How did we build a victim narrative?

The Hungarian participation in World War II as political discourse

In the spring of 2014, right before the elections, a strange monument “devoted to the German occupation” was erected by the government in the heart of Budapest. The symbolism of the monument itself is very clear: the German eagle attacks Hungary, which is represented by the figure of the Archangel Gabriel.

Photo: PhilipS


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The government soon claimed that this was a memorial to all WW2 victims and said there was no better place for that than opposite the heroic Soviet monument. Thus, Freedom Square, where they now both stand is poised to become a place of remembrance for the victims of both the Nazi and the Communist dictatorships that oppressed the Hungarian nation.

Of course those who ordered the monument were well aware of the fact that Hungary was an ally of Nazi Germany in 1944, before and after the German occupation. It must have been clear to them that the vast majority of the victims in 1944 were victimized by the highly effective cooperation of the Hungarian public administration: more than half of them were killed because of their Jewish origin. The Hungarian government was very active in the robbing and killing of these victims. They were so eager to help that before women were turmed over to the German authorities to be deported to Auschwitz, they were all  subjected to vaginal body searches. However, Hungary’s responsibility does not appear in any shape or form in the symbolism of the monument.

The monument immediately triggered a domestic scandal. Both leftist and Jewish organizations, along with artists, protested bitterly against its representation; but this only spurred the government to point out how interesting it was that the Jews and the left were allied “again,” as they referenced the “Jewish Bolshevist” myth. Unfortunately the vast majority of Hungary’s population see the Holocaust as someone else’s story and not their own – similarly to Austria or Germany’s 1960 political narratives – thus the protests against the monument remained limited and in no way reduced the election chances of Fidesz. On the contrary, it actually made Jobbik, Fidesz’ main challenger, whose memory policy is exclusively based on the myth that Hungary was a victim in WW2, stand behind the government.

Obviously, Hungary’s involvement in WW2 has created major waves to this date. How this victim narrative began taking root, however, is something that deserves an honest and self-reflective examination.

Naturally immediately after the war, Hungary’s role in it became the most important issue for those who shaped the country’s public discourse. It could not have been otherwise, because Hungary suffered great losses in the war. Military casualties equalled those of the US, and the number of civilian victims reached 550,000 people within the 1944 borders of Hungary 1, which is the 4th highest percentage among countries involved. Other consequences of the war were no less severe either. The formerly returned territorries were taken back again, and people were driven out of their homes, deported or suffered other repercussions. In addition, the new international situation made any revisionist attempts impossible. It became clear that perhaps the worst disaster in the history of Hungary had taken place; and so Hungarian participation in the war became the fundamental question of all political actors of the era.

During the Soviet occupation

During the Soviet occupation a free public discourse was not allowed for society or for science. With that lacking, only a few historians undertook a scientific evaluation of events, and even then they only wrote for their own drawers – without hope of publishing. The situation is well illustrated by the life work of Istvan Bibo, one of the greatest political thinkers of the 20th century. 2 Bibo had begun writing about the reasons for German political hysteria during the war. His works (most of them written after 1944) explored and explained the events that occurred between 1939 and 1945. However, no serious scientific debate unfolded due to his works, despite the fact that he was overly forgiving in his assessment of the communists’ power aspirations. It was also impossible to publicly discuss whether Hungary was actually “liberated” in 1945.

Erzsébet Andics 3, one of the dominant cultural ideiologists of the Communist Party published a brochure in 1945 called Reaction and Fascism in Hungary. By reading it, anyone could understand the essence of the communist way of interpretating the past, which was captured in statements that said the entire system between 1920 and 1945 was “fascist,” and that Hungary was Hitler’s “last ally” – some claims even going so far to say that fascism was actually born in Hungary.

In the communist narrative, the Second World War was a battle between fascist and anti-fascist forces, where “fascist” also referred to German expansion efforts. Aladár Mód published a book in 1943, entitled 400 years of struggle for the independence of Hungary. The book’s thesis was that Hungarian independence was virtually always exclusively threatened by German political influene. In his approach, the German Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph and Adolf Hitler were all representatives of the same ideological chain.

