Jewish groups around the world have reacted to a speech last week by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, in which the Hungarian premier praised Miklós Horthy, Hungary’s leader who ruled the country as “Regent” from 1920 until 1944.
Following a ceremonial opening of the newly renovated Kelbelsberg Palace in Budapest, Orbán said the following:
The second and third decades of the 20th century were heavy touchstones in Hungary’s history. The fact that the heavy weight of the defeat in the First World War, the 133 days of the Red Terror, and the Treaty of Trianon didn’t lead to our being buried by history, is thanks to the efforts of a few exceptional statesmen: Regent Miklós Horthy, Prime Minister István Bethlen, and Minister Kuno Klebelsberg. Without the Regent, there is no Prime Minister. Without the Prime Minister, there is no Minister. And this fact can’t be brought into question even by Hungary’s calamitous role in the Second World War.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, The Prime Minister’s comments drew both supportive and critical reactions, both in Hungary and abroad.
Several Jewish organisations raised objections in connection with the speech, including the Jewish World Congress and its leader Ronald S. Lauder. Lauder said that
The horrors that Admiral Horthy inflicted on the Jewish community of Hungary by stripping them of their rights and their humanity, and his role in the deportation and murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews, can never be excused.
Likewise, András Heisler, president of Mazsihisz, an umbrella group of Hungarian Jewish organizations, responded to Orbán’s comments in a statement, saying that
the serious historical experience of our community proves that our country had been buried by the history of the 20th century – largely by Miklós Horthy’s actions.
Heisler added that the rampant anti-Semitism during Horthy’s reign, “which he also espoused, cannot be put as an example for the future generations,” Heisler added.
While also pointing out that Horthy was ‘responsible’ for the death of the majority of Hungary’s Jewish population, he also expressed his view that “it would be more advanced if the contesting political parties would focus on the questions of present and future instead of evaluating Horthy.”
Not all Jewish groups were critical of the Hungarian Premier, however. The United Orthodox Congregations Of New York condemned in a letter published on Thursday “the instigation against the honorable Prime Minister [Viktor Orban] accusing him of tolerating and promoting individuals who were associated with the Nazi regime”.
The United Orthodox Congregations Of New York said that “in our dealings with the prime minister and his government to help restore and maintain the cemeteries in Hungary that were desecrated by the Nazis during the second world war, he and his government have been outstanding in their commitment and help towards this and any other issue related to the orthodox Jewry”.
“We are, and always be indebted to them for their continued help and cooperation, and look forward to continue this positive relationship. Those leading the instigation do not represent us or any other group of the orthodox Jews,” the statement signed by 11 rabbis showed.
While Yossi Amrani, Israel’s Ambassador to Budapest, expressed his belief that “Mr. Orbán is a good friend to Israel and the Jewish people,” he also expressed his “surprise” that the Prime Minister would make such a comment, and said that the Israeli government had asked for official clarification of the issue.
A few days later, Orbán doubled down on his earlier comments, saying that he found it laughable that some could look at Culture Minister Klebelsberg as “a good boy,” and PM Bethlen as “a good boy,” while the man who appointed them—Regent Horthy—has no redeeming qualities. In Orbán’s view, “the whole thing is simply opposed to common sense.”
As commentators have noted, however, the issue with this line of reasoning is that, if Horthy is responsible for the successes of men like Bethlen and Klebelsberg, he is equally responsible for the misrule and crimes of his other appointees; most notably, the openly anti-Semitic and pro-fascist Gyula Gömbös (PM from 1932 to 1936), and of Döme Sztójay, PM in 1944, who oversaw the legalization of the Hungarian fascist Arrow Cross Party and was responsible for significantly increasing the pace of the deportation of Jews from Hungary, which in turn led directly to the murder of hundreds of thousands.
Miklós Horthy is nothing if not a controversial figure; while he has been condemned by some for his complicity in the Holocaust, he has been equivocally praised by others as “the Anti-Semite” who “saved the Jews of Budapest” through his actions in 1944.
Via MTI, jta.org, Index, atv.hu, and the Times of Israel
Images via MTI and Wikimedia Commons