17 October 2001, Volume 3, Number 18HUNGARY AND THE HOLOCAUST: THE NATIONALIST DRIVE TO WHITEWASH THE PAST* (PART 1)
By Randolph L. Braham
Perhaps no other event in world history has been as thoroughly documented as the Holocaust, the destruction of approximately 6 million European Jews during the Nazi era. This vast documentation notwithstanding, however, the authenticity of no other event has ever been so consistently questioned as that of the Holocaust. The campaign to distort, denigrate, and actually deny the Holocaust was launched soon after the end of World War II by extremist anti-Semitic elements of the Right. Spearheaded in the Western world by politically and ideologically motivated neo-Nazis, many of whom came to be identified as "historical revisionists," the campaign gained ground after 1948 in the Communist world as well. Unlike what happened in the West, however, the campaign in the Soviet camp was waged under strict state controls, so that its intensity varied with the changing political interests of the Soviet Union and its satellites.
Following the dissolution of the Communist regimes and the disintegration of the Soviet bloc in 1989, the assault against the historical memory of the Holocaust became quite similar to that being pursued by neo-Nazis and others in the Western world. The hotbed of anti-Semitism during much of the 20th century, East-Central Europe�the area in which four-fifths of the nearly 6 million victims of the Holocaust had lived before the war�was fertile soil for the quick and effective penetration of "historical revisionism."
Historical revisionism, which in many of its adherents represents a new and potentially virulent strain of anti-Semitism, has infected the xenophobic nationalist stratum of Hungarian society as well. Ironically, this new strain came to the fore following the liberalization measures that the first democratically elected government adopted after the systemic change of 1989. The political stresses and socioeconomic dislocations engendered by the new administration's privatization and marketization measures enabled the xenophobic nationalist-populist elements to revive both "the Jewish question" and anti-Semitism as convenient instruments of domestic politics. They have revived and skillfully exploited a favorite technique of the Admiral Miklos Horthy era: scapegoating. They clearly are resolved to direct against the Jews the anger of people suffering from the ravages of unemployment, inflation, and general impoverishment, blaming the Jews for the current and past ills of the country.
While the number of xenophobic champions of anti-Semitism -- like that of Hungarian neo-Nazis actually denying the Holocaust -- is relatively small, the camp of those distorting and denigrating the catastrophe of the Jews is fairly large and -- judging by recent developments -- growing. With their political power and influence, members of this camp represent a potentially greater danger not only to the integrity of the historical record of the Holocaust but also and above all to the newly established democratic system. Unlike the Holocaust deniers, who are a fringe-group of "historical charlatans" and bound to end up in the dung-heap of history, the history cleansers who denigrate and distort the Holocaust are often "respectable" public figures (e.g., intellectuals, members of parliament, influential governmental and party figures, and high-ranking army officers).
The rhetoric and tactics of these respectable individuals vary in terms of their particular political-ideological group interests and personal ambitions. They appear united only by their manifest resolve to "explain" and justify Hungary's linkage to Nazi Germany, bring about the rehabilitation of the Horthy regime, and above all absolve the country of any responsibility for the destruction of approximately 550,000 of its citizens of the Jewish faith or heritage. In other words, they show every evidence that they are determined to cleanse Hungary's historical record of the Nazi era.
The drive to whitewash the record of this era in general and of the Holocaust in particular uses a variety of approaches. Some of the history cleansers are forthright, brazenly revealing their chauvinistic-nationalist positions by questioning the authenticity of the personal and historical accounts of the Holocaust. They go so far as to identify all those involved in Holocaust studies or remembrance ceremonies as traitors bent on branding the Hungarian people as Fascists (Karsai, 1992, pp. 68-69). Others are more astute, using mitigating historical and socioeconomic arguments to justify the policies that the successive Hungarian governments pursued during the Horthy era. Toward this end, many of them try to deflect attention from the Holocaust by focusing on the "positive" experiences of the Jews since their emancipation in 1867 and on the rescue activities of Christian Hungarians during the German occupation, including Horthy's halting of the deportations in early July 1944. Still others, the "moderates," are among the most sophisticated. Impelled by political expediency, many of these camouflage the pursuit of the same objectives by deploring the tragedy of the Jews and loudly proclaiming their commitment to the struggle against contemporary anti-Semitism. The differences in tactics notwithstanding, they appear equally resolved to bring about the rehabilitation of the Horthy regime and cleanse the historical record of the Nazi era by denigrating or distorting the crucial facts of the Holocaust in Hungary: the active and often enthusiastic involvement of Hungary's wartime governmental and law enforcement authorities in the humiliation, expropriation, and subsequent destruction of the Jews.
