Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)
Anti-Semitism has a long history in Hungary, nearly as long as the history of the Jews living in the country. In fact, Hitler was not the first to prescribe armband to mark, isolate and shame the Jews. King Ladislaus IV of Hungary (1272-1290) ordered that each Jewish person should wear a piece of red cloth. In the fourteenth century, Jews were suspected of spreading the plague and expelled en masse from the country. (Incidentally, centuries later, this was a pretext offered by the Nazis for the establishment of Jewish ghettos). King Ladislaus II (1490-1516) accused Jews of ritual murder and burned them at the stake. The Diet of 1686 declared that Jews were not subjects of Hungary because they were not Christian (it categorized them as “unbelievers”). Queen Maria Theresa (1740-1780), perhaps emulating Catherine the Great of Russia (who segregated the Jews into the Pale of Settlement), expelled the Jews from Buda.
It is only in the modern period, under the reign of the Enlightened monarch Joseph II (1780-1790) that Jews attained minority rights. The National Assembly officially emancipated them half a century later, in 1849. This enabled the vast majority of Jews in Hungary to integrate well into the country and even to thrive. This was particularly true of the Jews of Budapest, a city where they constituted almost a quarter of the population. The Nazi influence upon the authoritarian regime of Miklos Horthy, and the rise to power of the Fascist Arrow Cross, undid a century of civil rights progress. The Holocaust of 1944 nearly wiped out the Jewish population of Hungary, killing nearly 600,000 Jews in Hungary and Hungarian territories.
The current Jewish population of Hungary remains very small: about 110,000 Jews live in Hungary, roughly the same number as right after WWII. Most of them live in Budapest and consider themselves to be assimilated Jews. In fact, only a small percentage—10 percent—of Jews identifies themselves as “Jewish” by religion. It seems incredible to me—even though this phenomenon is far from rare—that a country with such a small and well-assimilated Jewish population would experience a dramatic rise in anti-Semitism. Yet this is precisely what has happened in Hungary over the past two decades. Abraham H. Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, states: “In Hungary, Spain and Poland the numbers for anti-Semitic attitudes are literally off-the-charts and demand a serious response from political, civic and religious leaders”. In 2014 the ADL declared Hungary as the most anti-Semitic country in Europe. The future looks bleak, as according to its survey, 50 percent of young Hungarians (people under the age of 35) have anti-Semitic attitudes.
Not surprisingly, contemporary Hungary has experienced a rise in neo-Nazi and other authoritarian anti-Semitic political parties and groups, such as the HunterSS, White Storm and Endlosung as well as the illegal paramilitary group the Hungarian National Front. In May 2014, Apathy Istvan Laszlo, a representative of the right wing nationalist party Jobbik (“The Movement for a Better Hungary”, which aims at the preservation of “Hungarian interests and values”) in the city Erzsebetvaros, even went so far as to publically state on his Facebook profile that the historical accounts of the Holocaust were exaggerated and to charge the Jews—or as he put it “the Jewish background superpower”—as responsible for the Holocaust. Making contradictory and inflammatory statements reminiscent of Hitler and the Nazi leadership, at the same time, Laszlo has denied that the Holocaust ever happened.
The dramatic rise of anti-Semitism in a country with so few Jews—most of whom identify as Hungarian—confirms one of the lessons of the Holocaust: anti-Semitism is an attitude that has little to do with the object of racial hatred and everything to do with authoritarian political parties that predicate their nationalist agenda not on constructive policies in the interest of the country they claim to represent, but upon a mythical sense of national identity formed by the exclusion and denigration of groups marked as “Other.”
Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon