Legislative whitewash

The new Hungarian Constitution, motivated by domestic issues, shirks responsibility for the Holocaust.

Hungarian Parliament  (photo credit: Bernadett Szabo/Reuters)
Hungarian Parliament
(photo credit: Bernadett Szabo/Reuters)
DURING THE YEARS 1944- 1945, Hungary was responsible for the organized murder of some 600,000 of its Jewish citizens, most of them in Auschwitz. But in a novel approach to Hungarian history, a new constitution, while not denying the fact that the Holocaust occurred, absolves the Hungarians of responsibility.
According to the new constitution, which is to come into effect on January 1, 2012, the Hungarian nation lost its self-determination the moment that the Germans occupied Hungary, during the final and most destructive stages of World War II, and did not regain it until the collapse of Soviet power just two decades ago.
The significance of the legislation is historic, public and legal. As written, the constitution appears to equate the nature and magnitude of the Nazi regime with those of the Communists during the subsequent grim decades of Soviet oppression and thus negates the unique place occupied by the Holocaust in all human history. The constitution therefore strongly implies that today, Hungary cannot be held accountable for its wartime policies, which included the active murder of the Jews as well as Gypsies,homosexuals and political dissidents, since these crimes were imposed upon Hungary by foreigners.
Furthermore, now enshrined by the nation’s fundamental legislation, this new historical interpretation, which was dictated by the government, will define the perspective adopted by state-controlled museums with regard to sensitive issues, such human rights and personal responsibility in times of national crises. It will be reflected in the national Holocaust curricula from elementary school through higher education, including teacher training; teachers in state schools who deviate from the official state line could be dismissed. And finally, the provisions of the new constitution will have immediate effects on issues relating to Holocaust restitution.
Hungary’s irregular, intermittent and painful process of confrontation with its shameful past – the only process that can liberate the country from the guilt it bears – has thus, once again, been held back.
THE CONSTITUTION WAS APproved by a decisive two-third majority wielded in the single-chamber Hungarian legislative assembly by the populist, ultra-conservative Fidesz government that swept into power by a landslide in last year’s elections. Significantly, other major parties did not support it, so there is no national consensus regarding some of the state’s most fundamental principles.
The constitution has other, far-reaching – and problematic – provisions. 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; expands the administrative powers of the state at the expense of the individual, and broadly undermines the traditional checks and balances of democratic control. It narrows the grounds for protecting the individual against unfair treatment and specifically excludes sexual orientation, an explosive issue here in homophobic Eastern Europe, from protection.
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 issued a statement saying it “is deeply concerned that the new constitution violates international and European human rights standards.”
The lawmakers’ interpretation of the truth of the Holocaust is defined by a preamble to the constitution listing its basic tenets. The document 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, which took place on May 2, 1990. That is the day we accept as the beginning of the country’s new democratic constitutional [legal] order.”
Even Austria, which has long attempted to avoid restitution claims by presenting itself as a victim of Nazism rather than as a perpetrator of the Holocaust, abandoned this position in 2000, and established a “Reconciliation Fund” in order to make restitution payments to slave laborers.
THESE ASPECTS OF THE NEW constitution seem to be intended to strengthen the austerity-minded new government both at home and abroad.
Observers do not believe that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, a phenomenally authoritarian politician by European standards, is an anti-Semite. But he is widely regarded as a political opportunist who is pleased to strengthen the power of the state under his control by undermining human rights, to save restitution funds, and to attract support from the resurgent far-right by treating Hungary’s responsibility for its Holocaust deeds as a dubious invention by foreigners.
The political strength gained by the neo- Nazi movement throughout Eastern Europe during the last global recession has surprised most observers. In Hungary, the extent of the neo-Nazi support was demonstrated in mid-July by the widespread jubilation over the acquittal by a Budapest court of Sándor Képiró, a wartime gendarmerie officer, of all charges arising from a mass murder in Serbia in which he was involved.
Ephraim Zuroff, chairman and chief Nazi hunter at the Israel-based Simon Wiesenthal Center who attended the trial, tells The Report that he believes the judge acted in favor of Kepiro.
The Hungarian Jewish community is outraged, and historians here and abroad are stunned by these developments. Peter Feldmájer, chairman of Mazsihisz, the Association of Hungarian Jewish Religious Communities, the largest Hungarian Jewish organization, tells The Report, “This politically motivated reinterpretation of history will inevitably keep society from facing up to its past – a process that has proved so beneficial in post-war Germany.”
