by Eva S. Balogh
The recent efforts to transform Sebastian Gorka from a far-right Hungarian politician into an anti-Nazi liberal fighting against anti-Semitism can be added to the growing catalogue of alternative facts brought to us by the Trump administration and its supporters. Gorka, deputy assistant to President Trump, spent almost half of his adult life in Hungary. He became a U.S. citizen only five years ago.
After Gorka announced his White House appointment on Twitter on January 30, a number of articles appeared online, including some of my own, which focused primarily on Gorka’s career in Hungary. I was especially interested in his political activities in 2006-2007 and his failure to receive national security clearance from the Hungarian authorities in 2002. But it was Eli Clifton’s widely circulated Lobelog article, “Why Is Trump Adviser Wearing Medal of Nazi Collaborators?,” that prompted journalists to start digging further into Gorka’s years in Hungary.
Clifton’s piece centered on a medallion Gorka wore at one of President Trump’s inaugural balls. The medallion is the symbol of membership in an order, Vitézi Rend, established by Miklós Horthy, governor of Hungary in the interwar period, for decorated World War I veterans. Although Jewish soldiers were not officially banned from membership, in practice, as Horthy later explained, “even the bravest and most decorated Jew [was] excluded” from the Vitézi Rend. Horthy went on to proudly announce that he had been “an anti-Semite throughout [his] life.”
Clifton ascertained that during and immediately after the war years the Vitézi Rend was on the State Department’s list of organizations under Nazi influence. This classification shouldn’t have surprised anyone: Hungary was an ally of Nazi Germany and thus on enemy footing with the United States. In a subsequent article, which also appeared in Lobelog, I shed more light on the history and political profile of the order. Neither Eli Clifton nor I, it should be stressed, ever called Gorka an anti-Semite.
Gorka and the Hungarian Far Right
Another series of articles on Gorka appeared in The Forward. The first, written by Lili Bayer, provided a detailed description of Gorka’s involvement with the far right during the turbulent days in the fall of 2006 when some far-right groups tried to topple the socialist-liberal government of Ferenc Gyurcsány (2004-2009). Her summary of the events is well documented. The second, by Bayer and Larry Cohler-Esses, offered credible testimony by two high officials of the Vitézi Rend that Sebastian Gorka, contrary to his denial, was a full-fledged member of the Order and that he wears its emblem not as a memento of his deceased father but in his own right. Neither the authors nor their sources accused Sebastian Gorka himself of anti-Semitism.
During his years in Hungary, Gorka’s political connections were all on the far-right fringe of the political spectrum. For instance, his problem in 2006 with Viktor Orbán, today the nationalist and proudly illiberal prime minister of Hungary, was that Orbán had shown himself incapable of bringing down the socialist-liberal government, a government that Gorka considered to be a continuation of communist rule and therefore illegitimate. During the disturbances that erupted in September 2006, he worked with the Hungarian National Committee, whose leaders called for an uprising against the socialist-liberal government. In fact, the man who announced the group’s intentions was Tamás Molnár, who, only a few months later in February 2007, joined Gorka in founding a new political party. Their party was intended to be “truly conservative” and to stand in opposition to Orbán’s Fidesz, which, the co-founders believed, had been corrupted by the world of politics. It is this man whom his friends and defenders are now transforming into a champion of liberal democracy and a steadfast soldier against anti-Semitism.
Before looking at the arguments of his defenders, let’s see what Sebastian Gorka himself had to say over time about his involvement with the Vitézi Order and far-right groups in Hungary. It was two days after the appearance of Eli Clifton’s article that Breitbart published a video interview with Gorka. In it, he explained that his father “was awarded a decoration for his resistance to a dictatorship,” which he now wears “in remembrance” of what his family went through. Note that in this early interview Gorka avoided any mention of his father’s membership in the Vitézi Rend. He did, however, make a claim that recurs in later accounts by others: Gorka’s family was a victim of the “takeover [of Hungary] by the Nazis” as well as of the communist dictatorship. It is true that German troops occupied Hungary on March 19, 1944. But it is most unlikely the Gorka family’s life changed in any significant way as a result of this troop movement. The occupation was a generally peaceful affair. The real victims were the Jews who were herded into boxcars and shipped to Auschwitz by two efficient, viciously anti-Semitic bureaucrats of the ministry of interior who both happened to be members of the Vitézi Rend.
