21. Jan 2016
Ferenc Laczó is a historian and lecturer in contemporary European history at Maastricht University. He is the author of three books, including Hungarian Jews in the Age of Catastrophe. An Intellectual History, 1929–48. He has published peer reviewed articles in journals such as Holocaust Studies. A Journal of Culture and History, Journal of Modern Jewish Studies, Contributions to the History of Concepts, the Hungarian Historical Review and the Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook. His main fields of interest are intellectual and cultural history, Central and Eastern Europe in the twentieth century, and Jewish history and the history of the Holocaust.
From the point of view of the Fidesz regime, the pragmatic challenge related to the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust in Hungary in 2014 consisted of how to continue framing the recent past in a nationalistic key while improving its much damaged reputation by fulfilling at least some international expectations toward its politics of history. This essay shows that the aforementioned challenge yielded a dualistic agenda of commemoration: an attempt was made to commemorate victims without foregrounding historical responsibility. Covering the official initiatives, main controversies, and key scholarly activities related to the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust in Hungary, the essay argues that this round anniversary only reinforced the bitter societal divisions it was meant to help overcome.
By the beginning of 1944, the Hungarian Jewish community had been persecuted for years but was still largely intact and it thus comprised the major remaining Jewish community in the Nazi sphere of influence. As a result of the brutally efficient implementation of the Holocaust in 1944–45 with a substantial co-responsibility of local authorities, Hungarian Jews ended up constituting the single largest group of victims of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Due, above all, to the liberation of a significant part of the Budapest Jewish community, many of whose members subsequently decided to stay in the country, Hungary also has had one of the largest groups of Holocaust survivors in post-war Europe. The utterly devastating experience of this highly acculturated Jewish community thus arguably belongs to the very centre of the exceptional drama and tragedy of European Jews in the twentieth century: its catastrophe was intimately connected to the most infamous Nazi camp complex, whereas the minority of its survivors tended to continue their lives in communist-dominated Eastern Europe.
This essay shall briefly introduce the main lines of division in the Hungarian remembrance of the Holocaust before turning to its central subjects, the official initiatives, main controversies and key scholarly activities of the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust in Hungary in 2014. In relation to the Holocaust, three major questions have divided Hungarian public opinion since the end of the Second World War: the relative responsibility of Hungarians and Germans, the ideological explicability of Hungarian involvement, and finally, the way the victims ought to be categorized and remembered. Starting prior to 1989, but taking on much greater force afterwards, ideological explanations focused on Hungarian fascism were largely discredited, the Hungarian role in the implementation of the Holocaust came to be discussed more openly, and the Jewishness of the victims would finally be emphasized. All three of these developments may be assessed positively since they approximated historical realities much more closely while also contributing to the emergence of a more self-critical historical culture. Nevertheless, nearly a quarter of a century after the end of communism, it appears that the transformation of Hungarian historical culture has proven partial. Regarding the treatment of the Holocaust, the overall picture has become rather mixed. Reactions to the aforementioned self-critical reassessments were manifested in outright rejection of Hungarian responsibility, softer forms of historiographical revision and novel practices of symbolic exclusion that have all gone much more public since the crisis hit Hungary back in 2008–09.
Since the Fidesz-dominated state’s ambition to institutionalize a new vision of the country’s recent past has been evident for years without the exact weight and specific interpretation of the Holocaust in the emerging canon being sufficiently defined, the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust in Hungary took place at a time when discussions over the currently dominant and most appropriate forms of Holocaust commemoration were already turning polemical. In 2013, Viktor Orbán’s government announced its intention to counter "forgetting and indifference" and declared 2014 a Year of Holocaust Commemoration (Magyar Holokauszt Emlékév). The founding document of the Year of Commemoration described the Holocaust as a crime against law, humanity, nature, and equality and called it "the tragedy of the entire Hungarian nation." As a major component of the official initiative to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust, the Hungarian government decided to establish a Civil Fund (Civil Alap). The intention behind the Civil Fund was to familiarize society "with the aims of the year of commemoration through involving the Jewish communities of Hungary," support "processes of dealing with history" (szembenézés a történelemmel, in the original) and help "the activities of the civil sphere." Remembrance was meant to be fostered primarily through programmes that directly dealt with the Hungarian Holocaust (magyar holokauszt), but also through ones that would discuss "Jewish traditions" while tackling "the losses suffered by local communities" – both within Hungary and in Hungarian minority communities abroad. Moreover, the broad agenda enabled the Fund to support scholarly research projects and publications as well as the creation of artistic works and their exhibition. A rather large sum of around one and a half billion HUF (approximately five million Euros) was to be allocated for these related purposes.