Leading Hungarian historian Krisztián Ungváry passionately tells The Report, “All generations following the Holocaust still bear the responsibility for confronting the deeds of the past. This process is now significantly undermined by the new constitution.”
Feldmájer contends that the Hungarian Holocaust began long before the German Nazi invasion of the country and that the occupying forces were welcomed here by an unquestionably independent national government as well as a cheering population.
During the Holocaust, the deportations of Hungary’s Jews were carried out with gratuitous savagery, largely by the Hungarian gendarmerie under the direction of Hungarian officials and 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 diplomatic pressure, to discontinue the transports, at a very late stage in the war.
In a fierce debate in the press, Professor István Deák, a widely respected Hungarian historian at Columbia University, New York, noted, “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.”
Feldmájer and other representatives of Mazsihisz were among a number of officials invited to consultations with András Levente Gál, under-secretary of state at the Ministry of the Economy and Justice.
Feldmájer tells The Report he had the impression that the meeting had been intended to split the Jewish community and to persuade its representatives to accept what he described as the government’s endeavor “to rewrite history.”
The immediate ramifications of the legislative change are significant. Several substantial restitution disputes arising from the Holocaust are currently making their way through the US courts, and 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 have jurisdiction in Hungary, including: • The infamous “Gold Train” carrying Jewish treasure stolen by the Hungarian state, including jewelry and other personal effects, currency and works of art and antiques worth up to $4 billion, which was seized by the Americans in Austria at the close of the war.
To date, the US has made a token restitution payment of some $21 million.
• 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 concentration and death camps.
• The ownership of the legendary Herzog collection of some 40 Old Masters worth an estimated $100 million, 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 in America.
• 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 that was, in some cases, later nationalized by the Communists and is still awaiting restoration to their legitimate owners IN HUNGARY, UNDER-SECREtaries of state are civil servants, not politicians, but they are chosen for their loyalty to the government of the day. Thus, under-secretary of state Gál, an attorney with connections to the boards of various mass communication media, has become a central figure in this issue.
In an official website, Gál has outlined the government’s legal strategy: The government wants to pursue its interests in the courts by “setting a new framework for the discussions.” On the website, Gal refuses to acknowledge the state’s culpability for the wide range of atrocities that culminated in the forced transport of the country’s provincial Jewry to the gas chambers. He bases his position on the grounds that the deportation order had been issued by a Hungarian “puppet government,” thus shifting blame onto the foreign occupying forces and certain unnamed, “wicked and greedy” individuals.
Following the legislation, Gál inspected the Hungarian Holocaust Museum in Budapest, the only such state-sponsored institution in Eastern Europe outside Auschwitz. At the conclusion of the visit, he expressed his displeasure with a particular permanent exhibition which, in his opinion, “distorts” history and could generate “unnecessary tension.” The exhibition, which focuses on the murderous role of the Hungarian state in the Holocaust, had been assembled by a team of world-class scholars.
László Harsányi, managing director of the museum, responded by publicly declining to even attempt “to instruct scholars to fashion historical exhibitions according to government policy.” Gál subsequently announced the appointment of a new board of directors for the museum, which promptly fired Harsányi. Other provincial museum directors have similarly been relieved of their positions without official explanation.
Mazsihisz’s Feldmájer published an article in the “Népszabadság” daily newspaper, emphasizing that politicians have no business telling museums what kind of exhibitions to display or telling scholars what to think. “The authorities ought to understand,” he wrote, “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 Columbia University’s Deák, who subjected Gál’s view of history to scholastic analysis and concluded that it is warped.
Deák found that there is no evidence to support 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 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...” he stated in an article in the “Népszabadság.”
Ungváry, the author of several outstanding studies on the Hungarian Holocaust, has been one of the historians associated with the controversial exhibition at the Budapest museum is. His first book, “The Siege of Budapest,” first published in English in 2003, was published in numerous editions in Hungary, the United States, Britain and Germany, and was given high praise by the London “Times Literary Supplement,” “The New York Review of Books” as well as The Report.
Speaking with The Report, Ungváry dismisses the constitution’s historical assertions on the Holocaust as an “unacceptable lie.” He and 40 other eminent Hungarian historians have signed an appeal to the government before the approval of the constitution by the national assembly to refrain from this attempt to whitewash the country’s Holocaust role by legislation.
The lawmakers did not listen, but the international courts probably will. •