It should be noted that placing all responsibility on the Germans or combining the Nazi issue together with the German issue was not just popular among Communist Party ideologues. After 1945, in all countries involved in the war, many were looking for a scapegoat and obviuosly, Germany and German people seemed to be the most appropriate. It was no different in Hungary, either. Vince Nagy, the chief prosecutor of the Szálasi trial 4 asked a rhetorical question that revealed two lies at once: “Weren’t these barbaric Germans the ancestors of the Katyn [sic!] and Auschwitz SS boys, whose sadistic brutality was planted into the offspring under the thin cover of German culture: the Schillers, the Goethes and the Thomas Manns [sic]?” 5

This approach led to the stigmatization of the German ethnic group in Hungary as “the fifth column,” and to the concept that – apart from the ruling elite – it was primarily Germans, people with German roots or the arrow cross groups sympathetic to Germans, who were responsible for the Hungarian Holocaust and various other war crimes. In addition to the ruling elite, who were mainly Germans or of German origin who were committed to the Nazis. In this hysteria, publicists from the National Peasant Party, the Independent Smallholders’ Party and the Hungarian Communist Party were involved, while the Social Democracts kept distance from it.

The communist narrative was determined by various taboos from the outset. It was not possible to speak openly about the fact that the vast majority of the population was not enthusiastic about the Soviet Union. It was even less possible to talk about the fact that some of the non-Jewish population did not only benefit from, but in many cases were actively involved in anti-Jewish measures. Certainly nobody could not talk about the fact that before 1945, the leftist ideology had only a handful of followers, while the extreme right was supported by hundreds of thousands of people. It was also a taboo to talk about the fate of those soldiers and civilians who had been deported by the Soviet army.

Action and reaction

The communist interpretation of the past created a narrative based on the logic of class struggle and connected all events of history to this narrative, even placing all events that followed in this line. From the World War 2 perspective several historical events, which in the Marxist logic were inextricably linked, received special attention and served communist ideologies well.

After 1919, the “glorious 133 days” of the Republic of Councils, a class conscious proletariat’s dictatorship and the most reactionary circle of monopoly capitalism, the fascists came to power. The same group also took the initiative in 1944 and 1956. According to this narrative, “fascism” showed itself to the world for the first time in Hungary, after the Republic of Councils was defeated. In contrast 1945 stood as a symbol of possibility for a democratic evolution, or the “liberation”. Of course, behind these narratives political considerations could be found – the alleged fascist danger served as a justification for needed “vigilance” and for the methods of the proletariat’s dictatorship. 6

After 1956, the Communist interpretive frameworks only gradually changed. The authority of László Zsigmond, a professor of ELTE; Ervin Hollós, a secret service agent–turned historian; and Dezső Nemes, the Communist “Party historian” were unquestioned. Their narratives were added to Andics’ interpretation because they compared the 1956 revolution to the Arrow Cross Nyilas coup at the end of the Second World War. In their narrative the post-1956 criminal proceedings were tasked with proving that the Hungarian Revolution was led by individuals who were previously leaders of “Horthy fascism.” A number of death sentences were given following these claims, although it was not proven in any of the cases that the people who committed war crimes 1941 and 1945 played any role in 1956.

The place of the Holocaust in the narrative

Although the Holocaust could have found its place in the officially propagated antifascism narrative, the persecution of the Jews, strangely enough,  was probably the most concealed event and was surrounded by lies. These lies were even more terrible than other falsifications in history, because some of the victims, themselves, were forced to falsify their own suffering. So Jewish organizations were also given a historical role similar to a capo. The official position was that the fascists wanted to primarily destroy the Communists and not the Jews – so in Auschwitz, it was the labor movement martyrs who were murdered and the Jews were only over-represented, because from the start they were the frontrunners of anti-fascist thought. This interpretation actually took over the Nazis’ narrative, which equated Jews with Communists. Out of 120 panels at the Hungarian Auschwitz exhibition in 1965 (which was the first on the subject) only 10 displayed documents referring to the nationality of the victims, but even this was “too much” for the supervisors of the exhibition. Their report recommended that the exhibition devote more space to the Hungarian anti-fascist movement and that some of the Jewish Anti-Fascist martyrs „should be replaced by non-Jewish anti-fascists.” 7 It must be noted that downplaying Jewish suffering was also widespread in other parts of Europe, although not for the same reason.

As it did not fit into this concept, Elek Karsai’s two-volume documentary on forced labor – which was entirely funded from Israel – was only distributed in limited circles. The other volume edited by him, which also did not cost the Hungarian State a penny, was not distributed because the author had focued on the confiscation of Jewish property instead of class struggle. The volume ended up rotting away in the Jewish Church Community’s basement in Pest, and only a few hundred copies ended up in libraries.

Despite the erection of several liberation statues and other anti-fascist monuments, the Hungarian Holocaust has never received any public memorial. The Hungarian Auschwitz exhibition was heavily charged with lies. Even in 1980 when it was renovated, curators still proposed that it should primarily emphasize German responsibility, even though Eichmann only had 70 people involved in deportation coordinating operations, while the Hungarian government had assigned 200,000 persons to the task. However, all of this was buried deeply in silence by historians.

