by Thomas Ország-Land (September 2011)
The new Hungarian constitution, which is to come into effect on January 1 2012, denies not the veracity of the Holocaust but the culpability of the state for the organized murder of some 600,000 of its Jewish citizens in 1944/45, mostly in Auschwitz.
Its novel approach to Hungarian history will necessarily affect the decisions of the courts in this country perhaps for decades to come on issues of restitution for Holocaust atrocities. Enshrined by the Hungarian constitution, the new historical interpretation dictated by the populist, ultra-Conservative Fidesz government here will define the attitude of state-controlled cultural institutions on sensitive issues of human rights and personal responsibility at times of national crises.
It will rewrite the national Holocaust curricula from primary to higher education (including teacher training), whose persistent failure to promote tolerance towards the racial, religious and other minorities in Hungarian society is widely blamed for the current resurgence of neo-Nazi power. Museum administrators as well as teachers departing from the official line will risk dismissal. Some have been fired already.
The constitution is the fundamental legislation of any country, the basic reference by which all laws and regulations upheld by the state are interpreted by the courts, government departments and other authorities.
Hungary’s new constitution states that the nation lost its self-determination from the outset of the German occupation of the country in the final and most destructive stages of the Second World War until the collapse of Soviet power just two decades ago. It strongly implies that the state therefore cannot be held accountable today for its murderous wartime policies enforcing the Holocaust of Jews as well as Gypsies, homosexuals and political dissidents because those policies had been imposed upon it by foreigners.
And it negates the unique place occupied by the Holocaust in all history by appearing to equate the Nazi deeds here during the war with those of the Communists in the subsequent grim decades of Soviet oppression.
Significantly, the constitution has been passed without cross-party accord. Indeed, two of the three opposition parties abstained from the vote in protest, and the third voted against it.
That means that the law will be enforced in the absence of national consensus over its fundamental provisions. The passage of the constitution was muscled through the single-chamber Hungarian legislative assembly by a decisive two-third majority wielded by the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán that swept to power following last year’s landslide elections.
The law substantially weakens the power of the constitutional court, entitles the president to dissolve the national assembly if it fails to approve a budget and expands the administrative powers of the state at the expense of the individual. It emphasizes the supremacy of Christianity in Hungarian culture, narrows the grounds for protecting the individual against unfair treatment and specifically fails to outlaw hostile discrimination meted out on the grounds of sexual orientation, an explosive issue here in homophobe Eastern Europe.
All this has provoked mass protest meetings in Hungary and attracted severe criticism from such guardians of human rights as the European Parliament and the Council of Europe. Amnesty International has declared its deep concern at the violation by the constitution of some cherished international standards of legality.
Thomas Melia, the American deputy assistant secretary of state in charge of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, has expressed fear that the law would unduly solidify the power of the Orbán administration, broadly undermine the traditional checks and balances of democratic control and hamstring future governments in effectively addressing new political, economic and social challenges. A Hungarian government spokesman has rejected Melia’s comments as “rooted in misinformation and malicious distortions”.
The constitution’s interpretation of the truth of the Holocaust is defined by a preamble to the document listing its basic tenets. It has outraged the Hungarian Jewish community and stunned historians here and abroad.
The preamble states: “Our country lost its national self-determination on March 19 1944, and it was restored only with the advent of the first democratic elections that took place on May 2 1990. That is the day we accept as the beginning of the country’s new democratic constitutional (legal) order.”
And it declares: “We do not accept that the heinous crimes committed against the Hungarian nation and its citizens during the Nazi and the Communist dictatorships can be subject to any statute of limitations.”
This is reminiscent of the stance recently abandoned by neighbouring Austria, which had managed for many years to shrug off Jewish restitution claims arising from Holocaust atrocities by masquerading as a wartime victim of Nazism rather than its willing supporter. The change came only in the year 2000, six decades after the Holocaust, when Austria established a “Reconciliation Fund” in response to forceful international demands to make “voluntary” restitution payments to slave labourers abused by the Nazis.
