During an interview with Fox News broadcast from one of President Trump’s inaugural balls, soon-to-be White House aide Sebastian Gorka wore a medal that some Hungarian news outlets and scholars identified with Miklós Horthy, the anti-Semitic World War II-era leader whose regime witnessed the murder of some 600,000 Hungarian Jews.
Still days away from officially joining the Trump administration, Gorka, a former Breitbart News editor and self-proclaimed counterterrorism expert known for his hardline views on Islam, effused to Sean Hannity about the the death of “political correctness” in the Trump era. As the interview unfolded, Fox played clips of the President and First Lady dancing at the ball earlier in the evening.
Gorka’s choice of dress, a black braided jacket known as a “bocskai” adorned with two medals, wouldn’t necessarily catch the eye of an American viewer. But some Hungarians who came across the interview interpreted the getup as a nod to the knightly order of merit Horthy founded in 1920, the Order of Vitéz. Right-wing Hungarian media in particular fixated on what it saw as Gorka’s callback to a resurgent native icon of the far-right.
Hungarian scholars who spoke to TPM did not unanimously agree that the medal he wore on inauguration night could definitively be identified with Horthy’s Order of Vitéz. But they concurred that Gorka’s regalia is popular today among Hungary’s nationalist conservatives.
A White House spokeswoman did not respond to TPM’s multiple requests for comment.
Sebastian Gorka and his wife, Katharine, at the Liberty Ball (via LobeLog)
András Biro-Nagy, a professor at Budapest’s Corvinus University, where Gorka did his Ph.D. studies, said that the “bocskai” he wore was popular during Horthy’s rule and today is often worn by members of the “right-wing” on special occasions. But he noted the medal has a distinct connotation.
“The medal is a clear sign that he sympathizes with the Horthy era—this medal was awarded as a state honor only between 1920 and 1944,” Biro-Nagy told TPM.
“We should focus on his outfit,” a blogger for Valasz, a conservative weekly news magazine, wrote in a Hungarian-language post that included a zoomed-in still photo of Gorka, according to an English-language translation of the post independently commissioned by TPM.
“This is new proof that our little revolution has won! Sebastian Gorka, future advisor to Donald Trump, appeared on Fox News wearing none other than a bocskai!”
The post also mentioned that “the medal with the crown and coat of arms (on the left) recalls the order of knights founded by Miklos Horthy.”
Gorka’s late father, Paul, fled Hungary for the United Kingdom during a failed 1956 revolt against the Soviet-imposed government. The flyleaf of Paul Gorka’s book “Budapest Rising” identifies him as a recipient of the Order of Vitéz “for his bravery during the Resistance,” presumably a nod to his anti-communist efforts during the Soviet era. While the medal was awarded as a state honor only until 1944, the Order of Vitéz was reconstituted as a chivalric order in the late 20th century and still appears to award a medal similar to the one worn by Gorka.
Eli Clifton, who first reported the story for LobeLog, has suggested in recent posts that Gorka chose to identify himself with a Nazi collaborator by wearing the Order of Vitéz medal on inauguration night. The legacy of Horthy himself remains disputed within Hungary, with the far right adopting him as a nationalist symbol since the fall of the Iron Curtain.
An undated photo of Sebastian Gorka wearing similar attire (via Facebook)
Horthy was a Hungarian admiral and statesman who controlled the country from 1920 through 1944, and entered into an alliance with the Nazis early in World War II, according to the U.S Holocaust Memorial Museum. Horthy’s paramilitary units killed hundreds of Jews, and 437,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz under his watch during the summer of 1944 alone, per the museum.
Despite that brutal legacy, in the last few years Horthy has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity among Hungary’s ultranationalist far-right, particularly in the Jobbik party, whose leaders have been accused of stoking anti-Semitism. Statues of Horthy have been erected in towns across Hungary, and conservatives have taken to wearing bocskai jackets to formal events.
The contemporary right-wing sees Horthy as a patriotic strongman who helped rebuild Hungary after the devastation of World War I, while the left views him as a shameful symbol of the country’s collaboration with the Nazis, as Reuters has detailed. Horthy’s Order of Vitéz has a similarly complex legacy, as the U.S. State Department considered it an organization under Nazi control during World War II.
George Deák, an independent historian and an associate at Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, described the Order of Vitéz as a “tainted” but ambiguous symbol and cautioned to TPM that he could not say definitively that Gorka was wearing the order’s medal in the photos from the Liberty Ball, one of several inaugural balls.
Deák noted that the chief architects of the 1944 mass deportation of Hungarian Jews, Secretary of State László Endre and Lt. Colonel László Ferenczy, were “proud members of the order.” He pointed out a small number of wealthy Jews allied themselves with the order as well.
“Anti-Semitism was probably something shared among most of the members of that group, but it wasn’t explicitly anti-Semitic,” he said.
Adrienn Mizsei, a Hungarian language professor at the University of Pennsylvania, told TPM that the medal of the Order of Vitéz became something of a hot commodity after the fall of socialism in Hungary. Despite Horthy’s WWII-era legacy, she said wearing the medal was not necessarily seen as an endorsement of that leader’s anti-Semitic views.
“You can twist it in any way you want,” Mizsei told TPM, saying it could be interpreted as Gorka “honoring his dad’s heritage.”
Nevertheless, it remains an undeniably loaded symbol.
Asked if she would ever wear such a medal in public, Mizsei said, “Oh my God, no!”
This post has been updated.