Under the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Hungary has gained the dubious distinction of rewriting history to rehabilitate war criminals and diminish its own guilt.
Hungary suffers from grave deficiencies in its Holocaust education, memory, and commemoration.
The country’s right-wing government has attempted to rehabilitate wartime figures as anti-communist icons. It inflates Hungary’s role in “saving” the Jews of Budapest and minimises discourse on their own complicity in deporting and killing Jews. State-appointed “historians” have relativized the horrors of the Holocaust, and often depict their own people as victims of what they say was Jewish-supported Communism.
Hungary has a large Jewish population of around 100,000 and is the home to some of the most beautiful Jewish sites in Europe, including the continent’s largest synagogue. Since 2014, with the exception of the Orthodox Chabad, the Jewish community has had strained relations with the government.
The Holocaust in Hungary
After a failed communist revolution, Admiral Miklós Horthy was named Regent in 1920. That year, Hungary introduced a law “numerous clausus,” limiting the share of Jewish students in universities. As a consequence, many Jews continued their studies in Austria, Germany, or France – several of them became Nobel Laureates or acclaimed scientists and artists, such as mathematicians and computer scientists. John von Neumann, photographer Robert Capa, and orchestra conductor Georgy Solti are examples of this.
Hungary grew closer to fascist Germany and Italy in the 1930s. From 1938 onwards, Hungary passed four race laws to control Jewish life, disfranchisement and confiscating Jewish property. The country joined the Axis alliance in November 1940 and helped the Germans invade Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union in 1941. German and Italian assistance helped the Horthy regime regain territory lost in the Treaty of Versailles.
In the summer of 1941, Hungary deported around 20,000 Jews from their annexed territories. Despite this initial step and mounting German pressure, Hungary’s Prime Minister Miklos Kallay refused to deport additional Jews.
After Hungary suffered losses together with the Nazis at Stalingrad, the Hungarian dictator Horthy realised that the Axis were going to lose the war. Horthy tried to negotiate a separate armistice with the Allies after 1943. Germany responded by occupying Hungary in March 1944.
The German occupation began efforts to deport the Jews en masse. In April 1944, the Hungarian authorities began rounding up Hungarian Jews. In the span of 100 days, around 440,000 Jews from the countryside were deported from Hungary by the Hungarian
gendarmerie and other authorities; most would die in Auschwitz.
In reply to warnings from abroad Horthy ordered to halt the deportations of Jews in Budapest and negotiated with the Allies. The Germans responded in October 1944 by organizing a coup d’état, installing the far-right Arrow Cross party. The Arrow Cross regime forced the remaining Jews in Budapest into a ghetto and terrorised and killed Jewish citizens across the city.
In January 1945, Hungary signed an armistice with the Soviets. The last of the German and Arrow Cross forces were driven out by April 1945.
In 1941, around 825,000 Jews lived in Hungary, including the newly acquired territories. Around 565,000 Jews were killed during the war, leaving only 260,000 survivors. Many of these Jews chose to emigrate to Israel in the early post-war years, and after the failed 1956 revolution. Today, around 100,000 Jews live in the country, almost all in Budapest.
-1989–1990: End of Communist Dictatorship
-2000-2001: Introduction of the observance of Holocaust Remembrance Day in public schools
-2002: Hungary joins the IHRA
-24 February 2002: House of Terrors established
-April 2004: Inauguration of the Holocaust Memorial Centre in Budapest
-2004: Opening of the new permanent Hungarian exhibition at the Auschwitz Memorial
-16 April 2005: Shoes on the Danube Bank erected
-November 2012: MP Marton Gyöngyösi’s (Jobbik) hateful remarks
-March 2013: The Fourth Amendment of the Hungarian Fundamental Law
-November 2013: Horthy bust unveiled
-2014: 70th Anniversary of Deportations in Hungary
-2 January 2014: Inauguration of Veritas Institute
-20 July 2014: Erection of “Memorial to the victims of the German Occupation"
-2 August 2014: Inauguration of the Centre for Gypsy History, Culture, Education and Study of the Holocaust
-2015: Hungary chairs the IHRA
-27 January 2017: Closing of the Centre for Gypsy History, Culture, Education and Study of
Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party engages in dangerous memory politics. When the party came to power in 2010, it appointed Andras Levente Gal to direct the Holocaust Memorial and Documentation Center in Budapest. According to Paul Shapiro of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Gal’s first proposal was to eliminate mention of Miklos Horthy’s alliance with Adolf Hitler and participation in the dismemberment of three neighbouring states—Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Yugoslavia—as “irrelevant” to the Holocaust.” Gal’s second proposal, Shapiro recounts, “was to sanitize the record of Hungarian participation in the ghettoization and deportation of the country’s Jews and placed full blame for the destruction of Hungarian Jewry on Germany.” The resulting international outcry led to Gal’s dismissal.