The Rehabilitation of Sebastian Gorka
Shortly after the Breitbart video was aired, articles appeared on Gorka’s behalf by friends and acquaintances, like David Reaboi, who portrayed Gorka as a man who “has a decades-long record as an opponent of anti-Semitism, xenophobia and anti-American sentiment in Hungary and who fought to undermine elements on the political right—even going as far as helping launch a political party to push conservative voters away from anti-Semitic parties.” From the available material, which is abundant, there are no signs of such activities and intentions. On the contrary, as I pointed out earlier, Gorka’s abortive party, Új Demokrata Koalíció (New Democratic Coalition), was an attempt to challenge Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, not an effort to undermine anti-Semitic elements on the political right. Moreover, if Gorka was so preoccupied with the growing anti-Semitism in Hungary, which he allegedly tried to stop, why did he publish a series of 12 articles in the well-known anti-Semitic weekly, Magyar Demokrata? If he was such a democrat, why did he take part in the Magyar Nemzeti Bizottság (Hungarian National Committee), which wanted to foment an uprising in order to topple the legitimate government of the country? Why did he choose one of the leaders of this group as co-founder of his political party? Things don’t add up, I’m afraid.
It looks as if Gorka managed to convince not only his friends and acquaintances here of his family’s anti-fascist past and his own struggle against Hungarian anti-Semitism but also the staff of the White House. They came to believe that Gorka’s “family literally bears the scars of anti-fascist fights” and that it is therefore inconceivable that he could possibly be “a secret Nazi cultist.” His supporters ignore credible evidence that challenges their preconceived ideas about their hero. Testimony about Gorka’s own membership in the order is ignored, while his explanation for sporting the insignia of the order and using its honorific title as a sign of devotion to his father is accepted “as a plausible explanation.” Liel Leibovitz, one of Gorka’s champions, adds in his Tablet article: “you may find this kind of devotion to be overly doting or even creepy but if you’re honest, the story here is simple and in some ways touching.” It almost sounds as if deep down he himself has some doubts about the story’s veracity.
As opposed to the documentation of Sebastian Gorka’s involvement with far-right groups in 2006-2007, no evidence is offered for this brave anti-fascist struggle by the Gorka family. I’m sorry to say that the overwhelming majority of Hungarians showed total passivity during these terrible times. Nonetheless, for David P. Goldman, who denounced the “shameful slanders against Sebastian Gorka, friend of Israel,” Gorka’s father became “a hero of the anti-fascist and anti-Communist resistance in Hungary.” It should be noted that in 1944 Paul Gorka, the hero of the anti-fascist resistance, was all of 14 years old.
Most of the pieces written on behalf of Sebastian Gorka are rife with factual errors and questionable interpretations of history. In Joel B. Pollak’s piece published in Breitbart, for example, we are told that the Order was banned by the “Soviets” because it was “an anti-communist symbol.” No, it was banned because it was considered to be one of those “pro-Hitler and other fascist political, military, para-military and other organizations on Hungarian territory conducting propaganda hostile to the United Nations.” Moreover, in his eagerness to establish the Gorka family’s anti-fascist credentials, Pollak places it in the middle of “the Nazi siege of Budapest.” Nazi siege? It would have been wise to learn the facts. Shortly before the end of the war the city was encircled by the Red Army. On the mad order of Hitler, German and Hungarian soldiers tried to defend the Hungarian capital. After 50 days and with a death toll of almost 40,000, the city, including the Budapest ghetto, was liberated. Every year, right-wing groups, including the Historic Vitézi Rend, commemorate the “Day of Honor,” February 11, 1945, when German and Hungarian soldiers inside Budapest tried to break through the Soviet lines.
Alternative Facts at Work
Bruce Abramson and Jeff Ballabon are perhaps Gorka’s most vehement defenders, and the fiercest critics of people who hold views different from their own. In their first article, “Leftist Trump Critics Play Anti-Semitism Card,” they write: “The hatchet job against the Trump Administration continues. The most recent victim is Sebastian Gorka … The charge is—surprise!—anti-Semitism. The behavior of Jewish progressives leading the attack is shameful.” In fact, the two authors created a strawman because, as pointed out above, neither the Forward nor LobeLog—nor their sources—accused Gorka himself of anti-Semitism.
