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Hungary's World War II memorial under fire

Critics say the project minimises the role the Hungarian government played in the Holocaust during German occupation.

Last updated: 30 Jan 2014 10:09
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Hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews were killed during the Holocaust [Getty Images]

Budapest, Hungary - As the world marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Monday, Hungary's government faced increased pressure over accusations it was trying to absolve the country of its role in the Holocaust.

Hungary plans to build a memorial marking the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the German occupation, during which hundreds of thousands of Jews were deported to death camps. But many say the memorial fails to acknowledge Hungary's actions during the Holocaust.

On Monday, a protester interrupted a ceremony at the Holocaust Memorial Centre in Budapest, demanding the Hungarian prime minister back down from the controversial plans. Marton Gulyas told Al Jazeera that he felt compelled to speak up at the event, even though he is not Jewish.

"This is not a Jewish issue, it is an issue for all citizens here in Hungary," he said, adding that he has seen an increase in controversies over the Holocaust in Hungary. "This is the time the Hungarian government has to make clear… which side [it] is on." 

Some in the crowd applauded as Gulyas explained his opposition to the project to a government official at the event. When Gulyas left the ceremony, one elderly man went over to shake his hand while another took his picture. 

Gulyas is not alone in his criticism of the memorial. Earlier this month, a leading Jewish organisation said it may boycott the country's Holocaust Memorial Year events over the planned memorial.

More than 500,000 Jews are believed to have been deported from Hungary during World War II, most of whom were killed in death camps. The vast majority of the Jews who were deported, were sent after the German occupation began in 1944, but with help from Hungarian authorities. 

The plan for the memorial was approved last Wednesday and is expected to be unveiled in March to mark the anniversary of the occupation. State news agency MTI reported the move was backed by the far-right Jobbik party, which is widely seen as anti-Semitic and anti-Roma. 

'A question of humanity'

Prime Minister Viktor Orban's party is competing for conservative votes with Jobbik ahead of a national election in April. The government says the monument is meant as a tribute to all victims. In a letter to the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities, which threatened to boycott anniversary events, Orban said: "This is a question of humanity, and not one of politics or party affiliation." 

The persecution of Jews, the persecution of Roma did not [begin] with the occupation. If we have to speak about this process, we have to speak correctly.

- Roma activist Agnes Daroczi

In an emailed statement to Al Jazeera, the Hungarian government's International Communications Office stated the project was not part of the Holocaust Memorial Year. It added that the memorial "commemorates a historical fact, ie: Hungary's occupation. On the other hand, Hungary clearly admits its responsibility during the Holocaust and has stated that on several occasions." 

The memorial will display a German eagle overtaking a Hungarian symbol. By focusing on Germany, critics argue the government is ignoring the role of Hungarian officials in the Holocaust. 

"The persecution of Jews, the persecution of Roma did not [begin] with the occupation. If we have to speak about this process, we have to speak correctly," Roma activist Agnes Daroczi said. Between 220,000 and 500,000 Roma are estimated to have been killed during the Holocaust in Europe. 

For most of World War II, Hungary was led by Miklos Horthy, who was allied with Hitler. Under Horthy's leadership, anti-Semitic laws were passed and thousands of Jews were deported. In 1944, Germany invaded Hungary when Hitler suspected Horthy was trying to switch sides. The Germans noted how willing some Hungarians were in helping with the deportations after the invasion. 

The German embassy has said it regretted there were not more discussions over the proposed memorial. 

Gyorgy Haraszti is the head of the board of Hungary's Holocaust Memorial Centre. "I want to see more discussion from every side about this matter, it is for me too quick from every side," he said. 

Historians opposed

Many historians have voiced their opposition to the memorial plans. On Sunday, a leading expert on the Holocaust in Hungary returned a national award, calling the proposed memorial "the straw that broke the camel's back". 

Holocaust survivor Randolph L Braham, who was born in Romania and went on to become a professor in the United States, said in a statement he was stunned by "the history-cleansing campaign of the past few years calculated to whitewash the historical record of the Horthy era". Hours after Braham said he would return his award, Hungary's president issued a statement for Holocaust Remembrance Day, noting that Hungarian authorities helped the Germans after the invasion. 

Hungary has struggled to define its Holocaust past amid a resurgence in anti-Semitism, which saw Jobbik enter parliament for the first time in 2010, and an attempt to rehabilitate Horthy as a national hero. 

Last November, Jobbik presented a Horthy statue in central Budapest in front of a church with far-right links, steps away from where the proposed German occupation memorial would be. 

In 2012, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum accused the government of trying to repair the reputation of the Horthy regime. That same year, a new constitution introduced by Hungary's current government came into effect, stating that Hungary lost its self-determination after the German invasion. 

Hungarians want to say it was not us… it was imported by Germany.

- Peter Kreko, Hungarian think-tank Political Capital

Braham said this was an attempt to absolve Hungary of its role in murdering Jews during the war. He added that the German occupation was mostly well-received in Hungary at the time. 

Another controversy erupted this month after the leader of a state-sponsored history institute called an early deportation of Jews a "police enforcement action against foreigners".  

The government told Al Jazeera that his views did not reflect those of the government. A spokesman added: "He is a historian, and the Veritas Institute was established to provide a forum for historians to discuss certain issues." 

Peter Kreko of the Hungarian think-tank Political Capital said the government's support for such an institution was an attempt to change the narrative of the past in order to mould the national identity. "They want to completely change everything, including the history itself and they use [historians] for this process that are out of the mainstream but who are ready to play some political rule in creating a… comfortable historical narrative, and I think this is a very dangerous process." 

Kreko said many countries try to downplay their roles in the dark parts of their history and that both sides of the political spectrum are guilty of minimising the role Hungarians played in the deportations. 

He added that the German occupation memorial was a gesture to both the right-wing and the public at large, which is much more comfortable viewing Hungary as a victim rather than as partly responsible for the Holocaust. 

"Hungarians want to say it was not us… it was imported by Germany."

Follow Kristina Jovanovski on Twitter: @K_Jovanovski

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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