Sunday, February 27, 2005

PC and antisemitism in Post WW2 Hungary

Antisemitism in Post World War II Hungary - violence, riots; Communist Party policy
Judaism, Spring, 2001 by Peter Kenez

WE TEND TO ASSUME THAT THE REVELATION OF THE horrors of the Holocaust, which immediately after the war had made the dreadful consequences of prejudice clear for everyone to see, diminished antisemitism in European and American societies. However this was not the case at all. On the contrary, at least in Eastern Europe, the opposite occurred. To be sure, the situation of the Jews and the nature and strength of antisemitism varied from country to country and everywhere there were special circumstances. In the Soviet Union during the years between the end of the world war and the death of Stalin antisemitism was almost explicit, and it was a government inspired policy: Jews were singled out for special persecution. This was the time of the "anti-cosmopolitan campaign" ("cosmopolitan" being a transparent allusion to Jew) and the time of the infamous "doctors' plot" in which almost all the accused-doctors who were alleged to plan to murder their highly placed patients--just happened to have obviously Jewish sounding names. In the Czechoslovak purge trialsJewish Communists were the most likely victims.

The worst anti-Jewish attacks after World War II, however, took place in a country where Jews had suffered the most: Poland. With tragic irony, popular antisemitism was strongestwhere there had been the largest number of victims. Some Poles asked this obscene question from their returning fellowJewish citizens: how come you have survived? The mention of Kielce, the town where the largest post-war pogrom took place, terrified many Eastern European Jews at the time. It is estimated that 2000 Jews were killed in post-war Poland between 1945 and 1947. [1]

In Hungary the antisemitic outbursts were not as bloody as in Poland, but here also, there were tragic incidents. The character of post-war Hungarian antisemitism differed from previous versions. In the inter-war period it had been the government that had been primarily responsible: immediately after World War I, it passed anti-Jewish laws, most significantly a numerus clausus limiting the number of Jews in institutions of higher education. (After a few years the government quiety allowed this law to lapse.) However, beginning in 1938, under the impact of Hitler's Germany, the government once again passed a series of ever more stringent laws restricting Jewish economic activity. This government also tolerated, indeed, inspired, antisemitic propaganda. There is no way to measure the strength of popular antisemitism, but there is little doubt that simple people, especially the lower classes in the cities, were antisemitic, and accepted the demagogic accusations against Jews on face value. The vast majority of them certainly showed little sympathy to Jews at the time of their greatest tragedy. On the other hand, in the inter-war period there had been no spontaneous outbursts of violence against Jews.

The situation changed after 1945. Immediately after the defeat of the Nazis, of course, the new Provisional government abrogated all anti-Jewish legislation. At the same time archival records show agreat increase of antisemitic sentiments among the common folk, especially among the peasantry. In 1946 there were a series of small scale pogroms, something that had not happened in the inter-war period. How are we to explain this phenomenon?

Several factors contributed to this unfortunate development. First of all, one should not underestimate the power of Nazi propaganda that obviously outlived Hitler. Indeed, it would have been surprising if all those Nazi stereotypes aboutJews in which people came to believe, would have disappeared overnight.

Perhaps a more powerful explanation is a psychological one. By and large people in Eastern Europe and in Hungary in particular, to put it mildly, did not acquit themselves well during the years of Nazi rule. Too many became accomplices, but even those who did not, could not have had a clear conscience, knowing that they had done nothing to save their innocent fellow citizens. Under the circumstances it was comforting to believe thatJews had deserved their fate: were they not after all an alien, subversive, and exploitative people? It is a wellknown psychological phenomenon that the worse we behave toward an individual, the more we dislike him. It lessens our sense of guilt if we can believe that the person we mistreated was in fact a wicked human being. Undoubtedly, the same mechanism also works on the level of social groups.

Furthermore, non-Jewish Hungarians also suffered during the war. The Second Hungarian Army fighting on the Don in January 1943 was for all practical purposes eliminated. Tens of thousands of soldiers died and an even larger number fell into Soviet captivity. In 1944 Hungarian territory was bitterly fought over, causing enormous destruction, and Budapest became one of the most heavily damaged European cities. Under the circumstances, the Hungarians liked to regard themselves as victims, and were notimpressed by the obvious fact that their Jewish countrymen suffered incomparably more. They were unwilling to acceptresponsibility for the destruction of the HungarianJewry, and liked to believe, incorrectly, that the entire guilt fell on the Germans. The very notion that they also might be responsible added to their historic hostility.

Another explanation for the wave of antisemitic outbursts might be that while pre-war Jewry had played extraordinarily significant roles in the economy and cultural life of the nation, it had been completely excluded from political power. Now, not only in the powerful Communist and Socialist parties were there Jews in leadership positions, but also in the political police. Peasants in particular found it hard to accept Jews in positions of authority, and were willing to listen to demagogic voices deploring Jewish power. In antisemitic discourse evident in archival documents it was a reccurring theme that now Jews control everything and they are determined to take revenge. In the mind of the Hungarians, justifiably or not, Jews and Communists came to be identified. As we shall see, the Communist Party did everything within its power to counteract this identification, but it ultimately failed. This identification had considerable significance in post-war Hungarian political developments, and it did great damage both to Communists and to Jews.

The Social Profile of Hungarian Jewry

Hungarian Jewry, and especially the Jews of Budapest, were like no other Jewry anywhere in the world: it was a Western type of Jewry, living in an Eastern European economic and political environment. (I follow the distinction between Eastern and Western types sketched by Ezra Mendelsohn in The Jews of East Central Europe Between the World Wars.) [2] In effect Hungarian Jews were highly assimilated, with a large number of converts, low birth rate, substantial Christian-Jewish intermarriage, with the Jews oriented to Hungarian culture and language rather than Jewish culture and Yiddish. Hungarian Jewry was every bit as well assimilated as German Jewry, and it regarded itself as "Hungarian" just as enthusiastically as the Germans regarded themselves as "German." The difference was that Hungary was an Eastern European country: before 1945 it was governed by the last genuine European feudal ruling class. The country was largely agricultural and the landed gentry owned most of the land. As a consequence of the particular Hungarian social structure, in the late nineteenth century a tacit compromise was reached between the aristocracy and theJewry: middle class occupations, trade and industry, and the liberal professions were conceded to Jews. The aristocracy had no interest in such affairs, but at the same time was keen to advance economic modernization.

After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, gradually a new Hungarian middle class developed which competed for jobs with Jews, and with it suddenly a modern type of antisemitism appeared. A justification for this new-found antisemitism was the extraordinarily large role thatJews played in the short lived Hungarian Soviet republic of 1919. Although at this time only a small proportion of the Jews were attracted to Communism, nevertheless the small Communist Party's leadership was largely in Jewish hands: after all, Jews made up a dominant part of the intelligentsia, people who were tradi itionally attracted to radical, socialist politics. Hungary, which had been an excellent place forJews, suddenly became much less than excellent.

itionally attracted to radical, socialist politics. Hungary, which had been an excellent place forJews, suddenly became much less than excellent.

According to contemporary figures, no doubt imprecise, approximately a quarter of the Jewish population voted for the Communists in the 1945 elections. (Nationally the Communists received 17% of the vote.) [5] For the 1947 elections we have no comparable figures, but it is estimated that the Communists received an even larger share of the Jewish vote than in 1945. The Party not only did nothing to gain the allegiance of theJews, but on the contrary, it took steps to emphasize that it was not beholden toJews.Jewish voting behavior becomes comprehensible only when we remember that in 1946 there was a wave of antisemitic outbursts. The Party did nothing to prevent these; indeed, its anti "bourgeois" rhetoric contributed to the antisemitic atmosphere, yet from the point of view of the Jews the Communist Party remained their only protection. The unusual aspect of the Hungarian situation was that the government was largely in Jewish hands.Jews played prominent roles in the other Eastern European countries also, but nowhere was their domination as complete as in Hungary. All four of the most prominent and powerful leaders of the Communist Party were Jewish-Matyas Rakosi, Erno Gero, Mihaly Farkas, and Jozsef Revai. It is true that these Communists were not in full control of the government until 1948, but from the very outset, they had behind them the power of the Red Army. Unquestionably, the Communist Party was the decisive force in Hungarian politics. HowJewish Communists made possible, and in some ways even encouraged native antisemitism, is an interesting psychological and political phenomenon, which deserves further exploration. The communist leaders, of course, did not think of themselves asJewish. They naively believed that by becoming communists, they ceased to be Jewish. They all survived the Nazi era, not in German occupied Hungary, but in the Soviet Union. Perhaps if they had experienced the Holocaust in close contact, their sense of community with their fellow Jews who had just experienced an extraordinary tragedy would have grown stronger, and they would have understood that no one is entirely free to choose his or her identity.

Nowhere else do we find such a clear example of antisemitic policies carried out by Jews than in post-war Hungary. The behavior of the top Communist leaders was entirely cynical. Of course a Rakosi or a Gero was not an antisemite in the narrow sense of the word. They nevertheless carried out policies that harmed their fellow Jews and on several occasions led to pogroms. They well understood that the association of the Party withJews was harmful to the communist cause. It was not only harmful within Hungary, but also was a serious handicap in their relationship with an increasingly antisemitic Stalin. It is true that he tolerated Jews in the top leadership positions in Hungary, but thatwas perhaps, because these were the people who had lived through the war years in Moscow and therefore Stalin knew them or knew of them and consequently believed that they could be trusted to carry out obediently policies that were favorable to Soviet interests.

The Hungarian Communist Party and the Jews

The Communist Party leaders did everything within their power to deny their Jewish background. They went to ridiculous lengths to cover up this background. Rakosi, for example, went so far as to imitate a peasant accent and peppered his speeches with what seemed to him as village expressions. [6] Needless to say, such attempts were in vain. Indeed, in the eyes of the Hungarians, the Party was doubly alien:Jews led it and it was the agent of a foreign power, namely the Soviet Union. The party did everything to counteract this identification withJews. It sent out instructions that "In house to house agitation a person with a Jewish face orJewish behavior should not participate under any circumstances." One wonders what they had in mind as constituting "Jewish behavior." The circular went on to explain: "That is the explanation of the lack of success of Madisz and MNDSZ." [7] (Madisz was a youth organization and MNDSZ was a mass organization for women.)

Most reprehensibly, the top leaders openly courted low ranking members of the Hungarian Nazi Party (Nyilaskeresztes Part). The party needed new members in order to penetrate into Hungarian society, and also to be able to assume a nationalist mantle. Rakosi explicitly stated that in his opinion it is easier to make good communists out of the little Nazis (kis nyilasok) than out of Jewish intellectuals. [8] Rakosi, Gero, Revai, and indeed most members of the top leadership came from precisely those social circles in which the top leader of the party expressed no confidence. One may explain this attitude either as a result of remarkable self-knowledge, or, perhaps more likely, self-loathing.

Many of the new members of the party were indeed ill educated and came from lower class, peasant and worker background. They had many reasons to join. First of all, by becoming communists, they could cover up their unsavory past. Indeed, the Party in its recruitingwork made it explicit: join and your missteps would be forgiven. These ex-Nazis, of course, brought with them their deeply ingrained antisemitism. Low ranking Communist activists often made crude antisemitic statements. The antisemitism of these new communists was of a different order than the cynicism of the top leaders who were simply willing to take advantage of the antisemitism of others.

Given ever increasing communist dominance in politics, it was easy to see that membership in the victorious party would lead to material benefits. But in any case, moving from one radical organization into another was intellectually and psychologically not very difficult. In Hungary in the inter-war period it was the extreme right (in the absence of the discredited and outlawed Communist Party) that stood for much needed social reforms. During the war often it was a matter of chance whether a young radicaljoined one party or the other. There were several instances where brothers ended up on opposite sides of the political fence, while sharing radical social commitments. [9]

TheJewish communist leaders were capable of using antisemitic code words and antisemitic slogans in order to free themselves from their unwelcome background, but in vain. It was historical justice that Rakosi was dismissed from his post as Premier by the post-Stalin leadership in 1953 at least largely if not entirely because he wasJewish. The one thing which recommended Imre Nagy to the Russians was that he was the only prominent person in the leadership who was not born a Jew.

