WW II Heritage in the Hungarian Politics

2014 is the 70th anniversary of the Nazi German occupation of Hungary in 1944. For the occasion the Hungarian government (coalition of Fidesz and the Christian Democratic People’s Party/Kereszténydemokrata Néppárt – KDNP) initiated the organization of a yearlong series of commemorative events under the framework of the Holocaust Memorial Year. As one of those commemorative acts, a monument should be erected on the Freedom Square in Budapest in memory of the German occupation which, according to the new constitution’s preamble, put an end to the Hungarian sovereignty (which Hungary only regained in 1990). The government’s proposal has however been met by criticism and objections from many sides as attempting to rewrite or falsify history and to deny Hungary’s complicity at the crimes of Holocaust. Such accusations came from the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities, the left-wing opposition and a group of 26 historians, criticizing lack of public debate on the issue and claiming that the proposed memorial is based on misinterpretation of history and as such cannot serve its proclaimed purpose of commemorating “all of the victims”. The government’s officials however refused such objections as an inappropriate “political campaigning”. Jobbik, a right-wing and radical nationalist political party, known for its anti-Semitic positions and controversial statements of its members, on the other hand welcomed the government’s initiative and emphasized that “any endeavor by any foreign power to occupy Hungary should be condemned”.
The Hungarian government recently established a new history research institute named “Veritas”, which is directly subordinated to the prime minister’s office and aimed at providing the society with a trustworthy interpretation of the political and social developments that occurred in Hungary in the last 150 years, one of its goals being to “support national historical consciousness” (according to the Official Journal of Hungary/ Magyarország hivatalos lapjpa[1]. A rather controversial military historian Sándor Szakály has been appointed a head of the Institute for the following 5-year period.
Szakály indicated the Institute’s attitude towards clarifying of the Hungarian history on 17th January 2014 in an interview with the Hungarian news agency MTA, when he spoke about the events of July 1941 in Kamenets-Podolski. The Hungarian authorities then deported approximately 14.000 of Jews coming from Poland, Russia, Slovakia and Austria (and Hungary as well), unable to prove a Hungarian citizenship, to territories which today belong to Ukraine where those people were massacred together with the local Jewish population. Those events are usually referred to by historians as one of the first and largest Holocaust mass-murders. In the interview Szakály called the deportations “a police action against aliens”. Those comments have provoked outraged reactions, among others from the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities, demanding Szakály’s resignation on the post of the Veritas Institute leader, as well as from the left-wing opposition. Szakály later apologized for using an inappropriate terminology, stating however that he did not see any reason to resign.
As mentioned above, the constitution states that until 1944 Hungary was a sovereign state. Therefore interpretation of the 1941 events in a frame of Holocaust would mean an admission that it was a sovereign Hungarian state who took part in the deporting and murdering Jews (variety of the sources claiming that the attitude of the Hungarian authorities in that respect was rather pro-active).
Fidesz program documents have traditionally put a strong emphasis on the Hungarian national identity built on shared “national myth” and common historical heritage. It is questionable how far does it want to go in modifying this “myth” and what response are such attempts going to find in the Hungarian society. One of the possible explanations for dealing with the sensitive and complicated issue of the Hungarian history in the interwar period and during the Second World War in the way Fidesz currently does is an effort to draw voters away from Jobbik.
Some people argue however that current development in Hungary concerning the Holocaust Memorial Year 2014 may serve as a good example illustrating the issue of re-interpretation of history in order to strengthen one’s own political position. As George Orwell puts it: “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.