23 June 2004, Volume 6, Number 13
THE POLITICS OF PUBLIC SPACE AND THE LEGACY OF THE HOLOCAUST IN POSTCOMMUNIST HUNGARY* (Part 4)
By Michael Shafir
4. A Self-Defeating 'Inclusion'
Quite soon upon taking over as premier in 1998, Viktor Orban visited the Hungarian pavilion at the Auschwitz exhibit and immediately decided to reconstruct the exhibit, originally built by the communist regime. The plans for redesigning the exhibit, as Randolph Braham described them, were little else than a pro-Horthy apologia designed to sanitize the Nazi era in general and the Hungarian involvement in the Final Solution in particular. They envisaged portraying a "virtual symbiosis of Hungarian and Jewish life since the emancipation of Jews in 1867, downplaying the many anti-Jewish manifestations as mere aberrations in the otherwise enlightened history of Hungary." Attention was obviously focused on "the positive aspects of Jewish life in the country, emphasizing the flourishing of the Jewish community between 1867 and 1944, the rescue activities of those identified as Righteous Among the Nations, and Horthy's saving of the Jews of Budapest" (Braham, 2001, p. 207). More importantly, the same plans blamed almost exclusively the Germans for the destruction of the Jews. The exhibition was canceled after protests from MAZSIHISZ; reacting to the decision, a spokesman of the federation said the country's Jewish communities did not wish to see the project halted but rather "done right" ("RFE/RL Newsline," 9 and 10 September 1999). "Symbolic history" was in the saddle right from the start of the Orban reign.
A plaque commemorating Admiral Miklos Horthy's notorious gendarmes (who impressed even the SS advisers with the enthusiasm they displayed in the ghettoization and concentration of Hungarian Jews before deportation, and who occasionally also participated in the extermination) was unveiled in 1999 at Budapest's War History Museum in the presence of junior coalition Independent Smallholders' Party (FKGP) member Zsolt Lanyi, chairman of the parliamentary Defense Committee, triggering strong protests from the Jewish community ("RFE/RL Newsline," 28 October 1999; Braham, 2001, pp. 212-213).
It was a high official of the same coalition, Orban adviser Maria Schmidt, who shortly thereafter triggered the Jewish community's protests when she stated -- in a manner arguably akin to French radical Jean-Marie Le Pen -- that the Holocaust had been but a "marginal issue" in the history of World War II. No less emblematic for the "trivializing" way in which the Holocaust would soon be presented as relatively benign when juxtaposed with the communist atrocities, was the manner in which Schmidt developed her argument. The word "holocaust," she said, should not be applied only to the extermination of the Jews during World War II, since the communists had also committed genocide. Viewed from this perspective, she said, "the Holocaust, the extermination or rescue of the Jews, represented but a secondary, marginal point of view [as it was not an objective] among the war aims of either belligerent." Yet the West, which was Stalin's ally during the war, refuses to be confronted with its own responsibility, as this would "endanger the legitimacy of the Western democracies" ("Magyar Hirlap," 12 November 1999 and "Napi Magyarorszag," 13 November 1999, both cited in Gero, Varga, Vince, 2001, pp. 213 and 153, respectively. See also Braham, 2001, pp. 210). In the face of protests, Orban issued a statement largely exonerating Schmidt and expressing his "full confidence" in her ("Magyar Hirlap" and Hungarian Radio, in BBC Summary of World Broadcasts-Eastern Europe, 16 November 1999; "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 November 1999). Schmidt had a sort of "vested interest" when she made the statement; she had been a leading member of the commission that attempted to "cleanse" from the Auschwitz exhibit Horthy atrocities against Hungarian Jews (see Braham, 2001, p. 206).
