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East European Perspectives: May 26, 2004

26 May 2004, Volume 6, Number 11


By Michael Shafir

2. Identity Creation on a Symbolic Level in the Joszef Antall Era

But "kin" can mean many different things. It can mean relatives and it can mean folk; it can mean the nation-state within its current borders or the nation including diasporas for whom Hungary is the kin-state; and it can also mean "Volk" in its Germanic sense of a an organic community of past, present, and future generations based on "Blut und Boden" (Blood and Soil). No evidence I am aware of places Antall in the last category.

There is plenty of evidence, on the other hand, to place him and his government in the category of "kin-statesmanship." I believe that this was the main, though not necessarily the only, motivation that determined Antall to allow Admiral Horthy's reburial in September 1993 and to refer to him shortly before as a "Hungarian patriot," who "should be placed in the community of the nation and the awareness of the people" (cited in Braham, 1993, p. 140). Ministers in Antall's government attended the funeral and Antall himself visited the grave shortly before his death. At that time (indeed, already when appointed prime minister, see Tokes, 1996, p. 403), Antall was conscious of his terminal illness. Horthy's reinterment was modeled on the 1906 reburial of Ferencz Rakoczi, and would later serve as model for Antall's own funeral (Verdery, 1999, pp. 16-17). Whether Istvan Rev (cited in Verdery, 1999, p.133) is right or not in interpreting the similarity of the Horthy and Antall funeral processions as implying the elimination of the epoch that had parted Horthy from Antall, I would not venture to guess.

Intentions aside, this was bound to lead to the "clash of memories" I mentioned above. Let me emphasize that we do not deal here with Horthy's complex relationship and attitudes towards the Jews, but with "who remembers whom and why" and with "who remembers what and why." Istvan Deak, who has extensively written on him, calls Horthy "neither a fascist nor a liberal." The regent, he writes, "was not a monster, but he was not a humanitarian either. He was no democrat, but never tried to be a dictator. He claimed to have been a lifelong anti-Semite; still, under his reign and despite the deportations, more Jews survived the Nazi terror, in sheer numbers, than in any other country within Hitler's Europe, except perhaps Romania" (Deak, 2000, pp. 55-56).

Yet for many Jews Horthy remains the head of a state that sent to the death chambers at least 550,000 of its citizens (Braham, 2001, p.198), most of whom perished before he was deposed by the Nazis in October 1944. Of those, some 430,000 were exterminated at Auschwitz after the mass deportations carried out between 15 May and 7 July 1944. The deportations took place under the Nazi occupation, following the dismissal of the Miklos Kallay government and its replacement by the cabinet headed by pro-Nazi General Dome Sztojay. At that time, Horthy was still head of state (he was deposed, arrested, and sent into exile in October), and hence cannot be fully exonerated of responsibility. Yet most Budapest Jewish survivors owe their lives to Horthy's having stopped the deportations (Karsai, 2000, p. 234).

In the memoirs written in his Portuguese exile (where he died in 1957), Horthy would claim that he could do nothing to halt the deportations -- personally supervised by Adolf Eichmann -- and that he was not informed of what expected the Jews at the end of their destination. As Deak observes, Horthy "might have been right, at least initially, about his powerlessness, but as for the rest, he was lying." The regent "had been informed about Auschwitz very early in the game, but preferred to ignore it." Deak ventures the plausible explanation that Horthy's indifference might have stemmed from his lack of "compassion for the Jews of the countryside, whom he considered unassimilated and of little value." Not so the largely assimilated community of Budapest Jews: "When their turn came, in June-July 1944, he took military measures to oppose the gendarmes who -- he feared -- were also planning a coup d'etat against him" (2000, p. 54).

Neither the anti-Jewish legislation passed during Horthy's long regency, nor the fact that approximately 64,000 Jews had lost their lives in Greater Hungary before the Germans invaded the country in March 1944 (Braham, 2001, p. 199) is, or can be, ignored by "Jewish memory." The loss of life of between 40,000 and 45,000 so-called "labor servicemen" drafted into the military and sent to the eastern front, the killing of "alien" Jews deported to Kamenets-Podolski in Galicia in 1941, and the massacres in and around Ujvidek (Novi Sad) in 1942 cannot be laid at the door of the Germans (Braham, 2001, pp. 213-14, 218n; Karsai, 2000, p. 234).

