Hungary: A Memory War On War Memory

2014. március 17. 11:21

They deserved more. The victims of World War II, especially of the year 1944, the year the Hungarian Holocaust began. They deserve a collective, national commemoration. And it could have happened, maybe still could. But the bitter conflicts in the Hungarian Kulturkampf have seemingly ruined the possibility of an honest, collective payment of respects. Did the government fail? Does the boycott of Hungarian Jewish organisations make any sense and can it serve a real purpose?

It all started off so well. Last year, the Orbán Government declared that 2014 would be a Memorial Year for the Hungarian Holocaust. The government invited - among others - the leaders of the Public Endowment for Jewish Heritage in Hungary, the Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary, the Unified Israeli Community in Hungary, the Autonomous Orthodox Community of Israel in Hungary, the Hungarian Cultural Association and the National Association of Forced Laborers, in addition to the president of the board of trustees of the March of the Living Foundation and several ministers of government to form a commission to prepare and to implement the program for the memorial year.

Prior to the memorial year, Hungary hosted the World Jewish Congress in 2013, where prime minister Viktor Orbán said in a speech that

"History has taught the Hungarians that anti-Semitism must be recognised in time. Hungary lived through and is intimately aware of the inhumane destruction that anti-Semitism caused to the Jewish people, Hungary and the whole of Europe. It is with a broken heart that we bow our heads in memory of the victims. And at the same time we thank God that despite the Nazi and Arrow Cross destruction, an authentic Jewish community, one of Europe’s most significant and ancient Jewish communities, managed to survive here in Hungary. We thank God that he has enriched all of Hungary as a result. We have also learned that anti-Semitism isn’t a natural disaster but the work of men. And as a result we must all feel and accept our own, personal responsibility."

Last year, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Justice Tibor Navracsics stated:

"The Hungarian state, which operated the institutional system, and which according to our studies followed a thousand-year cultural tradition, had turned against its own citizens and in fact helped in the extermination of its citizens. Minister Lapid said that he did not want to be rude to his host, but he had no choice but to state that the Hungarians are also responsible for the Holocaust. I, as his host, say to Mr. Lapid that he was not rude. We know that we are also responsible for the Holocaust! And we know that the institutions of the Hungarian state were responsible for the Holocaust. It would be easy for me, as a late successor of [wartime] Hungary's Minister of Justice, to avoid all responsibility in the way we were taught to avoid responsibility in the seventies and eighties; that wasn’t us, those were other Hungarians, we don't need to bother with them. But it was us! We know. Even if I and thank God my family are not personally affected, they were Hungarians; the perpetrators were Hungarians, it was Hungarians who fired the shots and it was Hungarians who died, and this is a huge responsibility that we here in Hungary and in Central Europe must face."

And one could quote other politicians or diplomats of the current government who have spoken honestly and used the right words about the responsibility of the state of Hungary and of Hungarians for the Holocaust in Hungary.

There are many reasons to question and criticize the Orbán Government. But to label it, as some have, as anti-Semitic and harboring anti-Semitic sentiments just doesn't stand up to serious scrutiny. It's wrong, and it's important to underline that misreading before turning to the current controversy of the memorial year.

Three central issues here. The first one is about a sketchy drawing of a planned statue to remember Nazi Germany's invasion of Hungary in 1944. It depicts the German imperial eagle attacking a figure, the Archangel Gabriel, that symbolizes Hungary. It is a fact that the German army began to occupy Hungary in March 1944, and the deportation of the Jewish people began afterward, but even prior to the occupation the state of Hungary was not innocent. Afterall, it was already at that point the ally of Nazi Germany in the war. The unfortunate symbolism has provoked disputes about the real meaning of the statue, although no one has seen any further or more detailed plans for the monument. And another failure of the whole process was the fact that there was simply no process. There were no real discussions about plans for such a monument. Decisions were made and announced as fait accompli. Currently, because all decisions about the statue have been postponed until after the election, we have no idea what will become of it, or whether it will be built at all.

The second issue concerns some controversial remarks by the director of a new center for research on Hungarian history, the Veritas Institute. The director, Sándor Szakály, was speaking about the first deportation from Hungary of mostly immigrant Jews to the eastern European war zone in 1941. The deportation led to the Kamianets-Podilskyi Massacre. Szakály said that the deportation was in fact a "procedure to control immigration." He later apologized for his comment, but the damage was done. Without getting into the details of the historical controversy here, neglecting to mention and explain for the broader public that the deportation of people from Hungary ended up in their massacre is not just an unfortunate mistake but an insensitive offense against our common memory.

The third issue is the House of Fates, a new Holocaust memorial center planned for Budapest. It has the potential to be the least controversial party of the story. The new exhibition takes up the simple and straight-forward mission of showing and explaining the horror of the Holocaust to younger generations. There were and still are talks with several Jewish organisations about the memorial center. It's difficult to imagine how they could not find an acceptable outcome in the end.

But the three issues together add up to a lot and MAZSIHISZ, Hungary’s largest Jewish association, has declared a boycott of state-sponsored events of the Holocaust Memorial Year unless Prime Minister Orbán cancels the planned statue, Mr. Szakály resigns and the project of the House of Fates is stopped. Is the MAZSIHISZ boycott reasonable?

The statue project needs some rethinking, certainly. Careful reflection should be given to the decision to appoint Mr Szakály who may not be the ideal choice to lead a new institute whose goal is to search for the truth. But the House of Fates might be a good and acceptable project in the end.

Both parties have to commit to serious dialogue to find an acceptable compromise. The Holocaust Memorial Year is not just about these three, sad affairs. On the contrary, there are many events planned as part of the program with which people can remember the tragic events of 1944.

The sensitivities of the Jewish organizations and the people behind them is understandable. One cannot say that the leaders of the affected communities were adequately consulted and brought into the conversation. The problem is that in the case of the planned statue there weren't any debates at all.

But looking at the big picture - the statements of senior Hungarian leadership about Hungary's historic responsibility, the willingness of the government to devote a year-long series of events to remember the tragedy of the Holocaust - a boycott at this point in the debate seems to be - sorry to say - an over-reaction.

A boycott can certainly stigmatize a government that made mistakes - a government that neglected open communication and negotiation. But a boycott also closes doors for those who announced the boycott. While most Hungarians haven't even noticed the news about the boycott, it's announcement feeds the anger of the worst elements, those with anti-Semitic tendencies, and embitters those who would like to build stronger ties between Hungary's Jewish and non-Jewish communities. All that is without mentioning the fact that we are in the middle of an electoral campaign in Hungary, and all these conflicts are exploited in the daily mud-slinging, from the radical right to the left.

Now that's what the victims of the Holocaust really do not deserve.

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