Archive for the ‘Adolf Eichmann’ Tag

Anti-Semitism & Zionism: Looking Back to Move Forwards   1 comment

Why its time to part company with the past, and Ken, in British politics:

Not so long ago, I posted a criticism online of an extremist, ‘Zionist’ group that had obviously ‘photo-shopped’ a picture of a swastika flying above Hebron, claiming that it had been placed there by Palestinians to incite Israelis. I pointed out, as a historian used to looking at old photographs, that the part of the picture containing the swastika was obviously taken from a picture of a World War II Zeppelin, since the rope connecting to it was coming down from the sky and not up from the tower below. Someone then added an anti-Semitic remark, something about ‘typical Jewish tactics’ to which I reacted by adding the comment that it was possible to be anti-Zionist without being anti-Semitic. My co-commenter retorted that this was impossible, and that I needed to ‘grow some balls’ in the fight against ‘the Jewish state’. Leaving aside the slur on my manhood, I realised he was right – that it was now impossible to be anti-Zionist without being anti-Semitic, in that people like him were Jew-hating supporters of Jew-killers in the conflict in Israel-Palestine and would not rest until the state of Israel had been destroyed and its people, mainly Jewish, ‘driven back into the Mediterranean’. Since then, I have read, written and published extensively about the growth of Zionism in its historical context, especially in Hungary, where it began, and where I now live, having married into a part-Jewish Hungarian family. Let me be clear. I believe in self-determination for both Jews and Palestinian Arabs in a two-state Israel-Palestine with religious freedom for Muslims, Jews and fellow Christians.

For some time now, and notably since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in Britain, I have felt tired of having to reply to numerous posts on social media (mainly on sites purporting to support the Labour Party) from those using the terms ‘Zionist’ and ‘Zionism’ without knowledge of, or reference to, this historical context, and therefore, in my view, in a way which is either inaccurate or just plain wrong. Then I got the news that the former Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, ‘left-hand’ man of the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn (his right-hand man being John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor), had been suspended for claiming publicly that Hitler was a Zionist when he came to power in 1932. So I decided to consult the sources I’ve been working on recently in connection with the Hungarian Holocaust to see what they can reveal about the development of these forces between the wars. I feel bound to state, before venturing further into this historical yet still very contemporary quagmire, that, whatever it reveals, can have only limited relevance to today’s ongoing global arguments about the management and resolution of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, since there is a ‘fault line’ running through the history of the last century which refocuses historical interpretation of the entire century in terms of what actually happened between the events of Kristallnacht in Germany in November 1938 and the setting up of the state of Israel a decade later. The displacements, dispersals, deportations and ultimate destruction of the European Jewish peoples have been fully documented are established facts of the highest order which are protected by law in many countries. Therefore, what politicians like Ken Livingstone try to do is to chip away at the bedrock of these events by seeking to re-contextualise them in order to make outrageous comments like those of Naz Shah seem mainstream, when they are far from it. There is, quite rightly, much debate over the role of Hitler’s ‘Aims’ and ‘Plans’ in determining the outbreak and course of the Second World War, comparative to a whole range of other factors, but what is indisputable is the course of what we have come to know as ‘the Holocaust’ enacted against the Jews, Roma and others whom the Third Reich and its Führer determined to be ‘undesirable’.

Additionally, we need to bear in mind that, correctly defined, both parties to the Arab-Israeli conflict are Semitic peoples in the original linguistic-cultural use of the term, and therefore much of what passes for ‘Islamaphobia’ is actually not directed against Islam, of which it is largely ignorant, but rather anti-Arab and therefore another form of anti-Semitism which also needs to be confronted and extinguished. There is therefore no rank order among the oppressed peoples of the middle east, and upholding the rights of one ethnic group does not mean trampling on the rights of another. Neither is there any need, as Corbyn has done, to conflate anti-Semitism with ‘Islamaphobia’ as a form of racism. The latter may turn into anti-Arab racism, or be confused with it, but it begins, as the term suggests, with an irrational fear of religion, and therefore has different causes to anti-Semitism. It should be treated with different remedies. We do not need an ‘independent’ enquiry to tell us this. Xenophobia is currently, sadly, rampant throughout European society, but it is its deliberate exploitation by racists that makes it so toxic.

Added to this, since former Assyrians and Persians are also Semitic peoples, a general solution to the conflicts inherent or active in the middle east cannot be found without respecting the identities of Kurds, Iraqi minorities and Iranians. At the moment, religion is being used to deny these identities in many cases, but their re-emergence and recognition is part of the secular and inter-faith campaign which is needed to defeat the tyranny and terrorism of ethnic cleansing in the region as a whole.  Zionism simply means what the name suggests, Jewish nationalism, which has a right to co-exist with every  other nationalism of Europe and the Middle East, including the legitimate demands for Kurdish and Palestinian self-determination in statehood. It’s only when such aspirations go unrecognised and get pushed into corners that they become potentially destructive.

I felt reluctant to write much more than this until Ken Livingstone’s remarks made me determined to delve back into the earlier part of the twentieth century. One reason for my initial reluctance was that I was hoping that wiser heads would prevail in the Labour Party, and would, by now, have come up with a framework for constructive discourse on the Israel-Palestine Conflict, providing parameters of acceptable uses of language for its members, many of them new to the party and new to this particular discourse. Jeremy Corbyn’s tendency to refer everything back to the ‘growth of the party at grass-roots level’ is patronising to those who have worked at this level for many decades and are more aware than he is of the challenges posed by the sudden influx of ‘unschooled’ proto-socialists. The fact that there is a concurrent conflict on anti-Semitism among students would suggest to a more pro-active or even reactive leader that this is not a problem which will simply settle down among the ‘grass roots’. His ‘Crisis? What Crisis?!’ response was also a complete abnegation of responsibility. A new fault line has opened up within the Party, and he opened it by making it clear that it was acceptable for party leaders, himself included, to appear on platforms with representatives of Hezbollah and Hamas, organisations which have as their stated aim the destruction of the state of Israel which, were they to succeed, would involve another act of genocide against Jewish people.

His election as leader has, as many of us on the mainstream Left predicted, opened a Pandora’s Box of the uglier tropes of ultra-Left ideology, and it may be impossible to get the lid back on it. However, it is not too late for him to express regret over the support implied in his own past actions, and also to distance himself from the ‘Stop the War’ campaign’s ‘Cairo Declaration’ which sought to justify attacks on British service people in Iraq. For the sake of his Party, if for no other reason, he needs to ‘draw a line in the sand’ for his fellow-travellers on its ultra-Left, whether old comrades like Ken, or new militants who have yet to come to political maturity. Unlike the other major political parties, the Labour Party has always had a set of familiar values and discourses which have to be learned by its members, sometimes the hard way. As Ken’s case proves, this is a process of lifelong learning. Just as an ‘old dog’ like Corbyn has shown himself to be capable of learning ‘new tricks’ as leader, so too all of us have gaps in our knowledge as well as our know-how, or ‘political nous’.

002

Understanding Zionism in its historical context:

So, having re-educated myself on these contemporary-historical issues, partly through living and working in the part of Europe that experienced them, let me attempt to offer a basis for genuine historical understanding. Reading Anna Porter’s book on ‘Kasztner’s Train’, together with more anti-Zionist sources from within the Budapest Jewish leadership of 1944-45, I began to understand that the British Left had failed to understand Zionism as a movement, both contemporaneously and subsequent to the Holocaust. This is because it mirrors the interpretation of ‘European Jewry’ as a monolithic collective culture and ethnicity within European society. Historically, the Left has tended to  refer to ‘the Jews’ as if they are somehow a homogeneous group, like other ethnic minorities which exist across national boundaries, when, in reality, they were just as culturally diverse as Slavs or Celts. What made, and still makes them, different, are their religious cultures, which also remain as heterogeneous as those found within Islam or Christianity, the other monotheistic faiths. At the beginning of the twentieth century it was not a foregone conclusion that their faith would continue to mark them out and marginalise them within mainstream European societies. It was their persecution in these host societies which prevented their further integration. Living in Budapest at this time, Theodor Hertzl, regarded as the founding thinker of Zionism, prophesied that what would make the case of Hungarian Jewry so tragic was that of all the Jewish populations of Europe, they were the most integrated. Like him, they tended to live close to the synagogues in the capital, but there were no ghettos to speak of. In the countryside, Jewish families were dispersed throughout villages, and the only difference between Christian and Jewish peasant children was that the first attended church and the second the synagogue. This had been the case for at least two centuries. Similar-looking children would swap places on Saturdays and Sundays, and no-one, not even their parents, noticed the friendly prank!

The Hungarian Jewish population had begun to increase significantly in the eighteenth century, after the end of the Ottoman occupation of a large part of Hungary’s crown lands, and by the mid-nineteenth century they accounted for 3.5 percent of the total population. They were mainly farmers and traders who were spread out very unevenly around the country. In Budapest twenty percent of the population was of Jewish faith and there were similar proportions in larger cities in eastern Hungary, which then included Transylvania. In the western cities of Transdanubia their number was much lower, while in the villages there it was insignificant. Unlike Jews elsewhere in eastern Europe, Hungarian Jews had had equal rights since the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, and by 1900 they seemed to have successfully integrated into wider society. Leading figures in the industrialisation and modernisation of Hungary were of Jewish faith. For decades Hungarian GDP grew at a faster pace than the European average as metropolitan Budapest grew at the same rate as Chicago or Detroit. Its Jewish people became assimilated within a growing bourgeoisie and were generally welcomed by the Hungarian political élite. The growing competition between the traditional noble hierarchy and the newer capitalist classes had not yet become a major threat to political stability, so that anti-Semitic movements were unable to attract significant support either in the capital or the provincial towns and villages. However, when the economic boom ended and capitalism began to go into crisis in the early years of the twentieth century, both Jewish and Schwabian (German-Hungarian) ‘alien’ elements began to be made scapegoats for its failures and shortcomings.

The growth of anti-Semitism and Zionism in Hungary in the 1920s:

Anti-modernity movements in Hungary first appeared in the second half of the nineteenth century and were closely associated with a gradual growth of anti-Semitism. However, as in Germany, it was the social fractures of 1918, 1919 and 1920 which brought it closer to the central focus of Hungarian national life. In 1919, a ‘Bolshevik’ Republic was proclaimed, led by Béla Kun. Unfortunately for all the Jews of Hungary, Kun and many of his associates were Jews. For the commanders who beat down the Republic of Councils (Soviets), Jews and Bolsheviks were the same thing. Traditional anti-Semites saw the whole Kun interregnum as a failed Jewish plot, ignoring the fact that Jews were also over-represented among its victims, many of whom were wealthy Jews, and that communism posed a deadly threat to the Jewish aristocrats who held 20 per cent of the nation’s wealth. This made no difference to those seeking someone to blame for the Communists’ few months in power.

As Anna Porter has pointed out, this began to change in the early 1920s when both peasants and factory workers in Hungary suffered extreme hardships, and Horthy’s new government hit on the perfect scapegoat for the country’s ills – the Jews. With the rise of anti-Semitism in Germany, they became a natural target in every country, including Hungary. In Lithuania, Poland and the Ukraine there were already pogroms, murderous rampages, against the Jews. In Germany, Juilius Streicher launched the Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer in 1923 with the ominous headline, “The Jews are Our Misfortune”. The first anti-Jewish law, the Numerus Clausus Act, was introduced in Hungary as early as 1920, the first anti-Semitic legislation in twentieth-century Europe, long before Hitler came to power in Germany. It is a frequent mistake on the Left to equate anti-Semitism with Nazism in Germany or ‘Hitler going mad’ as Ken Livingstone has, and can be viewed as a grotesque reduction  of the entire Holocaust as the responsibility of Hitler and his henchmen. Of course, many Hungarians have also tried to promote this distortion of events.

The 1920 Hungarian anti-Jewish Law limited the number of Jews at universities, teachers and students, to the same small proportion, 6%, that they represented in the population at large. The cream of Hungarian intellectuals, including almost all of those who later won the Nobel Prize, were forced to study at western European universities. A similar law also existed in Poland, and in Romania Jews were granted equal rights due to the intervention of the western allies. The Hungarian Numerus Clausus was allowed to lapse eight years later, but many contemporaries saw it as a harbinger of tougher laws to come, and they were proved right. The Regent, Miklós Horthy, declared himself anti-Semitic, but his regime moderated its virulent growth and violent eruption throughout the inter-war period in Hungary. Although it was widespread and ever-present among the ruling aristocratic classes, the élite reached a compromise with the wealthy Jews, whose industrial capital they needed. Ferenc Chorin exemplifies those industrialists of Jewish origin who became part of the political élite themselves.