These developments triggered among some segments of postcommunist Hungarian Jewry what might be termed as a "Sartrerian reaction," for it was Jean-Paul Sartre's famous -- if often contested -- thesis that Jewish identity-consciousness owes its existence to anti-Semites. According to Andras Kovacs:
There are many Jews in Hungary who consider themselves Jewish only when faced with antisemitism. They feel that the boundaries separating them from others are externally defined. This defines Jewish identity as a stigma that infiltrates their thinking and behavior. Stigmatized individuals -- even if they think that their stigmatization has no real foundations -- try to develop behavior patterns and communicational rules that make it easier to live with the stigma. As a result, they also draw, often involuntarily, boundaries between their own group and others. They are afraid -- and in this respect, it is unimportant whether with good reason or not -- of social conflicts, political phenomena and rhetoric that do not invoke fear in others at all. They use different behavior and communicational strategies and assign different meaning to certain gestures, words and behavior within the group and outside it. However, it is easy for both members of the group and outsiders to identify this behavior developed to help coping with the stigma (Kovacs, 1999, pp. 111-112).

This Sartrerian reaction was not merely a matter of some mistaken de-codification of the real significance of Antall's message. The message had good reasons to be perceived as it was, for it took Antall far too long to disassociate himself from the populists in the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) and for the waters to be shed. The official split was repeatedly postponed and finalized only in June 1993, when the MDF's National Steering Committee voted to expel the populists' leader, Istvan Csurka, from the party. Antall had opted to close both eyes and ears to Csurka and his associates' mounting attacks on his -- for their taste -- far too moderate policies towards national minorities at home and in support of Hungarian ethnic minorities abroad. Not before the growing Hungarian extremism came to be debated in the U.S. Congress did the prime minister decide to act (Berend, 1993, p.132).

Unlike the Antall wing of the MDF, the Csurka-led Hungarian Justice and Life Party (MIEP) is glued into the organic community-type of kinship. From the start it obviously sought historical association with the radical-right Movement of Hungarian Life (MEM) led by Bela Imredy, and its successor party, the Hungarian Party of Life (MEP) headed by Teleki (Janos, 1982, pp. 292-293). But these two figures do not exhaust Csurka's "models" from interwar Hungarian politics. The playwright-turned-politician became notorious in the West for an article published in August 1992 in the MDF weekly "Magyar Forum." As Jim F. Brown would comment, Csurka's terminology in that tract was, "if not vintage Ferenc least vintage Gyula Gombos." Gombos had once been a member of the Party for the Protection of the Race, established in 1923 by Tibor Eckhardt and Endre Zsilinszky, and later headed a secret group called the Hungarian Scientific Race Protection Society (Brown, 1994, p. 88; Janos, 1982, p. 225). "Setting the Record Straight" -- the article's title -- combined anti-Semitic paranoia and conspiracy theories with the usage of the Hungarian equivalent of "living space" ("eletter") and with racist jargon geared at the Roma (Brown, 1992).

Two weeks later, "Magyar Forum" published an article authored by MDF presidium member Gyula Zacsek, under the telling title "Termites are Devouring the Nation." As Berend (1993, p. 132) shows, the article was but "a Nazi-type attack against the Jewish-cosmopolitan conspiracy led by George Soros, the Jewish Hungarian-born American multi-millionaire and philanthropist who helped the 'cosmopolitan' (meaning Jewish) communists to preserve their power by giving it over to the 'cosmopolitan' dissidents."

The target was not diffuse in the least. As early as 1990, Sandor Csoori, a poet and essayist belonging to the populist stream, sounded the trumpet of what would eventually become a rather commonplace reference among the adversaries of the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ), a formation grouping many former anticommunist dissidents associated with the underground publication "Beszelo." The adversity was a classic revival of the populist-urbanist ideological division that cuts through modernizing Hungary's history. The SZDSZ would eventually be referred to as the "ZSDSZ," meaning "Jewish Free Democrats," for indeed many of these former dissidents were scions to families of disillusioned Jewish communists and now held prominent positions in the party's leadership. Writing in the MDF biweekly "Hitel" in September 1990, Csoori said that contemporary Hungary is witnessing a "reverse assimilationist trend" in that it is "no longer the Hungarian nation that wishes to assimilate Jews, but liberal Jewry who wishes to assimilate the Hungarian nation," a purpose for which it employs "a more powerful weapon than it has ever possessed, namely, the parliamentary system" (cited in Deak, 1994, pp. 114-115).

