Victims or perpetrators? Hungary isn’t the only country haunted by Nazi collaboration

The Polish government is in the midst of a polemical and defensive historical debate around World War II and the Holocaust. The official Polish narrative could have been taken directly from the speaking points of the Orbán government in Budapest, which has enshrined in the country’s constitution the preposterous idea that Hungary was purely a victim of German occupation and cannot be held to account, nor be morally responsible, for anything that occurred between 1944 and 1989. These dates refer to the periods of Nazi, and then Soviet domination. We know that the Hungarian government, society and individuals had a degree of agency under both regimes and that they were not merely passive bystanders to foreign occupiers.

The controversy in Poland was sparked by FBI director James Comey, who had the following to say about the nature of Nazi collaboration during World War II: “In their minds, the murderers and accomplices of Germany, and Poland, and Hungary, and so many, many other places didn’t do something evil. They convinced themselves it was the right thing to do, the thing they had to do.”

These are pretty innocuous words, but they enraged both the Polish and the Hungarian governments. Hungary’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted that Mr. Comey was “incredibly insensitive.” For anyone who followed court cases, such as that of Imre Finta, a Hungarian Canadian who in 1987  was arraigned by Canadian authorities on war crimes committed in Hungary in 1944 and then later acquitted because the defendant was seen to have simply fulfilled orders from superiors and may not have understood that what he did constituted crimes against humanity, Mr. Comey’s line of argument is unsurprising.

But Poland’s government was livid that a high-ranking American official would question the narrative that treats Poland and Poles as only victims of the Nazis (and of the communists) and never perpetrators or collaborators. The Polish foreign ministry summoned the U.S. ambassador in Warsaw to express its concern and displeasure.

To those who are incapable of presenting the historic truth in an honest way, I want to say that Poland was not a perpetrator but a victim of World War Two. I would expect full historical knowledge from officials who speak on the matter,” remarked Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz.

American Ambassador Stephen Mull quickly and unequivocally sided with Ms. Kopacz. “I made clear that the opinion that Poland is in any way responsible for the Holocaust is not the position of the United States. Nazi Germany alone bears responsibility. I now have a lot of work before me to make things right in this situation,” argued Ambassador Mull. Most historians of the Holocaust would not share his views and as we know from Hungary’s experiences in 1944, the extermination of Jewish communities hinged upon the active and, as in the case of Hungary, the markedly enthusiastic cooperation of local officials at all levels of the bureaucracy. Adolf Eichmann, for instance, felt that the rapid deportation of half a million Hungarian Jews in 1944 was his “greatest achievement” during the War, and he was able to accomplish this thanks to his close personal friendship with Hungary’s state secretary in charge of domestic matters, László Endre, and thanks to widespread collaboration.

Polish officials and intellectual elites, however, have used the quarter century following the collapse of the Easter bloc to create a new, grand narrative of Polish national history. Michael Moynihan, an editor at The Beast, summarized it like this, in an excellent article on the issue of wartime victimhood in Poland, published a few years ago on a site called Tablet:

“Since the fall of Soviet communism, the framing of recent Polish history, finally liberated from the pedagogical dictates of an occupying government, which allowed a single, tendentious narrative of World War II, is a tender subject—one that frequently provokes fierce debate in the Polish media. But the desire to establish a more accurate history, centered on Poland’s role as victims of both Nazism and communism, has given succor to nationalists who want to replace one rigid myth—that Germany’s occupation of Poland was a struggle between fascism and communism—with another: a black-and-white morality tale starring heroic Poles who acted righteously under Nazi domination. There’s abundant evidence that this nationalistic myth is gaining traction.” (Read Mr. Moynihan’s insightful piece here.)

Mr. Moynihan refers to a book by historian Jan T. Gross entitled Neighbors, in which the myth of Poland being solely a victim crumbles to pieces. The publication recounts how 1,600 Jews in a 1940 pogrom at Jedwabne were brutally tortured and murdered by Poles–very often people who lived alongside Jews in the same towns, who worked with them and attended school with them, were also the ones to participate in the murders. From a more literary perspective, Jerzy Kosiński’s 1956  novel, The Painted Bird, gives the reader a harrowing view into a long heritage of antisemitism in rural Poland, following the story of a young boy who represents “the other” (possibly a Jew, but perhaps a Gypsy) and who is brutalized, tortured, abused and molested at the hands of Polish peasants.

The Painted Bird / Jerzy Kosiński

The Painted Bird / Jerzy Kosiński

That having been said, it is undeniably that Polish society suffered in a way that Hungary did not at the hands of German occupiers. After September 1939, the Polish cultural, religious and political intelligentsia was decimated, Fully 45% of the country’s doctors, 40% of professors, 57% of lawyers and nearly a fifth of the clergy were killed by the Nazis. Some two million non-Jewish Polish men performed forced labour and three million non-Jewish Poles were killed.

In stark contrast to Poland, Hungary was not a victim of Nazi occupation in nearly the same way. In fact, many ordinary Hungarians reaped material reward from the mass deportation of Hungary’s Jews in 1944, often occupying the homes and pillaging the valuables left behind. Sociologist András Gyekiczki produced one of the most revealing exhibits on this subject, when he mapped out and explored the homes that Jews in the western Hungarian town of Pápa “left behind,” after they were deported. Pápa was once home to one of the largest Jewish communities in rural Hungary and had the country’s third largest synagogue, built in 1846, in the heart of the town’s historic centre. Approximately 10% of Pápa’s population was Jewish at the time of the Holocaust. Mr. Gyekiczki’s purpose was to “personalize” the history of the Holocaust in Hungary, by exploring its impact on a local level, in a single small town. Some 8,000 people visited his exhibit.

It looks like both Poland and Hungary are highly sensitive to the suggestion that the mass killings of the Holocaust required local collaboration from non-Germans. Yet we know that it is entirely possible to be both a victim in one situation and a perpetrator in another.

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