Hungary: Neo-Nazi resurgence in Holocaust anniversary year

August 3, 2014
A meeting of Hungarian far-right unltra-nationalist party Jobbick.

Jobbik, a far-right ultra-nationalist racist party established in 2007, made significant electoral gains in the Hungarian elections, garnering just over 20% of the national vote in the April poll.

Under Hungary’s system of proportional representation, this result (up 5% from last showing) makes Jobbik Hungary’s second-strongest party. This assures it a significant agenda-setting presence in an already right-wing dominated parliament.

Led by Gabor Vona, Jobbik’s candidates openly label all Sinti and Roma ethnic groups as hereditary criminals. They frequently accuse the Jewish community of being a “security threat”.

As in other European countries where the lunatic right is exploiting the discontents of neoliberalism, in a bid to weasel its way into power, Jobbik is the suit-wearing, teeth-whitened “respectable” face of a burgeoning skinhead street militia movement.

Closely affiliated with the party are openly neo-fascist paramilitary groups such as the New Hungarian Guard, responsible for a string of racially-motivated hate crimes.

Hungarian Holocaust

It is bitterly ironic that such a disturbing development should take place in the 70th anniversary of the events that have come to be termed the “Hungarian Holocaust”.

Until 1944, the Jewish community had largely been spared the process of physical annihilation that had already consumed Jews in other parts of German-occupied Europe.

To be sure, about 60,000 had already died, either in mass shootings after being deported by Hungarian authorities to Nazi-occupied territory or as victims of brutal “labour service battalions”. All military-age Jewish males were compulsorily conscripted into these battalions as a result of Hungary’s anti-Jewish legislation modelled on the Nazi’s Nuremberg Racial Laws.

Under military regent Miklos Horthy, a nationalist who sought the restoration of territories lost to Hungary after World War I, Hungary joined the Axis in late 1940 and took part in Hitler’s invasion of the USSR the next year.

Horthy’s attitude to the “foreign” Jews who fell under Hungarian annexation was merciless. More than 15,000 such “Galician” Jews were deported to Nazi-held Ukraine where they were machine-gunned along with local Jews by an SS mobile killing squad.

The three-day massacre at Kamenets-Podolski in August 1941 claimed more than 23,000 lives and was the largest single mass killing up to that point in the war.

Horthy’s attitude to the established Hungarian Jews was relatively more benign. As an ally of Germany, Horthy’s Hungary was able to independently regulate its internal affairs and “manage” its “Jewish question”.

For a few years, this led to a paradoxical state of affairs for Hungarian Jews. Despite living under the miserable oppression of a virulent institutional anti-Semitism, they were nonetheless protected from the Nazi death camps just across the border.

Excluded from many professions, harassed and harried in every walk of life, the Jews of Hungary were still
relatively “safe”.

State of fear

However, they lived in a continual state of fear and anxiety. They had to contend with Magyar nationalist extremists urging Horthy to deal with Hungary’s racial “impurities” once and for all.

By early 1944, it was clear that Nazi Germany would lose the war and Horthy wanted to be in a position to survive the Axis implosion. Secret peace negotiations were opened with the Allies, in a bid to allow Hungary’s exit from a war in which it had already suffered disastrous losses on the Eastern Front.

On March 19, 1944, the Germans pre-empted Horthy, sending troops to occupy Hungary. With the SS now directly running the country, a radical anti-Semite, Dome Szotjay, was installed as prime minister.

Within hours, a round-up of prominent Jewish professionals and intellectuals had begun in Budapest. It was a sign of things to come.

Over the following weeks, working closely with Hungarian officials and local police, Adolph Eichmann’s small SS team supervised a remarkably swift concentration of the general Jewish population in every region of the country, excluding Budapest itself.

In Auschwitz, by then the premier killing facility of the Nazi state, urgent preparations were made to “receive” the influx of Hungarian Jews. The deportations began in May and continued throughout the summer of 1944.

On average, more than 10,000 Hungarian Jews were disgorged from packed cattle cars onto the infamous Auschwitz ramp every day. The vast majority were immediately gassed and cremated in a frenzied round-the clock peak of industrial scale murder.

More than 400,000 died in this way in a few months, the grisly climax of Auschwitz’s contribution to the final solution.

By early July, Horthy had re-asserted his power, dismissed Szotjay and put an end to the deportations. However, the only Jews left in Hungary were those in forced labour units and the 250,000-strong Budapest community. Conditions improved briefly for the Jews of Budapest.

But on October 15, a German-backed coup deposed the troublesome Horthy. He was replaced with Ferenc Szalasi, the leader of the Arrow Cross movement (Hungary’s equivalent to the Nazi Party).

With the Arrow Cross in power, the Jews of Budapest were immediately set upon in pogrom-style attacks. Thousands were shot on the banks of the Danube.

Tens of thousands more were conscripted into fortification-building companies and forced towards the Austrian border in starving, exposed columns that turned into death marches.

Actions against Hungarian Sinti and Roma were also re-intensified. Szalasi, one of whose slogans was “After the Jews, the Gypsies”, deported about 30,000 Sinti and Roma to Auschwitz. Only a few thousand survived.

Gypsies were also massacred in Hungary by Arrow Cross militia units. Out of an estimated population of some 76,000, more than 32,000 Hungarian Roma were killed as a result of ethnic cleansing actions in the war.

The war ended before the Arrow Cross could finish the final elimination of the Budapest Jewish community.

After a long and bloody battle for control of the city, the Soviets finally defeated the Germans. The ghettoes into which Budapest’s remaining Jews had been forced were liberated in mid-January, 1945.

During the war, about 550,000 Hungarian Jews perished out of a population of 800,000.

The way that the Holocaust should be remembered in Hungary has long been the subject of “memory wars”. In official commemorations for the 70th anniversary, Hungarian authorities have selected a narrative that only emphasises the German role in the mass murder campaign.

It overlooks the contribution of racist Magyar nationalist extremism in Hungary itself.

Rewriting the past

Jewish and Roma community groups have called a boycott of all official events. They accuse the government of re-writing the past to appease modern Hungarian neo-nazis.

By downplaying the significant Hungarian contribution to the genocidal process, contemporary Hungary is failing to recognise the crimes of the past.

And by largely absolving itself of complicity in these atrocities, the Hungarian state is allowing historical amnesia to facilitate the rise of the same ultra-nationalist agenda that led to the events of 1944.

Jobbik is nothing less than a 21st-century incarnation of the Arrow Cross movement. Its spectacular rise in the polls is a slap in the face to the victims of 1944 and their descendent communities who still live with the threat of extremist violence.

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