Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 5
7 February 2000

Csardas C S A R D A S:
Jewish Life in Hungary, Part Two

Gusztáv Kosztolányi

Click here to read Part One of this series of articles

Miklós Tamás Gáspár, a prominent figure in the Philosophical Institute of the Hungarian Academy of the Sciences, in his article "Grave Robbers and Those Who Speak Ill of the Dead" (Published in Magyar Hírlap, 15 November 1999), reacted sharply to [Maria] Schmidt's lecture [See Part One]:

First and foremost, the following needs to be put on record: no-one can have any objections against a scholar, who writes something that makes his audience feel uneasy or that is unpleasant, even if it is written in conjunction with the most painful and sensitive of topics provided that it is either true, or, if not true, that the errors it contains were in good faith. Otherwise we would have no means of enriching our knowledge.

No form of censorship is admissible, not even censorship to protect the dead. Public opinion in Romania, a country whose people has suffered many hardships, takes note of the fact that one of its history textbooks for secondary school pupils dispels its most cherished nationalist illusions with irritation, launching a campaign against its authors, crying "deheroicisation". The result: historical scholarship is once again paralysed for years and research goes downhill. The writers, whose efforts were directed towards objectivity, are labelled "Hungarian agents".

If an independent Hungarian researcher (in a context where anti-Semitism is spreading rampantly not only in intellectual and middle class circles, but particularly amongst a younger generation of students at university), were to broach the subject of the latest scientific hypotheses pertaining to the Holocaust honestly and courageously, albeit somewhat unguardedly, it would still have to be welcomed, even if it were open to misunderstandings and even if it were to be prejudicial to the interests of a once again beleaguered Jewish Community in Hungary for a short time, since discoveries are always useful in the long term, leaving aside for the moment the question of their intrinsic (or intellectual) value.

Even the pseudo-science produced in bad faith can have a certain degree of usefulness, in that the challenges it gives rise to can shed light on the substance of the dispute itself. It is not right and proper to ban any text (literally any text!), not even the most disreputable, because it is possible to abuse the power of prohibition. It is only too easy to brand particularly audacious and innovative works as "immoral" or "dangerous", and thus constraints are placed on experimentation and on innovative thinking which are damaging to society as a whole and which curtail freedom.

All of these factors must be taken into account in order to clarify the intention and the possible limits to the validity of the severe criticism I am about to level against Maria Schmidt's [...] piece. Maria Schmidt, alongside all our other compatriots, is entitled to express any opinion in public, and nothing may prevent her from so doing. The only issue at stake is what we think of her arguments.

First of all, let us examine the context.

Schmidt is not an independent researcher, but an official. Her lecture was not given at a public reading session of a scientific society qualified to submit the subject to a searching analysis, but was given in the "political academy" of a (government!) Party, which in many respects may be regarded as extreme right wing, and which bears the name of a racist politician. In her scientific and journalistic work up to now, Schmidt has always tried to draw unfavourable conclusions with respect to the Jewish community. In this, she was sometimes in the right and sometimes in the wrong, but the tendency is unmistakable.

In her political milieu, there are many individuals [...] who go about the business of producing extreme anti-Semitic propaganda unhindered, without their superiors reprimanding them for it. This set of individuals linked to the Prime Minister is regularly involved in rehabilitating personalities who introduced and supported the "numerus clausus" system and then the anti-Jewish laws as well as those who took the initiative in dragging Hungary into the war on the side of Hitler (in parallel with the openly racist extreme right-wing, which these days is a semi-official ally of the government with its similar campaigns). [...]

This is enough to arouse suspicions in the mind of even the most guileless as to what the actual aim of this gesture on the part of such a powerful bourgeoisie might be. I could forgive her for breaching the obligation for holders of official posts to refrain from participating in public debate (the position of elected politicians being somewhat different in this respect), especially given the fact that we have - unfortunately - been able to grow accustomed to the increasingly radical tone of the delirious ravings on the subject of the Jewish community penned by the political writers employed in the Prime Minister's Office, not to mention the regular instances of racial incitement appearing in state-owned government newspapers, provided that she were to give an account of some significant scientific or conceptual novelty.