Rezső Kasztner declared himself a Zionist at the age of fifteen. For him, it was a romantic rather than a political notion. “Zion” was the biblical name of ancient Jerusalem, where King David had built the fortified temple that was later destroyed by the Romans. The fifteenth-century poet Yehuda Halevi was the first to apply the term to the people of the Diaspora. The idea that the Jews would one day return to their ancient lands in Palestine attracted Rezső even before he discovered Theodor Herzl’s writings. Herzl wrote of the ingrained, centuries-old anti-Semitism among Europeans and declared that he understood the reasons for it. Although Jews had endeavoured to blend themselves into their surrounding communities while preserving their faith, they had not, he wrote, been permitted to do so. They had continued to be viewed as ‘aliens’. Yet, he observed:

My happier co-religionists will not believe me till Jew-baiting teaches them the truth.

As early as 1896, Herzl foretold the disasters of National Socialism under Adolf Hitler and warned his fellow Jews to found their own homeland before it was too late. In 1919, Britain was mandated by the League of Nations to administer and control Palestine. In 1920, following another resolution of the League, the British government agreed to the creation of a “national home for the Jewish People” in the mandate territory, as spelled out by the Balfour Declaration. The Yishuv, the Jews already living in Palestine would now be represented to both the British and the rest of the world by a new organisation, the Jewish Agency, which was composed of various Zionist factions  present in the pre-1930s World Zionist Organisation.

Rezső Kasztner had read Hitler’s Mein Kampf (My Struggle) in its first German edition, which German newspapers hailed as the brilliant work of a young genius who had a clear-eyed view of how best to solve Germany’s postwar problems. Kasztner found it to be the incoherent ranting of a poorly educated man, full of hate and ambition. Hitler’s one consistent thought was his identification of “the Jew” as the chief enemy of his herrenvolk, the Aryan master race. Like David Ben-Gurion, the chairman of the Jewish Agency in Palestine, Kasztner realized that if Hitler came to power, he would begin a war which the Jewish people would bear the brunt of. As a Hungarian journalist, Kasztner wrote about the likely effects of the era of Béla Kun’s short-lived Communist government on Hungarian politics. Kun was from Kolozsvár, then in Romania, the same Transylvanian city as Kasztner.

Porter has written that given his quick rise in society, it was surprising that Kasztner did not leave behind his Zionism. For a Kalozsvár (Cluj) Jewish intellectual in the 1920s, Zionism was unfashionable. The idea of emigrating to Palestine to live on communal farms, barely retrieved from the desert, did not appeal to urbane, integrated European citizens. Jews enjoyed public life, commerce, banking, the arts and sciences; some of them were noted scientists, writers, humorists and historians. Nor was Zionism popular among religious Jews, most of whom did not believe that Jews should return to their homeland before the advent of the Messiah. True, Rezső’s elder brother, Gyula, had emigrated to Palestine in 1924 to work on a kibbutz, but at that time the younger brother had still been in high school, and any ideas he had of joining his brother were subsequently put on hold by his father’s death in 1928, when he was still only twenty-two. Even after having joined the Ihud, one of the main Zionist organisations, and having reading Mein Kampf, when Hitler became German Chancellor, the worst that Kasztner could predict was that he would demand was that all Jews leave the German territories.

Racism, anti-Semitism & Jewish emigration in Germany between the wars:

004In Germany between 1919 and 1923 the state had been faced with coup attempts from right and left, of which the most serious, the army-backed Kapp Putsch of 1920, was only overturned by a General Strike in Berlin. German society was bitterly divided with the nationalist right completely irreconcilable to the parliamentary Weimar Republic. They blamed Jews and Marxists both for Germany’s defeat and the problems of democracy.  Anti-Semitism became the hallmark of the radical right and led to regular attacks on synagogues and the desecration of Jewish graveyards. The Nazi movement, in the form of the German Workers’ Party, had its origins in Bavaria. Hitler joined the party in September 1919 and the following February co-authored a 25-point programme which was both anti-capitalist and anti-Semitic. In April 1920 the party changed its name to the National Socialist German Workers’ Party and Hitler became its leader in July 1921. Two years later, at the height of the inflation crisis in November 1923, Hitler launched an armed coup in Munich which was crushed by the local police.

003During his nine months in Landsberg prison he wrote the first volume of Mein Kampf which became the ‘bible’ of the movement re-founded in Bamberg in February 1926. This new movement adopted a programme of ‘biological politics’ to create a ‘healthy German race’ and to stamp out ‘alien elements’.  The Nazi movement viewed the new Germany predominantly in racial terms, using the concept of biological purity which was present in the theories of racial hygiene (eugenics) popular in sections of the medical establishment throughout Europe and America. Eugenic theory suggested that human populations, like those in the animal kingdom, were subject to the laws of natural selection that Darwin had outlined in the previous century. A ‘healthy race’ required the elimination of those who had physical or mental defects, or who introduced ‘alien blood’ into the traditional ‘racial stock’. This pseudo-scientific view of racial policy was expressed by Hitler in Mein Kampf. Once in power, Hitler established an apparatus of laws and offices whose task was to cleanse the race.

005

Anti-semitism intensified. Jews were hounded from office or imprisoned in the first wave of lawless anti-Semitism in 1933. In September 1935, the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws were announced. The subsequent Reich Citizenship Law of 14 November defined ‘Jewishness’. The same day, The Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honour forbad inter-marriage and sexual relations between Jews and Germans, also those between Germans and blacks, Sinti and Roma (gypsies). These laws linked the eugenic programme with the regime’s anti-Semitism. Over the following four years, the Jewish community was gradually excluded from business and the professions, through the programme known as aryanisation. It lost citizenship and its entitlement to welfare provisions.007

006

There can therefore be little doubt that, in its own terms, the regime embarked upon a programme of ethnic cleansing from the day it took power. In this ‘peacetime’ context, Jewish emigration helped to serve this purpose, and was therefore encouraged by the Nazi state. This cannot, however, be interpreted as ‘support for Zionism’ as Ken Livingstone has attempted to suggest. About half of Germany’s Jews emigrated between 1933 and 1939, but only 41,000 of these ‘refugees’ from Nazism went to Palestine under the terms of the Ha’avarah Agreement made with Zionist organisations in Palestine on the transport of emigrants and their property from Germany. Twice this number, 102,200, found their own way to the USA, 63,500 went to Argentina and 52,000 to the United Kingdom. There was one unlikely ‘collaboration’ with the SS when training camps were set up in Germany for emigrants to acquire the skills needed in their new life in Palestine. However, by 1937 the whole process of emigration had slowed down as receiver states began to limit further Jewish immigration. The British in particular restricted the official influx into Palestine which they governed as a mandate under the League of Nations (I have written about this elsewhere on this site).

005 (2)

As Jewish emigration slowed, those left in Germany suffered an intensification of anti-Semitism sponsored by the Nazi state and movement. On 9 November 1938, at the instigation of leading racists, a nationwide pogrom destroyed thousands of synagogues and Jewish businesses. In all 177 synagogues were destroyed and 7,500 shops. Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass) did indeed signal a more violent phase in racial policy, but it was not a departure from previous practice orchestrated by the regime with the aim of driving Jewish people from their homes and out of Germany. Neither Hitler nor his henchmen cared much where they went, though if they could accelerate the exodus by encouraging Zionist emigration to Palestine, some of those henchmen saw it as a means to achieve their own ends. In ‘peacetime’, other means were not yet available.

The Racial War & ‘the Jewish Question’:

The conquest of continental Europe provided the circumstances for a sharp change in direction in German race policy away from discrimination and terror to the active pursuit of genocide. Whilst it is true that Hitler and the radical racists had no master plan for the annihilation of the Jews in 1939, their whole conception of the war was one of racial struggle in which the Jewish people above all were the enemy of German imperialism. When the Third Reich found itself ruling very large populations after the conquest of the east, it began to explore more extreme solutions to ‘the Jewish question’. The German New Order was viewed from Berlin in terms of a hierarchy of races: at the apex were the Germanic peoples, followed by subordinate Latin and Slavic populations, and at the foot of were the Jews, Sinti and Roma, ‘races’ deemed to be unworthy of existence. The policy towards them began with a programme of ghetto-building or imprisonment in camps, but in the summer of 1941 it became more violent, with Barbarossa including orders for the mass murder of Soviet Jews. In the Baltic States and Ukraine native anti-Semitism was whipped up by the German occupiers, leading to widespread massacres. There is strong evidence from the trial of Adolf Eichmann  that in July 1941 Hitler himself ordered the ‘physical extermination of the Jews’, six months before the Wannsee Conference (20 January 1942), which is often referred to as the meeting at which The Final Solution was agreed. The record from that meeting reveals that Heydrich’s plan was for the extermination of the entire Jewish population of the whole of Europe, from Ireland to European Turkey.

The systematic murder of Jews began in late 1941, and was extended to the Sinti and Roma in 1942. In 1943 Germany put pressure on Italy to release its Jewish population in 1943 and Hungary in 1944. When both states were occupied by German forces, any remaining resistance to The Final Solution was quashed and hundreds of thousands of Jews were deported and slaughtered in the death camps even after it became clear that the Reich could not win the war. Hitler was determined to achieve what he had always seen as his own chief legacy for Europe, a ‘Jew-free’ continent. This had always been his aim, as well as that of the NSDAP from its re-founding in 1926, if not sooner. There was no point at which he ‘went mad and decided to kill six million Jews’ as Ken Livingstone suggested. What he needed in order to achieve it were war-time conditions, and especially the subjugation of occupied Europe.

The dilemma for the leaderships of the European Jewish populations in general and the Zionist movements in particular, is clearly illustrated in the case of war-time Hungary. From 1938, one law after another had been passed limiting the rights and wealth of Hungarian Jews.  The most important of these were Act XV (1938), the First Jewish Law, which restricted the proportion of Jewish workers to 20 percent in some professions, the Second Jewish Law (IV, 1939), that lowered this to 6 percent and redefined ‘Jewishness’ on racial rather than religious grounds, and the Third Jewish Law (XV, 1941), the law for “protection of the race” which banned marriage between Jews and non-Jews. A fourth law followed in war-time, which confiscated land owned by Jews (XV, 1942). These laws were not a copy of the Nazi Nuremberg Laws, but were ‘tailored’ to Hungarian social conditions. To political leaders it might have seemed that the growing economic and political tensions could most easily be relieved by legal discrimination against the Jews, but those politicians whose declared aim, as in Germany, was to segregate and expel Jews from the country gained more and more room closer to the apex of power.

Hungary as an Axis Ally:

In 1941, in spite of all the laws passed and the measures taken against the Jews, Hungary still seemed to be a peaceful island among the stormy seas to its east and north. While the Jews of eastern Europe were deported to death camps or executed on the spot, in Hungary only those without Hungarian citizenship could be expelled. Most of these who were rounded up were executed by SS officers near Kamenc-Podolsky in Slovakia. In the early spring of 1941, Kasztner left Kolozsvár, now once more part of Hungary, as a result of Hungary’s alliance with Germany. Whatever was going on in the German territories, and despite the new Hungarian Jewish laws affecting Transylvanian Jews, the Jewish community was relieved to be outside the jurisdiction of the Romanian mobs. In January 1941, members of the Iron Guard had launched a rebellion to overthrow Antonescu’s Romanian government. The fascist guards hunted for Jews in villages and small towns, herded them into boxcars and left them there on the sidings for days without food and water. In Bucharest, bodies of Jews were hung on meat hooks and displayed in the windows of Butcher shops. In March, German troops arrived in Romania,  preparing to invade the Soviet Union.

