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Anikó Szenes Memorial in Budapest (Foto: Andrea Pető)

Illiberal Memory Politics: Insights by Andrea Pető

Published on 02 November 2023
On the annual Holocaust and Genocide Studies lecture, on Sept 14th 2023, Prof. Dr Habil. Andrea Pető DSc, Dr.h.c. (Central European University) presented her work titled “Illiberal Memory Politics as a Paradigm Shift in The Memory of The Holocaust” to the University of Amsterdam and the NIOD. Researchers and students alike were present at this summit. NIOD-intern Mitchel Stuffers reflects on the lecture contents in this blog.

“Paradigm change” in Holocaust memorialisation

In her lecture, Dr. Andrea Pető presented her argument that illiberal forces in the Western world have found ways to undermine and corrupt national memorial politics for their own gain. Dr. Pető warns us that governments which turned to “illiberal politics”, such as the modern Hungarian one, seemingly seek to exploit the shortcomings of liberalism in what she calls the “paradigm change in Holocaust memorialisation.” In short, she warns that institutions and memorial sites normally meant to strengthen our understanding of past tragedies and help us make sense of our past, can instead serve hidden political agendas; notably the spread of pro-government sentiment and excusing the historical national responsibility of past tragedy.  Dr. Pető cautions that liberal forces in Europe must seek ways to understand and then fight this turning point before it is too late and their outreach has irreversibly spread transnationally across the continent.

Creating memorial sites and social projects to promote we learn lessons from our past may appear as always kind-hearted at first, but, Pető reasons, this is not necessarily the case anymore. This illiberal turning point in memorialisation is marked by the fact that its proponents seek to ‘discredit,’ ‘delegitimise’ and ‘empty’ the value of public discussion and memorials for their own political and social benefit. Namely, once more, she argues they can promote a sharp turn to illiberal anti-progressive policies fuelled by misplaced values in remembrance of past national tragedies. Tragedies such as the Holocaust and the persecution of Jewish-Hungarian minorities during World War Two are just two instances of how memory has been monopolised and politicised in modern-day Hungary, Pető states. Thus, she reasons, Hungary has unwittingly become the testbed for discovering more ways to undermine the liberal order in Europe.

Dr. Pető takes the example of  Anikó ‘Wonder Woman’ Szenes to support her claims. Anikó Szenes (1921-44), a famed Hungarian-Jewish poet, paratrooper and UK Intelligence Officer, is a historical martyr to the Hungarian public. Szenes, who dedicated her time to fighting the Fascists during World War Two, was imprisoned and executed by collaborating Hungarian auxiliary forces before the war ended. The modern Hungarian government helped support the creation of a cartoon in Szenes’ memory, glorifying her bravery as a hero of the people. Szenes serves as a symbol of resistance and national strength in the cartoon. Yet, worryingly, the cartoon made little reference to the Hungarian identity of Szenes’ killers. Another seemingly politicised example of Szenes’ memory is the ‘Hanna Szenes Park’ and her Kodolkó mini statue in central Budapest. Pető’ again argues that these commemorative projects must have been under tight government supervision as they depict Szenes along more traditional feminine outlines, have had no consultation with stakeholders, and the local councils engaged only in planning with a select few circles of the local Jewish-Hungarian communities. Pető argues that the Szenes projects serve to strengthen national and international illiberal identity politics which also reframes antisemitism as an extinct phenomenon post-2015. Furthermore, she reasons that these projects also hide the real experienced problems by the local communities, such as their housing crises and financial issues.

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Anikó Szenes

New Framework: Distortion, revisionism, or a “paradigm change”?

The process of ‘illiberal hijacking’ the memorial projects is marked by a few key indicators, Pető argues. Most notably, parallel institutions are often funded by the government party which seeks to distribute their values through hidden messages in museums and research institutes to their audiences. Not only do these institutes seek to sway the hearts and minds of the people, but they also attempt to draw as many of them in as possible. This means that experience and emotion are fed to the crowd, rather than fact. Furthermore, experts are selected on the basis of their support to the government party, rather than their expertise. This, of course, hijacks the academic quality assurance system, as Higher Education centres like universities are slowly being turned into machines of pro-government propaganda. Dr. Pető claims that these populist ‘entry points’ now also exist in Bremen, Vienna, meaning the phenomenon has already expanded beyond Hungary.

 Hungary, the origin point of this illiberal turn to memory politics, initially fell prey to its practices due to its large Jewish community and the “double victimhood” experienced by its people; i.e., since the Hungarians and its Jews suffered at the hands of the nation’s various pro-Axis regime changes, coupled with its complex role in the Holocaust, the emotions experienced by the “unashamed citizens” clearly now has given people the chance to renounce the national guilt in favour of the idea of continued heroism, resistance, and pride. The populism which developed over the last few decades in Hungary, which seemingly stripped its commemorative institutions of objectivity and created a parallel alternative to the liberal state, now can be called a growing  “paradigm change” according to Pető.

Dr. Pető states that the term “paradigm change” is justified by the fact that it is markedly different from prior forms of historical revisionism and distortion. According to Pető, we see that illiberal forces are now finding new ways to politicise memory culture for their own benefit. Notably, they appear to delegitimise, defund and eventually replace existing memory institutions with their own alternatives in order to rewrite history according to their views. She argues that loyal experts slowly are beginning to replace the old guard at these centres and that double-speech, re-masculinisation, anti-intellectualism, and populist rhetoric have started to taint their work. In addition, self-imposed censorship, anti-progressive freedom-fighter rhetoric, and reinvented religious frameworks now appear to creep into these workplaces. Funds to these tainted institutions originate from both inside and outside the national framework, as both the Hungarian government party but also its international allies within the European Union allocate money to their work seemingly for the promotion of commemoration and remembrance. But, in reality, Pető warns, these funds strengthen the growing ‘polypore’ influence of the government party, allowing it to spread its ideals to citizens of neighbouring nations.

Dr Pető’s recommendations and final remarks

Closing this year’s HGS lecture, Pető remarked during her final recommendations that liberal-minded individuals in the West must seek to counteract these growing illiberal memory distortions in order to halt the paradigm change. Pető exclaimed that the audience must be prepared to take after David J. McQuoid-Mason, and that they must engage in as many meaningful debates as possible, both with one another and also with their opponents. She cautioned that technical language is to be limited and that the debate is to be made accessible to the wider public. Supposedly to fight fire with fire, Pető appealed that political agendas must equally influence modern academia from the other side, and that its partaking reporters, scholars and activists must all be prepared to be denunciated by their opponents if they are to take the centre stage in the meaningful debate on memory culture.

Recommended further references

  • „Revisionist histories, 'future memories': far-right memorialization practices in Hungary.” in European Politics and Society, 2017.1. 41-51.
  • The Illiberal Memory Politics in Hungary, Journal of Genocide Research, (2021) DOI: 10.1080/14623528.2021.1968150
  • Paradigm change in Holocaust remembrance. Instrumentalising Conservatism in Conservatism and Memory Politics in Russia and Eastern Europe, eds. Katalin Miklossy, Markku Kangaspuro, Routledge, 2021, 160-173.
  • The invisible Anikó Szenes, Nashim, 2023. (forthcoming)
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