Trianon and the Holocaust: An exchange between Ignác Romsics and István Földesi

A change of pace. For months now I have been thinking about summarizing a fierce debate that centered around an article entitled “Academic antisemitism” written by András Gerő, a well known historian. Gerő claims that Ignác Romsics, a highly regarded colleague of his, in his most recent works exhibited “pure antisemitic interpretive constructions” (színtiszta antiszemita értelmezési konstrukciók). According to Gerő, Romsics is guilty of  the “rehabilitation of the Hungarian antisemitic tradition.”

Gerő bolsters his claim by citing two examples from Romsics’s work. Without going into the details, I considered the one about the Jewish origins of the communist commissars in 1919 not compelling but the second example about the young Jewish historians who allegedly ruined the high level of Hungarian historical tradition well founded. It made me pause.

Although I was urged by at least one reader of Hungarian Spectrum to write on the subject, I refused to oblige. I have read quite a few works by Romsics but I’m not familiar with his whole opus. Moreover, when I was reading, for example, his book about Hungary in the twentieth century I wasn’t reading it with an eye to his treatment of  Hungarian-Jewish coexistence and symbiosis. Since I have neither the time nor the opportunity to read every line that Romsics ever put on paper, I gave up on the idea of trying to add my two-cents worth to that growing debate. And it was a huge debate: I have at least fifty articles on my computer and I’m sure that I missed a few.

Here I’m certainly not trying to take stock of the entire debate or to choose sides. I am merely going to look at the two most recent articles that appeared on the subject. The first was written by Ignác Romsics himself. Gerő’s original article appeared on June 30, but Romsics refused to engage in any direct debate with him. Later, however, he published an article that appeared originally in Népszabadság entitled “Trianon and the Holocaust: Our Twentieth-Century Traumas.” It was republished in a slightly expanded version in Rubicon (2012/9-10).

The article, though it makes no reference to the Gerő-Romsics debate, most likely was intended as a clarification of Romsics’s position on the Jewish/non-Jewish dichotomy in Hungary. To begin with, I found the title of the article unfortunate because we heard from Undersecretary Zoltán Kovács, originally in charge of communication with western countries, that while for Jews the Holocaust is the greatest tragedy, for Hungarians it is Trianon. A terrible sentence if I ever heard one.

Romsics wishes that Hungarians would realize that the Holocaust was a tragedy for all Hungarians, Jews and non-Jews, just as Trianon was a tragedy for Jewish Hungarians both inside and outside of the country. But he admits that this hasn’t happened and that in fact the differences in historical consciousness are sharper than ever between the two groups.

Now one could argue with Romsics about his claim that “there was no direct connection between the white terror and the numerus clausus of 1920 and the Holocaust of 1944 or even  the Jewish laws enacted after 1938.” I know that he wrote a whole book on István Bethlen, but perhaps he paints too favorable a portrait of his tenure as prime minister.  And I could go on, but then I would be doing what I explicitly said at the beginning of this post I wasn’t going to do.

So instead I’ll turn to the only answer to Romsics’s article that also appeared in Népszabadság. It was written by István Földesi, who lives in the United States. Földesi has several objections to Romsics’s interpretation. Here I will mention only the most important ones.

One of his chief objections is that Romsics describes the cause of antisemitism in Hungary as a struggle between Jews and non-Jews for career opportunities and/or career reasons. The Hungarian nobility had no taste for conducting business activities or studying to become members of the professional class and therefore more and more Jews and German immigrants filled the void. Modern antisemitism was fueled, according to Romsics, by the later aspiration of non-Jews to move up in the world, only to find that their road was blocked by Jews who had gotten there earlier. This battle for position was intensified when after Trianon about half a million refugees arrived from the lost territories seeking employment and/or entrance into university. Hence the introduction of the numerus clausus. According to Földesi, Romsics’s wording suggests that the introduction of some kind of limit on Jewish enrollment in the universities was justified.

Ignác Romsics: “Trianon and the Holocaust: Our Twentieth-Century Traumas
Illustration from Rubicon 2012/9-10

Romsics also suggests that to this day there is a fundamental difference between Jews and non-Jews over the “liberation” of Hungary by the Soviet troops, which unfortunately might even be correct. But it is really debatable, as Földesi points out, whether “the differences between the two groups are also applicable to their divergent opinions on the important events of the twentieth century. 1920 means for non-Jews first and foremost Trianon and the beginning of the nation being torn apart.”