THE FACTS UNDER SIEGE
The Jews of Hungary numbered more than 700,000 and were the last relatively intact Jewish community. Having survived throughout most of the war, on the eve of Allied victory they were destroyed with the connivance of their own government. An ally of Nazi Germany starting in early 1938, Hungary instituted a series of increasingly severe anti-Jewish measures that not only curtailed the basic civil and socioeconomic rights of the Jews but also claimed approximately 64,000 Jewish lives by early 1944. Approximately 40,000 to 45,000 of these were labor servicemen; 17,000 to 18,000 so-called "alien" Jews who were deported in the summer of 1941 and murdered near Kamenets-Podolsk; and the remainder victims of the massacres in and around Ujvidek early in 1942. Nevertheless, the bulk of Hungarian Jewry survived the first 4 1/2 years of the war thanks to the physical protection of the conservative-aristocratic government. After the German occupation of 19 March 1944, however, it was this Jewish community that was subjected to the most concentrated and brutal destruction process of the Nazis' efforts to bring about the Final Solution. This murderous process was launched almost immediately after the beginning of the occupation -- at a time when the leaders of the world, including those of Hungary, were already familiar with the realities of Auschwitz, and even most Nazis must have realized that the Axis would lose the war. It was precisely because of this prospect that the Germans and their Hungarian accomplices decided to win at least the war against the Jews. Time was clearly of the essence. The Red Army was fast approaching Romania, and the Western Allies were expected to launch their invasion of Europe soon.
The Nazis' machinery of destruction was already well oiled by 1944. With experience gained through the mass murder of Jews from all over German-dominated Europe, the Nazis were ready and well prepared for a lightning operation in Hungary. Toward this end, they updated the death factories in Auschwitz. They extended the rail lines to Birkenau to the immediate vicinity of the gas chambers and, above all, acquired the wholehearted support of the Hungarian government of Dome Sztojay for the implementation of the Final Solution. Without the unequivocal support of the new, constitutionally appointed government that enjoyed the blessing of Miklos Horthy, who was Hungary's highly respected head of state, the Nazis -- as the cases of Bulgaria and Romania had clearly shown -- would have been severely hampered if not helpless. The SS commandos were, in fact, amazed at the enthusiasm with which their Hungarian counterparts were ready to "solve" the Jewish question. The new government placed the instruments of state power at the disposal of the Hungarian and German Nazis bent on the swiftest possible implementation of the Final Solution. With Horthy still at the helm and providing the symbol of national sovereignty, the Hungarian police, gendarmerie, and civil service collaborated with the SS in the anti-Jewish drive with a routine and efficiency that impressed even the Germans. Within less than two months (i.e., from late March to mid-May, 1944), the Hungarian authorities acted in conjunction with their Nazi "advisers" to complete the first phase of the anti-Jewish drive. The Jews were isolated, marked, robbed of their possessions, and placed into ghettos. During the next two months, they were subjected to the most barbaric and speedy deportation and extermination program of the war. It was so massive and so swift that the crematoria in Auschwitz-Birkenau, updated as they were, could not cope. Special ditches had to be dug to burn the thousands of victims the crematoria could not handle. When Winston Churchill was informed about this catastrophe, he referred to it as "probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the history of the world" (Braham, 1994).
The magnitude of the crime committed by the Nazis and their Hungarian accomplices is dramatically illustrated by the following comparative statistical data. Three transports arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau with close to 12,000 Jews from Northern Transylvania on 6 June 1944. Better known as D-Day, this was one of the most magnificent days in the annals of military history, when the greatest multinational armada ever assembled under one command stormed the beaches of Normandy. By the end of that day, the number of invading Allied troops killed was about half that of the Hungarian Jews. While the Allies' killed-in-action figures declined dramatically after the toehold had been gained on Normandy later that day, the Hungarian Jews continued to be murdered at almost the same high rate day after day until 9 July, continuing the awesome daily massacre rate that began on 16 May. In the end, the wartime losses of Hungarian Jewry significantly exceeded those incurred by the military forces of the United States in all theaters of war, just as they also significantly exceeded the combined military and civilian war deaths of the British, a nation that bore much of the German military onslaught. These comparisons are cited not to minimize the sacrifices or diminish the heroism of the Western Allies but simply to underscore the magnitude of the Holocaust in Hungary.
