Hungary struggles with dark heritage of Holocaust

July 3, 2014


Every third victim in Auschwitz was a Hungarian Jew. Close to half a million of my compatriots died here. Within a few weeks of the German occupation of Hungary they were herded into ghettos with systematic cruelty, then deported here to Auschwitz with the collaboration of the Hungarian state’s administrative bodies. This place is Hungary’s largest cemetery.

– President Janos Ader, 28 April 2014

(Holocaust victims and their descendents) still want to tell us who we can grieve for and who we cannot, and who we can shed a tear for and who we cannot. They demand empathy from us every single day of the year while they are closing their hearts and remain blind and deaf to others’ misery.  

– Mária Schmidt (pictured), international team leader, “House of Fates” Holocaust museum

Just over 70 years ago two decades of state anti-Semitism culminated in the passage of a law requiring Hungarian Jews to visually label themselves and their buildings with yellow stars.  Shortly thereafter 437,000 Hungarian Jews were rounded up and deported to Auschwitz where most perished within days, if not hours, of their arrival.

It was not until 2004 – some 15 years after the fall of Communism – that the Hungarian government officially acknowledged the state’s role in the deportation and murder of roughly two-thirds of Hungary’s pre-war Jewish population during the Second World War.

The current narrative promulgated by Hungary’s nationalist, populist government under Prime Minister Viktor Orban is precisely what many people on the political right want to hear: the German occupation of Hungary of March 19, 1944 was as much of a tragedy for all Hungarians as it was for the racially persecuted.

The controversial monument in Szabadsag square to the victims of the German invasion featuring an eagle (Germany) attacking the Archangel Gabriel (Christian Hungary) physically embodies this narrative (even though in his letter to art historian Katalin Dávid  Orban claims the archangel represents all innocent victims).

This interpretation conveniently ignores government complicity in events taking place before March 19, 1944, including the deportation and massacre of Jews at Kamianets-Podilskyi in August 1941, as well as the murder of Jews and ethnic Serbs in Novi Sad in January 1942 by Hungarian troops.  It also belies the fact that some 100 anti-Jewish laws and regulations were adopted in the run-up to the Hungarian Holocaust.

Mária Schmidt, a leading Hungarian historian who chairs the board responsible for organizing the new “House of Fates” Holocaust museum, embraces the current government’s narrative. In her latest opinion piece in (the online version of pro-government weekly Heti Valasz owned by Fidesz oligarch Zsolt Nyerges), she writes that those who criticize the government’s position are part of a “group of universal know-it-alls to whom national interest does not even matter”.

Schmidt is part of a growing chorus of Hungarian right-wing intellectuals willing to articulate the resentment felt by many Hungarians towards Holocaust survivors and their descendents for allegedly exploiting the tragedy of 1944 for their own political, social and economic benefit, while downplaying, if not neglecting, the suffering experienced by their non-Jewish compatiots.  For government officials to express such sentiments in public was quite inconceivable only ten years ago. It was not his alleged involvement in an act of official corruption but an irreverant comment about Holocaust victims that forced MSZP MP Janos Zuschlag to give up his seat in parliament in 2004.

Today, academic Jew-bashing is perfectly acceptable in Hungary.

On the historical heritage of 1944 Schmidt writes:

It was not unusual for the victims of an aggression to become the perpetrators of a subsequent aggression. The previous decades, however, led to an absolutization of the victim status. We are now at the point where certain groups of victims would like to transform the tragic fate of their ancestors into hereditary privileges as well to extend the “victim status” to those generations that did not suffer from any atrocities at all.

Taken together with her earlier comments about “Marxist cosmopolitans” Schmidt’s rhetoric displays all the standard elements of modern anti-semitism.  Hungarian public figures know better than to acknowledge that when they speak of “universal know-it-alls”, “Marxist cosmopolitans” or “internationalists”, they are actually referring to Jews.  Mária Schmidt is no exception.  When confronted by journalist Egon Ronai, Schmidt claimed she was not talking “exclusively about Hungarian Jews” but of a “phenomenon in a broader sense”.

Amongst the (monument) protesters there are many who would and should have much to say about their families’ past as leaders of the party-state. They think that if they constantly only speak about what happened seventy years ago, they might get away with all this.

Schmidt dismisses criticism of the controversial monument to the victims of the German invasion by ascribing political motivations to its detractors:

Reasons brought up against the monument are attempts to forge a new identity for the ‘democratic side’ that is losing ground, and is likely to spend a long time in opposition. Keeping elements of long-standing themes like ‘anti-Christianity’ and ‘anti-Hungarianism’ , Hungarian left-liberals of Marxist-internationalist ideological heritage became the most persistent fossilized enclave of a deteriorating European political camp arguing for ‘moving beyond the nation-state paradigm’.

Schmidt says the monument will remind people of the fact that the German occupation of Hungary was as much of a tragedy for all Hungarians as it was for the racially persecuted.

This will be a monument for reconciliation and atonement. There are many people, like my grandmother, who lost their lives during the Second World War in a bombing or a siege, and we do not even know the location of their unmarked graves. There are also Hungarian politicians, public figures, who were killed, deported and tortured by the Nazis because of their political views, not because of what they were but because of what they did and thought.  Is their martyrdom less valuable, or not even worth mentioning?

They still want to tell us who we can grieve for and who we cannot, and who we can shed a tear for and who we cannot. They demand empathy from us every single day of the year while they are closing their hearts and remain blind and deaf to others’ misery.  

(Editor: In light of Schmidt’s comments, it is difficult to understand why she was entrusted with leading an international team responsible for designing a Holocaust museum and not a museum to all Hungarians killed, wounded or persecuted during the Second World War. Perhaps that is what she has in mind.)

Referenced in this article:

Schmidt Maria,, 1 July 2014