“People are not born hating, people are taught to hate”

Interview with Kati Marton

/ by Svetlana Slapšak

Kati Marton is an American journalist, human rights activist and author. She was born in Hungary, to a family marked by the Holocaust (her grandparents perished in a concentration camp) as well as by totalitarian violence (both parents, journalists, were imprisoned for years). Learning the truth about her family oriented her towards championing the protection of freedom of expression and of journalists' lives all over the world. With her third husband, Richard Halbrook, a US diplomat, she expanded her humanitarian work and writing. Her books include Enemies of the People: My Family's Journey to America (2009) and The Great Escape: Nine Jews who Fled Hitler and Changed the World (2006). She is currently working on a book on Angela Merkel.



Svetlana Slapsak (SS) - Good morning, Kati Marton in New York. You are a prominent human rights activist – defender of journalists' profession, a reputed author, a recipient of many important awards, and someone with an amazing life story. You discovered, as a hidden memory and as a personal memory, holocaust and totalitarian violence in your family, you have been raised in a multilingual and multicultural setting, you have seen most of the contemporary global glory and misery...and you do not seem to be relenting – so, what is your main fuel?


Kati Marton (KM) - This is a very flattering description – and it also makes me about a hundred years old! What keeps me going is the world, and the world is not getting any simpler, and it is not getting any more peaceful, and we keep finding ourselves in desperate situations that require all of us to do what we can, each of us in our own way...I feel extremely fortunate in the life that I lived, a very eventful life, and also a very lucky life, because - I could have never been born! My grandparents perished in Auschwitz...my parents have been jailed by communists – and I had a chance: I was given a very good life in America. So, being aware of my good fortune, I became very engaged with the press freedom issues about twenty-five years ago, when I started exploring my parents' history – as jailed journalists – and then I wrote a book about an American journalist who has been killed during the Greek civil war, George Polk, and also about how journalists continue to be so important for free society; free press is really the oxygen of the free society, and the only thing that separates democracy from any other type of government – is the free press. So I joined the Committee to Protect Journalists in the American-based organization that looks after the rights of our colleagues overseas, and I became the head of this organization. For some twenty-five years, I have led missions to many countries, from Angola to Pakistan, including Russia, several times in Turkey, places where journalists have a very hard time, and then in the last two years, to my own country of Hungary... This is a passion of mine, and my recognition that, when my parents went to prison for the crime of being good reporters – and my sister and I were placed with strangers—there was not a committee to protect journalists and nobody even talked about my parents. So this is my one way of giving back for my good fortune – and then human rights and refugees, since I am a refugee myself... I am deeply upset with what is happening with the refugee situation in Europe – again, starting with the appalling behavior of my former homeland, Hungary, and now the disarray in the EU, which is really on the edge – not that I am happy with my own country, the USA! The USA is not doing its share - it should be much more generous: I am speaking, writing, and I am about to participate in a four-day conference in Washington starting tomorrow, on refugees...


S.S. - An important portion of your writing is devoted to heroes, people who are able to strictly follow their professional capacities and never separate them from their humanist convictions and their human empathy, like journalists and activists, and among them, two step out: Raoul Wallenberg and Richard Holbrook. They were citizens, the contrary of the war hero...


K.M. - It is nice of you to compare Richard and Wallenberg – and actually, it is an apt comparison, I do not think it is an exaggeration...Richard was as upset as Wallenberg with the plight of people who suffer most – whether in war zones or in poor countries. It was my huge privilege to share my life with him for seventeen years, and to learn about how to make a difference. Richard was always nagging me to do more, he had more confidence in me than I had in myself. When I would say something, and he thought it was good, he would always say “write it down, write it down!” And then “turn it in to the NYT,” or “give a speech!” He was the most supportive partner imaginable. Most women do not have the fortune to have somebody always pushing them to do more. After his death, I decided that I cannot quit now... Just because he is not around, I have to work twice as hard. And, frankly, to enjoy life twice as much, because he is not able to do so any more. So I try to live a very full life. For me, enjoyment does not mean just to go to the parties, but living an interesting life, engaged in big issues of the day: refugees, journalists under attack, women's rights... I want to be part of big events, as long as I can! Life is short and unpredictable, and Richard's entirely unexpected death brought it to me – don't waste the day, because you can't count on anything. Just keep moving... So I just finished a new book about an American spy who worked for Stalin, and now I am writing a proposal for my next book, a biography of Angela Merkel. I think she is the most important leader on the world stage now. I love the fact that I am finally writing about a woman, after I wrote about all these men!


