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.
After two decades, why did you decide to leave the Military History Institute and Museum?
By that time, I had been hosting shows on Duna Television with the go-ahead of Sándor Sára. I came up with the idea for the historical series Megidézett történelem (History Evoked), which had a run of several seasons. There were people who thought I had a knack for TV, and I got many invitations to participate in televised debate programs. Moreover, in 1998, I was even the host from noon to midnight for a Gulag-themed full day of TV programming. When István Pekár, President of Duna Television, asked me to be the Director of Culture at the channel, I thought it would be a great way to do even more to broaden the Hungarian public’s body of knowledge and to help the ethnic Hungarian minorities in the neighboring countries, so I accepted. After a few weeks, I got the role of Vice President of Television Programming. At that time, Duna Television played a significant role for Hungarian communities outside of Hungary, and I did everything in my power to push for more and more educational programming and documentaries. Unfortunately, these were slowly phased out after my departure.
Why did you leave?
In 2002, when the Hungarian Socialist Party, which had evolved from the communist Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party, returned to power, my situation was made more difficult. In 2004, the President of Duna Television was made aware that if I was removed, he would probably be allowed to stay in his role for another term. István Pekár treated me fairly; he told me about the ultimatum he had received and assured me that I would be able to continue making the same types of programs as I had as Vice President. Of course, when Pekár’s time came to leave, this possibility left with him.
Do you know who wanted to have you removed?
I am usually attacked from one direction, though that is not necessarily always the case. I am not familiar with the behind-the-scenes political dealmaking that transpired about my fate. But I did hear that Prime Minister Péter Medgyessy’s Chief of Staff Tibor Draskovics allegedly inquired about how much longer “that fascist Szakály” would sit in the Vice President’s chair.
So you were out of a job?
Yes, but I was not the only one. A great purge was carried out in the media and anywhere else it was possible. After taking an involuntary break for a few months, I went to the National Archives of Hungary and then the Historical Archives of the Hungarian State Security for a short time. This was a bit of a calmer period for me, so I was able to prepare for my doctorate at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. After being named a professor by the President of Hungary in 2007, I taught at a number of higher education institutions before landing at Károli Gáspár University of the Reformed Church in Hungary, where András Szabó, my old mate from Eötvös Loránd University, was Dean of the Faculty of Humanities. He had called me to help establish the Doctoral School of History. When I felt I had finished this task, I took on the role of leading the Horthy Era Research Team at the Institute of History at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. I went to the National University of Public Service to serve as Vice Rector and to teach as a professor in 2013. It was then that I was asked to apply for the role of Director for the not-yet-established VERITAS Research Institute for History.
What was the mission of the VERITAS Institute?
In 2013, Péter Boross, who had served as Prime Minister of Hungary, came up with the idea of founding a research institute that would focus on the time period of the 1989-1990 System Changeover. In the end, a decision was made that the VERITAS Institute would examine a much broader time period, from 1867, when the Austro-Hungarian Compromise was signed, to the end of the József Antall administration. This more than 150-year span is full of historical questions that need to be righted via scientific analysis and methodology.
Certain voices in the history profession denigrated you. Why?
On October 25th, 2013, the Magyar Közlöny (translator’s note: the official journal of the Government of Hungary) shared the news that the government would establish a new history research institute. By the morning of the very next day, I had received on my computer a petition condemning the existence of the VERITAS Institute. Of course, no one could have even known yet what the research subjects would be or who would work there. So what had set the objectors off? I think a few of them feared that their monopoly on shaping opinion was at risk. These are people unable to accept that the world can be viewed through a lens different from their own. Of course, facts are facts, no matter what. The range of movement is relatively narrow. However, the analysis of just how Hungary got into a given historical situation and the question of whether there were any alternative choices can be assessed in various ways. We have to recognize that historiography is not mathematics. A historical assessment inevitably includes subjectivity. A given historian has his aggregate research consisting of the source materials he has had access to and processed, his individual level of preparedness and his own personal perceptions. I am always ready and willing to debate, but I expect my debate opponents to counter my credible arguments with their own credible arguments. They should keep personal feelings out of their arguments, refrain from using insults and, most importantly, not lie! The things that some of my fellow historians and, even more so, certain journalists got away with saying about me when I was appointed to lead the VERITAS Institute were neither honest nor fair.
Are you referring to that long list of disparaging names that you have framed on the wall of your office?
That list accumulated over several years. The journalists of the leftwing press kept one-upping each other in their personal denigration of me, smearing me with labels no gentleman would ever be caught saying. To act like a gentleman is not a political category. People who do not respect the human dignity of their opponent are unworthy of debate. I was ten years old when my dying maternal grandfather called me over to his bed and shared the following words of wisdom: “My boy, the only thing I can say about life is if you are in the right, stand your ground even if it means having to endure slings and arrows.” Well, let me tell you, that is the type of advice a man never forgets.