Fidesz persisted in rewriting history. Alongside whitewashing Hungarian collaboration and complicity, the government has rehabilitated individuals involved in the Holocaust, including Admiral Horthy. Prime Minister Orban has praised him for reconquering lost territories. Several towns have erected statues or placed plaques on buildings in his honour. Busts of Horthy still stand across the country, despite his record of virulent anti-Semitism. According to Shapiro, Horthy wrote “with pride to his Prime Minister in 1940, ‘I have been an anti- Semite my whole life,” and to Adolf Hitler in May 1943, “The measures that I have imposed have, in practice, deprived the Jews of any opportunity to practice their damaging influence on public life.”
In 2014, the Jewish community broke from the government over Holocaust revisionism. Mos of the community refused government money, particularly because of the statue in Liberty Square and the comments of Veritas director, Sandor Szakály, in calling the deportation of 23,000 Jews a “police action against aliens.” Over the past few years, Orban has supported thinly-veiled anti-Semitic campaigns, particularly against Hungarian born financier and free market civil activist George Soros.
Not all developments are negative. Hungary has good infrastructure to combat antisemitism and Holocaust revisionism. The 2013 amendment of the Hungarian Fundamental Law criminalised hate speech and allowed individuals to file civil lawsuits for Holocaust denial. Hungary has no statute of limitation for Nazi crimes and it has outlawed the use of totalitarian symbols, including those of the Arrow Cross. The government has even acknowledged that Hungarians had a role in the Holocaust, a step which has proven difficult for some other post-communist countries.
In 2012, Fidesz proposed a problematic revision of Hungary’s national public school curriculum.
The main concern was the inclusion of books by three interwar anti-Semitic authors: Jozsef Nyiro, Albert Wass, and Dezso Szabo. “Jews are the most serious and deadly enemy of Hungarians,” designating Judaism “a tribal superstition exalted as a religion,” Deszo Szabo wrote. The Romanian government convicted Albert Wass of war crimes, including complicity in the documented murder of two Jews. Teachers were not be required to provide any political biographical information about the authors. Hungarian Jewish organizations petitioned the government to remove these “anti-Semites” from the curriculum, without success.
The curriculum revisited the Holocaust itself. It identified Hungarian losses in World War I as their greatest national tragedy and suggested equivalency between the Holocaust and Hungarian military losses at Stalingrad during World War II. Information relating to Jewish history and the contributions of Jews to Hungarian intellectual, cultural, and economic life were minimised.
The new curriculum undermined considerable progress made after the fall of communism. Hungarian elementary school students are introduced to how hate can lead to the Holocaust. By the time students reach secondary school, the focus of Holocaust education turns to the persecution of Hungarian Jews and the genocide. Although the Holocaust is taught primarily within the history curriculum, the topic spills over into the literature curriculum, when secondary school students are assigned Imre Kertész’s novel Fateless about the experiences of an adolescent boy in concentration camps.
The United States Embassy sponsors training sessions on Holocaust education for teachers
in Hungary. Annually in July, the USC Shoah Foundation holds six day long Holocaust
lesson seminars at Central European University. But these training sessions seem to have
little impact. Only 17 Hungarian teachers attended the July 2018 seminar. No training
sessions serve to specifically combat the issue of removing blame on Hungary for its
participation in the Holocaust.