In their second article, Abramson and Ballabon claim that a bad Vitézi Order existed before 1945 but that the current one promotes “Hungarian freedom from Soviet domination.” This is, I’m afraid, wrong. Today’s members swear allegiance to the same moral code that was written in the 1930s and reissued recently. Yet, according to the two authors, the current Vitézi Rend is so sensitive to Jewish causes that, “as recently as September of 2016, the Order commemorated the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, remembering the Nazis’ victims and honoring Hungarian soldiers who, despite their country being allied with the Germans, refused the Germans’ orders to put down the Uprising.” I was dumbfounded by this assertion. The writers seem to have gotten lost in the fog of war. They mixed up the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April-May 1943, in which 13,000 Jews were killed, with the Warsaw Uprising of August-September 1944, which was organized by the Polish resistance’s Home Army to liberate Warsaw from German occupation. It was the latter event’s anniversary that the Order commemorated. This mistake is symptomatic of the overreach of Gorka apologists in their efforts to create an alternative history of the Order as well as of the Gorka family.
Abramson and Ballabon’s third article, which appeared in the Jerusalem Post, gives their most complete account of Sebastian Gorka’s activities in Hungary. The authors claim that, once in Hungary, “Gorka chose his political affiliation consciously” when he became employed in the ministry of defense under the premiership of József Antall, Jr. But, according to his own father, the reason for Sebastian Gorka’s employment in the ministry was much more mundane. In his account, father and son paid a visit to the House of Parliament, where they bumped into Kálmán Kéri (1901-1994), a former high-ranking officer in the Hungarian Army and an old friend of Paul Gorka, who at the time was the oldest member of parliament. It was on his recommendation that Sebastian got a job in the ministry, which needed people with foreign language skills. Abramson and Ballabon, in a wild leap of logic, use Gorka’s employment as a civil servant in the Antall government as evidence of his attachment to the Jewish community. After all, József Antall, Sr. was recognized by Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous Among the Nations.
Although we know from the very best source, Miklós Horthy himself, that Jews were not allowed to be members of the Order during his time in office, Abrahamson and Ballabon simply cannot accept this fact. According to their account, for example, one alleged Jewish member happened to be “a friend of the Gorka family whose valuables the Gorkas hid from the Nazis. Those valuables included a medal of the Order of Vitéz.” The authors thus kill two birds with one stone here: the Order must have had Jewish members, regardless of what everybody says, and, moreover, Gorka’s grandparents hid the valuables of their Jewish friends. The apparent goal is to show the Gorka family’s long-standing commitment to the Jewish people.
Abrahamson and Ballabon criticize The Forward for neglecting to read Paul Gorka’s book titled Budapest Betrayed, because there they would have found “several steps that he himself as an adolescent and his family had taken to help protect Jewish friends during the war.” Well, I managed to get hold of the book, both in its original English version published in Great Britain in 1986 and its Hungarian translation from 2002.
The stories that Abrahamson and Ballabon recount appear in a chapter describing Paul Gorka’s interrogation in 1950 in connection with his passing information to British intelligence. One of his interrogators, whom he suspected of being Jewish, “was quietly impressed by my stories and this could have been one of the reasons for his fairly civilized behaviour towards me.” Under the circumstances, can these “stories” be taken at face value? I don’t know, but it is troubling that the four paragraphs dealing with Paul Gorka’s interaction with this interrogator and the stories he told him about protecting Jews during the Nazi occupation are curiously missing from the Hungarian translation of the book. The question is why. Perhaps Gorka’s defenders could offer “a plausible explanation.”
Finally, I should mention that the Hungarian government has already gotten in touch with Sebastian Gorka, whom the Orbán government is hoping to use as a direct line to the White House. I assume that the opinion piece published in defense of Gorka last month in The Hill by Tibor Navracsics, former deputy to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (2010-2014) and currently European Union commissioner for education, culture, youth and sport, was meant as a preamble to future cooperation between the Budapest government and Sebastian Gorka. Navracsics in this article went out of his way to praise the man who was once an insistent critic of Viktor Orbán as an incompetent and ineffectual party leader. Navracsics even claimed that he had “watched with admiration as [Gorka] found a new home and rose so rapidly to the highest of policy positions,” which, considering Gorka’s relative obscurity before his appointment, is doubtful. In any case, Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó already had a meeting with Gorka in Washington, and Gorka was present at the opening of the new Hungarian Embassy. We may be seeing the beginning of a beautiful friendship between Gorka, a former editor of Breitbart News, and Viktor Orbán, the illiberal prime minister of Hungary who is most often compared to Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Marine Le Pen.
Eva S. Balogh is emeritus professor of history and former dean of Morse College at Yale University. She fled Hungary in 1956 as a university student and currently maintains an important English language daily blog, Hungarian Spectrum. The blog has a wide international following, is frequently cited in international publications such as The Economist and The Wall Street Journal, and is archived at the Library of Congress.