Földesi’s objections are twofold. First, he objects to dividing Hungarians into Jews and non-Jews during the 1920-1945 period and, second, he doesn’t believe that the foremost concern of  Hungarians other than the Christian upper-middle classes was the loss of territories. For the  mass of the Hungarian poor the post-1945 period was critically important; it gave them an opportunity for a better life and far greater upward mobility than before.

I know that some people would object to this last claim of István Földesi and would point to the darkest days of the Rákosi regime and the outbreak of the October 23 revolution in 1956. Yet we mustn’t forget that millions of people benefited from the revolutionary changes that took place after 1945. And here let me refer to our dear friend, the late Mark Pittaway, who “turned the notion of a totalitarian dictatorship on its head, showing how the party state needed to pander to an elite of male skilled workers for its legitimacy.” And this group, in addition to the new industrial workers who were formerly poverty-stricken agricultural laborers, were the mainstay of the new regime. I haven’t even mentioned these people’s children who were admitted to universities in record numbers.

I think that the debate, which was occasionally marked by ad hominem attacks, was nonetheless useful. If for nothing else but to point to the many areas of Hungarian history that remain either unexplored or misinterpreted.

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78 comments

  1. An: “In the 30s about 60% of the population was poor, in the 60s about 30% (though the 50s saw similar poverty levels to the 30s, but then poverty dramatically decreased in the 60s)”

    The discussion did not relate to the 1960s. It concerns the before the war and after the war conditions. Yor statistics show the same poverty level in 1952 as in 1870…..What a great change…….

  2. spectator: Not to mention, that even if isn’t anything else there to support your childhood story than your own memories, I have no doubt that you telling the truth.
    Should I have?

    A first hand experience is reference enough to me, thank you.”

    Just because not everybody’s recollection is correct, it is worthwhile to have some corraboration, partcularly from someone like Laszlo Peter who said on hos 85th birthday “Az írók írója vagyok, módszertanom a valóság minél hűbb visszaadása, a történelemben és a jelenkorban is.”

    I also have relatives in the Pecs area and their recollections do not match Dr Baloghs memory.

  3. Louis Kovach: No, the discussion was concerned about you claiming that the pre-war period was not that bad and people were not that poor…. well, it was pretty bad, I’d say. Who in their right mind would want to go back to the poverty levels of the 30s (60%)?

    During the communist regime, which lasted from the 50s till the late 80s, there has been a dramatic decrease in poverty, no.. not in the 50s, but later, when the regime became more open and flexible. No, don’t worry, that does not necessarily mean that communism was good, but it does mean that beside all the horror there were changes in society that were positive in that period… and hating communists is no reason to return to the 30s. For most people, those were not good times, really.

  4. An: “No, the discussion was concerned about you claiming that the pre-war period was not that bad and people were not that poor…. well, it was pretty bad, I’d say. Who in their right mind would want to go back to the poverty levels of the 30s (60%)? ”

    In communism they got poorer back to the 1870s level. What occurred in the 1960s was a result of foreign loans and the Soviets trying to avoid another 1956. Just imagine what would have been the improvement if it did not start from the Rakosi poverty levels matching the 1870s….

  5. Louis Kovach, you are diverting the discussion again, but OK… foreign loans started to come in in the 70s, what happened in the 60s was that the communist leadership loosened up some of the rigid economic policies, especially in agriculture …. anyways, it is beside the point, the society of the 30s was rigid, with high poverty and very little mobility. It was not the good old days for many people… and definitely not something we should aspire to get back to. Neither is the 50s, so I don’t know why you keep bringing that up.

  6. Louis Kovach, btw, just for clarity, according to the chart I linked, in the 50s the poverty level was around 60%, close to what it was in 1935 and in 1870. Then in the 60s it dropped to around 30, and then it kept decreasing, and in the 80s it was around 10.

  7. An :

    Louis Kovach, btw, just for clarity, according to the chart I linked, in the 50s the poverty level was around 60%, close to what it was in 1935 and in 1870. Then in the 60s it dropped to around 30, and then it kept decreasing, and in the 80s it was around 10.