Hungary demonstrates serious deficiencies in its commemorating of the Holocaust. On August 2, 2014, for the 70th anniversary of the deportations in the country, the government funded the “Centre for Gypsy History, Culture, Education and Study of the Holocaust”. On January 27, 2017, the same centre closed its door, defunded without controversy, criticism or prior warning.
Other Hungarian museums are controversial.
The House of Terror recounts “terror” of totalitarian regimes, Communist and Nazi alike. It has only one room on the Holocaust and around twenty on the Communist period, diminishing the unique tragedy of the Holocaust and relativizing its horrors with those of the Communist era. The competition of victimhood is therefore the guiding philosophy behind the house.
The exhibition carries the undertone that the communists were Jews, with the Jewish origins of the perpetrators “clearly evident”. Maria Schmidt, a state-appointed historian, has been the director of the museum since its founding. In 1994, Schmidt published a paper trying to “prove” that the postwar Communist regime in Hungary was more oppressive than the pro-Nazi wartime Hungarian government. In response, renowned Holocaust scholar Randolf L. Braham dubbed Schmidt “a formerly budding Holocaust scholar turned into an ardently nationalist Holocaust distorter”.
Schmidt’s influence extends beyond the House of Terror. She has been appointed the director of the House of Fates, a new museum under construction. The name, House of Fates, derives from Imre Kertesz’s ‘Fatelessness’ about a child’s experience in Auschwitz. Some fear the new museum’s name implies it was the fate of the Jews to die in the Holocaust. The museum is scheduled to be housed is the former train station from which many Jews were deported during the war.
Holocaust-era crimes against Jewish citizens are often compared to the crimes against non-Jewish citizens. In the government’s 2014 “Memorial to the Victims of the German Occupation,” a German eagle swooping down upon Archangel Gabriel, who represents Hungary, downplaying Hungary’s complicity and role in the Holocaust and the deportation of Jews. At the time it was unveiled, 16 Jewish organisations withdrew from the project and the leadership of the Jewish community cut off all formal relations with the government, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recalled Israeli Ambassador to Hungary. The statue still stands, frozen with no official opening ceremony because of the protests. It symbolizes the government’s refusal to acknowledge the Holocaust as a unique violence committed against groups of people. Since 2014, civilians have built and guarded a makeshift protest exhibition of Holocaust memorabilia in front of the monument.
Despite these controversies, the government is responsible for some positive initiatives. April 16th is commemorated as National Holocaust Remembrance Day, and August 2nd as the Commemoration of the Roma and Sinti Genocide. On April 16th, it is mandatory for school children to commemorate the Holocaust. Finally, the Shoes on the Danube Bank monument, erected in 2005, commemorates murdered by Arrow Cross rule, their bodies dumped into the Danube.
Archives in Hungary are open and free, although one needs to prove they are connected to an academic institution. There is still work to be done on the digitisation of archives, although the National Cultural Fund of Hungary has been funding the digitisation process. The various archives are all state-owned, with the exception of the Archive of the Jewish Museum, which has some useful material on survivors of the Holocaust.
As in other post-communist countries, the government nationalised Hungarian Jewish property during the war. During the communist era many Jewish communal buildings were converted to other uses or demolished. Since the end of communism, communal properties including many of the synagogues have been returned.
In the mid 1990s, the Socialist government of Gyorgy Horn agreed on a settlement with the
Vatican over the Church’s lost communal property. A restitution agreement was also reached with the MAZSIHISZ representing Hungarian Jewry. The annual restitution is distributed between all Jewish groups, except the reform Jewish communities do not receive any part of these funds, because the government deregistered them as an official “Church.”
Personal property disputes have proved difficult to settle. In 1994, Hungary created MAZSOK to address property claims and paid annuities to Holocaust survivors. In 2007, an additional $21 million was promised to MAZSOK. Compensation bonds only amounted to a small portion of the actual value of the lost estate, were only redeemable in Hungary, and have now devalued.
Hungary’s record of returning stolen art is poor. Heirs of the Hungarian banker Baron Mor Lipot Herzog filed a lawsuit in 2010, demanding the return of more than 40 pieces, including paintings, sculptures and other works by masters such as El Greco, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Zurbarán, van Dyck, Velázquez and Monet. Lawyers are also asked the Hungarian government for an accounting of all art from the Herzog family in its possession. The case remains unresolved.