It was Schmidt, again, who in 2002 became director of the House of Terror museum, located in central Budapest, in the house that served as the headquarters of Ferenc Szalasi's Arrow Cross in 1944-45 (when it was called the "House of Loyalty") and later became the headquarters of the communist-era secret police. It was not by chance that the museum was inaugurated on the eve of the 2002 elections, with Orban addressing the opening ceremony. The attempt was obviously being made to link the rival Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) with the age of terror on which the museum concentrated: the communist one. Although allegedly dedicated to both Nazi and communist-era terror, only two of some two-dozen rooms of the museum are dedicated to the former, as this author witnessed during a visit it in the fall of 2002. The museum thus appeared to be suggesting that, on balance, communist terror had been by far worse than the Jewish Holocaust. More important, perhaps, was what was implied --though never clearly stated -- in the exhibit: Against a background in which both FIDESZ and Hungarian Justice and Life Party (MIEP) commentators routinely mentioned the Jewish origins of some of Hungary's most notorious communists (Gabor Peter, the first AVO chief had been Jewish himself), the implicit message received by the museum's visitors was that the Jews were responsible for the country's postwar ordeal (Jordan, 2002).
This author does not rule out comparisons between the Holocaust and the Gulag, but neither does he believe that the uniqueness of either can be rendered by playing the numerology game of "which produced more victims" or "who is guiltier." To play that game is to engage into what Vladimir Tismaneanu (2001) properly termed "competitive martyrdom." It is legitimate to ask questions about why communist ideology fascinated so many Jews and about the role played by Jews in communist systems (see, for example, Gerrits, 1995; Karadi, 1997; Krajewski, 1999). There is, however, a huge gap between asking those legitimate questions and comparing what is comparable in the two genocides, on the one hand, and denying, belittling, or obliterating that which is inherently unique to each of them, on the other. And the latter is precisely what the House of Terror is doing, thus fully fitting into an East-Central European pattern that has been dubbed the "symmetric" or the "double-genocide" approach to the Holocaust -- one of the several forms in which the "comparative trivialization" of the Shoah can dress up (see Shafir, 2002a, pp. 60-75 and 2002b, pp. 105-132).
Furthermore, the museum obviously reflects an attempt -- to which Braham drew attention long before the site's inauguration -- to turn Germany's last ally into its last victim (Braham, 2001, p. 208). For nowhere can the visitor learn anything about the Hungarian state's own responsibility for either the Nazi or the communist terror. On the contrary, the first leaflet one picks up as one steps into the museum (there are leaflets in every room) speaks of Horthy's Hungary as having been involved in "desperate attempts" to maintain "its fragile democracy." Until the Nazi occupation of 1944, one is told, Hungary "had a legitimately elected government and parliament, where opposition parties functioned normally." No word of the anti-Jewish legislation, no word of the 64,000 Jews who perished under Horthy's rule before the Nazis occupied the country.
As a matter of fact, the museum has nothing more suitable to offer for its second room (dedicated to the Szalasi period) than videotape showing the pro-Nazi dictator delivering a speech in which he calls for the patriotic defense of Budapest against Soviet forces. Why, then, should the Blood and Honor neo-Nazi organization not feel legitimized in organizing a ceremony every year in the memory of those heroic fighters (see above)? And why should MIEP not feel legitimized in its attempts to bring about the judicial rehabilitation of Hungary's 1941-42 premier, Laszlo Bardossy, executed for war crimes in 1945, as Csurka indeed tried in 1999 and again in 2001 (interview with Csurka on Hungarian Television 2 in BBC Summary of World Broadcasts-Eastern Europe, 19 November 1999; "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 January 2001)?
Faced with the adversity of the center-left opposition, Orban often leaned in parliament on the support of Csurka's MIEP, which had for the first time made it into the legislature, winning 14 seats in the 1998 elections. Between the runoffs, when it became apparent that MIEP had made it into parliament, Csurka gave the fascist salute during a televised interview (Murer, 1999, p. 203n). Rather than becoming more restrained, the electoral success radicalized MIEP -- and even more so as the government became dependent on MIEP votes after losing its majority in parliament in September 2001 due to a split within the FKGP (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 September 2001). FIDESZ did nothing to distance itself from MIEP Deputy Chairman Lorant Hegedus, who on 16 August 2001 published in MIEP's Budapest 16th district local newspaper "Ebreszto" an article invoking crude and anti-Semitic language. In that tract, Hegedus wrote:
"The Christian Hungarian state would have warded off the [ill effects] of the Compromise of 1867 had not an army of Galician vagabonds arrived who had been gnawing away at the country which, despite everything, again and again, had always been able to resurrect from its ruins the bones of its heroes. If their Zion of the Old Testament was lost due to their sins and rebellions against God, let the most promising height of the New Testament's way of life, the Hungarian Zion, be lost as well.... Since it is impossible to smoke out every Palestinian from the banks of the Jordan using Fascist methods that often imitate the Nazis themselves, they are returning to the banks of the Danube, now in the shape of internationalists, now in jingoistic form, now as cosmopolitans, in order to give the Hungarians another kick just because they feel like doing so...