The Hungarian constitution seems also to fall in line with an insidious trend sweeping post-Soviet Eastern Europe to trivialize the Holocaust. Its assertions glossing over the differences in the nature and magnitude of the Nazi and the Communist crimes obfuscate the responsibility of these countries for the Holocaust that had begun in this region long before the territorial expansion of Nazi Germany that eventually led to Soviet control.
In Hungary, the deportations were carried out with gratuitous savagery mostly by the Hungarian gendarmerie under the direction of Hungarian officials, with very little physical assistance rendered by the German invaders. Only the Jews of Budapest escaped mass deportation when Admiral Miklós Horthy, the Hungarian head of state, chose under intense Allied diplomatic pressure to discontinue the transports very late in the war – thus demonstrating his enduring independence at that time, even under the German occupation.
Peter Feldmájer, chairman of the Association of Hungarian Jewish Religious Communities (MAZSIHISZ), recalls that the Hungarian Holocaust originated even before the rise of Nazi power in Germany, and that the German occupying forces were eventually welcomed here by an unquestionably independent national government as well as a cheering population.
Professor István Deák, a widely respected Hungarian historian at Columbia University, New York, adds: "I cannot overstate how much Hungary would gain in its international standing if, after seven decades of deceitful evasions since the war, it would at last face up to its responsibilities from the past."
Leading Hungarian historian Krisztián Ungváry passionately argues: "All generations following the Holocaust still bear the responsibility for confronting the deeds of the past. This process is now undermined by the new constitution."
The immediate ramifications of the legislative change are also significant. Several substantial restitution disputes arising from the Holocaust are currently making their way through the American courts. They could land up before the European Court of Human Rights (of the Council of Europe) or the European Court of Justice (of the European Union), both of which exercise jurisdiction in Hungary.
In an official website, András Levente Gál, under-secretary of state at the Ministry of the Economy and Justice, has outlined the government's legal strategy. As he put it, the administration intends to pursue its interests in the courts by "setting a new framework for the discussions."
Dr. Gál declined to accept the culpability of the state for a wide range of atrocities culminating in the forcible transport of the country’s provincial Jewry to the gas chambers on the grounds that the deportation order had been issued by a Hungarian “puppet government”. Instead, he sought to shift the blame on the foreign occupying forces and certain unnamed, “wicked and greedy” individuals hungry for easy plunder.
Some of the current major restitution disputes involving Hungary to which Dr. Gál referred concern the following:
* The infamous Gold Train carrying Jewish treasure stolen by the Hungarian state, including jewellery and other personal effects, currency and works of art and antiques worth up to $4bn in today‘s money, that was eventually seized by the Americans in Austria at the close of the war. So far, the US has made a token restitution payment of some $21m.
* Damages claimed from the Hungarian State Railways by the survivors and descendents of Jews transported for financial profit in inhuman conditions under armed guard on board its cattle trucks to Auschwitz and other extermination and slave labour camps.
* The ownership of the legendary Herzog collection of some 40 Old Masters worth an estimated $100m, including several coveted paintings by El Greco, looted during the war and still on display in state-controlled Hungarian galleries. Both this and the case involving the railways are in their early stages of litigation.
* And the so-called “Masterless” class of Jewish assets comprising a variety of valuable property including real estate misappropriated by the Hungarian state during the war, in some cases eventually nationalized by the Communists and still awaiting their restoration to their legitimate owners.
Dr. Gál is a lawyer with experience gained on the controlling boards of various mass communication media. He is a civil servant, not a politician, answerable to a cabinet minister – but in Hungary, such appointments are dependent on the officials’ loyalty to the government of the day.
He recently inspected the Hungarian Holocaust Museum here in Budapest, the only such state-sponsored institution in Eastern Europe outside Auschwitz. He expressed displeasure afterwards at a permanent exhibition there exploring the thieving and murderous role of the Hungarian state in the Holocaust because he said it “distorted” his professed interpretation of history and might generate “unnecessary tensions”.