By its deadline for submissions in late 2013, the Civil Alap received altogether 1073 valid applications. According to the official communiqué of the Fund of 8 January 2014, more than four hundred applicants were meant to receive support in the value of altogether 1 800 000 000 HUF. For reasons that shall be addressed below, by 26 May, eighteen of the winning applicants resigned from accepting government funding – the resources they were originally meant to receive, amounting to over sixty million HUF, were soon reassigned to another nineteen applicants. Some of those who have refused to cooperate with the Civil Alap, which included a host of crucial Hungarian Jewish institutions, launched their alternative and independent platform Memento 70 – Tisztán emlékezünk (Memento 70 – We Remember Purely) on 17 April 2014. However, according to the website of the Memento 70 initiative, their campaign of fundraising largely failed to generate the desired amount of resources.
The controversy surrounding the year of commemoration was triggered by the perceived official ambition to portray the Holocaust in Hungary as the genocide Nazi Germany committed against the Jews of Hungary whereby the Hungarian share of responsibility would have been downplayed. The topic of Hungarian rescue has indeed emerged as one of the main focuses of official initiatives. Next to important events, such as Megismerni és felismerni – embermentő magyarok üzenete a XXI. századnak (To Get to Know and To Recognize – The Message of Hungarian Rescuers for the Twenty-First Century) organized by the Tom Lantos Institute and the Institute of Foreign Affairs and Trade, on 16 December an international symposium on the topic was even held at the Hungarian Parliament under the title Embermentők – "Rajtuk át Isten szól: jövök" (Rescuers – "God Announces his Arrival through Them"). The explicit aim of devoting such attention to uplifting examples of rescuers has been to contribute to moral education. However, as various observers did not fail to point out, the strong focus on rescuers, if it happens at the expense of appropriate attention to Hungarian perpetrators, may also have national-apologetic implications.
The aim to downplay the Hungarian share of responsibility was arguably already manifested in this topical priority, but it was even more widely identified in relation to two new state-endorsed projects in particular: (1) the decision to open a new museum dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust, and (2) to erect a German occupation statue in the centre of Budapest. In 2000, the Holocaust Documentation Center and Memorial Collection Public Foundation was established to serve as the successor of the Hungarian Auschwitz Foundation. Under its aegis, a Holocaust Memorial Center – the first of its kind in post-communist East Central and South-East Europe – was eventually inaugurated in Páva Street, Budapest in 2004 with its self-critical permanent exhibition, From Deprivation of Rights to Genocide opening its doors to visitors in 2006. However, in a number of respects the Center fell short of expectations: visitor numbers have remained rather low and several rounds of infighting hampered the functioning of the institution. By 2014, serious anxieties were raised regarding the future of the Holocaust Memorial Center.
At the same time, it was no other than the House of Terror director Mária Schmidt who was appointed to head an alternative museum project called House of Fates. Whereas the idea to dedicate a new museum to one of the most shocking elements of the Holocaust – the Nazi murder of over a million children – was circulated, not much information regarding the rationale for the new institution and its exact plan filtered through to the public. The ever more transparently dualistic agenda of the year of commemoration combined with the scepticism many of those concerned felt towards Mária Schmidt’s competence and intentions soon led to sharp criticisms of the initiative. The main worry of the critics seems to have been that the new museum might marginalize the perpetrator side of the Holocaust and potentially ignore the role played by Hungarian perpetrators in particular. The largely unspecified, though already controversial, plans also generated alternative proposals to the effect that a museum of Hungarian-Jewish coexistence would be more timely and useful.
Following little evidence of progress on the project except on its planned building, the former train station of Józsefváros (the eighth district of Budapest), and the resignation of several crucial members of the advisory board, the basic concept of the House of Fates was finally sketched by András Gerő, one of the intellectual masterminds behind the project. In his extended essay "Magyar holokausztreprezentációk" (Hungarian Representations of the Holocaust), Gerő introduced the future museum as an attempt to convey "the symbolic and spiritual" meaning of the Holocaust. He explained that the permanent exhibition would refrain from any conventional historical presentations and would rather aim to offer a cathartic experience to its visitors, which would hopefully result in "outraged rejection" and "mobilize their hatred of hatred."
However, if infighting weakened the Holocaust Memorial Center, and its lack of public success was (according to Gerő) meant to legitimate launching the House of Fates, then further infighting in Fidesz elite circles combined with the continued opposition of Hungarian Jewish representatives seems to have condemned this controversial initiative to at least momentary failure. At the time of writing this in the summer of 2015, the realization of a second Holocaust museum in Budapest remains uncertain – even though unexpected twists have by now become an integral part of its not-quite-so-fateful plot.
