15. Apr 2014
Dr Ferenc Laczó is a historian, currently research fellow at the Imre Kertész Kolleg Jena and guest lecturer at the University of Basel. He is the author of Felvilágosult vallás és modern katasztrófa közt. Magyar zsidó gondolkodás a Horthy-korban and numerous 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, Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook, His main fields of interests are intellectual and cultural history, Central and Eastern Europe in the twentieth century, and Jewish history and the history of the Holocaust.
The ongoing 70th anniversary of the Holocaust in Hungary has re-launched the public debate on this most catastrophic event in the modern history of the country and focused much attention on the contested question of the relative responsibility of Germans and Hungarians. In March 2014, a sustained debate of these matters took place under the title March 19, 1944: German Occupation or Hungarian Responsibility? Held on the website www.vs.hu, the debate revolved around three main questions: did Hungary lose its sovereignty on the aforementioned date? Were those who marched into Hungary the country's allies? Did the changes mean a qualitative difference in Jewish policy? Whereas most contributors rejected the thesis of the loss of sovereignty and emphasized Hungarian responsibility for the Holocaust in Hungary, the debate has revealed a broad spectrum of opinion on the main causes and concrete implementation of the Holocaust.
The 70th anniversary of the Holocaust in Hungary has focused much additional attention on this most catastrophic event in the modern history of the country. The anniversary takes place at a time when a sustained attempt at reinterpreting the recent past of the country has been in evidence for years, but the exact weight and interpretation of the Holocaust in Hungary in the newly emerging national canon have not become clear yet. On the one hand, the government decided to launch a Holocaust Memorial Year and devoted significant resources to it. On the other, the preamble to the new Hungarian constitution, which was ratified during Fidesz's last term in office, explicitly states that Hungary lost its sovereignty with the Nazi German occupation of 19 March 1944 - and was not to regain it until 1990. The responsibility of the Hungarian state for the mass deportations to Auschwitz-Birkenau, which took place between May and July 1944 and led to Hungarian Jews becoming the largest single group of victims of this most infamous camp complex, have thus been officially denied.
The official Holocaust Memorial Year ought to facilitate earnest attempts at dealing with the origins, implementation and aftermath of the Holocaust in Hungary and lead to a stronger sense of historical responsibility. However, as much as they have been marked by consensual and dignified commemorations, the first months of this year have also been characterized by repeated ambiguities and several controversies. Instead of honoring the victims by highlighting Hungarian involvement as perpetrators, these first months have seen the continuation of a nationalistic politics of history. The current commemorations point to a dualistic policy: it appears that the victims of the Holocaust are being officially commemorated without fostering greater awareness and assumption of Hungarian responsibility. If the current trend continues, the ongoing commemorations may lead to more polarized assessments of the Holocaust.
The government has even proposed erecting a statue in downtown Budapest to commemorate the German occupation of the country. This was a highly delicate and politically charged initiative to begin with: the statue is meant to publicly illustrate the controversial historical thesis inherent in the new constitution. The symbolism of the statue, which depicts Hungary as the Archangel Gabriel being attacked by the German eagle, has made the plan even more fiercely contested. After all, through its symbolism, the statue clearly assigns the roles of perpetrator and victim to Germans and Hungarians, respectively, evoking an all-national collective of victims in the latter case.
The 70th-anniversary commemorations have therefore re-launched the debate on the main causes of the Holocaust in Hungary and raised the contested question of the relative responsibility of Germans and Hungarians. Perhaps the most sustained public discussion of these questions took place on the online portal Versus, more precisely in the section devoted to presenting and confronting different stances. Entitled 19 March 1944: German Occupation or Hungarian Responsibility? and held between the 18 and 29 March, this debate on crucial matters of recent history and the contemporary politics of history revolved around three main questions: Did Hungary lose its sovereignty? Were those who marched into Hungary the country's allies? Did it mean a qualitative difference in Jewish policy?