THE ASSAULT ON MEMORY
The Hungarian chapter of the Holocaust of European Jewry constitutes not only the greatest tragedy in the history of Hungarian Jewry but also the darkest chapter in the history of Hungary. Never before in the history of the Hungarian nation were so many people expropriated and murdered in so short a time as in 1944. In contrast to the calamities of the past, when Hungary was subjected to foreign occupation, the hundreds of thousands of people victimized in 1944 fell prey to the connivance of their own government. These victims were Hungarian citizens who had proudly considered themselves to be "Magyars of the Jewish faith." To the chagrin of the other ethnic-national minorities of Hungary, most Jews were patriotic and had been firmly committed to the Magyar cause since 1848. They were the forerunners of Hungary's modernization and champions of the Hungarian language and culture even in the territories Hungary lost in 1918. At the end, however, they fared less well than the other ethnic and national groups. They were destroyed with the connivance of the regime they had so eagerly supported and implicitly trusted.
The details of this apocalyptic chapter in the history of Hungary have not yet sunk into the national consciousness of the Hungarian people. The reasons are many and complex. The wartime history of Hungary, including the Holocaust, has been manipulated by the successive regimes to serve their particular political interests. During the immediate postwar period, the needs and interests of the survivors came into conflict with the political aspirations of the various parties. It is one of the ironies of history that, at the end, the surviving remnant of Hungarian Jewry suffered most at the hands of the very political party that many of them trusted as their genuine supporter and which, like the Jews, had been a main target of the Nazis and of the Horthy regime: the Communist Party. During the ideological euphoria of the immediate postwar era, many of the victimized Jews placed their faith in the party, believing that it was the only one that was genuinely free of any stain of Fascism. They also considered it reliable for the advancement of their legitimate interests, including the roundup and prosecution of war criminals, the effectuation of an equitable restitution and reparation program, and the building of a just and egalitarian society. They were soon awakened to the political realities of the postwar power struggle. Small and generally mistrusted by the ethnic majority, the Communist Party had no scruples about sacrificing the interests of the survivors in order to build a popular base for the acquisition of state power. Driven by political expediency, the party leadership, which included a proportionately large number of Communists of Jewish origin, urged the survivors to forget about their past suffering, abandon their demands for restitution, and subordinate their special needs to the building of the new socialist society. With the exception of the diehards who remained loyal to their ideology and newly acquired power, the survivors soon discovered that it was the Communist Party's search for mass support that was in fact largely behind the anti-Semitic agitation and the many "spontaneous" anti-Jewish outbursts and pogroms that occurred during the immediate postwar period.
During the Stalinist era, the Holocaust was virtually sunk into the Orwellian black hole of history. The Jewish martyrs were subsumed as part of the losses incurred by the population at large. The survivors themselves were subjected to many inequities. Many of them found themselves persecuted on both social and religious-political grounds. They were either identified as members of "the exploiting bourgeoisie" or accused of the sins of Zionism and cosmopolitanism. The former were deported to concentration camps for "re-education." The latter were either jailed or deprived of a livelihood. In the course of time even the Communist Party itself was purged of its Jewish component to make it more attractive to the ethnic majority (Szabo, 1997, pp. 179-283).
During the National Communist era that followed the Uprising of 1956, the Jewish question and the issue of anti-Semitism, while persistent at the popular level, were kept under control by the government. Consistent with the policies of the previous governments, public awareness of the Holocaust continued to remain low even though Hungary -- unlike the other Soviet bloc countries -- witnessed the appearance of several important documentary and historical publications on the tragedy of Hungarian Jewry.
*This paper is an updated and expanded version of the author's "Assault on Historical Memory: Hungarian Nationalists and the Holocaust," a study that appeared in "Hungary and the Holocaust: Confrontation with the Past", November 1999 symposium proceedings published by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in January 2001. The content of that earlier contribution is reprinted with the permission of the Museum. The present version of the study is limited to the identification of some of the approaches used in cleansing the historical record of Hungary during the Nazi era by denigrating, distorting, and, in some cases, denying the Holocaust. It does not aim at an overview of the various factions of the Right in contemporary Hungary.
The author is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Political Science at The City College and Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
Braham, R. L., 1994. The Politics of Genocide: The Holocaust in Hungary (New York: Columbia University Press,), 2 vols.
Karsai, L., 1992. "A Shoah a magyar sajtoban, 1989-1991" (The Shoah in the Hungarian Press, 1989-1991) in Kovacs, M., Kashti, Y. M. and Eros, F. (eds.), Zsidosag, identitas, tortenelem (Jewry, Identity, History), (Budapest: T-Twins), pp. 59-81.
Szabo, G. R., 1997. A kommunista part es a zsidosag (The Communist Party and Jewry) (Budapest: Windsor Kiado).