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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Louis Kovach
Guest

I am waiting for Dr Balogh to develope the theory of perfect democracy as it existed under Rakosi and Gero with some assitsance from Farkas and Peter…..IMHO the “skilled workers” were those who had very little to do with actual workers but were carrier climbers. The mainstay of the regime were the dihonest intellectuals who (few decent ones excepted) catered to the glorification of the regime. Neither the working class not the peasants were enamored by communism after 1948.

As far as the Romsics/Foldesi discussion ..it is Romsics 1 Foldesi 0

P.I.Hidas
Guest

If Romsics claims that antisemitism in Hungary is mainly due to economic competitions he is forgetting the history of the Jews in Hungary from the 11th century. Popular antisemitism was around since that time despite the fact that Jews filled an economic vacuum for centuries. The role of the Christian churches was most important in the persecution of Jews who lived in Hungary throughout the ages. The Csepel workers who supported the arrow cross party in the late 1930s and the millions of very poor peasants did not compete with the Jews in Hungary at that time or earlier.

Paul
Guest

“If for nothing else but to point to the many areas of Hungarian history that remain either unexplored or misinterpreted.”

I would say that almost ALL of Hungarian history “remain(s) either unexplored or misinterpreted”. Hungarians badly need a better knowledge and understanding of their history. My own knowledge is limited, but I still often find that I am better informed than the Hungarians I am discussing a topic with.

And it’s not simply that they have a one-sided or limited understanding of their history (a “Fidesz” interpretation of the past), often they simply don’t know anything at all about certain events or periods.

Admittedly, the same is true of Brits (and possibly most nations), but our history is hardly the incendiary subject that it is in Hungary (although, arguably, it should be!).

Paul
Guest

PS – nice to see Mark remembered. We miss him even more these days. He had such a vast knowledge of Hungary and its history and politics, and such an intelligent understanding

Jano
Guest

“If Romsics claims that antisemitism in Hungary is mainly due to economic competitions he is forgetting the history of the Jews in Hungary from the 11th century.”

This is not exactly true. The main cause of the frictions between the catholic peasantry and the Jewish communities were the fact that Christians were not allowed to collect interest on loans while the Jewish were. This was a common phenomenon everywhere. The question how much this has to do with modern 19th-20th century antisemitism is a good question and I don’t feel qualified to answer it.

On this note, where I think Gerő went way over the line was when he straight up accused Romsics of anti-semitism. Even if within the historian communitiy it was clear that he didn’t mean it that way (if that’s the case), this is one of the most serious accusations towards a person and is totally unacceptable to just throw it at someone because his interpretation of certain historical processes and events are different.

bernard de raadt
Guest

Sure get the educated out of hungary and lets start all over that is great lets do it again . canada australia and others are just waiting for hungary to do what was done between 1947 and 1958 very funny …………..

Sandor
Guest

Although not all, certainly not even fifty, but I also read some of the articles of the debate. For me the most pertinent and most brilliant contribution was Endre Bojtar’s article in Elet es Irodalom. For those able to read in Hungarian I can recommend it as the most brilliant, most witty and most devastating polemical piece I have read in decades.
I must also add that I never heard about the author before and this was a veritable revelation to me: it is possible to write this incredibly well. The man is a masterful polemicist.

petofi
Guest

A couple of comments. First, on a quote from your opinion:
“….that while for Jews the Holocaust is the greatest tragedy, for Hungarians it is Trianon. A terrible sentence if I ever heard one.”

Even if ‘terrible’…certainly true; and reveals the total lack of sympathy on the part of non-jewish Hungarians
towards jews. Yes, THAT is TERRIBLE.

Second, why should the separation of Hungarian and Hungarian jews post/during war be a surprise? One group had 90% of its members sent to death camps by the other (with relish, I might add); and deemed the Russians as saviours, while the other was hounded into defeat and saw the Russians as invaders.
Do those opposing views present a problem of understanding? I think not.

But let’s update to the present state of affairs.
A Jobbik moron gets up in Parliament and dribbles
is anti-semitic vulgarities while not one–neither the Speaker nor any member of the governing party–gets up to stop the vile filth. All listen and allow him to finish.

Is this the point of view that Hungarian jews ought to share…?

petofi
Guest

Sandor :
Although not all, certainly not even fifty, but I also read some of the articles of the debate. For me the most pertinent and most brilliant contribution was Endre Bojtar’s article in Elet es Irodalom. For those able to read in Hungarian I can recommend it as the most brilliant, most witty and most devastating polemical piece I have read in decades.
I must also add that I never heard about the author before and this was a veritable revelation to me: it is possible to write this incredibly well. The man is a masterful polemicist.

What date?
Have you got a web address?

Lutra lutra
Guest

“Mine is bigger than yours” is a game played by man since his primitive ancestors dwelt in caves, and the amount of suffering endured or the odds of being, and depths from which one rose to be a survivor, can be measures in that game. The moral and physical relativism between Trianon and the Holocaust, let alone the objective facts, don’t seem to matter to those who are happy to play it.
It also seems to me that many Hungarians are incapable of empathising with, or understanding the point of view of, others (maybe that’s why win-win is such an alien concept with most politicians). Any time I’ve explained that nationalism ceases to become a force for good when it limits the rights of others to express their own language and culture (as happened in Hungary post-1867, thereby sowing the seeds for Trianon), I’m met with “but aren’t you proud of your own country then?” As long as we have a government that perpetuates this mind-set I see no chance of change.

