Hero or traitor? - statue of a controversial Hungarian Prime Minister unveiled, but not in Budapest.
9.4.2004 - Gyorgyi Jakobi
Count Pal Teleki, was prime minister of Hungary twice - but has never had a
statue - until now. And even now it is controversial, because of Teleki's
role in the Second World War. His supporters point to the tens of
thousands of Polish refugees whose lives he helped save during the war.
His detractors say he's the prime minister who submitted anti-Jewish acts
to the Hungarian parliament in pre-war Hungary. Teleki committed suicide
in 1941 and now a statue has been erected in a rural town. Gyorgi Jakobi
The Teleki Memorial Committee wanted a statue of Pal Teleki in Buda Castle.
Sculptor Tibor Rieger's statue was prepared. When plans for its unveiling
drew closer, the Budapest Municipality, influenced by a wave of protest,
voted down the idea of having a Teleki statue at all. They argued that
Teleki, Prime minister of Hungary in 1920-21 and again from 1939 till his
suicide in 1941, was responsible for anti-Jewish Acts of parliament that
the Hungarian Parliament, as the first in Europe, passed before the war.
Historian Tamas Katona offers the background.
"Count Teleki was an excellent geographer, a university professor,
very far away from politics, but after losing the First World War, after
the dismembering of Hungary, he thought that he had to do something about
it. Lots of soldiers came back from the war, who began their university
studies before the war and wanted to continue those studies. But the
country lost three of its five universities. He wanted to make room for
these people, and therefore he prepared a law, which allowed the different
confessions and so on, a percentage of places at the university. That hit
hard the Jewish community of Hungary, first of all of Budapest."
The infamous "numerus clausus" and other anti-Jewish acts which
followed deprived Hungarian Jews of their human and citizen's rights even
before the death camps. But Tamas Katona says Pal Teleki was acting under
"We were already under the shadow of Hitler. We had to obey, not to
be occupied by the German forces. When Germany attacked Poland, Germany
wanted to go through Hungarian territory, the so-called Trans-Carpathian
region. Teleki didn't allow that, so it was a very brave deed. He had to
be very careful what to allow and what not to the Germans. He was quite
successful until the beginning of 1941. When Germany attacked Yugoslavia,
they wanted Hungary not only to take part, but to allow German troops
through Hungary. That couldn't be avoided, but we were on friendly terms
with the Yugoslav government. He heard from our envoy in Warsaw that it
would result in war between Great Britain and Hungary, then he saw no way
out and committed suicide."
Balatonboglar where thousands of Polish refugees found shelter in the war
volunteered to house a statue, so Pal Teleki has a statue in the Catholic
"There were only two secondary schools for Poles in Europe, one in
Switzerland and one - from 1939-1944 - in Balatonboglar in Hungary. Teleki
is very much beloved in Poland. He has a street in Warsaw and the Poles
poured a huge amount of money into that statue. Now it is a compromise
solution, to erect the statue, which was done in Balatonboglar, where
Teleki saved hundreds of thousands of Poles during the first months of the
Second World War. Later on we can come back, when there is a wish or a
need of having a statue for Prime Minister, Count Pal Teleki. He deserves
more than the small memorial tablet, which I put on the Sandor Palace,
which was the Prime Minister's office and is now the office of the
President of the Republic."