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Sins of The Past
February 12, 2014 1:53 AM   Subscribe

The Association of Hungarian Jewish Congregations (MAZSIHISZ), has announced that it is boycotting government-sponsored events to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust. This decision follows recent controversies over how the government of Viktor Orbán is choosing to mark the anniversary.

The latest controversy concerns a government funded statue to be unveiled on 19 March to mark the 70th anniversary of the day in 1944 when German troops occupied Hungary, and according to the Hungarian constitution [PDF], resulted in the loss of sovereignty and self-determination of Hungary. The statue will bear the inscription, "German occupation of Hungary, March 19, 1944" and “To the memory of all victims,” but will make no explicit reference to the Jewish-Hungarian victims. Critics of the statue including prominent Hungarian historian, Krisztián Ungváry, claim that it falsifies history and seeks to absolve Hungary of any accountability for the subsequent deportation and murder of some 450,000 in Jewish Hungarians.

The preeminent historian of the Hungarian Holocaust, Randolph L. Braham, has reacted to the controversey by returning his Order of Merit awarded to him by the current Hungarian government in 2011, and has asked that his name be removed from the library of the Hungarian Museum in Budapest, saying, "[the statue is] a cowardly attempt to detract attention from the Horthy regime’s involvement in the destruction of the Jews and to homogenize the Holocaust with the “suffering” of the Hungarians – a German occupation, as the record clearly shows, that was not only unopposed but generally applauded."

There have been other controversies around government plans to mark the Holocaust anniversary. These include the decision to establish a new Holocaust museum devoted to child victims of the Holocaust at the abandoned Józsefváros Railway Station. To be known as "The House of Fates" critics claim the name implies a lack of responsibility of behalf of Hungarians for the Holocaust, while others claim the railway station itself had very little role in the deportation of Hungarian Jews in 1944. Additionally the project is being overseen by Dr Mária Schmidt, Director of the House Of Terror in Budapest which some have argued seeks to equate the suffering of the Holocaust with those that died in the 1956 revolution and its aftermath.

Further controversy was also raised when the government appointed director of the a newly established historical Veritas institute, Sándor Szakály described the deportation and subsequent murder in 1941 of between 13,000 and 18,000 Jews living in Hungary as merely "a police action against aliens.". MAZSIHISZ and the Tom Lantos Institute condemned the statement.

These controversies are despite official statements from Hungarian political figures have sought to acknowledge the suffering caused by the Holocaust. President János Ader acknowledged in January of this year: "Auschwitz may be hundreds of kilometers from Hungary but it is part of Hungarian history," Ader wrote. "This death camp was the scene of the inhumane suffering, humiliation and death of nearly half a million of our compatriots." Earlier the Hungarian Ambassador to the UN had said "We owe victims an apology as the Hungarian state was guilty in the Holocaust. Firstly because it failed to protect its citizens from extermination, secondly because it assisted and provided financial resources for the genocide."

Elections are approaching in Hungary. Some fear the atmosphere will get worse.

Previously, previously, and previously.
posted by vac2003 (29 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
which some have argued seeks to equate the suffering of the Holocaust with those that died in the 1956 revolution and its aftermath.

I'm struggling to see why this is a bad thing. Should some suffering and death be privileged over other suffering and death? The links don't really make a case, other than to say that the motivation for opening the House of Terror site was political and an attempt to make the current socialist party look bad. Even if that is the case it doesn't detract from the oppression of the communist regime.
posted by biffa at 2:57 AM on February 12 [1 favorite]


I've been following this story and it seems to me that the complaints against it have been so publicly aired, it's obvious that the statute which sought to distract attention from Hungary's nefarious past has only called more attention to it.

Maybe Hungarians don't appreciate irony, but it would almost be a shame not to erect it now as the debate indelibly attached to this government funded statute will certainly define how people will view it - which is the point of any work of public art.
posted by three blind mice at 3:16 AM on February 12


The moral responsibility for the 1956 uprising lies with the Soviet occupation and its puppet regime, which was never seen as representative of the population. The moral responsibility for the deportation of the Hungarian Jews in 1944, as well as earlier crimes against them on the other hand, clearly lies partially with Hungary and its WWII government, which while a dictatorship, did have popular support at the time, certainly far more than the postwar communist regime had.

