Balint Homan is an important figure in Hungarian history, both for his well-respected attempts to document it as an academic and his work influencing it as a Minister of Religion and Education for two periods between 1932 and 1942. Later this month, the city of Szekesfehervar is planning to unveil a life-size statue of Homan, funded in part by a donation from the country's Justice Ministry, to mark the 130th anniversary of his birth.
However, the planned statue of Homan earned a remarkable rebuke from a United States envoy this weekend, for a simple reason – Homan espoused anti-Semitic beliefs and was a Nazi-allied political leader during a period that eventually saw more than half a million Hungarian Jews killed in the Holocaust.
"From the U.S. government perspective we feel very strongly that history and the damage that this man did to Hungarian citizens who happened to be Jewish cannot be ignored, and to put up that statue seems incomprehensible," Ira Forman, a U.S. special envoy against anti-Semitism, told Reuters.
The planned unveiling of the statue comes at a time when many are concerned that the government of Viktor Orban, Hungary's prime minister, hasn't learned the lessons of history. Orban, who first became prime minister in 1998, has become known for a reactionary stance since he was returned to office in 2010: He's sided with Russia during the dispute over Ukraine, attempted to tax the Internet, and built a giant fence to help keep refugees out of the country. At points, Orban has seemed to relish the notoriety he's received in the West – last year even saying that he hopes to build Hungary into an "illiberal democracy."
Despite the funding from the Justice Ministry, Orban's government isn't directly behind the planned statue. Instead, a private group called the Balint Homan Foundation proposed the statue and gathered funding for it. Notably, Agence France Presse reports, that group includes a number of individuals linked to the far right Jobbik party – a political movement with ties to anti-Semitic groups that has helped push Orban's ruling Fidesz party further to the right.
Supporters of the statue argue alternatively that Homan's anti-Semitic beliefs were simply a product of the time or that his work can be viewed outside of his personal beliefs. The statue itself forms only a smaller part of a broader movement to rehabilitate Homan's legacy, which has already seen a Budapest court overturn a life sentence handed to him in war crime trials after the war for his role in Hungary's decision to join Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union. (Homan died in prison in 1951).
Assessing this rehabilitation recently, Eva S. Balogh, a former Yale professor who runs the blog Hungarian Spectrum, concluded that while the war crimes trial against Homan may need reevaluating, his anti-Semitic leanings are well documented and hard to argue with. Citing the work of another historian, Maria M. Kovacs, Balogh points to Homan's prominent role in a number of laws that restricted Hungary's Jews as well as private memos that show he sought to make further restrictions.
The U.S. has now joined a number of world powers who have criticized the plans for the statue, but the real debate is taking place inside Hungary, where many see the statue as yet another example of Hungary's struggle to acknowledge its own role in the Holocaust and perhaps evidence that history might repeat itself. "There are some who want to bring the dark and menacing shadow of anti-Semitism to this country," the Mazsihisz, the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities, said in a statement published earlier this month.
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