A Pensioner and a War Criminal: Csatáry Case Tarnishes Hungarian Justice System
Officials in Budapest sat on information that suspected war criminal Lásló Csatáry was living there for more than a year without acting. It was only after a British tabloid reported the incident that action was finally taken. The case underscores Hungary's troubled dealings with its own history.
Lásló Csatáry has holed up in the two rooms of his apartment on Jagello Street, and the window blinds are shut. Here, in Budapest's 12th district, he has been placed under house arrest and can only leave with the public prosecutor's permission.
On Wednesday morning, a police car stopped at the front door of the 97-year-old suspected war criminal's apartment building and took him in for questioning. Almost exactly 68 years have passed since the time when Csatáry is believed to have used a whip to drive Jews to the trains that would deport them. Csatáry has maintained his "innocence," saying he was merely carrying out "his duty." After four hours, the elderly man was allowed to return home, but police told him he would have to be available for additional questioning.
Only a week earlier, Csatáry's life was a different story. The pensioner had been out and about in his neighborhood, wearing a sporty summer outfit -- a flat cap, bright pants and checkered jacket. At Tom's Store around the corner, he picked up the usual milk, bread and bottled water, as well as the right-wing conservative newspaper Magyar nemzet. Neighbors described him as a sprightly retiree, taciturn but friendly.
To the Jerusalem-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, though, he is considered the most-sought after Nazi war criminal in many years. In 1938, Hungarian regent Miklos Horthy, who collaborated with Hitler, managed to succeed in annexing the Hungarian minority region of Slovakia into Hungary. And, in 1944, Hungarian gendarmes helped carry out the Holocaust there. One of them was Lásló Csatáry. In Koice, it is believed that he helped to deport more than 15,000 Jews to Auschwitz. It is also believed that he was a sadist who enjoyed beating women with a whip.
A Comfortable Pensioner's Life in Budapest
After the war, Csatáry went to Canada, where he earned his money as an art dealer. But his past caught up with him. In 1997, he fled and returned to Budapest. The authorities there didn't pay any attention to him and he was able to lead a comfortable pensioner's life.
In the end, the Nazi hunters at the Simon Wiesenthal Center tracked the elderly man down in Jagello Street. Nearly a year ago, in September 2011, they alerted the Hungarian authorities, but they didn't react. This inaction prompted Efraim Zuroff, the head of the Wiesenthal Center, to pass his information on to a British tabloid, which then caught Csatáry at his front door and snapped a picture of him in his underwear and a t-shirt.
Once again, the Hungarian justice system had a major embarrassment on its hands. In recent years, the country has steadily drifted to the right. In 2010, conservative leader Victor Orbán secured an absolute majority in elections, and the anti-Semitic Jobbik party became the third-largest force in parliament. Orbán then allowed a new constitution to go into effect that triggered protests among the country's EU partners because it violated the standards of Western democracy. The fact that the public prosecutor on Wednesday moved to dispatch police to place Csatáry under house arrest is also no doubt due to international pressure. In addition, the visit made by Hungarian President Janos Ader to Jerusalem last week may also have been a contributing factor. At the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, he participated in a ceremony in honor of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, a man many Budapest Jews can thank for their very survival. It would have been unfitting for the aging war criminal had been able to continue enjoying his twilight years undisturbed.
'The Crimes of the Communists are Much More Present'
Still, no one in Budapest believes that the 97-year-old will be brought to justice anytime soon. Even liberal historian Krysztián Ungváry concedes that the evidence in the case "is very weak." Although one can assume with "relative certainty" that Csatáry knew that he was sending the Jews to death, he said, it is anything but certain that the public prosecutor can prove that without a doubt. Barring that evidence, a court might acquit him, as happened two years ago with suspected war criminal Sándor Képiró.
Képiró is suspected of having acted as a henchman of the SS and of participating in the shooting of Jews at Novi Sad, a Serbian city in the former Yugoslavia that had been annexed by Hungary. Képiró was tried but acquitted on related charges in a Budapest court. He died in 2011 before a new case could be brought against him. Képiró had also lived undisturbed in Budapest.
The fact that the suspected war criminal was able to feel as secure as he did in Hungary, also fits in with the Hungarians' view of history, Ungváry believes. In any case, there has so far been no public outrage in the capital that Csatáry could live so long in Budapest without fear of prosecution.
"The crimes of the Communists are still much more present in people's memory," Ungváry says, by way of explanation. And very few of the people who used bloody force to quell the Hungarian Uprising against Stalinism in 1956 have been brought to justice, either.
The country's interior minister at the time, Béla Biszku, who was responsible for the executions of dissidents, leads the same kind of quiet pensioner's life in Budapest that Csatáry was able to enjoy until last week.
Hungary as Victim
But the Orbán government also propagates a view of the past that largely places Hungary in the role of the victim during World War II. According to that line, Hungary was first occupied by Nazi Germany and then subjugated by the Soviet Union. In the country's new constitution, Orbán even explicitly said that Hungary was innocent of the crimes committed during World War II.
The truth, however, is that some Hungarians gave solid support and participated in the Holocaust. "Perpetrators like Csatáry and Képiró remind us in a very uncomfortable way of this responsibility, which many here would prefer to suppress," Ungváry says.
Even during the times under Nazi sympathizer Horthy, who governed in an authoritarian manner, the Hungarian parliament passed anti-Semitic laws according to the Nazi model and thus almost entirely excluded Jews from public and business life in Hungary.
After the Wehrmacht occupied the country in March 1944, the Hungarians began to implement deportations of Jews to concentration camps. Hungarian anti-Semites proved to be reliable and willing helpers for the Germans. In just two months time, more than 430,000 Jews were deported to the Nazi extermination camps. "In that way the Hungarians committed the fastest and most brutal mass deportation of the Holocaust," says Ungváry.
It even impressed Adolf Eichmann.
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