S.S. - Could we then conclude that rules should be respected till they start corrupting themselves, and does that mean that the education of citizens is crucial, but the one that includes emotional intelligence... compassion above all?


K.M. - Yes, yes! People are not born hating, people are taught to hate. All that it takes is a very skilled demagogue to turn neighbors into enemies. When Richard was negotiating in the Balkans, it was a real heartbreak to hear how a country in Europe can break up in the 20th century, and turn into the most savage destruction – how could that happen? And it was because the seed of hate was implanted. The demagogue was Milošević, but we are seeing this all over Europe – the rise of the heads of the states with populist ideas, who are teaching their citizens to be afraid and to hate. Unfortunately, people are easily seduced...they buy this message, especially the people that have not done very well in the globalized world, and who want the old world back. That old world has gone forever, and what a real statesman or stateswoman does, is to bring their people along and to teach them how to cope in the globalized world. But demagogues like Orban – and many like him, Europe is full of them now, from Denmark to Great Britain, and Poland, and Le Pen in France – make our times very dangerous: we have to be alert, each of us, whether we are journalists, human rights activists, diplomats, everybody has a role to play, and we cannot turn our backs on it. The US is nowadays very polarized too, and we all have to speak up! As a saying goes, all that it takes for the evil to thrive, is that good men and women keep silent. I will never be silent!


S.S. – Thank you for that! You were marching in the streets with the people in Belgrade, in 2000. You have experienced the Hungarian revolution in 1956 and many other revolts in the world: what would you say about the civil disobedience, when and how to resist? And what to do when facing extreme violence?


K.M. - I could not do much, but Richard did a lot. He was not a man who held back...he put everything that he had on the line. Civil disobedience has a very proud tradition, and still a big role to play. It is a tricky business, because it takes a lot of courage. To disobey people with weapons, while you do not have them, is sometimes the only weapon citizens have...it would be irresponsible on my part to encourage civil disobedience - unless I am doing it with them. It depends, of course, on the place and specific context – I would like to use every other means possible, before thinking of sacrifice. And, we are not living in an entirely lawless world.


S.S. - In the case of Yugoslavia, twenty-five years later, civil disobedience could do nice work just by keeping up the memory...


K.M. - That is so important: I was marching with the people of Srebrenica, to keep the memory alive and mark twenty years after the massacre. It was peaceful and beautiful, and so many people came together. Countries that have memories, even of their darkest moments, like Germany, have the strongest democracy, because the people understand their own history. This is why Hungary is a dangerous place, because it has not done the hard work of self-examination – it has not really digested it. I wrote books about recent history, my books were translated and they became bestsellers, because almost nobody writes about this in Hungary...it is about what happened when Hungarians let their citizens be taken to Auschwitz, or what happened during the communist rule. That is why Hungary is so easy to manipulate today. Something similar can be observed in France, and in the countries of the former Yugoslavia. Of course everybody has grievances, of course it takes several generations to make people accept other's wounds. The thing I have learnt with Richard is – you cannot take the past as a prison. You have to have truth-telling about the past, but then you have to move on, and sometimes you need help from outside to do that. It is good to be an outsider who could talk to everybody! I do a little bit of that, but of course nothing comparable to what he did...


