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East European Perspectives: May 12, 2004

12 May 2004, Volume 6, Number 10


By Michael Shafir

A short 14 years have passed since "annus mirabilis" 1989. Many things seemed to justify that designation (Ash, 1999, p.156). Among its wonders one counted what Rudolf Tokes would eventually coin as Hungary's "negotiated revolution" (Tokes, 1996). Miklos Haraszti, one of the participants in the erosion of the former regime's power, called this wonder "the handshake tradition" (Haraszti, 2000, p. 273) born out of the outcome of the 13 June-18 September 1989 National Roundtable (see Tokes, 1996, pp. 304-360). While describing the tradition as the first "consensus-seeking Hungarian history," 10 years later Haraszti was wondering how long it would last. His concern seemed to indicate that the "tradition" was no tradition at all; for if there is something that "traditions" are associated with, it is longevity. Four more years having passed since, Hungary might nowadays successfully compete for the title of Europe's "Miss Political Polarization." A "dialogue of the deaf" occasionally accompanied by street scuffling and mutual incrimination threatens to plunge the country way back into what is more and more resembling the turn of last century's cleavages.

Nothing illustrates better the current deep divisions than the politics of "public space." Public space is a meaningful mirror of political competition. It is, as Romanian historian Andrei Pippidi writes, "symbolic history" at work (Pippidi, 2000). As such, symbolic history is always entangled in the separate, but nonetheless, associate process of a "clash of memories." Budapest has been recently the scene of three significant such clashes.

1. Who Remembers What?
On 13 February, politicians representing the ruling coalition of the Socialist Party (MSZP) and the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ) marked at the Buda Castle the 59th anniversary of the liberation from Nazi rule in a ceremony boycotted by the main opposition party Alliance of Young Democrats-Hungarian Civic Party (FIDESZ-MPP). The day before, FIDESZ had stayed away from a ceremony at which Culture Minister Istvan Hiller and Defense Ministry Political State Secretary Imre Ivancsik, accompanied by Budapest Deputy Mayor Janos Schiffer and Israeli Ambassador to Hungary Judit Varnai Shorer laid a wreath at the 13th district memorial to the victims of World War II and the martyrs of the Nazi occupation of Hungary and the Arrow Cross.

A FIDESZ representative on the Budapest city council, Andras Kupper, said his party was "outraged that this terrible event...should be remembered as [the capital's] liberation." He stressed that "during the Soviet occupation, tens of thousands of innocent Hungarians were robbed, raped, executed, and deported." Schiffer, however, countered that "13 February 1945, was a day of liberation for all those who were not shot dead, who were not deported to Auschwitz, who, surviving the horrors of wars, came out from the basements of their destroyed building." He did not, of course, miss the opportunity to add that Kupper apparently sided "with those who should have been brought to justice for their war crimes."

In turn, in a speech delivered at Buda Castle, Foreign Minister and MSZP Chairman Laszlo Kovacs said that divisions in Hungarian politics along a democratic right and a communism-tainted left were no longer relevant, and that the genuine dividing line now ran between political forces committed to democracy and those threatening it. He was apparently responding to a FIDESZ-initiated move in the European People's Party (EPP) to isolate from politics people with a communist past like Kovacs's own. Finally, the SZDSZ representative at the Buda Castle ceremony, deputy Imre Mecs, used the opportunity to call on Hungary to face its own past. Germany, he went on to explain, has not been afraid to do so, and though the experience had been painful, that country is now a model democracy ("Magyar Hirlap," "Nepszabadsag," "Magyar Nemzet," 13, 14, and 24 February 2004; "Nepszava," 13 and 14 February, and AFP, 14 February 2004).

On 14 February, in a "counter-commemoration," about 800 members and sympathizers of the neo-Nazi Blood and Honor Association held in Budapest's main Heroes Square a memorial ceremony in honor of those who lost their lives in the failed attempt by German and Hungarian soldiers to break out of Buda Castle in the face of the Soviet attack. At a makeshift monument formed by a cross with a military helmet placed on it, they attacked both the governing party and FIDESZ. The latter party's National Council Chairman Laszlo Kover had indeed called on the government to prevent the demonstration, claiming that the coalition intended to allow the event in order to discredit the FIDESZ-organized right-wing "civic ['polgari'] groups" in case disturbances break out ("Magyar Hirlap" and "Magyar Nemzet," 12 February 2004). The demonstrators in Heroes Square pledged to be "soldiers of honor" worthy of the tradition of the Hungarian Royal Armed Forces, the German Wehrmacht, and the Waffen SS. Led by Blood and Honor Executive Chairman Janos Endre Domokos, participants in the counterceremony later took flowers to the site where Arrow Cross leader Ferenc Szalasi is believed to be buried ("Magyar Hirlap," "Nepszabadsag," "Magyar Nemzet," "Nepszava," and AP, 14 February 2004).