The Hungarian government had closed down all the Jewish newspapers in Kolozsvár, including Új Kelet (New East), the paper that the thirty-six-year-old Kasztner had been writing for. He decided to go to Budapest, a cosmopolitan city, which he was sure would provide the assistance he sought for the Jewish refugees who were streaming over Hungary’s borders from the countries already occupied by the Third Reich. By now Kasztner had a broad-ranging knowledge of Hitler’s record on which he based his pessimistic predictions for the future of European Jewry. Budapest, he believed, would remain the safest place in eastern Europe. Nevertheless, he argued, the Reich, as a dictatorship of the Right, would not permit a dictatorship of the Left to continue as an ally, or even to continue at all. He had a letter of introduction to Ottó Komoly, the president of the Budapest Zionist Association and an author of two books about the future of the Jews. He was socially well-connected and a committed Hungarian patriot, despite his support for a Jewish homeland. “It is not a contradiction,” he insisted. “There must be a Jewish homeland, but I am not likely to live there myself.” Komoly had been introduced to Zionism by his father, a close friend of Theodor Herzl, bu he had not applied for an entry visa to Palestine. He felt comfortable in Budapest, though he warned Kasztner that the time would come when no Jew would find comfort in the city:

Too many of us have been in the window of social life. We have attracted the attention of other, less fortunate segments of the population. A person is inclined to believe in the in the permanence of favourable conditions and is reluctant to pay attention to warning signs.

That group, he thought, included himself. As in Kolozsvár, the Zionist movement divided along the same lines as in Palestine and, eventually, as it would in Israel. On the left were the Ihud (later the Mapai), the Israeli Labour Party that had been running the Jewish Agency, in effect the government in Palestine. This was the group that Kasztner had joined: the socialist Hashomer Hatzair, a youth organisation with small clubs, called ‘nests’, throughout Europe; the Maccabee Hatzair, another socialist youth movement that had been organised at Jewish high schools in the late 1930s; and the Dror (affiliated with the Ihud), which, with its leadership in Poland, had been active on Hungary’s eastern borders, helping to bring across refugees from both Poland and Slovakia. On the right was Betar, the youth wing of the Revisionists, which, led by Vladimir Jabotinsky, a Russian Jew who had emigrated to Palestine, fought bitterly with the Mapai leadership. He fostered armed resistance to both the British in Palestine and to the Germans in Europe, though, like Kasztner, he too became involved in deal-making to save lives. The Klal, or general Zionists, focused on emigration to Palestine, and the Mizrachi, the religious Zionists, saw themselves as the intellectual leaders of the Zionist movement. Despite all the alarming outside threats, the Zionists remained deeply divided along religious and political lines, each passionately opposed to the others’ points of view. This open animosity among the various groups was difficult for even the Jewish leadership to understand, as was its continuance during the German occupation of 1944-45. Despite these divisions, Kasztner knew as early as 1941 that the only Zionist organisations left in eastern Europe were the ones in Budapest.

From the spring of 1941 to the spring of 1944 the Hungarian Jewish community, uniquely in Europe, remained more or less intact. In every other country, occupied by the Reich, Jews had already been taken to extermination camps or were gathered in ghettos working under inhuman conditions. The losses among Jewish men in forced labour units of the Hungarian Army from 1942 had been heavy, but this was true of the entire Army fighting on the eastern front. Against this back-drop, the Israelite Community of Pest had remained staunchly opposed to Zionism. Its president, Samu Stern, in his acceptance speech in 1929, had warned the members of the community not to fall for the tempting words of emigration and Zionism. He believed that for the Hungarian Jews the only possible route was not to leave their traditions and not to form a separate Jewish party, but to be present in all Hungarian parties. He maintained particularly good relations with many personalities in the political establishment, and regularly played cards with Regent Horthy in his role as a Hungarian Royal Court Advisor, a nominal post and title which he had been given in 1916. Following the occupation of Hungary on 19 March 1944 he was appointed president of the Jewish Council set up by the Nazis.

Hungary under Nazi occupation:

The Hungarian historian Krisztian Ungváry has pointed out how, within days of the occupation beginning, the prominent characters of the Hungarian Jewish community found themselves suddenly cut off from their former social connections in wider society. Those whom they could previously rely upon were either arrested or removed, as the Hungarian authorities had no choice but to obey the German High Command’s representatives. These included Adolf Eichmann who, together with his colleagues, made systematic use of the Jewish Council both to calm the victims and to make them carry out as many of the anti-Semitic measures as possible. Ungváry characterises the dilemma facing the Jewish leaders as follows:

In this situation you could only choose between bad and worse, and in many cases it was not even clear which choice would be more acceptable. The conditions for open resistance were totally missing. In Hungary, the Jewish community did not separate as much from the majority in the society as it did in other eastern European countries. The overwhelming majority of Jews considered themselves assimilated with only cultural ties to their origin. They considered themselves to be Hungarian nationals. On the other hand, the Christian middle class, the segment of the majority society that was mainly in contact with people of Jewish origin, mostly showed anti-Semitic behaviour. Good examples of this were the chambers of doctors or architects which were regularly biased against their Jewish members, even taking away job opportunities from them.

In the spring and early summer of 1944, those who were interested in what was happening to Jews throughout eastern Europe had relatively broad access to accurate information, whether from Hungarian soldiers returning from the front, or from refugees escaping from Galicia. However, the plain fact is that these pieces of information did not interest a significant part, perhaps the majority, of both the non-Jewish and Jewish population of Budapest. Hungarian Jews looked down on other eastern European Jews and were unconcerned as to their fate. In any case, open resistance on the scale seen in Warsaw seemed futile and their faith in Hungarian society was not completely dead. Stern himself had no illusions about Eichmann’s aims, as he later stated:

I knew about what they were doing in all the occupied countries of Central Europe and I knew that their operation was a long series of murders and robberies… I knew their habits, actions, and their terrible fame.

Nevertheless, in a meeting with Rezső Kasztner on the afternoon of 22 March, Stern had revealed his disdain for the Zionist cause. The two men met in an elegant, old-world café that Jews of any standing would soon be forbidden from entering. A record of the meeting was made by Ernő Szilágyi, and summarised in English by Anna Porter:

Kasztner leaned toward the older man, his hands resting on the table. He pleaded as before: “The gentlemen at the Astoria know everything about us, sir – they know who we are and what we have been doing. They have had dealings with Zionists before, most recently in Bratislava. They are expecting to hear from us – in fact, they would be astonished if we did not try to make contact. They know that we are tough bargainers and that we will try to save lives. They know we deliver on our promises. “

Stern sipped his espresso.  “We don’t need help from Zionists,” he said, “A few months, and the Germans will disappear.” 

“Exactly,” Kasztner replied. “But it’s those few months we are talking about-how to survive those months. Don’t imagine, sir, that those months will be uneventful. We know what they can do. You have heard from the refugees. You must know, as I know, that obeying every order, that delivering whatever they ask for, that begging and crying at their doorsteps is useless. We are looking for an alternative to committing suicide.”

“We don’t need advice from Zionists,”  Stern repeated.

Though Stern already knew the whole story, Kasztner persisted in telling him about Dr.  Adam Czerniaków, the Warsaw engineer who was president of the Jewish Council there when almost 400,000 Jews were stuffed into the ghetto. Czerniaków had been eager to please the Germans, fulfilling their every wish, responding to their calls, a good negotiator, a professional, “just like you, sir.” Late one night, the Jewish Council was told to appear before the German commander. Word spread through the ghetto like wildfire. Nobody slept. In the crowded one-room apartments, children and adults stood by the windows, waiting, talking about what it was the Germans wanted this time. They were frightened, hungry, exhausted, beaten. During the night, the Gestapo came for the doctors, the lawyers, the other prominent Jews and their families and murdered them where they found them. At dawn, the militia arrived with dogs, hunted down more people, and packed them into waiting trucks.

008 (2)The next morning, the German commander gave Dr. Czerniaków this order: “Seven thousand Jews to be ready for transport to Treblinka tomorrow morning. Seven thousand more the next day. Seven thousand the day after tomorrow. ” The first seven thousand had already been collected by the Ukrainian militia the night before. Czerniaków knew what Treblinka meant, as did everybody else in the ghetto. The next day, the Jewish Council had a new president. Czerniaków had killed himself.

“This, sir, is the Jewish Council,” Kasztner said.

“I know the story,” Stern said, his voice hard and decisive. “It has nothing to do with us. I have my contacts with the Hungarian government, and they are confident these are temporary measures. If we keep our heads down, we shall survive. And I have my own contacts with the Germans.”

But Kasztner persisted: “Now I would like to tell you about the kind of contact Zionists in Bratislava had with the Germans.”

“I know that story, too,” Stern said, irritated…

“It is the Zionists they wish to deal with, sir. As they did in Vienna and Berlin, and Bratislava. And we are going to need money, sir, a lot of money, but more than that, we will need your trust. We must be able to represent you and the council when we go to meet Eichmann’s men…”

At that point, Stern is reported to have risen to his feet and left the café, with a dismissive glance towards Kasztner. In referring to ‘the gentlemen at the Astoria’ Kasztner meant the SS staff whom Eichmann had brought with him and who had set up a temporary HQ at the Astoria Hotel in ‘downtown’ Pest. In referring to deals in Vienna, Berlin and Bratislava, he meant the agreements the Germans had made with various Jewish leaders, including Zionists, in those cities, for the exit of large numbers of Jews to Palestine.  Over the next fortnight or so, Stern continued to call for calm, as rumours of deportations in the east began to grow. “But it’s only in the eastern provinces,” he rationalised, “You can see from the papers that there are saboteurs in these areas, and we can’t be sure that some of them are not working directly with the partisans.” However, even his daughter, Rózsa, felt increasingly nervous as the deportations from the provinces nearer by became a fact of everyday life in late April and May:

 Every day we heard the news about which town was being deported. A number of good friends and acquaintances disappeared like this. Meanwhile in Budapest, the Community, with an exact list from the Germans (lawyers, doctors, merchants, journalists, etc.) was supposed to collect people who were then interned to Csepel, Kistarca, and other places. Only through tremendous financial efforts was it possible to save some Zionists with highly respected backgrounds from the brick factories in certain towns. They were interned to Budapest until there would be an opportunity to take them to Palestine. 

The Zionist negotiations with the Nazis:

Despite the obvious fact that Kasztner was the undisputed leader of the Zionist Va’ada in the capital, on 25 April, it was Joel Brand whom Eichmann summoned to his new office in the Majestic Hotel, on the leafy Buda side of the Danube. He probably made this decision because he had seen the letters from Istanbul which were all addressed to Brand. They were concerned with the tyul, or ‘excursion’ to Palestine that Kasztner and Brand were planning together. Eichmann had decided to take over the negotiations over this ‘deal’, as Brand later testified at the SS commander’s trial:

He summoned me in order to propose a deal.  He was prepared to sell a million Jews – “goods for blood,” that was how he spoke at that time. Then he asked me a question… which sticks in my mind until today. He said: “Who do you want to have rescued – women able to bear children, males able to produce children, old people? Speak!

Kasztner asked Jozsi Winninger, the former Abwehr agent he’d known since arriving in the capital what exactly Eichmann wanted with Brand. Winninger told him that Eichmann had always dealt directly with Zionists, ‘selling’ the right-wing Austrian Zionists (or Revisionists as they were known within the movement) under Vladimir Jabotinsky’s leadership. He had also been invited to Jerusalem by Zionists, and Winninger thought that he ‘liked Zionists’. He added, jokingly, “doesn’t everyone?” When Brand and Eichmann met, according to Wiscilency’s testimony at Nuremberg, Eichmann stunned Brand by announcing that he was a Zionist and asking Brand if he had read Herzl’s book, The Jewish State. Brand nodded and thought to himself how the classic book offered the Jews the only happy solution, their own homeland, a place where they could be safe from men like Adolf Eichmann. Of course, the question was laced with heavy irony and designed to catch Brand off guard. “I know all about you!” Eichmann shouted, “You know nothing about me… I am in charge of the Aktion! In Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, it has been completed. Now it’s your turn.” Herman Krumey explained that the German war effort needed trucks and that, if the Zionists moved quickly, ten thousand trucks would buy one million lives. “Not a bad deal,” he mused, “one hundred Jews for only one truck. One truck for every one hundred lives… a great bargain, don’t you think?” Brand protested that trucks would be difficult because the Allies might think they were military equipment. Eichmann promised to give his personal undertaking that the trucks would only be used on the eastern front. Brand returned to the Zionist Central Information Office in Pest, where he met Kasztner and Komoly. They agreed to try to meet the terms and immediately began writing to the Jewish Agency offices in Istanbul and Geneva.

