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East European Perspectives: November 14, 2001

14 November 2001, Volume 3, Number 20
HUNGARY AND THE HOLOCAUST: The Nationalist Drive to Whitewash the Past (Part 3)*

By Randolph L. Braham


Much of the reinterpretation of the Nazi era and the whitewashing of the Holocaust are clearly designed to help bring about the rehabilitation of the Horthy regime. Dedicated to building a future society to their own liking, sundry nationalists, less than fully responsible rightists, and neo-Fascists have decided to rewrite the past in an Orwellian fashion in order to provide the historical continuity that they require for this purpose. Part and parcel of this objective is the reintroduction of national symbols. Early in 2000, the Viktor Orban government restored the Royal Crown of St. Stephen as the symbol of the Hungarian state. Overlooking the inherent contradiction between the symbol of a royal crown and Hungary's current democratic, republican form of government, Zsolt Lanyi, vice president of the Independent Smallholders' Party and chairman of parliament's Armed Services Committee, for example, declared that the crown represented "the embodiment of Christian Hungary." The Orban government also revived the Corvin Prize, the state award introduced by Horthy in 1930. Some nationalists have also called for the restoration of noble titles and knighthood rituals, the honoring of those who fought for the Fascist cause as "heroes," and renaming a street in Budapest for Horthy. The reintroduction of national symbols was paralleled by the revitalization of traditional, national-Christian values. The need to return to these values was recently articulated by Ibolya David, the minister of justice in the Orban government and head of the Hungarian Democratic Forum Party. Early in November 1999, she declared, among other things, that the "experience of the post-Communist era revealed a great societal need for the representation of Christian-conservative values based on national traditions."

The pursuit of these values gathered momentum following the elections of May 1998, which brought to power a basically nationalist, right-of-center coalition government under the leadership of Orban. Enjoying only a very narrow parliamentary majority, Orban has given a virtually free hand to the widely perceived anti-Semitic and Holocaust-denigrating Istvan Csurka, whose political support he covets. While reportedly not an anti-Semite himself, as he mentioned in an interview with Hungarian Radio on 27 December 2000, his political model is Pal Teleki, the former prime minister who championed the twin causes of revisionism and anti-Semitism during the interwar period. Raising the possible specter of irredentism, Orban declared that the Hungarian government must represent the interests of "all Hungarians living in the Carpathian basin" -- a declaration not particularly appreciated by Hungary's neighbors. On 19 June the Hungarian Parliament adopted a "Status Law" (also known as "Benefits Law") under which ethnic Hungarians living in the neighboring states of Croatia, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Ukraine, and Yugoslavia would be given wide-ranging cultural, social, and employment rights in Hungary. Envisioned to go into effect on 1 January 2002, the law stipulates, among other things, that ethnic Hungarians wishing to receive these benefits will have to sign a written declaration claiming Hungarian identity after which they will receive a Hungarian identity card (Kingston, 2001).

It seems that political expediency has compelled Orban to condone the activities of the ultraright and to encourage, if not actually support, those dedicated to cleansing Hungary's wartime history. In addition to the reintroduction of national symbols, his administration also actively supported the resurrection of memorials evoking the era of Greater Hungary. On 12 August, a Fascist-era memorial symbolizing Greater Hungary was unveiled in Nagykanizsa in the presence of many local and national officials, including Istvan Simicsko, the deputy minister without portfolio who oversees the security services. While clearly irritating to Hungary's neighbors, the resurrection of the memorial plays into the hands of pro-Horthy nationalists. In connection with the Holocaust, these nationalists have been indirectly encouraged to "re-evaluate" the state agencies that were involved in the Final Solution and focus on the "positive" contribution of Hungarians to the rescue of Jews.

