The arrest in Budapest last week of Laszlo Csatary – a 97-year-old former police officer accused of Holocaust-era war crimes – could not have come at a worse time for Hungary’s embattled government. According to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Csatary “played an important role” in the 1944 deportation of some 15,000 Jews from the Slovak city of Kosice (then known as Kassa and at the time part of Hungary ) to Auschwitz. The charge sheet against Csatary alleges that he “regularly” used a dog whip on his defenseless victims “without any special reasons and irrespective of the assaulted people’s sex, age or health condition.” He has been charged with “unlawful torture of human beings,” and if found guilty could spend the rest of his life in prison.
Though Csatary, after a long respite in Canada (where he made a new life for himself as an art dealer ), is believed to have been living in Hungary for the past 15 years under his own name, it was not until last week that the Hungarian government brought charges against him. Several days before, the British tabloid The Sun – working on a tip from the Wiesenthal Center – exposed Csatary’s whereabouts, publishing a photo of the accused war criminal answering the door in his underwear.
It remains unclear the extent to which, if at all, the Hungarian government purposely delayed apprehending Csatary. Efraim Zuroff, the Wiesenthal Center’s chief Nazi-hunter, presented evidence of Csatary’s crimes to Hungarian officials last September after receiving information from an informant. He says that government dithering led him to bring the story to the Sun.
“Nothing was happening, he hadn’t been interviewed, he hadn’t had his passport taken away,” Zuroff told me in an interview. Meanwhile, Tibor Ibolya, Budapest’s acting chief prosecutor, told The Wall Street Journal that Zuroff “threatened the investigation” by involving the international media in the case.
If the Hungarian government did drag its feet in apprehending Csatary, however, it’s not hard to understand why. For this saga takes place amid a resurgence of right-wing nationalism in Hungary that seems to get worse with each passing day.
The most provocative single incident was the May pilgrimage by Laszlo Kover, speaker of the Hungarian parliament and a member of the ruling Fidesz party, to a memorial ceremony in neighboring Romania honoring Josef Nyiro, an ethnic Hungarian writer who died in 1953. A native of Transylvania, an area of present-day Romania heavily populated with Hungarian-speakers, Nyiro was a vocal anti-Semite and supporter of Hungary’s fascist Arrow Cross Party. The event caused a diplomatic row with Romania, whose president condemned the attempt to honor “a person who, according to all international assessments, conducted far-right, anti-Semitic activities.”
News of Kover’s visit led Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin to retract an invitation to his Hungarian counterpart to a ceremony in Jerusalem this month marking the centenary of the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who saved thousands of Budapest Jews during the Holocaust. (In Kover’s stead, Hungary sent its president, Janos Ader. When it was revealed that Ader had unveiled a statue in 2008 of the far-right Hungarian writer Albert Wass – found guilty by a Romanian court in 1946 of killing Jews – Haaretz tartly concluded that “Israel has a tough time finding a Hungarian leader not identified with anti-Semites.” )
Kover also earned a rebuke from Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Elie Wiesel, who penned an open letter repudiating his own receipt of Hungary’s highest state award. “It has become increasingly clear that Hungarian authorities are encouraging the whitewashing of tragic and criminal episodes in Hungary’s past,” Wiesel wrote.
The “whitewashing” doesn’t end there. Earlier this year, the Hungarian government announced that it would be adding the works of Nyiro, Wass and two other nationalist writers to its national school curriculum – a move that led the country’s Jewish community to lodge a protest against the promotion of writers who “spread hatred and anti-Semitism during their lives.”
Across the country, statues and busts are popping up of interwar leader Miklos Horthy, under whose rule Hungary passed, in 1920, the Numerus clausus, which put a quota on Jewish admission to universities. By so doing, Hungary became the first European country in the 20th century to pass an anti-Semitic law.
Perhaps there is no better indication of the vigor of right-wing extremism in Hungary than the popularity of Jobbik, a neo-fascist party that won some 17 percent of the vote in nationwide elections two years ago. Jobbik leaders openly call for the internment of Roma citizens, incite hatred against Jews and gays, and casually dismiss – if not outright deny – the Holocaust. When I reported from Hungary in February, numerous government officials and sympathizers told me that, as a respectable, conservative party, Fidesz and Fidesz alone is the best bulwark against the growing popularity of Jobbik. If that were the case, however, Fidesz would not be honoring fascists. Fidesz leaders would not attend a nationalist political summer camp alongside Jobbik leaders, as several of them will next month, where figures like Nyiro and Wass will be celebrated and “national consciousness” will be stoked. It is incidents such as these that have led the renowned American Holocaust historian Randolph Braham to conclude that Hungary is presently engaged in a “history-cleansing campaign.”
Laszlo Csatary has brought unwanted attention to Hungary. Yet in the grand scheme of what is happening there, his indictment is a minor affair. Nearly 100 years old, Csatary won’t live much longer. But his hatred will live on.