Csoori, Csurka, or Zacsek were not the only members of the Antall-led governing coalition to indulge in the exercise. Albeit long after Antall was dead, Independent Smallholders' Party (FKGP) Chairman Joszef Torgyan would address a March 1996 election rally warning against the "liberal-Bolshevik" danger that is "paralyzing" the "powers of the Hungarian nation." At which point he added: "We, however, cannot be paralyzed. We are Hungarian. In the spring, the Hungarian manually clears away the vermin. Let us also clear away the vermin" (cited in Tismaneanu, 1999, p. 43).

This begs the question of why Antall agreed for so long to march alongside the Csurkas and the Torgyans of postcommunist Hungarian politics. For brevity's sake, I propose to ignore the "politicking" aspects of the answer and to concentrate instead on its generic sides.

Memory, memorials, and commemorations are all about legitimation processes, be this the personal legitimation of politicians and the politics they are supposed to represent, or the collective legitimation of a society's perceptions of itself. Anthropologists, such as Katherine Verdery, may strive to "think of legitimation in less rationalistic and more suitable 'cosmic' terms, showing it as rich, complex and disputatious processes of political meaning-creation," indeed even to formulate theories on the space-time axis proceeding from introspecting what happens with the movement of anonymous reinterred dead bodies in the former Yugoslavia. But there is nothing "cosmic" about legitimation processes. Politicians and historical figures can be legitimized (or de-legitimized, or re-legitimized) only for the purpose of the present. Legitimacy will not thereby descend on the past, nor is there any guarantee that it will survive as such in the future. But Verdery, I believe, is quite correct in appreciating legitimation as "a process that employs symbols" (Verdery, 1999, p. 52 and 98-127, respectively).

In an important article on the transformation of former communist parties in East-Central Europe, Michael Waller pointed out that right after the system's collapse such formations benefited from an advantage that might not always have come to use in the first (naturally anticommunist) free ballot, but which they later were amply capable of taking advantage of -- "organizational continuity," which included access to assets (Waller, 1995, pp. 481-482). Other parts of the political spectrum, ranging from the civic-liberal to conservatives, "historical parties" and populist-nationalists, do not benefit from such access at the start of their political road. Rejecting, as they do, continuity with communism, they must replace it with other resources, among which "historic continuity" figures more prominently than it does in the case of the "successor parties." At first sight, this has little to do with the treatment of the Holocaust. On closer scrutiny, however, it turns out that many -- which is not to say all -- "historic" conservatives and (it goes without saying populist-ultranationalists) and those intellectuals associated with them are often found to be part of the Holocaust-denying or Holocaust-trivializing landscape.

In an article analyzing what is termed as the "assault on historical memory" in postcommunist Hungary, Randolph L. Braham, the world's most important historian of the Holocaust in that country, describes the spectrum of Holocaust denial as following:
While the number of xenophobic champions of anti-Semitism -- like that of the Hungarian neo-Nazis actually denying the Holocaust -- is relatively small, the camp of those distorting and denigrating the catastrophe of the Jews is fairly large and -- judging by recent developments -- growing. With their political power and influence, members of this camp represent a potentially greater danger not only to the integrity of the historical record of the Holocaust but also and above all to the newly established democratic system (Braham, 2001, p. 198).

Unlike the Holocaust deniers, who are a fringe group of "historical charlatans," "the history cleansers who denigrate and distort the Holocaust are often 'respectable' public figures (e.g., intellectuals, members of parliament, influential governmental and party figures, and high-ranking army officers" (Braham, 2001, p. 198).

Hungary is far from being singular. The diagnosis applies across the board in East-Central Europe, though local variations play a role. One of the main reasons for the widespread presence of the "respectable public figures" indulging in casting doubt on the singularity of Holocaust rests precisely in the absence of "organizational continuity" and the resulting over-pronounced necessity of compensating that absence with appeals to the legitimizing "historic continuity."

Paradoxically, these politicians are the legatees of communism to a far larger extent than they will ever be aware of. For in Hungary and elsewhere in the former communist world, the legacy of the Holocaust was distorted to serve political purposes and to present the saga of World War II as that "era when 'communists and other progressive elements' had struggled against, or became the victims of, 'Hitlerite and Horthyate fascism.' Somehow there seemed to have been no Jews among these heroes and victims; instead, all were 'anti-fascist Hungarians'"(Deak, 1994, p. 111).