"So hear, Hungarians, the message of the 1,000th year of the Christian Hungarian state, based on 1,000 ancient rights and legal continuity, the only one leading you to life: EXCLUDE THEM! BECAUSE IF YOU DON'T, THEY WILL DO IT TO YOU." (Cited in Schweitzer, 2002:227-228. Emphasis in Hegedus's original).
As Hegedus is an ordained pastor in the Calvinist Church, the National Synod of that church condemned his having expressed views "contrary to the Christian gospel, inconsistent with the Calvinist faith, and unworthy of the Church" and decided to ban pastors from active membership in political parties. Hegedus was charged with incitement, after having voluntarily renounced his parliamentary immunity and received a suspended 18-month sentence in December 2002. On appeal, however, the conviction was quashed on the grounds that his article did not represent incitement ("Magyar Hirlap" and "Nepszabadsag," 29 and 30 November and 2001; 10 and 19 December 2001; 17 June 2002; 7 December 2002; and 7 November 2003; "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 and 30 November 2001; 10 and 19 December 2001; 17 June 2002; 9 December 2002; 9 November 2003).
Not only did FIDESZ refrain from criticizing its de facto political ally, but it exerted its influence and succeeded for some time in having the Council of Europe take MIEP off its list of extremist parties (Weaver, 2003). It was also due to this cooperation that MIEP was allotted its own radio station, Pannon Radio, which broadcast from a building in Budapest in which Pastor Hegedus and his father (also a Calvinist pastor of the same name) reside. Hegedus's controversial article was repeatedly aired by Pannon Radio ("Magyar Hirlap" and "Nepszabadsag," 29 November 2001 and 7 December 2002) and the station was warned several times and fined three times by the National Radio and Television Board for broadcasting MIEP propaganda in general (which is forbidden under the law) and infringing on legislation regulating radio and television broadcasts that prohibit "inciting to hatred against persons, sexes, peoples, nations, national, ethnic, linguistic or other minorities, or any church or religious group" ("Magyar Hirlap," 15 November 2001; "Nepszabadsag," 11 January 2002; 19 July 2002; "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 November 2001; 19 July 2002; Gero, Varga, Vince, 2002, p. 323). The "Neue Zurcher Zeitung" described Pannon Radio in July 2002 as "the most evil forum in Eastern Europe today" ("RFE/RL Newsline," 29 July 2002). The station was finally closed down by the new Hungarian government in December 2002, after Csurka had tried to circumvent the law by buying a dominant stake in Pannon Radio through a foundation. As the news came in the same week that Hegedus was given his suspended sentence, Csurka told a rally of his supporters, "This is no longer Hungary, but Palestine!" ("Magyar Hirlap" and "Magyar Nemzet," 7 December 2003; "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 December 2003).
