What could have possessed Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a level-headed politician, to characterize Miklos Horthy, Hungary’s supreme leader from 1920 to 1944, as one of its “exceptional statesmen?” All the more surprising, Orban lauded Horthy only hours before he was to host the president of the World Jewish Congress, Ronald Lauder, in Parliament.
Horthy, to be sure, is one of the most controversial personalities in modern Hungarian history.
To his admirers, he brought peace, stability and prosperity to Hungary following two traumatic events — the Bela Kun Bolshevik coup of 1919 and the Treaty of Trianon of 1920. The coup, in Budapest, ushered in a fairly brief period of mounting tension and chaos that pushed Hungary to the brink of civil war. The treaty, imposed on Hungary after its defeat in World War I, stripped it of more than 70 percent of its territory and left nationalists fuming.
To his critics, Horthy is nothing less than a villain.
Shortly after his accession to power, he announced an edict which restricted the number of Jewish students who could attend university. With the passage of this numerus clausus, Hungary became the first nation in postwar Europe to pass anti-Semitic legislation.
From 1938 onward, Hungary passed a series of anti-Semitic laws that reduced Jews, one of its largest minorities, to second-class citizenship. In 1940, in a letter to Hungary’s prime minister, he explained his policy toward Jews:
“As regards the Jewish problem, I have been an anti-Semite throughout my life. I have never had contact with Jews. I have considered it intolerable that here in Hungary everything, every factory, bank, large fortune, business, theatre, press, commerce, etc. should be in Jewish hands, and that the Jew should be the image reflected of Hungary, especially abroad. Since, however, one of the most important tasks of the government is to raise the standard of living, i.e., we have to acquire wealth, it is impossible, in a year or two, to replace the Jews, who have everything in their hands, and to replace them with incompetent, unworthy, mostly big-mouthed elements, for we should become bankrupt. This requires a generation at least.”
Though certainly an ardent anti-Semite, Horthy was also a realist. But after Hungary declared war on the United States and fully aligned itself with Germany in a bid to reshape the map of Europe to its advantage and to the detriment of the Treaty of Trianon, Horthy took increasingly radical steps against the Jewish community.
As in Germany, Jews were effectively ostracized from society — driven out of the civil service, forbidden to go to movie theatres and attend plays and, finally, forced to wear the yellow Star of David. In the summer of 1941, after the Hungarian army joined Germany in the invasion of the Soviet Union, about 18,000 foreign Jews living in Hungary were deported to the Ukraine and handed over to the tender mercies of the SS, which proceeded to murder them in Kamianets-Podolskyi. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Jewish men were forced into labor units on the Soviet front, where many died.
In 1944, Horthy had a change of heart regarding Hungary’s participation in the war on Germany’s side. When the Germans got wind of Horthy’s plan to switch sides, they invaded Hungary. It was a terrible turning point for the Jews of Hungary. Under German pressure, Horthy agreed to the deportation of Jews to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp in Poland. The deportations, which began outside Budapest, lasted from May until July and consumed the lives of more than 400,000 Jews.
When Horthy abruptly stopped the deportations, the Germans deposed and arrested him. His replacement, Ferenc Szalasi, was an outspoken anti-Semite and the leader of the fascist Arrow Cross movement. During Szalasi’s reign of terror from October 1944 to March 1945, an estimated 15,000 Jews were killed.
Horthy went into exile in Portugal after the war, a disgraced leader who had done the bidding of Nazi Germany. But among right-wing Hungarian nationalists, he was regarded as a hero who had resisted the Treaty of Trianon and clawed back lost Hungarian lands.
In recent years, these nationalists have raised Horthy’s profile by celebrating his birthday, renaming town squares in his honor and putting up plaques and inaugurating busts in his memory. It’s a disturbing development, given the crimes against humanity that Horthy initiated and/or tolerated. Worse still, Hungary’s current prime minister is turning a blind eye to Horthy’s crimes and elevating him to the status of one of its “exceptional statesmen.”
Obviously, Orban has chosen to align himself with Horthy in the national debate about this polarizing historical figure.