László Bernát Veszprémy
László Bernát Veszprémy

Questions of Bureaucracy and Genocide in 1944 Hungary

Hungarian historian László Karsai has published a strange piece in the weekly Magyar Narancs. According to the introduction of his piece, his main goal was to attack me and my recent Holocaust book titled “Gyilkos irodák – A magyar közigazgatás, a német megszállás és a holokauszt” (Bureaus of Annihilation: Hungarian Bureaucracy, the German Occupation and the Holocaust).

His main arguments essentially repeat some of the most prevalent far-rights myths about World War II Hungarian history. His article mainly cites “mistakes” from my book in which, according to him, I am too harsh with the Hungarian state for its role during the 1944 deportations and the Arrow Cross massacres against Jews during 1944-’45. While Karsai has previously been known as a progressive historian, his action does not entirely come as a surprise, seeing how previously he has caused an uproar among Hungarian Jews when he gave the anti-Semitic policies of the Arrow Cross government a positive label.

In my reply I will not reflect upon his ad hominem attacks, although I do have to note that an accomplished historian such as himself should have no reason to attack me personally. While Karsai’s article could be a sign of recognition, based on his article one does have to wonder: just to what extent does Karsai know the basic archival sources of the Hungarian Holocaust? He claims that my footnotes, which at one point refer to “Copies from Yad Vashem” are “laughable”. But these words are not creations of my imagination: they are, in fact, the name of a collection found at the Hungarian Jewish Archives of Budapest which I refer to earlier. If something is truly laughable then it is Karsai’s grand uncovering of my “mistake” — which only proves that he has little knowledge of the relevant records.

After such, somewhat entertaining mistakes, let me turn my attention to conceptual issues. Karsai says that Hungary has “obviously” lost its sovereignty when the Nazi Germans invaded the country on 19th March 1944. In this sense Karsai’s point of view is closer to that of the current right-wing Hungarian government’s official historical institute VERITAS than mine. He does add that “the Hungarian political elite” still bears some responsibility in the Holocaust, but while the political elite is also a topic worthy of research, my book is about state bureaucracy — that is the role and behavior of county leaders, deputy county leaders, policemen, gendarmes and such. I quote left-wing historian Mária Ormos in saying that Hungary’s sovereignty was certainly limited after 19th March 1944, but based on the sources I have seen I have to reject Karsai’s claim that Hungary has “certainly” lost all of its sovereignty after the German occupation.

I believe that the situation was more complicated than that. As I explain in my book, we have to understand sovereignty on multiple levels: politics, economy, war efforts and the “Jewish question”. The dilemma is: to what extent could Hungary act independently in these issues? In discussing the Holocaust, the question of whether Hungary was a sovereign state or not can only be interpreted in the context of latitude. This Karsai does not do in his piece and simply discards my efforts at doing so. But 75 years after the Hungarian Holocaust we have to be able to move on from simply pandering up to romantic nationalist feelings and just saying “obviously” instead of proving our points.

It is even stranger when Karsai writes that “bureaucrats and gendarmes” “placed themselves in personal danger” if they tried to help Jews in 1944. Later he writes that many bureaucrats were executed during the Arrow Cross dictatorship for saving Jews. He says that I am wrong in saying that no bureaucrats were executed in Hungary for sabotaging the deportation of Jews.

We have to treat the period of Spring-Summer 1944 and the Arrow Cross dictatorship (starting October 1944) differently, as the official threats and methods of punishment also changed. But it is important to note: not a single case of a bureaucrat being executed for sabotaging deportations or saving Jews is known during the Spring-Summer 1944 period. But even if such an exception was known, it would only strengthen the rule. As for the Arrow Cross period: perhaps Karsai wanted to cite the examples of rescuers Sára Salkaházi, a Catholic nun and Ottó Komoly, Zionist leader. But they were not members of the Hungarian state bureaucracy. Why would he confuse his readers with citing examples from non-bureaucrats in an article dealing with bureaucracy and the Holocaust? An average Hungarian reading his article could easily think that Hungarian gendarmes who wanted to help Jews during the deportations were threatened at gunpoint.

But that was not the case. Although in very rare cases some bureaucrats were indeed threatened with death during the deportations, such threats were never carried out. The worst punishment for Hungarian bureaucrats who helped Jews during the deportations of 1944 that I have uncovered during my research was being placed under police custody. This was not a nice thing to go through, but it threatened nobody’s life. As I explain in my book, “Hungarian state bureaucracy had very large latitude [during the Holocaust] even in a comparative perspective, mainly because no one was deported for helping Jews (like in the Netherlands) or executed for doing so (like in occupied Poland).”

