‘COMMAND RESPONSIBILITY’: LÁSZLÓ CSATÁRY IN CONTEXT

NT: Both László Csatáry and Sándor Képíró were 97 year olds, living quiet lives at a remarkable age in the Hungarian capital, when they were suddenly hurled into the spotlight and accused of involvement in mass-murder. How would you compare or contrast the two cases?


AG: 
The evidence suggests that Csatáry played a much more robust role in the deportations in Kassa (Košice) than Képíró played in the raids in Novi Sad. Képíró was sent to Novi Sad and spent just four days there. The incidents he was charged with occurred on a single day. The events unfolded in a very haphazard manner, and the orders to shoot people on the banks of the Danube came in a matter of hours. He was acquitted of all charges. The evidence presented by the prosecution was, to say the least, insufficient. But Csatáry had been in Košice since 1943 and remained there till the beginning of 1945 as a police officer. He was made the commander of the ghetto and later of one part of the brickyard.

NT: How high-ranking a policeman was Csatáry in April 1944?

AG: He was a rendőr fogalmazó, that’s an administrative rank. You can only assume this rank if you have finished law school. There are seven steps and this is the third step from the bottom. So it’s a low to middle-ranking position. Perhaps we could translate it as “administrative case officer”. He spoke German very well, and was made a liaison officer between the Kassa tripartite committee and the Germans. So he may have had more substantial and more relevant information about the deportations than a policeman on the beat, or a gendarme. The ghetto was for the privileged and for those who worked there. Not more than two thousand people lived there, and only for between three and four weeks. Then all the inhabitants were transferred to the brickyard. Eleven thousand people, including Jews sent to Kassa from the countryside, were crammed into the brickyard in terrible circumstances. There was no food, and no water. The Munkács Értekezlet of 12 April 1944 made it the responsibility of the mayor’s office in every town to make sure the Jews were gathered into detention centres throughout the First Deportation Zone.

NT: What was the Munkács Értekezlet?

AG: Meetings were convened before the concentration of the Jews in these deportation zones took place. The so called “Hungarian Wannsee conference” took place on 7 April 1944, in the Ministry of Interior where it was decided that all Jews in the First Deportation Zone, within the perimeter of the 8th Gendarme District, should be concentrated together, and separated from the Christian part of the population. Five days later in Munkács (today Munkachevo, Ukraine) the heads of the local administration, senior police and gendarme officers were convened to specify the division of labour in the ghettoisation process. At that time there was no decision about the deportations. The order was to concentrate the Jews at collection points. The order for the deportations came later, on 12 May 1944.

NT: Looking through the file of the György Horváth trial – the deputy head of the police in Košice – there are four or five witnesses who gave evidence about László Csatáry’s activities and in particular about his cruelty.

AG: Even within the Horváth file you have general allegations which support these specific allegations. Everybody remembers Csatáry as an especially cruel person, carrying a whip and hitting people.

NT: One witness, for example, remembers that children would run away if they saw him coming…

AG: Of course this could be anecdotal. You never know. In other files you read these stories as well. But in the Slovak court proceedings against Csatáry, in the DEGOB files, and in later witness testimonies which were published in books, the same image emerges about Csatáry. So it seems to me that there is a convergence of evidence against him, about his cruelty. But I don’t think that his main responsibility lies merely with his well-documented sadistic acts. I think he should be investigated for being an important cog in the process of ghettoisation as commander of the ghetto, and for all the events that took place in the brickyard. If you hold people in cruel circumstances for one and a half months, and then you load them into cattle wagons, even the fact of loading them into such wagons, may amount to torture. Torture as a war crime is a crime under Hungarian law which can be punished with a sentence of up to life imprisonment. Many historians maintain the line that “nobody knew about Auschwitz”, and “nobody knew where the trains were going”. Csatáry knew – at least according to Horváth’s testimony – that the people in the cattle wagons will be travelling for at least 36 hours. So if you load people into wagons, – then put those wagons into a siding, without food and water… Another common misunderstanding comes from those who say that if Csatáry had been put on trial in Hungary, he would not have received a longer imprisonment than 3 to 5 years. But György Horváth was first sentenced to death, then that was commuted to a life sentence of hard labour. On the basis of the evidence submitted in the Horváth case, it is fair to assume that Csatáry would have received at least a very long prison sentence, if not the death penalty. Had he appeared in Hungary, he could also have been extradited to Czechoslovakia where he surely would have been executed. So the fact that Csatáry fled, first to Germany, then in 1949 to Canada, saved him from execution in either of these two countries.

NT: György Horváth said at his trial: “I was told they (the deportees) were being taken to Germany. And I guessed they were being taken to camps. I only found out later that that was indeed true”.