Member

Without the assimilated Jewish population, the Hungarian speakers made up exactly just half of the population of pre-ww1 Hungary.

Do we know the percentage of this 50% that were assimilated Germans, Slovaks and Serbs? Of course, even the great Kossuth’s family was originally Slovak.

It is absolutely meaningless to speak about “pure” Hungarians. As every nomadic people, they stole women from wherever they could before settling down. The word woman (asszony) comes from the word Ossetian woman!

petofi
Guest
Lutra lutra : “Mine is bigger than yours” is a game played by man since his primitive ancestors dwelt in caves, and the amount of suffering endured or the odds of being, and depths from which one rose to be a survivor, can be measures in that game. The moral and physical relativism between Trianon and the Holocaust, let alone the objective facts, don’t seem to matter to those who are happy to play it. It also seems to me that many Hungarians are incapable of empathising with, or understanding the point of view of, others (maybe that’s why win-win is such an alien concept with most politicians). Any time I’ve explained that nationalism ceases to become a force for good when it limits the rights of others to express their own language and culture (as happened in Hungary post-1867, thereby sowing the seeds for Trianon), I’m met with “but aren’t you proud of your own country then?” As long as we have a government that perpetuates this mind-set I see no chance of change. First off, re moral relativism…I’m not happy to play it (the word ‘play’ is really a misnomer). There is absolutely no merit in any comparison–they’re… Read more »
petofi
Guest

correction: “special” should read “species” (damn spell check)

Turkmenbasi
Guest

off topic: Ahead of October 23, this petition has just been published by the supporters of Orbán’s Peace March to the ‘People of Europe’.

It is definitely worth reading! It receals a great deal about the mentality of these peace- and freedom-fighters…

http://www.petitions24.com/support_hungary

petofi
Guest

Turkmenbasi :
off topic: Ahead of October 23, this petition has just been published by the supporters of Orbán’s Peace March to the ‘People of Europe’.
It is definitely worth reading! It receals a great deal about the mentality of these peace- and freedom-fighters…
http://www.petitions24.com/support_hungary

Well, for starters, I love its Freudian slip: “…its inept economic policies…”

spectator
Guest

A small question:
While putting Trianon versus Holocaust – in my opinion – just another excuse for the racist/nationalist intolerance, what about those Jewish, who suffered of both?

I mean, how would the learned intellectual elite find a balancing ‘event’ equaling that?

From my part the question is rather theoretical, but I still pretty curious how would they answer.

Guest

@Turkmenbas:

You made my day! This petition is the most idiotic thing I’ve read this month, btw what are ” money-mongering churches” ???

I had to laugh so hard …

This shows in a nutshell all Fidesz’ crazy ideas and I was really surprised to read that ” the European Union, the United Nations, the IMF, and the leftist media hysterically attack Orban’s government” … Even the UN ?

I wonder what people in Berlin, Brussels, New York and Washington will think about that …

petofi
Guest

wolfi :
@Turkmenbas:
You made my day! This petition is the most idiotic thing I’ve read this month, btw what are ” money-mongering churches” ???
I had to laugh so hard …
This shows in a nutshell all Fidesz’ crazy ideas and I was really surprised to read that ” the European Union, the United Nations, the IMF, and the leftist media hysterically attack Orban’s government” … Even the UN ?
I wonder what people in Berlin, Brussels, New York and Washington will think about that …

What People Will Think…

Precisely. I think there was an expression for this: “Hoisted by there own petard!”

Imagine the locked-in mindset of the person
who wrote this and the ones–like members of Bekemenet–who believe it. The moron originator had the temerity to believe this will convince Europeans??! What world do these nincompoops live in?

Man, Fideszers desperately need major
psychiatric attention….

Karl Pfeifer
Guest

Dear Éva, could you please give us the source of the Zoltán Kovács declaration you’ve mentioned?

An
Guest

@Turkmenbas, yeah, right….

Each country has its fair share of lunatics… unfortunately in Hungary it is not funny anymore.

Joe Spirit
Guest

I have read the Bojtar and Jeszenszky material.
Unfortunatelyl, Romsics appears as too corrupted to be taken seriously.
At Oct. 27th, his son will give a lecture on Trianon in New Brunswick.
What is decent person, but Gergely is also in the danger to be corrupted as long as he will live in Hungary.

petofi
Guest

Karl Pfeifer :
Dear Éva, could you please give us the source of the Zoltán Kovács declaration you’ve mentioned?

I missed something: what declaration? mentioned where?

Zoli is one of my favorite beta noire. He emblazons his vc by mention that he studied in Cambridge (I think) but, of course, he has no degree from any Brit university. He does have ‘paper’ from that hotbed
of Fidesz supporter, Debrecen U. O yes, and while I’m at it, two separate attempts to get his phd thesis met with utter silence.

Paul
Guest

Turkmenbasi :
off topic: Ahead of October 23, this petition has just been published by the supporters of Orbán’s Peace March to the ‘People of Europe’.
It is definitely worth reading! It receals a great deal about the mentality of these peace- and freedom-fighters…
http://www.petitions24.com/support_hungary

“with a massive democratic mandate telling “the IMF, the EU and Uncle Tom Goldman to get stuffed” ”

Even after all the madness of the last two and a half years, this still shocked me. Have these morons absolutely no idea of how this sort of childish stupidity will go down with a European audience? Even the loonies on the right and left will baulk at “Uncle Tom Goldman”.

The Hungarian right is so out of touch with the civilised West it’s hard to believe.

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