No one can relieve Hungarian bureaucrats of Holocaust guilt by saying that they would have risked their lives with sabotaging the events of the Holocaust.

Karsai is also wrong in his understanding in the role of mayors during the Holocaust. He even writes that Hungarian mayors – like the mayor of the city of Kassa in Northern Hungary, Sándor Pohl, whom I cite as a negative example in my book – had “nothing to do” with the deportation trains. If we say that only those bureaucrats had “something to do” with the Holocaust who actively took part in the deportations then many bureaucrats would escape historical judgement. In reality it was the role of mayors to bring chains and locks for the trains, but they were also the ones responsible for finding chalk to mark the wagons. Also, while mayors’ room for action was limited during the interwar and World War II period, they still had local and personal authority that they could use to help Jews and ease their situation, up to the point of deportations. Some mayors did, in fact, help Jews, which means that others could have used their power to help, and were therefore responsible.

Public health service was also something under the control of mayors of big cities. If deportation trains went through a city and stopped there — as almost all trains did in Kassa, because it was in that city where Germans took over the trains from Hungarian authorities –, then mayors could have had the health of Jews in the wagons checked. We do know of examples when wagons were opened, and water, food or medication were handed it. I cannot understand how Karsai would try to find excuses for the mayor of Kassa, who made no effort to assist these Jews, and did not resign either upon seeing these atrocities. Sándor Pohl’s responsibility in the Holocaust was vast: no other Hungarian mayor stood by and watched as many Jews being deported as he did. Karsai’s position is way too soft on this subject.

Karsai is not only wrong in understanding the role of policemen, gendarmes and mayors, but also wrong in regard to the question of establishing closed or open ghettos, or not establishing ghettos at all. He says – and I also explain in my book – that bureaucrats were not explicitly ordered to create “closed” ghettos in the decree in question. Karsai believes, based on the text of the decree, however, that the collaborationist Hungarian Ministry of Interior and the Germans did not demand closed ghettos to be built. Does Karsai truly believe that the collaborationist Ministry of Interior did not care whether Jews and non-Jews were separated before the deportations or not, or whether Jews could move around freely or not? That would be an extremely naive understanding of the German and Hungarian collaborationist goals that I cannot share. We do know that the Ministry of Interior did place pressure on mayors who did not create closed ghettos, just like the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs monitored whether closed or open ghettos were established in the countryside. This we know from German documents kept at the Political Archives of the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Karsai could check these documents himself if he spoke German – which, unfortunately, he does not. The well-known Holocaust historian Randolph L. Braham shared my understanding of these events in his two-volume work on the Hungarian Shoah.

We historians must look at archival sources when it comes to the role of Hungarian bureaucracy during the Holocaust, and must draw objective, balanced conclusions. My book was written in this spirit and my conclusion is – as I explain at the end of my book – that while Hungary was occupied by Nazi Germany, its “latitude in the so-called Jewish Question was very great”, and therefore “Hungarian state bureaucrats who assisted in the Holocaust were co-perpetrators of a genocide”.

Karsai did, however, find two mistakes that I have made in book, one regarding the date of the naming of Béla Jurcsek as Minister for Agriculture and one regarding the concentration of Transcarpathia Jews in certain cities. These I will correct in the later editions of my work and I thank Karsai for pointing these mistakes out.

I also do understand that Karsai wrote his article out of anger and that he accuses my book of blaming the Hungarian state bureaucracy too much because he simply wants to attack me. Unfortunately in doing so he has strengthened historical legends spread by the Hungarian far-right. In the future I suggest that Karsai stay away from the whitewashing efforts of nationalists and employ reasonable arguments based on archival sources instead.

About the Author
The author is a Hungarian historian holding an MA in Holocaust and Genocide Studies from the University of Amsterdam, currently doing a PhD in the history of Zionism at the ELTE University of Budapest. He is the former deputy editor-in-chief of Neokohn.hu, a Hungarian-Jewish news portal, and a founding member of MIMC, the Hungarian-Israeli Media Center Organisation. He is currently serving as the editor-in-chief of Corvinák, the popular science journal of Mathias Corvinus Collegium.
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