Last month in Budapest a new statue was unveiled to a dangerous man. Right in the heart of the city – in Szabadság Tér (Freedom Place) – there now stands a monument to one of Hitler’s closest allies: Admiral Miklós Horthy, the “regent” who ruled Hungary from 1920 to 1944.
The bust stands in the church of the notorious Calvinist minister Lóránt Hegedüs Jr, an incurable antisemite and admirer of the British historian and Holocaust denier David Irving. Hegedüs was the first person to bless the Horthy statue; then Márton Gyöngyösi, an MP of the extreme-right Jobbik party, addressed the congregation, declaring Horthy to be “the greatest statesman of the 20th century”.
The mind boggles. Historians have taught us that the Horthy era was one of the darkest chapters of Hungarian history; this is common knowledge. His present-day glorification is scandalous. The disgraceful anti-Jewish laws, the deportation of more than half a million Jews to the death camps, sending the entire Hungarian second army to be annihilated by the Russians – all these and many other crimes are connected to him. He was one of Hitler’s closest associates and stayed loyal till the bitter end. Neither God nor the radical right can ever whitewash his name.
How shocking it is that a large proportion of Hungarians ignore and deny these facts. To them it’s simply an issue of freedom of speech and thought: if someone wishes to erect a monument to Horthy or to Ferenc Szálasi (the leader of the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross party, and head of state from 1944 to 1945) in their church, vegetable garden or shed, it is considered his or her private affair. Some people claim that the bust of Horthy – at the top of the stairs leading to the Hegedüs church – is, in fact, on private property.
Antal Rogán – a spokesman for the governing Fidesz party – is worried about Hungary’s negative reputation abroad. He has every reason to be troubled, because the country is responsible for some of the worst news within the European Union. Let’s face it, there are no Hitler statues in Germany, and in Austria they are constitutionally forbidden. The same is true of Mussolini in Italy, Pétain in France, Ion Antonescu in Romania or Josef Tiso in Slovakia. None of them is being commemorated and extolled.
True, there were a few hundred demonstrators in Szabadság Tér who protested against the ceremony, many wearing the yellow star. They deserve our gratitude and admiration for their courage. If only there were more. Members of the congregation and the mob told them to go to Israel, Brussels or the Danube, referring to the events of 1944-45 when Szálasi’s Arrow Cross thugs shot several thousand Jews so that they fell into the freezing river.
History cannot be erased, nor forgotten. Discovering and understanding the past is the duty not only of governments and political parties, but also of the people, the whole nation. We must face it together – even when it is not pleasant – and try to learn from the consequences. Hungarians have not yet been through this process.
Last month in the city of Miskolc, in north-east Hungary, a group of fascist youngsters participated in a spectacular book-burning ritual. Among the works consigned to the flames were the collected poems of Miklós Radnóti.
Radnóti was a wonderful lyric poet, one of the giants of Hungarian literature. On a forced march to the Nazi death camps in 1944, he was brutally murdered. His killers’ successors are now murdering his works. Why? Because he was a Jew.
And the police were standing by, doing nothing.
András Schiff is a Hungarian-born British classical pianist and conductor who has won a number of major awards.