S.S. - I wanted to ask you about Hungary – but you already answered this question. So, let us settle for a small, intimate question; what is Budapest for you today?


K.M. - I love Budapest, it is my hometown, I go there several times a year, because I am connected to the Central European University. I have many friends there, but I think Hungary is taking giant steps backwards... Richard was working hard to bring Hungary to the EU and to NATO, and we were married in Budapest. He would be shocked to see Hungary reverting to xenophobia, supernationalism, anti-Europeanism! We thought that, once Hungary enters EU, it would be a fully-fledged European nation, with all that it means, in terms of responsibility, peace and rights. That is not happening now. I would wish for the EU to be stronger in reacting to countries like Hungary, because other countries in the neighborhood are taking inspiration from Orban, and this virus is spreading. You have to stand up to movements like this, before they catch fire... We learned that from the Balkans.


S.S. - This is exactly what is going on in Slovenia. In one of the recent speeches after receiving an important award, you said: “it is the human impulse for a right to earn a decent living, have leaders who are accountable to us, not to themselves, the right to say what we like, and pray the way we like – that is what it means to be human, and that is what we are witnessing today in the Middle East.” And the difference EU is making today, between “migrants” and “refugees.”


K.M. - I do not call them migrants: I call them all refugees. They are fleeing the wars that have been destroying their countries, and they are not looking for economic opportunities. Of course there will always be a handful of people who would profit from this situation – the bad apples – like the Cologne incident, but we cannot lump all these people together, and forget the vast majority, who just want to rebuild their life. If you greet people with police dogs and barbed wire and treat them as lesser humans, what can you expect from them?


S.S. - You must feel personally offended by the amount of stupidity uttered by politicians today in Europe and in the US. Is it something that we all missed and neglected, or is it a logical consequence of some other undetected social processes? Why is being smart not appreciated anymore?


K.M. - It is shame what is happening to the Republican Party, for instance. Nothing happens overnight – it has been in the making for some time. I hope Hillary will be strong enough, because I believe she could be a very good president. She knows how to deal with all sorts of people. She is better prepared than any president in my memory. There is a difference between the US and other countries, which could be compared in this sense: we have the Constitution, which ultimately kicks in. We are obviously testing it right now, but we do have protection of this document, which means we can only go so far, before there are consequences. But it is still the worst time that I have seen in my lifetime. This country is made of people of every other country in the world, this gives hope...


S.S. - It is an unfair question for such an elegant and brave achiever: but what are your plans and projects for the future - beside the books that you already mentioned?


K.M. - I want to continue writing, this is the core of my identity – and frankly, it pays the bills too, because other things I do don't. So I have to write, it is my income and my passion, as well. I feel pretty good about Richard's legacy: for the last two years, I spent quite a bit of time on that. There is a big book about Richard that is coming out, and I am helping with it. It is not an authorized biography by any means, it is written by a wonderful writer, George Packer, who writes for The New Yorker. I am happy about the fact that Richard is not going to be forgotten. I am continuing my activities in the Committee for the Protection of Journalists, I am travelling in connection with this, I am active with the American Academy in Berlin – that is something that Richard started, when he was the ambassador there. It is meant to give possibility to American artists, politicians and diplomats who have a project to work on related to Germany. I am often in Berlin because of that, and in my beloved Paris, where I have a small apartment. My son has just published his first book, there was a brilliant review of it in the New York Review of Books, and my daughter works for the UN in Pakistan.


S. S. - We would like to make you come to Slovenia! Thank you for this conversation.

Svetlana Slapšak

trained in Classical Studies/Linguistics at the University in Beograd. Retired professor of Anthropology of Ancient Worlds and Anthropology of Gender at ISH, Ljubljana Graduate School of Humanities since 1996. Dean of ISH 2004-2014. Published cca 70 books. Writes academic books/articles, essays, novels, travelogue, drama and translates from Ancient Greek, Modern Greek, Latin, French, English, Slovenian and SCB languages.