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George B. Rieveschl Jr. Award for Scholarly or Creative Works
The Historian Who Came in From the Cold

Date: May 19, 2000
By: Marianne Kunnen-Jones
Phone: (513) 556-1826
Photo by: Lisa Ventre
Archive: General News, Campus News

An American waits patiently in line with other people at a railroad station on the border between Communist Hungary and Austria on his way to Vienna. Border guards single out the American, ask to see his luggage and begin unpacking tablets filled with notes. Dozens of books are removed from the suitcases and examined one at a time like they might contain something dangerous.

Sound like a scene from a typical, Cold War-era spy movie? This isn't cinema; it s an anxious moment in the life of an expert on Eastern European history, who spent months researching behind the Iron Curtain in the 1970s and feared his hard work might be confiscated or destroyed.

image of Sakmyster

"It took them two hours to go through everything," recalls Thomas L. Sakmyster, this year's recipient of the George Rieveschl Jr. Award for Excellence in Scholarly or Creative Works at UC. "They examined each book. I had purchased a lot of books in Hungary because they were dirt cheap. Some were from the 1930s. They were suspicious that this material could be fascist."

It all ended benignly, and Sakmyster was permitted to keep all his dissertation notes and books. But as a historian whose scholarship probes a part of the world that shielded itself behind walls for almost 50 years, he no longer finds it surprising to encounter difficulty in pursuing his chosen specialty.

Even now after the fall of Communism, the obstacles have not disappeared as quickly as the Berlin Wall. Just two years ago, Sakmyster and his wife were awakened at 3 a.m. by border guards demanding to see their passports on a train making its way across Slovakia. "The guard kept us awake for 45 minutes to an hour just to show us, I think, that they can still do it," says Sakmyster, UC's Walter C. Langsam Professor of European History and a member of the history department in the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences since 1971.

The longstanding East-West hostilities and obstacles, however, have never prevented him from persisting. Not even the language barrier, though formidable, proved insurmountable. When he started out as graduate student, English wasn't as common as it is today. Fluent in German thanks to his college minor and a junior year abroad as an undergraduate at Dartmouth, he decided to take up Hungarian when a professor from Hungary visited his graduate school at Indiana University and counseled him on the need for Hungarian scholarship.

For years, that same professor, Gyorgy Ranki, helped Sakmyster gain access to archives and records kept locked inside the then-Soviet bloc. The assistance proved valuable in Sakmyster's compilation of his first book,Hungary, the Great Powers and the Danubian Crisis, 1936-1939, published in 1980. It helped even more for his acclaimed second book, which examines one of Europe's most controversial, 20th century statesmen. Sakmyster's Hungary's Admiral on Horseback: Miklos Horthy, 1918-1944 is the first full-length biography of the regent who headed Hungary during the difficult 24 years between Hungary's World War I defeat and the closing months of World War II.

Although many Americans may not recognize the name Horthy, the regent can be counted as the only European statesman who argued with Hitler to his face and walked out on him twice. "He is often characterized as Hitler's lackey or a radical fascist, but he was not either," says Sakmyster. "I am not saying he was blameless, but he is the only European statesman who, when the Germans insisted on deporting the Jews, and he realized what was happening to them at Auschwitz, he stepped in and stopped the deportation." In July 1944, when it become clear to Horthy from eyewitness accounts that the Jews from Hungary were being taken to concentration camps and murdered, he bypassed his own minister of war and called on loyal commanders to seal off Budapest, to stop any deportations.

"I don't think he believed before then that Hitler would kill all this able-bodied labor," said Sakmyster. Horthy also conducted secret negotiations with the Russians to get Hungary out of the war, but accelerated his own downfall by imprudently announcing the negotiations publically. By the same afternoon as the announcement, the Nazis removed Horthy from Hungary and exiled him to Bavaria.

The Horthy volume, published in 1994, drew Sakmyster glowing reviews, including one in The New York Review of Books. The book also earned him the Book Prize given by the American Association for the Study of Hungarian History (1995). Even though it was written by an American outsider, the biography generated praise within Hungary, where controversy surrounding Horthy has prevented any scholar from writing a full-length treatise on him. "He remains so hard for them to deal with, they valued having an outsider like me do it in an objective way," said Sakmyster, who was awarded the Order of Merit of the Hungarian Republic in 1992 for his contributions to Hungarian culture.

Sakmyster's Horthy reputation also gained him an invitation to speak at a conference held only once every five years -- the World Congress of Eastern European Studies, which will meet for its sixth time in July 2000 in Tampere, Finland.

With his interest in the period between the World Wars piqued by his work on Horthy, Sakmyster now is turning scholarly attention to a new arena: pre-WWII propaganda films. "This was an era when international powers were just beginning to learn that film could be a powerful medium for public opinion," said Sakmyster, whose office shelves in McMicken are lined with propaganda films and video copies like Victory Song of the Orient (Japanese), Campaign in Poland (German) and London Can Take It (British).

The propaganda films, however, have not distracted all of his attention away from Hungary and the former Soviet bloc. He serves as the associate editor of An Encyclopedia of Modern East European History, just published by Garland Press. He also has begun to probe Hungarians who left their homeland to serve in the world Communist movement between World War I and II. Many of these figures became leaders in the Communist Party in the United States and later were purged by Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union.

The research promises to be sensitive and slow-going. Sakmyster waited three years just to get FBI papers on a trio of Hungarian Communists who came to the United States. Most of the documents Sakmyster requested under the Freedom of Information Act finally arrived with large sections inked out, and in many cases the requested documents were not released for national security reasons.

The end of the Cold War hasn't made that research pursuit any easier, but this time the difficulty is on the Western side. "I originally wanted to request the files on 10 different Hungarian emigres," said the historian. "But an FBI official told me I would be waiting forever for all that, so I reduced it to three. The FBI apparently has been flooded with requests, a lot of them from individuals wanting to know if they've got files on them."

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