Rewriting History: New Hungarian Constitution Shirks Responsibility for the Holocaust

Article excerpt

THE New Hungarian constitution, which is to come into effect on 1 January 2012, denies not the veracity of the Holocaust but the culpability of the state for the organized murder of some 600.000 of its Jewish citizens in 1944/45, mostly in Auschwitz. Its novel approach to Hungarian history will necessarily affect the decisions of the courts in this country perhaps for decades to come on issues of restitution for Holocaust atrocities. Enshrined by the Hungarian constitution, the new historical interpretation dictated by the populist, ultra-Conservative Fides/government will define the attitude of state-controlled museums on sensitive issues of human rights and personal responsibility at times of national crises. It will rewrite the national Holocaust curricula from primary to higher education (including teacher training), whose persistent failure to promote tolerance in Hungarian society towards racial, religious and other minorities is widely blamed for the current resurgence of neo-Nazi power. Museum administrators as well as teachers departing from the official line in slate-controlled institutions will risk dismissal. Some have been fired already.

The constitution is the fundamental legislation of any country, the basic reference by which all laws and regulations upheld by the state are interpreted by the courts, government departments and other authorities. Hungary's new constitution states that the nation lost its self-determination from the outset of the German occupation of the country in 1944 in the final and most destructive stages of the Second World War until the collapse of Soviet power just two decades ago. It strongly implies that the state therefore cannot be held accountable today for its murderous wartime policies enforcing the Holocaust of Jews as well as Gypsies, homosexuals and political dissidents because those policies had been dictated by foreigners. And it negates the unique place occupied by the Holocaust in all history by appearing to equate the Nazi deeds during the war with those of the Communists in the subsequent grim decades of Soviet oppression.

Significantly, the constitution has been passed without cross-party accord. Indeed, two of the three opposition parties abstained from the vote in protest, and the third voted against it. That means that the law will be enforced in the absence of national consensus over its fundamental provisions. The passage of the constitution was muscled through the single-chamber Hungarian legislative assembly by a decisive two-third majority wielded by the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban that swept to power following last year's landslide elections. The law substantially weakens the power of the constitutional court, entitles the president to dissolve the national assembly if it fails to approve a budget and expands the administrative powers of the state at the expense of the individual. It emphasizes the supremacy of Christianity in Hungarian culture, narrows the grounds for protecting the individual against unfair treatment and specifically fails to outlaw hostile discrimination meted out on the grounds of sexual orientation, an explosive issue here in homophobe Eastern Europe.

All this has provoked mass protest meetings in Hungary and attracted severe criticism from such guardians of human rights as the European Parliament and the Council of Europe. Amnesty International has declared its deep concern at the violation by the constitution of some cherished international standards of legality. Thomas Melia, the American deputy assistant secretary of state in charge of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, has expressed fear that the law would unduly solidify the power of the Orban administration, broadly undermine the traditional checks and balances of democratic control and hamstring future governments in effectively addressing new political, economic and social challenges. A Hungarian government spokesman has rejected Melia's comments as 'rooted in misinformation and malicious distortions'. …