Will the Real Mr. Fidesz Please Stand Up!

Fidesz Rural Development Minister Sándor Fazekas presents Péter Szentmihályi Szabó with a Hungarian Order of Merit state award for his literary and journalistic achievement on March 14, 2013.

Fidesz Rural Development Minister Sándor Fazekas presents Péter Szentmihályi Szabó with a Hungarian Order of Merit state award for his literary and journalistic achievement on March 14, 2013.

On July 20, 2014, news emerged that the Ministry of External Economy and Foreign Affairs had nominated the well-known pro-government author, poet, translator and editorialist Péter Szentmihályi Szabó to serve as Hungary’s new ambassador to Italy (source in Hungarian). 

Szentmihályi Szabó has published several science-fiction and historical novels as well as volumes of poetry and translated Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World into Hungarian, though he is best known for the regular column he writes in the pro-Orbán newspaper Magyar Hírlap in which he castigates the domestic opposition, liberalism, capitalism, the West and the European Union in the vitriolic, name-calling vernacular of Fidesz-friendly journalists (see previous post In Defense of Illiberal Democracy).

The political opposition immediately protested: not only did Szentmihályi Szabó lack previous diplomatic experience and speak no Italian, but he had voiced explicitly anti-Semitic and anti-Gypsy viewpoints on several occasions, particularly during the years in which he was a regular contributor to Magyar Fórum, the weekly newspaper of the radical-nationalist Hungarian Party of Justice and Life, or MIÉP (source in Hungarian). 

In a December 2000 article in the Magyar Fórum, for example, Szentmihályi Szabó referred to Jews as “pharisees, hypocrites, agents of Satan” (source in Hungarian). Writing in the same newspaper in September 2002, Szentmihály Szabó declared “We will leave our Hungarian homeland to the Roma, the Romanian, the Austrian, the Jew, the Serb, German and the Slovak, let them fix what they messed up so bad” (source in Hungarian).

Szentmihályi Szabó in fact, ran unsuccessfully for the National Assembly as a representative of the Hungarian Party of Justice and Life in 2002 before gradually drifting between the similarly radical-nationalist Jobbik party and Christian-nationalist Fidesz following MIÉP’s collapse after 2006. 

On October 21, 2007, Szentmihályi Szabó recited a poem in honor of the Jobbik-sponsored Hungarian Guard at the radical-nationalist paramilitary organization’s initiation ceremony on Heroes’ Square in Budapest (source in Hungarian). 

However, Szentmihályi Szabó has not always been an ardent Hungarian nationalist. His 1977 book of poetry Dream of the Mind (Az ész álma) included the following lyrical poem in praise of communism (Orange Files translation, source A and B in Hungarian): 

“Raw Supplication to Communism” 

Where do you tarry, communism,

my happiness, my pure love? 

Our happiness, our pure love. 

The basket of plenty! The table of law! 

Daylight of the spirit! 

Eat, drink, embrace, sleep! 

Weigh yourself against the universe! 

Instead of exclamation points, 

question marks fall upon us. 

I know, it is not urgent. 

As the apocalypse, only to the 


your unfulfilled state 

sorrows not many. 

Where do you tarry, communism? 

The forces of production, the conditions of production,

the machines rumble,

and the consciousness . . . our subconscious

the state does not want to wither. 

Where do you tarry, communism? 

Spring comes upon spring, 

my child’s eye blinks old; 

communism, you, promised one, 

flex all your muscle, 

shake off the parasites. 

Communism, grow my little child. 

Péter Szentmihályi Szabó.

Péter Szentmihályi Szabó.

On July 23, the New York-based Anti-Defamation League (ADL) wrote a letter to Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini and President Giorgio Napolitano of Italy asking them not to accept the credentials of the “known anti-Semite” Szentmihályi Szabó (source in English).

In a July 25 opinion piece entitled “Intolerance and Anti-Semitism. The Ancient Poison of Prejudice” in the liberal Milan-based daily Corriere della Sera, the newspaper’s former deputy editor Pierluigi Battista asked the Italian government to seriously consider the ADL’s request to reject Szentmihályi Szabó’s appointment as Hungary’s ambassador to Italy (source in Italian).

That same day, the Hungary’s Ministry of External Economy and Foreign Affairs issued the following terse statement (source in Hungarian): 

Péter Szentmihályi Szabó today informed the leadership of the Ministry of External Economy and Foreign Affairs that he does not want to fill any ambassadorial position of any kind and from his perspective regards the issue to be closed.