In December 2018, Stuart E. Eizenstat, an expert adviser to the State Department, singled out Hungary for foot dragging on returning art stolen during World War II. The wartime Hungarian government had “sanctioned the confiscation of artworks and cultural property” from its Jewish citizens. Speaking in Berlin, Eizenstat said “Unfortunately, I cannot report any change of attitude by the current Hungarian government. They have refused to return these artworks to their rightful owners. They have refused to take their historic responsibility for the systematic looting of art from their Jewish citizens.”
Some museums in Hungary have researched the provenance of works in their collections but that research has not been made public. And while there is a state order in Hungary about restituting artworks in public museums. Eizenstat said, “only claimants of non-Jewish origin have received any works back.”
Change over Time
After the collapse of communism, Hungary made a good start in coming to terms with the Holocaust. During Viktor Orban’s first term as Prime Minister (1998-2002), the coalition government that he led established a national Holocaust Commemoration Day and brought Hungary into the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). The government also appointed a commission to create a Holocaust Memorial and Documentation Center in Budapest.
Although the Socialist Party governments from 2002-2010 remained on this positive path, storm clouds formed during this period. The neo-Nazi, Holocaust revisionist, far-right Jobbik, formed in 2003, emerged as a powerful force. It started a militia reviving Arrow Cross symbols and uniforms. Fidesz party failed to join with other major political parties in forceful condemnation of Jobbik’s anti-Semitic and anti-Romani sloganeering. The stage was set for Viktor Orban to return to power – and Holocaust revisionism.
The opposition is split between a large number of parties belonging to various political streams. Outspoken antisemitism long has been limited to the far-rght Jobbik, an ultra-nationalist party. Formed in 2003, Jobbik’s leader has a neo-Nazi track record. It created the Hungarian Guard in 2007 – a paramilitary organisation that struck a chilling resemblance to the Arrow Cross. Although the movement was banned in 2009, Gabor Vona, the leader of the party, threw off his jacket in a swearing-in ceremony in 2014 to display the Guard’s “fascist-like uniform”.
One report on antisemitism in Hungary claimed that there is a strong statistical relationship between party preference and anti-Semitism, with 40% of their respondents who supported Jobbik strongly anti-Semitic, and another 20% moderately anti-Semitic. Among supporters of Fidesz and left-wing political parties, this proportion was purportedly much lower.
Jobbik is undergoing a change. Since 2013, its leaders have attempted to reform their image and have become more centrist. Empirical research done on parliamentary speeches of the party even revealed that anti-Roma sentiment virtually disappeared and the party now, while still highly conservative, has been lauded by some members of the Jewish community and heralded as a way to fight Fidesz. The far-right within the party have since split, to form the fascist Our Homeland Movement (Mi Hazánk Mozgalom).
Civil society has a mixed record when it comes to Holocaust memory.
The Church plays a large role in civil society, with over 50% of the country identifying as Christian, and the KDNP (Christian Democratic People's Party) in a ruling alliance with Fidesz, although the party itself is more of a satellite of Fidesz. Correspondingly, the position of the Church leaders reflects government: while they acknowledge the horrible suffering that the Jews underwent, they do not take any responsibility. Certain churches contribute to the rehabilitation of wartime criminals. Near to the “Memorial to the victims of the German Occupation" is a Calvinist Church which in 2013 unveiled a statue to Horthy at whose ceremony Jobbik MP Márton Gyöngyösi praised the leader.
Hungary has, however, quite a few positive and proactive educational groups. The Tom Lantos Institute, which is partly government funded, has great international ties and works independently as a research institute and think-tank with a focus on human and minority rights in Central-Eastern Europe and the Western Balkan.
Hungary’s government has moved to shackle its press. Freedom House reports: While private, opposition-aligned media outlets exist, national, regional, and local media are increasingly dominated by pro-government outlets, which are frequently used to smear political opponents. The closure in 2016 of Hungary’s largest independent daily, Népszabadság, represented a serious blow to media diversity.