Prime Minister Orban's appeasement of the right stems partially from the fact that he enjoys the almost consistent support of Csurka's party in parliament and expects its help in the elections scheduled to be held in the spring of 2002. This rapprochement between the former "liberal" prime minister and the virulently anti-Semitic Csurka has encouraged many rightist extremists both within and outside parliament to vent their xenophobic, anti-Semitic, and anti-Roma positions without any fear of legal repercussions. In a country with virtually no historical record of tolerance or pluralism, the activities of these extremists represent first and foremost a threat to the fledgling democratic system. Here are three examples of the abuse of democracy by elements dedicated to its destruction:

On 27 March, for the first time since the Holocaust, the Hungarian Parliament was the venue of a viciously anti-Semitic speech. Lorant Hegedus, Jr., a young minister in the Reformed Church and deputy chairman of Csurka's party, vented his anger over the fact that "40 so-called intellectual ultraliberals" (read Jews) had expressed their satisfaction to the French for granting asylum to a group of Hungarian Roma. In Hegedus's view, the "liberals" sided with the Roma to "gratify their meanest anti-Hungarian instincts." These liberals, he continued, were engaged in an ethnic and racially motivated incitement campaign, relying on their Israeli comrades and crudely violating the constitution of the Hungarian Republic. Responding on behalf of the Orban government, Csaba Hende, a state secretary in the Ministry of Justice, explained the background of the Roma's asylum without making any reference to Hegedus's anti-Semitic tirade. There were no public reactions, let alone condemnatory comments, from either Orban, Speaker of the House Janos Ader, or Jozsef Szajer, the majority leader.

In an article published in the MIEP magazine "Ebreszto" in early September, Hegedus provided further evidence of his venomous anti-Semitism. He asserted, among other things, that a Christian Hungarian state would have deflected the devastation of the Tatars, Turks, and Russians, as well as Habsburg rule, if "a hoard of vagabonds from Galicia had not entered the country as a result of the 1867 Compromise." In an obvious reference to Jews, the MIEP representative called on Hungarians to "exclude them, otherwise they will do so with you" (Hegedus, 2001). Magda Kovacs Kosa, the chairwoman of the parliament's Human Rights Committee, characterized the article as "hate speech and Fascist," an action that "should not go unpunished." Gabor Fodor, a deputy of the opposition Association of Free Democrats, declared that Orban "encourages such manifestations by not outrightly condemning them." Fodor's conclusions are substantiated by several politically insensitive actions of the Hungarian government leader.

On 13 June 2000, Orban, accompanied by Gabor Borokai, the government spokesman, and Istvan Benyhe, his personal secretary, had found it politically expedient to visit the offices of the "Magyar Demokrata," a rightist weekly edited by Andras Bencsik, who also owns a second-hand bookstore specializing in Holocaust-denying literature. Clearly an admirer of the prime minister's courting of Csurka's far-right party, Bencsik asserted on a far-right TV talk show in Budapest on 15 June 2001 that if the Orban government should fail to get re-elected in 2002, the Jews would return to power, together with the KGB and the AVO, the dreaded Soviet and Hungarian secret police agencies.

The Orban government's political embrace of the far right was also revealed in July 2001, when it failed to take any action in connection with one of the most viciously anti-Semitic manifestations in Hungary's post-Communist period. Speaking at a press conference on 25 July Laszlo Bognar, the vice president of MIEP, fanned the flames of anti-Semitism by expressing his "dismay" over the purchase of the Ferencvaros soccer team by the Fotex Corporation, which already owned the MTK soccer club. Although Jews were among the founders of the Ferencvaros club during the 19th century, it acquired an anti-Jewish coloration in 1944, when it was placed under the leadership of Andor Jaross, the then-minister of the interior, a leading architect of the Final Solution. According to Bognar, "the Ferencvaros club was acquired by that greedy, shameless business group that has nothing to do with Ferencvaros or Magyardom." He contrasted the identity of the "proper Magyars" with "the business-oriented MTK-backing upper bourgeois elements of foreign [read Jewish] background." The reference is clearly to Gabor Varszegi, the president and chief executive officer of Fotex, one of the most successful conglomerate enterprises in East-Central Europe. The fans of the Ferencvaros club, he argued, always felt that while they were the ordinary children of the people, those above them in the social ranks were in the Jewish fold.

