards in “recognition of and gratitude to those who represent the best of the nation.” The prizes went to individuals described by Eva Balogh in Hungarian Spectrum as “either racist, antisemitic neo-Nazis or representatives of unscientific, bogus ‘scholarship’.” The Táncsics Prize, the highest award for journalism went to the raving anti-Semite Ferenc Szaniszló. Balog also presented an award to the guitar player of neo-Nazi band Kárpátia, which composed the official anthem of the Hungarian Guard. In the furore that followed Balog claimed that he simply got the list, gave out the prizes and knew nothing of the credentials of the recipients. This, to put it politely, was difficult for many to credit.

In July 2012, on the occasion of Israel’s commemoration of the centenary of the birth of Raoul Wallenberg, Haaretz ran an article headlined “Israel has a tough time finding a Hungarian leader not identified with anti-Semites.” The Knesset withdrew its invitation to Fidesz speaker of Parliament Laszlo Kövér, over his attendance at a ceremony in honour of Hungarian Arrow Cross fascist writer, Josef Nyirő. In Kövér’s place, Hungary decided to send its newly elected president, Janos Áder. But according to Haaretz: “Áder also expressed support for a controversial figure from the Holocaust, Albert Wass, a nationalistic anti-Semitic writer found guilty of murdering Jews.” In 2008, Áder unveiled a statue of the popular author, and spoke in praise of Wass. 

Nyirő and Wass were two of three interwar fascist authors the government recommended for inclusion in the National Curriculum. Dezső Szabó was the third. Dezső Szabó was nothing if not clear on the Jewish question: “Jews are the most serious and the most deadly enemy of Hungarians; in 1921 he declared Judaism “a tribal superstition exalted as a religion,” and concluded that “in the interest of human progress, the barbarian, murderous memories of dark, primeval centuries must be exterminated.” In response to protests in June 2012 from Jewish groups, education state secretary Rozsa Hoffmann rejected the organisations’ concerns as ill-founded because these authors were ‘optional’ rather than compulsory within the curriculum. 

Zsolt Bayer, author of many a racist and anti-Semitic tract remains close to both Kövér and Orbán. Bayer memorably wrote of "a stinking excrement called something like Cohen from somewhere in England,” and expressed his regret that “they were not all buried up to their necks in the forest of Orgovány (a reference to massacres of Jews in the White Terror of 1919-20).” One of the founding members of Fidesz, Bayer is one of the main organisers of pro-government ‘Peace Marches’. Orbán has on more than one occasion expressed his gratitude for the physical expressions of support by these tens of thousands of ‘national-minded’ marchers on their torch-lit processions. Orbán has never publicly repudiated Bayer for his racist and anti-Semitic diatribes. Köver publicly pledged his undying friendship at Bayer’s 50th birthday party.

Paul A. Shapiro testifying in Washington to the US Commission for Security and Cooperation in Europe on March 2013, condemned “the incremental rehabilitation” underway for political figures who aligned the country with Adolf Hitler, and that their legacy can be labeled “controversial” by Fidesz representatives. He was moved to describe the prospect of Hungary assuming the chair of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance in 2015, as “inappropriate and an insult to the living and desecration of the memory of the dead.”

His verdict turned out to be more prescient than could have been imagined. In July 2013, the Orbán government announced that Mária Schmidt, the controversial right-wing director of the House of Terror, would be in charge of the construction of a museum called “House of Fates” to commemorate child victims of the Holocaust. Reputable historians and Jewish community leaders were dismayed that such a crude ideologue with a track record of relativizing the Holocaust to foreground the crimes of Communism, would be in charge of such a project.

On 31 December Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjen, commissioned a memorial to “all the victims of the 19 March 1944 German invasion of Hungary”, to be erected in Budapest’s Szabadság Tér (Freedom Square) a stone’s throw from the statue of Horthy commissioned by the neo-fascist Jobbik. According to Hungary’s new constitution, that day marked the end of Hungary’s national sovereignty until free, multi-party elections were held in 1990.

On 2 January, the Orbán government inaugurated a new historical institute named VERITAS, whose purpose was “to strengthen national awareness.” To carry out this “historically important patriotic task,” the institute was placed under the leadership of Dr. Sándor Szakály, who soon after publicly described the 1941 round-up and deportation of 18,000 Jews, most of whom were subsequently murdered near Kamenets-Podolsk, as nothing more than a police action against illegal aliens.

On 26 January, in an open letter, the historian Randolph L Braham returned a high state award to Hungary, in protest at the ‘brazen attempt to falsify history’ and exonerate the country from its role in the Holocaust: “As a survivor whose parents and many family members were among the hundreds of thousands of murdered Jews, cannot remain silent, especially since it was my destiny to work on the preservation of the historical record of the Holocaust.”

For Braham ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’ was the plan to erect the memorial which he described as "a cowardly attempt to detract attention from the Horthy regime's involvement in the destruction of the Jews and to homogenize the Holocaust with the 'suffering' of the Hungarians - a German occupation, as the record clearly shows, was not only unopposed but generally applauded.”