    Of course, meanwhile there was a war and terrible destruction. In Budapest in 1946 adults had gotten only 450 calories a day. Then came the hyperinflation.Wages were only 50% of the 1938 level. Teachers received 20% of their salaries in 1938. So, one mustn’t forget that either. But the Rákosi years certainly retarded recovery and development.

  8. @Louis:

    “Claiming now, without adequate reference, that life was so terrible for the lower strata of the prewar Hungarian population is not correct in my opinion.”

    Are you telling us your experience from your childhood in pre-war Hungary ?

    Then you were born around 1930, true ?

  9. Comparing Trianon with Holocaust: How many lives were lost (killed) due to Trianon and due to the Holocaust? (even if calculated as percent of Hungarians (without ethnic or religious references).

  10. petercan :

    Comparing Trianon with Holocaust: How many lives were lost (killed) due to Trianon and due to the Holocaust? (even if calculated as percent of Hungarians (without ethnic or religious references).

    Exactly. The two simply cannot be compared. Loss of territories and 400,000 some people dead.

  11. It is a honor and privilege to be quoted in Professor Balogh’s website. The purpose of my writing was to break the deafening silence after Academician Romsics’ article in Nepszabadsag. My goal is not to score points what Mr. Kovach kindly adjudicated, but indicate a desire from readers, that there is true demand for an honest scholarly exchange with understanding and empathy about the pivotal points of Hungaran history. I tried to point out that it is historically erroneous and morally untenable to “equalize” Trianon and the Holocaust. Christians, Jews and other Hungarian citizens of different faith equally felt the pain and the consequences of the peace treaties after World War I. There was a political and emotional consensus about it. However, for an overwhelming majority of the population inequality, injustice, discrimination and lack of social mobility were more pressing issues. Well-known and recognized personalities of Hungarian literature eloquently wrote about these. As I write in my piece on October 1 after 1945 even during the most reprehensible periods of dictatorship new avenues opened up for millions, education and healthcare assured elementary fairness and mobility. These are not “mitigating factors”, but simple facts. We rightfully condemn the atrocious policies and tragic reprisals, but about these facts there is a consensus in the community of historians. Naturally, we also have to add that exactly the people affected by these developments brought down Rakosi and Kadar.

    I understand that this minor point was picked up by Mr. Kovach, but the main theme of my article is that high intellectuals have been in debt to the country and Hungarian society at large because they have not helped people understand pivotal points of history, the present situation and challenges Hungary is facing in today’s world . Major events of Hungarian history are projected into the political arena and interpreted in the light of fleeting presumed political advantage. In my view, as I stated at the beginning a national debate as the Germans had in the form of the so-called Historikerstreit cannot be based on a “barter” between Trianon and the Holocaust. Their origins, causes and consequences are vastly different and can only lead the exchanges to a historic and moral cul-de-sac. In 1927 Julien Benda, the French philosopher wrote about the Betrayal of the Intellectuals (La Trahison des Clercs). He clearly points out the responsibility of scholars, philosophers. It cannot be that the today’s generation fails the memories of their predecessors of 1848, 1956 and 1989. That is the most important point I wanted to make.

    Istvan Foldesi

  12. I believe that there are some issues that need to be stated re the original debate (i.e. Mr. Gerő’s statement). Mr. Romsics is probably not anti-semitic. That said, he and and non-Jewish historians (especially those dealing with XX. century history) are in fact ((I can attest to that) conscious about someone else’s Jewish identity. There is a difference between racism and race consciousness and so this consciousness of Romsics and his colleagues does not necessarily mean that they are anti-semitic (although when this consciousness becomes an obsession or reaches an unhealthy level then I guess anti-semitism is a proper expression). On the other hand the issue of categorization, when categories are very difficult to define and are in fact often undefined is highly problematic. I believe in that sense Mr. Gerő was right, however he used bad terminology to the effect that he probably defeated his argument.

    What he did, and this is only my conjecture, is that he based his argument (or feeling) on Foucault’s idea on discourses: i.e. anti-semitism can be constituted by a historical discourse that is overly conscious of Jewishness (however defined) coupled with such omissions as his leaving out the Hungarian holocaust from his recent book on the ‘fate turning’ events of the 20th century. This (current Hungarian) historical discourse helps to further the Otherness of the Jewish Hungarians which in turn is a starting point of the virulent and partly pathological political anti-semitism of the far right (which is quite strong in Hungary) and is an obstacle to the redefinition of the problematic historical issues (such as Zoltán Kovács’ above referred statement, which I believe is widely held by many – if not because of overt anti-semitism, certainly because of an unhealthy differentiation between Jews and non-Jews, which is turn is also a result of the fact that being a Hungarian is not a political category as in Western-Europe or in the US, but still an ethnic category, underscoring the quasi pre-modern features of Hungary).

