There are so many angles to this answer – and by now, also so many personal experiences; predominantly negative. “Oh, Hungary? You guys are anti-Semites.”
I speak so much about this: why should I in 2020 be held accountable for what my ancestors did? And I am steadfast: Neither I nor my generation is responsible for the Hungarian involvement of the Holocaust, and we should not be generalized based on history. Our only responsibility today is to make sure it can never happen again. Therefore, I and my generation are only responsible for the future.
It took me a couple of years to get rid of that unconscious guilt I felt each time I entered a Jewish circle, and their first reaction was something along the lines: “Yes, my grandmother WAS from Hungary, got deported.”
This being said, I never denied and am never going to deny the role Hungary played in the Shoah. History is heavy on us. We did awful things, and we also suffered horrible things (see: Communism).
There is a relatively new book that got published in Hungary at the end of 2019. The English title would be Bureaus of Annihilation: Hungarian Bureaucracy, the German Occupation and the Holocaust.
The author, László Bernát Veszprémy, is in his mid-20s; a young but already rather accomplished Holocaust researcher. As per halacha, he is not Jewish, as per Hitler; he would be Jewish enough.
Why is his Jewishness important?
Because during my research in my MA program in Jewish Studies, one of the critical points I kept on highlighting in my papers was that the vast majority of Holocaust-related books are written by Jews. It’s not about the question of credibility, but rather, about the interest in this topic.
Veszprémy got a generally good welcome of his book. But he also received some cold and hot criticism. It seems to me that such as our world today with all the mess around us, literally, nothing is satisfying. For years, we are hearing how the Hungarian government is not apologizing for the Shoah [they did by the way]. And yet, when a young author writes about our role in the Jewish genocide, Hungarian historians attack him, saying, we do not need this collective guilt imposed upon us. When we say that yes, we had a role, but we had many civilians trying to save Jewish lives, what many professors (including mine in Manhattan – the only one I had trouble with) say is they only helped for money. When Veszprémy writes solely about the role of the bureaucrats, he is questioned why he is not writing about the population at large and they demand more.
Well, you get the picture. You really cannot satisfy anyone.
The author, who is a conservative thinker, is now criticized by both the left and the right. So, in my reading, he did a pretty good job. His book is objective as nobody can play the partisan card on it.
Another reason why I wanted to inform you about this book – apart from my attempt to share a few critical take-away from it – is an appreciation for the younger generation. In the times when the majority of the American college kids believe that communism is something to strive for, or when the majority of youngsters cannot name one death camp, seeing intellectuals wanting to research, understand and then educate on this topic is in and of itself something to praise.
But let’s turn to the book – that for now is only available in Hungarian, but there are plans to translate it into English in the near future:
Who is responsible for the Holocaust in Hungary?
Veszprémy did not aim at writing about the Hungarian civil population at large. He was focusing on the people in the so-called decision-making seats. There were around 200,000 employees in the Hungarian public administration. That made up around 1% of the entire population. His conclusion is plain and simple: these people were proven to take part in the Holocaust.
He argues that nothing is black and white; the nature of collaboration was many-folded starting from the level of German-friendship, anti-Sovietism, servilism, careerism and, of course, anti-Semitism.
There is a critical false idea about the Hungarian involvement. Many people think that the Hungarians, who took part in this horrendous line of acts, shot the Jews on the spot or that Jewish families were executed in Hungary. The reality is that the Hungarian role was primarily in deporting the Jews to Poland. Hungarian collaborators were paper-pushers, not actual face-to-face killers. I am not saying either one deserves any excuses; just stating this for common knowledge.
Hungarians signed the papers that could send the Jews to the camps. Fact.
Veszprémy also talks about the level of German occupation in Hungary. Many foreign books argue that Hungary was not even occupied. Well, it’s a question of point of view, isn’t it? Yes, Hungary was not as occupied as Poland or Holland. Still, it was definitely getting orders from the Germans, and there were sexual assaults by German soldiers or retentions towards those who wanted to act against the German will. So yes, there was a German occupation.
However, there is an aspect that was not known even to me. After the German occupation, the bureaucrats had a choice: to leave or to stay and collaborate. Of course, some were fired on the spot, some were taken to the camps right away, but the vast majority stayed in position, and as Veszprémy argues, this by itself makes them responsible. Something else is vital here: as per the records – and again we are talking about the bureaucrats – there was no real consequence for quitting a job. Meaning, if you stayed in your position, you actually wanted to collaborate.
Hungarian sovereignty needs to be assessed on multiple levels: politics, economy, war efforts and the “Jewish question”. When people say Hungary was not even occupied, the question is to what extent could Hungary act independently in the above issues?
Veszprémy says 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”.
I am aligned with Veszprémy (and apparently with history) that it is so false to say: Hungarians are anti-Semites or Hungarians collaborated. As he and the facts argue the pretty obvious: there were good people, and there were evil people. Sure if there were evil people with power, in its effect, they outweigh the good people without power. But it does not change the fact: there are individual cases, and nobody should morally guilt trip a nation.
He gave examples of this duality by showing that within the administration, there were extreme anti-Semites who were downright happy about the occupation and cooperation, but many were dissatisfied with the situation. Some just didn’t dare to resist and reported sick, resigned, or asked to be relocated instead, or simply, went on a study trip. So these roles eventually got filled up by the extreme anti-Semites to make sure the task was going to be done. But then again, we are talking about 1% of the general population. Does that make a nation anti-Semitic?
Odd things happened in the post-war era as well. Investigations and judicial punishments differed greatly. In some cases, there was a death penalty or forced labor for collaboration (or even alleged collaboration), and then some got a year in prison for the same act. Makes no sense.
History is messy, and life is unfair.
It was still interesting to me to read the critics of this book from the political left or the far-right in Hungary. Veszprémy’s book very clearly shouting about the responsibility of the Hungarian public administration in the Holocaust. He writes about the good (because there were good bureaucrats who did save Jews), the bad and the ugly. His book – even though it is naturally painful for me to face our history – is simply factual. It was probably not an easy book to write – to be as objective as one can be even when one’s heart is beating for Hungary, his nation and his people.
But this is why this book is so crucial. Oh, and also because there are some rumors that Hungary has censorship, and you cannot say anything critical. Well, Veszprémy’s book, for one, surely counter argues that.
According to Veszprémy, there is still a lot to write and research on the topic. His work was not written for the sake of completeness; he intended his work to be the initiator of a discourse.
I think his book fulfilled his mission and more. If you read Hungarian, get a copy of it, and if you don’t, then wait for the English edition.