Perpetrators and victims

Although not a single serious historic summary was produced for two decades, there were two events that helped maintain the collective memory – both decisive events for a whole generations’ mindset. Tibor Cseres wrote his novel, Cold Days, which was based on the story of the massacre committed by the Hungarian army in the South of Hungary (on the territory of current Serbia, former Yugoslavia) in 1960, and published it four years later. It was a sweeping success: sold over a hundred thousand and translated into English, French, German, Croatian, Romanian, Slovak, Serbian, Russian, as well as special Hungarian editions in neighboring countries. 8 Two years after the release of the book, director András Kovács, produced a film with the finest actors of the era, and then the story was adapted to theater and a radio play, both still broadcast by radio and TV stations today.

Instead of the officers, Cseres examined the responsibility of “the little guy” in the events, and presented these individual actions in a dramatically different light. Despite the fact that the characters were in fact the perpetrators of the tragic events, the vast majority of them were not text book fascists, and so the audience could, to some extent, identify with them. The secret of the success of Cold Days was exactly this: for the first time ever, real flesh-and-blood people appeared in a story imprinted in our public memory.

Yet no historic or social discourse would develop around the novel. Cseres subtly hinted that this was only the first piece of writing in a series of novels: “I would like to avoid having to write the next part of it (…) The other half of the sentence should come from the the writers (or filmmakers) of neighboring countries.” 9 Unfortunately, his wish fell on deaf ears. Cseres only wrote much later, and to a limited audience about the Serbian retaliation on Hungarians, that took place between 1944-1945. His 1969 short story entitled The Bezdán Man resulted in diplomatic protest in Yugoslavia, and his work called Bloody Revenge in Bácska was only published in 1991. 10

The other great success of the era was István Nemeskürty’s Requiem for an Army. Hundreds of thousands of copies were published, and although the manuscript was completed in 1968, it was not publsihed until 1972. The author, who started his career as a professional Royal Army officer, was considered a collaborator of the regime, underwriting some of their historical falsifications, yet one of his sentiments was in fact, a heroic and revolutionary act.

In the work, he presented the fact that slaughtered Hungarian front soldiers were also mostly victims of the war, and suggested that they too deserved to be mourned. Due to Nemeskürty’s book, the Don River Bend Battle, where over 130,000 soldiers were killed in a pointless manouver, entered the nation’s collective memory as the “second Mohács.” 11 The volume received extensive press coverage and sparked a heated debate in closed circles of historians. Of course, due to the state party’s cultural policy, only a few quiet reports appeared about the debates in a collection of essays published about the topic.

An 1983 essay by György Ránki, Rooms for manouver and leeways, eventually signaled a clear break with the Marxist-materialist explanations of history. He called the image of Hungary being Hitler’s “last satellite,” or last loyal ally, stigmatizing and simplistic and refused the concept of “Horthy fascism”. 12

In contrast, he later emphasized the fact that World War 2 largely forced Hungary into the role it played, leaving it little room to manouver; and these options constantly narrowed, although they never completely disappeared. This line of reasoning of course raised questions of the personal responsibility of politicians and soldiers. So Ránki brought moral issues into Hungarian historiography that had been completely neglected, while in Germany these were fully developed and addressed by the end of the 20th century.

Documentaries

The liberalization – and also the limitations – of the regime were clearly showed by two major television endeavours that started in the early 1980s. Péter Bokor and Gábor Hanák produced Our Century, a long series of historical documentaries about the war. In these broadcasted episodes witnesses were interviewed, and dramatized verisons of some of the key scenes of history were portrayed by the best actors of the era, including a portrait of Horthy, himself. This was so unusual that orthodox communist historians launched several attacks against the TV series. Nevertheless the overwhelming majority of historians supported the undertaking and Gyula Juhász (a highly regarded historian) himself even wrote the preface to the 1982 book that was based on the production.

Another outstanding Hungarian documentary had a different fate. Between 1979 and 1982, film director, Sándor Sára 13 along with members of the second Hungarian Army, produced Chronicle, a 25-part documentary series about the same Don River Bend Massacre. The series was broadcast on prime-time Hungarian television, and after the first episodes, Ránki and Juhász both published positive reviews. However, after the second part, members of the Political Committee of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party requested a copy of the next six episodes. Three days later, the Party’s Agitation and Propaganda Department ordered deletions and mergers in the film, and required state television to broadcast a discussion of two historians before the film, “in order to convey a correct interpretation of history.” However after the 15th episode, they simply banned the entire series, and ordered the destruction of 80,000 copies of the book that was supposed to be published after the series ended.