Finally, a third symbolic history clash over public space focused on the controversial figure of former Prime Minister Pal Teleki. The erection of a statue honoring Teleki's memory had been commissioned by pro-FIDESZ associations and civic groups and had been approved by the Budapest city council in January. The unveiling ceremony was slated for 3 April. In the wake of protests from the Alliance of Hungarian Jewish Religious Communities (MAZSIHISZ), which considered the Teleki statue to be a symbol of "institutional, nationalistic anti-Semitism," and from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the council first suspended, and later rescinded the authorization. Hungarian Jews felt that a statue honoring the man who, in his first stint (1920-21) as Miklos Horthy's prime minister, introduced the 22 September 1920 "numerus clausus" law in universities -- the first such law to be introduced in Europe, see Lendvai, 1999, p. 395 -- was a slap in the face. Under Teleki's second (1939-41) term, previously enacted, relatively mild legislation on who was to be considered Jewish was replaced by a much harsher law stipulating that anyone with one parent born into the Jewish faith was to be considered a Jew (Janos, 1982, p. 302). Teleki was apparently also involved in the drafting of the "First Jewish Law," under the 1938-39 radical-right government of Kalman Daranyi -- this time establishing quotas for Jews allowed to practice business and the liberal professions.

For most Hungarians, however, Teleki's 1939-41 premiership is rather associated with the short-lived recuperation of northern Transylvania under the 1940 Second Vienna Award, with the attempt to steer a middle course between conservatives and radical-right politicians at home, and to balance a pro-German with a pro-British orientation in foreign affairs. Indeed, Teleki committed suicide rather than face the choice of attacking neighboring Yugoslavia as a German ally or resisting a German invasion (Janos, 1982, pp. XXXV, 300, 307).

While still the country's prime minister, Viktor Orban said on 27 December 2000 that he considered Teleki to be his model politician. His visions, the former prime minister said, are far more helpful for contemporary Hungary than "other fashionable ideas." Like Teleki, who had pursued a policy of revision of the Trianon-imposed borders, "our starting point must be our own national self-interest," and that concept "is not an abstract category, but the common interests of the entire Hungarian nation," Orban said (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 December 2000). In the eyes of incumbent Socialist Culture Minister Istvan Hiller, however, Teleki's responsibility for the discriminatory laws overrode any consideration for the late prime minister's antiwar stances. "We do not want to have a [Teleki] statue in Buda Castle, especially not on the 60th anniversary of the Holocaust," Hiller said in parliament.

I believe the three incidents encapsulate much -- alas, too much -- of what Hungarian politics is currently about. They speak volumes about the abundance of what Timothy Garton Ash describes as "residual" mutual perceptions in postcommunist Gentile-Jewish relations (Ash, 2002, p. 41); they illustrate the mutual anathematizing of political rivals; they show that words are used both with the purpose of preempting perceived threats and demonizing adversaries; and they constitute one more proof that pessimists (among whom I count myself) are right when they believe that there is always room for worse. All three incidents are also illustrative, each in its own way, of the political instrumentalization of the Holocaust. Indeed, a closer look at the pronouncements cited above demonstrates that none of the three groups (the Socialist-Liberals, the conservatives, and the far right) is really innocent of the attempt.

Symbols are about the past but are for the present. And I have yet to run into any book or article that is written with a readership of the past in mind. Viewed from this perspective, the "public space" and the "public discourse" form a single, albeit entangled, dimension. In analyzing anti-Semitic aspects in Hungary's postcommunist political discourse, the Hungarian sociologist Andras Kovacs perceives that discourse as being largely a reflection of attempts at "creating an identity on a symbolic level" by different political parties and currents (Kovacs, forthcoming). I shall eventually return to this highly significant concept. For the moment, suffice it to point out that the process of forging political identities encompasses both disputes about symbolic public space and disputes on the implications of overt or encoded public discourse. Are we to treat those symbols in a postmodernist manner where "anything goes"?