Stunned by Bognar's outrageous comments, Jewish organizations issued a collective statement the following day denouncing them as Nazi, antinational, and inciting in character. The statement also deplored the elevation of anti-Semitism to the level of parliamentary political discourse. Bognar's comments were also rejected as repugnant by Imre Szakacs, the state secretary of the Ministry of Youth and Sports. The Orban government, however, failed to take any action in spite of the many appeals by both Jews and Christians. Minister of Justice Ibolya David, expressing her disinterest in soccer, appears to have sided with those arguing that Bognar's comments were within the constitutional limits of free speech. In contrast to the opinion of many lawyers and constitutional specialists who demonstrated that those comments were in fact incendiary and in clear violation of certain provisions of the constitution relating to the protection of the fundamental rights of citizens, the top officials of the ministry refused to take any action (Halmai, 2001).

In the climate of political anti-Semitism fostered since the inauguration of the Orban government in 1998, history cleansers appear to have been given the green light to proceed with their drive to bring about the rehabilitation of the Horthy regime, including the major law-enforcement agencies that were involved in the Final Solution. As part of this drive, history cleansers have expended considerable effort to bring about the absolution of the gendarmerie -- which played a crucial role in the roundup and deportation of the Jews -- by placing all responsibility onto the Germans. Toward this end, they have, among other things, produced a "documentary" that was first shown on Hungarian television in early December 1998. Titled after the logo of the Hungarian Royal Gendarmerie -- "Hiven, becsulettel, vitezul" (Faithfully, With Honor, Bravely) �- the documentary was clearly designed to help bring about the exoneration of the gendarmerie by deflecting attention from the barbaric manner in which that force implemented its role in the Final Solution. The "historians" featured in the presentation advanced a variety of propagandistic arguments. The moderator, Sandor Szakaly, who also performed a function in the production of the program, argued that there had been no need for the gendarmerie to use force because the Jews -- law-abiding citizens that they were -- carried out the anti-Jewish measures of their own volition. Another expert in security affairs tried to persuade viewers that the gendarmes were, in fact, engaged in a form of resistance by carrying out the anti-Jewish measures "humanely." All of them appeared to conclude that the gendarmes were guided by the Christian spirit and were highly appreciated by the people they served for the preservation of law and order. The gendarmes who were interviewed for the documentary -- all of whom were veterans of the anti-Jewish drive -- offered a variety of extenuating "explanations" for their own involvement. Less than a year later, the television presentation was followed by another move toward the eventual rehabilitation of the gendarmerie. In the courtyard of the Institute of War History and Museum, which is headed by Szakaly, Zsolt Lanyi, head of the Armed Services Committee of parliament, unveiled a plaque honoring the gendarmes who died during the two world wars.

Concurrently with the re-evaluation of the gendarmerie and other state agencies, many history cleansers have also concentrated on portraying the generosity with which Hungary had treated its Jewish subjects since 1867, largely overlooking the many anti-Semitic legal and physical measures that were taken against them during all these years. As to the Holocaust, they have been focusing almost exclusively on the "positive" record of the wartime era, highlighting:

1. The rescue of the Jews of Budapest;

2. The protection provided by the military labor service system after the German occupation;

3. The rescue activities of the relatively few non-Jews who were recognized by the appellation of Righteous Among the Nations.

The survival of most of the Jews of Budapest is attributed to Horthy's halting of the deportations on 7 July 1944. While this may largely be true, history cleansers fail to identify the political and military factors that induced the regent, Horthy, to act at a time when all of Hungary, with the notable exception of the capital, had already been made JUDENREIN. They also fail to acknowledge the regent's own responsibility for the liquidation of the provincial Jewish communities. He did so by consenting, during his 18 March 1944 meeting with Hitler, to the delivery of hundreds of thousands of Jews "for labor in Germany," and by his decision not to be involved in Jewish matters during the first four months of the German occupation (Braham, 1994, pp. 393, 397-401). The argument advanced by some top Nazis after the war (i.e., that a head of state who demonstrated his ability to halt the deportations at a particular time could have prevented their initiation in the first place, had he really wanted to) is not totally without merit (Braham, 1994, pp. 1063-1064). Horthy's champions also overlook the fact that credit for the rescuing of the Jews of Budapest is also claimed by or attributed to many others, including Raoul Wallenberg, Heinrich Himmler, Ferenc Szalasi, and the commander of the troops that foiled an anti-Horthy coup early in July 1944. None of the mythmakers operating at opposite ends of the political spectrum find it politically fashionable to acknowledge the decisive role that the Red Army played in the liberation of the Jews.