Views similar to those of Pannon Radio were broadcast on state-run Kossuth Radio's Sunday talk show "Vasarnapi Ujsag" (Sunday News), which Orban described as his favorite program (Gero, Varga, Vince, 2001, p. 188n). When Jewish organizations protested the broadcasts, one of the participants, Istvan Lovas called the protest an attempt at "intimidation," adding that "a command to halt must be given to those in Hungary...who wish to provoke an intellectual intifada." It goes without saying that for the participants in this Sunday morning talk show, the Holocaust was just "Shoah-business." Tibor Franka, a reputed pro-FIDESZ "Magyar Forum" journalist, was telling listeners on 12 March 2000, that anti-Semitism is just an invention that "serves the interests of those who benefit from the Holocaust, who pocket the abandoned wealth of the victims of the Holocaust in one way or another." A few months earlier, it was explained on "Vasarnapi Ujsag" that these profiteers "want to do away with everybody who dares to express an opinion that is different from the views of MAZSIHISZ." Prominent among such people, according to the same radio station, were members of the SZDSZ who "keep mentioning Auschwitz and label people anti-Semites" whereas "99 percent of them had been members of the Hungarian Socialist Workers Party." It was such people that "defame Hungary's current civic government...by causing tensions. But the government cannot post guards beside every grave." Journalist Zsolt Bayer, an ultranationalist working for the pro-FIDESZ "Magyar Nemzet," told listeners on 23 July 2000: "I abhor the fact that many people...dare say explicitly that of all the things that ever happened here, only the Holocaust was a crime, or that everything the communists did in the world and in Hungary was nothing compared to the Holocaust" (all citations from the station's broadcasts in Gero, Varga, Vince, 2001, pp. 169-172). The same person, incidentally, would write after the 2002 elections that they had been won by the MSZP with the "votes of white trash in Pest" ("Nepszabadsag," 15 May 2003). Orban apparently had nothing against this "competitive martyrdom" game, for he was a frequent guest on "Vasarnapi Ujsag," leading SZDSZ Chairman Gabor Kuncze to remark in January 2002 that the premier was courting the votes of the extreme right, since "Vasarnapi Ujsag" was considered to be a "mouthpiece for MIEP and...a stain on the public service media" ("RFE/RL Newsline," 30 January 2002).
And so he was. At the end of the day, this proved to be his greatest miscalculation. He repeatedly refused to rule out the possibility of a postelection coalition with MIEP, noting as early as April 2001 that it "would be unfortunate...if Hungarians were to decide about their fate according to what people abroad would say" ("RFE/RL Newsline," 11 April 2001). By November of the same year, in an interview with the German daily "Suddeutsche Zeitung," Orban said in reference to a possible FIDESZ-MIEP partnership that "in principle" he does not rule out anything. That was quickly noted by MIEP Deputy Chairman Zoltan Fenyvessy, who described Orban's answer as "extremely diplomatic" and as observing the golden political rule of "never say never" ("Nepszabadsag" and "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 November 2001). However, Orban told his German interviewer that he believed FIDESZ would garner an absolute majority in the 2002 elections and be able to form a government without right-wing extremists or former communists. Asked why he refused to distance himself more clearly from MIEP, Orban replied that French President Jacques Chirac did not begin his daily activity by distancing himself from National Front leader Le Pen either. It was, he added, in any case just part of the "Hungarian political folklore" for the left wing to describe anyone who did not belong to its own political spectrum as an anti-Semite. The interviewer nonetheless pressed: Why are Orban's pronouncements becoming more and more nationalistic, if this is the case? These, came the reply, are his tactics for preventing the radical right from gaining ground ahead of Hungary's accession to the EU, for membership of that organization stirs anxiety among the country's population ("Nepszabadsag," "Magyar Hirlap," "Magyar Nemzet" and "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 November 2001). Indeed, on the eve of the 2002 ballot, Orban had made MIEP jargon his own to such extent that he was warning that a Socialist victory would bring Hungary under the yoke of international finance capital (Haraszti, 2002). He thus managed to scare off parts of the moderate right that would have composed his "natural" electorate. For example, the Christian Democratic Party leadership recommended that its supporters back the MSZP in the second round.
Orban would have every reason to regret his choice of tactics -- come the 2002 ballot results. For by having "out-Csurkaed Csurka" and thereby preventing the MIEP's entry to parliament (the party garnered 4.36 percent, just under the 5 percent threshold) he was left with no one with whom to form a coalition. Furthermore, the MIEP's failure to pass the threshold was in good part due to the much higher turnout (over 70 percent) than in previous elections, particularly in (for Csurka) the decisive first round (56.26 on 10 May 1998 v. 70.3 percent on 7 April 2002) (see Bugajski, 2002, p. 374; "Nepszabadsag," "Magyar Hirlap," "Magyar Nemzet" 8 April 2002). The high voter participation was, in turn, much of Orban's own making, having been prompted by his polarization of Hungarian society (Haraszti, 2002). "Inclusion" had worked -- but to its promoter's detriment.
