Orban Defends Nazi-Invasion Monument After Jewish Protest

Prime Minister Viktor Orban defended a monument marking the Nazi-invasion of Hungary, deepening a conflict with the country’s largest Jewish group, which threatened to boycott Holocaust commemorations in protest.

The monument plans to depict Hungary, a Nazi ally in World War II, as Archangel Gabriel being swooped down upon by the imperial eagle, representing Germany. The Jewish group Mazsihisz has threatened to boycott government-sponsored commemorations marking the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust, in which 500,000 Hungarians, mostly Jews, were killed, according to the Budapest-based Holocaust Memorial Center.

“I hardly believe there’s a need for explanation when paying one’s respects to the memory of the victims,” Orban wrote in a letter to Mazsihisz today, according to MTI state news service, which received a copy of the letter. “This is a question of humanity, not political or party position.”

Jewish groups are concerned by what they see as efforts aimed at deflecting Hungarian responsibility for the Holocaust. Orban’s lawmakers have included in the preamble of a new constitution that Hungary lost its sovereignty with the Nazi invasion on March 19, 1944 -- before mass deportations started to Nazi death camps -- and didn’t regain it until the end of communism in 1990.

The planned monument would “falsify history” because it ignores the Hungarian government’s responsibility in the atrocities, Krisztian Ungvary, a historian who studies the 20th century, wrote in a hvg.hu editorial yesterday.

Hungarian Responsibility

More than 99 percent of the victims were first abused by Hungarian authorities, who “enthusiastically” deported Jews after plundering their wealth, Ungvary wrote. A monument that corrals victims and murderers on the same side is “more than unfortunate,” he wrote.

“I hope that the 70th anniversary of our country’s German invasion is a good opportunity for good-willed people who acknowledge the losses of your community and share in its pain to take a common step toward a culture of respect,” Orban wrote to Mazsihisz, according to MTI.

Hungarian lawmakers in 1920 approved what is widely considered as the first anti-Semitic law passed in Europe after World War I, restricting university access to Jews. Admiral Miklos Horthy governed Hungary from that year until October 1944, leading the country into World War II on Adolf Hitler’s side. He resigned several months after 437,000 Hungarians had been sent to Nazi death camps between May and July of that year.

Targeting 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.

The deportation amounted to an “immigration-control procedure,” Sandor Szakaly, the head of Veritas, a historical research institute set up by the government and which will start work next month, told MTI state news service on Jan. 17. The comment sparked furor among Jewish groups who called on the director to quit. Szakaly later apologized for his comment.

The Hungarian state bears responsibility for the Holocaust and needs to face up to that fact, Deputy Prime Minister Tibor Navracsics said on Oct. 1, a year after Orban’s government expanded the reading curriculum for schools to include books by Jozsef Nyiro. He was a member of parliament during World War II and an ally of Ferenc Szalasi, a former head of the fascist Arrow Cross party who was executed for war crimes.

Largest Community

Hungary has Europe’s largest indigenous Jewish community, numbering as many as 120,000 in a country of 10 million. The radical nationalist Jobbik party is the third-largest political party in the Hungarian parliament. One of its lawmakers in 2012 called for the compilation of a list of Jewish legislators and government members who pose a “national security risk.”

Orban’s government was elected in October to take over the presidency of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance in 2015, an inter-governmental organization dedicated to placing “political and social leaders’ support behind the need for Holocaust education, remembrance and research,” according to the organization’s website.

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