State media heavily favors the government and government initiatives. Journalist have been banned from the parliament building at times. The U.S. State Department has raised similar concern over laws “broadened the range of views whose expression was illegal” and “concentrated authority over the media in a single government body with wide-ranging authorities.” A report for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe warned that the legislation introduced “stricter regulation, more pervasive controls and limitations on freedom of expression.”
The crackdown extends to dealing with the Holocaust, Roma and Jews. History cleansers created a documentary in December 1998 to exonerate the gendarmerie “not only by placing ultimate responsibility on the Germans but also by focusing on the law-abiding attitude of the Jews”, and played this film on Hungarian television. Sándor Szakály, the future director of the Veritas Institute, was one of the “experts” involved in the documentary. In July 2018 Beatrix Siklósi was appointed the director of the Hungarian National Television's cultural channel, M5. Siklósi is a notorious racist and anti-Semite. The largest Hungarian Jewish organization Mazsihisz protested. The station withdrew religious shows from Siklosi’s purview but left her in charge of content concerning national minorities and Hungarians abroad.
Theater poses similar problems. In June, 2018, the play Trianon Rock, was performed, portraying Horthy as a hero, and Hungary as a nation sympathetic to the Jews. The Kava Theatre presented trauma project covering all of the great national traumas – Trianon, Roma murders, and the Holocaust. The heads of theatre are increasingly government appointed, leading the Financial Times to lament the politicisation of Hungarian theater: “There is the outspoken theatre director unable to make a speech because no venue manager dare grant him a stage for fear of official reprisals”.
A rare bright sign is visible in film. In 2017, the film 1945 was released. It deals with two Jewish men who have returned to a village after the Holocaust, and the villagers’ reactions to them, and was met with critical acclaim. The 2015 film, Son of Saul, is centred on a Hungarian-Jewish prisoner in Auschwitz and won the Grand Prix in the 68th Cannes Film Festival.
The Jewish community counts around 100,000 Jewish members, and is divided.
The traditional MAZSIHISZ leadership criticises the government, breaking with it over the issue of Holocaust revisionism. In contrast the Chabad -un EMIH seems more cooperative. It even endorsed a Fidesz candidate, much to the criticism of other Jewish leaders. EMIH is taking over the House of Fates from the government while still granting Maria Schmidt a position. They have therefore been accused of complicity in whitewashing the Holocaust and have been involved in bitter fights with MAZSIHISZ.
A larger issue concerns religious freedom.
Hungary’s constitution promotes religious freedom and encourages separation between church and state. The “Religion Law” of 1990 gave many religious groups “registered” status, although only four groups are deemed “historic” by the state and receive government funding: the Roman Catholic Church, the Calvinist Church, the Lutheran Church, and the Alliance of Hungarian Jewish Communities. The Orban government has threatened to undermine liberal democracy in Hungary by passing legislation consolidating control over the media, institutions, and now religion.
The “Law on the Right to Freedom of Conscience and Religion, and on Churches, Religions, and Religious Community” was adopted on July 2011. Only 14 of the 358 registered religious groups in Hungary were granted formal recognition. With the bill’s passage, the other religious movements lost their “registered status.” They no longer received the budgetary allocation provided in support of their social and charitable work.
In order to be legally recognized, groups had to meet seven different criteria and a two-thirds parliamentary majority must approve the registration application. The passage of this Religion Law has been one of the most disturbing examples of a serious setback of human rights and the rule of law in Hungary. The legislation contravenes OSCE, European Union, Council of Europe, European Court of Human Rights, and United Nations standards because it clearly discriminates against minority religious groups.
In 2011, the two progressive Jewish congregations (Bet Orim and Sim Shalom) lost their official church status. Despite the successful appeals to and favourable decisions of the Constitution Court of Hungary and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, the government has not changed the status of the two congregations and has not reinstated their rights to access tax rebates and financial assistance.
Early December 2018, the government submitted a revised “Church Law” to Parliament. It fails to resolve the problems highlighted by many international organisations and courts.
-Author: Caderyn Owen-Jones, research assistance by Lauren Watrobsky.