July 21 (Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Viktor Orban won’t dedicate a disputed memorial he ordered to mark the Nazi invasion of Hungary after critics said the statue attempts to whitewash the country’s responsibility for the Holocaust.
“There won’t be an inauguration,” Janos Lazar, minister in charge of the prime minister’s office, told reporters today. “The government, sensing the controversy that has enveloped the monument, doesn’t want to hurt the personal feelings of anyone.”
The bronze statue, depicting Nazi-ally Hungary as the Archangel Gabriel being swept down on by an imperial eagle representing Germany, was erected over the weekend after being brought to a square in downtown Budapest at night. Demonstrators have held protests for more than 100 days at the site and yesterday some threw eggs at the monument, Index news website reported. Authorities cordoned off the area around the statue today amid heavy police presence.
The Jewish group Mazsihisz, which opposed the monument, this year boycotted government-sponsored commemorations marking the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust. About 500,000 Hungarians, mostly Jews, were killed, according to the Budapest-based Holocaust Memorial Center. Hungary’s wartime government helped deport 437,000 Hungarians to Nazi death camps between May and July of 1944 while Nazi-allied authorities in Budapest shot Jews into the Danube.
“This monument falsifies history because it tries to show that deportations started with the Nazi invasion and that only the Nazis were guilty,” Andrea Zoltai, 53, said in front of the monument today. “While most members of my family were murdered in Nazi death camps, Hungarian soldiers were the ones who forced them into the wagons that carried them there.”
In a statement today, Orban said the monument is “an expression of the pain and tribulation that the Hungarian nation suffered because of its loss of independence.”
“We must first and foremost defend Hungary’s independence and sovereignty and if needed, we must regain it,” said Orban, in comments that echoed his clashes with the European Union in the past four years over his unprecedented power consolidation, including the firing of the chief justice and the appointment of allies to head independent institutions.
Orban has argued that the statue is a tribute to all victims of the Holocaust and has said that Hungary accepts its responsibility for the crimes. At the same time, his administration has sought to emphasize the Nazis' role.
Set in Stone
“We wanted to make clear and set in stone for today’s generation and the ones to come that the deportation of Hungary’s Jewry, the Hungarian Holocaust, wouldn’t have happened without the Nazi invasion,” Lazar said.
In fact, Hungarian lawmakers in 1920 approved what is widely considered the first anti-Semitic law passed in Europe after World War I, restricting university access to Jews. Mass deportations started in 1941, when Hungarian authorities rounded up foreign Jews living in Hungary as well as locals without identification. About 18,000 were deported and handed to death squads in Nazi-occupied Ukraine, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Demonstrators over the past months assembled a make-shift shrine to the victims in front of the monument, which is on Freedom Square in Budapest, a favorite with tourists and close to the U.S. embassy. A Soviet monument, cordoned off until Orban strengthened relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, is also on the square, as is a bust of Miklos Horthy, who became the leader of Hungary in 1920 and resigned in October 1944 following the deportations.
Small stones to remember the victims, pictures of family members who had presumably perished in the Holocaust, a pair of glasses, an alarm clock and a worn suitcase were among the objects in front of the monument. A large mirror was also placed directly in front of the monument after the statue was erected, blocking the view of the angel Gabriel and reminding visitors of the need for introspection.
“They want to change the past, falsify history and deflect responsibility,” said Imre Mecs, an 81-year-old former opposition lawmaker, who was sentenced to death for his role in the anti-Soviet revolution in 1956 before his sentence was commuted. “This was ordered by the prime minister and he made this a demonstration of his power to have this erected without any consultation with society. It’s a gross distortion.”
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