As one of the Forward reporters responsible recently for a series of critical stories on Sebastian Gorka, President Trump’s top counterterrorism adviser, I would like to publicly thank Gorka for one of his high-profile comments yesterday.
“Nobody found one sentence that I have said that is anti-Semitic or anti-Israeli,” Gorka told his audience at The Jerusalem Post’s annual Israel conference in New York.
Our stories have instead documented the close ties that the deputy assistant to the president forged with anti-Semitic forces during his political career in Hungary — nothing more, and certainly nothing less.
Associations of this sort have been disqualifying for high-level (or even low-level) appointees under all previous administrations since World War II. So we had no doubt that Gorka’s ties to these groups were newsworthy: His appointment, like that of Stephen Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, announced the end for presidential appointees of the postwar taboo against working with fascist and racist organizations. Previously, those who dreamed of getting anywhere near power in the White House could not have any hint of such a background.
Still, my gratitude to Gorka for making the point we ourselves have been making about his personal lack of public anti-Semitism is tempered by what he said right after this. “You will find the opposite,” he said, referring to charges — made by others, not us — that he himself had made anti-Semitic statements.
In fact, contrary to Gorka’s assertion of having always opposed anti-Semitism, we have found no evidence that Gorka ever spoke up for Jews or publicly opposed anti-Semitism during the time he was partnering with, working with and supporting far-right anti-Semites and racists during his political career in Hungary. Gorka himself has declined to answer our questions about this as well.
In fact, when Gorka backed the establishment of the violent and racist paramilitary militia known as the Hungarian Guard on Hungarian television — a development that terrified the country’s Jews — the future presidential aide responded to an interviewer’s question about this in an odd way for someone who claims to have stood up against anti-Semitism: He attacked the Jews voicing these fears.
“This is a tool,” Gorka replied. “This type of accusation is the very useful tool of a certain political class.”
In some ways, this response resembled his retort last February, when Michael Medved, a conservative talk show host, asked if he would acknowledge that it was “questionable” for the White House not to acknowledge specifically the Jewish people in its Holocaust Remembrance Day statement the previous month.
Gorka called the criticism “asinine,” adding, “It’s only reasonable to twist it if your objective is to attack the president.”
In his comments at the Jerusalem Post conference, Gorka brought up another point we have heard raised by others. Addressing our findings on his affiliation with the Vitézi Rend, an organization classified by the U.S. State Department as having been “under the direction of the Nazi Government of Germany” during World War II, Gorka said, “There are members of this order who were recognized as the Righteous Among The Nations by Yad Vashem.”
He is right, though in the singular, because there is one: Maj. Gen. Vilmos Nagy de Nagybaczon, who served for a time as minister of defense in Hungary’s collaborationist government.
Why, we have been asked, have we not mentioned that some members of the Vitézi Rend actually fought the Nazis? Why we have left out mention of people such as Major-General Nagy?
The role the Vitézi Rend played, and to which it was committed as an institution, does not mean every individual in it was bad. That goes in particular for Nagy. But the general, of whom we were aware when we did these stories, pursued his admirable activities to protect Jews as an individual, not in the name of the Vitézi Rend.
To the contrary, as an institution, the Vitézi Rend was pledged to Hungary’s ruler, Admiral Miklós Horthy, and his programs, not to Nagy. In fact, Horthy ousted Nagy as defense minister after he’d served less than nine months’ time, because Nagy intended to treat Jewish forced labor servicemen as “soldiers” rather than as slaves, as many of their Hungarian officers and guards had treated them. Horthy, meanwhile, instituted anti-Jewish laws in Hungary even before World War II.
As for the Vitézi Rend, when members of Horthy’s government deported Jews into Nazi hands, they also distributed a considerable proportion of the lands expropriated from the Jews to this loyalist group. The Vitézi Rend, in turn, distributed this booty to its own members. Vitézi Rend members thereby benefited directly from the despoliation of Jews purely on the basis of their Vitézi Rend membership.
Later, again as individuals, some members did fight the Nazis, because the Nazis imposed their will on, and then ousted, Horthy, their leader. This was after Horthy, seeing that his ally Hitler was losing, sought to make a separate peace with the Allies. But the anti-Nazi activities of individual Vitézi Rend members in this situation were for Hungarian nationalistic reasons. They were certainly not related to any institutional concern that the Vitézi Rend had about the deportation and mass murder of Jews.
The Vitézi Rend did not, and to this day does not, admit Hungarian Jewish citizens into its ranks, holding them as foreign to the Hungarian “race.” It also continues to uphold as a goal the return of land Hungary lost at the end of World War I that now lies in Ukraine, Romania, Serbia, Croatia and Slovakia. This is the sort of revanchism that plunged Europe into war in the first place. It is of a piece with Russia’s annexation of Crimea and parts of Ukraine today, citing similar reasons.
History is complicated. A small number of commanding officers who led the German army during World War II, including General Erwin Rommel, were involved in the plot to kill Hitler and sue for peace with the Allies when it became clear that Germany would lose the war. But that did not make the German Officers Corp any less of a Nazi tool. We have tried to remain alert to nuances by checking our information with respected historians of Hungary as we’ve pursued this story. The State Department’s own judgment of the Vitézi Rend and its members, of course, is reflected by its presence on the agency’s watchlist, and this, too, is an important part of the story.
I hope this helps readers in understanding how and why we have pursued this story in the way we have.
Contact Larry Cohler-Esses at firstname.lastname@example.org
Larry Cohler-Esses is the Forward’s senior investigative writer. He joined the staff in December 2008. Previously, he served as Editor-at-Large for the Jewish Week, an investigative reporter for the New York Daily News, and as a staff writer for the Jewish Week as well as the Washington Jewish Week. Larry has written extensively on the Arab-Jewish relations both in the United States and the Middle East. His articles have won awards from the Society for Professional Journalists, the Religious Newswriters Association, the New York Press Association and the Rockower Awards for Jewish Journalism, among others. Larry Cohler-Esses can be reached at email@example.com.