In Defense of Christian Hungary: Religion, Nationalism, and Antisemitism 1890-1944

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In Defense of Christian Hungary: Religion, Nationalism, and Antisemitism 1890-1944. By Paul A. Hanebrink. (Ithaca and London: Cornell llniversity Press. 2006. Pp. x, 255. $39.95.)

Rarely have I come across a more engaging, better composed study dealing with the relatively recent history of a small European country. Professor Paul A. Hanebrink earned my deepest admiration for his sharp discernment, transparent clarity, and elegant style in presenting a half-century history of the most turbulent times of modern-day Hungary. His numerous references, and an incredibly huge, comprehensive, up-to-date bibliography are indication of the massive research effort brought to fruition in this volume. True to Hanebrink's stated goal, the focus of his attention is on the role of religion, more particularly that of the leadership of the established churches - notably the majority Roman Catholic Church and the largest of the Protestant churches, the Reformed or Calvinist Church - in fostering Hungarian nationalism and also the rise of anti-Semitism.

The starting point for Hanebrink is the closing decade of the nineteenth century, when Hungarian political culture was dominated by the ideas of western European Liberalism. It was the time when in the face of fierce opposition from the conservative Catholic hierarchy, but with the enthusiastic support from the Protestant leaders, clergy and lay alike, a number of laws were enacted by parliament, among them the law introducing civll marriage and the law on Jewish reception, granting the Jews not only full civic rights, which they already had, but also to the Jewish religion nul equality with the established Christian churches.

The bright picture which Hanebrink paints of the modern, liberal, secularizing Hungary, soon underwent somber changes during the Great War, and the chaotic times that followed. The defeated country was forced to cede two-thirds of its historic lands with a third of its ethnic Hungarians to its enemies, the remaining rump being overwhelmed with refugees, whlle the government had been taken over in the fall of 1918 by well-meaning democrats, who were in March 1919 overthrown by doctrinaire Bolshevik communists. This "dictatorship of the Proletariat" led by BeIa Kun lasted only until August 1919, but it left in its wake an indelible memory of unfulfilled promises, misery, terror, and also outrage over the desecration of religious and national symbols dear to the majority of Hungarians. Little wonder that these events caused a 180-degree turn toward rightwing nationalism in the minds of many people who placed the blame for the erosion of the traditional mores of Hungarians squarely on the shoulders of the latssez-fatre Liberalism of the previous regimes and the Jews. The latter, compared to their small proportion in the overall population (5%), played an enormous role not only in the economy, but also in the cultural life and in politics. At no time was this more evident than during the 1919 Commune, when the political and cultural leadership, as well as the personnel of the terror squads, were almost totally of Jewish origin.

The following twenty-five years had been the time of that "Christian Hungary" which gave the title to this book. As Hanebrink rightly observed, a purified, spiritually reborn Christian Hungary, which was the sincere desire of the leaders of the Christian churches and their committed followers, remained just a slogan for the politicians, and a rallying cry for the various rightwing groups and parties, a convenient cover for their anti-Semitic feelings and activities. For these people "Christian" had nothing to do with being followers of Jesus of Nazareth; it simply meant "non-Jewish" at best, a "hater of Jews" at its worst. The author eloquently demonstrates how during World War II, especially in its last year when Hungary - despite being allied to Germany, in the spring of 1944 was mllitarlly occupied and politically subjugated by German troops - this anti-Semitic agitation culminated in the deportation and mass murder of over half a mlllion Jewish citizens (including converts to Christianity) of that much vaunted "Christian Hungary. …