This is not what we are dealing with here, however. Schmidt draws public attention to a view (daring opinion) that enjoys currency in the ranks of the extreme right and that sees nothing special in the annihilation of the Jewish communities of Europe, regarding it as an unfortunate, though banal, episode in history. From the reactions of the press it becomes clear that for dyed-in-the-wool racists even this was not enough: everyone is a moderate compared to someone else! Schmidt did not say anything new, simply repeating (although in a less entertaining manner) what the Magyar Fórum and Magyar Demokrata's columnist, the notorious István Lovas [...], had set forth in the much-read columns of Népszabadság in the spring [...].

The view expressed by Schmidt and Lovas is entirely inaccurate. Since it does, however, rest on a half-truth, it is to an examination of that half-truth that we must now turn.

Schmidt is correct in contending that Auschwitz was used as a pretext by those who wished to silence the indignant criticisms of the atrocities, mass murders and genocides perpetrated under Stalinism. The Soviet Union was the ally of the West in the war against Hitler and the Soviet Union appeared to be the ally and mainstay of the left-wing in the West (although this turned out not to be the case). This is why the deliberate policy of failing to pass on information and of self-imposed censorship (which, in my opinion, equally merits the strongest possible condemnation) was able to function so well. The democratic opposition of Eastern Europe did everything in its power to expose the villainous deeds of the Soviet regime [...] I don't have a problem with people who are capable of finding excuses for the Gulag [...], or even with those who believe that the Gulag was in some way "less important" than Auschwitz. This is, of course, unacceptable [...].

Maria Schmidt, the Prime Minister's official historian [...] claims that the extermination of the Jews of Europe is not "unique" amongst the other tragedies that humanity has caused in the course of the century.

Perhaps she herself has not even noticed - after all, anyone can make a mistake involuntarily, though it has to be said that Schmidt always makes a mistake to the detriment of the Jewish community - that she is guilty of exactly the same error as the manipulative Communist "fellow traveller" school of propaganda in the past: one heap of corpses is juxtaposed with another in order to diminish the historical significance of the other. The Stalinists and their allies "instrumentalised" the victims of the gas chambers in Auschwitz and Buchenwald, using them in other words as a tool to legitimise the Soviet dictatorship and those of its satellites. In so doing, the memory of the poor Jews was dishonoured by transforming them into Stalin's posthumous accomplices.

Schmidt dishonours the memory of the Gulag's victims by using them as an instrument to relatives the tragedy that befell the Jews of Europe and, given that she does so in the context of an anti-Semitic political campaign, it becomes difficult to believe that she does so innocently. Difficult, but not impossible, although this campaign just so happens to be (what a coincidence!) headed by none other than Schmidt's office [...]

[Schmidt's] assertion is a highly dangerous half-truth. It is true, that the so-called "antifascist coalition" did not have the rescue of the Jews as one of its war aims, in fact, as we know, the Jewish property carried off by the Nazis was stolen by the Western democrats to be invested, inter alia, in the reconstruction of Germany (!). It is also a fact that, after 1945 (right up until it finally ceased to exist in 1991), the Soviet Union became the leading anti-Semitic power in the world, persecuting its own Jewish communities, and wanting to drive Israel into the sea. This is certainly true.

The other half of the hypothesis is, however, a contemptible lie. Nazi Germany's primary war aim was to annihilate the Jews. As we know, the Nazis even continued with the massacre after May of 1945, counter to all the dictates of conventional military rationality. Schmidt herself sets out in a sentence that disproves her thesis that "it is not really possible to contend that Hitler made a secret out of what his aims were..."

From the fact that the residue of anti-Semitism amongst the Allied powers (we know, for example, that with the agreement of the Roosevelt government The New York Times drew a veil of silence over information concerning the death camps and the gas chambers so that this news would not spark off anti-Semitic riots and agitation [!]) meant that the extermination of the Jews of Europe was allowed to continue undisturbed whilst the British airforce slaughtered the innocent German civilian population with carpet bombings, a tactic worthy of Hitler and Stalin themselves, Schmidt concludes that the Holocaust was not unique and exceptional. This is a rather peculiar conclusion to arrive at, since its underlying message would appear to be that the unlawful eradication of the Jews of Europe (subjects of law of modern states) was a crime in which everyone was an accomplice. If this is not exceptional, then what is?