    The fact that Mr. Gerő’s (no too clearly written) original article was so not understood, also shows that the methodology of historical analysis is far removed from the Western mainstream where discourse analysis is standard in progressive circles. In Hungary, partly because so few speak French, the reception of post-modern ideas, constructivism, deconstruction etc. is minimal. Interestingly I feel that Mr. Romsics’ account of the Hungarian anti-semitism is rather Marxist/materialistic.

    One more thing, which is just a hunch. The basis for the hatred felt against communists (by the conservatives) is based on a feeling of loss. There are indeed those perhaps millions who gained a lot after 1945. But there are a lot of people who had (or their parents told that that they had) a thought out life ahead of them, with all their dreams and fantasies (which might not even have been possible). That life in the fantasy (often coupled with the loss of physical assets such as real estate and imagined or real power positions, status) was gone forever (now we talk about retirement-age people). It is very hard to imagine ourselves into the life of these people whose aspirations and fantasies were gone, but my guess is that this loss of fantasy left in them (which they transferred to the next generations) an indelible scar. Since pain and personal loss is very much a subjective category, it is important not to underestimate the feelings of these people. Liberals, at least, would do it at their peril.

  13. Thank you for your kind words. I was unfortunately too busy with a lot of things and was not in Hungary, so I was not able to immerse myself properly into the debate. Plus it is another, somewhat conceptual issue to try to interpret or reinterpret Mr. Gerő’s own intentions differently from his own explanations. Although I think he tried to explain himself, he never explicitly invoked discourses so there might have been a perceived contradiction with his own words, which issue I felt (perhaps wrongly) could have side-tracked the main debate. Foucault’s ideas on discourses, however, in many ways feel a realistic description (at least to one who is at least vaguely familiar with his ideas, I myself am not an expert either), so Mr. Gerő might actually, intuitively felt the power of those discourses, but could not connect it overtly to the famous French philosopher and thus express himself more clearly.

    As a side note: if something is badly, sorely needed in Hungary then it is the reception, translation, distribution (however belatedly) of the ideas of the second half of the 20 century: Foucault, Bourdieu, Latour, Lyotard, Agamben, Butler, Said, Kristeva etc. For various reasons (language is one big issue, i.e. French – it is this reason why the Romanian professional discourses are much more up to the international mainstream) these works and ideas are completely missing (and this is not an exaggeration, if you check the CVs of philosophers, sociologist etc. teaching at Hungarian universities you simply almost never encounter articles, courses, syllabi involving these authors) from the Hungarian liberal arts, social sciences discourses. The other reason, I believe, is that these authors almost without exception defined themselves as Leftists (Marxist or even communist in some cases) and as such there is a very strong aversion in many against their influence which could weaken the conservatives’ existing level of influence (at least the self described conservatives are afraid so) on the Hungarian liberal arts/social studies fields.

  14. @BeeMovie: In my time at university in Hungary (early 90s) Foucault was extremely popular, so was Buourdiau, the Frankfurt School, and what they called “postmodernism” (I studied sociology at that time). Don’t know if they have added any other representatives of critical theory since then to the curriculum, but I’d hope so.
    Critical theory is definitely more thoroughly covered and seems to be more “trendy” here in social studies in the States… though here I am in a different field at a very different time, so it is hard to compare.

  15. @BeeMovie
    While I agree whit you in about everything, there is one aspect what I would like to call your attention to. You wrote:

    “There is a difference between racism and race consciousness and so this consciousness of Romsics and his colleagues does not necessarily mean that they are anti-semitic (although when this consciousness becomes an obsession or reaches an unhealthy level then I guess anti-semitism is a proper expression).”

    I’m aware of the distinction, and have no problem to value things at their place. However, the ‘race conscious’ approach very easily can twisted into anti-semitism and used against the will of the sober, scientific mind of the historian, used to fuel hatred and segregation.

