The roots of antisemitism in Hungary

Submitted by SJW on 19 September, 2018 - 12:31 Author: John Cunningham
John Cunningham with Bibó statue

For part one click here

In the last part of this article I looked at how Bibó analysed the historical background of antisemitism in Hungary. But on a more general level what makes an anti-semite “tick”? Bibó begins by considering the personal experiences of anti-semites,
“[…] anyone who knows anti-semites even a little, knows that they base their claims about Jews on very personal experiences, presented in honest and passionate form. It would be incorrect to claim that they invent their experiences because of their shared prejudices, interests and ideologies; there are indications that the reverse is the case. It is the emotional intensity of their experiences that makes them believe obtuse prejudices and foggy ideologies, which appear to them as explanations and clarifications.”

Bibó elaborates on this,
“The anti-semitic statement is not the one that claims that Jews are among the causes for anti-semitism, but the one that asserts that anti-semitic emotions and actions are justified and called for as replies to everyone’s experience with Jews, forgetting the fact that the experience of Gentiles with Jews has been countered and indeed preceded by the experience of Jews with their surroundings.”

There follows an involved discussion of what constitutes real experience between Jews and non-Jews. Keeping this as short as possible Bibó argues that in certain social situations (he cites as an example that between a servant and their employer) despite their being real experiences between them there is no meaningful knowledge of the other’s “being” because the relationship is structured in such a way that they only experience each other’s negative traits.

This is “…due to the false and contradictory nature of the conditions of social organisation within which they face each other.”
He suggests that this can be extended to the Jewish experience, “We should attempt to use the same method in our search for contradictory and misleading conditions which are at the basis of the structured relationship between Jews and their social environment, and which resulted in the ceaseless flood of negative mutual experiences.”

Whatever the “structured” nature of the relationship Bibó makes the forceful point that, “When it comes to the experience of Jews and non-Jews about each other, primacy must be accorded to the experience of Jews,…”

This is important because it imparts an important, vital historical dimension to anti-semitism: “…Jews and non-Jews seldom establish personal relations with each other primarily as Jews and non-Jews, and therefore much of their encounters remain impersonal, inhuman and de-humanized.” Therefore, to maintain that a Jew’s complaint about non-Jewish behaviour is on the same level as the non-Jew’s complaint about Jews, again ignores this historical aspect where de-humanisation of Jewry is deeply entrenched and has existed for centuries.

Is disliking Jews the same as actively persecuting them? Bibó puts it this way,
“Everyone who dislikes Jews does not have to be called an antisemite, but neither does it suffice to regard as antisemites only those who promote or participate in, the persecution of Jews. We should apply the term to those who possess an integrated and set image of the Jews’ dangerous traits, their greedy and deceitful stride toward enrichment, their political and moral destructiveness, and their penchant for being vengeful and domineering. In this sense an antisemite may well be an honourable person or a scoundrel, gentle or cruel, an innocent being or a criminal. The important matter is that anti-semitism is applicable to individuals or groups who carry in them a consistently distorted image about a segment of social reality.”

Bibó refers back on a number of occasions to the history of Hungary and stresses the way its limited economic and social development proved a breeding ground for a widespread anti-semitism. In particular, Hungary and other countries of Central and Eastern Europe did not experience a bourgeois revolution in the way that say France or England did. The change to a bourgeois form of society was stunted and contained many feudal hangovers, not least in the countryside,
“In these countries [i.e. Central and Eastern Europe] the feudal-aristocratic social structure remained relatively intact and strong, and societies were only superficially and formalistically restructured to resemble those of modern capitalism and modern bourgeois democracy. Following several failures and half-successes, the bourgeoisie of these countries became intimidated and gradually gave up the idea of defeating the feudal-aristocratic forces. Thus capitalism east of the Rhine was not based on overthrowing or weakening feudalism but on exploiting feudal social conditions in a capitalistic manner, worsening them even further to the point of inhumane colonial exploitation.

“Under these circumstances, modern social criticism attacked and undermined society’s feudal-aristocratic authorities, instincts and beliefs, but since it was unable — except in Russia — to overthrow its feudal-aristocratic structure, it gradually became an internally fermenting process which, instead of initiating action, drowned in dogmatism, irrationality, and the manufacturing of false political formulas.”

Within this history it is a fact that many Jews supported the socialist movement, a phenomenon hardly confined to Hungary. In the 1919 revolutionary government of Workers Councils the majority of the leading cadre were of Jewish origin (e.g György Lukács) and this only added fuel to the fire of anti-semitic prejudice in the twenties and thirties.

Socialism and Communism were equated in the mind of the antisemite with Jewry. In light of all these negative developments a country which once had been considered safe for Jews became its opposite. Assimilation proved to be built on flimsy foundations and anti-semitism became part and parcel of the anti-democratic, anti-socialist, nationalistic political discourse which dominated Hungary from 1919 to the end of World War Two.

“[…] perhaps in no other Central European country was the inner world of the assimilator community as disharmonious, and the cause of Jewish assimilation so burdened by falsehoods and contradictions as in Hungary. One might say that from the earliest times Hungarian society carried on, or promised assimilation under unprincipled and dishonest conditions, thereby deceiving itself as well as those who had assimilated.”

Bibó wrote his essay in 1948, the same year as the founding of the state of Israel (in May). Because assimilation had been so influential, Zionism was never particularly strong in Hungary, despite some of Zionism’s leading figures being of Hungarian origin.