Equating the victims of these two events sends the message that both were caused by a foreign oppressor against the will of the Hungarian people, when the reality was that at least some Hungarians were equal and willing participants in the deportation. It extends the widely accepted narrative of the 56 uprising back to the 1944 coup to suggest that in both cases, Hungary itself was not to blame.
posted by MartinWisse at 3:19 AM on February 12 [15 favorites]


Shorter me: equating the two moves the focus of remembrance from "this was done to our Jewish fellow Hungarians, partially by us" to "this was done to us, by the Germans, against our will".
posted by MartinWisse at 3:20 AM on February 12 [3 favorites]


The "House of Terror" museum is based in the former headquarters of the Arrow Cross party, which was effectively the Hungarian Nazi movement. The building was later taken over by the communist Secret Police, which is the justification for combining exhibits relevant to both periods. But you can't compare the communist regime with the Holocaust: the Germans invaded Hungary in 1944 and Hungary then started shipping Jews to Auschwitz as fast as the railway could possibly carry them. Over four hundred thousand Jews were killed within a few months. The communist period in Hungary really has nothing to compare with it. In context, though, the joined exhibit (with what is reportedly a much greater emphasis on the Communist period) tends to ameliorate the impression of the Arrow Cross, by de-emphasising the fact that it was really an organisation devoted to murdering Jews. This is troubling, particularly since the current Hungarian regime is effectively in a coalition with Jobbik, a sort of neo-fascist party that regards the Arrow Cross party as a spiritual predecessor.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:32 AM on February 12 [2 favorites]


Regarding the statue: it has already been made, and Viktor Orban gets what Viktor Orban wants, so it will be erected. FIDESZ is mainly concerned about its prestige abroad. They don't like the fact that every time they visit Washington or Brussels some journalist or Senator asks them about why they are rehabilitating yet another war criminal.

Regarding the idea that the Holocaust is equivalent to the persecution of anti-communists, for one thing there is a gross difference in scale. And Jews - who mostly self-identified as "ethnic Hungarians of Jewish religion" - were taken away in vastly greater numbers not because of any political views they (or their children) may have held, but because they were Jews as defined by Hungarian law - laws adopted years before the Nazis got around to defining and restricting Jewish life in Germany, and which served as a blueprint for the German laws. These laws were the legacy of Admiral Horthy and his administration. This does not diminish the victimhood of somebody who perished in the Gulag or in 1956.

For a sense of the historical details of the Horthy debate, try reading Columbia University Prof. Istvan Deak's letter about the proposed monument "A monument of self-pity and self-justification"

Ever since the collapse of comunism in 1989, Hungarian political parties have tried to establish some continuity, real or imagined - to past political establishments. FIDESZ has been trying to rehabilitate the Horthy era since the 1990s, when Horthy's reburial ceremony in 1993 coincided with FIDESZ' abrupt turn towards the nationalist right. They also use right wing rehabilitations of historical war criminals such as the Transylvanian Hungarian writer Wass Albert (winner of two German Iron Crosses for his antisemitic writings) and the Arrow Cross party politician, antisemitic writer and condemned war criminal József Nyírő to attract voters who would normally be in the far-right Jobbik camp. In 2012 the FIDESZ Minister of Culture, Geza Szucs, then actually smuggled Nyírő's ashes back into Transylvania (in neighboring Romania) in a plastic shopping bag for a memorial ceremony and a surreptitious reburial. That caused writer Elie Wiesel to return his Hungarian Grand Cross Order of Merit medal.
posted by zaelic at 3:54 AM on February 12 [11 favorites]


Zaelic: Avram Hershko (Herskó Ferenc) won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his discovery of the role of the human protein ubiquitin. He was born in Hungary, but was rounded up with the rest of his family and shipped off as a slave labor for the Reich. At that he was lucky: half the Jews of Karcag were slaughtered outright.

