Magazine article Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought

Antisemitism in Post World War II Hungary

Magazine article Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought

Antisemitism in Post World War II Hungary

Article excerpt

WE TEND TO ASSUME THAT THE REVELATION OF THE horrors of the Holocaust, which immediately after the war had made the dreadful consequences of prejudice clear for everyone to see, diminished antisemitism in European and American societies. However this was not the case at all. On the contrary, at least in Eastern Europe, the opposite occurred. To be sure, the situation of the Jews and the nature and strength of antisemitism varied from country to country and everywhere there were special circumstances. In the Soviet Union during the years between the end of the world war and the death of Stalin antisemitism was almost explicit, and it was a government inspired policy: Jews were singled out for special persecution. This was the time of the "anti-cosmopolitan campaign" ("cosmopolitan" being a transparent allusion to Jew) and the time of the infamous "doctors' plot" in which almost all the accused-doctors who were alleged to plan to murder their highly placed patients--just happened to have obviously Jewish sounding names. In the Czechoslovak purge trialsJewish Communists were the most likely victims.

The worst anti-Jewish attacks after World War II, however, took place in a country where Jews had suffered the most: Poland. With tragic irony, popular antisemitism was strongestwhere there had been the largest number of victims. Some Poles asked this obscene question from their returning fellowJewish citizens: how come you have survived? The mention of Kielce, the town where the largest post-war pogrom took place, terrified many Eastern European Jews at the time. It is estimated that 2000 Jews were killed in post-war Poland between 1945 and 1947. [1]

In Hungary the antisemitic outbursts were not as bloody as in Poland, but here also, there were tragic incidents. The character of post-war Hungarian antisemitism differed from previous versions. In the inter-war period it had been the government that had been primarily responsible: immediately after World War I, it passed anti-Jewish laws, most significantly a numerus clausus limiting the number of Jews in institutions of higher education. (After a few years the government quiety allowed this law to lapse.) However, beginning in 1938, under the impact of Hitler's Germany, the government once again passed a series of ever more stringent laws restricting Jewish economic activity. This government also tolerated, indeed, inspired, antisemitic propaganda. There is no way to measure the strength of popular antisemitism, but there is little doubt that simple people, especially the lower classes in the cities, were antisemitic, and accepted the demagogic accusations against Jews on face value. The vast majority of them certainly showed little sympathy to Jews at the time of their greatest tragedy. On the other hand, in the inter-war period there had been no spontaneous outbursts of violence against Jews.

The situation changed after 1945. Immediately after the defeat of the Nazis, of course, the new Provisional government abrogated all anti-Jewish legislation. At the same time archival records show agreat increase of antisemitic sentiments among the common folk, especially among the peasantry. In 1946 there were a series of small scale pogroms, something that had not happened in the inter-war period. How are we to explain this phenomenon?

Several factors contributed to this unfortunate development. First of all, one should not underestimate the power of Nazi propaganda that obviously outlived Hitler. Indeed, it would have been surprising if all those Nazi stereotypes aboutJews in which people came to believe, would have disappeared overnight.

Perhaps a more powerful explanation is a psychological one. By and large people in Eastern Europe and in Hungary in particular, to put it mildly, did not acquit themselves well during the years of Nazi rule. Too many became accomplices, but even those who did not, could not have had a clear conscience, knowing that they had done nothing to save their innocent fellow citizens. …

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