The source of Communist behavior is easily comprehensible. Given the antisemitism of a substantial part of the Hungarian people, open identification withJewish issues and interests would be damaging to the Communist cause. Able propagandists as they were, they clearly understood that it was in their interests to identify themselves as much as was possible under the circumstances with Hungarian nationalism. Communists made transparent efforts to cover themselves with the Hungarian flag. They claimed as their ancestors outstanding figures of Hungarian history and made every attempt to identify the party with nationalist symbols. In this respect, as in so many others, they learned from their Soviet comrades.

Of course, people, whose primary interest was to advance the Communist cause, had every reason to counteract the impression that the party was beholden to Jewish interests. The archives of the Communist Party from these years are full of news about antisemitic sentiments and outbursts. Reports came flooding in which demonstrated this prejudice. When the government decided to nationalize church-run schools in 1948, for example, women demonstrated against nationalization saying that the government was going to hire Jewish teachers. [10] In 1947 a silly rumor spread in the countryside that since the war in Palestine was not going well for the Jews, the government was going to import thousands from there to Hungary. (This was at a time when thousands of Hungarian Jews were in fact, going from Hungary to Palestine.) The peasants professed to believe that Jews did not have to pay taxes.

Antisemitism had a particularly long tradition in Szabolcs County, the district where in the nineteenth century the last Hungarian blood libel trial took place. A communist functionary reported from this county that in the village of Kisvarad a worker when he was interrogated said that "everyone knows that it is the Jews who are in power here." He also wrote: "In the village of Nyirbator, when someone is arrested by the police, people simply say: 'theJews took him.'" [11]

Antisemitism was also strong among workers. A functionary reported in 1947: "There is a strong antisemitic wave in the factories. There were no Jews among the workers before deportations and there is none there now. Among Communist leaders there are many Jews who defend the special privileges of Jews." And the widespread: "Minority rules and majority starves." In a trade union meeting of the bookbinding trade a communist speaker by the name of JozsefSarkozi said: "OnlyJews benefited. We have achieved nothing." Ferenc Katona, a trade union official went further: "In the past also Jewish capitalists ruled over us, and they still do. This cannot continue." [12]

Beyond the usual sources of antisemitism there were several new and specific ones in the post war period that the Party had to deal with. One of these was the issue of property taken from Jews in the previous years and the understandable desire of the Jews to reclaim what had been theirs. For many Christians it was an insult that someone wanted to take away what they had come to regard as their own. A sad joke thatJews were telling to another at the time was revealing: a Jew was talking to a Christian friend: "How are you? Asked the friend. The Jew replied: Don't even ask. I have returned from the camp, and I have nothing now, except the clothes you are wearing." [13] It was explicit Communist policy not to support Jewish efforts to take back what was legally theirs. In case of Jewish apartments and houses that Christians took over, the police were instructed not to allow the removal of the Christian tenants.

The post-war economic situation was catastrophic: cities were in ruins, Soviet demands for reparations were exorbitant, and the soldiers of the Red Army had carried away much that was moveable. In 1946 the country suffered an inflation that was greater than the great German inflation of 1923. Money became worthless. Almost everything was in short supply. Under the circumstances black markets flourished. The Communists, given their hostility to free markets, naturally blamed problems on speculators. On this volatile issue their demagogy, based on their visceral dislike of private enterprise, easily slipped into antisemitism, at times with tragic consequences.

For the series of pogroms that took place in 1946 the responsibility of the Communist Party was undeniable. The Party for demagogic reasons decided to use the dreadful economic situation and misery, which followed to "sharpen the class struggle." In reality that meant that it made small traders scapegoats for genuine problems.

In this struggle the communists explicitly approved, indeed, advocated mass movements, spontaneous demonstrations, and even lynchings. The Party had organized a struggle against "speculators" by promising to hang black marketeers. The leaders knew or certainly should have known that many of these traders were Jewish, and even if they were not, in the eyes of the common folk they were. It published posters in which the "enemy," be he capitalist or speculator, often had Semitic features. The Communists did not create antisemitism, but consciously or unconsciously they contributed to it. In effect the party attempted to turn the powerful antisemitic currents which had been present, to its own advantage in its struggle for power, and in the process sacrificed the interests and in a handful of cases the lives ofJewish citizens.