Let me illustrate this dilemma with but one example. One can, as George Schopflin does when he analyses "commemoration," see in it a process, a "ritualized" recalling of what societies stand for. "A society without memory is blind to its own present and future, because it lacks a moral framework into which to place its experiences," he writes (Schopflin, 2000, p. 74). There is on its face little to argue against that perception. No polity can function without -- to use Benedict Anderson's terminology -- a positive "imagined community" to which reference can be made (Anderson, 1991). The symbolic aspect of memorials and commemorations is even more pronounced in societies whose national identity is fragile, and whose future is uncertain. The distortion (but not obliteration!) of national symbols in East-Central Europe under the communist regimes and the search for either new or renewed "symbols" in the wake of regime change made Jacques Rupnik (1992/1993:4) note that "demolition of [communist] statues, restoration of former denomination to streets, are but the exterior aspects of the search for a 'usable past,' whose force is proportional to the fragility of national identity and uncertainty in face of the future." Viewed from this angle, the intent to erect a statue to Teleki is perfectly comprehensible.

But one cannot ignore the other side of the coin, and that side is particularly strong in societies that left behind one past but are uncertain of what it should replace it with and who should be chosen to symbolize it. Which past is deemed as worthy to be "used" or "re-used"? Schopflin notes: "It is very difficult for one community to look with nothing worse than indifference at the commemoration pursued by another. Yet if we are all to survive in the European tradition that I believe is our heritage, living in diversity is a sine qua non." This, he adds, is difficult at moments, but "if we have the confidence in ourselves, in our values, then the commemorations of the others need not be seen as offensive." His advice is particularly directed at national minorities, which are told that "majorities have the same rights to cultural reproduction as minorities and those rights should be respected" (Schopflin, 2000, pp. 77-78). The question arises, however, whether cultural reproduction entrenched on the commemoration of those who denied, or contributed to the eventual denial of BIOLOGICAL reproduction of others may not be off the line of what Schopflin calls the "European tradition." There is, it seems, no end to subjectivity.

I shall therefore subjectively divide this study into three chronological parts. In the first part, I deal with the "hows" and the "whys" of handling the legacy of the interwar era and that of the Holocaust under Hungary's first postcommunist government of Joszef Antall (Since there is no significant discontinuity between the cabinet headed by Antall and the short-lived cabinet lead by his successor Peter Boross, I choose to discuss policies towards the legacy of the Holocaust as being part of a single unity). In the second part I attempt to understand the reason for the transformation underwent by Viktor Orban from a grassroots, liberal, anticommunist rebel into a conservative politician. The third and last part of this study deals with the policies of right-wing "inclusion" pursued by Orban and its impact on handling the legacy of the Holocaust. As the reader would undoubtedly note, I am leaving out the 1994-98 first MSZP-SZDSZ coalition, but I shall refer to its impact whenever I consider that impact important.

Next to a government by generals, there might be no group of people less fit to govern than historians. The cabinet led by Joszef Antall between May 1990 and his death in office on 12 December 1993 had three of them, all in key positions: the prime minister himself, Foreign Minister Geza Jeszenszky, and Defense Minister Lajos Fur. I am not claiming, of course, that a late-20th-century defense minister whose background is farming would opt for cavalry as the backbone of his country's military force just because he knows horses best. But repeated statements of the three politicians during their term of office demonstrate that their main frame of reference was past-, rather than future-oriented. And when in Hungary one says "past," one has said "Trianon" -- the national trauma of several generations of Hungarian politicians and intellectuals.

Catapulted to the head of the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) rather unexpectedly after the resignation of Zoltan Biro in October 1989, Antall's background should have predicted his performance in office. Never a dissident under the communist regime, he came from a traditional Hungarian family and in numerous interviews after becoming prime minister Antall would emphasize his commitment to public service, Christian values, moral rectitude, and democracy (Tokes, 1996, pp. 365-366). His father served as a civil servant in Hungary's wartime government and was commissioner for refugees from 1939 to April 1944, when he was arrested by the Gestapo for having rendered assistance to Hungarian and Polish Jews (Tokes, 1996, p. 365). Joszef Antall Sr., who died in 1970, would eventually be conferred the title of "Righteous of Nations" by Israel's Yad Vashem (Deak, 1994, p. 119). Though theoretically possible, to assume that Prime Minister Antall was an anti-Semite or oblivious to the suffering of the Jews during the Holocaust is therefore a far-fetched proposition.