5. What Next? In Lieu Of Conclusions
On election night of 21 April 2002, as defeat was no longer in doubt, Orban told a forum of party faithful that "a slight majority of Hungarians decided to tilt the balance toward a Socialist world." But he added defiantly that the future of Hungarians resides in a nation of 15, not 10 million Magyars ("Magyar Nemzet," 22 April 2002). Antall was vindicated. On 7 June 2003, in a ceremony in Transylvania at which he was honored by a Hungarian government-financed private university, Orban told the audience that the Magyars would never give up the hope of regaining "our home, Hungaria Magna -- our lost paradise" (Mediafax, 7 June 2003). The statement was qualified; it was included in a remark on European unification, which, Orban said, would enable the old dream to be fulfilled. But not long after, FIDESZ Deputy Chairman Laszlo Kover was telling another Transylvanian audience that it was unfortunate that those European minorities who "have resorted to force" receive "more attention and benevolence from European public opinion" than minorities who do not. The statement was rejected by Foreign Minister Laszlo Kovacs, who said that anyone who believes it is expedient to resort to violence to achieve autonomy and publicly expresses such a position is acting irresponsibly and harming the cause of autonomy for Transylvania's ethnic Hungarians (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 December 2003).
FIDESZ, in short, does not seem to have drawn any significant lesson from its electoral defeat. Officially, its doctrine is now entrenched in what Orban describes as the "polgari" values of "family, country, nation, work, security, and unity" (Kossuth Radio, 30 November 2003). Those are reasonable conservative values, fitting into FIDESZ's definition of itself as of the year 2000. Yet if everyone knows what a family and job security mean, words such as "country," "nation," and "unity" are ambiguous enough to leave room for more than one interpretation. This brings us back to subjectivity. For if in the eyes of latter-day FIDESZ supporter and candidate to the European Parliament George Schopflin, the MSZP-SZDSZ alliance is captive to an internationalist tradition in which "the West" and "Europe" replaced socialist internationalism (Schopflin, 2002), in this author's eyes FIDESZ is -- to paraphrase an earlier Schopflin -- a political formation whose ideology is "democratic in form and nationalist in content" (Schopflin, 1974).
The Orban-led drive to unify (read: include) the right under FIDESZ's banner has thus far met with limited success. Only some relatively insignificant formations responded to his appeal and ran jointly in the June 2004 European Parliament elections. In fact, his attempt to have his cake and eat it too has had the opposite of its intended effect: Parliamentary party allies such as the MDF have become wary of Orban and occasionally distance themselves from his positions. On the other hand, on the overtly extreme-right end of the political spectrum, the effort has prompted the setting up of at least one new political formation that perceives Orban as being a Janus-faced politician. This is the "Jobbik Magyarorszagert Mozgalom" (Movement for Hungarian Right) -- a construction evoking both senses of "right" in the Hungarian language. Its chairman, David Kovacs, said the party shares with FIDESZ the goal of unseating the current government but added that Orban's nationalist rhetoric has not been accompanied by deeds. What is more, according to Kovacs, the movement's ideology calls for the unification of all nationalist Christian forces rather than being polgari, as FIDESZ's is ("Nepszabadsag," "Magyar Hirlap," and "Magyar Nemzet," 27 October 2003).
The new movement immediately set out to capture public attention. In November 2003, it staged a demonstration outside Hungarian Television (MTV) to protest a recent cancellation of the "Ejjeli menedek" (Night Shelter) program. That program had been pulled off the air after broadcasting British Holocaust-denier David Irving's long-known version of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising. As he has done in a book written on Hungary's 1956 experience, Irving claimed that the insurrection began as an anti-Jewish uprising. "Ejjeli menedek," which was known for the rightist sympathies of its editors, also broadcast a speech on the same theme that Irving had delivered previously at an MIEP rally in Budapest ("Nepszabadsag" and "Magyar Hirlap," 30 October 2003). At that rally, Tamas Molnar, deputy chairman of "Jobbik Magyarorszagert Mozgalom," called on participants to oust the media liberals, who "represent foreign interests, lisp, and are alien-hearted people." Addressing the same crowd, the movement's deputy chairman, Ervin Nagy, lamented that nationalists in Hungary had only one program -- the "Ejjeli menedek" ("RFE/RL Newsline," 10 November 2003).
