Why It Matters That Hungary’s Prime Minister Denounced His Country’s Role in the Holocaust

Is this tonal shift for real — or will the European nation continue to obfuscate its history?

Miklós Horthy at the annexation of south-east Czechoslovakia, Kassa (present-day Košice), 11 November 1938 (CC BY-SA 3.0)
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On an early page of Night, Elie Wiesel’s autobiographical account of the Holocaust, he recalls the Hungarian police’s orders as they echoed throughout his small Jewish ghetto. “Faster! Faster! Move, you lazy good-for-nothings!,” they screamed.

“That was when I began to hate them, and my hatred remains our only link today,” he writes. “They were our first oppressors. They were the first faces of hell and death.”

Wiesel’s family was not unique. Before the war’s end, the country’s leaders and its people would be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Jews, Roma people and other “undesirables.” Some lived within Hungary’s official post-World War I borders, while others, including Wiesel and his family, lived in annexed territory that was part of the former Austria-Hungarian Empire.

Hungary’s culpability in the Holocaust is undeniable. Yet in the years since the Cold War, the nation has fielded heavy criticism by Holocaust scholars who say the country is shifting from acknowledging that complicity to portraying itself as a helpless victim of Nazi occupation.

Recently, though, when Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Budapest (the first Israeli prime minister to do so since 1989), Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán​ made headlines during a joint press conference when he denounced his country’s relationship with Nazi Germany during World War II.

“[A]t the time we decided that instead of protecting the Jewish community, we chose collaboration with the Nazis,” Orbán said, according to the Associated Press. “I made it clear to [Netanyahu] that this can never happen again. In the future, the Hungarian government will protect all its citizens.”

Orbán’s statement came days after Hungary’s government received major blowback for launching an anti-migrant campaign with posters depicting the face of Hungarian-born Jewish billionaire George Soros and praising Hungary’s controversial World War II leader, Miklós Horthy​.

This admission of guilt and call for reconciliation was a noticeable step for the government, which has been criticized for celebrating nativist politicians and writers with anti-Semitic backgrounds. It also contrasted to how the Orbán government has characterized Hungary’s role in the Holocaust in the past.

During Hungary’s commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the events of 1944, when the Nazi army entered Hungary, the government erected a monument in Budapest’s Liberty Square. Titled “Memorial to the victims of the German occupation,” it depicts an eagle with sharp talons, signifying Nazi Germany, swooping down and attacking the archangel Gabriel, who symbolizes the Hungarian people.

“Memorial to the victims of the German occupation" (Public Domain)

The statue was emblematic of the fight in Hungary over its history. Critics called the interpretation a whitewashing of the role that Hungary’s government and civilians had in the crimes of the Holocaust. They believed it equated all Hungarian suffering as equal and demanded the removal of the statue. The government denied the accusations and refused to remove the monument.

The statue still stands in the square, illustrating the deep divide that remains in the county, which is still struggling to reconcile with its history.  

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Long before that fateful spring of 1944, Hungarian leader Miklós Horthy​ had fostered anti-Semitic fervor in his country. When he first took power in 1920, the country’s Numerus Clausus law, which put a quota on the number of Jewish students allowed to attend universities, went into effect, along with the White Terror, a military crackdown targeting at Jews and other counterrevolutionaries. In the build-up to World War II, a series of anti-Jewish laws starting in 1938 were also responsible for othering Hungarian Jews.

But the alliance Hungary struck with the Axis Powers in 1940 at first kept the majority of Hungary’s Jews safe from Nazi Germany.  More than 20,000 Jews that Hungarian authorities designated as “foreign nationals” were sent in 1941 to German-occupied Ukraine, with full knowledge of the fate that would await them upon their arrival. The next year, the Hungarian military and citizen forces took part in the Novi Sad massacre in northern Serbia where more than 1,000 people, mostly Jews, were killed. And approximately 40,000 Jewish men conscripted into forced labor battalions died of exposure, enemy fire or mass executions during Hungary’s retreat from Stalingrad in early 1943.

Still, unlike much of Europe, most of Hungary’s Jews remained alive in the spring of 1944. As an official ally of the Axis powers, Hitler had left Hungary to find its own solution to the “Jewish Question” up until this point. 

Now, the Fuhrer demanded its Jews. That spring, with the Soviet army advancing on Hungary's border, and Hungary’s own army largely destroyed at Stalingrad, Nazi troops first entered Hungary’s borders. They came without resistance. Horthy invited the Fuhrer’s troops into the country, and then verbally agreed to send what was initially 100,000 Jews to Germans for “work” in a bid to remain in power. Compounding that number, Horthy decided instead to send the workers’ families as well, ultimately sealing the fates of some 437,000 Jews.

“[Horthy’s] involvement is absolutely clear because it's his government that does it, and his oral instruction that does it,” Paul Shapiro, director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, tells Smithsonian.com. “Everyone knew in the spring of 1944 what transporting Jews into German hands meant.”

Horthy and Hungary were in an impossible situation, but as Robert Rozett, director of the Yad Vashem Libraries writes in Tablet with only some 150 Nazi Germans in charge of the deportations, it was left to officials of the Hungarian Interior Ministry, the Gendarmes and local authorities to carry out their orders. Rather than refuse to be complicit, Hungarians chose to cooperate. “The Germans pushed for concerted action against Hungarian Jewry, and Horthy not only did not resist—he put the government apparatus at their disposal. The well-oiled process of destruction of the Jews followed quickly: restrictions, wearing the Jewish badge, confiscations, the establishment of ghettos and systematic deportations,” Rozett writes.