The series did not have any narration or experts, but only real life eyewitness accounts of the events. Communists ideologists had several problems with that concept, but the last straw was when a survivor openly spoke about the love that developed between him and a local resident. A romance between a Soviet “comrade” and a “Horthy soldier” was far beyond the limits of what was considered tolerable. After the film was banned a shortened, five part version, specially prepared for cinema, was screened (albeit only once) at the annual Film Review, where it was awarded the Grand Prize. Gábor Hanák was charged with “sabotage” but later it was unofficially dropped, and Sára was allowed to continue as a documentary filmmaker, even on more touchy issues. 14

Right before transition

Limited room for discussion is also related to the fact that research on the Hungarian Holocaust was almost completely missing in Hungary until the 80s, except for the above mentioned Elek Karsai and later Szabolcs Szita. Although the book by Randolp L. Braham on the Hungarian Holocaust was first published in English in 1981, the Hungarian issue had to wait until 1988. György Ránki, in his 1982 book review, bitterly concluded that “(…) this book should have been written in Hungary. We can be sorry for not writing it. Moreover, the issue was hardly researched and written about.” 15 Ránki knew exactly what he was talking about: at the age of 14, he was deported to Auschwitz and only miraculously survived the deportation.

In 1987 a key work was published by Sándor Szakály: The Hungarian military elite from 1938 to 1945, which fundamentally refuted party-state history’s favorite cliché that WW2’s military leadership was by definition reactionary because of their “gentroid-feudal” class position and their German origins. Szakály convincingly showed that military careers were the most attractive to poorer sections of the population, because they offered an opportunity to break out of poverty. He also presented several examples that no relationship can be found between people with German roots and extreme right-wing sympathies.

From 1988 on, the discourse on history was open to the general public. The multi-party system had not yet been formed, when economic transformation allowed memoirs by authors who generally regarded Hungarian soldiers as heroes and victims who were performing their duty, to be published by several privately owned publishers.

The unfolding victim-narrative

Hungary’s transition in 1990 from the communist regime to a new system gave way to a new historical narrative: that of the victim. A prime example of this was a 1990 speech by Kálmán Kéri, former Colonel General and doyen of the first freely elected National Assembly, where he stated that Hungary fought a justified war against the Soviet Union. However, this opinion was considered politically unacceptable for a long time.

When Fidesz first came to power in 1998, it meant some serious changes for the politics of memory. Earlier, the coalition of socialists and liberals refrained from discussing historical issues, partly because it would have involved the the socialists’ examination of their responsibility. In contrast, Fidesz claimed to be a safeguard of “civic” values ​​and adopted an anti-totalitarian rhetoric. In practice it was only selectively enforced: the voice of the party was highly anti-communist, while anti-fascist issues were simply ignored. A prime example of this attitude are the two museums, which are part of Fidesz’ legacy. 16

A signigicant event was the 2002 opening of the “House of Terror” at Andrássy street 60. The house easily offered itself for national memory performances, since it served as headquarters for both the Nazis before 1945, and for the Communists afterwards, both committing horrible crimes within the same walls. However, the musem hardly made room for anti-fascism and the persecution of Jews and the main line of presentation was the sterile division of perpetrators and victims, ignoring the fact that those are often the same in times of war. The House of Terror has also projected the preamble of the post-2010 Constitution which stated that on March 19, 1944 due to the German occupation, Hungary lost its independence, only gaining it back in 1990. In other words: for both the Nazi and Communist dictatorships the only responsible parties were our foreign oppressors, while the responsibility of the country’s political elite does not appear in the narrative at all.

Another serious problem is the fact that the Communist dictatorship is set to stand againts the Arrow Cross (Nyilas) terror as two competing memories. In 2000, the National Assembly decided to enshrine the victims of Communism’s memory as a Memorial Day. Critical voices were silenced with claims that a Holocaust Memorial Day would be established later. The former is being held on February 25th of each year, on the day Béla Kovács 17 was captured, while the latter is being held on January 27th.

Interestingly, although the House of Terror was officially supposed to be a representation of the spirit of totalitarianism, it did not occur to exhibition organizers to convey an in-depth message. If they had intended to do so, they would have presented the atrocities of the Nazi and Communist dictatorship together, not separately, and a single memorial day would have been devoted to both. However, the final political solution for national memory integrated only one of them into collective memory, while it created a sort of exotic event out of obligation that remembered that some “others” had also suffered.