After further lengthy negotiations, which involved other parties as well, Kasztner made a deal with Eichmann that in return for Jews getting to Switzerland, Zionist organisations would transport the required trucks through Switzerland to Germany. As a first step, Himmler was willing for a larger transport to travel with Kasztner to Switzerland. Kasztner had the right, and responsibility, to decide who would get on the train that meant survival. He selected mainly wealthier, educated people, and of course included many Transylvanian Jews. It is only fair to point out that by choosing people he could trust to keep the secret, he was also ensuring the success of the rescue mission. He also included some poor people, who paid nothing, and negotiated for a further 20,000 Jews to be kept alive – Eichmann called them ‘Kasztner’s Jews’ or ‘Jews on ice’.

008 (3)

The Deportations of 1944 and Kasztner’s Train:

Altogether, 437,000 people were deported by train from the provinces up until July 1944, when Budapest was supposed to be evacuated of Jews. Transportations were then suspended by Himmler to divert resources to the eastern front in order to resist the advances of the Red Army through Romania, which had abandoned the Axis cause and changed sides. Hungary’s Regent also tried to agree an Armistice with the Soviet Union, but was arrested and deposed by the SS, who installed a puppet government consisting of Arrow Cross (Hungarian Fascist Party) members. From mid-October, deportations recommenced on foot, with the Red Army now surrounding the Carpathian Basin. Rózsa Stern estimated that as many as half a million Jews in total were deported from Hungary. The remaining Jewish population of Budapest comprised about a quarter of a million, about half of whom we think were either murdered by the Arrow Cross, shot on the banks of the Danube, their bodies falling into it, or starved to death in the ghetto which they set up (I have quoted more about these conditions from Rózsa’s diary elsewhere on this site). The deportees on the Kasztner train numbered 1,684. Rózsa and Gyuri, her husband, were among the ‘privileged ones’ as she described them, those who ‘had a little hope to survive’:

One day my father told us that if we wanted to leave Budapest, there would be one more chance to make ‘aliyah’ to Palestine with the Zionists. This was the particular group I already mentioned. Gyuri, without any hesitation, decided to take the trip, even though this was also very dangerous. He couldn’t take all the stress and humiliation any more, or that so many of our good acquaintances had been taken into custody at Pestvidéki… We received news every hour: in Újpest and Kispest they are already deporting people, and on July 5th it will already be Budapest’s turn… In spite of the immunity that we were entitled through my father – and the protection of the German soldier who was ordered to live with us by the Gestapo (he was protecting us from the cruelty of the Hungarian gendarmerie) – Gyuri decided that we should take this opportunity and leave. 

001

Despite this decision, they were still hesitating on the eve of their departure, 29 June, when ‘Mr K.’, Resző Kasztner, ‘who started this aliyah’, came to see them and brought news that forced them to make a final decision. He also tried to persuade Samu Stern to leave, because, he said, “if there are no mice, there is no need for a cat either.” He reassured them that he had a firm promise that they would reach their destination, and that the best proof of this was that he and his whole family would be going with this ‘aliyah’. Unlike his family, Samu Stern decided to stay in Budapest, and somehow survived the terror of the Arrow Cross rule of the winter of 1944-45. However, when the Soviet troops arrived, he was accused of collaboration. The police started an investigation against him, but he died in 1946 before his case could go to court. His activity in 1944, maneuvering between cooperation and collaboration, is still controversial, but it is not the topic under discussion here. However, when considering the question of his anti-Zionism in relation to the potential for Jewish resistance, we need also to notice the total indifference of the Hungarian authorities in Budapest towards the fate of the Jewish population as well as the active involvement of the gendarmerie in the deportations which took place from the countryside.

Kastner’s train was taken on a round-about route to Bergen-Belsen and then in two groups to Switzerland. This group, comprising 318, including Rózsa Stern and her husband and relatives, arrived in Switzerland relatively quickly, while the other could only pass the German-Swiss border in December 1944. About a dozen people died on the way. His personal courage cannot be doubted, since he returned from Switzerland to Nazi Germany to rescue more people.

The aftermath of the Holocaust and its survivors :

After the war, Kasztner was a witness at the trials of major war criminals in Nuremberg, including defence witness for Kurt Becher, the SS officer who concluded the negotiations with him in 1944, who later settled in Israel. In 1953 Kasztner was accused in a newspaper article of collaborating with the Nazis. Since he wanted to have a political career in Israel, he decided to try to clear his name by filing a lawsuit. However, the court convicted him of libel, saying that he had “sold his soul to the devil”. The case turned into a scandal in Israel at a time when the domestic political scene was toxic. The survivors whose lives had not been saved by the train, and whose family members were killed in Budapest, saw Kasztner as a mean, calculating collaborator. As a consequence of the lawsuit, the Israeli government had to resign and the Israeli political right called their political opponents Gestapo agents. This was the first time that the general public in Israel and the world became aware of the negotiations that had taken place between the Nazis and Zionist organizations. Kasztner’s family were subjected to a hate campaign which included violence against his daughter, and it culminated with his shooting in front of his apartment in Tel-Aviv on 3 March 1957. He died twelve days later. In 1958 the Supreme Court of Israel acquitted him of all charges except one, that of helping Nazi war criminals to escape prosecution. Kasztner’s act of “making friends with the devil” in order to save Jewish lives still divides the shrinking number of survivors throughout the world, not just in Israel and Hungary.

009

For that reason, if for no other, the politicians of the later twentieth century, of whom Ken Livingstone is one held in high esteem by many, should know better than to associate the names of Adolf Hitler and his henchmen with Zionism. They are deliberately opening old wounds in order to encourage anti-Zionism and justify anti-Semitism in the process. They should leave it to the historians to examine and interpret the evidence, and hand over the task of ridding British society of xenophobia, racism and anti-Semitism to a new generation in a new century with fresh moral challenges and choices.

Andrew James, May 2016   

Sources:

Zsolt Zágoni (ed.), (2012), From Budapest to Bergen-Belsen: A Notebook from 1944. Budapest: The Author.

Anna Porter (2007), Kasztner’s Train: The True Story of an Unknown Hero of the Holocaust. London: Constable.

Richard Overy (1996), The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Third Reich. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

 

 

 

Britain’s Refugee Record: Myth or Reality?   Leave a comment

Over the past year, as the tide of inter-continental migration has battered onto Europe’s eastern shores and frontiers, not least at Hungary’s new steel curtain, government and opposition spokesmen in Britain have made much of Britain’s proud record of coming to the aid of refugees, largely as means of defending the country over its failure to rescue those in the Eastern Mediterranean who would rather risk their lives crossing from Turkey than go without hope for themselves and their families in the overcrowded, makeshift camps on the borders of Iraq and Syria. Today, 15 March, marks the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the civil war in Syria, so that the refugee problem in the region has now lasted almost as long as that experienced in Eastern Europe in the Second World War.

Of course, Europe’s refugee problems of the inter-war period did not begin in 1939. Already in 1936 there were large numbers of refugees from fascism leaving both Spain and Germany. The capacity of the British people to welcome children, in particular, from the Basque country and Nazi Germany, in the wake of the bombing of Guernica and Kiristallnacht in 1938, has become legendary, the efforts of the Quakers and individuals like Nicholas Winton in the transport and settlement of the young ones especially so. This was at a time when Britain was experiencing its own internal migration crisis, with millions of miners and shipyard workers moving south and east from valleys and estuaries where traditional industries had suddenly come to a halt. Only from 1938, with rearmament, did the human exodus, bringing half a million workers and their families from south Wales alone since 1920, begin to slow. Government support for the distressed areas, which it renamed ‘Special Areas’ in 1936, had been grudging, and it was only at that time that they began to support the migration of whole families and communities which had been underway for more than a decade, organised by the migrants themselves.

Then when we look at what the British governments themselves did to help the Jewish populations to reach safety in Palestine, a very different story emerges, and one which present-day ministers would do well to remember. I’ve been reading Anna Porter’s book, Kasztner’s Train, which gives a quite comprehensive survey of the organised attempts at exodus by those trying to escape from the holocaust which began engulfing them as soon as the Nazis invaded Poland. Their determination to reach their ancient homeland had been articulated by the Budapest-born founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, six-score years ago, when he wrote in The Jewish State in 1896:

Palestine is our ever-memorable historic home. The very name of Palestine would attract our people with a force of marvelous potency… We should there form a portion of a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism. We should as a neutral state remain in contact with all Europe, which would have to guarantee our existence… We should form a guard of honor about these sanctuaries, answering for the fulfillment of this duty with our existence. This guard of honor would be the great symbol of the solution of the Jewish question after eighteen centuries of Jewish suffering.  

017016

Above: Hungary and Central-Eastern Europe in the Second World War

Rezső Kasztner was born a decade later (1906), in Kolozsvár, then in Hungary, now Cluj in Romania, as it was after its annexation after the Paris Peace Treaties of 1918-21 until its re-awarding to Hungary by Hitler in 1938. The idea that the Jews one day return to Palestine attracted Kasztner to Zionism as a young teenager, even before he had read Herzel’s writing. When he did, he could accept Herzel’s foretelling of the disasters of National Socialism under Hitler because he had also read Mein Kampf, in its first German edition. Like David Ben-Gurion, the chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive in Palestine, Kasztner realised that if Hitler came to power, the Jewish people would bear the brunt of the war which would follow.

Map of the Sykes–Picot agreement, which was signed by Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot on May 8, 1916.

Above: The Division of The Middle East by the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

Palestine had been the one sure destination for Jews fleeing from Europe, but, as German enthusiasm for Jewish emigration grew in the early years of the Reich, so did Arab resistance to Jewish immigration. The sporadic riots that began in 1936 soon culminated in a full-scale Arab rebellion against British rule over Jewish immigration. About six hundred Jews and some British soldiers were killed, with thousands more wounded. The British government’s priority was to protect the Suez Canal, the jugular vein of the Empire, as it was described by contemporaries, was determined to appease the Islamic in its north African colonies, and so commissioned a  White Paper on a new policy for Palestine to replace that determined by the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement. Its effect was to limit Jewish immigration to twelve thousand people per year. Peace with the Arabs was to be of greater strategic importance as world war threatened than peace with the small number of Jewish settlers in Palestine and the powerless, if still wealthy, Jewish population of Europe. The British authorities soon amended the numbers to a maximum of a hundred thousand immigrants over five years, to include ‘refugees’ who arrived without proper entry certificates, but after 1941 the Palestinian Arabs would have the right to veto any further Jewish immigration.

Compared with the numbers under threat from the tidal waves of anti-Semitism sweeping across Europe, in Hungary from the enacting of a stronger version of its first Anti-Jewish Law in 1938, the numbers to be admitted to Palestine by the British were pitifully small. In the pages of Új Kelét (New East), Kasztner’s Hungarian-Jewish newspaper in Kolozsvár, he thundered out the headline Perfidious Albion. In exchange for political expediency, Britain had shut the gate to the only land still open to the Jews. Winston Churchill, still in the ‘wilderness’, accused the British government of setting aside solid engagements for the sake of a quiet life. He charged it with giving in to threats from an Arab population that had been increasing at a rate faster than Jewish immigration:

We are now asked to submit to an agitation which is fed with foreign money and ceaselessly inflamed by Nazi and fascist propaganda.

Refugees from Poland, Slovakia, Austria, and Germany itself poured over the borders of both Hungary and Transylvania, with only the clothes they were wearing. There were no rules to control the fleeing Jews, though some of the border guards made it difficult even for ethnic Hungarian Jews, insisting that they should recite to prove that they were ‘genuine’ Christian refugees, and not ‘just Jews’. Despite specific prohibitions from the Budapest government on the provision of aid to the refugees, Kasztner set up an information centre in Kolozsvár. He elicited help from local charitable organisations, providing temporary accommodation, food and clothing, but his main concern was to provide the Jewish refugees with safe destinations. He sent telegrams to the Jewish Agency in Tel Aviv, asking for help and funds to buy passages on ships and to pay bribes to local officials. The Agency’s staff were restricted by the British administration as to how far they could assist, especially in respect of how many visas they could issue according to the imposed limits. These were never enough, so they secretly began encouraging illegal immigration. The Agency had already set up an office in Geneva to monitor the situation in Europe, and it soon began to help with both legal and illegal migrants. Following the British White Paper, all Yishuv leaders had been supporting illegal immigration to Palestine, or aliya bet, as it was known.

