[Editor’s Note: The following is a translation of this much-cited article on hvg.hu by noted historian Krisztián Ungváry on the controversy surrounding the government’s plan to erect a monument to the 1944 German invasion of Hungary. It was initially published earlier this morning on Facebook by translator Gabi N’a-gy.]
On January 17, the Hungarian government decided to erect a monument commemorating the German invasion of Hungary. (…) I would hope that more will be said about the aesthetic qualities of Imre Parkanyi Raab’s work – more precisely, its lack of aesthetic qualities. Here, I am concerned only with how he and the Budapest Gallery is falsifying history to ensure that this … sculpture is erected in a public space. This focus is justified because the government, which commissioned the monument, has omitted to consult any professional historians before selecting the proposed work. I would like to fill the gap left by that lack of consultation.
The artist says his work “uses the methods of art history and evokes figures from cultural history with allegorical forms. (…) Two cultures are represented: one, which thinks itself stronger, and which is certainly more aggressive, towers above a more tranquil and softer-lined figure, that of the Archangel Gabriel, who represents Hungary. Gabriel, in cultural and religious tradition, is God’s servant or God’s power personified.
“On Heroes’ Square, the Archangel Gabriel sits atop a column, among the clouds. In my composition, he has been laid low. … He is depicted as handsome and tranquil. His body is perfect, and there is no fear in his eyes. His face is tranquil, his eyes are closed. The monument explains that his dream will turn into a nightmare. A culture, its wings broken, is being crushed by a greater power: the Third Reich and the symbol that represents it: the Imperial Eagle. The depiction of the eagle is the exact opposite of the Archangel Gabriel’s. The Imperial Eagle is an assemblage of mass produced icons and symbols. It sweeps in flight across the world. Soon it will reach us and engulf Hungary, putting its inhabitants in chains.”
In the view of the sculptors Miklos Melocco and Gyorgy Benedek, the work described above is “unique and outstanding in the way it conveys meanings that go beyond the unmistakable message of the explicit symbolism. … The way it reflects history is also remarkable. … We accepted more than 200,000 Polish refugees. Our country was at peace until 1943. The German army massacred as it arrived, and their Hungarian servants in the Arrow Cross movement murdered the country. At most, they intended to leave behind a few Hungarian slaves, temporarily. This lends a terrifying naturalness to the sculpture’s stylised depiction.”
Their opinion is a surprise, because students have been failed at university for less egregious historical distortions. Not to mention that the symbolism is unfortunate. It has already been pointed out that the “Nazi” eagle is actually a German national symbol – making its use in this monument both artistically and politically tasteless. (…)
But the tasteless execution is as nothing compared to the historical distortions. Let’s take them in turn:
1. The events of 1944 are, to say the least, more complicated than a story of “bad” Germans fighting “good” Hungarians. Eichmann himself was thrilled by his experiences here, observing that the Hungarians must surely be descended from the Huns since nowhere else had he seen so much brutality “in the course of solving the Jewish question.” So much for the “more tranquil, softer-lined figure”.
2. The German invasion did not put the country’s population in chains. Rather, it opened the way for the country’s right-wing elite to redistribute the possessions of some 800,000 people. Very many people received some share of the spoils, and for that reason they are unlikely to have felt oppressed.
3. Not 200,000 but 70,000 Polish refugees arrived in Hungary. This is also a very large number and a positive story, but it has nothing to do with the German invasion.
4. Hungary was indeed an island of peace for many people until 1944, but not for its Jews. Apart from the more than 100 laws and regulations passed against Jews, there were pogroms in several places (in Kisvarda in 1938, and in Munkacs and Maramarossziget in 1942), mass murders (a total of 700 Jews died in Southern Hungary in 1942), the mass deportation of some 17,000 people to Kamenyec-Podolski, continuous deportations of those who escaped until autumn 1942, not to mention inhumanely forced labour, which itself caused the death of more than 10,000 people by 1944. This isn’t as much as the millions of deaths elsewhere, but I wouldn’t call it a small number either.
5. The German army did not commit massacres as it arrived in Hungary. What we refer to as massacres were exclusively planned by the Hungarian authorities and partially carried out by them. Proposals to place the entire Jewish population in ghettos had been floated in Parliament as early as 1941, and it was only the tactical maneuverings of prime minister Miklos Kallay and Miklos Horthy, the head of state, that had stopped the proposals coming to a vote. But by March 1944, Hungary’s state bureaucracy had made the necessary preparations for bringing several hundred thousand people’s lives to a close, making sure that they had fully paid their water, electricity and gas bills before they were loaded into the cattle trucks.