The introductory contribution by Péter Techet, the editor of the opinion section who has published widely on questions of legal philosophy and is the author of a recent Hungarian-language book on Carl Schmitt, outlined the stakes of the debate and set its terms in a clear manner, arguing that Hungarian sovereignty was not lost with the entry of Nazi Germans on 19 March 1944. Thus, he suggested, the Hungarian state can be held responsible for the Holocaust, and Hungarian society cannot be depicted as a victim. Techet argued that while it is true that Hungarian anti-Semitism only resulted in the systematic murder of Hungarian Jewry after the entry of the Germans, the Hungarian state proved to be an active perpetrator of genocide. Miklós Horthy may have played a rather complex role during the war years, but he was evidently personally responsible for the unfolding of events in 1944. At the same time, Techet emphasized that Germany must bear the primary responsibility for the extermination of European Jews, and he claimed that its postwar treatment of its recent past has been far from laudable.
András Gerő, the director of the Institute of Habsburg Studies who has published widely on Hungarian historical culture and symbolic politics, agreed with Techet that the interpretation of history found in the preamble to the new constitution is "unsustainable" from a professional point of view, adding that such official interpretations of history were unnecessary and unwelcome to begin with. Gerő argued that Hungarian sovereignty may have become more restricted after 19 March 1944, but was certainly not abolished: the regent remained in place, the administration continued to function, and the elites did not declare the actions of the German military to be illegitimate. He emphasized that the Hungarian state apparatus was to participate eagerly in the politics of genocide in subsequent months.
In the second part of his contribution, Gerő speculated as to why such an apologetic interpretation of 1944 has become officially endorsed. He maintained that the new official interpretation was a direct result of the government's national identity politics. In his opinion, the new nationalism fostered by Fidesz may help conserve its power, but it may also turn the country into a rather exotic place where outdated ideas are still cherished - "we are leaving behind our future and moving into the collapsed and uninhabitable house of our past", Gerő wrote.
Gábor Balogh, a historian, publicist, and frequent contributor to right-wing publications, explained that Hungary's reaction to the events of the 19 March 1944 was due to the fact that the decisive majority of Hungarian officers had considered Nazi Germany their ally. The military much preferred such an occupation to the looming Soviet one, and Hungarian society as a whole was not characterized by a strong will to resist the Germans either. Balogh agreed with Techet and Gerő that the Hungarian state shared responsibility for the Holocaust. At the same time, he considered the thesis of the exceptional Hungarian enthusiasm and the extraordinary efforts made to implement the Holocaust in Hungary to be unfounded. In his view, such enthusiasm and efforts were not really necessary, since preparations for genocide had already been made by 1944.
Balogh also emphasized that the Holocaust was organized from above and was not the result of "a spontaneous social process." He thus maintained that the responsibility of Hungarian society, as opposed to the "totalitarian dictatorial" state of 1944, could not be proven. He even suggested that attempts to socially embed the Holocaust in Hungary might prove counterproductive. In his eyes, such attempts might generate "dangerous passions." In his conclusion, Balogh judged the Holocaust not to be the crime of the Hungarian nation, but its trauma, which "the descendants of the persecuted and the terrified passive majority" still have to process properly.
László Karsai, a leading Hungarian expert on the history of the Holocaust, explained that Nazi Germany may have occupied Hungary for fear that the latter lacked the willingness to continue fighting on the Axis side but this was actually a misjudgment: Hungarian military and administrative leaders would not have been ready to switch their allegiances. In fact, the official Hungarian stance at the time was that the allies of the country had arrived. At the same time, Miklós Horthy had in all likelihood agreed to hand over the Jews of Hungary to the Germans in exchange for the promised departure of German troops.
Moreover, Karsai asserted that the intention to implement the Final Solution may not have been the chief motivation behind the German occupation, but it would have to be seen as one of its main causes. After all, Adolf Eichmann was sent personally to supervise the process, and even Ernst Kaltenbrunner was to visit Hungary during the preparation of its implementation. The organization of the deportations, however, was only possible with the active involvement of the Hungarian state - Karsai pointed to the fact that once Horthy had decided to oppose further deportations, the Germans proved unable to organize them on a massive scale.
