Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has defended the planned erection of a memorial depicting Hungary as the victim of German aggression, despite vocal opposition by local Jews.
The memorial, to be built in Budapest, will depict a Germanic eagle descending on the Angel Gabriel, a Hungarian symbol. It will bear inscriptions reading “German occupation of Hungary, March 19, 1944” and “To the memory of all victims.”
Fascist Hungary was an ally of Berlin for most of World War II. When Germany discovered that Budapest was conducting secret negotiations with the United states and Great Britain, it invaded Hungary.
The leaders of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary (Mazsihisz) expressed concern over the memorial. The ultra-nationalist Jobbik party, which local Jews have deemed a neo-Nazi faction, endorsed the government’s plans.
Last year, Hungary declared 2014 to be a yearlong commemoration of the Holocaust, and the government is planning to mark the 70th anniversary of June 1944, when 437,000 Jews were sent to Nazi death camps. In total, about half a million Jews died before the Budapest Ghetto was liberated in 1945.
The government is also establishing a Holocaust memorial center, which is under construction at a Budapest train station that was once a hub of the deportations.
Mazsihisz said it had seen no guarantees the memorial center would reflect the role Hungarians played in the Holocaust, and added that the monument suggested the narrative would be to blame the occupying German forces.
“To suggest, as some have, that it’s a statue commemorating the Nazi occupation or somehow an attempt to appease the far Right is simply a distortion of the basic facts,” a government spokesman said in response to Jewish criticism.
In a letter to leaders of the Jewish organization on Wednesday, Orban defended the monument, saying he was sure that “a show of respect for the memory of the victims requires no further explanation.”
“There are those who wish to make the memory of the victims and the memorial dedicated to them the subject of daily political speculation. I can assure you that we shall resolutely reject these attempts. I very much hope that the 70th anniversary of the German occupation of Hungary will be a good opportunity for good-hearted people, who acknowledge the loss suffered by your community and share in your grief, to take an important and collective step toward a culture of respect,” Orban wrote.
“My belief that we will be able to work together in the future to ensure the further strengthening of mutual respect and understanding in Hungary and cooperation between the country’s communities, has been reinforced. This includes the memorial dedicated to the victims of the German occupation.”
According to the Fundamental Law of Hungary, the country’s constitution, cited by Orban in his letter, the country was stripped of sovereignty when Germany occupied it in March 1944, implying a distinct lack of culpability for the subsequent genocide.
But historian Krisztian Ungvary wrote on the news website hvg.hu that Hungary stripped Jews of nearly all of their rights and killed tens of thousands of them, before the German occupation.
Hungarian authorities had passed more than a hundred laws discriminating against Jews and there had been pogroms, mass murders and deportations, as well as government-sanctioned forced labor camps, all before 1944.
“Hungary has to date failed to face up to the role it played in WWII and in the extermination of Jews,” Szabolcs Kerek-Barczy of the left-leaning Democratic Coalition said on Tuesday, news agency MTI reported.
Orban’s letter did not address an ultimatum from Mazsihisz, threatening to withdraw the Jewish community’s participation in the Holocaust remembrance year over what it termed “the relativization of the Holocaust.”
Mazsihisz’s threat came in response to a statement by Sándor Szakály, director of the state-sponsored Veritas Historical Research Institute.
Szakály reportedly termed the deportation and massacre of tens of thousands of Jews in Kamianets-Podilskyi, Ukraine, during the Second World War a “police action against aliens.”
Mazsihisz and other Jewish organizations have demanded that Szakály apologize and step down.
The massacre occurred prior to the German occupation.
Szakály’s statement was the final straw for the organization, which also cited the memorial and other attempts at the “falsification of history,” in a statement explaining why it was considering withdrawing its participation.
Mazsihisz called “on all politicians to refrain from using the 70th anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust as an element in the electoral campaign and asks all concerned to refrain from rewriting our past,” according to a translation posted on the Hungarian Spectrum website.
Some Jewish leaders say Orban’s attempts to rehabilitate Hungary’s past stem partially from his need to draw voters away from the Jobbik party, which came out of nowhere to become Hungary’s third-largest parliamentary faction during elections in 2010 and will seek to expand its representation in April’s vote.