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The Nyírő saga continues

July 2nd, 2012

Right and left accuse each other of acting in bad faith in connection with the government-sponsored, but failed reburial of Transylvanian writer József Nyírő. A liberal analyst believes both sides need enemies in order to mobilise their own  troops.In Magyar Hírlap, Zsolt Bayer (who has just won a libel trial against a left wing journalist and the chairman of the Alliance of Jewish Congregations who branded him an anti-Semite), argues that the right wing should not be concerned about repeated accusations of anti-Semitism. He believes the new Romanian government objected to Nyirő’s reburial in his homeland (see BudaPost, May 30) in order to divert attention from its own anti-Hungarian measures. He accuses leftists and liberals of having always been the allies of outside forces hostile to Hungarians. Their main weapon has been and still is that of narrowing down everything to one single question: “are you an anti-Semite?” ” We are sick and tired of that question”, Bayer concludes.

In HVG, László Seres reads the Nyirő-affair as a concession by the governing forces to the far right. He criticises house speaker László Kövér for thinking that he could attend a Jerusalem conference honouring Raoul Wallenberg (who saved thousands of Jews in Budapest during Nazi occupation), after having sponsored the failed reburial of József Nyírő in Transylvania. (The Speaker of the Knesset withdrew the invitation after the ceremony and President János Áder was invited to represent Hungary at the conference.) Seres believes that from time to time, the centre-right government is makes gestures towards the extreme right-wing. He reminds the reader of PM Viktor Orbán’s statement while he was still in opposition, according to which far right “Hungarian guardsmen” should be given a few slaps in the face before being sent home. Instead, “they are making one concession to them after another”, Seres complains.

In an interview in Demokrata, the new secretary of state for cultural affairs, László L. Simon argues that Nyírő’s literary performance can be appreciated regardless of his political stance during World War II (when he was an admirer of Nazi Germany). Nyírő “cannot be eradicated from Hungarian literature, although he misjudged what the responsibility of a man of letters was in those times, all the more so, since there is nothing Nazi-like or anti-Semitic in his writings”. L. Simon recalls that the government had applied the same standards in connection with a left-wing writer. Last year, PM Viktor Orbán resisted extreme right-wing demands to deprive writer Ákos Kertész of his Kossuth prize for having denigrating the  Hungarian people in an article (See BudaPost, March 7). That political deed, the State Secretary concludes, did not cancel the writer’s previous merits.

On Galamus, Ágnes Huszár challenges the idea that Nyírő’s writings did not contain any anti-Semitic references. She focuses on the writer’s last novel, published in 1944, in which Romanians are described as an inferior ethnic group who were gradually outcrowding the Hungarians in Eastern Hungary before World War I. “But the novel also features one particular character who is even more repugnant than the dumb, dirty and base Romanians. It is the Jewish shop-keeper and usurer.”

In Élet és Irodalom, Béla Vízvári describes the Nyírő affair as proof that the opposing sides indulge in building enemy images, rather than working on their own, competing political programmes. The “national side”, he writes, needs scandal in order to show to what extent its opponents disregard the interests of the nation. And Nyírő’s personality was perfectly suitable for that purpose. “Most of his work can by no means be regarded as fascist literature and its value is not altered by the fact that he later he became a fascist”. Vízvári blames the left for falling into the trap of denying Nyírő’s artistic achievement and also for simply branding Nyírő a fascist. Had they wanted to appeal to the conservative audience, they should have argued that Nyírő’s political stance during the war was anti-Christian. For Christianity’s main commandment is that of love. By playing the usual fear-game, left wing critics were obviously addressing their own audience, in a clear effort to mobilise them against the right-wing. Vízvári ends his analysis on a sad remark: “As in all similar cases, nobody is really interested in discovering the truth in its complexity”.

A similar row is unfolding over the cult of an interwar Catholic bishop, Ottokár Prohászka. A statue was erected to him in front of his church in Székesfehérvár, as early as 1984, although he was a staunch enemy of communism. He was also considered a fierce anti-Semite, and after his death in 1927, extreme right-wing movements regarded him as their main spiritual forerunner.  Since the regime change in 1990, several streets and squares have been named after him, as well as a school, while his bust was unveiled in the “Folk Academy” at Lakitelek, founded by deputy house speaker Sándor Lezsák. Hungarian catholic circles have been quietly seeking Prohászka’s beatification. None of that has caused the slightest uproar, until, just after the Nyírő affair, the news broke that a monumental statue of him is about to be erected in Budapest. Replying to critics, the Christian Democratic Party issued a statement declaring that accusations of anti-Semitism against the defunct bishop are groundless. They added that (17 years after his death) one of his disciples, Sister Sára Salkaházy hid dozens of Jewish citizens in her cloister and was murdered along with them by an Arrow-Cross detachment. However, as the feud erupted, the Christian intellectuals who initiated the statue project withdrew their request to the Budapest City Council.

In Népszabadság, historians Mária M. Kovács and László Karsai argue that Prohászka was in fact the main architect of institutional anti-Semitism in Hungary after the First World War. He was the one who devised the “Numerus Clausus Act”, limiting the access of Jews to universities and wrote hundreds of pages of violently anti-Semitic articles. The historians contend that Prohászka’s political activity and anti-Semitic heritage “have left a lasting destructive imprint on public thinking in Hungary”. They don’t deny the claims that “the bishop’s anti-feudal attitude and social sensitivity have created a positive tradition”, but suggest that all in all Prohászka’s spiritual and moral legacy is unacceptable in a country governed by the rule of law.

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