The story goes that Hershko was invited to a ceremony in Budapest as a Hungarian Nobel Prize winner. He declined, on the grounds that he was a Nobel Prize winner of Hungarian extraction.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:07 AM on February 12 [2 favorites]


the debate indelibly attached to this government funded statute will certainly define how people will view it

I don't think a debate can be indelibly attached to anything. Presumably the statue will last hundreds of years. If there's no mention of the Holocaust on it, will people viewing it generations from now have any clue that it memorializes that, as opposed to ordinary victims of war?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:15 AM on February 12 [3 favorites]


"I'm struggling to see why this is a bad thing. Should some suffering and death be privileged over other suffering and death? The links don't really make a case, other than to say that the motivation for opening the House of Terror site was political and an attempt to make the current socialist party look bad. Even if that is the case it doesn't detract from the oppression of the communist regime."

The undercurrent to all of this is the steep rise in the whole spectrum of Holocaust denial from 'didn't happen' to 'didn't happen enough', virulent exterminationalist antisemitism, and the fact that jackbooted and violent neo-Nazis are the third largest party in Hungary as well as currently a part of the governing coalition. Hungary was, at the time, an enthusiastic ally of Nazi Germany to the end in what both the government and wider population saw as a battle against Bolshevism, ethnic neighbors, and "the Jews." Equating communist occupation and Nazi collaboration as catastrophes that befell Hungary is an especially ugly lie in what it says about responsibility for the deaths of the hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews who were efficiently packed off by Hungarians.
posted by Blasdelb at 4:33 AM on February 12 [10 favorites]


Fascism and anti-Semitism were not confined to Germany before 1939, and this history should not be effaced.
posted by thelonius at 5:27 AM on February 12 [5 favorites]


The article by Ungváry linked in the post is really good, if you'd like a rundown of the currents flowing under these external symbols. I got a lot out of it.
posted by gimonca at 5:40 AM on February 12


From the Ungváry commentary:

Perhaps I can end with a modest proposal. Officially, not a single woman was deported from Hungary without being subjected to a vaginal examination, to ensure that no national asset of value left the country. We have very precise records of the work carried out by the women who did the cavity searches. We also know that, in order not to waste the nation’s money and for the sake of speed, these women did not change their rubber gloves: they used one glove all day without disinfection.... But if authorities do nonetheless want to build a monument, then let them build one to the women who carried out those cavity searches. The location, on Szabadsag ter, is perfect, because it’s right in front of the National Bank of Hungary, and so it would serve as a fine reminder of the symbolism of that concern for the nation’s assets.
posted by Sophie1 at 6:51 AM on February 12 [6 favorites]


MartinWisse: "Equating the victims of these two events sends the message that both were caused by a foreign oppressor against the will of the Hungarian people, when the reality was that at least some Hungarians were equal and willing participants in the deportation."

Human memory is ephemerally short, and the Hungarians who collectively embraced the Germans during World War II and shipped nearly half a million Jews to slaughter are now either past retirement age or dead. Their descendents would rather sweep the dead under the rug than hold themselves accountable for the sins of their parents, and in doing so they may well be on the path to repeating them. The Jobbik party leader, Gábor Vona, wants to register Jews who pose a "national security risk". Perhaps he'll succumb to nostalgia and issue them yellow Magen Davids to wear at all times, too.

Meanwhile, Germany itself has literally spent decades since denazification transparently examining, debating and taking responsibility for the genocide, while banning Nazis from public fora. Hungary would do well to follow the example they're setting.
posted by zarq at 7:13 AM on February 12 [8 favorites]


It's nitpicky & this is a serious subject but could a mod please fix the link at the top to say "statue" because I'm pretty sure nobody's unveiling a statute.
posted by scalefree at 7:15 AM on February 12 [1 favorite]


[Done.]
posted by cortex at 7:49 AM on February 12 [1 favorite]


That same sense of Hungarian victimhood, nurtured by Fidesz and by th linguistic isolation of the Hungarian people, is a danger not just to the few remaining Jews in Hungary, who can nowadays hop on a Schengen-assisted train ride to Vienna any time, but also to the Roma minority, and also to the nations surrounding Hungary, where Magyar minorities live on swaths of land that this narrative claims were stolen by the treaty of Trianon.