The exhibition has been assembled by a team of world-class scholars. László Harsányi, the managing director of the museum, responded to the under-secretary’s statement by publicly declining even to attempt to instruct scholars to fashion historical exhibitions according to government policy. He was then summarily dismissed from the museum by a new board of controllers appointed by Dr. Gál.
My personal circle of acquaintances includes two provincial museum directors, one of them a much published Holocaust scholar, who have been similarly relieved of their posts without official explanation.
MAZSIHISZ, the largest Hungarian Jewish organization, was invited together with some others to consultations by Dr. Gál before the passage of the new constitution by the legislature. Dr. Feldmájer, who was present, gained the impression that the meeting had been intended to split the Jewish community and to persuade it to accept what he described as the government’s endeavour “to rewrite history”.
The MAZSIHISZ chairman emphasized afterwards in the columns of the daily Népszabadság newspaper here that politicians have no business to tell museums what kind of exhibitions to display and indeed scholars what to think. “The authorities ought to understand,” he went on, “that the only proper motivation for organizing exhibitions, writing books and conducting research into the Holocaust must be the desire to comprehend and explore the truth and to disseminate it for the good of society.”
The issue has generated public debate, led by Professor Deák from Columbia University. He has subjected Dr. Gál’s view of history to a scholastic analysis and found it warped. He concluded that there is simply no evidence in support of a proposition that the Hungarian government had been forced by the Nazis to act against its perception of the national interest.
Those who would trivialize Hungary’s responsibility for its Holocaust deeds after the German invasion “forget,” he went on, “that the country still retained its governor, government and legislative assembly as well as a half million strong national army, which could have easily dealt with the few thousand German troops stationed on its soil. Hungary also maintained a powerfully armed gendarmerie, a police service and an enormous administrative apparatus. No, the Hungarian government was not a puppet government...”
One of the historians associated with the controversial exhibition at the Budapest museum is Dr. Ungváry, the author of several outstanding studies on the Hungarian Holocaust. He is probably the only scholar whose very first book – The Battle for Budapest (2003), published in several editions in Britain (by I. B. Tauris), the US (Yale University Press) and Germany (F. A. Herbig Verlagsbuchhandlung) as well as Hungary (Corvina) – was immediately welcomed as a formidable success by both The Times Literary Supplement in London and The New York Review of Books.
He has dismissed the constitution’s historical assertions on the Holocaust as “unacceptable lie”.
Prime Minister Orbán, a phenomenally authoritarian politician for a European democracy, is not himself an anti-Semite. But he is a political opportunist pleased to strengthen the power of the state under his control by undermining human rights, and to save restitution funds and attract support from the resurgent far-Right by treating Hungary’s responsibility for its Holocaust deeds as a dubious invention.
And the political strength of the neo-Nazi movement gained throughout Eastern Europe during the last global recession has surprised all observers. Its rising popularity in Hungary has just been demonstrated by the jubilation that greeted the acquittal by a Budapest court of Sándor Képiró, a wartime gendarmerie officer, of all charges arising from a mass murder committed in Serbia in which he was involved.
Ephraim Zuroff, chairman and chief Nazi hunter at the Israel-based Simon Wiesenthal Centre who attended the trial, told me afterwards: “The judge protected the accused from the evidence.” But the case will continue after an appeal by the prosecution.
Some 40 eminent Hungarian historians signed a call to the government before the approval of the constitution to refrain from such a futile attempt at whitewashing the country’s Holocaust role by legislation. The failure of the lawmakers to heed that appeal will retard further the intermittent, painful process of this society confronting its shameful past, a prerequisite to its liberating itself of guilt for the future.
THOMAS ORSZÁG-LAND is a poet and award-winning foreign correspondent who writes on Eastern Europe.
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