VERITAS Research Institute for History and Archives

Interviewed by József Makkay of Erdélyi Napló (based in Kolozsvár/Cluj, Romania)

The chosen motto of the VERITAS Institute is “Thou shalt not lie”. Does this mean that the institute wants to make a break with the historiographical misrepresentations of the [János] Kádár Era?

Every historian’s task is to provide an authentic depiction of the past that is supported by factual resources. Even in the Kádár Era, historians existed who sought authenticity, although up to the mid-1980’s, there were also certain centrally-supported research subjects and expectations whose authenticity could have been questioned. In the big scheme of Hungary’s 1,000-year-old history, sometimes insignificant characters and inconsequential happenings were put in the spotlight while defining events and individuals were taken into historical consideration “from the perspective of the [Communist] Party”. These are the things we would like to move past.

In the post-Communist Era, the historian’s task is to authentically inquire about the past and, freed from the shackles of ideology, critically analyze earlier treatments of history. Perhaps this is the most difficult thing since on some occasions we could stand to be critical about ourselves. If you reread the works from the 1960’s and ‘70’s, you’ll see what I’m hinting at. In some circles, although it seems strange, there is a belief that the works from the 1960’s still pass muster in the world of historical science. 

For the research fellows of the Miklós Horthy Era Research Team at the VERITAS Institute, how difficult of a task is it to clear up the earlier-formed image of the Regent?

Miklós Horthy the individual has, for many long decades, been a “controversial figure”. It’s not easy to free him and his actions from the epithets and untruths which they have become associated with over the past twenty-five years or more. Even though the “works” of Zoltán Vas, Miklós Gárdos, Ervin Hollós and others lack credibility in historical circles and are full of false claims, their influence is still felt today. Studies lacking in nuance and portraying Horthy as simply an evil man are unacceptable. So I believe that the publication of a critical representation of Horthy, his endeavors and the era that bears his name, underpinned by factual resources, is an essential task of ours. Of course when it comes to Horthy, there will always be people who, no matter what, see things only in terms of black and white.

World War I culminated in tragedy for the Hungarian people, the consequences of which we still feel today. Do we know everything there is to know about those events?

The “basic essentials” we already know, but there isn’t a historian (or, for that matter, research institute) alive today who would ever say that he has all knowledge in his possession. In my opinion, there are no glaring “blind spots”, but there remain plenty of research-worthy subjects in the Hungarian past to keep historians busy for the next few decades, nay centuries. The history of World War I is significant because the Paris Peace Conference and the treaties that came out of it constituted the alpha and omega in terms of post-1920 Hungarian development. In other words, if you lack knowledge about the Treaty of Trianon, you will not be able to understand Hungary in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Explain to me what the return of part of the lost territories, lasting for four years, meant to the Hungarian motherland. How significant was it for the ethnic Hungarians living in Transylvania?

Taking place between 1938 and 1941, the reannexation of part of the territories lost via the Treaty of Trianon was, for the Hungarians who resided there, a moment they would look back fondly on for the rest of their lives. During the Interwar Era, every member of Hungarian society, irrespective of his religious background, class or social standing, considered a revision of the Treaty of Trianon as one of the most important tasks facing the country. Trianon united Hungarians, which was perhaps best epitomized by the rallying cries of “No, no, never!” (Nem, nem, soha!) and “We want it all back!” (Mindent vissza!). The memory of the “Small Hungarian World”* helped sustain the Hungarians who lived there. After the reannexation, the Hungarians who lived in the Partium, Transylvania and the counties of Szatmár and Bereg could once again take pride in their ancestry, language and culture. Having fallen into minority status after 1920, they could once again hold their heads high on the land of their ancestors following the reannexation. The same could be said in the cases of the Hungarian Highlands, Subcarpathia and the Hungarian Southlands.   

The Royal Hungarian Gendarmerie played an important role in the Interwar Era. What have we managed to preserve of their memory and pass on to the next generation? 

The Royal Hungarian Gendarmerie (RHG) was one of the best and most prepared law enforcement bodies in Europe, which we can describe as a military force that provided public safety services for the civilian population. Maintaining law and order throughout Hungary – especially in the countryside – was the continuous responsibility of the RHG from 1881 to 1945. Numbering 12 thousand men in 1922, the clearance rate of the RHG varied between 75 and 95 percent. For more serious crimes, the percentage approached 100. The main reasons why the RHG is remembered with reservation today was their participation in the deportation of Jews from Hungary in 1944, the persistence of the false historical narrative planted in the years following 1945 with regard to their activities and a general lack of knowledge and familiarity about the RHG itself.

What kind of relationship does the VERITAS Institute have with historians who live in the neighboring countries?

We work together with numerous Hungarian research workshops and educational institutions located in the neighboring countries. We are also in touch with Slovak, Romanian, Serbian and Croatian historians. In the near future, we are planning to put together a timetable for joint research subjects and programs. Likewise, we have invited historians from the neighboring countries to speak at many of our conferences.

In the past three decades, how successful have we been in uncovering the history of the Communist Era? What tasks await the VERITAS Institute along these lines?

A lot of work remains, but the researchers and historians of the Historical Archives of the Hungarian State Security, the Committee of National Remembrance, the Institute of History of the Research Center for the Humanities of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the VERITAS Institute can take pride in what they have already accomplished. As I have just said, however, there is still plenty of work to do. Just to list a few of the important subjects that will be looked at: the Hungarian Communist Party, the Hungarian Working People's Party, the Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party, the State Protection Authority, the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, agricultural collectivization etc.

To what extent are the differences in worldviews between leftists and conservatives apparent in historical research?

History can be interpreted in various ways; it has always been so. Facts, on the other hand, should not be distorted or omitted. In my opinion, you can see a difference between the two camps in what they choose to study, how they deal with their subject matter and their style of presentation. If you read a few op-eds from leftist historians or listen to their scathing opinions about the VERITAS Institute, you will detect the difference.

More big production Hungarian history films were produced during the Kádár Era than in the time since the System Changeover. What is the explanation for that in your opinion? 

I’m not really the right person to answer this question, but as Secretary of the Advisory Board for the Hungarian Historical Film Foundation for nineteen years, I did gain some experience in the world of film. I believe a nation that cares about and is proud of its past makes historical feature films that can be shared with the larger world. How those films are received on the world’s stage is, of course, anyone’s guess, but making a good historical feature film is a much easier way of presenting our past than writing a thick monograph. Perhaps someday someone will realize this.

Who is Sándor Szakály the private citizen?

A 63-year-old man from a small village called Törökkoppány who, a half-century earlier, did not think that someday he would be able to speak and write about Hungarian history, nay spur others to debate. I pledge to be today and into the future the same person I was in the past. For more than three decades, a plaque engraved with these words has accompanied me everywhere fate has taken me. I believe there are core values that should be adhered to no matter what. And I live by the wise words that my maternal grandfather bestowed upon me in mid-August 1965, just hours before he died: “My boy, if you are in the right, stand your ground even if it means having to endure slings and arrows.”

Sándor Szakály is a man who loves Hungary, whose history he tries to convey with authenticity. He cares a lot about his fellow Hungarians who live across the border and the dilemmas they face. And he hopes that as a historian, although not infallible, he is capable of living up to the motto of the VERITAS Institute: “Thou shalt not lie.” He has never been open to distortions or omissions, neither as a private citizen nor public figure, for if he were, he could not bear to look himself in the mirror in the morning.


*Northern Transylvania, during the 4-year period between 1940 and 1944 when it was once again a part of Hungary, was lovingly referred to as the “Small Hungarian World” by the ethnic Hungarians who lived there.


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