There are few better illustrations of Hungary’s troubled past than the monuments which jostle for position in Budapest’s Freedom Square.
This November, a new black granite obelisk will be unveiled to mark the suffering resulting from the Soviets’ subjugation of the country during the Cold War. It will join another obelisk which was erected in 1946 to celebrate the Russians’ liberation of the city from the Nazis and the more recent, but equally contentious, German occupation memorial. Constructed in 2014, the statue depicts a German Imperial Eagle descending upon Archangel Michael; a representation of Hungary, its detractors claim, which portrays the country as a victim of Nazism and thus ignores its own responsibilities as an Axis power during the war.
Those responsibilities revolve around the actions of the man whose bronze bust stands outside the square’s Reformed Church: Hungary’s wartime leader, Admiral Miklós Horthy.
This year sees the 70th anniversary of Horthy’s death. That he did not suffer the fate of many of Hitler’s other East European collaborators — the Allies refused to hand him over to the Hungarians, allowing him to go into exile — has aided the efforts of those who have been working since the fall of Communism to rehabilitate his reputation. That effort has gathered pace since the election of the nationalist government of Viktor Orbán in 2010. It has tolerated the unveiling of statues and plaques to the admiral, while the state-funded Veritas Institute for Historical Research, which was established three years ago and has as one of its aims the examination of the “achievements” of the Horthy era, has provided an intellectual façade to the exercise.
The former Hungarian leader nonetheless remains a deeply controversial figure, as was evident in the incredulity which greeted the news that one of Donald Trump’s top White House aides had worn the uniform and medal of Vitézi Rend, an elite order established by Horthy, at the president’s inauguration in January. British-born but the son of Hungarian émigrés, Sebastian Gorka last week denied further media allegations that he is a member of the group, which was banned under Communism but re-established by exiled veterans.
According to Róbert Kerepeszki of the University of Debrecen, while Vitézi Rend was not pro-Nazi, it was “radically rightist, ultra-nationalist as well as antisemitic, never admitting Jews”.
That Horthy — who assumed the title of “regent” in 1920 after the collapse of Austria-Hungary and ruled the country for the following 24 years — was an antisemite is beyond dispute. In a private letter to his prime minister in 1940, he wrote: “As regards the Jewish problem, I have been an antisemite throughout my life.” Indeed, his government was the first in Europe to pass antisemitic legislation after the First World War — in September 1920. Further measures between 1938-1941 aped the Nuremberg Laws.
During this period, too, while initially remaining nominally neutral, Horthy feasted on the entrails of Nazi aggression: gaining territory for Hungary in Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia. In 1941, the pretence of neutrality was abandoned and Hungary formally joined the Axis powers.
It is, though, Horthy’s actions during the Holocaust that is most keenly fought over by his critics and apologists. For the latter, such as former prime minister Péter Boross and Veritas director Sándor Szakály, it was the German occupation in March 1944 which ushered in the tragedy which befell Hungary’s Jews. The regent, they also claim, did not know until July 1944 that the 437,000 Jews being deported were being systematically murdered. On discovering this, he immediately ordered the Germans to halt the impending round-up of Budapest’s Jews. Only when Horthy was toppled in October 1944 by the Nazi Iron Cross were they once again imperilled. This crucial delay thus ensured that 120,000 of the capital’s Jews survived to see the city liberated the next year.
It is certainly true that, prior to the occupation, Horthy had twice refused personal requests from Hitler to deport Hungary’s Jews to Germany, making the country, at least in comparison to its neighbours, something of a safe haven. Nonetheless, the picture of Horthy as the saviour of Budapest’s Jews ignores the question of his motivations. As well as receiving appeals from the Vatican, the King of Sweden and the International Committee of the Red Cross, the regent was warned by Allied governments that he would be held responsible if the deportations did not stop. The Hungarian Holocaust saw many acts of great bravery. Horthy’s desire for self-preservation was not among them.