AG: He said that, but he later retracted that on esentence. In his amended testimony, he submitted that he knew nothing about where they were being taken. There is a common understanding among Hungarian historians that those carrying out the deportations did not know what would happen to the deportees. A thorough investigation of all these Peoples’ Courts files and all the reports would be necessary to get to the truth. (The Holocaust historian) László Karsai says that 200,000 people were involved in the execution of the final phase of the Final Solution in Hungary. But I have never seen the documents which detail how this figure was reached, so I would be very cautious. We know there were rumours that these people were to be gassed. The authorities crafted an elaborate ruse to deceive these people. The deportees were told that they were being taken to work either in Hungary or in Germany or in Poland. To allay their concerns for why the elderly, sick and infants had to go as well they were told that, as well as the Hungarian public, “families should not be separated” or that “the Hungarian government shouldn’t feed worthless people”.

NT: Let’s try to break down the evidence or potential evidence against Csatáry into categories. One, that he was physically cruel to the inmates. That he was responsible for the inhumane conditions within the brick factory. Secondly, his behaviour during the deportations – the loading of people into cattle wagons, the numbers crushed into each one, the conditions they were to be transported in, and the selection of those people. And thirdly any evidence that he might have known that they were being taken to their deaths.Is that a fair distinction between the areas of potential criminal liability? And where is the evidence strongest, and weakest?

AG: I would add a fourth point, as the alleged commander of at least the left side of the brick factory. And a fifth, as commander of the ghetto. As to whether or not he knew where the trains were going, he was the liaison officer between the German authorities and the Kassa police department. We can only assume that as an interpreter he had better information on the deportations, but there is no hard evidence to back that up. We also do not have documents signed by Csatáry about the deportations, or about the loading into wagons. We are speaking here of a very short time span – three weeks and four transports. He was managing the daily life of the ghetto and the brick factory, and acting as liaison between the Hungarian and German authorities. A very stressful job, I would say.

On the second point, about inhuman conditions in the camp or in the ghetto. As the commander, that could be his biggest responsibility. What deeds he performed there, what instructions he signed. There is no signed document about the conditions. We do have several witness statements saying that people who tried to leave the brickyard were to be shot. But we also have Horváth’s testimony

saying that there was an internal instruction, that first a warning shot should be fired, before a guard can actually shoot a person. There is testimony suggesting that up to five people were shot dead during this three week period. Not many people tried to flee.

The prosecution should at least attempt to build a case based on his commander status. In most cases the prosecution – understandably – takes the “easiest way”. That he committed cruel acts, he tortured. It is a safe case for any prosecution. But if we talk about the deportations, and the ghetto, I think that we should see his command responsibility, carrying out orders, overseeing the deportations, and loading the people into cattle wagons. If there is enough evidence, he should be indicted for this as well.

It is also true that many of the testimonies which mention Csatáry were recorded in a separate trial, that of György Horváth, so you have to be very cautious about the quality of this evidence. Horváth, as a co-defendant, so-to-say, was motivated to put the blame on Csatáry. It is very interesting to note, however, that Csatáry’s name pops up everywhere. From neutral witnesses, to victims, to Horváth and to other police officers who testified against Horváth.

NT: Horváth said he only saw Csatáry once with a dog whip in his hand, and Csatáry explained that this was to drive dogs away, when he was riding his motorbike. Horváth also claimed that he told Csatáry that this was not worthy of a man wearing his uniform. And that he should not bring this whip to work.

AG: In these statements, Horváth clearly tries to dissociate himself from Csatáry against whom damning evidence was introduced. There are however many witness testimonies describing Csatáry as regularly whipping people…

NT: How confident are you, with your knowledge both of the operation rules of the Hungarian prosecution service, and of the different sources of evidence available, that a successful prosecution can be brought against László Csatáry?

AG: I have seen most of the documents that are available, although I am not aware of the criminal complaint and the underlying evidence that Zuroff had presented to the prosecution. So with this caveat, I would say that the prosecution, learning from the Képíró case, will be very careful not to lay any charges against Csatáry, unless they have evidence beyond reasonable doubt, even at the indictment phase. I believe that the real value of such a case, however, does not lie in the criminal prosecution itself. A case like this is a vehicle through which history can be studied and explored.

An unsuccessful prosecution, on the other hand, encourages those who say we don’t need to deal with these things. So the prosecution’s evidence should be solid. When I publicised the information that I have gathered in Kassa, my intention was to foster the understanding of the context, and of the evidence against certain individuals in the service of state-organised crime.

NT: You have also been active in drawing up legislation to deal with the case of Béla Biszku, a former senior communist official actively involved in the repression in Hungary after the 1956 Revolution was crushed. Do you see any similarities between the Biszku and the Csatáry cases?