In a July 26 interview with Corriere della Sera, Szentmihályi Szabó said that “The reason I stood aside was because I did not want to disturb relations between Italy and Hungary.” Szentmihályi Szabó claimed in the interview “I don’t regard myself to be an anti-Semite. All racist and xenophobic sentiments stand very distant from me. If you want to know my opinion, the contention was not directed at me, but against the Hungarian government and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán” (source in Hungarian).  



Why Just Now?

Béla Biszku and János Kádár at the Hungarian Parliament Building

Béla Biszku and János Kádár at the Hungarian Parliament Building.

On October 16, 2013, the Budapest Investigative Prosecutor’s Office submitted an indictment to the Budapest Court of Justice accusing former Kádár-régime official Béla Biszku of war crimes committed during the suppression of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. The indictment charges that as a member of the Hungarian Revolutionary Worker-Peasant Government’s Provisional Executive Committee (Ideiglenes Intéző Bizottság) that exercised political power in Hungary following the Soviet army’s defeat of revolutionary forces in early November 1956, Biszku is guilty of ordering pro-communist militia to fire upon demonstrators in Budapest on December 6 and in the city of Salgótarján in northern Hungary on December 8 of that year, killing a total of 52 people. The prosecutor’s charges against Biszku are based on crimes defined in the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, which the communist Rákosi régime enacted into Hungarian law in 1954 (source in Hungarian). The indictment does not accuse the 92-year-old Biszku of crimes related to the execution of several hundred people, including revolutionary Prime Minister Imre Nagy, as punishment for their actions during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution while he served as the Kádár régime’s interior minister between March 1957 and September 1961. Biszku faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if found guilty of war crimes pursuant to the massacre of civilians in December 1956.

The question is: why just now?

Why is Biszku to be put on trial for crimes committed during the Kádár régime’s retribution against participants in the 1956 Hungarian Revolution nearly 25 years following the fall of communism?

Out of Obscurity 

Righteous imposters: Crime and Impunity directors Fruzsina Skrabski and Tamás Novák

The (self-) righteous imposters: Crime and Impunity directors Fruzsina Skrabski and Tamás Novák.

Biszku lived the quiet life of a pensioner in the upscale Rose Hill district of Budapest for two decades following the System Change. Most Hungarians assumed that Biszku, as all other high-ranking Kádár-régime officials, had died long ago until two young journalists posing as members of the non-existent Bereg Youth Association tricked him into conducting interviews with them under the pretext that they were making a documentary film about notable people born in his home village of Márokpapi in eastern Hungary.  The journalists, Fruzsina Skrabski and Tamás Novák of the pro-Fidesz website Mandiner.hu, then used the interviews, during which they enticed Biszku into talking about his political role in the communist restoration that took place in Hungary following the 1956 revolution, to make a documentary film about him called Crime and Impunity (Bűn és büntetlenség). In the film, which premiered in June 2010, Biszku declares that Imre Nagy “deserved his fate” and that he feels no guilt for the post-revolution executions, claiming that as interior minister he exercised no influence over the courts that pronounced the death sentences (source in Hungarian, including film trailer).  

Statute of Limitations

Communist militia of the type that massacred demonstrators in Salgótarján

Communist militia of the type that massacred demonstrators in Salgótarján.

A few months after Crime and Impunity vaulted Biszku back into the public spotlight, a private individual submitted a complaint to the Budapest Chief Prosecutor’s Office charging him with complicity in murder following the 1956 revolution. However, the prosecutor’s office rejected the complaint on the grounds that Hungary’s statute of limitations had expired on the alleged criminal offenses and that the latter did not constitute crimes against humanity as defined in international law (source in Hungarian). 

The prosecutor’s finding contradicted the 1995 verdict of the Budapest Court of Justice condemning two members of the 1956-1957 communist militia each to five years in prison based on the Fourth Geneva Convention for the killing of 46 pro-revolution demonstrators in Salgótarján on December 8, 1956. The court declared that the war crimes were not subject to Hungary’s statute of limitations (source in Hungarian).