What's Hugnarian for "quitcherbitchin"?
posted by ocschwar at 7:55 AM on February 12


I've been to the House of Terror museum, and unless they have changed it substantially from when I last visited — which is possible, I haven't been to Hungary since 2005, and there have been significant changes in the government since then — it didn't make any links between those who died in 1956 and the Holocaust.

If anything, it painted those killed in 1956 as martyrs for Hungarian independence against the vile Soviet-Communist oppressor, rather than as passive victims, so I'm not sure that the parallel would really help make the point that the House of Terror is trying to make.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:00 AM on February 12 [1 favorite]


I also had the impression that the House of Terror didn't minimise the holocaust or present the Hungarians as passive victims of communism. Indeed, the impression I got was that they were trying to convince you that communism was bad by explicitly making connections between the fascists and the communists.

When you go in, the first thing you see are two, equally-sized, tombstone-like slabs: one black with the arrow-cross incised upon it, the other red with the star of the Communist Party. The first substantial part of the (museum? art exhibit? memorial?) deals with the Hungarian fascist party, their cod-Nazi posturing, their thuggishness, their prosecution of the holocaust.

When you transition to the communist period, much is made of the continuity between the groups: great emphasis is placed on how Arrow Cross enforcers formed the backbone of the communist secret police (ÁVH), and the Hungarian head of the ÁVH is the subject of a major room. There are many, many panels calling out specific Hungarians by name as being complicit in the communist regime and its crimes.

It's an uncomfortable place to visit, to be sure, but I didn't feel it was uncomfortable because it was, in any way, letting Hungarians off the hook.
posted by Dreadnought at 8:48 AM on February 12 [1 favorite]


ocschwar: "...is a danger not just to the few remaining Jews in Hungary, who can nowadays hop on a Schengen-assisted train ride to Vienna any time..."

Until suddenly they won't be able to anymore.
posted by zarq at 10:38 AM on February 12


"Until suddenly they won't be able to anymore."

Seriously, the early 1900s were an unprecedented time of freedom and security for Jews. Crypto-Jews who had been hidden hundreds to thousands of years came out of hiding and lived openly, and most everyone expected a new era of peace and prosperity until suddenly that ended. One of the big reasons the holocaust ensnared so many was just how inconceivable it was until it was way too late.
posted by Blasdelb at 10:58 AM on February 12 [1 favorite]


zarq: I am Jewish and live in Budapest. I honestly do not see much likelihood of outright violence against Hungarian Jews in the foreseeable future. Because of a political culture that is profoundly backwards-looking, orienting itself to the grievances of the past and never to the future, post 1989 Hungarian political language became stuck in the debates of the 1930s: a "folkist" (népi) populist countryside versus the "Urban" intellectual elite (identified as "Jewish" whether or not its spokesperson was, in fact, a Jew.) Hungarian political rhetoric is addicted to overstatement and "provokation" - violent language and troll behaviors are deeply ingrained in Hungarian discourse. Just read the comments on any post about Hungary that appears in the Economist or Politics.hu and you'll see how futile it can be to make sense of the Hungarian political situation. The comment sections of Hungarian language news sites like Mandiner.hu are even worse - most Hungarian news sites no longer allow commenting. It will come off as shocking to outsiders, but that is just how people here express themselves when they think they can get away with it without being identified (Hooray, Internet!)

The Jobbik difference is that they express themselves very publicly. They maintain an official web presence and an unofficial one, the shockingly antisemitic and racist web site Kuruc (I won't dignify it with a link) which is registered in the US and so it can't be shut down by Hungarian media authorities. You don't really even have to read Hungarian to be disgusted by it. It makes Der Sturmer look tame.