    Unfortunately, I feel that in the contemporary Hungary we can not trust in common sense anymore.

  16. An: Well, the fact that only a very small portion of these authors’ works are available in Hungarian would suggest otherwise. I also suspect that right after the fall of communism there was a bigger enthusiasm to teach (and not just to teach in the sense of mentioning them but trying to explain them and make their ideas relevant) these thinkers, then later (i.e. these days) when the structure of Hungarian academic influences crystallized. I simply do not bump into these names in intellectual debates (maybe in the ‘nerdiest’, sorry, of debates one can hear about them, I don’t know). But again, all of these are just my feelings.

    Spectator: I agree with your point, that is what I meant, but as a matter of argument it is nevertheless an important distinction. E.g. there has been a serious debate about racism and race consciousness as part of the wider affirmative action debate. Even the black intellectual community (not surprisingly, as this is a diverse, a significant category) has been divided over whether race consciousness is a good or a bad thing (or even required; in order to properly respect someone else’s different position in society). I only wanted to make this clarification, but I agree that this ingrained curiosity (at least in certain circles) in other people (often just perceived) Jewish identity is problematic in Hungary.

  17. Foldesi Istvan : “I understand that this minor point was picked up by Mr. Kovach, but the main theme of my article is that high intellectuals have been in debt to the country and Hungarian society at large because they have not helped people understand pivotal points of history, the present situation and challenges Hungary is facing in today’s world . Major events of Hungarian history are projected into the political arena and interpreted in the light of fleeting presumed political advantage.”

    I go much further than that, it was not only for political advantage but financial advantage also. The so called (and in some cases self-annointed) intellectuals gained signifacant economis advantages by being scyphants of the regimes. While they wrote odes about the great improvements, thet did not see the life in the “munkasszallo” or in the enforced collectives. They staid in the coffee houses and association club houses and praised everybody who threw them goodies.

    It is not fair to compare Hungary in the 50s with Hungary before the war. See what happened in other countries similarly destroyed in the war who were not under the Stalin/Rakosi regimes and see how development occurred there compared with the communist countries.

    Regarding Trianon, it is not fair to look at the Trianon Treaty as an event. It was the final event of WWI where millions of Hungarians died. The memory of Trianon includes those victims also. In my family two of my uncles were lost on my father’s side and two great uncles on my mother’s side. To me their loss is also part of Trianon.

  18. “..The memory of Trianon includes those victims also. In my family two of my uncles were lost on my father’s side and two great uncles on my mother’s side. To me their loss is also part of Trianon.”

    Thank you to letting us in, Luis, I sincerely mean it.

  19. Did Dr. Balogh or anyone else have seen a census report around 1910-20 about the proportion of Hungarians and other ethnic groups on the territories lost due to the Trianon’s peace process? (i.e: Slovaks on the North, Romans on the East, Serb and Croats on the South and Austrian on the West)
    Would be interesting to see.

  20. I just got an email about Romsics coming to New Brunswick. Here are the details:

    MAGYAR ÖREGDIÁK SZÖVETSÉG — BESSENYEI GYÖRGY KÖR
    HUNGARIAN ALUMNI ASSOCIATION
    Post Office Box 174
    New Brunswick, NJ 08903 USA
    E-posta: Hungarian Alumni@aol.com
    http://www.hhrf.org/bessenyei/magyar.htm

    M E G H Í V Ó

    Romsics Gergely
    előadására:

    A vak Tisza és a farkastorkú Károlyi: Az 1918-19-es mítoszok a magyar közgondolkodásban

    2012. október 27-én
    szombat este 7:30 órai kezdettel

    a MAGYAR ÖRÖKSÉG KÖZPONTBAN
    American Hungarian Foundation
    300 Somerset St., New Brunswick, NJ

  21. Respect Beauty: This is Gergely Romsics. The one caught up in the controversy was his father (I guess), Ignác.

  22. The Gergely Romsics lecture was a revelation.
    What a tragedy, how to pack all the possible pain into the symbols of Tisza and Karolyi until these days!!!
    An aimless 100 years has started with the dissolution of the Dualism, and who will end it.
    A rebirth of the Union would be a good idea.
    Will Austria again accept Hungary as equal?
    I guess, now, Horthy can be added to the historical pain, and the patient, the nation of Hungary will never end its adopted misery.

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