Amidst all the excitement over the release of my debut novel, A Greater Duty, last week, and the fun of #SpaceOperaWeek, some might’ve seen my mention of an award I received at my (now former) college for excellence in writing my 40,000+ word Master’s thesis on Hungary’s Horthy era, which lasted from 1920 to 1944. It was a topic that I became interested in a an undergraduate, in part because it is so under-discussed, and almost no one in the United States knows much, if anything, about Horthy or that period of Hungarian history–and the little most know is flat-out wrong or at best misleading. Having read through nearly every available primary and secondary source on the topic, I had hoped to use this research to both potentially enlighten people about this little know topic eventually, primarily through historical fantasy books set there one day.
However, that period of history has all of a sudden become relevant again, first due to the resurgence of the Right in Hungary, specifically in relation to the migrant crisis, but also due to the non-traversy regarding Trump aide Sebastian Gorka. I’m not going into that specifically here, as it’s fairly open and shut to me. If one judges Gorka on his own statements and actions, one cannot, with any claim to reason, label him a Nazi or a Nazi-sympathizer (and don’t bother trying to even ask a leftist to substantiate their allegations; they’ll just reply sarcastically with a non-answer and set their followers on you, as happened when I replied to a tweet by well known science fiction author John Scalzi.
What truly bothers me, however, is all of the history that articles on the topic, which try and go into the history of the Viteszi Rend organization (the one whose pin Gorka wears, and which I purchased for myself, as it happens), and that of the Horthy era. I don’t have the time or space here to go into a full discussion of it–my thesis is 160 pages long, and even that is more of a summarization of the history along with my analyses based on the sources. However, I am looking into publishing the thesis, which, in addition to winning Queen’s College’s Frank Merli Prize has received praise by Professor Thomas Sakmyster, author of the acclaimed and exhaustive biography on Miklos Horthy, the English language of which unfortunately is out of print. Even as a simple primer, I think it’s important to get the facts out there.
Even in articles that approach the Gorka issue rationally, I have seen numerous errors and misleading statements. Two weeks ago, I wrote a letter to the editor of the Jewish Press, a Jewish paper primarily distributed in New York, regarding an op-ed about the Gorka issue. I actually agreed with the author’s main argument, but noted that there were numerous mistakes regarding the history. Unfortunately, the paper decided not to publish my letter (which was a bit lengthy, but still important), and did not deign to reply to either my initial email or a follow-up a week later. I believe that my letter should be seen, however, which is why I will be including it below. I don’t know how much time I’ll be able to devote to this issue with everything else I have going on, but I couldn’t simply sit by and say nothing. It’s important to get the history right, for reasons that should be obvious.
First, I want to be clear that I agree with a central point of Mr. Cohen’s article, that being that Gorka should be judged on his own actions and statements, and that there is no real evidence that he is in any way a Nazi sympathizer or an antisemite. However, I do have to take some issue with Mr. Cohen’s summary of the history of Miklos Horthy and the administration over which he presided from 1920 to 1944. At this point, I should also make it clear that I am a proud Jew, with no personal connection to Hungary, and that the Horthy era in Hungary was the subject of my lengthy, award-winning Master’s thesis, which also received praise from Professor Thomas Sakmyster, one of, if not the preeminent English-language authority on Miklos Horthy. I will attempt to be as brief as possible, while addressing the places in which, according to my understanding of the available primary and secondary sources, Mr. Cohen made overgeneralizations or outright incorrect statements regarding Horthy and Hungary at that time. First, I will discuss the Viteszi Rend organization itself, which Cohen touches on minimally. Viteszi Rend was formed by Horthy as a way of creating a pseudo aristocracy, to honor and reward (usually with land) World War I veterans and other public servants. Its members came from all areas of Hungarian society, and was in no way an organization that acted as a unit; for example ,during the Nazi occupation, there were members of Viteszi Rend that collaborated but also members who helped to save Jews. Additionally, the organization was disbanded at the war’s end, and the Viteszi Rend that Gorka’s father was a member of (and honored for anti-communist activity) was formed afterward, as a more standard order of chivalry. To treat the two as the same is disingenuous, and while Mr. Cohen did not directly do so, many have.