The Orbán government took two measures in order to ensure that the statute of limitations would not serve as an impediment to the prosecution of war crimes committed in the aftermath of the 1956 revolution: on December 30, 2011 it adopted (with the support of the opposition) a law, the so-called Lex Biszku, declaring that the statute of limitations does not apply to crimes against humanity, including war crimes (source in Hungarian); and it stipulated in the Fundamental Law that came into effect on January 1, 2012 that the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party and its predecessors “were criminal organizations and their leaders shall have responsibility without statute of limitations for maintaining and directing an oppressive régime and for the breaches of law committed and for the betrayal of the nation.”  

With this obstacle removed, in February 2012 the radical-nationalist Jobbik party submitted another complaint against Biszku to the Budapest Chief Prosecutor’s Office accusing him of crimes committed during the suppression and aftermath of the 1956 revolution (source in Hungarian). The office initiated proceedings against Biszku based on these charges on February 29, 2012 (source in Hungarian). 

The Reprehensible Scapegoat 

Biszku speaking on Duna TV

Biszku speaking on Duna TV.

Béla Biszku has steadfastly denied that he bears any guilt in connection to the massacres and executions that took place as part of the Kádár régime’s consolidation of power following the 1956 revolution. On January 27, 2011, the Budapest Chief Prosecutor charged Biszku with violating the law adopted in June 2010 declaring public refutation of national-socialist or communist crimes to be an offense punishable by up to three years in prison (source in Hungarian) as the result of statements he made during an interview on Duna TV the previous summer. After clearing a legal hurdle in the Constitutional Court, this case is also headed to court (source in Hungarian). 

The prosecutors are going to have a difficult time gaining a conviction of Biszku on either the charge of war crimes or public denial of communist crimes. Former Budapest Chief Prosecutor Endre Bócz, who oversaw the proceedings in the mid-1990s against the militia members found guilty of shooting demonstrators in Salgótarján in December 1956, has stated that he did not bring charges against Biszku at the time because there was no evidence indicating that as part of the Kádárist Provisional Executive Committee he had ordered the use of lethal force. Bócz told the website Origo.hu that “None of the perpetrators said that the committee or anybody else had told them to start shooting. They just started to shoot” (source in Hungarian). The charge of public denial of communist crimes during his August 4, 2011 interview on Duna TV appears to be based on his reference to the revolution as a “counterrevolution” and his assertion that in 1956 “the struggle on behalf of the [communist] system was just” (source A and B in Hungarian). It will be difficult to prove in a court of law that these statements constitute denial of any sort.  

Biszku leaving the Budapest Municipal Court after being charged with war crimes

Biszku leaving the Budapest Municipal Court after being charged with war crimes.

But the outcome of the legal proceedings launched against Biszku don’t really matter, because the point of prosecuting the old communist, the living ghost of the Kádár régime, is not to bring him to justice. The point is to provide the Orbán government with the means to mobilize political support through the incitement of popular indignation against portrayed enemies of the Hungarian state and nation. If Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his party are primarily interested in justice, why did they not initiate the prosecution of Biszku during Fidesz’s first term in power between 1998 and 2002? Why, then, did Orbán and his party oppose the Hungarian Democratic Forum-initiated 1991 law, subsequently annulled by the Constitutional Court, eliminating the statute of limitation on crimes that remained unpunished for political reasons during the communist era in view of bringing Biszku and other members of the Kádár régime who were still alive at the time to justice (source in Hungarian)?

The prosecution of Biszku—notwithstanding his true moral corruption and complicity in perpetuating communist dictatorship—represents a political device aimed at further consolidation of the Orbán government’s power.  


In Márai’s Footsteps

Márai -1Sándor Márai, born in Kassa, Austria-Hungary (now Košice, Slovakia) in 1900, has been one of the most popular Hungarian writers both in Hungary and abroad since being (re)discovered following the fall of communism. He was one of the few 20th-century Hungarian thinkers and creators who managed to retain his intellectual independence amid the intense nationalist-internationalist polarization of politics in Hungary.

How was Márai able to preserve his independence of thought while nearly all of his peers failed?

He left the country.

Márai left Hungary along with his wife and adopted son through the final small opening in the Iron Curtain in August 1948, eventually moving to the United States, where he spent most of the remaining 40 years of his life writing in splendid isolation, far away from the uncompromising force of Hungarian politics. Márai was certainly not the only Hungarian writer to leave Hungary in search of creative freedom, though he was one of the few who had not lost his intellectual independence before leaving the country and did not cease to write important Hungarian literature after leaving the country. 


