Not Just a Phase
Nora Berend and Christopher Clark on the Hungarian government’s attempts to rewrite the country’s past
This summer, a new monument appeared in Budapest’s Liberty Square. Amid a copse of truncated white marble pillars stands the metal figure of a slender young man. Wrapped from hips to feet in windswept drapery, he opens his arms to the sky. In his right hand he bears the orb of political authority surmounted by the Hungarian double-barred cross. Wings sprout from his shoulder blades. His expression is one of seraphic tranquillity, which is odd, because swooping down on him is a monstrous eagle bolted together from shards of gleaming black metal, its features convulsed into a mask of malevolence, its talons poised to snatch the orb. The young man is the archangel Gabriel, newly engaged as patron and symbol of the Magyar nation. The eagle (though it bears an uncanny resemblance to the bird that decorates the German Bundestag today) represents Nazi Germany. The monument commemorates the German invasion of Hungary in March 1944.
The new monument in Liberty Square.
Liberty Square has long been a space where memories of the Hungarian past are contested. The square itself is the result of an act of historical erasure. It extends across the space once occupied by the Újépület barracks, in which Hungarian national leaders were imprisoned by the Austrians in the aftermath of the Revolutions of 1848-49. Today it boasts both an imposing monument over the grave of Red Army soldiers killed in the siege of Budapest, one of the last Soviet memorials left in the city, and a life-sized statue of a grinning Ronald Reagan, erected in 2011. Even the Soviet war memorial sits on the foundations of an earlier monument that mourned the lands taken from Hungary under the terms of the Treaty of Trianon, imposed by the victors of the First World War.
From early April, when construction began, there have been demonstrations every afternoon against Budapest’s latest national memorial. Armed police guarded the building site, videoing protesters and demanding to see identity cards. The structure was completed at the dead of night and there was no public unveiling ceremony. It is still under police guard. There has been a chorus of criticism from historians, art critics and other public intellectuals in Hungary and abroad. It is hard to disagree with the Hungarian art historian József Mélyi, who described the memorial as ‘academic kitsch with faulty symbolism and execution’.
But the roots of the current controversy lie in the iconography of the monument itself. The eagle swoops from a stylised classical pediment inscribed with the words ‘To the Victims of the German Occupation’. The message is reinforced by a stone slab bearing the English dedication ‘To the Memory of Victims’, with translations in German, Russian and Hebrew, though the text is unidiomatic in every language (the Hebrew phrase has been split in two and the sections carved in the wrong order by someone unaware that Hebrew is read from right to left).
The monument portrays the Hungarian nation, represented by an angelic figure, as the hapless ‘victim’ of Nazi violence. In fact, Hungary was one of the chief beneficiaries of Axis policy. Under the First Vienna Award of 1938, Germany and Italy presented Hungary with territory in Czechoslovakia and Subcarpathia. In 1939, the Hungarian army occupied the rest of Subcarpathia and part of eastern Slovakia. Following the Second Vienna Award of 1940, Hungary reclaimed Northern Transylvania, lost under the terms of the Trianon Treaty, and later joined in the invasion of Yugoslavia, securing yet more territory. On 27 June 1941, five days after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the Hungarian prime minister László Bárdossy declared that a state of war had ‘occurred’ between Hungary and the Soviet Union and the country entered the war on the side of the Axis.
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Vol. 36 No. 24 · 18 December 2014
Nora Berend and Christopher Clark start from the assumption that there is and should be only one history of Hungary (LRB, 20 November). The problem, to which they do not allude, is that Hungarian society is deeply segmented and polarised, with each segment constructing its own version of the Hungarian past. Berend and Clark appear to espouse the version favoured by the Hungarian liberal current. That is perfectly legitimate, but it does rather ignore the pasts constructed by the other segments. The national version is the one favoured by the government, and it is entirely at odds with the ones put forward by the liberals and the socialists (they differ in some respects). To these may be added a Jewish and a Roma version, as well as a women’s history. I suspect that Jobbik too is busy creating its own variant, looking primarily at shamanism rather than Christianity. None of these is or should be canonical.
On a more specific point, Berend and Clark might have added that the monument in Szabadság tér (Freedom Square) is intended to commemorate all the victims of the 1944 German occupation, many of whom were not Jewish. On a recent visit to the square I noted that the monument was surrounded by a large number of mementos, both Jewish and non-Jewish. This indicates a degree of popular identification with the monument, but there was also a poster denouncing it as a falsification of history.
It should be acknowledged that the German occupation was a necessary condition for the Holocaust in Hungary, but it was not sufficient. Once the country was occupied, the Hungarian state machinery did, indeed, participate actively and brutally in the deportations to Auschwitz. But it would have been worth adding that in July 1944, Ferenc Koszorús intervened with the army units under his command to stop the gendarmerie from pursuing the deportation of the Jewish community in Budapest.