The first instance of overgeneralization and incorrect description is when he erroneously and misleadingly describes the “White Terror” that was carried out after the overthrow of Bela Kun’s communist regime as a pogrom, and states that 5,000 Jews were killed. While numerous Jews were killed during this, as many associated them as a group with communists, the purpose of the White Terror was to purge communists, and did not solely target Jews. The figure of 5,000 deaths he provides is correct, but to say that they were all Jews is wrong and misleading. Cohen then mentions the “numerus clausus” laws passed in the 1920s that limited Jewish presence in universities to their percentage of the population. However, historical sources show that by the end of the decade, this was not really enforced, and by the early 1930s Jews made up twelve percent of university students. Immediately following this, Cohen refers to Gyula Gombos as “Horthy’s prime minister,” which may lead people to believe that he was Horthy’s only prime minister for his 25 year tenure as regent. However, Gombos was merely one of many, and as a condition of his appointment, Horthy made Gombos stop making anti-Jewish declarations and forbade the passage of antisemitic legislation. Under Gombos the Jewish situation hardly changed in practice, and it was not until the late 1930s, once Hungary was much more under Germany’s sway, that more serious anti-Jewish laws were passed and enforced.
In the following paragraph, Cohen notes correctly that the Horthy was overthrown in 1944 by the Nazis and their many allies in Hungary. However, he then states that this does not exonerate Horthy in any way from what happened in Hungary in the last year of his reign. However, there is much Cohen omits that demonstrates the extreme complexity of the situation. First off, apart from the incident he cites of the 150,000 Transylvanian Jews Horthy’s administration allowed to be taken early in the war, Horthy refused to deport Hungary’s Jews, even arguing with Hitler himself as a meeting. And as we see, the mass deportation of Hungarian Jews only began after the German occupation in the spring of 1944. Furthermore, in the summer of 1944, after both learning more about what was truly happening to the deported Jews and receiving pressure from other leaders to act, Horthy stepped in and used military force to stop the deportations, thus saving the Jews of Budapest—the only such time a European leader of a country occupied by the Nazis or under their sway did so. Of course, this too is a fairly simple summary of what happened, and there is an argument to be made that Horthy could have done more had he acted sooner (though he may have just as easily been deposed earlier). Horthy and the conservative politicians who made up most of his trusted circle had a very old-world, class based view of the world that included Jews, but divided them into “useful” Jews and ones that they did not care much about. It is certainly worthy of criticism, but the argument cannot be made that Horthy was an “opportunistic, murderous dictator,” as Cohen writes. While Horthy initially turned a blind eye to the violence of the White Terror, it was he who stopped it, and there is no reliable source that even claims he ordered anyone killed. And as I have already said, he refused to deport Hungarian Jews so long as he maintained full control over the country, and even while under occupation, stepped in and it is in large part due to his actions that most of the Jews of Budapest survived the war. He was also in no way a dictator. His official powers could have enabled him to become one, but as Thomas Sakmyster writes, Horthy never exercised those far-reaching powers, and in practice he functioned much more like a constitutional monarch. And as for calling him opportunistic, an argument can be made, but based on my research the truth was that Horthy (who had been a naval officer for most of his life prior to 1920), was not very politically savvy, acting based on his own personal code of honor and on the advice of those close to him (the latter of which did lead him to make several poor choices when his advisors were pro-German.)
I could go on, but this has already gone quite long; a full discussion of Miklos Horthy and his 25 years as regent is well beyond the scope of this letter. I will conclude with this. I am not some sort of Horthy apologist, and I am not writing this to defend him. Horthy, like most historical figures, did and believed many things worth criticizing, but also things that were honorable and worth acknowledging. It is simply unfair to both Horthy, Hungary, and the readers of this paper to have an article make several incorrect and misleading statements and allegations about someone. Mr. Cohen understood that when discussing Gorka (and again, he is absolutely correct that Gorka should not be judged based on what Horthy did or did not do), but not with Horthy, and I wanted to be sure that the historical record was set straight.
M.A. in History from Queens College, regular columnist for the Queens Jewish Link, author.