Márai distanced himself equally from both the nationalist Horthy régime that ruled Hungary from 1920 to 1944 and the communist Rákosi régime that seized power in the country in the years 1947–1948. The following excerpts from Márai’s 1943–1944 journal reveal his attitude toward the interwar Horthy régime, which he referred to as “neo-baroque fascism” (source in Hungarian): 

What happened here for 25 years? A confederation of interests in defense of feudal landed-estates, which under the pretense of Trianon prolonged for 25 years a system that oppressed and appropriated all quality endeavors with more and less delicate forms of terror. Everybody who could rightfully be suspected of wanting quality was a Jew or a suspected Jew or had a Jewish wife or was a decadent Anglophile and Francophile, Freemason and communist (source in Hungarian).  


Over a period of 25 years—in a national, social and moral sense!—we wrote everything in only half-sentences; the other half of the sentence remained in the pen and in the nervous systems of the writers. That refined intellectual reign of terror which worked not with gallows and billy clubs, but for a quarter of a century conducted the concert of the Hungarian spirit with a wink and a wave from a signet-ringed functionary (source in Hungarian).  

Márai held the Horthy régime, not the Arrow Cross, to be primarily responsible for the ravages of war and persecution that afflicted Hungary during the Second World War as the following entry from his 1945 journal shows:

It is not true that the Arrow Cross is the chief culprit. The Arrow Cross was simply the result of all that this society did over the past 25 years so that it could validate itself without culture, morality or ability. The Arrow Cross horde is only as guilty as the Hungarian leadership class, which under the cloak of constitutionality shamelessly fanned and encouraged reaction of every type during the 25 years of Horthy (source in Hungarian).  


The following excerpts from Márai’s 1942 “Pamphlet on the Issue of National Education” and 1972 Memoir of Hungary reveal his attitude toward the communist system that established itself throughout eastern Europe following the Second World War:

The 20-year Soviet experiment has doubtlessly proven during this war that the strictest political education and the ruthless denial of all demands of individual life have built an enormous social and military organization in Mongolized Soviet-Russia. . . . Though it has also proven that this Bolshevik exertion also absorbs the entire content of individual life and deprives people of all the rewards and values of life, without which it ceases to have true meaning for the European man, whether he be a philosopher in Königsberg or a gutter cleaner in London (source in Hungarian).


An immense people turned the course of world history with dreadful sacrifice at Stalingrad. . . .and today I encountered one of the embodiments of this great power. For many, for those persecuted by the Nazis, this young Russian brought liberation of sorts, escape from Nazi terror. But he could not have brought liberty, because he doesn’t have any (source in Hungarian).

Márai realized that he had to leave Hungary in order to preserve his freedom of thought and creation after the Hungarian Workers’ Party established a one-party dictatorship during the summer of 1948. Márai wrote the following with regard to his decision to emigrate in his 1944-1948 Memoir of Hungary:

I’ve got to leave this beautiful, sad, smart and colorful city, Budapest, because if I stay I will drift into the aggressive stupidity that surrounds me here. And I must take  with me from here something which is perhaps an obsession: the “ego,” the personality of which there is only one copy (source in Hungarian).


This was the time when I realized I would have to leave my country; I had to leave it not just because the Communists would not let me write freely, but mainly and even much more so because they would not let me be silent freely (source in English).


The question is: when are the contemporary equivalents of Márai, Hungarian writers, artists and intellectuals who want to retain their freedom of thought and creation amid the stifling authoritarian mendacity of the Orbán II era, going to follow his footsteps?  


Fill in the Blanks


Viktor Orbán speaking on June 16, 1989.

Twenty-five years ago this week, on June 16, 1989, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, then the spirited leader of the liberal, anti-communist Alliance of Young Democrats (now a conservative, Christian-nationalist party known only by its acronym Fidesz), gave a speech at the reburial of 1956 revolutionary Prime Minister Imre Nagy on Heroes’ Square in Budapest that vaulted him into the center stage of Hungarian politics, a position that he has occupied ever since. This is an Orange Files translation of that speech (video of speech in Hungarian):    

My Fellow Citizens! 

Since the beginning of the Russian occupation and the communist dictatorship 40 years ago, Hungarian people once had an opportunity, once had adequate courage and strength to attempt to reach the objectives articulated in 1848: national independence and political freedom. To this day our goals have not changed, today we still have not relented on ’48, just as we have not relented on ’56 either.  

