Today the defense attorney for Sándor Képíró, a gendarme captain of the Hungarian Army during a 1942 raid against partisans fighting against the Nazi occupation filed an appeal in the case against his client at the Budapest Metropolitan Court. During the course of these raids, thousands of civilians were summarily executed.
Mr. Képíró, who is now 97 years old, was acquitted of war crimes on Monday. The New York Times and The Daily Telegraph both provide details of the case against Mr. Képíró on occasion of the acquittal.
Mr. Képíró did not deny rounding up people before the massacre, but he said he did not give orders to others to kill or himself kill anyone. Although he had been convicted for his role in the massacres before (first by the Hungarian government in 1944, and another time in 1946 – shortly after the first of these, he was freed by the fascists, and shortly before the second, he fled to Argentina), in 2011, the Hungarian courts system could not prove his guilt.
The prosecution was expected to file an appeal in the case (this appeal was in fact received as well by the court), yet today’s news is that Mr. Képíró’s lawyer appealed against the decision. The court should have acquitted Mr. Képíró not because the evidence did not establish that he committed a crime, but because there was no evidence a crime was committed, said Zsolt Zétényi, Mr. Képíró’s attorney. If the evidence is entirely missing to conclude one’s guilt without reasonable doubt, Mr. Zétényi continued, the defendant must be acquitted not because the evidence is missing of his guilt, but because a crime is missing of which he is to be acquitted.
The verdict has received close scrutiny internationally, in no small part because of the involvement of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s active involvement in the case. Mr. Képíró, returned to Hungary in 1996. Continuing the work of Simon Wiesenthal to locate, and to bring to justice, former nazis for WW2-era crimes, Efraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Center had battled for years to bring a case against him through the Hungarian court system. In fact, alongside John Demjanjuk, who was convicted of accessory to murder charges by a German court in May, Mr. Képíró was deemed to be one of the top war criminals on the Center’s list.
But perhaps even more important than the international interest in the case is the significance of the verdict for ongoing political developments within Hungary. Reactions from abroad point out that with Mr. Képíró’s acquittal, Hungary missed an opportunity to face its past and to bow its head to the victims of the Second World War. This is indeed a correct assessment of public sentiment in contemporary Hungary, though it perhaps does not go as far as warranted by the recent upsurge in racism and anti-Semitism there. Not everyone in Hungary was shocked by Mr. Képíró’s acquittal. Upon the announcement of the verdict, many in the courtroom broke out in applause.
Hungary’s court system does not legally distinguish “hate crimes” as a special category of criminal activity. Discrimination and violence against Romas, expressions of anti-Semitic sentiment (even in the Parliament of the country) and intolerance of homosexuality and alternative occur on a daily basis. As reported here on this blog, for example, court proceedings are currently in progress against four individuals charged of eight attacks against Romas between July of 2008 and August of 2009 – in which 6 persons died, 5 sustained life-threatening injuries and another 55 did or could have suffered less serious injuries. Euroskeptic and irredentist views are not only voiced in media outlets of the far-right; they can be heard or seen on the streets, in the pubs, and on bumper-stickers (the former is the view that Hungary need not be a part of the European Union, especially since the EU imposes on Hungarians a legal system foreign to Hungarian values, while the latter is the name for those who advocate annexing territories from neighboring countries because the Hungarians living in these territories should be governed by theHungarian state).
The party that serves as the hub for the political representation of these views finished third in the European Parliament elections in 2009 and fourth in last year’s parliamentary elections. It is called Jobbik, which stands for “For a Better Hungary Movement,” a play on the Hungarian word jobbik, which means both “the better one” and “the one to the right.” Jobbik describes itself as “a principled, conservative and radically patriotic Christian party,” though they are better known for their many (and of course unofficial) ties to neo-Nazi organizations and publications, among them militias who have been known for their zealous interest in “public order,” especially in neighborhoods in which ethnic minorities reside and which they have tried to patrol as armed “civil guards.”
Jobbik received 16.67% of the votes during the 2010 parliamentary elections. However, in a special election held this weekend in Gyöngyöspata, a Hungarian town which had been subjected to “patrolling” by racist militias, they won the mayoral election with as many as 44% of the votes (33.8% of this went to Jobbik’s candidate, while another 10.5% to the leader of the militia that held the Roma residents of the village in terror during the spring of 2011). Zsolt Zétényi, Képíró Sándor’s defense attorney was Jobbik’s nominee to serve on the Constitutional Court.
Jobbik’s supporters also embraced Mr. Képíró’s cause during the war crimes proceedings. Throughout the trial, the representatives of the Hungarian far-right were present to show their support for Mr. Képíró. On the first day of the verdict’s announcement, for example, protesters wearing yellow stars stood in line on the street in front of the court (these protesters were later asked by the presiding judge to leave the court-room, because they were visibly giving voice to their political protest). In the meantime, the court-room was filled with Mr. Képíró’s supporters. They stood up as he arrived in the courtroom in a show of respect, and broke out in applause upon the reading of the verdict.
