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Success or spectacle?

July 19, 2012

As suspected Nazi war criminal Laszlo Csatary has been arrested in Budapest, Hungarian society continues to struggle with anti-Semitism and ongoing investigation of crimes against Hungarian Jews in World War II.

Alleged Hungarian war criminal Laszlo Csatary covers face in car after being questioned
Image: Reuters

It's an embarrassing situation, wrote journalist Miklos Gabor in the liberal Budapest daily Nepszabadsag, regarding the recent arrest of suspected Nazi war criminal Laszlo Csatary.

Reporters from a British tabloid newspaper traveled to the Hungarian capital, ambushed a 97-year-old man at his apartment door and photographed him in his underwear, then presented him as a high-ranking Nazi war criminal in hiding. Will Hungary now become famous as a country that hides murderers, Gabor asks anxiously - after all, the wanted man was able to live undisturbed for decades in Canada.

The Sun homepage showing Csatary at his door for story
Csatary was portrayed in The Sun as a notorious war criminalImage: www.thesun.co.uk

Gabor isn't the only one expressing doubt in the Csatary case. The Hungarian public is also quite divided about the way in which the Csatary was discovered and represented in last Sunday's edition of the British tabloid The Sun, as the "most wanted Nazi war criminal in the world." Reporters had previously tracked him to his Budapest apartment.

'False and misleading'

Historian Laszlo Karsai, himself a descendant of Holocaust survivors, and an expert on Holocaust history, said in Hungarian media that about 200,000 Hungarian soldiers and police officers were involved in the deportation of Jews, or participated in crimes against them, during World War II - much like Csatary. To now present the old man as a high-ranking war criminal is false and misleading, he said.

Csatary, who was arrested on Wednesday and subsequently placed under house arrest, is alleged to have been responsible for the 1944 deportation of 15,700 Jews to Auschwitz from the local transit camp in Kosice, in what is now eastern Slovakia. He was working at the time as the town's chief of police. In 1948, Csatary was sentenced to death in absentia. He had fled to Canada after the war, and lived there undisturbed for many decades.

In the mid-1990s, the Canadian authorities revoked his Canadian citizenship and began deportation procedures for his alleged war crimes. In 1997, before the official deportation, Csatary moved to Budapest, where he lived undisturbed - until recently.

Barbed wire at Birkenau concentration camp
Millions of Holocaust victims met their end at Auschwitz, and Birkenau - pictured aboveImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Idle Hungarian authorities?

For years, Csatary was on the Simon Wiesenthal Center's list of most-wanted war criminals. The center's director in Jerusalem, Efraim Zuroff, apparently told Hungarian authorities about Csatary several times in the past, most recently in April of this year. In recent days, Zuroff has accused the Hungarian authorities of being idle for years.

Speaking to the press, Budapest prosecutor Tibor Ibolya rejected these allegations on Wednesday. He said the investigation had been hampered by the fact that these were crimes dating back nearly 70 years, and which had taken place outside of present-day Hungary. In addition, witnesses in Israel needed to be found, and Csatary himself lived for a long time in Canada.

Not the only one

In a similar case last year, the accused died before the end of legal proceedings. Sandor Kepiro, a former Hungarian military officer allegedly involved in the Novi Sad massacre in January 1944, was uncovered in Budapest in 2006. His trial began in May 2011, ending in an acquittal. An appeal was launched, but Kepiro died last September before the trial came to an end.

Sandor Kepiro in wheelchair in courtroom
Accused war criminal Kepiro died before an appeal of his acquittal could be completedImage: AP

In another case, in which former soldier Karoly Zentai was living in Australia, the Australian judiciary has caused the delay. Zentai, now 90, allegedly killed a Hungarian Jew in 1944 because he was not wearing the Star of David. Hungary requested Zentai's extradition in 2005, but the Australian courts have yet to surrender the accused.

Hungary's difficulties with anti-Semitism

Beyond these lengthy legal procedures, Hungarian society has also found it difficult to distance itself from the crimes committed against Hungarian Jews during World War II, as well from the anti-Semitism in Hungary's interwar period.

Miklos Horthy, Hungary's head of state at that time, was a notorious anti-Semite, and was jointly responsible for the deportation of more than 400,000 Jews to Auschwitz from May to July 1944. His reputation has lately been undergoing a rehabilitation - statues and plaques dedicated to the man have recently been set up in several places in Hungary.

And at the end of May, Laszlo Kover, then-president of the Hungarian Parliament, attended a memorial ceremony for the writer Jozsef Nyiro, who had been affiliated with the Arrow Cross Party - Hungary's branch of the National Socialist Party, which was active until 1945. Kover has since been declared persona non grata in Israel, and the Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel recently renounced a state award he received in 2004 in protest.

On the other hand, Hungary's new president, Janos Ader, in office since May, has taken a strong stand against anti-Semitism. In early June, he sharply condemned an anti-Semitic attack  on Budapest's former chief rabbi, Jozsef Schweitzer, also visiting him in his apartment.

Ader is currently on a trip in Israel. At a memorial ceremony at Yad Vashem, he acknowledged that "during the Holocaust, the Hungarian state did not protect Hungarian Jews." Which continues to be disputed by many in present-day Hungary.

Hungarian President Janos Ader at an event in Budapest
Right-conservative Ader has made it a point to address Hungary's history with JewsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Author: Keno Verseck / cmk

Editor: Sonya Diehn