The Day I Paid My Respects at the Grave of an Antisemite

Yes, that title is arguably clickbait, but it’s better termed provocative, as it’s completely true. This post will partially be about why I decided to visit the grave of Admiral Miklos Horthy, who served as Hungary’s regent from 1920 to 1944. However, more important will be what that why means.

For the benefit of anyone reading this who does not know anything about me, some context is required in order to properly understand why that title might be seen as shocking to some.

I am an observant Jew, raised religious and with a strong love for my people, and I would also term myself a nationalist and Zionist Jew, so much so that when I moved to Israel at age 26, I chose to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces despite not being required to. Many of my personal heroes, both biblical and (relatively) modern are those who have fought against those who sought to destroy my people, and I pray for the destruction of our current enemies, the latest in a long string of those who have sought our destruction, but will fail, with G-d’s help.

Based on what I have just written, it is understandable if you are now extremely confused as to why I would pay respects at Horthy’s grave. He did, after all, in his memoir–in which he most certainly tried to paint himself in a slightly better light, at least in some respects, than was the case, when he wrote them–call himself an antisemite! Furthermore, you might be saying, his Hungary was a part of the Axis in World War II, and hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews died during the war, while he was (technically) still Hungary’s head of state during the war.

So how could I do what I did?

There is both a very short answer and a longer one. The shorter one is, I am capable of perspective, of viewing and analyzing things from as objective a position as I can, and that I understand the facts of the small, often-ignored piece of history that Horthy was a central part of. I will even be so bold as to say I am among the most knowledgeable Americans on the subject–in part due to how little this piece of history has been studied. To put it in perspective, I have read, and have cited in my Master’s thesis, more than 90% of the English-language sources that exist on the topic–primary and secondary. On amazon, if you search for Horthy in books, my thesis is the third result, after two editions of Horthy’s memoir. It is theoretically possible that there are foreign language sources that might alter the conclusions I came to, but considering that my conclusions matched up well with those found by Professor Thomas Sakmyster, who is THE English language expert on the topic. (Sadly his excellent book, which was both an inspiration and a valuable resource to me, is out of print and near impossible to find in English–but is available in German.) When I briefly corresponded with him during the research phase of my thesis, he confirmed to me that the German version of the book, which is slightly updated from the English version and includes a couple of sources not earlier available, came to the same conclusions. Long story short, I know what I am talking about, and I can state that I have no personal reason to be invested in Horthy; I have no familial ties to Hungary, and, as already mentioned, I am a proud Jew. Additionally, to the best of my knowledge, I am the first person to make use of the memoirs of Horthy’s daughter in law, the Countess Ilone Edelsheim Gyulai (Bowden), whose memoirs, written with the aid of journals she wrote during the war years and kept, support my conclusions. Of course, no one is without bias, and she loved her father in law deeply, but the fact that no one has ever accused her (that I have seen) of being pro-Nazi or of hating Jews speaks volumes for her reliability in this.

Now, I will, in brief, detail why I did what I did. I will not overly belabor my points raised here, as they are expounded on in my thesis, which is available for purchase. I will not rewrite it here, nor will I do so in replies to comments. If anyone wishes to disagree with something I state, read it in full in the thesis, then come to talk, politely and rationally.

So, let’s begin.

Yes, Horthy was an antisemite, as he himself openly admits. However, there is something that so many today really need to understand, but refuse to as they accuse everyone from the president of the United States to anime voice actors to people they disagree with online of being antisemitic for the weakest of reasons: Not all antisemites are created equal. Yes, it’s true. There are different sort of antisemites, and this was even more so the case in Horthy’s time, and with him in particular.

He certainly did have an issue with Jews making up disproportionate percentages of specific professions in Hungary at the time, such as doctors and lawyers, and permitted the passage of the first post World War I antisemitic laws in Europe. He also, at times, linked Jews with communism, due to much of the leadership (but not the rank and file members) of Bela Kun’s short lived communist regime in Hungary post World War I having been Jewish. Horthy essentially personified the genteel sort of antisemitism that was seen among the elites in the late 19th century–Horthy himself grew up in that sort of setting, and, mentally, never truly left it; do recall that he was born in 1868, which made him over 70 years old when World War II began. Such people might have been alright with limiting perceived Jewish influence in their countries, but would never have consented to murdering them as Hitler did. Horthy’s government also approved of a plan proposed by Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who sought to evacuate Hungary’s Jews (in addition to Jews of a few other European countries) to Israel before the war. That plan was thwarted by both the British and Jewish groups.

Horthy had several good Jewish friends, and, during his time in power, said early anti-Jewish laws were very laxly enforced, to the point where they did not truly impeded Hungary’s Jews much at all. (In truth, his measure of Jews, and, in truth, Hungarians as a whole, was based primarily on how much they contributed to the country, thus favoring the wealthy of all stripes. A class-based view, as opposed to the race-based view of people that became prominent during the 1930s and beyond.

