A conflict has erupted between the far-right government of Hungary and the new left-center government of neighboring Romania over the proposed reburial of an ethnic Hungarian author with fascist associations. This is not an isolated incident. the Hungarian gcvernment of Victor Orban seems determined to rewrite the history of Hungary in the 20th Century to whitewash some prominent criminal careers.
Jozsef Nyiro was an ethnic Hungarian author born and raised in Translyvania, a formerly autonomous part of Hungary, that was awarded to Romania in the Trianon Treaty after the First World War. Nyiro is “controversial” because he was a member of the Hungarian Arrow Cross Party ( Nyilaskeresztes Párt), a fascist organization that was installed in power in Hungary by the Germans toward the end of World War II, and was responsible for killing thousands of people, including tens of thousands of Jews transported to their deaths at Auschwitz. Nyiro died in Spanish exile in 1953.
Now the extreme right in Hungary wants to return his ashes and bury them in his home town of Odorheiu Secuiesc, Romania. Local officials and the government of Romania are saying no. The effort to rebury Nyiro is not just a sentimental gesture. Odorheiu Secuiesc is an overwhelmingly Magyar (ethnic Hungarian) town in the middle of not only formerly Hungarian Transylvania, but also the original heartland of the Szekelys, a revered Magyar subgroup who were noted warriors in the past.
The awarding of this area to Romania in the Trianon Treaty in 1920 has been a source of friction between Hungary and Romania ever since, and at various points Hungary has claimed the right to represent the Magyar population in Romania politically.
The conflict over Translyvania and the other “lost territories” was part of the dynamic which drew the interwar Hungarian government into its fatal alliance with the Axis powers. Hitler, in fact, had pressured Romania (which was also his ally) into returning most of Transylvania to Hungary, but this was reversed at the end of the war, with Romania switching to the allied side.
So the effort to rebury Nyiro is also part of the long-lasting war of nerves between Hungary and Romania, especially intense at this point because in April, Romania’s right-wing government fell due to public anger over austerity measures, and a left-center government was installed to rule until legislative elections due in November. The current government in Hungary is fiercely right wing, but has not been able to deal with economic problems. The speaker of the Hungarian Parliament, Laszlo Kover of the ruling right-wing Fidesz Party, denounced the Romanian refusal to permit the reburial, causing a diplomatic incident.
Another figure undergoing whitewashing is Admiral Miklos Horthy de Nagybanya, who as “regent” for an imaginary king was the head of state of Hungary between the World Wars.
Hungary had a short-lived communist-socialist government in 1919. Under the protection of a French military mission, right-wing members of the old Hungarian ruling class formed a counter-government in the southern city of Szeged, and made Horthy, who had been the last commander in chief of the Austro-Hungarian Navy, the commander of its “National Army.” After a Romanian invasion drove the socialist government out of Budapest, the French unleashed Horthy and his forces, who proceeded to engage in a “white terror” in which thousands of communists, socialists, trade unionists, Jews, liberal intellectuals and others were massacred. The Szeged group became the incubator for Hungarian fascism (the “Szeged Idea”), which influenced other fascist movements of Europe.
The successive conservative and monarchist governments under Horthy’s regency managed to get the country entangled in Hitler’s and Mussolini’s machinations, partly because they were interested in getting back not only Transylvania, but also areas of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia where the Hungarian ruling class had formerly had large landed estates.
But when it became clear that the Axis would lose World War II, Horthy, always a slippery survivor rather than an ideologue, tried to negotiate an exit via contacts with both the Soviet Union and the Western allies. Hitler got wind of this and kidnapped Horthy, installing the Arrow Cross government that led Hungary to disaster and defeat, and full blast participation in the Holocaust with the massive extermination of Hungarian Jews and others. After the war, no fewer than four former Hungarian prime ministers, including two who served under Horthy (Bela Imredy and Laszlo Bardossy) and two had been installed by the Germans (Dome Sztojay and Ferenc Szalasi) were executed as war criminals.
The fact that Horthy and Hitler turned against each other in the end, and that the main massacre of the Hungarian Jews did not happen until Horthy had been overthrown, is used by the contemporary reactionaries in Hungary to portray the admiral as a noble statesman. So now a statue to him is to be erected in the major Hungarian city of Debrecen, despite protests by socialists. Conveniently forgotten is Horthy’s role in the White Terror of 1919-1921, his concessions to extreme anti-Semitic politicians, the anti-Jewish laws passed during his regency, and the part he played in embroiling Hungary in the Axis.
Snapping at the Hungarian government’s heels is a frankly neo-fascist, anti-Semitic and anti-Roma party, Jobbik, which works to push Hungarian political discourse even further to the right.
In the 2010 elections, Fidesz and its Christian Democrat coalition partners won only a modest majority of the popular vote, but swept the legislative seats, allowing it to impose a far-right program. This electoral victory was made possible by a messy scandal involving the formerly ruling social democrats. We will now see if the left in Hungary can recuperate enough by the next elections, in 2014, to check this dangerous slide to the right.