It took until July, with the Allies’ continued victories showing how the war would end, for Horthy to order a stop to the deportations and open armistice negotiations with the Soviets, says Shapiro. Only then did Hitler prop up a government takeover, starting the fascist Arrow Cross Party’s reign of terror.

During their rule, Arrow Cross members targeted the Budapest Jews, the only Jews who remained in Hungary near the end of the war. Horthy had spared them in his sweep, but as The Economist writes, the reason for this act wasn’t necessarily born out of compassion. Rather, Horthy had been warned that he was in danger of being tried for war crimes if deportations continued.

The Arrow Cross Party committed unspeakable crimes and killed or deported an estimated 100,000 Jews before Soviet troops took control of the country in 1945. Their deeds cast a black mark on Hungary’s history, but the puppet government wasn’t alone in spreading terror in the country. If the narrative of Hungary and the Holocaust is told accurately, Horthy and those who worked with the government have the blood of more than 400,000 on their hands.

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Wiesel, for his part, didn’t return to Hungary until in 2009. Donning a blue yarmulke and black trench coat, the then-81-year-old lit a candle at the Holocaust Memorial and Documentation Center in Budapest. Photographers captured the moment that Wiesel kneeled down, his shadow reflected against the center’s granite walls. There, the names of Hungarian victims killed in Holocaust were etched. Somewhere on the walls were the names of Wiesel’s younger sister, mother and father.

Elie Wiesel lights a candle for Holocaust victims on a memorial wall, which identifies tens of thousands of Hungarian Holocaust victims, in the Holocaust Memorial Center in Budapest, Hungary on Dec. 10, 2009. (AP Photo/Bela Szandelszky)

Wiesel’s trip came at a turning point for Hungarian memory and the Holocaust. The state-of-the-art center had opened just five years before, in 2004. At the time, the museum symbolized a new era of openness in documenting Hungary’s role in the Holocaust.

Following the fall of the Soviet Union and the start of free elections in Hungary in 1990, Hungary had taken strides to take accountability for its actions. During a 50th anniversary commemoration of the Hungarian Holocaust in 1994, political leaders officially apologized for the government’s complicity in the “Final Solution.” Hungary’s coalition government went on to establish a national Holocaust Commemoration Day. Hungary also joined the international task force on Holocaust research and commissioned the creation of the state-run Holocaust Memorial and Documentation Center.

But while Hungary in the early 2000s showed signs of promise for its work memorializing its past, it also carried seeds of its future. Across Hungary, Skinheads clad in Nazi-like uniforms would begin to evolve into the Jobbik party, Hungary’s extreme far-right, nativist group. A fringe faction at the time, they would soon enough prove capable of getting 20 percent of votes come the 2014 Parliamentary elections.

At a keynote address delivered before the Hungarian National Assembly, Wiesel spoke about his fears for the country’s future.

"Wherever in the world I come and the word Hungary is mentioned, the next word is anti-Semitism," he said. "I urge you to do even more to denounce anti-Semitic elements and racist expressions in your political environment and in certain publications."

The call to action, though, was in vain. Hungary’s failing economy had created a welcoming environment for far-right, nativist sentiments.  

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This month, a new party is rising to the right of the Jobbik ticket. Criticizing the Jobbiks for moving to a more publicly centric ticket, the group, which calls itself Force and Determination, says it represents "the white European man" and seeks to spread the idea of "ethnic self-defense.”

"We don't want to muse about the past — there is only forward. We must believe that even for us there is an empty page in the history book,"  a member of the new group told the Associated Press.

The apathetic attitude toward history goes beyond this new far-right party.  The state-run Holocaust memorial and museum, despite its promising start, has suffered decimating funding cuts. As Beáta Barda, curator of Hungary’s Trafo House of Contemporary Art and Association of Independent Performing Artists wrote in an email to Smithsonian.com in the fall, “It is a dead institution, a kind of must for certain schools, no programmes, we are just a corner away, and [it’s] as if it never existed.”

Instead, visitors are directed to the “House of Terror,” a state-sponsored propaganda museum built in 2002 that tells the state-sanctioned story of Hungary and the Holocaust. In one display, it does so literally—an exhibit rotates a figure dressed in a Nazi Uniform on one side and a Soviet Uniform on the other to conflate Nazism and Fascism and Communism.

Before his death, Wiesel, outraged that Hungarian government officials had attended a reburial of a writer who was a member of the Arrow Cross Party, penned a final public letter in protest of its actions where he explained why he felt compelled to return a state award once given to him with much celebration.

He did not live to see the Hungarian government bestow a similar award of state import—the Order of Merit of the Knight’s Cross—to Zsolt Bayer, a racist, anti-Semitic journalist who has referred to Jewish people as “stinking excrement.” The government justified the honor last summer by claiming it was for the “exploration of several national issues” and “as a recognition of his exemplary journalistic work,” The Hungarian Spectrum reported at the time.

In response, more than 100 past recipients (and counting) of Hungarian state awards returned their own honors in outrage, viewing the Bayer incident as yet another example of the government’s implicit encouragement of anti-Semitism.

Orbán’s recent decision to speak out about Hungary’s culpability in the Holocaust along with his vow to Netanyahu to fight anti-Semitism in the country today is notable by comparison. But if Orbán ​wants to be taken at his word, there is much work to be done.

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