Schmidt contradicts herself in the most naive and obvious fashion [...].

It might come as a surprise to Schmidt, but the uniqueness of the Holocaust, its extraordinariness formed in a sense the precondition of the (indispensable) recognition of the Gulag's uniqueness. This "singular" quality (uniqueness, extraordinariness) is linked to something, which is one of the most fundamental aspects of our culture. We are well aware that the Rome of Late Antiquity already harboured a desire to eliminate the Jews, along with the Hellenistic Near East, Medieval Christianity, the anti-traditional and anti-clerical Enlightenment, national Romanticism, anti-capitalistic Socialism and Anarchism, anti-Socialist-corporatist Conservatism, anti-bourgeois Peasant Populism, bourgeois anti-Socialism, militant Islam....et j'en oublie [...]. In numerous instances in history, the self-definition of what constitutes a "human being" was predicated on being a "non-Jew".

Regardless of the empirically observable activities of individual Jews or groups of Jews, which inevitably was taken to be a paradigm of one kind or another, the definition of a "Jew" was on the one hand an extreme case of what we capable of thinking about the Bible, in other words about ourselves as Eurasians [...], whilst on the other hand it was one of the fundamental questions of the Enlightenment [...] from the point of view of whether it is at all possible for "humanity" to exist and whether it is possible for the virtual identity of the masses to exist in the days of the (new) covenant of free individuals.

Does the abstraction of freedom do away with the peculiarity of the Old Testament (in other words, the Jews dissolve into the universality) or o we define humanity according to its peculiarity (in other words we empirically ostracise the Jews from humanity)? In both instances, the Jews, from a European vantage point, are eliminated.

The Jews are an ancient people. The Sumerians, the Hittites, the Trojans and the Phonecians are no longer in our midst, but the Jews are. This universally attacked and persecuted people was perhaps able to survive for thousands of years because (as a society without a state) it made the observance of the Talmud independent of both the enforcing power of the Law and of all personal loyalty and devotion.

The rabbinical courts did not have Haiduks and pandurs, the ghetto did not have a major, there was no hereditary aristocracy with feudal privileges, all that existed was moral authority set down in writing, at least this was its pure basic pattern and it was the most important legacy of the Jewish people left behind, of course, by Israel when it became one people amongst many. Europe expressed its intellectual character in two related ways (Christianity, the Enlightenment), eliminating tyranny by separating the law (law and morality) from power (including even transcendental power), authority (legitimate power) from brute strength and influence, intellectual activity from authority, moral intuition (conscience) from law, human dignity (as a universal endowment) from individual characteristics[...].

The Jews were witnesses (and sometimes martyrs) to this legacy and in other respects were its victims. The historical self-consciousness of Christianity was in itself enough to make one and a half thousand bitter years of persecution of the Jews and continuous bearing of witness (often in blood) inevitable. The most extreme consequence of this was the Holocaust, which a Nazi-fascist regime that denied Christianity (as a product of Jewish culture) used in order to eliminate the contrast between the Old and New Testament and thereby ensure that (in their eyes) Christianity would lose its subversive function (as Christianity pointed beyond the "positivism" of the law and the immanence of power).

Is this not unique?

Anyone who cannot hear that what we are talking about here is the heart of Europe has no ear for the whetting of knives.

The most radical experiment in the framework of the Enlightenment's plan to emancipate the world, the Revolution in Russia and China, which attempted to create an immanent, "positive" and dynamic social reality on the basis of a moral hypothesis concerning the equality of human dignity, was likewise singular, unique, extraordinary and central. It ended, however, in the horrors of the Gulag, one of the mangiest and contemptible slave regimes of all time. Both a distorted Christianity transformed into paganism and a distorted and darkened Enlightenment came to grief, and humanity as such suffered a defeat alongside them.

If we are incapable of comprehending this, then we are also incapable of comprehending the uniqueness and exceptional nature of the Gulag.

