Emerging From the Shadow of History

CEU trustee, journalist and writer Kati Marton has examined her own family history, Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, and Hungarian émigrés in her work, showing the significance of confronting and understanding our troubled past in order to move beyond it.

“Only history puts today’s events in perspective,” Marton said in a lecture at CEU entitled “The Past is Not Finished,” hosted by the Department of History. “We do not need to be prisoners to our past… We do have to assimilate its lessons before we can get out from under its shadow.”

Marton pointed to the recent chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians in Syria as a tragic repetition of crimes committed in the Holocaust, in Bosnia, in Rwanda.

“We haven’t learned that genocide has to be stopped before the killing starts,” she said. “One reason for our failure is willful blindness.”

Today, with the images that show us the undeniable facts and evidence of genocide, and books such as hers that chronicle the institutionalization of hate that leads up to such horrific acts, we are armed with the tools that can topple dictators, she said.

In “Enemies of the People,” Marton delved into records compiled by the infamous Hungarian secret police, the AVO, about her parents – stacks and stacks of information gathered by agents about her parents’ every move, their every conversation and piece of correspondence. It was not a pleasant task. Many Hungarian friends tried to talk her out of it.

“Of course I made disturbing discoveries,” she said. “My parents turned out not to be the paragons of virtue I had imagined – they turned out to be something better: human. Above all, they emerged from prison with their values intact and had the energy to restart their lives in America.”

In “The Great Escape,” Marton chronicled the lives of nine Jewish intellectuals who fled Hitler’s Europe and found success in the U.S., from photographer Robert Capa to author Arthur Koestler. This book and her biography of Wallenberg, who saved the lives of 100,000 Jews during the Holocaust, provide a window into the complex and deeply troubled recent past of Hungary and Central Europe.

“This is the only part of the world successively occupied by and dominated by two of the most destructive ideologies in history, fascism and communism,” she said. “How can we understand the shadow cast by this recent history so we can move out of this shadow?”

Budapest still carries this shadow, Marton told students, professors, diplomats, friends and readers at the lecture. The nine intellectuals of “The Great Escape” had come to the great city on the Danube around the turn of the century to take advantage of opportunities never before open to those from minorities, she said.

“There was an enormous opportunity for minorities from all over the Austro-Hungarian Empire to seize this moment when city was open and tolerant and hungry for new ideas,” she said. “At the time, it was like New York City plus Silicon Valley today.”

Then things changed, seemingly in an instant, when the so-called “numerus clausus” laws were passed, the first anti-Semitic laws in Europe, restricting the numbers of Jews allowed into Hungarian higher education. The innovators became exiles, and Budapest never recovered, she said.

“We’re currently at a crossroads in Hungary, which is facing one of its more challenging tests,” she said. “ The question people are asking is, will Hungary revert to its nationalistic past or fully embrace the values of democracy?”

Marton was optimistic, and urged Hungarians to participate in democratic processes.

“My hope is that Hungary will stop losing its greatest talents and people will see politics as a way to help,” she said. “Electing good people is just the beginning. A passive and indifferent population plays into autocrats’ hands. Each of us has to be alert and hold our leaders to account. That is our responsibility as citizens.”

She urged the audience, especially students recently arrived to begin studying at CEU, to explore Budapest, her hometown, and observe the signs of its history and its future.

“Budapest has chance to become the incubator of the best scientists, artists, and writers that it once was,” she said.

Marton said she’s working on a new book, the story of an American man who became blindly Stalinist, and died in Budapest.

“It’s a complex story of blind faith,” she said. “His life is a way to tell the story of America’s passage from being isolationist to becoming a world power.”