But as Tony Judt noted, the "mismemory of communism is...contributing in its turn to a mismemory of anticommunism" (Judt, 2000, p. 309). Judt made the comment in connection with Romania's Marshal Ion Antonescu being turned into a national hero, but the observation is equally valid for Hungary, Slovakia, Croatia, and other former Nazi-allied states. What is more, with Antonescu, Szalasi, Laszlo Bardossy, and Jozef Tiso having been executed as war criminals, or Codreanu having been assassinated at the orders of King Carol II in 1938, they may fit very well into the natural postcommunist search for replacing manipulated "state-organized" martyrdom on the altar of proletarian internationalism, with martyrdom on the altar of national, anticommunist values.

Enter Kovacs's concept of "creating an identity on a symbolic level." "Mainstream," allegedly democratic party leaders in search for alternatives to organizational resources face a double dilemma when coming to forge that identity. These parties, Kovacs writes, can either opt for placing themselves somewhere around the Western political spectrum or to "express a relationship with certain emblematic periods, events or individuals in the country's own history" (Kovacs, forthcoming). In actual fact, however, one option does not necessarily rule out the other, I hasten to add. A political formation may rally itself to, say, the European People's Party, and still proceed to identity-forging on mainly autochthonous values. Among the parties that gained access to parliament in the first free postcommunist elections (March-April 1990), the Socialist Party (MSZP) was the only one that did not face that choice, since it had access to resources. The SZDSZ and (originally) FIDESZ opted for the Western-type of liberal stream. On the other hand, the MDF, the FKGP and the Christian Democratic People's Party (KDNP) -- which would practically vanish from the political scene during the May 1994-May 1998 parliament term -- all made what can be called the "introvert option."

Formations whose option is mainly introvert fight among themselves the battle "for the appropriation of history" in which they attempt to "demonstrate historical tradition and continuity" (Kovacs, forthcoming). But a second dilemma emerges once the introvert option has been made, namely whether to distance themselves or not from the less seemly aspects of remote or immediate history -- and to what extent do so. Opting for distancing themselves from figures such as those mentioned above is in many cases tantamount to renouncing historic legitimacy as well. For what historic legitimacy can one claim if, as a Slovak or a Croatian politician, one casts aside any continuity with the only time when an independent Slovak or Croatian state has existed? And while claiming "anticommunist historic legitimacy" is possible in the case of Hungary's or Romania's "historic parties" or neoconservative formations, it is not easy to do so when Antonescu and Horthy are largely perceived as the embodiment of anticommunist postures.

I believe we can now close the circle. We have thus far demonstrated that "symbolic history" is closely interconnected with the search for a formula of political legitimation and that both are part and parcel of the postcommunist party-forging of political identities. The time has also come to address the question raised above: why did it take Antall so long to distance himself from the more extremist shades of the coalition he headed? By now it should have become clear that given Antall's value system, he had little other choice. This was the only coalition in which all parliament-represented introvert forces would come under a common umbrella. He was well aware of Csurka's machinations against his leadership of the MDF, and there was no love lost between him and Torgyan, who in 1992 departed from the ruling coalition. On top, Antall (the only person who at the time had access to communist secret-police files) was also aware that both had a shady past of collaboration with the AVO (later called AVH).

Attempting to understand motivation is not tantamount to identifying with either the actors or with their performance, and even less so with the script. Holocaust denial, minimization, or trivialization by comparison may be common to all actors. Still, their motivations may be different, as might be the goals pursued. It would be just as unwise to overlook these differences as it would be to assume that they are reason enough for protesting here but deferring there. It is comforting to learn that Antall's political models as a national leaders were Ferenc Deak, Baron Joszef Eotvos, and, above all, Count Istvan Bethlen (see Tokes, 1996, pp. 420, 425), or at least preferable to Orban's latter-date model of Teleki; and certainly less threatening than Csurka's hero-models. But at the end of the day, what counts are not models, but policies. One should never manipulate oneself in the inverse position of Karl Lueger, Vienna's anti-Semitic mayor between 1897-1910, who used to boast in his unmistakable local dialect, "Wer a Jud is, bestimm'i" (I decide who is a Jew and who is not) (Johnston, 2000, p. 78).
* 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, D.C., the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and is reproduced here with the museum's permission.


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