It should be admitted from the start that this issue of Hungarian Review is a sombre one in which many of the articles are written in a minor key. To be sure, some of our authors offer a happy counterpoint – notes and themes of wit and charm and poetry and even a pleasurable nostalgia – to the main melodies: Olga Granasztói’s exploration of the utopia that is an English garden and of how Ferenc Kazinczy imported it to Central Europe; and Gordon McKechnie’s grand tour of the history and wines of the Sopron region. But minor notes and tragic themes will inevitably be dominant in an issue that carries three substantial articles dealing with the events of the period from March 1944 to April 1945.
That short period is the single most terrible year in a century that as a whole was cruel to Hungary and Hungarians. To take a single statistic, at least one in ten Hungarians died either in that period or as a result of it: more than half a million Hungarian Jews in the Holocaust and a large but unknown number of other Hungarians on the battlefield, in the Gulag, and in other political murders. That some Hungarians participated in these crimes either directly and voluntarily or through folly and cowardice only makes their cruelty more terrible and more worthy of scrupulous examination and judgement.
The three articles fulfil those twin obligations. They are an excerpt from the memoirs, Fateful Years 1938–1945, of General Vilmos Nagybaczoni Nagy, whose most important position in that period was that of Defence Minister in the government of Miklós Kállay overturned by the German invasion of March 1944; an introduction to those memoirs from György Schöpflin, the distinguished political writer and practising politician (who will retire from the European Parliament at the forthcoming May elections) who places these events in their historical context and significance for the future of Hungarian nationhood; and an excerpt from the 1946 book, How It Happened: Documenting the Tragedy of Hungarian Jewry (now translated into English for re-publication in Canada) by Ernő Munkácsi, Secretary of the Hungarian Jewish Council at the time, who witnessed the events he describes. We therefore have before us accounts of these events both as they were set in motion by political actors and as they were suffered by those forced to hide or herded onto trains to Auschwitz by Nazis and their Hungarian collaborators. Both sets of memoirs and Professor Schöpflin’s analysis of their influence on later events are convincing and powerful.
General Nagybaczoni’s assessment of the meeting between Hitler and Horthy at Klessheim is unsparing towards the Regent:
If one considers the events that took place in Klessheim and the conduct of the people who were there coldly and objectively, from the perspective of the likely fate of the nation, one must concede that in Klessheim Hungary’s fate was sealed, because they failed to take advantage of the moment at which they had every reason to break once and for all with the Germans and withdraw from the war. […] Horthy, as Hitler’s captive, could proudly have said that he had saved Hungary’s future at the cost of his own liberty and possibly life.
What advice would the General have given to Horthy? He lays out clearly what he said at the time to colleagues and friends alarmed by the arrival of an occupying German army that promptly arrested known anti-Nazi ministers and forced Prime Minister Kállay to seek refuge in the Turkish Embassy:
The Regent must resign, or at the very least he must not appoint a new government. If they occupy Hungary completely and they appoint a new government, it is now clear that as far as we are concerned, the war is over. There are more than enough examples of this. The case of Norway, of Belgium, of Denmark. The Germans occupied these countries. They even appointed governments, but these countries nonetheless had not submitted to them. We would do this as well. No more Hungarian blood would flow for German interests. The world would see that we were not willing to lie down in front of the German boot of our own will.
When this suggestion was put to Horthy, however, he refused on the grounds that he wanted to protect Hungary against an unqualified German occupation with Szálasi as a Nazi puppet ruler in his own place. That eventually happened on 16 October, of course – though Szálasi was something worse than a puppet – but in the meantime Horthy’s failure to admit with humiliating clarity who was really running the country enabled the Germans to sleepwalk their victims to perdition.
As Ernő Munkácsi shows in his disturbing account, ordinary respectable Jewish citizens were persuaded to organise their own “entrapment” by a nervous hope that since Hungary was Germany’s ally the genocide happening in Poland could not happen here. If Horthy had defied Hitler and ordered resistance to the German army, Hungary would doubtless have been occupied nonetheless. But the course of the war would have been different, and as Nagybaczoni argues, the honour of the nation would have been saved. (Its post-war fate might still not have been greatly different from what it was in reality since, as the contemporary joke had it, “the Soviets gave to the Poles and the Czechs as a gift what they gave to the Hungarians as a curse”.)