The second controversial initiative (the German occupation statue) arguably proved even more divisive, leading to an extensive, emotionally charged polemic. In the initiative, critics of the statue saw a blunt attempt to visually represent the thesis of the preamble to the new Hungarian basic law, whereby Hungarian sovereignty was supposed to have been terminated on 19 March 1944, to thereby largely externalize Hungarian guilt for the mass deportations. On the other hand, the small minority of its intellectual proponents aimed to interpret the occupation statue as a monument devoted to all Hungarian victims of the catastrophic final year of the Second World War, which does not focus exclusively on Jewish victims, but by all means was meant to include them. Such an argument revealed the dualistic official agenda of the year of commemoration with special force – honouring the victims without casting doubt on nationalistic visions of history. The controversy also repeatedly entered leading venues of international media and the acclaim the Hungarian government may have received for establishing a generous Civil Fund was thereby irreparably wasted. Whereas public voices tended to be critical towards the idea of the statue and also the concrete plan of its realization, opinion polls conducted at the height of the controversy have shown that the proposal tended to divide Hungarian society more than anything else. The ever more open clash between the ambition to build a new national canon and the traumatic personal and family memories of members of Hungarian society, in fact, further polarized interpretations of the recent past.
Back in 2008, historian Gábor Gyáni offered some sharply critical comments on the historiographical status quo in Hungary. Gyáni remarked that contemporary theoretical and methodological insights and several major themes that belong to the very core of Holocaust Studies are practically absent from the Hungarian research landscape. He viewed these shortcomings as key reasons behind the relatively low international visibility of Hungarian Holocaust scholarship. Gyáni's polemical reflections were contested by several Holocaust historians, which eventually resulted in a prolonged debate.
However we may assess Gyáni's original claims formulated some seven years ago, in the intervening years, several positive developments could be observed. First of all, several path-breaking publications have appeared since 2008. Probably the most crucial, in terms of the international visibility of scholarship on Hungary, The Holocaust in Hungary: Evolution of a Genocide, which was the first English-language overview since Randolph Braham’s milestone from over three decades ago, has been included in the highly esteemed Documenting Life and Destruction: Holocaust Sources in Context series of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Vienna-based scholar Regina Fritz published the first ever overview of Hungarian history politics related to the Holocaust since 1944 in the German language. Our knowledge of various Hungarian fascist movements as well as the Arrow Cross regime has also substantially advanced. Within Hungary, it was the monograph of Krisztián Ungváry, one of the most widely known historians of the country, on the radicalization of Hungarian anti-Semitism – a work inspired, perhaps above all, by Götz Aly’s theories – that arguably had the greatest resonance while also serving as the subject of extended scholarly exchanges. What is more, a new generation of Holocaust scholars has appeared on the scene in the meantime, including István Pál Ádám, Ádám Gellért, Attila Gidó, Linda Margittai and Izabella Sulyok. András Lugosi and András Szécsényi have also completed important Hungarian-language dissertations that are of direct relevance for the history of the Holocaust in Hungary.
Such positive developments notwithstanding, the major anniversary of 2014 saw the release of no more than just a few original monographs with direct bearing on the history of the Holocaust by authors like Tamás Csapody, László Csősz, or myself. Admittedly, various scholarly journals, such as Betekintő or Századvég, devoted special issues to the Holocaust and local historians released notable works. Some edited volumes have already appeared and several more based on conferences held in 2014 (more listed below) ought to follow soon. In the meantime, László Karsai completed a substantial study on the Arrow Cross period, which was released as the introduction to the very belated fourth volume of documents on the persecution of Jews in Hungary titled, Vádirat a nácizmus ellen (Accusation against Nazism). Judit Molnár published a critical edition of the reports of, and other essential materials related to, László Ferenczy, one of the chief Holocaust perpetrators in Hungary. A collection of studies by Randolph Braham, the US-based doyen of scholarship on the local history of the Holocaust, was also released in Hungarian.
Some classics of Holocaust historiography – most importantly, an abridged version of Raul Hilberg’s three-volume The Destruction of the European Jews – have finally appeared in translation, though it appears that no influential works of more recent years have been translated for the occasion. What is worse, comparative, transnational or global historical reflections on the Holocaust in Hungary continue to be exceptional. In spite of the controversy surrounding it, there have hardly been any scholarly attempts to understand the nature of German-Hungarian interactions in the years 1938-1945; nor has the objective of placing Hungary into a regional framework become manifest (i.e. by comparing it with its neighbouring countries Romania, Croatia, or Slovakia). The continued prevalence of such an isolationist approach to the Holocaust in Hungary may be viewed as a major shortcoming of contemporary scholarship.