To help Jews escape from the increasingly dangerous situation in Europe, the Jewish Agency paid the going rate for the passage of forty-five ships between 1937 and 1939. In 1939 alone, thirty ships, legal and illegal, sailed through the Black Sea ports through the Bosphorus and on to Palestine. Kastner obtained exit visas from the Romanian government, despite the efforts of the British to persuade Romanian  officials not to allow the departure of the overcrowded boats. He was certain that the British would have to allow the refugees to land once they arrived at the harbour in Haifa. Of course, both officials and shipowners were willing to take part in this lucrative trade in ‘people smuggling’, selling passages from the Romanian port of Constanta to Istanbul and then on to Palestine. Refugees set out down the Danube, from ports on the Black Sea, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey.

Once the immigration quota for 1941 was filled, the British began their blockade of Palestine, fearing an all-out Arab revolt in the Middle East and North Africa. Several ships carrying illegal immigrants were apprehended by the Royal Navy. Conditions on these ships were so squalid that some people who had escaped from Nazi persecution at home now opted for suicide by water. The refugees who managed to reach Palestine were herded into detention camps. Those with valid passports were sent back to their countries of origin, where many were later murdered by the Nazis, or deported to concentration camps. A few thousand had been sent to Mauritius in late October 1940, and several thousand had ended up in Shanghai, where no-one had even thought of setting immigration limits, and where full-scale war did not break out until after Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

On one ship, the Atlantic, a group of Jewish saboteurs, members of the Haganah (the Jewish ‘underground’ whose members undertook illegal operations, including immigration), decided to disable the vessel so that the British could not force it to leave Palestinian waters. Inadvertently, they  caused an explosion which killed 260 people on board, many of them women and children. To make sure that would-be immigrants were aware of the dangers facing them on a sea crossing, the BBC reported the casualties, the deaths, and the redirecting of ships. Not wishing to incite the sympathy of the British people for the plight of the refugees, however, the officials made sure that the details were only included in broadcasts to the Balkans and eastern Europe.

Kasztner arrived in Budapest in the Spring of 1941. He continued to focus on his political contacts, working to gain sympathy for renewed emigration to Palestine even though Britain kept the borders and ports closed. Jewish emigration was not expressly forbidden by Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler until late October 1941. The Palestine Office was on Erzsébet Boulevard, near the National Theatre. When Kasztner first went there, he met a group of young Zionist pioneers, or halutzim, from Slovakia, who wanted everyone to hear about the brutal deportations they had witnessed. Only a few young people tried to escape: they had heard stories from the Polish refugees, and they suspected a fate that their parents refused to believe. They hid in closets, cellars, and lofts, or in bushes along the riverbanks. They found the Hungarian border during the night.

In the Palestine Office, desperate people waited to hear if they were on the lists of those who had been chosen for the few Palestine entry tickets that were still available. Kasztner wondered if there would be more certificates, now that most of the offices in other countries had closed, or, as was the case in Warsaw, been closed by the Germans. Surely the British would open the borders to Palestine now that Europe was in flames? 

Not until the case of the ss Struma, however, did British policy toward Jewish refugees receive worldwide attention. An old, marginally refurnished, British-built yacht, the Struma had set out from Constanta in Romania in December 1941 with 769 Jewish refugees on board. The Greek shipowner had sold tickets for the voyage at exorbitant prices, aware that few ships would risk the voyage and that, for most of the passengers, the Struma offered their last, best chance to survive. The vessel arrived at Istanbul with a broken engine, the passengers crowded together with barely enough room to sit and no fresh water, food, sanitation, or medicine for the ailing children or those suffering from dysentery.

The ship remained in Istanbul for two months, during which time no-one was allowed to disembark or board, though the Jewish Agency succeeded in distributing food and water. The British government had put pressure on the Turks to block the ship’s entry and to prevent it leaving for Palestine. There was some discussion about lifting the women and children off the ship, followed by an exchange of cables involving the Foreign Office, the Turks, the Jewish Agency and the governments of the USA, Romania and the Reich. Eventually, the ship was towed out of the harbour. An explosion ripped open the hull, and the ship sank. There was a solitary survivor. Whether the explosion was the result of a bomb on board or a Soviet torpedo, all those familiar with the story at the time blamed Britain’s intransigence. On the walls of the Jewish areas of Palestine, posters appeared bearing the photograph of Sir Harold MacMichael and the words:

Known as High Commissioner for Palestine, WANTED FOR THE MURDER of 800 refugees.

Great Britain had declared war on Hungary on 7 December 1941, the same day that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Tied to Japan by the Tri-Power Act, Hitler had declared war on the United States on 11 December. The next day, the American ambassador departed from Budapest, as the US no longer regarded Hungary as an independent nation, though it did not formally declare war until June 1942. The fate of Hungary’s Jews, and those of the rest of Europe, was then effectively in the hands of the Third Reich, as was the fate of Hungary itself. Nevertheless, by February 1942, an anti-Fascist front in the guise of the the Hungarian Historical Memorial Committee had come into being. It first step was a mass rally on 15 March, the anniversary of the outbreak of the 1848-9 Revolutionary War, at the Petöfi monument in Budapest, demanding independence and a democratic Hungary.

In January 1942, Hungarian military units had executed more than three thousand civilians in the recently occupied parts of Yugoslavia, the Délvidék, or southern lands, as Hungarians referred to those territories which had been awarded to Yugoslavia by the Treaty of Trianon. Those ‘executed’ included 140 children, who, according to one of the commanding officers, “could grow up to be enemies”. A third of the victims, it was estimated, were ethnic Hungarian Jews, who it was claimed had joined the Serbian partisans. A military tribunal was held to decide who was to blame for this atrocity, but not before the guilty commanders were able to find refuge in Germany. The flood of refugees into Hungary now included Jews from the Délvidék, who arrived with terrible tales of mass executions: people had been thrown into the icy waters of the Danube , those in charge continuing the killings even after receiving orders to stop.

However, even amidst harsh discriminatory laws, which made mixed-marriages illegal and denounced ‘inter-racial’ sexual relations as a crime of defamation of race, the lives of most Jews in Hungary were not in immediate danger until 1944. As a result of this, about a hundred thousand Jews sought and found refuge in Hungary from Slovakia, Romania and Croatia, where they had been exposed to pogroms and deportation to death camps from early 1942 onwards. They joined the Polish Jews who had taken refuge in the capital at the beginning of the war.

In hindsight, it is surprising that the extermination camps were not anticipated in Budapest and elsewhere. As early as July 1941, Göring had issued a directive for the implementation of the Final Solution. The Wannsee Conference had also taken place in January 1942, at which ‘Hangman Heydrich’ had boasted openly that that Solution involved eleven million Jews, all of whom would be selected for hard labour, most of whom would die through natural dimunition, the rest of them being killed. The President of the Jewish Council in Budapest, Samuel Stern, an anti-Zionist, remained confident that these terrible stories were isolated incidents. Scientifically regulated extermination facilities were impossible to imagine. He told Kasztner:

In the months to come, we may be left without money and comforts, but we shall survive.

Why, after all, would the Germans sacrifice men, transportation and scarce resources to murder unarmed civilians with no means of defending themselves? Nevertheless, The Times in London reported from Paris that four thousand Jewish children had been deported to a Nazi concentration camp. In the House of Commons, Churchill gave a scathing address, broadcast by the BBC, and heard throughout Budapest:

The most senseless of their offences… is the mass deportation of Jews from France, with the pitiful horrors attendant on the calculated and final scattering of families. This tragedy illustrates… the utter degradation of the Nazi nature and theme.

At the end of 1942, there was still hope that refugees could slip through the German dragnet in exchange for bribes and, if the Hungarians allowed free passage for boats down the Danube, they could find a passage to Palestine from one of the Black Sea ports. The Jewish Agency in Palestine issued a statement condemning Britain’s breach of faith with the Jewish people:

It is in the darkest hour of Jewish history that the British government proposes to deprive Jews of their last hope and close the road back to their Homeland.

The British government refused to budge. In fact, as some Zionist leaders continued to support illegal immigration, it tightened the conditions for emigration to Palestine, declaring that from that point onwards, all illegal immigrants would be carefully deducted from the overall ‘legal’ quota totals. At the same time, the UK demanded that neutral nations, such as Portugal and Turkey, deny Jews transit to Palestine, and that their ships should stop delivering them to any port close to Palestine. The Foreign Office began to seek other settlement opportunities for the refugees in Australasia, Africa and South America, but without success. Ottó Komoly told Kasztner that there was…

…strong evidence to suggest that the British would rather see us all perish than grant one more visa for that benighted land. It’s a protectorate only because they want to protect it from us.

Despite mounting evidence of the persecution of Jews under the Third Reich, the British government adhered to its established limits on Jewish immigration throughout 1943. Neutral nations, such as Switzerland and Portugal did not want more Jews crossing their borders. Both the US and Britain tried to persuade Portugal to accept a sizable Jewish settlement in Angola, and they agreed to bribe the Dominican Republic with three thousand dollars per head, but neither of these measures could help alleviate the magnitude of the problem.

It was only in January 1944 that the United States created the War Refugee Board, charged with taking all measures within its power to rescue victims of enemy oppression who are in imminent danger of death and otherwise to afford such victims all possible relief and assistance consistent with the successful prosecution of the war. Even then, visas were often denied on the basis that the applicants had relatives in enemy countries, though most of them were, if still alive, on their way to the gas chambers by this time. Two affidavits of support and sponsorship were also required from “reputable American citizens”, attached to each application. It would have been difficult to invent a more restrictive set of rules. A joke was making the rounds in Budapest at the time:

A Jew goes into the US Consulate to ask for a visa. He is told to come back in 2003. “In the morning,” he asks, “or in the afternoon?”

002

Above: Apostág Synagogue, Bács-Kiskun County.

007

 

In any case, the setting up by the US of its War Refugee Board was too little, too late. On 19 March 1944, the Reich occupied Hungary, and Adolf Eichmann was put in charge of its primary objective – the annihilation of the Jews of Hungary and its surrounding territories. Within three months, the entire Jewish population from the rural areas, some 440,000 souls, had been deported, mainly to Auschwitz.

018

The fate of the Budapest Jews, another 250,000, swelled by the refugees from other countries of central-eastern Europe, hung in the balance. Samuel Stern accepted, reluctantly, that the Zionists and Kasztner were right and he was wrong. Their only guarantee of survival was to buy their way out of the city and onto trains which would begin their journey to Palestine, whatever the British may say or do. Of course, we shall never know what would have happened had the Allies acted sooner to set up a proper system to enable the refugees to find asylum and eventually resettlement, most – though perhaps not all – of them in Palestine or the USA. However, whatever the generosity shown by ordinary people towards refugees, it is clear that governments have a responsibility to act on behalf of the victims of war and persecution. Now we have supra-national governments and international organisations, can we apply these lessons?

Sources:

Anna Porter (2007), Kasztner’s Train. London: Constable.

László Kontler (2009), A History of Hungary. Budapest: Atlantisz Publishing.

 

Horthy, Hitler and The Hungarian Holocaust, 1936-44.   1 comment

Part One: Chronology And Narrative:

There has been a lot of historical, even hysterical (!) hype about the centenary of the outbreak of World War One, or The Great War as it was known until the 1940s. However, this has come mainly from Britain and western Europe, for although the war began with Austria’s declaration of war on Serbia following the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in July 1914, from a central European perspective there are far more significant anniversaries coming up this year.

One of them, in Hungary, is the German occupation of March 1944, which led not only to the Hungarian Holocaust but also to the loss of Hungarian independence for the next forty-five years as the country was consecutively occupied by first the Nazis and then the Soviets. Undoubtedly, the dismemberment of the country by the western European powers as a result of the 1914-18 War was a major contributing factor to Hungary’s plight and dilemma in the second world war, but there is also a great deal of debate over the relative responsibilities of Hungarian politicians and diplomats in the events of 1936-44.

The last edition of The Hungarian Review (November 2013) contained a series of important articles on this period and these issues, which I wish to summarise here, together with re-iterating some of my own recent research, in an attempt to shed light onto them, rather than the heat which has been generated in recent months over the attempts to rehabilitate and exonerate the Regent, Admiral Horthy, and others. In a recent edition of The Budapest Times, an eminent Hungarian historian made the erroneous claim that had Horthy resigned following the occupation of Hungary, the Jews of Budapest would not have survived the Holocaust.