The disturbances in Ozd, a mining town, in February 1946, showed the complexity of the situation and the dilemmas faced by the Communist leadership. A communist leader, a well-known antisemite, was murdered under mysterious circumstances. The following day a large crown of miners and workers came to demonstrate. The Communist party elcomed the demonstration for it at first regarded it as a move against "reactionaries" and "fascists." However the mood quickly turned into something different: the masses demonstrated against communists and Jews and lootedJewish owned stores and apartments. When the police arrested some of the looters, the masses were increasingly incensed and maintained that there could be no solution to the social and political problems until theJews were gotten rid of. Revai, the man responsible for ideology, reported to the Central Committee: "The demonstration, which was undoubtedly justified and correct as a move against a fascist assassination, soon turned into looting, provoked by fascists." [14]

Although there were anti-Jewish demonstrations, and attacks on individual Jews at least in a dozen places in 1946, the bloodiest and worst manifestation took place in Kunmadaras in May and in Miskolc in July. [15] The Kunmadaras affair even included the ancient anti-Jewish calumny of blood libel, which, especially among the ignorant peasantry was still widespread all around the country. The rumor spread in Kunmadaras, that Jews made sausage out of Christian children, and it was said that in the nearby town of Karcag several christian children had mysteriously disappeared. The pogrom, however, against the tiny local Jewry (out of a 250-person Jewish population before the war only 73 survived) began only when the police arrested and attempted to transfer to Karcag, a popular person, who had collaborated with the Nazis. The crowd prevented taking the man to court, and the aroused people beat up the local Socialist party secretary. The socialist functionary later reported: "When the crowd kicked out my teeth I suddenly realized that I was beaten not because I was a socialist, but because I was a Jew." Next day the crowd attacked localJews, killing two and wounding 15. Here, just as in Ozd, violence against Jews quickly turned into looting. Although in this instance the Communist Party could not be held directly responsible for the events, the Communists attempted to make political capital out of the pogrom, by unjustly blaming their political enemies, members of the Smallholder Party for it.

The situation was different in Miskolc. Here the Communist Party was directly responsible. Miskolc was an industrial town, where the working class was in particularly dire straits. The communists crudely used this disaffection for their own political purposes. They attempted to mobilize the people and make speculators and black marketeers scapegoats for genuine problems. In the summer of 1946, misery was the greatest and inflation reached unheard of proportions. Plans called for the introduction of a new and stable currency, the forint, and, it must be admitted, that in the work of financial stabilization the Communist party played a major role. InJune and July prominent communist leaders came to Miskolc and harangued the workers. Gero said: " why have you not hanged a single black marketeer?" Rakosi himself came to Miskolc and in his speech demanded death to those who speculated, and were therefore the enemies of the new, stable currency. The complexity of the situation, and the inherent dangers for the Communist Party for its policies is shown by the fact that before Rakosi's arrival in the town anti-Jewish graffiti appeared in the wall calling Rakosi a rotten Jew. Instead of attempting to calm the crowds, the communists' policy was to demonstrate that it was not a "Jewish party." The local communist organization was aware of the antisemitic mood of the workers, and instead of attempting to combat this antisemitism, it decided to remove party functionaries who came from the Jewish bourgeoisie.

Violence broke out on July 30, on a day when the workers took to the streets to demonstrate against economic hardships. News spread that three "speculators" had been arrested and that they were being moved to an internment camp outside of the city. It seems likely that the demonstrators had been notified ahead of time where and when the prisoners would be marched. The crowds attacked the unfortunate men and killed one, wounded another and let the third one escape. It could not have been an accident that of the three he alone was not Jewish. The police stood by without attempting to stop the lynching. After the tragic events the police did arrest some of the participants in the lynching. However, on August 1st the crowds attacked the police station where the men were kept and there lynched the Jewish-Communist police lieutenant.

Later it transpired that the "speculators" had been victims of a provocation.The communist head of the county, Istvan Oszip, persuaded three mill owners to sell flour several times above the fixed price. He did this in order to show the crowds that the authorities were fighting against the black market. [16] Clearly, he did not foresee the consequences. It is remarkable that Rakosi, writing his memoirs in Soviet exile in the late 1960s or early 1970s would say only this about the Miskolc pogrom: "In the days preceding August 1st [the date of the introduction of the new currency] at two places there were serious disturbances. In Diosgyor the Political Police arrested a few troublemakers, and consequently the enemy managed to persuade some of the workers to march to Miskolc, and in the confusion two workers of the Political Police were killed. It was possible to reestablish order quickly." [17] That is all that Rakosi from the distance of several decades found necessary to say about this sorry event.