AG: Biszku was the Minister of the Interior after the 1956 Revolution, and oversaw the subsequent retribution phase. So his responsibility from a formal point of view is much higher. He was also a member of the Political Bureau of the Hungarian Communist Party, while Csatáry was a relatively low ranking police officer who happened to be appointed to be commander of an internment camp. Biszku, on the other hand, was a senior-ranking politician who not only oversaw, but gave orders and manipulated the Hungarian legal system to sentence freedom fighters to death. More than two hundred and twenty six people were executed.

It is very hard to compare these cases, but what they do have in common is that in both there is evidence of state-organised terror, and state-organised crimes. These cases should be treated on an equal footing, and they should be publicised as much as possible. These are not ordinary criminal cases, these are not homicides like those that happen every day. The public would need detailed and regular information from the prosecutor on these cases, which has not happened so far.

NT: So the bottom line for you, is the education of the public?

AG: Exactly. And there is a huge responsibility, not just on the prosecution service, who are busy with the criminal investigation, but on the historians, on the media, and on society at large. There is a lack of even the most minimal information about these cases – not just what individuals have done, but the context itself.

NT: One can also hear statements to the effect that Csatáry was just a small fish, a small cog in the wheel.

AG: The public should know where Csatáry stood in the hierarchy. In my view, Csatáry was something more than a smallfish, a mid-level willing and enthusiastic executioner. There were couple of hundred ghettoes in Hungary and Csatáry was the commander of one of them. He was also one of the commanders of the brickyard. I personally don’t think that Zuroff’s “top 10 Nazi war criminals” list is helpful at all. It is certainly catchy, but it rather blurs our understanding. Csatáry was the executioner of orders which came from higher authorities, from the tripartite committee, from Munkács, from László Ferenczy. And László Ferenczy was implementing the de-Jewification of Hungary on the orders of the Ministry of Interior that in turn implemented the official policy of the Hungarian government. Without Csatáry, events might have unfolded in a different and less brutal way. If Csatáry had said no, maybe others would have said no as well or at least had moderated themselves, and everything would be different.

NT: How legally sound were the investigations and the proceedings, and indeed the verdicts brought by the Peoples’ Courts in Czechoslovakia and Hungary? How susceptible to political or other pressures were they?

AG: The Csatáry trial in Czechoslovakia was a trial in absentia.17witnesses were heard in total, and Csatáry was represented by a court-appointed lawyer. According to the transcripts of the one day trial, this lawyer did not really raise any significant factual or legal points, because he didn’t know his client, or his line of defence. It was a one day trial, and the verdict – the death penalty – was reached in just ten minutes. It was very quick, as all trials are in absentia, and not that thorough, because one party was missing. It was in 1948, and we don’t need a big stretch of the imagination to realise that defence witnesses were not heard during his trial, although the prosecution service would have been under a legal obligation to investigate those facts as well.

I must stress however that, even if the verdict is not as legally sound as it should be, the evidence presented during the trial is to my knowledge credible, and would be admissible in a court proceedings nowadays, even in Hungary.

From the perspective of a criminal or defence lawyer, there are many holes in the Czechoslovak proceedings. But we also have witness testimonies from the Canadian, 1997 proceedings, we have evidence from the György Horváth and Sándor Pohl (Mayor of Kassa) case, we have the DEGOB and Yad Vashem witness testimonies, and we have witness statements recorded in several memorial books and in other contemporary accounts.

NT: What about the professionalism, or lack of it, in the Hungarian Peoples’ Courts? Given that this was a period in both countries of the Communist takeover of state structures, can we say that the proceedings of a Hungarian Peoples’ Court in 1946 were likely to be more fair than of a Czechoslovak Peoples’ Court in 1948?

AG: I can only comment on a specific case. I think the Hungarian court made a very good job at the Horváth trial. More than 40 testimonies were recorded. There is only one indication in one of the court testimonies, where Horváth says that he was coerced in some way, at least mentally. This is not a verbatim transcript, just a summary of what was said in the courtroom. Horváth also made many submissions to the court that he should be pardoned and set free. But if there had been any mental or physical coercion then Horváth would have raised this matter in writing as well. Besides that one half sentence of Horváth, there is nothing. It will be up to the court, of course, to decide how reliable they find these testimonies.

On the Peoples’ Courts in general, their treatment of cases depended both on the make-up of the court, and the general political climate. It is a sad fact that we have no historical overview of the activities of the Peoples’ Courts. We just know the numbers – the 20,000 cases brought to trial, how many were executed and so on. But we don’t know how the composition of the courts evolved over time, and how specific cases were dealt with. We have hundreds of thousands, millions of pages of documents that would allow us to build a complete overview of the Peoples’ Courts in Hungary. How they worked, and how they deteriorated over time into party-controlled retribution courts in 1948–9. How they switched from war-crime prosecutions to political prosecutions and show trials.

In 1946 the judges were recruited from political parties. Some had a legal background, some did not. However, in most cases the president of the panel adjudicating the case was a former judge, or lawyer. But this was the case for all the neighbouring countries too. Hence the name “Peoples’ Court”.