After 1945 many Jews felt that their position in society would be guarded by the Hungarian Communist Party (it was, but at the cost of suppressing any meaningful discussion of anti-semitism — despite Bibó’s efforts to the contrary) and this too worked against any strong inclination to migrate to the new state.

UN figures quoted by Bibó in an endnote show that only 14,700 Hungarian Jews migrated to Israel between 1945-9. It is difficult to gauge and analyse something as complex as a new nation state particularly when that state is only a few months old; Bibó therefore, understandably, exercises some caution in his analysis,
“Jewish consciousness does not necessarily mean a desire to emigrate to Palestine, nor does it imply the assumption of a decisive Zionist point of view, or approval of a Jewish state from a distance. One can imagine Jewish minority communities without a Jewish state, just as the creation of such a state does compel every Jew to become a member of an ethnic minority. It is certain, however, that a desire to establish a Jewish state plays a decisive stimulating role in the development of a separate Jewish consciousness and the growth of Jewish communities toward an ethnic community. Without such a desire, a great deal of community impetus and pathos would be missing from the consciousness of Jews.

“From this point of view, the founding of the state of Israel represents a decisive turn, one that occurred at a crucial time. This development transformed the Israeli state from an ideal, surrounded by the halo of being unrealisable, to a real entity that would either flourish or disappear. This means that Jews face the task of obtaining — during time periods yet to come with costs to pay and tribulations to endure – the abilities, instincts and morals that are required in the course of founding and maintaining a state.

“Nor will this take place in a patient and benevolent milieu; in addition to the hostility of the immediate Arab environment, the new state will also face antagonistic interest and indifference by the majority of those powers that control its fate. […] it is likely that the cause of a Jewish state will face several periods of crisis in the future, and this will have its effect on the intensity of Jewish consciousness throughout the world. In the long run, however, this does not change the almost certain fact that, in one form or another, the independent Jewish state will become stabilised, and that a world-wide Jewish ethnic consciousness will maintain or establish its own definite characteristics.”

Near the end of his essay Bibó puts forward this, all-embracing, argument which calls for a recognition of nation-wide responsibility for the persecution of Jews and the Holocaust and an acceptance that assimilation and separateness for the Jewish people are not diametrically opposed concepts — the two can live together,
“It is hopeless to seek a singular solution, a magic potion or an incantation to remedy this situation [i.e.antisemitism]. Rather we must deprive the circle of its momentum, change the fundamental conditions and humanise the atmosphere surrounding the issue. When it comes to the Hungarian situation our most urgent task is to formulate and disseminate an attitude of accepting responsibility for the persecution of Jews, and to create a public conception that takes the issue of responsibility and culpability seriously, while also clarifying the conditions, extent and limits of calling people to account.

“When it comes to the relationship between Jews and the community, we must recognise the reality and feasibility of both assimilation and a separate Jewish consciousness, create suitable clear conditions and a benevolent environment for both, and at the same time remove all generalisations, forced attitudes and demands from the entire issue of community identification.”

It is tempting to end an article like this, which has attempted to summarise a work of 167 pages published 70 years ago, with some observations about the relevance of the essay today.

I find this rather difficult, mainly because, obviously, the time and context in which the original was written is so different to our own, whether we are talking about the situation in modern day Hungary or the UK.

Clearly Bibó’s essay was written while the shadow of the Holocaust still hung over everything, in a country which, after successive right-wing governments and a short-lived period of fascism was just about to enter the dark night of Stalinism. I have therefore left such considerations as to how Bibó’s ideas might apply elsewhere and to other times to the reader.

One thing that can be said clearly is that Bibó’s serious and measured essay provides a model of how to discuss issues of anti-semitism and not descend, as unfortunately is now so often the case, into name-calling, entrenched dogmatic thinking and cliché.
I think that Bibó’s text, probably the most important discussion of anti-semitism, to emerge from Eastern Europe in the twentieth century, is worthy of consideration and discussion; and if it throws any light on our discussions today then so much the better. It is in this spirit that I offer my article to the reader.

Orbán: no friend of Bibó’s

One shocking feature of the contemporary reception of Bibó’s work in his home country is the way that Viktor Orbán, Prime Minister of Hungary and right-wing demagogue, has attempted to don his mantle and claim the Bibó “heritage” for himself.

The notion that this antisemitic, anti-democratic racist has anything in common with Bibó is as ludicrous as it is nauseating.

Orbán even went so far in besmirching Bibó’s memory by donating a portrait of him to the EU headquarters in Brussels. Further nausea — mixed with irony —comes from the discovery that Orbán first formed the idea of creating his party Fidesz (originally referred to the as the “Young Liberals”) in the Bibó dormitory at Budapest’s most prestigious university.

Note on finding the text

Unfortunately, anyone wanting to consult the original text in its entirety, which I highly recommend, may have some searching to do. The text referred to in this article was published in the USA in the series ‘Atlantic Studies on Society in Change No. 69’, (Boulder Colorado, distributed by Columbia University Press, 1991). It contains other important essays by Bibó including ‘The Crisis of Hungarian Democracy’ (1946) which evoked a critical response from none other than György Lukács.

The Atlantic Studies edition is difficult to get hold of, having been out of print for a number of years. I don’t know of anywhere else it has been published in English and as far as I can see it is not available online. A good book search service may be able to help.

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