6. Here it’s worth recalling that Hungarian authorities were not just implementing ideas they had got from the Germans. Some anti-semitic measures were enacted over the protests of the Germans, as with the deportations to Kamenyets-Podolski, where in their eagerness, Hungarian authorities caused a humanitarian catastrophe by sending 10,000 robbed and starving Jews to an already devastated area. Some of them were immediately killed in ‘amateur’ pogroms carried out by local Ukrainian anti-semites. It was only after this that the Germans decided to kill the Jews in order to ensure there was enough food for the local Ukrainian population, reduce the risk of an epidemic and to further their own anti-semitic programme. This was the first mass murder in the history of the Holocaust whose number of victims ran into five digits. But the Hungarians behind the deportation had known from the outset that their actions would result in mass death. Miklos Kozma, government commissioner for the Lower Carpathians, the man principally responsible for the action, wrote as early as 1940 in his diary that “Himmler, Heydrich and the radicals are doing what they want to do. In Poland, people are being exterminated … The Polish Jewish ghetto near Lublin is partially solving the Jewish question, so vast is the scale of the deaths.” In July, news arrived of executions, but this did not stop the perpetrarors – symbolised in the present monument by the Archangel Gabriel – from carrying on.
7. The “Arrow Cross servants” had nothing to do with the German invasion. A coalition government was formed in Hungary after the invasion, in which the former government party played a central role alongside Bela Imredy’s Hungarian Renewal Party and a smaller national socialist party. But the Arrow Cross was NOT part of the government. Indeed, Szalasi, the Arrow Cross leader, criticised the deportations of the Jews, saying it was a waste of the nation’s labour reserves. One current ruling party politician has said that the Hungarian state’s sovereignty was limited at this time because “a large part of the cabinet had been arrested.” Let’s count: two members of the Kallay government were arrested by the Gestapo – the prime minister himself and the interior minister. Nine ministers were not just free, but members of the new government. Put it differently: there were only two members of the new, post-invasion government who had not been ministers before 1944. To be sure, one of the exceptions was the Dome Sztojay, the new prime minister, but both exceptions had been part of the pre-1944 Hungarian upper elite. Hardly “a large part of the cabinet”.
8. Eliminating the Hungarian nation did not feature among the goals of the German invasion or even long-term Nazi plans. The claim that they would have “temporarily left behind a few enslaved Hungarians” is completely wrong. The Nazis intended to exterminate Slavs and Jews, not others.Finally, it is exceptionally sneaky to argue that the monument “is dedicated to the memory of every victim,” as government party politician Antal Rogan has claimed. The German occupiers were responsible only for a relative handful of victims. Easily 99 percent of the deaths were caused by the Hungarian authorities who enthusiastically deported the Jews, and it was also the Hungarians that profited. When the unfortunates finally arrived in Auschwitz, everything had already been taken from them, including their wedding rings.
It is very wrong to try and pretend that both victim and murderer were on the same side. But this is what is being done. Authorities didn’t even consider building a central Holocaust memorial – and that’s no coincidence, since it would then be necessary to discuss Hungarians’ roles in all this. It would be very noble if someone whose grandfather died as a soldier on the banks of the Don river or had been killed while carrying out forced labour, were to mourn alongside someone whose grandfather had been driven out in 1944 and then been killed by German or Hungarian authorities. But this monument excludes that possibility by showing no empathy for a group of victims in whose death Hungarian authorities played a central role.
If anybody thought this monument is a one-off slip-up – I have bad news for them. It is a logical consequence of the deceitful preamble to the new constitution, part of the national lie that wants to commemorate 1944 as “the year of saving lives” while remaining silent about the question of who did the killing. It is part of the same government tactic that hands millions of euros to historical research centres without asking the views of real historians.
Perhaps I can end with a modest proposal. Officially, not a single woman was deported from Hungary without being subjected to a vaginal examination, to ensure that no national asset of value left the country. We have very precise records of the work carried out by the women who did the cavity searches. We also know that, in order not to waste the nation’s money and for the sake of speed, these women did not change their rubber gloves: they used one glove all day without disinfection. The Archangel Gabriel does not accurately symbolise this. But if authorities do nonetheless want to build a monument, then let them build one to the women who carried out those cavity searches. The location, on Szabadsag ter, is perfect, because it’s right in front of the National Bank of Hungary, and so it would serve as a fine reminder of the symbolism of that concern for the nation’s assets. Better yet: instead of wasting money, the people who are trying to whitewash our country’s dishonour should be ashamed of themselves.