In the meantime, leading popular history magazines of the country, such as Múlt-kor and Rubicon, devoted extensive attention to the events of 1944; though, the former released its Spring issue of 2014 under the title Emlékezz! Holokauszt 1944-ben (Remember! The Holocaust in 1944), while the latter explicitly devoted its issues to Megszállás (Occupation) in March and to A kiugrási kísérlet. Remények és kétségek 1944-1945 (The Attempt to Exit the War: Hopes and Doubts 1944-1945) in November. A lot of popular attention has been given to websites on the topic: for example, the Yellow-Star Houses website, in blogs, such as Menetrend – 1944, edited by András Mink, which covered the deportations 70 years before on a daily basis; and even Facebook groups, such as A Holokauszt és a családom (The Holocaust and my Family), which specializes, with its over 6 000 members, in presenting family histories on a voluntary basis.
What is more, a host of scholarly-commemorative conferences discussing the origins, implementation, and consequences of the Holocaust in Hungary were held within as well as outside the country. The most prestigious of these were arguably the one held at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. on 19 March 2014 under the simple title The Holocaust in Hungary: 70 Years Later, and a closely related one under the same title – though with a completely different list of presenters – that took place at the Central European University in Budapest on 6 April. A similarly prestigious, though substantially larger conference was organized primarily by the Yad Vashem research group on Hungary and held at the University of Szeged (the home university of László Karsai and Judit Molnár and up to now is one of the key sites of Holocaust-related research in the country) on 14–15 May 2014 titled, A nagypolitikától a hétköznapokig – A magyarholokauszt 70 év távlatából (From High Politics to Everyday Life: The Hungarian Holocaust from the Perspective of 70 Years). The Vienna Wiesenthal Institute held its own, less conventional commemorative-scholarly event on 16 April where facets of the Holocaust in Hungary were analysed through the discussion of especially revealing individual sources.
One of the largest scholarly conferences took place between 17–19 March at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers under the title, The Holocaust in Hungary, 70 Years On: New Perspectives. With no less than 48 presenters, its quality could arguably only prove somewhat uneven. Between 12–14 October, a similarly large conference with over fifty speakers was conducted at the John Wesley Theological College in Budapest under the title Kamenyec-Podolszkijtól Auschwitzig (From Kamenets-Podolski to Auschwitz). On 16 October 2014, a critical examination of the recent past of Hungarian scholarship was attempted at the Institute of Sociology of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences with the title, "1944" és a magyar társadalomtudományok ("1944" and Hungarian Social Sciences). On 12–13 November, the inauguration of a new memorial to the victims of the Holocaust and the Second World War at ELTE Budapest, the main university of the capital city, was accompanied by the conference Bevésett nevek (Inscribed Names). On 28–29 November, the Petőfi Literary Museum hosted the conference Trauma – Holocaust – Literature to which several leading scholars, such as Aleida Assmann, Wulf Kansteiner, or Alvin H. Rosenfeld made original contributions. Last but not least, two events addressed key issues in Holocaust-related memories rather than Holocaust history. They were held at the Central European University on 10 June 2014, and at the John Wesley Theological College on 17–18 December 2014, respectively. The former, organized by the Tom Lantos Institute, was titled, The Future of Holocaust Memorialization: Confronting Racism, Antisemitism, and Homophobia through Memory Work, whereas the latter, Holokauszt-emlékezet és antiszemitizmus a közvéleményben, directly probed the connections between Holocaust memory and anti-Semitic public opinion.
This list of major conferences, without meaning to be exhaustive, ought to provide a fair sense of the diversity of occasions and topics as well as the large overall number of contributors. However, it remains to be seen just how much original scholarship will result from all these scholarly but partly also commemorative events – and whether they may exert any impact on the official politics of history, which seems to have evolved in a decidedly nationalistic direction in recent years.
From the point of view of the right-wing Fidesz government led by Viktor Orbán, the pragmatic challenge related to the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust in Hungary consisted of how to continue framing the recent past in a nationalistic key while improving its much damaged international reputation by fulfilling at least some expectations toward a more self-critical historical culture. What this challenge resulted in was a dualistic agenda of commemorating the Holocaust: an attempt was made to commemorate victims without foregrounding historical responsibility. The generously endowed Civil Fund may indeed have brought badly needed international acclaim to the Hungarian government. However, by subsequently making several controversial decisions, which made its dualistic official agenda all too evident, the government wasted the chance to improve its reputation. Due, above all, to the erection of a controversial German occupation statue in downtown Budapest, the middle part of the year of Holocaust commemoration seems to have turned into a public clash between traumatic personal/family memories and Fidesz's attempt to build a new national canon. In spite of widespread public attention and numerous scholarly initiatives, the ultimate result of the year of Holocaust commemoration seems to have been a further polarization of Hungarian public opinion. The 70th anniversary of the Holocaust in Hungary only reinforced the bitter divisions it was meant to help overcome.