Those young people who today are fighting for the establishment of liberal democracy in Hungary bow their heads before the communist Imre Nagy and his associates for two reasons. We honor them as statesmen who identified with the will of Hungarian society, who in order to do this were able to relinquish their holy communist taboos, that is, the unquestioned service of the Russian empire and the dictatorship of the party. For us, they are statesmen who even in the shadow of the gallows refused to stand in file with the murderers who decimated society, statesmen who even at the cost of their lives did not disavow the nation that had accepted them and placed their confidence in them. We learned from their fate that democracy and communism are irreconcilable. 

We know well that the majority of the victims of the revolution and the retribution were young people of our age and kind. But it is not only for this reason that we feel the sixth coffin to be ours. Until the present day, 1956 was our nation’s last chance to step onto the path of western development and create economic prosperity. The ruin that weighs upon our shoulders today is the direct consequence of the fact that they suppressed our revolution in blood and forced us back into that Asian impasse from which we are again trying to find a way out.  

It was, in truth, then that the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party deprived us, the young people of today, of our future. It is for this reason that not only the corpse of a murdered young person lies in the sixth coffin, but our next 20—or who knows how many—years lie in there as well. 

 My Friends! 

We young people do not understand many things that are perhaps natural for the older generations. We are at a loss to explain how those who not long ago stood among the chorus vilifying the revolution and its prime minister have today unexpectedly realized that they are advocates of Imre Nagy’s reform policies. Neither do we understand how those party and state leaders who commanded that we be taught using textbooks falsifying the revolution are today jostling to lay a hand on these coffins like some lucky talisman.  

We believe that we owe no gratitude for the permission to bury our dead after 31 years. Nobody deserves thanks because today we are able to operate our own political organizations. It is not the merit of the Hungarian political leadership that it has not acted against those demanding democracy and free elections, though the weight of its weapons would permit it to do so, using methods similar to those of Li Peng, Pol Pot, Jaruzelski or Rákosi.  

Today, 33 years after the revolution and 31 years after the execution of the last legitimate prime minister, we have the opportunity to peacefully achieve all that the ’56 revolutionaries attained for the nation through bloody conflict, if only for a few days. If we believe in our own strength, we will be capable of bringing an end to the communist dictatorship, if we are sufficiently resolute, we can force the ruling party to submit itself to free elections. If we do not lose sight of the principles of ’56, we can elect for ourselves a government that will initiate immediate talks regarding the quick withdrawal of Soviet troops. If we have the mettle to want all this, then, but only then, we can fulfill the will of our revolution. 

Nobody can believe that the party state is going to change on its own. Recall that on October 6, 1956, the day of László Rajk’s burial, the party newspaper Szabad Nép proclaimed in colossal letters on its front page “Never Again!” Just three weeks later, the communist party’s ÁVH officers opened fire on peaceful, unarmed demonstrators. Not even two years later after the “Never Again,” the HSWP sentenced innocent hundreds, among them their own comrades, to death in show trials similar to that of Rajk. 

It is for this reason that we cannot be satisfied with the promises of communist political officials,  promises that oblige them to nothing at all. We must ensure that the ruling party cannot use force against us, even if it wants to. There is no other way to avoid more coffins and overdue funerals such as today’s. 

Imre Nagy, Miklós Gimes, Géza Losonczy, Pál Maléter, József Szilágyi and the nameless hundreds sacrificed their lives for Hungarian independence and freedom. Young Hungarians, before whom these ideas remain inviolable to this day, bow their heads before your memory. 

Rest in Peace.

There is a striking similarity between the conflict-centered, aggressive rhetoric of Orbán’s iconic Imre Nagy eulogy and that which he uses today as the head of the FideszChristian Democratic People’s Party government. Only the objects of his antagonism and sympathy have changed in the two and a half decades since the 1989 speech. The Orbán of today would not classify “Russian,” “Asian” and “Li Peng” among the former, just as he would not classify “Western” among the latter. However, the speech still represents one of the greatest instances of twentieth-century Hungarian political oratory, boldly and explicitly articulating the widespread antipathy felt in Hungary at the time of the System Change toward the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party and the role it had played in the suppression of the the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the post-revolutionary campaign of retribution that entailed the execution of Imre Nagy and hundreds of others.