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.

Lajos Erdélyi, an 87 Holocaust survivor, holds an illustration made by a campmate in Auschwitz. Photo: László Balogh/Reuters.

Undeniably a victim of the Shoah. Lajos Erdélyi, an 87 year old Hungarian Holocaust survivor, holds an illustration made by a campmate in Auschwitz, 70 years after liberation. Photo: László Balogh/Reuters.

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.

9 Comments

  1. Davrell Tien says:

    Any historian or ordinary person contemplating the WW2, the Holocaust, the Gulags, the genocide of the Armenians, etc. must naturally ask who bears responsibility. Who should feel guilt based on their ethnicity or nationality? There are no Native American villages around Niagara Falls, yet there was a “forward operating base” dubbed Camp Apache in Afghanistan.

    The point about James Comey’s statement is that he is not a scholar or pundit. He is one of the US government chief law enforcement officials. He has the power to order FBI agents to go after persons he suspects of crimes against humanity.

    Under George W. Bush he He was the United States Deputy Attorney General, serving as the second-highest-ranking official in the United States Department of Justice (DOJ). How many of the CIA officials or their consultants who were involved in torture did he investigate or prosecute?

    He is perhaps not the person who should be pointing fingers. At the very least he should expect such loose accusations to be challenged.

  2. Collective Sociopathy

    Chris, thanks for the excellent, even-handed reminder of the degree of denial, self-deception, and outright deception shared by Hungary and Poland about the eager and deadly hand they both had in the extermination of their Jewish compatriots and the looting of their earthly possessions.

    This ugly trait is no doubt a ubiquitous human one (the Turks clearly share it, in their persistent denial of their Armenian genocide), but it seems to be especially concentrated and cultivated in this part of the world.

    Most Germans, even though they were the prime perpetrators, have since made a clean breast of it. The Poles and Hungarians persist in denying their crimes, just as most prison inmates do. It is rather like a collective, cultural sociopathy.

    And that’s precisely the petty, primitive and repulsive mentality that Orban and Fidik are exploiting and fostering.

    (Shame on Ambassador Mull, for his craven capitulation to Polish protests: André Goodfriend would no doubt have found a much more honest way to respond; I hope Mr Comey will stand by his original fair, accurate (and mild) assessment.)

  3. Charlie London says:

    A very enlightening post. Thank you.

  4. Gyula Bognar, Jr. says:

    Excellent article, thank you Chris.

    Historical events, especially those in a course of wars are never entirely “black and white”. The arguments can go on for many decades about the shades of grays.

    Poland and Hungary are on the opposite ends of the black and white scale, regarding their participation and collaboration with the Germans in WWII. No amount of denial by their biased historians and politicians will change this.
    Just a bit of parallel.

    A large portion of France, under the Vichy Government collaborated far more effectively then any other occupied enemy of Germany, yet for decades this was suppressed in the media, by the de Gaulle Governments and beyond, to our days.

    I often quote George Santayana (1863-1952) Spanish born American philosopher, poet, writer and professor, who said among other things;
    “Those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

    This is valid for victors, losers, collaborators, patriots and traitors and for everyone, who populate the pages of history in the shades of gray, between black and white.

  5. The Hungarian population not only facilitated the deportation of Jews to the death camps but they eagerly reported their neighbors and happily took over their possessions.
    Eichmann’s staff of 100-120 relied on the organization and extreme “diligence” of the country’s semi-military police (csendorseg) and the local authorities to deport over 550 thousand of their fellow citizens in 6 months to other countries for extermination.
    Denying the truth has become an official government policy during the past 5 years.

  6. Christopher Adam says:

    Many thanks for these comments. On a personal note, I should add that as a teenager in Hungary during the 1990’s, I spent many summers in Pápa and I was always fascinated by the synagogue…yet none of the adults were willing to comment on it. I would buy groceries for my great aunt and walk by the shuttered, decrepit synagogue every day. Whenever I would ask about it, I would get reactions that made me feel a little like that student in the German film The Nasty Girl (Das schreckliche Mädchen), who dared to explore her town’s WWII past…which wasn’t anything to be proud of, and which locals wanted to forget.

  7. I just want to add a clarification: we always have to be careful to make the difference between individuals and countries, nations. Countries and nations are not responsible for past crimes, I must insist, persons in their government and individuals of those nations are.

    Denying that my forefathers played a role in crimes against humanity with their passivity, and at times even actively, would be wrong. Saying that my country is responsible for those crimes of the past is also wrong. I do not have to feel personal responsibility for past crimes of my fellow country men, even though I feel ashamed of them, and rightly so. It is part of the history that we can’t be proud of, but it has to be remembered and taught with the highest degree of sincerity in search for the truth.

  8. Poles were victims of the Nazis too: Hungarians were not

    In the interests of fairness and honesty it should be added that although anti-semitism was just as vicious and visceral in both Hungary and Poland, there were far more acts of decency and heroism, rescuing and protecting Jews (and at far, far greater risk) in Poland than in Hungary.

    And not only was Poland (unlike Hungary) occupied and under German control warlong, but Poles themselves were being sent to extermination camps by Germans, along with the Jews, mainly because of the courageous and determined Polish underground resistance to the Germans.

    So although Poland — like Hungary, and unlike Germany — is still in denial about willing complicity, the two cases are not comparable, because the Poles, too, were victims of the Nazis. The Hungarians only pretend to have been, and are thereby compounding and re-affirming their shameful crimes and guilt.

    The Poles have the very same self-exculpatory tendency, but they at least have some genuine suffering as an excuse.

  9. Tibor Gergely says:

    Why Hungary and Poland? was the first question that came to my mind. Why not France, Romania or Ukraine whose governments were far more enthusiastic about expelling their Ashkenaz population than Hungary, that has actually been a haven for Jewish refugees since at least the 11th century. Hungary was the first to give both the Ashkenazim and Sephardim full citizenship and the “anti-Semitic Horthy government” sheltered 120,000 refugees from Poland, among them at least 10,000 ‘Jews’ during WW2, housed them well, established schools and institutions for them, and defended them by military force when German special forces tried to take them into custody. Then I thought it may have been the “dark sites” that Hungary never allowed on its territoty – heck, Budapest doesn’t even allow the “rendition” planes to land. And the Poles? Is Comey on crack? Over 60% of the inmates at the Oświęcim labor camps were “Christian” Russians and Poles! (Todebücher.) After perhaps only the Russians, Poles suffered the most in WWII – they are victims, not victimizers! Is Comey trying to get back at Sikorski for the ‘b-job’ remark http://bit.ly/1bqhQ94 and the publicity about the “black sites” http://alj.am/1Jn2oJn where, having seen pictures from Abu Ghraib http://bit.ly/1OmoRtA and Gitmo http://bit.ly/1I64Nqh we have a pretty good idea what goes on. And then, it dawned on me that he probably heard that ex-NSA chief Keith Alexander gets $600,000 per month per client for “security advice” http://wrd.cm/1yYMRvL and Comey wants to get at least that much now that he is about to retire. And, who could blame him – not to mention that it’s the ‘American Way’.

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