After 1946, the wave of pogroms and attacks on Jewish life and property subsided. The political and economic situation stabilized, and the regime, increasingly under Communist domination, was able to maintain order. While the party was struggling for power, mass movements, and demonstrations served its purpose. Once the Communists were in power, disorder not only did not serve their interests, but on the contrary, it became dangerous. The lack of spontaneous violence against Jews, of course, did not mean that antisemitism disappeared. At the time of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, once again there were some antisemitic incidents, though, in view of the shortness of the revolution it is difficult to say how important and wide-spread they were.

The Communist Party in the immediate post-war period pursued a contradictory and confused policy. This confusion followed from the facts that the leadership of the Party was largely in Jewish hands, and that, especially in these years, popular antisemitism was strong. As far as the communist leadership was concerned, the interests of the communist cause were far more important than the defense of a persecuted minority. The leaders believed that by not defending Jews, and by demagogic agitation aimed against speculators (even though itwas clear that this had an antisemitic edge and encouraged antiJewish violence), they could distance the party from Jews and make people forget that they themselves were Jewish. Such policy was bound to be unsuccessful; without making people less anti-Communist, it only led to more misery for theJews.

PETER KENEZ is a Professor of History at the University of California at Santa Cruz. His most recent publications include Cinema and Soviet Society, 1917-1953 (1992) andVarieties of Fear: Growing Up Under Communism and Nazism (1994). His last book was A History of the Soviet Union from the Beginning to the End (1999). His review ofNazi Germany and the Jews, by Saul Friedlander and of The Holocaust in Historical Context, by Steven T. Katz appeared in the Winter 1998 issue.


(1.) Antony Polonsky, ed. Polin. Studies in Polish Jewish Jewry, vol. 13 (London: Littman), 2000, p. 39.

(2.) Ezra Mendelsohn, The Jews of East Central Europe Between the World Wars (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1983).

(3.) Szabo Ferenc, Egymillioval Kevesebben-: Embervesztesegek, Nepesedesi Tendenciak esNepesedespolitika Magyarorszagon (1941-1960) (Pecs: Pannonia, 1998), pp. 44-62.

(4.) Political History Archives, Budapest, Hungary fond 274, unit 16 file 1. Workers' battalions were a particular Hungarian institution. Jewish men could not serve in the army. They were drafted into these units to perform particularly dangerous and unpleasant tasks. Of course, they were not given weapons.

(5.) Robert Gyori Szabo, A Kommunista part es a zsidosag Magyarorszagon: (1945-1956) (Budapest: Windsor, 1997), pp. 86-87.

(6.) Arpad Punkosti. Rakosi a hatalomert: 1945-1948 (Budapest: Eur6pa Konyvkiado, 1992).

(7.) PHA, 274/21/5,

(8.) PHA 798/ 2/ vol. 2. Losonczy 's letter to Revai. 1949 July 14. Published by Eva Standeisky in Budapesti Negyed. 1995 vol. 2.

(9.) For example the brother of Laszlo Rajk, the Minister of Interior and later the most prominent victim of a purge trial joined the Nazis. Andras Hegedus, Prime Minister in 1955-56 at the time of the world war considered joining the Hungarian Nazis. Andras Hegedus, A Tortenelem es a Hatalom Igezeteben: Eletrajzi Elemzesek (Budapest: Kossuth, 1988), pp. 45-58.

(10.) PHA 274/21/7. Report from Nograd county.

(11.) PHA 274/ 16/1.

(12.) PHA 277/ 16/246.

(13.) Gyori Szabo, p. 126.

(14.) Gyori Szabo, p. 149.

(15.) The most detailed description of the pogroms of 1946 is in Pelle Janos, Az Utolso Vervadak (Budapest: Pelikan, 1995), pp. 149-246.

(16.) Gyori Szabo, p. 162.

(17.) Rakosi Matyas, Visszaemlekezesek, 1940-1956, vol. 1 (Budapest: Napvilag), 1997, p. 298.

COPYRIGHT 2001 American Jewish Congress
COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group


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