Good morning, and thank you for coming to this important event about Balint Homan’s historical legacy. I’d like to thank Political Capital, and in particular Peter Kreko, for hosting and organizing this seminar. And I am grateful for the presence of Ambassador Bell, other ambassadors and representatives of the diplomatic community, and those who are representing Hungarian and international civil society at this vital event.
On behalf of Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Ira Forman and Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues Nick Dean, I’d like to say that we are grateful to take part in this crucial discussion.
Right now, citizens of countries on both sides of the Atlantic are wrestling with difficult questions of history and identity, of who we are, and who we choose to be.
The threat of terrorism at home and abroad brings with it legitimate anxieties. At the same time, large numbers of refugees fleeing war and oppression, and migrants seeking a better life, threaten to overwhelm our sense of compassion.
The confluence of these events has led to a newfound acceptance of public rhetoric once relegated to the darker days of our history.
From the Seine to the Danube, political parties in countries across Europe are riding a wave of fear and populism, running on platforms of polarization and division.
The United States, sadly, is no different. Our media is dominated by politicians trying to appeal to xenophobia, prejudice, and fear in cynical bids for short-term political gain.
At the same time, America’s city streets and our university campuses have been roiled in recent months by voices demanding change. Change to how our police engage with minority communities, and change to buildings and university centers named after historical figures who played a role in America’s original sin of slavery, and decades of segregation.
What do we make of this? I’d offer two thoughts as framing points for today’s discussion.
First, words matter. When political leaders lump the evil few with the innocent many, they stoke fear. When they choose to define whole classes of people as “the other”—be they Muslim, Roma, or Jew—they stoke division. And all too often, as history has shown us, actions follow words.
Second, memorials matter. Conversations on personal, communal, and national identity necessarily invoke history, including whom we choose to lionize, and whom we choose to demonize.
Yet history is a living thing, and we continuously reconsider and reevaluate the past. How we interpret events of the past says as much about where we want to go as it does about where we’ve been. Honestly facing up to the mistakes of the past allows us to determine what we know to be right today, and to prevent the errors of tomorrow.
That is why we’ve gathered here today. Because words matter, and memorials matter. And because while history should not define us, it should always inform us.
Balint Homan was a Hungarian historian and government official under the World War II era regime of Miklos Horthy, and an important figure in the development of the city of Székesfehérvár, which he represented in the Hungarian parliament.
He was also, without question, a leading architect of sweeping anti-Semitic legislation that stripped Hungarian Jews of their legal rights, and a supporter of deporting Hungary’s Jewish population. The words Balint Homan wrote into law, without question, contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children.
By 1944, the Nazi death machine had succeeded in destroying national Jewish communities across Europe; at the beginning of that year Hungary contained the last remaining large Jewish community in Nazi-controlled or -allied Europe.
Even before the Germans occupied Hungary in March 1944, Homan advocated for the deportation of Hungarian Jewish citizens. Soon thereafter, deportations to the death camps at Auschwitz and elsewhere began. Roughly 440,000 Hungarians were rounded up and deported from the countryside between May and September of 1944.
Following the March 1944 German occupation of Hungary, Homan also served in the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross government of Ferenc Szálasi, which took power that October, and began the vicious round-up of the remaining Jews in Hungary — Budapest’s Jewish population.
The result, as we know too well, was the virtual destruction of the Jewish community in Hungary. Some 550,000 Hungarian Jews perished, including roughly 2,000 residents of Székesfehérvár.
Historians consider Balint Homan’s role in the Holocaust to be clear. Homan was a vehemently anti-Semitic figure. His actions, and those of his peers, led directly to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Hungarians.
Yet we are gathered here today because of a concerted effort to whitewash this record, and to revise the memory of the past in order to chart a misguided new approach to the future.
This whitewashing is embodied in a statue of Homan meant to honor a fundamentally dishonorable figure.
Last week, following protests from groups and concerned citizens in Hungary and from around the world, the mayor of Székesfehérvár announced publicly that he had spoken to the foundation involved in organizing the creation of the statue, and requested that the group reconsider its plans.
The mayor also asked the organization to return funds that had previously been given for the erection of the statue by the city and the central government of Hungary. These were encouraging developments. Ultimately, however, the Government of Hungary has the ability to stop this statue. We should not forget that without government funding and support, this project would have never happened in the first place.
The United States, other governments, and concerned groups from around the world are not, and cannot, dictate to Hungary how it chooses to interpret its past. Whether this statue is built is an issue for Hungarians to decide. We can, however, call upon the Government of Hungary to state without qualification that a memorial to Balint Homan shall never exist. Not a statute or a plaque. Not now, not six months from now. Not ever.
We are here to lend our support to Hungarian voices working to make the true history of Balint Homan known to all. And we are here to remind the Government of Hungary that honoring a man responsible for mass murder runs contrary to what this government says it stands for, and certainly to its Chairmanship of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
I hope we can spend the day becoming more informed about the life and legacy of Balint Homan. I am confident that the words exchanged here today will matter.