Captive of the Past? A Pro-Government Historian’s Defense of the Indefensible

Mária Schmidt, a prominent Hungarian pro-government academic, wrote that “the historian cannot project the ideological schemes of his age on the past and cannot observe the past’s narratives with today’s sensibilities.” Ms. Schmidt took issue with the much-maligned “left-liberal intellectuals” who she believes are trying to insert a type of “intellectual terror” into any discussion of twentieth century Hungarian history by viewing and interpreting the country’s history using the moral compass of anti-racism and humanism. As the director of the House of Terror Museum –which offers a quintessentially didactic interpretation of communist dictatorship in Hungary – Ms. Schmidt should surely appreciate that it is impossible to write history in a vacuum and that our reflections of the past are always coloured by our present-day experiences and values, and by the society in which we live. When teaching European history to undergraduates, I always emphasize that what they read about an event or period in the past will likely tell them at least as much (if not more) about contemporary society, especially if they read between the lines and are conscious of the given historian’s bias.

The Orbán government is certainly no stranger to blatantly pedantic expressions of public history, so one would think that Ms. Schmidt would be less judgmental of “left-liberals” and their specific take on the nation’s past. The most overt and insidious example of the current right-wing government’s proposed grand narrative of Hungarian history is its insistence on erecting a monument in Freedom Square, which is supposed to serve as a memorial to “all victims” of Nazi Germany’s occupation of Hungary after March 1944.

Budapest's Living Memorial in Freedom Square. Photo: Christopher Adam

Budapest’s Living Memorial in Freedom Square. Photo: Christopher Adam

If we are to speak honestly and openly, then we need to acknowledge that 600,000 Hungarian Jews were sent to their deaths by Hungarian authorities. Most of them died following the Nazi occupation of Hungary, but none of those deportations would have been possible without the enthusiastic participation of the Hungarian state, the indifference of Hungarian society and the desire among tens of thousands of Hungarians to reap material benefit from the mass murder of their neighbours and compatriots, who left behind their property and valuables to be pillaged.

Scores of Hungarians were beneficiaries of the Holocaust—they behaved as vultures descending on their dead or dying prey, tracking them from above, as the condemned masses, adorned with their bright yellow stars, made their way to the gallows. No other country aligned with Germany managed to murder so many of its citizens in such as short period of time. This macabre distinction is Hungary’s alone.

In light of this past, one could reasonably expect a degree of humility on the part of the Hungarian government when approaching such a sensitive and painful commemoration as the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust in Hungary. From a Canadian perspective (where a Holocaust memorial is being planned for Ottawa and where the affected communities are part of the discourse surrounding this project) there is nothing more natural than to ensure that the remaining survivors of the Holocaust, the descendents and the country’s Jewish community be invited to the table, before a monument is erected in Freedom Square. As we know, this dialogue never occurred. Instead, the Orbán government

steamrolled it plans over the piercing opposition coming from so many diverse groups. Ms. Schmidt bemoans what she believes is the inability of liberals to accept “alternative” historical narratives, yet it is her government that is trying to impose a blatantly false, misleading and politically-motivated grand narrative on the nation. This is the narrative of collective victimhood, rather than an account of how the majority population either participated in, or quietly stood by as their neighbours, friends, employers and colleagues were murdered.

Hungarian Jews were victims, along with Hungarian Roma, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and the small handful of courageous Hungarians from many walks of life who stood up and spoke out. They were few and far between, but there were undoubtedly some. Catholic bishop Vilmos Apor was one and the much lesser-known Etelka Fodor, who provided Jews in Budapest with forged documents and falsified evidence, in order to save lives, was another. We know little about her, except that she remained a human even in the most inhumane circumstances, even when people around her didn’t care.

The monument in Freedom Square—which was erected in the dead of the night by a government that would rather avoid the negative international coverage of an unveiling ceremony disrupted by uninvited elderly Holocaust survivors and descendents—not only desecrates the memory of the victims of the Holocaust, but it also denigrates the few who showed remarkable bravery by going against the grain of Hungarian society.

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government has used the most aggressive tools in constructing a new grand narrative of Hungarian history. Ms. Schmidt – sadly – has become one of the prime proponents and defenders of this new narrative, which allows for absolutely no dissent. Perhaps it’s time for her to take a walk over to Freedom Square and contemplate what it means when one needs dozens of police officers on duty twenty-four hours a day and two rows of metal barricades, simply to protect the state’s interpretation of history. I would not want to be a taxpayer-funded historian on the wrong side of that barricade, as is Ms. Schmidt, when it eventually and inevitably comes crashing down.

Christopher Adam is a historian based in Ottawa, Canada.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *