Was July 1944 truly a turning point of the Holocaust in Hungary?

Hungarian conservatives have long bemoaned the fact that historical works written from the progressive perspective are readily available in English while conservative books usually do not appear in foreign languages. Editor of July 1944 Géza Jeszenszky, retired professor of history, ex-Minister of Foreign Affairs and diplomat took upon himself to present a narrative of the troublous events of 1944 that perhaps lies closer to the views of conservative readers. As a Holocaust scholar I always try to stick to the facts found in primary sources – even if ideologically motivated historians, both left and right wing, tend to quote documents selectively and shape events according to their narrative. It is through these lens that I present my thoughts about this recent book.

In his introduction to the volume, Jeszenszky notes that his goal was not to whitewash the role of the contemporary Hungarian government or that of Hungarian bureaucracy. Yet he wishes to stay clear of views that would portray occupied Hungary as a sovereign state. In the book we can find a foreword by Charles Fenyvesi; a speech by late member of the US House of Representatives Tom Lantos; translated studies by György Ránki, Deborah Cornelius, István Deák, Tamás Stark, Attila Bonhardt, Susanne Berger and Vadim Birstein; an expanded essay by editor Géza Jeszenszky; a reflection by Ferenc Koszorús Jr. on his father, Colonel Ferenc Koszorús and his role in what he sees as the saving of Budapest Jewry: and lastly a selection of documents about the Hungarian Shoah. The essays, studies, memoires and documents compiled in July 1944 reflect the effort to present a Hungarian point of views of the Second World War, the German occupation and the Holocaust that panders to no extremist interpretations. The main argument of the volume seems to be that after a period of inactivity (from March 1944 to early July of the same year) patriotic Hungarian leaders and soldiers decided to stop deportations and save Hungarian Jews.

The essays and studies presented in this volume are essential for any reader who does not speak Hungarian yet wishes to understand this troubled period in Hungarian history. It is certainly understandable and even important to present these essays in the English and to publish a collection of relevant Nazi documents about the German occupation. Yet essays that could present a counternarrative to the one based on which these works were selected should have been included. Again, few Holocaust scholars sought that produce writings that considered Hungary’s situation as an occupied state. Most Holocaust books, in fact, make little mention of any Hungarian resistance or the question of just how much room for maneuver did the Hungarian state or its bureaucrats have during the German occupation.

However, an interpretation of Horthy as a person who – after a period of negligence that remains without explanation in the book – suddenly changed his mind and tried to shelter Hungarian Jews after 7th July 1944 ignores several crucial documents. In late April 1944, Horthy explicitly sanctioned the deportation of 50.000 Hungarian Jews. According to documents published in the sixties by Elek Karsai and Ilona Benoschofksy, Horthy was ready to reallow deportations even after the halting of transports on July 7th – the very date around which this volume builds its arguments. Historian Attila Bonhardt, who authored the study that would be essential to prove the book’s point – namely that Colonel Ferenc Koszorús entered Budapest in July 1944 with his armored corps with the intention to save Hungarian Jews – offers no proof to this thesis.

July 1944 does not seem to wish to present new arguments, merely repeats old ones. Again, this is not necessarily the fault of the volume: mainstream Hungarian historians take great pains not to ever set foot in archives, and left-wing scholars who overemphasize “Hungarian guilt” (meaning the people as such, not collaborators or perpetrators) similarly fail to insert new elements into the historical discourse. But perhaps a more thorough research, previously unseen historical documents or new perspectives could have resulted in a stronger case for the conservative interpretation. The absence of such documents does not, of course, strengthen the attacks of historian László Karsai against this volume. Karsai, who published Communist pieces lauding Lenin before the ’89 change of system and who has recently been accused of tampering with crucial Holocaust documents in his works[1] called July 1944 a whitewashing piece, which it is not.

At best, Hungarian conservatives can claim that Koszorús’s actions coincidentally halted the deportations. But the story of the Hungarian Holocaust does not end in July 1944, therefore the selection of this month as a crucial point in the history of the Hungarian Holocaust seems somewhat self-serving. This is no to say that the book edited by Jeszenszky does not have its merits, nor should its sources and conclusions be ignored. But historians and ordinary readers interested in Hungarian or Holocaust history need to read works that come to different conclusion just as much as this book. July 1944 is a recommended read for persons seeking to learn more about the Hungarian Holocaust, but its results need to be compared to those of others.

[1] On Karsai see: https://pestisracok.hu/a-kommunista-propagandatol-a-dokumentumhamisitasig-egy-balliberalis-sztartortenesz-portreja/

About the Author
The author is a Hungarian historian holding an MA in Holocaust and Genocide Studies from the University of Amsterdam. He is a researcher at the Hungarian Jewish Historical Institute of the Milton Friedman University in Budapest and the deputy editor-in-chief of Neokohn.hu, a Hungarian-Jewish news portal.
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