Krisztián Ungváry, one of the best-known Hungarian historians whose recent monograph analyses the connections between anti-Semitism and social policy in the Horthy era, went even further than Karsai. He not only argued that Hungarian sovereignty was preserved beyond 19 March but also that the comprehensive deportation and extermination of Hungarian Jewry was not even demanded by the Germans at first. Hungary still had room to maneuver in 1944, whereas the limited resources Eichmann disposed of would have made his large-scale undertaking practically impossible. However, the Germans subsequently discovered to their surprise how much the Hungarian administration was willing and able to commit. In Ungváry's interpretation, the development of events shows that Hungarians took initiatives before 1944 that paved the way for the politics of genocide. At the same time, he asserted that the results of joint German-Hungarian decision-making in 1944 were partly due to "improvisation", and the Hungarian authorities actually cheated the Germans by not handing over the most precious part of their Jewish labor force (i.e. men aged between 18 and 45). All in all, Ungváry thus maintained that the persecution of Jews in Hungary took on a radical new dimension after 19 March 1944, but the new policy was more a continuation of previous ones than a true caesura.
Dávid Turbucz, the author of a widely received biography of Miklós Horthy who is currently finishing his doctoral dissertation on the cult of the regent, occupied the middle ground on the question of discontinuity, maintaining that there were clear elements of a sharp break, but also of continuity. He argued that the role Horthy played in 1944 could not be understood without the occupation: in his specific case, the German occupation did result in a changed stance concerning the Jews of Hungary that contradicted his previous decisions and behavior.
According to Turbucz, Horthy "did not support the physical annihilation of Jewry, but did not want to protest either." While refraining from actively pursuing the politics of genocide on a day-to-day basis, he decided to authorize the Sztójay government in the hope of regaining the country's full sovereignty. In other words, Horthy merely "wanted to shift responsibility and calm his conscience" while essentially "legitimizing the occupation and contributing to the effective functioning of the occupation regime." Turbucz thus concluded that, even though Horthy would not, in all likelihood, have authorized the deportations without the occupation, his responsibility for the Hungarian Holocaust was "undebatable".
As opposed to the aforementioned contributors, Áron Máthé, an expert on the history of the Arrow Cross, a former employee of the House of Terror, and a member of the newly founded Committee of National Memory, claimed that Hungary was occupied "by a foreign power with ill intentions" and "Hungarian sovereignty was quietly (jószerivel) abolished." Máthé also maintained that there was a cause and effect relationship between the Nazi occupation and the deportations, without, however, going into detail about how this relationship actually functioned.
His contribution challenged the validity of the "anti-fascist scheme" in particular, which divided countries into "victors" and "losers" and assigned to them the status of victims or perpetrators ("phenomena that cannot be integrated into such a schematic picture can be observed on the peripheries of Europe"), explicitly arguing that "we" do not have to view "our own history" with the eyes of the victors. Máthé also maintained that at that time the politically conscious strata of Hungary were convinced that Nazi Germany played the role of hegemon in the Danube Basin. In a surprising move, he went on to argue that the only way Hungarian attempts at securing a separate peace and, later, at switching sides may have been successful was if Hungarian identity was not "injured" - if Hungarians were not that "frustrated, defeatist and lacking in self-confidence." Ultimately, Máthé asserted that stronger forms of national identity may have been the optimal solution in 1944 and would also be desirable in the present - "guilty conscience" could not serve as "the basis of nation building."
János Pelle, the writer and historian whose work on the anti-Jewish laws and Hungarian public opinion appeared in English translation under the title Sowing the Seeds of Hatred explained that 19 March paralyzed Hungarian society's sense of judgment and made it participate in unprecedented crimes without comprehending their true dimension. In his view, Hungary bears a special responsibility, since the Holocaust was implemented here "late, essentially in the last year of the war and at an incredible speed." Pelle also maintained that the trauma of 1944 has not yet been overcome and "recovery" is still urgently needed.