During the war, Horthy’s Hungary was the safest place for its Jews out of all areas either in the Axis or under Axis domination. That isn’t to say life was perfect, and many Jews were sent to the front as unarmed labor battalions, where pro-Nazi, antisemitic officers made their lives hell, but that was not something Horthy condoned, and action was taken against that, after he was informed and received confirmation that those reports were true. Meanwhile, he resisted Hitler’s pressure to deport Hungary’s Jews to the camps, and became one of the only (if not the only) European leader to defy Hitler to his face. Horthy’s oldest son, as well, was known to be very anti Nazi and pro Jewish, to the point where he was attacked by Nazi sympathizers as a “Jew-lover.” Deportations of Hungary’s Jews only began after Germany occupied in in 1944, following their discovering Horthy’s attempts to seek a separate peace with the Allies. One can criticize Horthy’s inaction during those first couple months of occupation, during which these deportations took place (to discuss that is far beyond the scope of this post), but what cannot be denied is that he is the only European leader inside the Axis sphere who, during the war, used his own armed forces to prevent a deportation of Jews by the Nazis. Very soon after he received a copy of the Auschwitz Protocols, information of what was happening there by two escapees, is when he acted and stopped the deportations, kicking Eichmann out of Hungary. It was too later for many, but Budapest’s Jews were saved, and that allowed people like Raoul Wallenberg and Carl Lutz to begin their work, which saved so many once the Germans, finally tired of Horthy, deposed him in October of 1944 and installed a fascist, pro-Nazi government.

He is someone who deserves recognition for the good he did do, for his positive accomplishments, and moreover, to be remembered in an accurate manner. It’s not for nothing that many of the Hungarian Jews who survived the war continued to see him in a positive light afterward, and some even helped monetarily support him while he and his family were in exile in Portugal. (After writing my thesis, I happened to talk with a Jewish family friend about it, and she mentioned that her late mother, who came from Hungary after the war, always viewed Horthy in a positive light. Unfortunately, I doubt that there are any Jews not of that generation would give him the recognition he deserves (most likely don’t even know who he is). So, since I was already planning to be in Hungary, I set aside a day to go to his home town of Kenderes, look around at various landmarks relevant to his life, and then, to take a moment to stand by his graveside quietly, and acknowledge him. Later, while waiting for the train back to Budapest at the edge of town, I prayed mincha (the Jewish afternoon prayer), and became possibly the first person to do so there since the war. A day I won’t soon forget.

As I said above, anyone is welcome to disagree with the conclusions I have come to through my research, and I am happy to discuss this with anyone, so long as you have at least read the thesis in its entirety, and provide actual sources to support anything you want to argue. It’s very simple.

So, while Horthy was by no means perfect, and perfectly worthy of criticisms, he was not, in my understanding, an evil man, and not someone who can simply be called a “Hitler ally” and written off as a pro-Nazi individual who supported the murder of Jews. His actions did lead to the survival of many thousands of Jews, and he deserves that recognition.

So why is this something I deemed worth talking about today (apart from the fact that February 9th is the date on which he passed away in 1957)?

It is important because he is a very early example of something that continues to take place today. People try to judge historical figures based one hindsight, and on today’s political or social values and norms. To do so, and to ignore the context of an individual’s personal situation and the environment in which they lived, is at best stupid and foolish, at worst malicious. We see people advocating for the removal of monuments to historical figures due to some perceived wrong opinion or belief, routinely. People who admire such figures are then also labeled with the same smears. Context matters. However, that doesn’t mean that when discussing a person, we cannot say we think they were wrong about something, and point out how today such a view is considered unacceptable, so long as we also understand how things were different back then. Objectivity (as much as is possible) is crucial as well. If you go into the study of a historical period or figure with a particular pet social or political issue in mind, or worse, an agenda to push, you are polluting the research you are about to do. I’m sure that at some point people will take portions of what I’ve written here completely out of context, and use them to try and smear me with something–but that’s just the world we live in today.

I have zero regrets about what I did that day in Hungary nearly two years ago, paying respects to a very flawed, but very decent man, whose good deeds deserve recognition, and who deserves to be properly understood beyond a few pithy sentences that are the product of decades of propaganda largely pushed by the communist regime in Hungary after World War II.

IMG_5508Grave of Miklos Horthy, in Kenderes, Hungary. (He was reburied here after the fall of communism.)

IMG_5511Sadly, due to the threat of politically-motivated vandalism, it is behind a locked fence. (Wreath is likely from a memorial marking the anniversary of his death, which was less than 2 weeks before I was here.)

One thought on “The Day I Paid My Respects at the Grave of an Antisemite

  1. Yakov,

    Super fascinating. I also learnt that Horthy was a Protestant which must’ve added a further layer of complexity. Do you think if Karl had been able to become King of Austria, he could’ve thwarted the Anchluss and keep Hungary in the Allied camp?
    My own view is that Horthy was an indecisive man who cast his lot reluctantly with Hitler due to the British and French betrayal of Czechoslovakia as well as some rechavanism to undo the Treaty of Trinanon

    But I’ll defer to any criticisms you have towards that view


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