It is true that the Jewish labor servicemen were, with a few exceptions, exempted from the ghettoization and deportation measures and enjoyed the protection of the armed forces, which continued to exercise exclusive jurisdiction over the labor service system even after the German occupation. The historical record demonstrates that insightful military commanders recruited Jews from within the ghettos on many occasions in order to save those individuals from deportation and almost certain death. However, the history of the labor service system is far from spotless. The history cleansers fail to reveal the basically discriminatory nature of the system and the horrors to which many of the labor servicemen were subjected along the Soviet front lines, in the copper mines of Serbia, and during the "Nyilas" era. A few well-known historians, the effect of whose work tends to minimize the losses of Hungarian Jewry, early in 1992 proposed to the Hungarian public that the labor service system was quite equitable, that the treatment of the Jewish labor servicemen was tolerable, and that their losses were far fewer than generally claimed (Stark, Szabo, and Szakaly, 1992).

One of the major means by which many history cleansers aim to unburden the national conscience is by focusing on the rescue activities of the relatively small number of Hungarians recognized as Righteous Among the Nations. They appear to be heeding the admonition of former Prime Minister Jozsef Antall, who was of the opinion that if discussions on the Holocaust must take place at all, attention should be focused on the rescuers rather than the perpetrators (Karsai, 1996, p. 139). By doing this they deflect attention from both the horrendous suffering of the Jews and the large number of Hungarian perpetrators. The magnificent humanitarian activities of the Righteous -- few as they relatively were -- clearly must be remembered and highlighted as exemplary acts to be emulated, but unidimensional, politically oriented accounts of activities of the Righteous play into the hands of those who distort history. In the absence of the historical context in which these few Righteous operated, namely the Final Solution in all its complexity, the world at large will inevitably conclude that the practitioners of righteous conduct were the dominant elements of the Holocaust era. A relevant example is based on a personal experience that I had in Budapest in September 1997. I found that all of the graduating students of the Jewish High School were acquainted with the wartime activities of Raoul Wallenberg, but none of them had any recollection of ever having heard or read anything about Laszlo Endre or Laszlo Baky. Since these students were completely unaware of the key role that these high-ranking Hungarian officials had played in the destruction of the Jews, one can assume that the same students were basically ignorant of the Holocaust in general. If this is the case with students graduating from the Jewish High School in Budapest, one can surmise the level of Holocaust awareness on the part of Christian students in the capital, let alone in the countryside.

The gradual escalation of the activities of historical revisionists and of "respectable" history cleansers leads one to suppose that they have indirectly been encouraged by myopic governmental policies that tolerate the abuse of civil liberties. Despite its very brief tradition of civil liberties and virtually no record on tolerance and pluralism, Hungary permits, among other things, the dissemination of hate literature and the denial and denigration of the Holocaust, acts that are deemed illegal and severely punished in France and many other countries with a much longer record of liberal democracy. Although the many Right radical and neo-Nazi skinhead groups are still relatively weak in terms of membership and following, their actual and potential threat to the fledgling Hungarian democracy must not be underestimated. As the many acts of violence and anti-Semitic outbursts of the past few years clearly indicate (Halpert, 1999), they represent a potentially grave danger not only to Jews, Roma, and other minorities, but also to the survival of the new democratic system of government.

Ultranationalists seem to have been encouraged in history-cleansing activities by the attitude of some of the highest-ranking officials. A few among these have not only expressed sympathy for the objective pursued by many of the cleansers but have also occasionally engaged in such practices themselves. For example, Istvan Stumpf, a top-ranking minister in the Orban government, misled his audience at the January 2000 summit conference on the Holocaust in Stockholm about how Hungary was confronting the Holocaust. As the text of his speech reveals, he did so by failing to address the anti-Jewish historical record of the 1938-1945 period ("Uj Elet," 15 February 2000).

