Academic Genius And/Or Unpalatable Anti-Semite? – Who Was Bálint Hóman?
Ferenc Sullivan 2015.12.10.
Bálint Hóman (1885-1951), a leading figure of both political and academic life in Hungary’s inter-war period, is at the centre of controversy for a statue of him scheduled to be erected in the city of Székesfehérvár in late December. The Hungarian government is under fire for providing HUF 15 million in support for the local initiative to commemorate the late historian and politician, who is widely accused of being an anti-Semite and bearing responsibility for devising anti-Jewish legislation prior to the Holocaust despite being recently cleared of war crimes by a Budapest court. Here, we attempt to give a picture of the two sides to this indisputably high-profile but just as controversial figure.
The high-profile academic and committed local patriot
Born in the Hungarian capital to a middle-class family partly of German descent on 29 December 1885, Bálint Hóman graduated at Budapest’s University of Sciences at the age of twenty-three with a thesis work entitled ‘Hungarian Towns in the Age of the Árpáds’, following which he began working at the University Library, progressing to become the institution’s director in 1915. In 1916, he was a lecturer at Budapest University and later served as director of the country’s flagship National Széchenyi Library in 1922 and director-general of the Hungarian National Museum, Parallel to his research activity in the field of mediaeval Hungarian history, he worked together with fellow leading historian Gyula Szekfű (1883-1955) to pen the comprehensive work ‘Hungarian History’ (Magyar történet, 1938-41), which elevated his name among the defining Hungarian historians of the twentieth century. In recognition of his accomplishment in the field, he was named a regular member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in 1929 and received several high-level state decorations in the Thirties. From the 1920s, he served as chairman of a number of professional organisations, including the Hungarian Numismatics Society, the Hungarian Ethnographical Society and the Association on Hungarian History, and a member of the Hungarian Miczkiewicz Society, aimed at fostering Polish-Hungarian relations. Hóman remains recognised particularly as an expert in early and mediaeval Hungarian history, as well as numismatics, for his outstanding academic record of long-lasting relevance.
He is credited for championing the cityscape and infrastructural development of his constituency of Székesfehérvár, which resulted in the construction of a number of landmark buildings, schools and factories across the city. His assiduous work resulted in it transforming from a rural backwater into a major city worthy of its historic role as the coronation site of the mediaeval Kingdom of Hungary.
A deeply controversial career in politics
Parallel to his scientific career, he also rose in the ranks of politics during the inter-war Horthy era and increasingly became affiliated with the pro-German line, serving as Minister of Religion and Education under two cabinets between 1932 and 1938, and subsequently three others between 1939 and 1942, including the period Hungary entered the Second World War on the side of Nazi Germany. As minister without portfolio in the Imrédy government, he oversaw a far-reaching reform of secondary education. He was the deputy chairman of the governing conservative Party of National Unity from 1938.
Hóman voted for Hungary declaring war against the Soviet Union in 1941 and was a strong opponent of peace talks initated by then Prime Minister Miklós Kállay with the Western allies in 1943. He took part in both the preparation and the adoption of the laws discriminating Hungary’s Jewish population and believed that their assimilation is not possible due to their “spirit opposing the ideas of Christianity” and “leading role in subversive movements and the spread of destructive ideologies”. He has been also widely condemned for failing to resign as member of the country’s legislature after Hungary’s occupation by Nazi Germany in March 1944, holding onto his mandate even after the takeover of power by the fascist Arrow Cross party in October 1944, escaping to Transdanubia and then German territory as the Soviets advanced westward. However, he remained opposed to national socialism and did not take an oath of allegiance to Arrow Cross leader Ferenc Szálasi despite his anti-Semitic views. He is also reported to have personally intervened to save a number of Jewish intellectuals and artists from deportation in the spring and summer of 1944.
Visualisation of the planned statue, by sculptor Hunor Pető
At the forefront of a heated debate: rehabilitation and statue plans
After being captured by American troops, he was brought back to the country by Hungarian authorities after the war ended in 1945. In 1946, he was sentenced to life imprisonment by the Soviet-influenced People’s Tribunal as a war criminal, largely for voting in favour of the country joining the war against the Soviet Union in 1941. During his trial, fellow top historians Gyula Szekfű and Domokos Kosáry both spoke out in his favour. Hóman died in jail incarcerated at Vác, north of the capital, on 2 June 1951. In March 2015, he was finally cleared of war crimes after a post-mortem inquiry found that it is impossible to ascertain whether Hóman acted purposefully, a prerequisite of being convicted of war crimes. At a 2015 court hearing, the prosecutor, attorney and judge agreed that Hóman’s conviction in 1946 was unlawful.
A statue of the prominent but controversial inter-war politician and academic is scheduled to be erected in the western Hungarian city of Székesfehérvár despite the left-wing opposition, Jewish organisations, US Ambassador to Hungary Colleen Bell and a group of US congressmen all speaking out against the plan, Three cabinet ministers – Minister of Human Resources Zoltán Balog, Minister of Justice László Trócsányi and Minister for the Prime Minister’s Office János Lázár – have also publicly argued against erecting the statue, with Mr. Lázár claiming in July that there are “unexplainable moments” despite him being legally rehabilitated by a court decision in March.