While protest mounted from abroad, Jewish organisations inside Hungary turned up the volume of dissent. In mid-January Mazsihisz (Association of the Jewish Communities of Hungary), president Andras Heisler announced that Jewish organizations would not cooperate with the government on the Holocaust anniversary events if the erection of the Freedom square memorial went ahead. The 16 organisations also called for the dismissal of Sandor Szakaly; and stipulated that the “House of Fates” examine the events leading up to the Holocaust and the Hungarian government’s complicity in those events.

Fidesz reactions to such impudence from civil society were very telling. I was present at a conference in late January where a senior Fidesz official in an ‘off the record’ briefing expressed his exasperation at “the almost Pavlovian reactions of Jewish organisations when anyone challenges the uniqueness of the Holocaust.” János Lázár, the controversial state secretary of the prime minister’s office, accused Jewish leaders of wrecking the government’s plans for the Holocaust commemoration and of “fomenting discord between Hungarians and Jews who have lived in unity and symbiosis for centuries.”

In the context of the dispute this particular ‘symbiotic’ revisionist aside was simply baffling in its audacity. (Lázár is another senior Fidesz figure with a soft spot for Albert Wass: in 2010 as mayor of Hódmezővásárhely, he unveiled a statue honouring the anti-semitic writer and war criminal). 

Orbán’s favoured ideologue and curator Mária Schmidt went even further, launching a bitter attack on the cosmopolitan, internationalist left-liberal elite “who would still like to prescribe whom we can mourn and whom we can’t, for whom we can shed a tear and for whom we cant.” She called them well-compensated servants of foreign interests obsessed with “the favoured topics of the empires (Holocaust, racism, Roma issues, homosexual marriage, etc.).” She accused them of scorning as suspicious and provincial, everything connected to the ‘national, concretely Hungarian interest’: “And so, because they act as if our national mourning can have no palliative effect on tragedies past, they exclude themselves from our national community.”

As for the international community, the move by Orbán’s government in July to appoint the unabashed anti-Semite Péter Szentmihályi Szabó as its new ambassador to Rome, was simply baffling in terms of sheer effrontery. 

In the wake of international protests, Szentmihályi Szabó, on record as referring to Hungary’s Jews as being “agents of Satan,” later declared he was no longer interested in the diplomatic posting. As the Hungarian Free Press noted: “In his brief statement, Szentmihályi never apologized for his earlier antisemitic hate speech, nor did the Orbán government’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Tibor Navracsics, explain why it attempted to appoint a rabid anti-Semite who spoke absolutely no Italian and had little experience in foreign affairs as ambassador to Italy.” Commenting on this nasty farce, World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder suggested that such decisions do “not inspire confidence that the Orbán government means business when it says it will fight anti-Semitism.”

In its condemnation of the brazen drive to falsify history, the Simon Wiesenthal Center declared that Hungary must choose whether it‘s committed to remembrance of the Holocaust or to the distortion of the Holocaust: “it cannot have it both ways.” The blunt fact is that as things stand for Fidesz - Yes it can. 

 For hubris knows no bounds, this regime is unbothered by inconsistencies; untroubled by ‘liberal’ qualms of conscience; and indifferent to international opinion. Prime Minister Orbán has made it quite clear that “one must not overrate the so-called common European values,” that only the national interest matters in his quest to build an illiberal workfare state, founded on Christian values. Criticism from civil society is deemed illegitimate, for according to Orbán, the NGO community is comprised of paid political activists attempting to promote foreign interests. This is a gravely distorted notion of what constitutes the national interest, where any critic of government policy is by definition an enemy of the nation, and as a consequence irrationality abounds.

 It would be inaccurate, simply wrong, to accuse Fidesz of pursuing a state-sponsored policy of anti-Semitism. Fidesz spokesmen repudiate such charges and point to the occasions where Orbán and some of his ministers have unequivocally condemned anti-Semitism. But it is clear that in a country where such a significant percentage of the population is overtly anti-Semitic, this populist-authoritarian government has no qualms about pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable; no qualms about failing to censure anti-Semitism from within its own ranks; and in pursuit of its Christian-national vision of Hungary, no qualms about engaging in what its critics have branded brazen historical revisionism. 

Back in 1944, at the mercy of his Arrow Cross captors, Szép Ernö wrote of the sheer stupidity of anti-Semitism, more offensive than the physical brutality was the one meted out to one’s intelligence

“To have to swallow this thick spate of idiocy, to breathe this filthy smog instead of clean air; all these lies, all these stupefying inanities. To look on helplessly at the mental degradation of this country blessed with such human resources and talent, to witness this atrophy of reason, spirit, humour. What explanation for otherwise intelligent people believing these wild inanities? When would we ever recover from the damage done to the mind and soul of this nation?”

The answer on this 70th anniversary year of the Holocaust in Hungary is sadly, not for some time yet.

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