The following interview between VERITAS Director Sándor Szakály and journalist László T. Bertók was published in the weekend edition of Magyar Nemzet on November 22nd, 2020.
You celebrate your sixty-fifth birthday on November 23rd. May I inquire about your health?
My doctors brought me back from the brink of death four times, so of course you may. I had a one-percent chance of survival. My sons and life partner were informed that perhaps the time had come to call a priest. And yet, despite it all, I am still here. On April 1st, 2019, on April Fools’ Day of all days, the devil played a trick on me. With a severe case of pancreatitis, I was rushed to Szent Margit Hospital, where I woke up in the intensive care unit twelve days later. I had been in a medically induced coma. In the photographs I have seen, some twenty tubes ran in and out of my body. After one month in Szent Margit Hospital, I was transported to Honvéd Hospital. Finally, after spending a total of 226 days in the hospitals, I went home, albeit 34 kilograms lighter.
I can see that you have lost weight and even grown a beard. Are you a new man?
No, I am the same man, but in a new body.
Did you have a moment when you took stock of your life? If so, what conclusions did you come to?
That perhaps I had written everything that I had wanted to. That I was satisfied with my place within the profession and how my peers viewed me. That everything was fine familywise; there was nothing missing. If I were a Protestant, I would phrase it like this: That life had given me more than I had been predestined to receive.
As a historian, you chose as your main research subject an era fraught with politics, emotions, taboos and unspoken anguish. I am of course talking about the first half of the 20th century. Why did you choose that period? Perhaps your family also had its share of anguish related to the war and its aftermath?
Every Hungarian family had its traumas. My father’s uncle, for example, never returned from the Don. I inherited my first name from him. But that is not all. I spent my childhood in Törökkoppány, a village in Somogy County. It is a historical place by virtue of having been a sanjak seat during the Ottoman Hungary Era. As kids, we considered every unearthed pot fragment we came across as an artifact dating to the Turkish occupation. My paternal grandfather was a cobbler and bootmaker. He was a well-read and outstanding storyteller who loved the lore of the past. It was through his stories that I fell in love with history. I devoured all of the history-related books in the local library. As a grade schooler, I won the county history competition, which qualified me for the national final, where – if I remember correctly – I finished in thirteenth place. By then I had determined that I would apply to Eötvös Loránd University to study history and geography. I had good grades, but the problem, as articulated to my parents by my headmaster during a parent-teacher meeting, was that their occupational background as artisans was a major disadvantage. (My father was a cobbler and my mother a seamstress.) It would be better for my chances if they were laborers or peasants. So my father went off to toil as a construction worker for the local council, as a result of which I was able to write down his occupation on the form as “unskilled laborer”. The sidewalks that he made in Törökkoppány still exist today. And I was accepted into the history–library sciences program at Eötvös Loránd University because that year the school did not offer a history–geography major. But then I was conscripted and spent eleven months in the army in Hódmezővásárhely.
Did you hate it?
By no means was it a tragedy. That twenty-four of us bunked in the sleeping hall was actually an improvement over my middle school dormitory, where there had been between forty and fifty students. There was no hot water for taking a shower in either place. Things always seem better in retrospect, but the truth is that the friendships I made as a soldier always override the inconveniences I experienced.
And then you went to university. You still have not told me the reason why you chose to study the history of the 20th century.
Two eras have always intrigued me: the 20th century and the Late Middle Ages, and specifically their respective military histories. If you want to research the Middle Ages, however, a knowledge of Latin is absolutely essential. I did not feel I had the strength to start learning Latin, so that left the 20th century, for which German and Russian language skills were perfectly good enough. As a junior the time came to pick a topic for my thesis. I wanted to write about Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinszky and the civil resistance, but Gyula Vargyai, who was one of my professors, talked me out of it. In his opinion, my choice was a bit of a sensitive topic, so he recommended writing about the history of the field gendarmerie instead. No one had really focused on them before, so I would be the first. I soon found out that what was in the source materials differed dramatically from what I had read in the history books.
So the feather plume* and the gendarmerie bayonet were not synonymous with terror and dread?
Public opinion of the Royal Hungarian Gendarmerie was definitely positive until 1945, when the communists began a smear campaign against them. The Royal Hungarian Gendarmerie was a disciplined and regulated law enforcement body that provided public safety services for the Hungarian civilian population. During the 1920’s and 1930’s, public safety in Hungary was better than seemingly anywhere else in Europe thanks to their efforts. Stories about the pizzle and nightstick are falsifications of history written by the People’s Tribunal, while the truth is the Royal Hungarian Gendarmerie never normalized use of the nightstick. Of course I do not claim they never employed physical force, just as I do not dispute they were used to carry out deportations. What I am saying is that we must take all facts into consideration before rendering judgment about them.
In 1980, after successfully defending my thesis, one of my professors advised me to apply for a research assistant position at the Military History Institute and Museum. I was offered the job and slowly worked my way up the career ladder. Twenty years and four months later, I left having served as director-general.
In the later stages of the Kádár Era, no one tried to stop you from questioning the historical narrative that had formed around the role of the Royal Hungarian Gendarmerie?
This may come as a surprise, but the answer is no! Interestingly enough, during the 1980’s and 1990’s, my publications on the Royal Hungarian Gendarmerie and the military leadership of the Horthy Era were met with wide praise. Even people who would later vilify me as a fascist had positive opinions about them.
* A distinctive feature of the uniform worn by the Royal Hungarian Gendarmerie was a large feather plume affixed to their hats.
Source of photography: © Árpád Kurucz