Ultranationalist history cleansing of this type is, to a large extent, due to the failure of the top leaders of the Hungarian state and government to provide clear and unambiguous guidance with regard to the Holocaust in Hungary. Regretfully, with the exception of expressions of sorrow and resolve to combat the scourge of anti-Semitism, especially during Holocaust remembrance periods, the top official leaders of Hungary, unlike those of France, Germany, and several other countries, have so far failed to publicly and unequivocally acknowledge their country's responsibility, let alone apologize, for the destruction of approximately 550,000 of its citizens of the Jewish faith or heritage. A formal statement to this effect would not only undercut the legitimacy of the history cleansers and Holocaust deniers but possibly also lead to the catharsis and reconciliation people of good will so deeply desire. In the long run it will also advance the cause of democracy and the general welfare of the Hungarian people.

A few Hungarian politicians have spoken eloquently about the need to honestly confront the past, but they have done so without admitting the crucial role the various Hungarian governments played in the destruction of the Jews. On 31 January 2000, for example, Imre Mecs used the platform of the Hungarian parliament to plead for an honest confrontation of the past and for the assumption of responsibility for the catastrophe that befell Jewry. An even more forceful position was taken by Hungarian ecclesiastical leaders. In a joint declaration issued in late November 1994, the Hungarian Catholic Bishops' Conference and the Ecumenical Council of the Churches of Hungary acknowledged that responsibility must be borne by those Christians who, for a variety of reasons, remained silent during the tragedy that engulfed Jewry. Eloquent as the statement was, it failed to acknowledge the role the Christian churches themselves had played in laying the ground for the tragedy.

By far the most honest expression of sorrow was that of former Prime Minister Gyula Horn. In a 3 July 1994 letter to Laszlo Keller, an adviser on Eastern Europe to the World Jewish Congress, Horn expressed the need not only to confront the past but also "to apologize for the destruction of 600,000 of our fellow citizens." Gratifying as this letter was, however, it failed to achieve the desired impact primarily because the then-prime minister-elect merely expressed his personal views. This was also revealed by a ruling of the Budapest Central District Court -- a decision cited extensively by Aron Monus (Monus, 1996, pp. 364-365) -- the neo-Nazi who had sued Horn. Perhaps the time will come when the leaders of the Hungarian state or government will give Horn's words the public resonance they deserve in the name of the nation.

History is a formidable weapon. It is particularly corruptive and dangerous in the hands of chauvinistic nationalists bent on shaping history. Unless the historical revisionists and the history cleansers are unmasked and counteracted, the record of the Holocaust will inevitably be tarnished, if not partially obliterated. One must protect the integrity of this record in order that the world -- the current and future generations -- might learn its lessons.

This paper is an updated and expanded version of the author's "Assault on Historical Memory: Nationalists and the Holocaust," a study that appeared in Hungary and the Holocaust: Confrontation with the Past, November 1999 symposium proceedings published by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in January 2001. The content of that earlier contribution is reprinted with the permission of the museum. The present version of the study is limited to the identification of some of the approaches used in cleansing the historical record of Hungary during the Nazi era by denigrating, distorting, and, in some cases, denying the Holocaust. It does not aim at an overview of the various factions of the Right in contemporary Hungary.

The author is distinguished professor emeritus of political science at The City College and Graduate Center of the City University of New York.


Braham, R. L., 1994, The Politics of Genocide: The Holocaust in Hungary (New York: Columbia University Press,), 2 volumes.

Halmai, G., 2001, "Az ugyeszseg esete a MIEP-pel" (The Prosecution's Case Against the MIEP), in "Elet es Irodalom," (Budapest), 17 August.

Halpert, M. S., 1999, "Hungary: A Growing Tolerance for Anti-Semitism" in "ADL International Notes" (New York), December.

Hegedus, L., Jr., 2001, "Keresztyen magyar allam" (Christian Hungarian State) in "Ebreszto," September.

Karsai, L., 1999, "The Radical Right in Hungary," in Ramet S. (ed.), The Radical Right in Central and Eastern Europe Since 1989 (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press), pp. 133-146.

Kingston, K., 2001, "The Hungarian Status Law," in "East European Perspectives" Vol. 3, no. 17.

Stark, T., Szabo, P., and Szakaly, S., 1992. "Masodik vilaghaboru: A magyar munkaszolgalat" (The Second World War: The Hungarian Labor Service), in "Magyar Nemzet" (Budapest), 20 and 28 February.

"Uj Elet," (Budapest), 2000.