Antall's education and his family socialization had made him into an (albeit closet) anticommunist and, above all, into a nationalist (Antall Sr. was a member of the Independent Smallholders' Party [FKGP] and was elected to parliament during the short spell of post-World War II democracy). His famous 13 August 1990 statement that he perceives himself as being the prime minister of not only 10 million Hungarians, but as the prime minister "in spirit" of 15 million Magyars -- that is to say the leader of ethnic Hungarians beyond the Trianon borders as well -- speaks for itself (MTI, 13 August 1990). To the extent that the Holocaust was to play any part in the postcommunist task of nation rebuilding, for Antall it was consequently one that would emphasize the role played by people like his father, rather than that played by Holocaust perpetrators and by collaboration with the Nazis (Karsai, 1999, p. 139).

Much of the same applies to Jeszenszky and Fur. Addressing a largely Jewish audience on Holocaust Day 1994, Jeszenszky -- by now no longer foreign minister -- remarked that apart from having over half a million Holocaust victims, Hungary had also given refuge to Jews. According to Jeszenszky, Hungary also had a traumatic, Holocaust-like experience in the 1921 Trianon Treaty, which tore apart large segments of the Hungarian nation from motherland (cited in Kovacs, forthcoming). The statement is an emblematic exemplification of what may be termed --following U.S. historian Peter Gay's terminology -- as "comparative trivialization," though when making it Jeszenszky was obviously not intentionally trivializing (on "Holocaust trivialization" see Shafir, 2002a, pp. 60-75 and 2002b, pp. 105-132).

As for Fur, who acquired a rather unenviable reputation for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time when it came to Hungary's neighbors, it seemed that most of his ideas were drawn straight from Johann Gottfried Herder. In February 1992 he told an audience in Miskolc that "the concept of the Hungarian nation in the Carpathian Basin is not limited to the citizens of the Hungarian Republic." A "Hungarian nation in Europe," he said, must mean "a Hungarian-speaking united nation." Consequently, "to defend national security in the Carpathian Basin is inseparable from the defense of the whole Hungarian nation." Hungarian state institutions, he said, were duty-bound "to do their best to stop the endangering of the Hungarian minorities outside the Hungarian borders" (cited in Berend, 1993, p. 122). His deputy, Erno Raffay, headed an MDF committee tasked with restoring the so-called Irredenta statue, erected under the regime of Admiral Miklos Horthy and symbolizing the territories torn from the "mother country" by the Trianon Treaty (Berend, 1993, p. 123).

Not one, but three Trianon statues would eventually be restored and put in place under the rule of Prime Minister Orban. The first was unveiled in June 2000 in Zebegeny, some 40 kilometers north of Budapest, in a ceremony attended by FKGP Chairman and Agriculture Minister Joszef Torgyan; on the same day, at a ceremony attended by FIDESZ Deputy Chairman Lajos Kosa in Debrecen, the "Hungarian Suffering" statue, erected in 1933 and pulled down by the communists in 1945, was restored to its place after having been recently discovered in a basement (AP, 4 June 2000). Finally, in August 2001, in the presence of Defense Minister Istvan Simicsko, a 10.5-meter-high "Trianon Memorial" erected in 1934, was restored to its place in Nagykanizsa, close to the Croatian border; in 1952, the communist government had ordered it taken down, dismantled, and buried, but as part of the "Hungarian Millennium" ceremonies the statue was unearthed and cleaned at a cost of 53 million forints ($185,000 at the then-exchange rate) covered by governmental funds ("RFE/RL Newsline," 9 August 2001; AP, 12 August 2001; "Magyar Hirlap," "Nepszabadsag," "Magyar Nemzet," 13 August 2001).

Against this background, one may start understanding that the legacy of the Holocaust in postcommunist Hungary is in part a function of a "clash of memories." And not only the legacy of the Holocaust, but also that of communism, as we shall eventually observe. Is this manipulation? Yes, it is. But to the same extent, it is also self-manipulation. One chooses to "remember" one's own heroes and one's own traumas (that is to say, to represent history for one's own community) not for the sake of deliberately dismissing the traumas suffered by the other, but for enhancing the cohesiveness of one's own kin.

* This is an abridged version of the paper "Hungarian Politics and the Legacy of the Holocaust Since 1989" presented at the 16-18 March 2004 symposium "The Holocaust in Hungary: Sixty Years Later," Washington, DC, The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and is reproduced here with the museum's permission.


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