The situation is more dangerous here for the Roma - Jews may be the target of verbal abuse but thus far very little violence has been directed against Jewish individuals or institutions. In the public eye the Jobbik and its more radical sympathizers are most successful when they are seen to be physically taking action against the Roma. Of course, that could change, but you have to remember that we still have a large majority of "normal" people here, Police included, who do not identify with racism and civic violence, which is probably why no such physical attack on the Jewish community has yet occured. I truly wish I could say as much for attitudes about the Roma.
posted by zaelic at 12:22 PM on February 12 [8 favorites]


Blasdelb: I sort of agree, but these things are relative. When my grandfather was a student there were quotas on the entry of Jews to university. When his grandfather was the same age many towns didn't let Jews stay in their boundaries overnight. So yes, things had improved, but Jews were still legally and socially excluded, and the way Hungarians treated Jews during and after the war showed that their attitudes hadn't really changed.
posted by Joe in Australia at 1:18 PM on February 12


If you want some idea of what it was like to be a Jewish Hungarian in the spring and summer of 1944, read this chilling account in the ever reliable Hungarian Spectrum. Talk about the banality of evil.
posted by vac2003 at 1:33 PM on February 12 [2 favorites]


Blasdelb: "One of the big reasons the holocaust ensnared so many was just how inconceivable it was until it was way too late."

With the benefit of hindsight, the signs were on the wall starting in the late 1800's. Germany was definitely no longer welcoming to its Jews by the mid-20's, and totally hostile to us by the early 1930's. Around 15 years prior to the start of the Holocaust, newspapers were agitating for boycotts of Jewish businesses, which resulted in the Aryanization of many. Jews, communists and socialists were being shipped to internment camps (then called 'concentration camps') by then-Chancellor Hitler as early as 1933. The German government passed The Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service the same year. The Nuremberg race laws were passed in 1935.

There was definitely a buildup -- but as you say, the idea that Germany would try to slaughter all of its Jews, Roma, Gays etc., and then invade neighboring countries and do the same to their "non-Aryans" was inconceivable.
posted by zarq at 1:43 PM on February 12 [1 favorite]


I also had the impression that the House of Terror didn't minimise the holocaust or present the Hungarians as passive victims of communism. Indeed, the impression I got was that they were trying to convince you that communism was bad by explicitly making connections between the fascists and the communists.

I didn't quite get this impression. I really felt like the House of Terror was minimising Hungarian responsibility for what happened during the war. There's an early video which basically argues that Hungary had to fight alongside fascist Germany, rather than choosing to do so in order to regain lands lost after WWI. I felt like the Holocaust received little attention compared to the deportation of Hungarians to Russia after the war (a terrible thing, to be sure). Post WW2, the focus seemed to be on the Russian occupiers and the collaborators, but in a way that put the collaborators outside the mainstream - no sense that ordinary people were involved in any way - "us versus them".

Compare this to post-War/Communist memorials in places like Berlin, Leipzig, Krakow, which stress how many ordinary people were involved, especially the WW2 memorial in the Schindler Museum in Krakow, which has some incredibly moving first-person accounts by ordinary people who stood by and did nothing when confronted with evil, or who actively participated in it. I felt like the focus in Hungary was purely on the Hungarians as victims of tyranny (or heroic resistance fighters against it), whereas other European countries seemed to have a more naunced view.
posted by Pink Frost at 3:57 PM on February 12


It's depressing that a modern European government in a country whose Jewish population was decimated is now endorsing Holocaust denial lite

I bet the Hungarian government must be doing a great memorial for the Porajmos too
posted by knoyers at 9:47 PM on February 12


As zaelic says above, things are very, very scary for the Roma right now. Local government rhetoric and even social policy is really quite reminiscent of the 1930s.
posted by Joe in Australia at 11:13 PM on February 12


Zoltan Balog, Hungary's Human Resources minister, has reportedly challenged an opponent of the new memorial to debate [director of the state-sponsored Veritas Historical Research Institute] Sándor Szakály on television to help Hungarians obtain an authentic picture about the Holocaust.

Hungarian minister derides Jewish boycott
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:30 PM on February 13


Statue of Hungarian war leader forces Jews to live in the dark shadow of history
posted by homunculus at 1:19 PM on February 17


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