Memorialising runs the risk of becoming politically toxic

Opinion: Recent incidents have blurred the line between commemoration and celebration

Viktor Orban’s brand of conservative nationalism, and what some EU partners fear are his questionable democratic values, have put Hungary’s prime minister far out on a political limb more than once. Now his appearance of putting a gloss on Hungary’s wartime role has him in hot water with the Jewish community.

Whether it is Japan’s leader visiting a shrine to its war dead, British education secretary Michael Gove being prescriptive about the meaning of the first World War, or Hungary’s new memorial to the victims of Nazi occupation, recent commemorations are developing a habit of becoming politically toxic. Battles refought, ghosts revived, as much about the present as the past . . . it is a warning to our own commemorators.

These incidents share a blurring of the line by governments, whether deliberately or not, between commemoration, an act of remembering and learning, and celebration, the honouring of the dead and what they stood for – an attempt to make history serve a particular political narrative. It is particularly so when the subject appears to place the commemorator on the wrong side of history.

When Japan's nationalist-leaning prime minister, Shinzo Abe, recently returned to pray at the Yasukuni Shrine to Japan's war dead, including 14 class A war criminals, he knew well how it would be interpreted in Korea and China. They have understandably reacted with fury to what they see as Japan's determination to airbrush its wartime brutality.


(The Great War commemorations have also prompted comparisons between the current Japan/China tensions over islands in the South China Sea and the seemingly irresistible stumbling into carnage in 1914. The danger, much underestimated, say many Asia experts, is that as growing nationalist sentiment on both sides fans the flames, a minor incident might trigger alliance commitments, notably on the part of the US to Japan, that could lead to a wider war.)

The Hungarian government's decision to put up a memorial to the victims of the Nazi occupation in 1944 has prompted a fierce row with the Jewish community. The monument depicts the Archangel Gabriel, a symbol of Hungary, being defeated by an eagle – Germany – and will stand in a central Budapest square. The Jewish community sees it as an attempt to sideline Holocaust commemoration ceremonies and to write out of history, or minimise, state collusion in the deportation of Jews.

A Jewish group has threatened to boycott official Holocaust commemorations if Orban attends the unveiling of the monument.

Under dictator Adm Miklos Horthy, Hungary willingly entered the second World War in 1941 as an ally of Germany. Having, with Hitler's support, already annexed chunks of Slovakia, Transcarpathia and Northern Transylvania from neighbours, it marched into the Soviet Union as part of Germany's Operation Barbarossa in June 1941 and participated in the dismembering of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

Willing participant
From 1938 Horthy was a willing participant in Hitler's campaign against the Jews. The first Hungarian anti-Jewish law, in 1938, limited Jewish numbers in the professions, government and commerce to 20 per cent. The second law reduced this to 5 per cent the following year; 250,000 Hungarian Jews lost their jobs. A law of August 1941 prohibited Jews from marrying non-Jews.

From 1941 tens of thousands of Jews were deported to Ukraine, where they were massacred. The expulsions were recently described by Sandor Szakaly, director of a government-sponsored history institute, as “a policy procedure for foreign nationals”. Following protests he had to apologise.

Under the pretext of hunting for partisans, in January 1942 Hungarian military and gendarmerie units killed 3,300 people in Újvidék, Serbia, 700 Jews among them. In the so- called labour service 25,000 to 42,000 unarmed Hungarian Jewish men sent to battlefields died between 1941 and 1944.

But in March 1944, after Berlin got wind of secret ceasefire talks between Hungary and the Allies, Hitler invaded to prevent it from deserting the war effort.

After the invasion Horthy’s government assisted with great efficiency in the deportation of some 437,000 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz in less than two months. Most were killed on arrival. Horthy was not deposed until September, in part then because the Nazis thought him insufficiently zealous. They installed the local Nazi Arrow Cross movement to complete the job.

Horthy still has some adherents in Hungary today, mostly in the far-right Jobbik movement, which put up a statue to him in November.

Orban, who to be fair has denounced anti-Semitism and promised to act against it, has embraced an ambiguity about Hungary's wartime role and casualties that has left him open to accusations of rewriting history.