Shocking revelations about the father and grandfather of a ruling party grandee show how Hungary has yet to come to terms with its complicated past.
By Edit Inotai
His grandfather was a mass murderer working with Hitler’s regime, his father a communist collaborator. It sounds like the makings of a movie script — but such is the family story of Zoltan Pokorni, former chairman of Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party.
Pokorni’s family history is the subject of recent fascination among the Hungarian public — though you will not see anything about it in the pro-government press.
“I am not here to excuse my grandfather, nor would I like to ponder how someone becomes a murderer,” Pokorni said at a solemn ceremony in mid-January at the site of a former Jewish hospital in Budapest.
It was here that in early 1945 more than 100 people — mostly Jewish, some children — were tortured and killed by a death squad from Hungary’s far-right Arrow Cross Party. Pokorni’s grandfather was one of them.
Pokorni, 58, is mayor of the affluent, conservative XIIth district in Budapest. But he is much more than that. As the intellectual face of Fidesz at the end of the 1990s, he served as Minister of Education in the first Fidesz government (1998-2002).
He climbed the ladder further, becoming chairman and parliamentary group leader of Fidesz between 2001-2002, the only time when authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has let anyone else run the show.
Later he got sidelined, but maintained his position as vice-president of Fidesz until 2015. He is still a member of the right-wing governing party.
History haunts him as no other Hungarian politician. The first blow came in 2002 when it emerged that his father used to report to the communist secret service.
It was a fairly typical story in the Eastern Bloc. Pokorni’s father was arrested in 1953 for conspiring against the communist state and sentenced to 12 years in prison. He was freed during the 1956 anti-communist revolution, but after Soviet troops crushed the uprising, he should have gone back to prison for another nine years. Unless he collaborated with the new regime.
He did, and continued informing on colleagues and friends right up to 1989, the year of democratic transition. Nobody in the family had a clue.
By this time, young Pokorni was immersed in dissident work and founding Fidesz, even as his father was busily serving the communist government. When news of his collaboration broke in 2002, Pokorni immediately stepped down as party leader.
Other famous figures have had similar crosses to bear. Celebrated Hungarian novelist Peter Esterhazy was writing his grandiose work Harmonia Caelestis when he found out by accident that his father had also been an informer for more than 20 years.
The revelation prompted him to add another 280 pages to the book, called the “Revised Edition”, to get a clearer picture of his role-model father.
Oscar-winning film director Istvan Szabo also wrote secret reports, as did some journalists, economists and hotel directors, either in exchange for favours or because they were being blackmailed.
Since Hungary has not published a list of all those who secretly collaborated with the communist regime, you can count on more high-profile surprises even 30 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
But for Pokorni, history came around a second time.
In January, he had to admit — literally with tears in his eyes — that his grandfather, long considered a hero in the family, was a merciless murderer.
At the end of 1944, after German troops had invaded Hungary and with the Soviet Red Army pressing in from the east, extremist groups started carrying out raids on Jews and leftists. Pokorni’s father was an active participant — but nobody knew this until a journalist dug deep enough in the archives to find the evidence.
“I was doing research about a controversial memorial in the XII district, commemorating the victims of World War II,” Laszlo Rab, the journalist who published the story in Mozgo Vilag magazine, told BIRN.
“There were several names engraved on the base of the memorial, and I was curious who they were and what they did. Were they Jews, soldiers or civilians? How did they die? This was not the first time that the names of victims and perpetrators appeared side by side…”
For Rab, this is not a story about Pokorni, who of course is not responsible for the sins of his unknown grandfather. Rather, it is about history.
“The past can be very disturbing,” he said — especially in a country where politics has stood in the way of an honest reckoning with the past even three decades after the transition to democracy.
He hopes that the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp in Poland on January 27 may have made people think more about what really happened in Hungary during World War II. But he is not optimistic.
“The current narrative of the government is that all evil was done by Germans and we Hungarians are innocent,” he said. “This is why I find Pokorni’s reactions so important: he was willing to face the past, although he is a member of a party that isn’t willing to do so.”
According to the government’s version of history, Hungary lost its sovereignty in 1944 when Germany invaded and everything that happened subsequently was not the country’s fault.
That included the deportation of 430,000 Hungarian Jews, carried out with astonishing speed between May and July 1944 with the full participation of the Hungarian authorities, whose zeal surprised even the Hitler’s collaborators.
“What makes this story special is that a politician publicly admits that his family history is not black and white, that they haven’t always stood on the right side,” renowned historian Krisztian Ungvary told BIRN.
Ungvary added that such frankness is not typical on either side of the political spectrum in Hungary. For example, former left-wing Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany, who married the granddaughter of a former hardline communist minister, tends to be silent about the family’s past and how they acquired the house they live in.
Confronting the past is personally and politically challenging in Hungary.
“I asked my father about what kind of person my grandfather was,” Pokorni said at the commemoration at the former Jewish hospital. “He said he was a warm-hearted man who had good relations with his Jewish neighbours.”
For decades, family legend obscured the truth.
Pokorni’s grandfather disappeared in December 1944, and the family did not know of his whereabouts until January 18, 1945, when he was treated for a gunshot wound and died two days later.
He was considered a martyr killed by Soviet troops as he fought heroically for his homeland. His name — along with that of his nine-year-old son — was engraved on the base of a statue erected in 2005, in the very district run by his grandson, Zoltan, since 2006.
That statue, the Memorial for the Victims of World War II, is itself controversial. It depicts the ancient Hungarian mythological Turul bird, with a sword in its mouth, symbolising the protection of Hungary.
Pokorni’s grandfather’s name has already been removed but the statue remains unchanged.
“It is high time we put things in order,” Pokorni said. “The Turul statue divides and spurs controversy, so I have commissioned a committee of historians to decide about its fate.”
Historian Ungvary is one of them.
“The Turul bird is used to commemorate those who sacrificed their lives as soldiers, in the defence of the motherland,” he said. “It was widely used to dignify soldiers who died in World War I.
“But in this case, it was clear from the beginning that it is not only about soldiers, as the names included civilians and many Jewish victims, who were murdered in a vile and brutal way. It is called the Memorial for All the Victims of World War II, but without clearly defining who the victims are.
“The Turul bird is definitely not the symbol one should use here. It took several years, but finally the mayor also admitted it.”