The uniqueness of Auschwitz and the Gulag (which differ, one is not identical to the other, and the term "totalitarian", which blurs everything into one indistinguishable whole, is hollow, though it might otherwise be useable) is historical and not moral, since the murder of innocent people (or, even if they were not innocent, people beyond the realm of application of the law) perpetrated by the state is, from a moral point of view [...], a shameful and indelible crime [...].

Given that even today our moral, political and legal concepts continue to be inseparable from the issues of Christianity and the Enlightenment, the "Jewish question", if you like, is eternal, but the liberating reply to it "there is no Greek and there is no Jew" is the correct one [...], and whoever gives the opposite reply (racist and anti-Semitic), even he gives it in a roundabout way by making light of Auschwitz, is both a perfidious swine and an ignorant ass [...].

A genuine Hungarian problem exists here, however [...]. Of all the Jews of Central Europe, only the Hungarian Jews are in our midst, primarily in Budapest [...]. Unlike in Germany, Austria, Poland and Romania, here anti-Semitism has clear, topical and political significance as well as the stakes being high, since what is at stake is no less than the moral condition of the entire political community of the Republic and the fate and future of our Jewish compatriots and fellow citizens.

It is undeniable that the official elements of the government camp continuously give off anti-Jewish signals. Sometimes they do so with timely openness, sometimes with lamentable hypocrisy [...]. Not only Csurka, party-president who, for the moment at least, is only a corresponding member of the government, but also the officials of the Prime Minister's Office, paid from the money we pay in taxes (including the taxes paid by our Jewish compatriots), who are responsible for awarding the Kossuth prize and subsidies to newspapers, who condemn rival academic institutions to death and restore the denominational balance in the media, say and do things which not only surpass what Jörg Haider says, but also what Jörg Haider even thinks.

This is why the whole issue is not a Schmidt affair, but an Orbán affair. Schmidt, a beginner and not untalented historian and columnist, does not count for much herself in the grand scheme of things (and I do not mean this as an insult, as her whole life and life's work still lies ahead of her), but the office of the Prime Minister of the Republic of Hungary (and the Party academy of the second Party in the coalition) does. Do the employees of the Prime Minister's Office, the government camp's ideologists [...] express the Prime Minister's opinion? If so, then Viktor Orbán is anti-Semitic, something I am incapable of believing either of the head of the executive of the democratic Republic of Hungary or of our old acquaintance, former student of the Bibó College, my one-time comrade-in-arms, of whom I know very well how much he hated and despised the Jew-bashing Hungarian right [...].

If, however, these individuals do not express Prime Minister Orbán's opinion, then why does he employ them? This is a question, which he must answer.

If he doesn't answer, then the patriotic, democratic sections of Hungarian public opinion will understand it only too well.

From this, we can clearly see how fraught the issue of the Holocaust is, how emotionally and politically highly charged it is in the realm of Hungarian debate. The sins of the past continue to inform the present, attitudes towards them used as a litmus test of whether Hungary is fit to be included amongst the ranks of civilised nations, or whether she continues to founder in the thrall of irrational and antiquated prejudice.

As Szabolcs Szita, academic head of the Holocaust Documentation Centre put it, gyászmunka (Trauarbeit, facing up to responsibility and working through it intellectually and emotionally) is the next step forward in healing an otherwise festering wound:

Not just Jews, but Christians as well were taken away [...]. We have to take responsibility for the Holocaust and, having done so, repudiate its horrors. I must say that the first point that we must establish on this subject is that these atrocities were committed to the injury of the Hungarian nation. Unfortunately we cannot maintain that the Hungarians did not take part in committing these crimes, and this is why we must complete two tasks in order to soothe the nation's conscience. Firstly, we must do the work of mourning (this is a translation of the German term Trauarbeit). Secondly, we must name the responsible individuals by name. Having done this in an objective manner, we must stop the war of numbers, we must stop using wordings that are misunderstood on all sides and we must stop the fits of temper that get us nowhere

Gusztáv Kosztolányi, 5 February, 2000.

The sources used in this article were Magyar Hírlap, 15 November 1999 and Magyar Nemzet, 1 February 2000.

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