Dual speech

From the outset Fidesz’ national memory policy was based on the need to serve the needs of the far-right voters and meet the demands of the moderate right as well. To this end, a dual media presence has been created: one of them conveying messages in connection with World War 2 that even includes practically neo-Nazi content; while the other follows the Western European approach to conservative political memory. An example for the first type of communication was the 2004 cover of the magazine, Democrat, celebrating the soldiers defending Budapest in 1944/45 as the “Heroes of Europe,” while it said nothing about the mass murders of the Arrow Cross regime. The same “performative” approach to history by Fidesz can be seen in the XII. District, where a Turul 18 monument was formally erected for the civilian victims of the district.

The turul bird in Hungarian cultural history is an ancient symbol. Similar to the German imperial eagle, it’s primarily a symbol for military glory and voluntary sacrifice. The extremely conservative representation of the monument is clear: the victims sacrificed their lives for the homeland and the nation. However, this is a complete misinterpretation of the memory of civilian casualties. Moreover, half of the civilian victims of the district became victims because the Arrow Cross troops, using the party symbol of the turul, killed them because of their Jewish origin, all in the name of “the homeland and the nation”! So for them, the turul symbolizes the memories of their murderers.

Can you lie to many people for a long time?

From time to time, as we have seen in the case of the Freedom Square Monument, politicians will try to “reinterpret” history according to their political interests and create memorials intended to eternalize their version of events. The victim narrative is now stronger than ever in the common mind, contradicting the notion that masses cannot be mislead by lies longterm.

Thus in a political sense and for the short term the monument affair may be evaluated as a government success. However, this kind of memory policy that seeks to rid Hungary of its responsibility in the war and in the Holocaust goes entirely against the values of European integration and signals a direction completely at odds with what is accepted in civilized countries. When self-reflection is denied from yet another generation, it prolongs the period of healing – and this is (or should be) against the interest of the nation.

Notes:

  1. Territorries returned to Hungary
  2. The only book available in English by Bibó: The Paralysis of International Institutions and the Remedies. A Study of Self-Determination, Concord among the Major Powers, and Political Arbitration. With an Introduction by Bernard Crick. The Harvester Press, Hassocks, 1976.
  3. Erzsébet Andics (1902-1986) a communist from 1918, living in the Soviet Union from 1922, member of parliament between 1945 and 1957, one of the key ideologists of cultural policy.
  4. Trial of Ferenc Szálasi, the leader of the Arrow Cross (nyilas) Party in 1946.
  5. Archives of the Capital Budapest, Nb 293/1946, 2495.o.
  6. See the groundbreaking works on memory politics by István Rév István: Retroactiv Justice. Prehistory of post-communism. [Cultural memory in the present] Stanford 2005. and Counter-Revolution. In: Books, 1999/2-3, p 128-137.
  7. See the exhibition at the Open Society Archives: István Rév: Reconstructing Auschwitz
  8. In English: Tibor Cseres: Cold Days. Budapest 2003 Corvina.
  9. Foreword by Tibor Cseres in: The Serbian vendetta in Bácska. See also: Author´s preface to the English edition.
  10. Tibor Cseres: Titoist atrocities int Vojvodina. Serbian vendetta in Bácska. Budapest 1993. Hunyadi.
  11. Mohács was a lost battle against the Ottoman army in 1526, causing a 150 years of occupation.
  12. Although he represented this view in his 1964 book entitled History of Hungary.
  13. Sándor Sára (1933- ) cameraman, director, an outstanding figure in Hungarian film.
  14. See A második világháború [Nemzet és Emlékezet sorozat]. Ed. Krisztián Ungváry. Budapest 2005 Osiris, p 664-668.
  15. Originally published in Élet és Irodalom, 1982, summer. Republished by György Ránki in: A Harmadik Birodalom árnyékában. Budapest 1988, p 209 and included in the foreword of later issues of his book by Braham.
  16. See more on the House of Terror: Krisztián Ungváry: Remembering Communist Crimes in Hungary. The House of Terror and the Central Cemetery (Rákoskeresztúr). In: Politics of History in Modern Europe. Journal of Modern European History 2010/9. p 155–158.
  17. Leader of the small holder party, captured and deported to the Soviet Union by the communists.
  18. Symbolic sacred bird of Hungarians, used as an Arrow Cross (Nyilas) symbol.
Krisztián Ungváry

Krisztián Ungváry

is a historian of 20th century political and military history. He focuses on the siege of Budapest in World War II as well as the work of the secret service under the communist period of Hungary.