In his eyes, a statue commemorating the fatal date of 19 March is therefore needed. The only real question is whose tragedy it should commemorate. After all, "how can the fate of a nation, which did not even comprehend what happened to it and where guilty conscience was fostered for decades without confronting the actual facts, be properly reflected in the form of a statue now?" he pondered. In his interpretation, the current 70th anniversary has shown that Mazsihisz, the leading Hungarian-Jewish organization, wants to be the exclusive representative of the victims, while also being a committed ally of the left in Hungarian politics. In his assessment, the representatives of Mazsihisz protested without offering any clear alternative, and their politicized approach can only lead to passionate debates that increasingly resemble "dialogues of the deaf".
Regina Fritz, author of the recently released Nach Krieg und Judenmord: Ungarns Geschichtspolitik seit 1944, discussed how the official Hungarian assessment of crimes committed during the Second World War changed shortly after 1945. Even though promising initiatives were launched at first, the ongoing peace treaty negotiations meant that "moral self-critique" was soon declared untimely. Fritz recalled that the German occupation of 1944 already served as a key argument in attempts to divert attention from Hungarian responsibility at that time: active and passive resistance was emphasized instead, and "Hungarian society" was practically excused. She claimed that parts of this argumentation, originally developed in 1945-1946, were still being widely reproduced.
In his conclusion, Péter Techet described how the Holocaust in Hungary also led to a great loss of culture and contributed to the disappearance of Hungarian culture in many places. He stressed that those Hungarian nationalists who are supposedly acting to protect Hungarian culture in the Carpathian Basin while still being opposed to Jews needed to realize this. Admitting that the country's room for maneuver was restricted from the 1930s onwards, and "few realistic scenarios could be imagined which would have led to no Hungarian Jews being dragged away", Techet reiterated that "Hungary remained an ally of Hitler as a sovereign state" in 1944, and as such it "facilitated the deportations of Jews." Based on examples of countries other than Hungary, particularly Norway and Croatia, which were covered in the course of the debate by Claudia Lenz and Ljiljana Radonic, assuming responsibility had not been quick or easy elsewhere either. Last but not least, he suggested that "healthy" remembering meant finding a balance between appropriate levels of recalling and forgetting the past.
Whereas most contributors rejected the thesis of the loss of Hungarian sovereignty and emphasized Hungarian responsibility for the Holocaust in Hungary, their interpretations of its causes and implementation were markedly different. Both Gerő and Techet highlighted the "active" and "eager" participation of Hungarians, without directly comparing the relative responsibility of Germans and Hungarians for the events of 1944. Karsai emphasized the pro-Nazi commitment of Hungarians in the Second World War, but he also stressed the primacy of German responsibility for the Holocaust in Hungary. Ungváry, on the other hand, highlighted the continuities in Hungarian anti-Jewish policies and the eminent responsibility of Hungarians for what was implemented in 1944. While emphasizing the personal responsibility of Horthy, Turbucz presented 1944 as a caesura in his behavior. Balogh confirmed the responsibility of the Hungarian state too, but denied that of Hungarian society. Fritz, however, maintained that such a distinction and the latter argument in particular were developed to cast the Hungarian role in a more positive light than warranted. In the course of the exchange, only Máthé reiterated parts of the new official interpretation according to which Hungarian sovereignty was practically abolished on 19 March 1944. Tellingly, he failed to address the question of Hungarian responsibility in more concrete terms.
Based on this debate, it seems that, unlike the current nationalistic politics of history, Hungarian scholars with various cultural preferences and political affiliations tend to highlight Hungarian responsibility. In fact, some of them might be more eager to emphasize it in the face of current attempts at externalization. The debate has also revealed that, contrary to the official ambition to establish a "correct" interpretation of 1944, there is an impressive variety of opinions on the causes and implementation of the Holocaust in Hungary. Thus, a substantial consensus on the main issues involved may not be within easy reach. However, in the current moment it may be more essential that a plurality of interpretation continues to flourish.