The Fidesz government, in October 2013, was the first in Hungary explicitly to accept responsibility for the Holocaust. As for the deplorable statement by a Jobbik MP that Jews in public positions should be listed, it was condemned by all other political parties, Fidesz included.
Berend and Clark write: ‘Half a million citizens of neighbouring countries who define themselves as ethnically Hungarian were given the vote.’ This is not correct. Anyone with forebears who were Hungarian citizens can claim citizenship and this includes, say, ethnic Serbs whose grandfathers were conscripted into the Hungarian army during the Second World War.
The EU is setting up a committee to look at the practice of fundamental rights in all 28 member states. It will be interesting to see if, as the authors imply, Hungary is at the bottom of the list. The chances are that many other EU member states will find such scrutiny more than awkward.
MEP for Hungary (Fidesz)
While everything in Nora Berend and Christopher Clark’s account of the present state of affairs in Hungary may be true, my contacts there see it in a rather different light, just as ordinary Russians are grateful to Putin for rescuing their country from the chaos which, as Hobbes maintained, is worse than almost any tyranny. We must not forget that Hungary was for some time occupied by the Turks, that its lost Calvinist province of Transylvania was better off under their rule than when ‘liberated’ by the Habsburgs (in fact an oasis of religious tolerance), that its bid for freedom was crushed by Austria in 1848, and that despite having rather reluctantly entered the 1914-18 war, it was dismembered by the Treaty of Trianon, which even ceded to Austria some of its erstwhile territory as well as assigning Transylvania to Romania, the Banat to Yugoslavia and Slovakia to the Czechs – all of them provinces with a large Hungarian minority.
In these circumstances, it was only too natural if Hungary found itself in some sympathy with recidivist Germany, which was in fact more leniently treated in the Treaty of Versailles. There followed at the end of the Second World War a period of brutal Russian occupation – confirmed after the crushing of the Hungarian revolt that, as it turned out, was the beginning of the end of the Soviet empire. The succession state when that empire broke up was not a success, foreign occupation having effectively destroyed what had once been a democracy on the 19th-century British model, leaving the country in the charge of corrupt functionaries left behind by the communists. We should surely now help the Orbán regime to develop however slowly into a modern Western state rather than expel it from the EU for finding itself in an impossible situation, and instead of pointing a finger at their political deficiencies, get the mote out of our own eyes.
One cannot defend the many egregious politicians running modern Hungary but Nora Berend and Christopher Clark’s analysis is crucially undermined by their omission of relevant facts. First, Budapest is unique among the cities of Central and Eastern Europe in that a significant number of Jews survived the war in Budapest. Historians may debate to what extent their survival was the result of Admiral Horthy’s passive resistance to some of Hitler’s policies. Second, Horthy was not simply ‘forced to abdicate’. An SS commando mission under Otto Skorzeny kidnapped his son and Wehrmacht units stormed the Buda castle.
Horthy undoubtedly had failings but under his rule feudal social arrangements and the fiction of Magyar supremacy were preserved for a population obsessed with the failings of Western peace-makers at Trianon. Compared with what followed there was a semblance of continuity. Not many Hungarians who experienced 1956 and its aftermath would agree with Berend and Clark’s astonishing assertion that the communist ‘interventions look quite restrained in retrospect’.
Nora Berend writes: The opposition is not between liberal and nationalist constructions, but between historical research and political myths – incorrect representations of the past that create legitimacy for the present. Hitler did not take control; Horthy retained power, and hosts of government employees participated in the deportations. Koszorús was no saviour of the Jews: he was ordered to Budapest with his troops to ward off a putsch Horthy (wrongly) suspected was being organised against him, and more than 23,000 Jews were deported from the suburbs of Budapest by the Hungarian state within days of Koszorús’s ‘intervention’. Horthy professed to be an anti-Semite; his authoritarian regime reintroduced open elections in the countryside, and used political anti-Semitism and extrajudicial methods such as the murder of journalists. Jews who survived did so after Szálasi’s takeover.
The monument on Szabadság tér was originally planned as a monument to the German occupation, as the official government gazette testifies. After popular protests, it was renamed as a monument to the victims. The mementos around it are not signs of popular identification with it, but of grassroots protest against the blurring of culprits and victims. The occasional admission of responsibility is rendered meaningless by government projects that blame the Germans.
Having forebears with Hungarian citizenship is not enough to claim it today; knowledge of Hungarian must be proven. Viktor Orbán, in a speech to Hungarians in Romania, declared that it was ‘a fitting punishment’ of ‘political forces who had voted against accepting Hungarians from outside the state boundaries that it was with the votes of those outside the borders that a two-thirds majority was achieved’. Liberal democracy, he said, has failed to protect national interests. Azerbaijan, Russia and Turkey are models to emulate: ‘what we are building in Hungary,’ he declared, ‘is an illiberal state.’