NT: If László Csatáry were to be extradited to Slovakia, how could a trial there proceed?

AG: The crimes he was sentenced to death for there in abscntia were not war crimes, hence are susceptible to statute of limitations. Likewise the enforcement of the verdict has also expired. There is also the question of double jeopardy.

It is thus not a coincidence that the Slovak authorities are assembling a case against him for the post-deportation period, not for the period for which he has already been tried and found guilty in absentia.

NT: And if he is put on trial in Hungary?

AG: It is a very tricky legal question. Double jeopardy, that is bringing a charge on the same set of facts in a different country against the same person. That is a legal problem which nobody has yet really studied – though perhaps future defence lawyers are dealing with it already.

NT: Are living witnesses necessary to put László Csatáry on trial?

AG: If I were the prosecution service, I would certainly need witnesses to at least give the context, or to testify to certain specific crimes Csatáry may have committed. For you need very credible written statements before a court of law to find some body guilty. Cross-examination is the hear to fair trial and a very important right of the accused. I would be very surprised if a Hungarian court would sentence somebody, or uphold an indictment based on documentary evidence alone – even though this is possible under Hungarian law.

Very consistent and very robust witness testimonies from different periods of time will be necessary, for a successful conviction.

NT: How do you explain the fact that László Csatáry could return so easily in 1997, and live here peacefully for 15 years?

AG: I don’t know the answer. It is not clear how much the authorities knew about Csatáry, and about the proceedings in Canada. But there is strong evidence that the Hungarian Foreign Ministry knew about Csatáry, and what kind of allegations were levelled against him in 1996–7. There is also evidence that the Hungarian prosecution service was in direct contact with its Canadian counterpart, and that there was a degree of coordination with them, as they prepared to come to Hungary to record witness statements about him, when they were considering whether or not to withdraw his citizenship. That denaturalisation hearing was due to start in July 1997, but Csatáry notified the Canadian authorities around that time that he was not going to contest anything, and that he would give up his citizenship. He was stripped of his Canadian citizenship in August 1997, so there were no hearings, and they didn’t have to prove anything. When in October 1997 the authorities came to Csatáry’s home to serve him the deportation notice, his daughter opened the door and said her father had left for Europe.

Canadian newspaper articles indicate that, as in the László Finta case in 1990, the Canadian authorities were about to come to Hungary. That should have alerted the Hungarian prosecution to the kind of charges levelled against Csatáry.

We do not know exactly when Csatáry entered Hungary, but the Interior Ministry has issued a statement according to which he was helped “in a certain way” by the authorities to resettle, through the consular legal advice service. It appears that the Hungarian authorities in 1996–7 chose a path which ran counter to their legal obligation to investigate crimes for which no statute of limitations applies.

NT: The Wiesenthal Center suddenly moved Csatáry from nowhere, to the top of its most wanted list. Does that not appear rather odd?

AG: Csatáry is seen as a target, firstly because of his overview as commander of the ghetto and the brickyard, and secondly because of the sheer number of people whose terrible fate was somehow affected by Csatáry’s activities.

Of course in the international press, the title “most wanted” is a catchy phrase but it does not do justice to the individual. It is also misleading, because we are looking here at a very small pool of people who are still alive.

But if we look at the people on Zuroff’s list, and solely from this narrow perspective, Csatáry’s role appears substantial.

NT: What in your view would need to happen for Hungary to come to terms with different periods of its 20th century history?

AG: We still have problems coming to terms with the Trianon peace treaty (in 1920). The Hungarian role in the “Final Solution” is right in the middle of all the tragedies that happened. The communist regime, 1956, the 1960s and the 1970s, and even after the regime change in 89–90 – so many injustices have happened. These questions were always buried in fast solutions, and politics interfered almost everywhere in East Central Europe.

The best way to approach this would be to go back, layer by layer, and thrash out what really happened. To bring to light the basic facts, and to write all those monographs which have still not been written. Somehow the facts will then trickle down into the general population, and into the education system. If in twenty, thirty or forty years time we have this conversation again, my answers may be more positive. But at the moment the picture, as I see it, is quite dim, although progress is being made at a very slow pace.

Most recent

Newsletter signup

Like it ? Share it !

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pocket
Share on email

More
articles

REFLECTIONS ON ‘A NATION DISMEMBERED’

“But obligations are reciprocal. Those who gained at Trianon have obligations as well. Their obligation is to shape countries with an absolute minimum of injustice so that they can ask

THE ROLE OF THE UNITED STATES IN HUNGARY’S TRIANON TRAGEDY

“The extremely influential pan-Slavic movement and the idea of dismantling Austria–Hungary emerged in Cleveland and Pittsburgh after a long period of Germanization in the nineteenth century, while the quasi-declaration of