Could the Hungarian Jews Have Survived?

The Politics of Genocide: The Holocaust in Hungary

by Randolph L. Braham
Columbia University Press, 1,269 pp., $80.00 (two volumes)

Miklós Horthy
Miklós Horthy; drawing by David Levine

Statistics on the “Final Solution” in Hungary are contradictory and bewildering. Some refer only to the halfmillion Jews and “Christian Jews” living in the truncated Hungary created by the peace treaties of 1918. Others add to this the 400,000-odd Jews and converts in the lands Hungary recovered from her neighbors with German help between 1938 and 1941. These are sometimes counted as Hungarian Jews, sometimes as Czech, Romanian, and Yugoslav Jews. The bitter fact is that, of the 900,000 people in Hungary in 1941 whom the law regarded as Jews, almost two-thirds did not survive the war.

Professor Braham, a political scientist at City College in New York, gives a convincing and relentless account of this tragedy, devoting equal attention to the historical background and the day-to-day progress of genocide. He makes a careful analysis of the policies of the German and Hungarian authorities, of the bad or not-so-bad behavior of the Gentile public, of the subservience and dedication of the Jewish Council, of the curious and hotly debated activity of the Zionists, of the hostility, indifference, helpless passivity, or generous support of the various Christian churches, of the courage of individual “good Samaritans” and the cruelty, cowardice, and rapaciousness of the many thugs.

The conduct of several Axis countries such as Italy, Bulgaria, and even Romania was, he shows, more humanitarian than that of some neutral and Allied powers. The Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, recently awarded honorary US citizenship for “having saved 100,000 Jewish lives” (even 10,000 would be an optimistic figure) also gets his due as an honorable and brave but by no means unique member of the “brotherhood of the Righteous.” Braham concludes with an account both of postwar restitution, a pitiful failure in Hungary, and of postwar retribution, an equally pitiful failure in West Germany. Admittedly, some of what is said in thirty-two long chapters is repetitious, and the plethora of names and places may discourage some readers. Still, this is an extremely important book.

What Braham does not fully describe, and what still lacks adequate documentation, is the true extent of Hungarian anti-Semitism. What were the social origins, professions, and motives of the anti-Semites?

To understand anti-Semitism in Hungary, we must go back to the golden age of Hungarian Jewry, the half-century of near harmony extending from the emancipation of the Jews in 1867 to the outbreak of the First World War. In exchange for embracing the political ideas of the ruling nobility, the Jews were allowed to flourish. Their subsequent phenomenal success in education, science, the arts, culture, and business surpassed that of the German Jews; in fact, they became as assimilated to Hungarian culture as the German Jews were to German culture.

The secret of this relatively easy triumph lay in Hungary’s outmoded social structure, but even more in the fact that the assimilated and patriotic Jews helped to tip the ethnic balance in…

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