The Movement for Hungarian Right was not alone in protesting the elimination of "Ejjeli menedek." Upon learning of the move, FIDESZ issued a statement saying that the MSZP-SZDSZ coalition was ruthlessly attempting to stifle any opinion that differed from its own ("Magyar Nemzet," 30 October 2003). The next day, Orban called on polgari groups to come to the defense of the program's editor, and on 2 November he stated that it was worrisome that programs representing polgari or Christian values were under continual harassment ("Magyar Nemzet," 30 October and "Nepszabadsag," 3 November 2003). Irving, for one, remained unimpressed, declaring that he was by now accustomed to being attacked for his ideas, particularly by Jewish intellectuals such as Hungarian-born Arthur Kostler. His statement was made, perhaps unsurprisingly, on "Vasarnapi Ujsag" ("Nepszava," 3 November 2003).
The new Hungarian government had shown determination to end such manifestations as early as April 2003. An exhibition titled "Soldiers of Miklos Horthy -- Arrow Cross People of Ferenc Szalasi" was opened at the Juriscic chateau in the western Hungarian town of Koszeg on 19 March. Glorifying the deeds of the two regimes, the exhibition made no mention of their crimes or victims. Its director, Kornel Bakay, had been an MIEP candidate in the last elections. It was closed down in April, following MAZSIHISZ protests and considerable pressure applied by Budapest on the local authorities (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10, 16, 17, and 18 April 2003).
A text among the exhibits had explained to visitors: "The Hungarianist Movement is not identical with Italian Fascism or with German National Socialism. The Hungarian Arrow Cross advertised neither a totalitarian state nor racial superiority. On the contrary, they were the determined enemies of Bolshevism and international capitalists" ("Nepszabadsag," 2 April 2003). This quote brings us right back where we started -- namely, at "symbolic history" and the "clash of memories." There is no reason to believe that people like Bakay could ever be convinced they are wrong. This begs a "Leninist question": What is to be done? There is no way a dialogue might be established with the likes of Csurka. That would be a waste of time and energy. Mutual anathematizing is likely to continue between "them" and "us."
But there is no reason for a war to be waged endlessly between "memories" when it comes to the clash between Jewish and Hungarian memory writ large. Residual mutual perceptions are not necessarily eternal mutual perceptions. In the likely scenario of a return to power of the FIDESZ conservatives (after all, that is the rule of the democratic game), it might take a serious effort at both ends to mend the damage. On FIDESZ's side, this would entail ridding the party of the deeply rooted suspicion of an international Jewish conspiracy directed against the Hungarian nation. It would also entail a considerably larger dose of sensitivity toward the affairs of public space. But above all, it would entail renouncing inclusionist policies, which also means renouncing the neo-Zhdanovist division of the world into two irreconcilable camps. In domestic politics, FIDESZ must somehow be able to return to the politics of compromise, and this has little to do with handling the Holocaust. In foreign policy, it might have to be less supportive of Hungarian extremists in neighboring countries. And that has even less in common with handling the memory of the Holocaust.
But some of this applies to Hungarian Jews as well. They must understand that the other side also has a right to memory and that the two memories might not always coincide. They must, above all, understand that the Gulag has a right to its own, separate memory. And it might be wise to publicly acknowledge that right and partake in its observation. Somehow, Hungary's Jewish community must also understand that its association with, or support for, the MSZP will be resented by many within Hungarian society for as long as people like Gyula Horn -- a former member of the post-1956 communist "pufajkas" (fur-coats) vigilante squads (see Tokes, 1998, p. 419) -- are in power. This might take no more than one generation; perhaps much less. The same goes for communist-era secret police informers assuming the role of independent, postcommunist premiers.
Reconciliation will not be easy. There is nothing new about that on the Jewish side. But let us face it: It's not easy to be Hungarian either!
* 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 United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and is reproduced here with the museum's permission.
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