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.
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.