Fallout from Donald Trump’s inaugural continues, as the Left keeps on trying to deny reality and resist coming to terms with the Republican victory in the November election. The latest victim of this effort to smear and delegitamize Mr. Trump’s appointees and advisors is Dr. Sebastian Gorka.
The controversy began at the inaugural, which Dr. Gorka attended wearing a colorful medal in honor, he said, of his father, a Hungarian patriot and refugee from the Communists. The medal was the badge of the Vitézi Rend.
Few people paid any attention, until the Forward chose to publish a hatchet job (which can be read here) with the provocative and inflammatory headline: “Exclusive: Nazi-Allied Group Claims Top Trump Aid Sebastian Gorka as Member.” One more iteration of the “Trump-is-a Fascist” meme.
So what is (more properly, was) the Vitézi Rend and what, if anything, does it tell us about Dr. Gorka’s father or Dr. Gorka?
The answer requires a bit of a history lesson:
One of the consequences of losing the Great War of 1914-18 was the dismembering of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a sprawling state which incorporated all of the modern territories of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Austria, and Hungary, as well as about a third of modern Poland and territory today belonging to the Ukraine, Romania, and Italy. As a consequence of this dismemberment, independent Hungary was born, but it was a Hungary shorn of large numbers of ethnic Hungarians, who suddenly awoke to discover that they now lived in Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Romania.
The empire had been a well-integrated economic whole, whose main industrial base had been the Czech lands, an area centered on the old imperial capital of Vienna, with another in western Hungary; most of the rest of the empire was agricultural. The war had been devastating economically as well as the incorporated butcher’s bill: The Kaiserliche und Königliche forces, as they were known, had suffered, according to most estimates, nearly 2,000,000 war dead, not including some 300,000 “missing in action” and an untold number of civilian casualties. An appreciable fraction of those were Hungarians.
Immediately after the war, Hungary underwent the upheaval of a Communist insurrection, led by Béla Kun, which led to the formation of the Hungarian Soviet Republic in March 1919, and almost immediately thereafter to border wars with Czechoslovakia and Romania. The Communist state lasted for 133 days; it was brought down in August 1919 when the Hungarian Red Army was comprehensively defeated by the Kingdom of Romania, and Kun went into eventual exile in the USSR (where he was subsequently a victim of Stalin’s great purge).
On the ruins of the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic a constitutional monarchy was established, under the regency of Austro-Hungarian Vice Admiral Miklós Horthy de Nagybánya. In 1920, Horthy’s government created the Vitézi Rend as one of several schemes to rebuild the shattered country. The name of the organization means “Knightly Order,” and its purpose was to reward soldiers who had distinguished themselves during the late war with land grants to repopulate the countryside and settle refugees who had streamed into the country from the new states created by the peace process which ended the war.
Admission to the order was open only to military men, and was based on a combination of rank and the number of decorations received for distinguished service. Admission was also restricted to Christians. Though the order was not explicitly anti-Semitic, such “gentlemen’s agreements” were hardly unique to Hungary or, for that matter, to Europe during the time in question; they were also common practice in the United States.
The order was made hereditary, and membership was passed on to the oldest son.
After the rise of National Socialism in Germany in 1933, Hungary came increasingly under German influence and benefited as a result, regaining considerable amounts of former Hungarian territory (in particular, the province of Transylvania from Romania). Under pressure from the Germans and also from a home-grown Fascist party which was in some respects an inspiration to the Nazi ideologues, the Nyilaskeresztes or “Arrow-Cross” Party, Horthy’s government instituted racial laws in 1938, one of the consequences of which made the Vitézi Rend explicitly anti-Semitic.
But that is as far as it went. After the creation of the Nazi puppet state of Slovakia after the German-engineered dismemberment of Czechoslovakia in 1939, and the subsequent invasion of Poland that year (which is considered the official beginning of World War II), thousands of Jewish refugees fled into Hungary from those countries and, though subject to certain measures of discrimination and harassment, were largely unmolested until 1944.
By then, it had become manifestly clear to the Hungarian authorities how the war was going, and tentative feelers were put out to the western Allies concerning a possible separate peace which would spare Hungary occupation by the Red Army. When Hitler got wind of this, in March 1944, he ordered the occupation of the country and the formation of a puppet government. Even so, Horthy managed to out-maneuver the Germans for a while and in September 1944, when the Red Army crossed the Hungarian border, negotiated an armistitice with them.
Hitler kidnapped Horthy’s son and, holding him hostoage, forced Horthy to form a new government under the Nyilaskeresztes Party which, of course, fell when the Soviets completed the occupation of Hungary.
Members of the order had a mixed history during the war, and especially after the Nazi coup d’état of October 1944. For example, the second in command of the order (after Horthy himself) suspended all activities of the order at that time and refused to co-operate with the Nyilaskeresztes Party, whereupon he was thrown into a concentration camp. On the other hand, other members of the order — most infamously László Endre, interior minister of the puppet state — enthusiastically helped Adolf Eichmann deport 400,000 Hungarian Jews to slave-labor and death camps in Poland.
But other members of the order worked to save thousands of Jews; several are included among the Righteous of the Nations at the Yad Vashem Memorial in Jerusalem, Israel. Not a few paid with their freedom, and even their lives.
Dr. Gorka, in a statement at the Jerusalem Post annual conference held in the United States, insisted that not only is he not an anti-Semite and passionately pro-Israel, but that his father was among those who helped protect Hungarian Jews: “He escorted his fellow Jewish schoolmates who were forced to wear the Star of David to school every day and back to stop the local German forces from assaulting them or spitting on them.”
In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, we have no reason to believe otherwise, and no reason to smear either Dr. Gorka or his father. As Dr. Gorka also pointed out, the authors of the Forward article were unable to reproduce any remark that he ever made which could be construed as anti-Semitic. It’s guilt by association with an organization which, regardless of the actions of some of its members, resisted Nazism and fought for Hungary; and that is despicable.