James C Bennett and Michael J Lotus have argued that there was a strong liberal streak in pre-World War One Hungary, as the Dual Monarchy felt its way towards a less authoritarian solution to its complex multi-ethnic composition. Vienna, Budapest and Prague were important centres of art, music, theatre, science and technology during the Belle Époque. Many of the brilliant minds generated were forced into exile, enriching America. Had the 1914-18 War not intervened, Budapest might well have become the centre of atomic physics research, rather than Chicago. They point out that rather than following an ‘Atlantic’ model of development, ‘the peoples of Eastern and Central Europe must probe their own historical roots, to determine which “continuities” should be cultivated, and which need to be overcome.  A dense web of cooperative institutions along the Danube might grow up along the Danube, returning central Europe to its more natural community of the Dual Monarchy, but without the subordination of Slavic ethnic groups which led to its demise in 1918-20, confirmed by the Paris Peace Treaties. They envisage the reconstruction of a Central Europe that is ‘free and stable… orderly and prosperous, in accordance with its inherited culture.’

In the first part of her writing on the book of the Hungarian inter-war diplomat, Domokos Szent-Iványi, Nóra Szekér argues that modern European history has largely been written by the victors, to the exclusion of the ‘what ifs’ raised by, for example, Bennett and Lotus. The two world wars were won by the West, not by the central-Eastern powers, a view strengthened by its victory against the Soviet Union in the Cold War.  So, if we seek to evaluate the period of Hungarian history in which Szent-Iványi was operating and writing about, we see it as part of the most tragic years experienced by Hungary even in the course of a thousand-year narrative which is a liturgy of tragedy. Burdened by these events, people tried to make a stand while at the same time adapting to historical necessities. Judging lives lived in these conditions, within ‘morally corrupt dictatorships’,  from the viewpoint of the victor is therefore misleading.

So, she asks, what can sympathetic foreign observers learn from these decades, the thirties and forties in Hungary?  To go beyond sympathy seems to be her answer since that perspective divides our vision between respect for sacrifice on the one hand and condemnation on the other. The lessons need to go deeper and to begin with the tragedies within the Soviet occupation which should lead western historians to question whether the victorious powers used the full potential of their victory. Szekér refers back almost a century to Oswald Spengler’s famous book, The Decline of the West, in which he criticised the European way of thinking about history. He argued that Eurocentric historical thinking saw Western Europe as the steady pole around which all Cultures, existing over the millennia, both far and near,  were made to revolve ‘in all modesty’. All global history is therefore made to revolve around the ideal measure of the West, and all events and stories are judged in ‘the real light’ of this axis. Even the history of western Europe itself is therefore obscured by its own distorted centrality.

006

The history of the era of the two world wars proves that East Central Europe’s history is organically connected to the history of the continent as a whole. The extent to which the Entente powers misunderstood the region is shown by the peace treaties meant to end the conflicts. Domokos Szent-Iványi was consciously trying to educate his western European and American readers, writing from the perspective of the social and political traditions of Hungary. He was born in Budapest in 1898, the fourth child of a Transylvanian gentry family which was able to live comfortably on the income from their estates. After studying economic and political geography and literature at the Sorbonne and the University of Vienna, he became a Hungarian diplomat in North America, studying international law as well as English language and literature there. When he became a legal clerk at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1926 he already spoke seven languages. He saw clearly, at first hand, the increasingly definitive role of the United States as a great power. On his return to Hungary, István Bethlen, PM, wanted to make him his advisor, but Bethlen then resigned in 1931, and it wasn’t until 1935 that he was able to fulfil this role.

The continuing rancour felt by most Hungarians over the failure of the western powers to address the injustices of Trianon, combined with the Depression, led to the rise of a radical right-wing in Hungary, and in 1932, Regent Horthy named one of their leaders, General Gömbös, as PM, with the restrictions that he could not dissolve Parliament or enact anti-Semitic legislation. However, Gömbös took Hungary into an alliance with Italy and sought support from Germany. Gömbös died in 1936 and was replaced by Kálmán Darányi, an ultra-conservative. Despite the obvious gulf in their views, Darányi needed Szent-Iványi’s linguistic abilities and he therefore became his personal secretary. By then, he had already become part of Count Pál Teleki’s circle of young men whom the geographer felt capable of building a sovereign, modern post-Trianon Hungary, able to resist German influence in the region.

In the Spring of 1938, following the German annexation of Austria, Darányi legalised the right-wing, anti-Semitic, violent Arrow Cross, and introduced anti-Semitic legislation. The Darányi government in Hungary passed a series of anti-Jewish laws based on Germany’s Nürnberg Laws. The first, passed on May 29th, 1938, restricted the number of Jews in each commercial enterprise, in the press, among physicians, engineers and lawyers to twenty per cent.

013It is worth remembering, though not in order to absolve Darányi or any of the other ministers who were responsible for these fateful decisions, that casual anti-Semitism was still widespread throughout Europe at this time, not just confined to those countries falling increasingly under the shadow of Nazism, like Hungary. Harold Nicolson had supported Balfour’s pro-Zionist Declaration as a young diplomat in 1917, and in April 1919 he found himself travelling to Budapest with General Smuts, the South African member of the British War Cabinet. At the end of March, a communist revolution had taken place in Hungary, led by Béla Kun. For the world’s leaders gathered in Paris, the spectre of Bolshevism was haunting their efforts to achieve lasting peace settlements. For them, it threatened widespread starvation, social chaos, economic ruin, anarchy and a violent, shocking end to their old order. In particular, there were real and justified fears that Germany would also go Bolshevist, one of Lloyd George’s main themes. In this atmosphere, Béla Kun’s strike for communism in one of the most populous and prestigious capitals of central Europe had alarmed the Supreme Council. When the train stopped in Vienna, Harold was sent to the Hungarian ‘headquarters’ to warn the Kun’s Bolshevik government of Smuts’ imminent arrival. He found the ’embassy’ crowded with ‘men, women and children scrambling for passports’. He observed that ‘nearly all are Jews, struggling to get to Buda Pesth and the hope of loot’. The commissar-in-charge, ‘a Chicago-educated Galician Jew’ was brought along to Budapest to translate since Kun spoke only Hungarian. Smuts, unwilling to show any sign of recognising the new regime, conducted negotiations from the wagon. ‘The Jew Bolshevik’, as Nicolson called him, was called for and Harold was sent to meet him. He saw him as ‘a little man of about thirty: puffy white face and loose wet lips: shaven head: impression of red hair: shifty suspicious eyes: he has the face of a sulky uncertain criminal.’ Nicolson viewed the Foreign Minister accompanying Béla Kun with equally hostile eyes: ‘a little oily Jew – fur-coat rather moth-eaten – stringy green tie – dirty collar’.

019

In the interval in negotiations, Nicolson decided to visit Budapest, a city he had last visited during his father’s diplomatic posting there before the War. ‘The whole place was wretched’ he wrote, ‘sad, unkempt.’ He took tea at the Hungaria, Budapest’s leading hotel. Although it had been ‘communised’, it flew ‘a huge Union Jack and Tricolour’, a gesture of goodwill. Red Guards with fixed bayonets patrolled the hall, but in the foyer what remained of Budapest society ‘huddled sadly together with anxious eyes and in complete, ghastly silence.’ Smuts concluded that ‘Béla Kun is just an incident not worth taking seriously.’  On 10th April, the day after Harold wrote this letter to Vita Sackville-West, a provisional government was set up in Budapest reflecting the old Hungarian cliques, consisting of Count Julius Károlyi, Count Stephen Bethlen, and Admiral Horthy de Nagybanya, Nicholas (‘Miklos’). Béla Kun fled the capital on 1 August in the face of invading Romanian armies. In  February 1920, after the Romanians retreated, Horthy was appointed Regent and head of state. Kun went into exile in the USSR where he became a victim of one of Stalin’s purges in 1936. By then, the spectre of this ‘incident’ had haunted Hungary’s inter-war policies, and the casual association between Bolshevism and the Jews of Hungary was aided by, ironically, their integration into Hungarian society as well as by the determination of the ruling, aristocratic élite not to let the Bolsheviks back. If Harold Nicolson, educated at Oxford, was capable of making such associations so casually in his letters home, how much more commonplace should we expect to find such associations to be made in communications between Hungarian members of this old order in Europe.

021

Nevertheless, the pro-German, pro-Nazi groups in Hungary were relatively weak until the autumn of 1938. The turning point seems to have arrived with the Bled-Kiel incident of August 1938. The Bled Agreement was signed on 29 August, under which the ‘Little Entente’ powers of Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia agreed to recognise Hungary’s equal right to armament and guaranteed observation of the rights of Hungarian ethnic minorities in their own territories, while Hungary renounced the use of force to re-annexe territories ceded at Trianon. Simultaneously, on the invitation of Hitler, Regent Horthy visited him in Kiel. Hitler considered Hungary’s agreement with the Little Entente as a ‘stab in the back’ By then he was preparing to carve up Czechoslovakia, in which he counted on Hungary’s active participation, including military action. As part of this process, he hoped to bring about the collapse of the Little Entente, whereas Hungary seemed to be strengthening it. The Kiel negotiations collapsed with Horthy and the delegation returning home with German reproaches still ringing in their ears. Following the Munich Agreement later that year, Hungary urgently needed a  rapprochement with Hitler.

The most important of these groups, according to Domokos Szent-Iványi, was the General Staff of the Hungarian Honvédség (Army) which, especially during the tenure of the Chief of Staff Henrik Werth (October 1938-September 1941) became ‘a state within a state’. Of course, it was the Regent who was solely responsible for his appointment, before Darányi’s resignation as PM. Although loyal to Horthy as Head of State, he was clearly pro-German, partly as a result of his Swabian origins, which he shared with many Hungarians at this time. Indeed, despite the deportations which followed the War, Hungary still has significant bilingual Swabian minority populations. Werth was also clearly political, believing that the revision of the post-Trianon borders could only be achieved through co-operation with Germany, especially given Germany’s growing military strength. In one of his situation reports of 1939, Werth went so far as to say that Hungary “had to stick to Germany, durch Dick und Dünn…”  (under all circumstances) even in the inconceivable case of Germany losing the war.

Werth had been recommended for the post of Chief of Staff by General Lajos Keresztes-Fischer, who with his brother Ferenc was a great favourite of Horthy. That this appointment was a blunder of the first order on the part of the Regent was later proved by the activities of Wert and his inner circle of collaborators. Their activities helped lead Hungary into the Second World War and put her last manpower reserves at Hitler’s disposal in 1944 when its outcome was no longer in doubt. Werth had acquired his office through his own propaganda campaign against General Jenő Rátz who, according to Szent-Iványi and his numerous sources, was ‘an excellent and capable soldier and in addition, extremely popular within the Army’. Had he been left in post, he would never have allowed the Army to enter the war on the side of Germany. Werth and his clique formed the power behind the curtain that caused Hungary to do so, also contributing indirectly to Premier Teleki’s death. Even after Werth was removed from his post, his political and military views were maintained by a group of staff officers, including General Dezső László, who had been brought up on his principles.

An overlapping pro-German group consisted of Hungarians of German origin who viewed the successes of Germany under Hitler from 1933-40 as clear evidence that the Germans were indeed ‘the master race’. They played an increasingly important role in the Volksbund, the pro-German federation in Hungary, set up under the auspices of Berlin. Alongside the German-Hungarians were the anti-Bolsheviks, who, like many among the European political élite, regarded the threat from the East (and from within) as the greatest menace to Hungary’s independence and integrity. The dictatorship of Béla Kun was undertaken by men who embraced communism and its ideas, following the model of the Soviet Union. They were nearly all of Jewish descent, too. The anti-Soviets believed that, since little Hungary would be no match for the Soviet Union in the event of war, so unconditional co-operation with Germany was, at least, the lesser of two evils. In addition, there were a number of careerist politicians and diplomats who looked to further their own personal ambitions by supporting the German ’cause’.  Others took a more principled stance, blaming France and her satellite states (Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Romania) for the dismemberment of Royal Hungary by the Trianon Treaty. England had supported France and so could not be relied upon, neither could Italy, which had played its own role in Hungary’s dismemberment after changing sides.  From each of these countries, they argued, the architects of the peace treaties were “free-masons of Jewish descent”, part of an international conspiracy against the Hungarians and the Germans, who therefore had a common cause. There were also anti-Semites who became pro-German because they saw the Jews as public enemy number one.

