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Historic Hungarian-Serbian reconciliation

July 1st, 2013
Hungarian analysts appreciate the efforts made by Serbia’s leaders to relegate nationalist hatreds to the past, as the two presidents paid joint tribute to the victims of World War II massacres.Sin has no nationality” runs the headline in Népszabadság over a report by István Tanács about a ceremony attended by the two presidents, János Áder of Hungary and Tomislav Nikolić of Serbia in Csúrog (Čurug in Serbian), a now exclusively Serb settlement.  Almost three thousand Hungarian inhabitants were either killed or deported and forbidden ever to return by the new Yugoslav regime in the Autumn of 1944, after the occupying Hungarian troops had been evicted by the Soviet Army.

Hungary (re)occupied Voivodina after the Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia in 1941 and nine months later, Hungarian troops killed about 3 thousand local residents, mostly Jews and Serbs, in Novi Sad and the surrounding villages. Chief of Staff Ferenc Szombathelyi proposed to court-martial the commanders, but Regent Miklós Horthy only agreed a year later, when Hungary had begun secret negotiations with Britain on a separate peace. The main culprits fled to Nazi Germany, the rest were condemned in 1944, but by then the Nazi troops had invaded Hungary and their sentences were annulled.  (Szombathelyi was extradited to Yugoslavia after the war and was executed.) When the fighting was over, the new Yugoslav authorities launched a massive retaliation campaign, killing at least 8 thousand ethnic Hungarians in a wave of appalling cruelty. (Some put the number of victims at over 30 thousand.) In 2009 the two previous presidents, László Sólyom and Boris Tadić agreed to set up a committee of historians to establish the truth about what happened in Voivodina during the 20th century, and the first volume of those findings was presented to the public in the presence of the two new presidents as part of the reconciliation ceremony held at Csúrog on Wednesday on June 26th.

It came as a surprise to many observers, Tanács remarks, that President Nikolić , who comes from a radical nationalist background, should have continued the reconciliation policies initiated by his predecessor. Mr Nikolić was once the right hand man of Serbian Radical Party chief Vojislav Šešelj, who is now on trial at the International War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague for his role in ethnic cleansing during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s (and who once said all ethnic Hungarians in Voivodina should be bussed over to Hungary).

On Komment, József Makai reminds his readers that public discourse about Hungarian victims is an absolute novelty in Serbia. Until very recently, the authorities refused to take note of any other victims than Serbs (and to a minor extent, Jews and Roma). As recently as two years ago, a law about compensation for confiscated property was passed and signed by the progressive President Tadić, which deprived war time collaborators (which implied  for instance Hungarians drafted into the Army during the war) of the right to reclaim property nationalised under communism. “It is thanks to Serb nationalists, that Hungarian-Serb reconciliation exists”, Makai asserts ironically. Nevertheless, he believes last week’s symbolic gestures are more than one might have dared hope for even a year ago. Two cultures have been definitively erased from Voivodina, nonetheless, he points out: the local Jewry was exterminated during Hungarian occupation in the Nazi concentration camps, while ethnic Germans were eliminated (many thousands cruelly killed and the rest deported to Germany) by the post-war Yugoslav authorities. “Perhaps the two states will pay tribute to them too, one day”, Makai concludes

In Figyelő, István Szekeres suggests that Hungary is far ahead in admitting its own sins, since “many military commanders” were sentenced even during the war, while a novel and a film on the atrocities (Cold Days by Tibor Cseres, first published in Hungarian in 1964) made a stunning impact on the Hungarian public in the 1960s. (The Hungarian Communist authorities did not find it difficult to denounce the war crimes of the war-time Hungarian regime, while the Yugoslav communist establishment drew its legitimacy, as well as top and local officials from the war-time guerrilla war, whose fighters were the perpetrators of the massacres in 1944.) Szekeres also recalls President Nikolić’s past as Šešelj’s number two and adds that the present Prime Minister, Ivica Dačić was the spokesman of President Milosevic, the architect of the civil war of the 1990s and of the ethnic cleansing that accompanied the fighting. Nowadays these two politicians are in the front-line of reconciliation, he continues, and not just with Hungary, but with Croatia as well, as shown by the presence of both the President and the Prime Minister at the ceremony in Zagreb on the day of Croatia’s accession to the European Union. Serbia’s leaders have gone out of their way to placate Serb ethnic minorities in all former Yugoslav republics, rather than inciting them as happened in earlier years. It is in fact Nikolić ’s firm intention to lead his country into the European Union and “he is perfectly aware, because he has been clearly told” that his itinerary towards Brussels leads through Sarajevo (Bosnia), Pristina (Kosovo), Zagreb and Budapest. Croatia’s accession, Szekeres writes, is an encouragement to Serbia. It means that despite its economic weaknesses and past war crimes, “another white spot can eventually be erased from the map of Europe”. (The European Council decided on Friday, June 22nd that accession talks with Serbia will start in January next year).

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