Nora Berend is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge. She received her B.A. at Eötvös Lóránd University, Budapest, spent a year at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, and completed her studies at Columbia University where she received her Ph.D.
Her field is medieval history, especially early Christianity at the “frontiers,” to which Hungary belongs. Her first book was At the Gate of Christendom: Jews, Muslims and ‘Pagans’ in Medieval Hungary, c. 1000 – c. 1300 (Cambridge University Press, 2001).
This article was originally published in Hungarian in the December 30, 2013 issue of Népszabadság. Nora Berend generously translated her article into English for publication here.
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These days, once again people talk about the ‘Jewish question’ as if ‘the Jews’ were the cause of real problems. Those who speak of the Jewish question count Jews according to the Nazi racial laws, irrespective of the individual’s religious adhesion, self-identification or commitment to the state of Israel.
There has never been, nor is there today, a Jewish question in Hungary. On the contrary, there was, and is again, an antisemite question. Antisemitism, which is a political tool. Two types of state models can be detected throughout Hungarian history. One was based on rights: in the modern period this means that every citizen is equally a member of the state. The other model excludes certain groups in the interest of a supposed religious or racial unity. This exclusion can take many forms, from verbal abuse to murder.
There are some who believe that it is possible to stop at a certain point. For example, one can blame ‘the Jews’ for the fate of the country, and that is not antisemitism, because nobody was lined up next to the Danube and shot. Yet history has demonstrated that where hate speech spreads because it receives open or tacit state support, where some groups are seen as legitimate targets, there deeds also follow. Today antisemitism is established as a socially permitted form of thought and discourse.
What can be seen on the streets of Budapest
Because of that, for many people, the threshold of the unacceptable has risen so high, that what in other countries would cause an outcry and public scandal became defensible positions in Hungary (for example, in Germany apart from the Neo-Nazis nobody would think of counting Jews in parliament or in the historical profession, especially defining who Jews are through racial rather than religious criteria). This is a disquieting measure of the acceptability of antisemitism. But what kind of Hungarian state is being protected by those who are doing the excluding?
The desired unity that is supposed to be protected is never real: Hungary throughout its history has never been homogeneous, neither in religion nor in ‘race’. The ‘Christian’ kingdom in the past was home to a variety of pagans, Muslims, Christians who were branded heretical, and later Catholics and Protestants (who fought against each other). It was at most rhetorically that one could speak of religious unity; it never existed in reality. One can speak even less of a Hungarian ‘race’ in a country where the first known data already depict a constant mixing of peoples.
The ‘Hungarians’ already at the time of their appearance in the Carpathian basin were a mixed population, and when they settled they merged with Slavs and others found in the area. During the following centuries, the process of mixing continued. Not only national heroes like János Hunyadi, Miklós Zrínyi or Sándor Petőfi had been born to non-Hungarian parents, but even key figures in the ‘race protection’ movement such as Gyula Gömbös and Ferenc Szálasi were not ‘pure Hungarians’. Those who tried to define a Hungarian ‘race’ had to resort to a self-contradictory twisting of words: the people of Árpád and those peoples who ‘nerved together’ with them, stated Gömbös, naturally maintaining the right to decide who are unable to ‘nerve together’ with the Hungarians.
Only two real answers exist to the often repeated question, ‘What is a Hungarian?’: a Hungarian citizen, and anyone whose self-identification is Hungarian. The opposition between ‘Hungarian’ and ‘Jew’ is meaningless from every perspective apart from the antisemite’s. What antisemites gain from their antisemitism has been analysed by many, among them Károly Eötvös, defense lawyer in the Tiszaeszlár blood-libel trial in his book The great trial; Jean-Paul Sartre in his work, Anti-Semite and Jew, and Endre Ady in many of his articles. Not insignificant among those who gain in this way are those who make political capital from antisemitism. That it is possible to fall victim to one’s own political antisemitism has been demonstrated more than once.
Not long ago Csanád Szegedi, Jobbik’s representative in the European Parliament, turned quickly from a protector of Hungarians into a representative of Zionist interests in the eyes of his former party when his Jewish origin was revealed. The excuse to engineer the fall of Prime Minister Béla Imrédy (1938-1939) was the Jewish origin of one of his great-grandparents. It was during his tenure as prime minister that the first Jewish Law was accepted, and the second one, which defined Jews as a race, prepared. These cases alone show the absurdity of Hungarian antisemitism in defense of the ‘homeland’ and the nation. Those who wish to build a homogeneous nation never act in the interests of the nation, but in those of their own power.
As tools, antisemites use hate speech, exclusion, the opposition of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. Spontaneous hatred, based on discontent and ignorance exists in every society, and it can be mobilized more easily the worse people’s economic conditions are and the more hopeless their future is. But the task of the state is not to unleash and incite hatred, but rather to dispel it through information, and if necessary, to prohibit its manifestations. It would be the task of the same state to create such living conditions for its citizens that they do not grasp at the promises of hate speech as solutions in their hopelessness.
Today in Hungary it is possible to make antisemitic and anti-Roma statements and the homeless can be turned into enemies. The generation which grows up in this atmosphere learns that there are people who are not human beings: who can be humiliated, who are not protected by laws, who can be trampled upon. Today in Hungary the Roma are in the worst position from this perspective, since in their case exclusion – because of their heavily disadvantaged status as well as the physical attacks and even murders committed against them – easily turns into a question of life and death.
That the mechanism of exclusion is not tied to religion or ‘race’ is clearly seen from the fact that with the growth of poverty, the poor and homeless are beginning to be categorized as enemies. Using exclusion as a tool, nationalist blather can be sold to some people, for a while. It may seem that there are the winners. But in fact long term, the exclusionary functioning of a state only produces losers. As the Calvinist bishop Dezső Baltazár wrote between the two world wars, the rights of the Jews are a measure of human rights. Where Jews are deprived of their rights, anyone can be deprived of theirs at any time.
It is an old wisdom that history is the teacher of life; and the knowledge that we could learn from history, but we do not want to, is equally old. In Hungary, as in every other country, one can only live a human life in the true sense of the word if instead of hate, there is a protection of rights, instead of exclusion, there is respect of human dignity, instead of nationalistic slogans, there is a guarantee of the rights of citizens. True patriots do not try to figure out whom to exclude from among ‘the Hungarians’, but instead want to find a way for the Hungarian state to ensure life worthy of human beings for each of its citizens.