Academic journal article East European Quarterly

The Assault on Historical Memory: Hungarian Nationalists and the Holocaust

Academic journal article East European Quarterly

The Assault on Historical Memory: Hungarian Nationalists and the Holocaust

Article excerpt

Perhaps no other event in world history has been as thoroughly documented as the Holocaust, the destruction of close to six million European Jews during the Nazi era. Yet, this vast documentation notwithstanding, the authenticity of no other event has so consistently been questioned as that of the Holocaust. The campaign to distort, denigrate, and actually deny the Holocaust was launched soon after the end of World War II by extremist anti-Semitic elements of the Right. Spearheaded by politically and ideologically motivated neo-Nazis in the Western world who came to be identified as "historical revisionists," the campaign gained ground after 1948 in the Communist world as well. But unlike what happened in the West, the campaign in the Soviet camp was waged under strict state controls, so that its intensity varied with the changing political interests of the Soviet Union and its satellites.

Following the dissolution of the Communist regimes and the disintegration of the Soviet bloc in 1989, the assault against the historical memory of the Holocaust became quite similar to that being pursued by neo-Nazis in the Western world. The hotbed of anti-Semitism during much of the twentieth century, East-Central Europe--the area in which four-fifths of the close to six million victims of the Holocaust had lived before the war--was a fertile soil for the quick and effective penetration of "historical revisionism."

Historical revisionism, representing a new and potentially virulent strain of anti-Semitism, has infected the xenophobic nationalist stratum of Hungarian society as well.(1) Ironically, this new strain came to the fore following the liberalization measures the first democratically elected government adopted after the systemic change of 1989. The political stresses and socioeconomic dislocations engendered by the new administration's privatization and marketization measures enabled the xenophobic nationalist-populist elements to revive the Jewish question and anti-Semitism as convenient instruments of domestic politics. They have revived and skillfully exploited a favorite technique of the Horthy era: scapegoating. They clearly are resolved to direct the anger of people suffering from the ravages of unemployment, inflation, and general impoverishment against the Jews, blaming them for the current and past ills of the country.

While the number of the populist champions of anti-Semitism, like that of the Hungarian neo-Nazis actually denying the Holocaust, is relatively small, the camp of those distorting and denigrating the catastrophe of the Jews is fairly large and, judging by recent developments, growing. Wielding political power and influence, members of this camp represent a potentially great danger not only to the integrity of the historical record of the Holocaust, but also, and above all, to the newly established democratic system. For unlike the Holocaust deniers--the fringe-group of "historical charlatans" who are bound to end up in the dung-heap of history--the history cleansers who denigrate and distort the Holocaust are often "respectable" public figures--intellectuals, members of parliament, influential governmental and party figures, and high-ranking army officers.(2)

The rhetoric and tactics of these respectable individuals vary in terms of their particular political-ideological group interests and personal ambitions. They appear united only by their resolve to "explain" and justify Hungary's linkage to Nazi Germany and, above all, to absolve the country of any responsibility for the destruction of close to 600,000 of its citizens of the Jewish faith. They are determined, in other words, to cleansing Hungary's historical record of the Nazi era.

The drive to whitewash the record of this era in general and the Holocaust in particular uses a variety of approaches. Some of the history cleansers are forthright, brazenly revealing their chauvinistic-nationalist positions. …

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