Horthy’s degree of responsibility for what happened between March and October 1944 will continue to be debated by Hungarians. On the credit side he halted the deportations of Budapest Jews after learning the truth of Auschwitz; he sought to switch Hungary from its German alliance to the Allies in October; and he had consistently tried to damp down the rise of the Arrow Cross Party and keep it out of power. Both in Klassheim and in October 1944; however, he failed to act with the decisiveness and courage required of a national leader at a time of grave crisis. That is a harsh test – how many of us would have defied Hitler in such circumstances – but an unavoidable one. In all walks of life men and women of principle and courage meet it, if not frequently. And it is they who fix themselves in our memories.
Even so it was surprise to me to learn that Saint Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury who was martyred in 1170 for defending the rights and privileges of the Catholic Church against Henry II, is still commemorated regularly in Hungary. Becket’s martyrdom electrified 12th-century Christendom, and unusually for a Christian saint he has enjoyed respect from the very different culture of the last century and this. He is the central figure in two great modern plays, T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral and Jean Anouilh’s Becket. We publish here two essays on Christian faith in modern Europe that were delivered earlier this year at the commemoration by Iain Lindsay, British Ambassador to Hungary, and State Secretary for Security Policy Péter Sztáray. Both argue that Europe remains an essentially Christian culture, but their definitions of that culture are different. Ambassador Lindsay sees English culture as a secular and tolerant one that draws on Christian roots; Mr Sztáray thinks that a more self-conscious defence of Hungary’s Christian culture is needed in a world in which Christians are the largest persecuted group of believers around the world.
In principle these two viewpoints, both being Christian in some sense, should cohabit quite harmoniously. Mostly they do. But there is a saying that two of a trade never agree. It is hard not to notice that the tolerance of post-Christian liberalism can sometimes degenerate into an aggressive one that wants to stamp out what it too easily defines as bigotry rather than to debate unorthodox opinions. And as the knights’ speeches in Eliot’s play suggest, when church and state cooperate closely, there is a risk that one will usurp the role of the other.
Future Thomas Beckets will be needed if we find ourselves in a world shaped by either political or religious correctness. Ambassador Lindsay and Secretary Sztáray have between them given us a via media to avoid either heresy.
For the moment, however, the modern world is less interested in cathedrals than in walls and railways. Reviewing two new and important books on the return of geopolitics, Salvatore Babones casts a sceptical eye on the idea that China’s New Silk Road is about to unify China, Russia and Central Asia in a “Eurasian” super- power that would dominate the lesser peripheral states on the margin of history:
Russia and China are both relatively poor countries with only one fifth of the national income per capita of the United States. They are big countries with massive military power, but their people are poorly served by great power dreams. Admittedly, big countries have a long history of dominating little ones, but in the long run it rarely does them any good. Would they not be better off just developing their own countries instead?
And Éva Eszter Szabó, in the first of two articles, begins by defending the new border walls of Hungary and the US against the accusation that every wall must be a Berlin Wall designed to keep people inside a prison-state. The Berlin Wall was but one link in a chain that cut Europe in half. It was a unique enterprise. Enormous investment went into its vast network of walls, ditches, barbed wires, concrete obstacles, high-voltage fences, wires, guard towers, attacker dogs and armed guards. In the end, however, to be effective it still needed the knowledge that anyone trying to get through its obstacle course would be shot.
Gordon McKechnie visited the site of the Pan-European picnic where in August 1989 – 33 years after 1956, 45 years after 1944 – the Hungarian Democratic Forum, with Communist border guards approving, opened the border and the first East German tourists had rushed through it. He quotes Helmut Kohl as saying later “Hungary removed the Wall’s first stone”:
We drove back to Sopron from the Pan-European picnic site and had supper that night in one of the town’s wine cellars […]. I asked what drink had been served at the Pan-European Picnic in 1989. Nobody seemed to know. I like to imagine that it was a rich red Soproni Kékfrankos, playing a subtle role in the reunification of Europe.