On Darányi’s resignation in November 1938, Teleki, then Minister of Culture, asked Szent-Iványi to produce a report on the likely position of North America in case of war.  Under the premiership of Béla Imrédy, from May 1938, Hungary acquired southern Slovakia in November 1938. The region had been part of the Kingdom of Hungary and the majority of the inhabitants were Hungarian.  Imrédy was essentially pro-western and did not want to jeopardise Hungary’s future by co-operating too closely with Germany. As a brilliant economist, he promoted the cause of the revisionist movement as an economic one. However, he was vulnerable to his political opponents, who claimed that they had discovered he had Jewish ancestry. In order to deflect attention from this accusation, Imrédy crossed over to the extreme right and became the main promoter of anti-Semitic legislation. Therefore, the main legacy of his premiership was the second anti-Jewish law (May 5th, 1939), which defined Jews as a racial group for the first time. It was not a definition based on religious observance and was a harbinger of the Holocaust. People with two or more Jewish-born grandparents were declared Jewish. Private companies were forbidden to employ more than 12% Jews. 250,000 Hungarian Jews lost their income. Most of them lost their right to vote as well.

Szent-Irányi’s eighty-page report, completed in February 1939, revealed his insight, vision and sophisticated knowledge of the subject. He predicted that war would break out within six months, that the USA would enter the conflict in 1942, and that Germany would be defeated. The only real victors, he suggested, would be the USA and the USSR, as Europe would be ruined and the British Empire would be ‘put on a leash’ by the Americans. On the eve of war, this was not only an astonishingly accurate analysis but also a daring political programme.  Early in 1939, Hungary had joined the Anti-Comintern Pact, allying it with Germany, Italy and Japan.

Following the dissemination of his report, Szent-Iványi became a leading light and confidant in anti-Nazi circles. When Teleki became PM in February 1939, he hoped to create a Central European and Balkan bloc with the support of France, Great Britain and the United States. First, he hoped to regain the Carpatho-Ukraine region of eastern Czechoslovakia, known as Ruthenia. US Minister Montgomery reported that Regent Horthy had secretly told him that Hungary was pursuing only its own interests and that while he and the Hungarian people sided with Great Britain rather than Germany, “the democratic powers since the war had remained inattentive to the pleas of Hungary who had achieved something only with the aid of Germany and Italy.” Horthy hoped that Hungary could remain neutral, and later expressed his belief that Italy would come to Hungary’s aid if Germany attacked. Nonetheless, later that year, Hungary withdrew from the League of Nations.

In the elections of May 28th–29th, Nazi and Arrow Cross parties received one-quarter of the votes and 52 out of 262 seats. Their support was even larger, usually between a third and a half of the votes, where they were on the ballot at all, since they were not listed in large parts of the country.

In this atmosphere, Teleki had entrusted Domokos Szent-Iványi with a confidential project, working with an alternative secret cabinet on an anti-German foreign policy and intelligence-gathering centre, which would have been unrealistic if it had been pursued openly in the shadow of the Third Reich. He became head of this Information Department, the ‘Fourth Section of the Premier’s Office, ME-IV’, and a key figure in this anti-Nazi conspiracy. When Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, the Hungarian Government allowed a large number of Polish soldiers to enter the country through Ruthenia, many of whom were therefore enabled to join the Western forces. Nevertheless, Hungary’s official alliance with Germany and Italy helped it to further reverse the Treaty of Trianon, most notably through the Vienna Conference, at which the axis powers forced Romania to cede Northern Transylvania to Hungary. Together with its gains from Czechoslovakia, these gains meant that Hungary almost doubled its territory.

Despite these successes in achieving revisions of the borders by ‘peaceful’ means, the pro-German lobby continued pushing for an ever-closer alliance with Germany. Szent-Iványi recalled a conversation he had in 1940 with Kálmán Breslmayer, son of the owner of one of Hungary’s famous banks. Breslmayer, of German stock and strong pro-German sentiments, was also a former swimming champion. Following the invasions of Poland, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and France, Breslmayer delivered a forty-minute speech in which he declared that Germany had already conquered Europe: In a short time both Britain and the USSR would be forced to submit to Hitler. A great reshaping of the European map would follow with a new geopolitical “Order” so that Hungary would need to ally herself fully to Germany without reservation.

The census of January 31st, 1941 found that 6.2% of the population of 13,643,620, i.e. 846,000 people, were considered Jewish according to the racial laws of that time. In addition, in April 1941, Hungary annexed the regions of Yugoslavia it had occupied, adding over a million people to its population, including a further 15,000 Jews. This means that inside the May 1941 borders of Hungary, there were 861,000 people who were considered to be Jewish. From this number, 725,000, nearly 5% of the total population were Jewish by religion. The ‘Third Jewish Law’ (August 8th, 1941) prohibited intermarriage and penalized sexual intercourse between Jews and non-Jews. 

In022 April 1941, Hungary participated in Hitler’s attack on Yugoslavia, which further changed the international borders, despite earlier entering into a pact with the Yugoslavs, which Teleki had hoped would develop passive resistance to Nazi pressure. That same month, the British began to bomb Hungarian cities, and broke off diplomatic relations. When Hitler demanded that Nazi troops be allowed to pass through Hungary to Yugoslavia, Teleki committed suicide. His successor, László Bárdossy, believed that Germany would be a useful ally in regaining former Hungarian territory in Yugoslavia. Although ME-IV was dispersed by Bárdossy, Szent-Iványi carried on the work in its clandestine successor, the Hungarian Independence Movement, the MFM (Magyar Függetlenségi Mozgalom). Through this, he was able to play a key role in the anti-Nazi Resistance in Hungary, far beyond the constraints of a secret foreign policy cabinet.

The return of the Hungarian Army’s standards removed as war trophies in 1849 was a Soviet gesture aimed at keeping Hungary out of the second world war. On 23rd June, 1941, the day before the beginning of the German attack on the Soviet Union, Soviet Foreign Secretary Molotov told the Hungarian Ambassador in Moscow that the Soviet Union had no territorial demands on Hungary, and would support it over Transylvania. He simply requested that Hungary remained neutral. Instead, Hungary’s decision to side with Germany led to the severing of diplomatic relations between Moscow and Budapest.

023
On 27th June, just days after the Soviet Union was invaded by Germany, the Hungarian government declared war on the USSR and sent troops to fight on the Eastern Front, alongside the Germans and other Axis forces. Hungary’s entry into the war came about as an illegal act of the Prime Minister, Lászlo Bárdossy, who had not consulted Parliament. In fact, the Hungarian army had already been preparing for a blitzkrieg against the Soviet Union for some days. A considerable part of the army was relying on horse-drawn equipment and was composed of ‘fast-moving detachments’ mounted on bicycles! Bárdossy claimed his decision was made in response to the bombing of Kassa which he also claimed was a Soviet provocation. However, the Soviet Union had no reason to provoke Hungary, and had been trying everything to keep Hungary out of the war, and rumours spread immediately that the bombs dropped on the Slovak towns acquired by Hungary were in fact dropped in a casual way by the Luftwaffe in order to give the Hungarian government the excuse it needed to declare war. To the present day, there is no authoritative data connected to this event, not even the obligatory log book. Despite the efforts of US diplomats, the British declared war on Hungary in late 1941. A full week after Pearl Harbour on 7th December 1941, Hungary was forced by the other Axis powers to declare war on the US, which reluctantly reciprocated in June 1942.

008

The leading light of the Hungarian Independence Movement was Pál Teleki, the world-famous geographer and twice PM, the second time from 1939 to 1941. He was one of the most influential Hungarian politicians of the inter-war period. Although he originally agreed with the objective of restoring all the lands lost by the Trianon Treaty, in the 1930’s he argued for a partial readjustment of the borders, based on ethnic composition. In this, he followed the epithet of László Nemeth, an influential contemporary philosopher, that “Nation is not land, but a historical reality.” It was the anti-Habsburg tradition in the best Hungarian political minds which made them so sensitive to the new German threat of the thirties in the fever of Drang Nach Osten. Zoltán Szabo, the brilliant essayist who was exiled in London after 1948, pointed out that, in the thirties, there were only two paths which the nations of East Central Europe could follow. Either they could find guarantees of their independence against the Great Powers in each other, or they could seek patronage from those powers for their own individual independence.

However, a foreign policy that saw Hungary in the historic role of forging an alliance with the nations of the region against the ambitions of the  Great Powers faced difficult geopolitical realities. To begin with, the Trianon Treaty assigned a completely different role to Hungary. Despite this, Teleki, Bethlen and Bánffy were among many others who believed that Hungary did have a calling to integrate the diverse interests of the region. Their decisions indicated that, despite the harsh realities of geopolitics, they believed that the goals of independence and interdependence were achievable. The trade negotiations of István Bethlen with Czechoslovakia and Miklós Banffy’s many attempts to bring about a rapprochement with Romania demonstrated this belief. Bánffy even went as far as moving back to his own estate in Transylvania, symbolically taking Romanian citizenship from the king. They tried to separate territorial revision for Hungary from German policies and interests. They tried to build links with Italy, to ease relations within  French and English political circles, to build a horizontal axis with Poland and to establish friendly contacts with Yugoslavia. All these efforts were designed to avoid a one-sided German orientation.

007

When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Teleki’s policy continued to concentrate on preserving Hungarian sovereignty within the Axis alliance and avoiding confrontation with the western Allied powers, even to the extent of jeopardising future territorial revisions. Apart from his goal of Hungarian independence, he found the politics and ideology of the Third Reich unacceptable. German victory, he felt, would spell the end of the best moral and spiritual values in Europe. When he finally ran out of room for manoeuvre and realised that Hungary had become a subordinate state to Nazi imperial goals, he chose suicide rather than resignation, sending a clear message which was understood everywhere across Europe, about the grave results of appeasing Hitler. Szekér suggests, interestingly, that it was his Transylvanian wisdom, virtue and “genius” for genuine compromise, which eventually convinced him that neither he nor Hungary, could survive as a slave of Nazi policy and that the only way out was suicide.

This subtle Transylvanian policy was, and continues to be, much misunderstood from western perspectives. Szent-Iványi, concluding his book in 1977, with the benefit of considerable hindsight on these events, developed the foresight to suggest that European Union could only be brought about through the ‘spiritualisation’ of borders, allowing for free communication and cooperation across them. Even at the time, he was writing, this was regarded as a daydream rather than pragmatic, strategic thinking. However, both Teleki and his protogé deserve at least a minor stardom in the constellation of Robert Schuman, Konrad Adenauer and other early architects of the European Union. Like Churchill, Teleki was not just interested in the history and geography of his own territories, but also drew much of his inspiration from the variety and complexity of the United States of America.

In this context, the translated excerpts from Domokos Szent-Ivanyi’s book dealing with the period 1936-41 make fascinating reading. He makes it clear that the decision to appoint Darányi as Gömbös’ successor was made by the Regent, who would not appoint the widely-preferred Tihámer Fabinyi, the Minister for Finance, because of his involvement in ‘Socialist-Communist’ activities in 1918-19. Horthy was reluctant to replace Gömbös, whose pro-Nazi policies had alarmed Bethlen and others, with anyone except an ultra-conservative establishment figure. Whilst this may have helped Hungary to develop a more rounded foreign policy, it was Darányi who introduced the anti-Jewish legislation which foreshadowed the Holocaust.

034

At the beginning of the war with the Soviet Union, the illusion that the war on the eastern front would be of short duration, and that the troops would return victorious after a few weeks. However, in the spring of 1942, the Second Hungarian Army of 200,000 was dispatched to the front, of whom only 150,000 survived the Russian counter-offensive on the Don in January 1943. Many of those who fell were not carrying weapons, but were members of forced labour units, including many Jews, labouring under armed guards. These were really portable slaughter-houses because some commanders were more interesting in exterminating the conscripts rather than working them. However, a greater proportion of the Jewish males survived in these units than those later hauled off with their families to the death camps.

