To Prosecute (Or Not) A Nazi Criminal

by Kevin | Last Updated: July 19, 2012


In the wake of a horrific crime, the Hungarian public has been living in capital punishment fever. Last Saturday Kata Bándy, a 25-year-old police psychologist was murdered while on her way home in the south-Hungarian town of Pécs. The unsuspecting victim was beaten, raped and strangled. An alleged perpetrator is in custody and many think that even the death penalty would be too little for him to pay for this crime.The press has seized on the uproar surrounding the case, so the issue of criminals facing the consequences of their acts is currently on everybody’s mind. Public safety is atrocious in Hungary: with this much anyone will agree. But the point is especially important to emphasize for the extreme right and their paramilitaries who want to restore order on Hungary’s streets – by authoritarian measures if necessary.

The extreme right, however, is not the only political party intent on profiting from appearances of an uncompromisingly tough on crime stance. Among those who have asserted that the Hungarian state should reclaim its (supposedly) rightful prerogative to take the life of its citizens are members of the governing party Fidesz’ own parliamentary caucus. In a statement issued with the Bándy murder in mind, a group of MPs in fact vowed to introduce legislation in the fall to include the death penalty in the country’s criminal code.

Given the wide-spread pre-occupation with just how soft Hungarian law is on crime, the opinions surrounding another criminal investigation currently under way in Hungary are more than puzzling.

Revelations of an investigation undertaken by The Sun, a British tabloid, caused international uproar over the fact that a top Nazi war-criminal by the name of László Csatáry has been hiding in plain sight in Hungary for the last 14 years.

Today it was made public that so thorough was Csatáry during his repatriation to Hungary – because he failed to make mention of his Nazi past on his citizenship application to Canada, in 1995 he was facing deportation from North-America – that documents in his possession include official assurances from the Hungarian and the Slovakian authorities that he would be safe in the future from standing trial their countries (link in Hungarian).

The past which has failed to haunt Csatáry over the past 68 years relates to his service as the liason between the Hungarian police and Nazi troops in the Jewish ghetto of the then-Hungarian town of Kassa, which is now known as Kosice in Slovakia. Csatáry is charged with being instrumental in the deportation of 15,800 Jews to Auschwitz and sending another 300 to their certain death in Kamenec-Podolsk in the Ukraine. Though Hungarian historians speaking to the press this week questioned whether his responsibility for the deportations can be proven conclusively, court materials are nevertheless available in evidence of the many cases in which he went out of his way to ensure that people who would have otherwise been exempt from the deportations were nevertheless included in the transports.

Csatáry, who is now 97, was also known for his sadistic tendencies. Survivors of the ghetto included him in their remembrances because he kicked and slapped the inhabitants of the ghetto and he habitually carried a dog-whip, which he used at random to hit men, women and children alike. According to the testimony of a survivor, he once had young women dig up sticks from the ground using their bare hands only. Documents show that when asked by one of 80 people crowded into a transportation wagon headed to Auschwitz, Csatáry explicitly forbade cutting a window into the wagon’s side.

Still, the Hungarian public wavers about whether a court procedure against Csatáry is even necessary. This despite the fact that the leniency of the public’s opinion in this case – toward crimes committed during an age which, not accidentally, is now actively valorized by the Hungarian government – has a relationship just as dubious to any standard of (disinterested) justice as do the loud calls to act out one’s fantasies of revenge against Hungary’s contemporary criminals. 

The problem is not simply that there is widespread uncertainty about what the consequence of war crimes are, or should be. Clearly, there is a double standard here: many think that the revenge with which the Nazi-hunter Efraim Zuroff is pushing for the prosecution of war-time criminals is somehow unbecoming. The public perception is that in his case there is too much of the same thrist for blood that is lacking when it comes to the murderer of Kata Bándy (who, I failed to mention above, is Roma).

But there are important factors motivating such perceptions. First and foremost among them is that Csatáry is not without his defenders, who spared no time to launch a campaign of intimidation against anyone who dares to call for justice to be served.

On Monday, a small group of protesters organized a flashmob to urge Csatáry’s prosecution under the law outside of his by then abandoned apartment., an extremist hate-speech internet portal since then announced that it would pay “blood money” to the tune of 100,000 HUF (about 500USD) for information leading to the identification of anyone pictured in the photos published in the Hungarian media about the event. The personal information of many has already been published on the website.

While there is active pressure coming from the extreme right to shelter Csatáry – why they are interested in loosening the legal consequences of hate crimes is obvious – the country’s expert historians prefer to shoot the messenger. Reporting on the case, the BBC’s Nick Thorpe interviews Tibor Zinner, “a historian of law” assigned to investigating archival evidence for the Hungarian authorities’ probe into the Csatáry case, who does not stop short of calling the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s efforts to bring Csatáry to justice a simple “circus act.”

Another expert, László Karsai, also quoted by Thorpe as a “Holocaust historian and himself the son of a Holocaust survivor,” shares Zinner’s skepticism about the justice of the inquiry. “Csatáry was a small fish,” says Karsai. “I could name 2,000 people responsible for worse crimes than he was.”

This is likely true. But what kind of juridical reasoning would let a bank robber go just because bigger and better bank robbers are known to be on the loose? As an argument, Karsai’s point has no standing, but as an excuse for crimes against humanity, it has been used quite successfully. 

In Hungary, every single person active on the far-right considers himself or herself a small fish. After all, they are all proponents of a strict amd rrigid social hierarchy, so those who do nothing else but read and spread their beliefs are obviously only “small fish” compared to those who put on uniforms to march on the streets. Of course, when compared to the likes of Vona, Novák, and Zagyva, even the paramilitary guards are “small fish.” Eventually, this is why one must speak about something called the banality of evil when it comes to prosecuting crimes against humanity. As far as Hungary is concerned, however, could there be a better time to create a special relativistic category for this crowd – the legal category of “small fish”? Would it be a surprise if we were to find out that another eminent group of government MPs are already working on it.

There is reason to interpret the Hungarian authorities’ openness to launching a case against Csatáry with a grain of salt. In a statement issued on Monday to address the international uproar following the Sun’s article, they detailed many difficulties of any investigation into the matter, which would have to “explore an event remote in both time and place.” By Wednesday, July 18, however, Csatáry was taken into custody; according to reports, he is currently under house arrest. What occasioned the change of heart is not known.

Among the details shared by the police with the press is that Csatáry’s interrogation included conversations during which he expressed “unacceptable attitudes toward people of a certain religion.” Old age, of course, is not an insurance against bigotry.

The question, therefore, is best faced head-on: why should Csatáry escape prosecution? Is a 97-year-old somehow beyond the reach of the law? Should he be?

Last week, the parliamentary majority of the Hungarian governing party passed a law which lowered the age at which children may be locked into adult penitentiary institutions to 12. This was a modification of the government’s own legislation from 2010, which ordered that upon committing a graver category of crimes (which includes physical assault, robbery and murder), no attempt will be made to rehabilitate convicted minors through the country’s social system. Instead, they are to be merged directly with the population of adult criminals. Last winter, a repeat offender 14 years and 6 days old was sentenced to 2.5 years in an adult penitentiary institution. The case in front of the judge involved stealing several bars of chocolate from a grocery store (because he also pushed the shop assistant, he was tried for robbery involving physical assault – the case is currently under appeal).

Under the law, if proven guilty, Csatáry’s sentence would be life without parole. It is true that assembling a case against him might prove to be difficult, unsuccessful even. It is unlikely, however, for such a court case to be futile. This case, after all, is not simply about Mr. Csatáry. It is first and foremost about the memory of the victims, about the closure it brings to the survivors, and the awareness it raises about crimes long forgotten in Hungary – and only secondarily about what a sadistic man deserves in his old age.

To be blunt, the real fear surrounding any court case which may or may not open in Hungary against Csatáry during his lifetime is that it might lead to the strengthening of the anti-Semitic sentiment – that it might “reinforce prejudices,” as one of the historian experts assessing the evidence against Csatáry put it. And this indeed is the tragedy of the case of the world’s most wanted Nazi criminal, not anything that might follow in the legal realm as a consequence of his apprehension. As far as attitudes concerning the severity of war crimes, Hungary is already under the influence of extreme right ideologies. Good reasons cannot be found not to push for bringing Csatáry to justice; fear, however, is sometimes a better advisor than reason.


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