The connection between the defense attorney in the case, Zétényi Zsolt and Jobbik has already received treatment in the international press (it is assumed that Zétényi and his circle, which includes well-known holocaust-deniers, might celebrate the verdict as a victory for their political cause and for the precedence it creates for their legal theories). But in Hungary, not even the left appears to appreciate the necessity for confronting the country’s involvement in the events of the Second World War. Today’s opinion piece by Sándor Révész in the left-wing daily Népszabadság (in Hungarian here) in fact goes as far as to explicitly charge “those who seek historical justice at the courts” with the responsibility for enabling the far-right to “mislead Hungarian public opinion about the historical truth.”
Historical truths cannot be found at the courts, writes Révész in his piece entitled “The Purpose Which the Law Cannot Serve”. Historical truths could not be found at the courts “in a dictatorship, because in a dictatorship the courts are not independent, and therefore not legitimate; and they could not be found there in a state based in the rule of law either, because there the courts’ job is different. The job of the courts in a legitimate state is to convict those whose actions can be judged by legal means and proven without reasonable doubt. Since a considerable fraction of war crimes cannot be proven, and since even those acting in the name of liberty and equality may commit criminal acts, there is no reason to expect that correct verdicts are going to correspond to truths of history,” argues Révész.
“History must be confronted and faced differently and elsewhere, not within the constraints of the courts and the law,” concludes the opinion-piece published by Hungary’s best-known daily of the left-wing, socialist profile. “One cannot burden the courts with the responsibility to amplify, with its correct verdicts, the darkest of historical misinterpretations, while undermining public opinion of the good.”
Indeed, the charges filed had soon lost their severity in the eyes of many Hungarians following the high-profile spectacle of the trial. Some may have been touched by the fragile appearance of the defendant, feeble and hard of hearing, yet defiant in his clasping of a home-printed page with the words “Murderers! Murderers of a 97-year-old Elderly Man!” When asked if he was aware of the reason for his appearance in front of the court, Mr. Képíró responded that it was “on the basis of lies and fabrications” that he was summoned there “innocently.” For a society which, as Mr. Révész’s article seems to indicate, is thoroughly incognizant of what “the banality of evil” looks like, he has come to personify a common hero infused by his love for his home country.
Mr. Képíró stood trial for his actions while serving in the Hungarian gendarme during Hungary’s occupation of parts of Yugoslavia. Hungary had occupied these territories – which, before the First World War, had been under Hungarian rule – with Germany’s full support (this war act was in fact exactly the kind of annexation of Hungarian territories that today’s far-right parties advocate). Yugoslavian partisans took up arms to resist the occupation, and, as it was also characteristic of the Nazi’s treatment of domestic resistance, the Hungarians responded by massacring thousands of civilians. While they were supposedly looking to put an end to the resistance movement, their primary goal was to deter any assistance to the partisans by the local population and to cleanse these territories of non-Hungarians.
Once the Hungarians captured the partisans (who numbered about 40), they murdered as many as 1000 in the countryside, before the events for which Mr. Képíró stood trial: the rounding up of civilians in the city of Novi Sad. The English-language blog Hungarian Spectrum cites official statistics according to which the total number of victims of the Hungarian’s action is 3,340 victims in total, which included 2,550 Serbs, 743 Jews, 2,102 men, 793 women, 299 older men and women, and 147 children (to link to Hungarian Spectrum’s exhaustive description of the case and the historical context of the charges against Mr. Képíró here).
Many in Hungary boast that they would not think twice about the actions they might be called upon to perform in the service of their country – many indeed swear on rushing to the help of the cause when they join one of the many paramilitary right-wing organizations operating in the country. Their identification with Mr. Képíró is not surprising: they are bent on creating a future in which another dark era of tragedies might unfortunately necessitate yet another round of war crimes proceedings, with themselves or their comrades as the defendants.
The dispute that surrounds this verdict, as many have already said, does not concern the facts. The dispute is over their interpretation, and the Hungarian court’s inability to pass judgment on Sándor Képíró is indeed symbolic of the social context of the verdict, in which too many are guilty of not being able to pass a moral judgement on fellow citizens who place the collective ideals of home country, god and race ahead of justice, respect and a pluralistic society.
In Hungary, while the extreme right-wing is extraordinarily apt at expropriating the legal system for its own political agenda, it is most disconcerting to find that the left-wing has not even come as far as understanding (or at least appreciating) the significance of war crimes convictions. In a society so blind to the principles upon which international legal practice is based, a future of peace and justice might slip further and further away from the citizenship’s reach as well.