After the annihilation of the Second Hungarian Army, Hungary had a new Prime Minister, Miklós Kállay, who again tried to follow a dual course. While the Nazis called for an intensification of the war effort, the Hungarians tried to diminish it and to make overtures to the Allies. However, their cautious and secretive diplomacy was closely followed by the Germans, who did not permit the Hungarians to reach a separate deal. Kállay had no alternative but to continue the military co-operation with Germany, though he protected the Jews living in Hungary, including the refugees from the Third Reich. He also permitted anti-Nazi groups to re-emerge and operate more openly. Above all, he hoped to be able to surrender to Western troops, avoiding a Soviet invasion. The US sent the Hungarian-American Francis Deák to Lisbon with instructions to talk to the Hungarians with the objective of keeping Hungary out of Soviet control. On 1 October Roosevelt met the Habsburg Otto von Habsburg, who had remained as his guest in the US during the war and assured him that if Romania remained with the Axis and Hungary joined the Allies, the US would support a continued Hungarian occupation and retention of southern Transylvania. The Hungarian government was willing and sent a message to Lisbon to that effect. In January 1944, the Hungarian Government authorised the Archduke to act on its behalf. An American military mission was dropped into Western Hungary on 14 March, calling for Horthy’s surrender. Twenty thousand Allied troops were then set to parachute into the country and the Hungarian Army would then join the fight against the Germans. However, these moves became known to German intelligence, which had cracked the communications code.  By the time Horthy came to believe that his government could reach an agreement with the Soviets to end their involvement on the eastern front, it was again too late.

On March 18th, 1944, Hitler summoned Horthy to a conference in Austria, where he demanded greater collaboration from the Hungarian state in his ‘final solution’ of his Jewish problem. Horthy resisted, but while he was still at the conference, German tanks rolled into Budapest on 19th March. Italy managed to pull out of the war, but while Horthy was conferring at Hitler’s headquarters, a small German army had completed its occupation of Hungary by 22 March. By this time Horthy possessed neither moral nor physical strength to resist, and simply settled for keeping up appearances, with severely limited sovereignty. On March 23rd, 1944, the government of Döme Sztójay was installed. Among his other first moves, Sztójay legalized the overtly Fascist Arrow Cross Party, which quickly began organizing throughout the country. During the four-day interregnum following the German occupation, the Ministry of the Interior was put in the hands of right-wing politicians well-known for their hostility to Jews. On April 9th, Prime Minister Sztójay agreed to place at the disposal of the Reich 300,000 Jewish labourers. Five days later, on April 14th, Adolf Eichmann decided to deport all the Jews of Hungary. With a small SS staff, he immediately set to work, making use of the lists of members of the Jewish community drawn up under the anti-Jewish Laws to organise one of the swiftest and most efficient episodes of the Holocaust. With the ready assistance of Hungarian officials and the Gendarmerie 440,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz within a few weeks, 90% to their almost immediate deaths on arrival. On some days the gas chambers and crematoria processed more than a thousand people an hour. A Jew living in the Hungarian countryside in March 1944 had a chance of less than one in ten of surviving the following twelve months. In Budapest, a Jew’s chance of survival of the same twelve months was fifty/fifty.

SS Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann, whose duties included supervising the extermination of Jews, set up his staff in the Majestic Hotel and proceeded rapidly in rounding up Jews from the Hungarian provinces outside Budapest and its suburbs. The Yellow Star and Ghettoization laws, and deportation were accomplished in less than 8 weeks with the enthusiastic help of the Hungarian authorities, particularly the gendarmerie (csendőrség). The plan was to use forty-five cattle cars per train, four trains a day, to deport 12,000 Jews to Auschwitz every day from the countryside, starting in mid-May; this was to be followed by the deportation of Jews of Budapest from about 15 July.  Jewish leaders in Budapest, together with Hungarian leaders of the Roman Catholic, Calvinist and Lutheran Churches, and a number of Horthy’s aides, all received copies of the detailed Vrba-Weztler report on the deportations to Auschwitz on or just after 28 April but kept their silence. By doing so, they chose to keep the hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews and their Christian neighbours in ignorance, thereby enabling the success of Eichmann’s timetable. The reality that no one in the villages knew anything about the plan in advance of it being carried out is borne out by the testimony of villagers themselves, which I have collected in the case of Apostag (about 30 km south of Budapest on the Danube). The published testimonies of Hungarian survivors from around the world further confirms this.

The first transports to Auschwitz began in early May 1944 and continued even as Soviet troops approached. The Hungarian government was solely in charge of the Jews’ transportation up to the northern border. The Hungarian commander of the Kassa railroad station meticulously recorded the trains heading to Auschwitz with their place of departure and the number of people inside them. The first train went through Kassa on May 14th. On a typical day, there were three or four trains, with ten to fourteen thousand people on each. There were 109 trains during these 33 days through to June 16th, as many as six trains each day. Between June 25th and 29th, there were a further 10 trains, then an additional 18 trains between July 5th and 9th. By then, nearly 440,000 victims had been deported from the Hungarian towns and countryside, according to official German reports. Another 10 trains were sent to Auschwitz via other routes from Budapest, while seven trains containing over twenty thousand people went to Strasshof at the end of June, including two from Baja, which may well have picked up the Jews from Apostag at Kalocsa.

In total, one hundred and forty-seven trains were sent to Auschwitz, where 90% of the people were exterminated on arrival. Because the crematoria couldn’t cope with the number of corpses, special pits were dug near them, where bodies were simply burned. It has been estimated that one-third of the murdered victims at Auschwitz were Hungarian. For most of this time period, 12,000 Jews were delivered to Auschwitz in a typical day. Photographs taken at Auschwitz were found after the war showing the arrival of Jews from Hungary at the camp.

The devotion to the cause of the ‘final solution’ of the Hungarian Gendarmerie surprised even Eichmann himself, who supervised the operation with only twenty officers and staff of a hundred, including drivers, cooks, etc. Very few members of the Catholic or Protestant clergy raised their voices against sending the Jews to their death. A notable exception was Bishop Áron Márton, in his sermon in Kolozsvár on 18 May. But the Catholic Primate of Hungary, Serédi, decided not to issue a pastoral letter condemning the deportation of the Jews.

When news of the deportations reached British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, he wrote in a letter to his Foreign Secretary dated July 11, 1944:

 “There is no doubt that this persecution of Jews in Hungary and their expulsion from enemy territory is probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world….”

Therefore, the idea that any member of the Hungarian government, including the President, or Regent, was unaware of the scale and nature of the deportations is fanciful, to say the least, as is the idea that Horthy was responsible for stopping the deportations from the countryside and/ or the capital. It is true that Admiral Horthy ordered the suspension of all deportations on July 6, but by then the Regent was virtually powerless.  This is demonstrated by the fact that another 45,000 Jews were deported from the Trans-Danubian region and the outskirts of Budapest to Auschwitz after this day. The Sztójay government continued to ignore the Regent and rescheduled the date of deportation of the Jews of Budapest to Auschwitz to August 27th. What prevented this was that the Romanians switched sides on 23 August 1944, causing huge problems for the German military, and it was on Himmler’s orders that the cancellation of further deportations from Hungary was enacted on 25 August.  With the German high command preoccupied elsewhere, Horthy regained sufficient authority to finally dismiss Prime Minister Sztójay on 29 August. By then the war aims of the Horthy régime, the restoration of Hungary to its pre-Trianon status, were in tatters. The First and Second Awards and the acquisitions by force of arms would mean nothing after the defeat which now seemed inevitable. The fate of Transylvania was still in the balance in the summer of 1944, with everything depending on who would liberate the contested territories from the Germans. When Royal Romania succeeded in pulling out, the Soviet and Romanian forces combined forces began a joint attack and the weakened Hungarian Army was unable to contain them.

H024owever, in spite of the change of government, Hungarian troops occupied parts of Southern Transylvania, Romania, and massacred hundreds of Jews, starting on 4 September. Soviet units then reached the borders established by Trianon later that month and then moved across these into Szeged, where Horthy had begun his journey to power in 1919. His failure was now complete as a gigantic tank battle took place around Debrecen in early October. By mid-October,  the Soviet Red Army entered the outskirts of Pest as Horthy tried desperately to agree on an armistice, declaring it on the radio on 15th October. However, he had not prepared either the political or military ground for this and the pull-out collapsed within hours. The Regent was taken hostage by the SS in Budapest and was then forced by the Nazis to transfer power to Ferenc Szalási and the Arrow Cross. Horthy and his family were then interned in Germany. Although the Hungarian People’s tribunal later condemned several ministers and generals who carried out Horthy’s policies for war crimes, most captured by the Americans, Horthy himself avoided this fate. He was therefore never made to answer for his actions and sought asylum in Portugal, where he died in 1957.

001 002

After the Arrow Cross coup d’état on October 15th, tens of thousands of Jews of Budapest were sent on foot to the Austrian border in death marches, and most of the remaining forced labourers under Hungarian Army command were deported to Bergen-Belsen. Two ghettos were set up in Budapest. The big Budapest ghetto was set up and walled in the Erzsébetváros part of Budapest on 29 November.  Arrow Cross raids and mass executions occurred in both ghettos regularly. In addition, in the two months between November 1944 and February 1945, the Arrow Cross shot between ten and fifteen thousand Jews on the banks of the Danube. Soviet troops liberated the big Budapest ghetto on 18 January 1945. On the Buda side of the town, the encircled Arrow Cross continued their murders until the Soviets took Buda on 13 February.

025013013007 (2)

T010he names of some foreign diplomats, perhaps most notably Raoul Wallenberg and Carl Lutz, are regularly referred to among those ‘righteous among the nations’. Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat, was arrested by Soviet security agents in Budapest in January 1945 and disappeared. Although some questions remain regarding his disappearance and death, there is no doubt that his activities in Budapest were instrumental in preventing further deportations and deaths among the capital’s Jews. Carl Lutz, Switzerland’s Vice-Consul, worked from the US Legation, declaring seventy-two buildings in Budapest as annexes of the Swiss Legation, saving over sixty thousand Jews. In the countryside, the role of as has that of the Hungarian actress Vali Rácz has also been recognised. She hid many families in her home in the countryside after the initial deportations but was denounced to the invading Red Army for fraternising with German soldiers (in order to protect her ‘guests’) and almost shot as a collaborator. A Red Army Colonel intervened to stop this and she was exonerated.

There were also some members of the army and police who saved people (Pál Szalai, Károly Szabó, and other officers who took Jews out from camps with fake papers) as well as some local church institutions and personalities. Rudolph Kasztner also deserves special attention because of his enduring negotiations with Eichmann to prevent deportations to Auschwitz, succeeding only minimally, by sending Jews to still horrific labour battalions in Austria and ultimately saving 1,680 Jews in Kastner’s train.

An estimated 119,000 Jewish people were liberated in Budapest (25,000 in the small, ‘international’ ghetto, 69,000 in the big ghetto and 25,000 hiding with false papers) and 20,000 forced labourers in the countryside. Almost all of the surviving deportees returned between May and December 1945, at least to check out the fate of their families. Their number was 116,000.

It is estimated that from an original population of 861,000 people considered Jewish inside the borders of 1941–44,  only about 255,000 survived. This gives a 30% survival rate overall under Hungarian rule, but only because the projected deportations from Budapest did not take place. As has already been stated, the survival rates for Jews from the Hungarian countryside were far lower. This number was even worse in Slovakia. On the other hand, the Hungarian-speaking Jewish population fared much better in the Romanian-controlled Southern Transylvania, since Romania did not deport Jews to Auschwitz. According to another calculation, Hungary’s pre-war Jewish population was 800,000, of which only 180,000 survived

Sources:

Andrew J Chandler (2012), As the Land Remembers Them. Kecskemét: Unpublished

Nóra Szekér, Domokos Szent-Iványi and His Book, Part I, in Hungarian Review, Volume IV, No. 6. Budapest, November 2013

Domokos Szent-Iványi, The Hungarian Independence Movement, Excerpts, Descent into the Maelstrom, Hungarian Review, loc.cit.

James C Bennett & Michael J Lotus, America, England, Europe – Why do we differ? Hungarian Review, loc.cit.

Marc J Susser (ed.) (2007), The United States & Hungary; Paths of Diplomacy, 1848-2006. Washington: US Department of State.

István Lázár, (1989), The History of Hungary. Budapest: Corvina.

Szabolcs Szita (2012), The Power of Humanity. Budapest: Corvina.

hmd_2013_-_vali_racz_case_study

.005 (2)

%d bloggers like this: