Vol.60, No. 4. (Winter, 2001), pp. 834-835
Review of Tamas Ungvari’s Book
The “Jewish Question” in Europe: The Case of Hungary. By Tamas Ungvari. East European Monographs, no. 556. Atlantic Studies on Society in Change, no. 99. Boulder, Colo.: Social Science Monographs, 2000. Dist. Columbia University Press. xiii, 368 pp. Notes. Bibliography. Indexes. $42.50, hard bound.
This work by Tamas Ungvari deals with the assimilation of Jews in Hungary through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Ungvari summarizes the differing views and thoughts of such past and contemporary historians as Gyula Szekf6, C. A. Macartney, Jacob Katz, Peter Hanak, and Victor Karady and supplements them with his own contribution. Ungvari speaks out most strongly in favor of assimilation. “This book is a testimony of the Jewish presence, a comprised guide to the efforts of assimilation, acculturation, integration or separation” (6).
From 1867 to 1914, Jews became increasingly involved in the intellectual sphere in Hungary, giving rise to the complex question of assimilation. For some non-Jews, assimi¬lation or acculturation did not live up to their expectations. Anti-Semitic agitation in the last quarter of the nineteenth century sharply reflected this disappointment. On the whole, though, both Jews and non-Jews believed that integration of some sort was feasible. Be¬sides, during this period of compromise, the Jewish question did not have existential sig¬nificance for Hungarians.
Beginning in 1919, however, a crisis set in that disrupted the balanced relationship between Jews and Magyars that had prevailed up until that time. Among other factors, the Numerus Clausus was introduced. This law “introduced the ethnic and cultural affiliation” (127). Victor Karady goes even further: “the Numerus Clausus arrested the emancipation process” (127). Yet, as harsh as it was, the Numerus Clausus was for a long time the only overtly discriminatory act against the Jews. Extreme and right-wing anti-Semitic agitation did not disappear but, on the whole, the position of Hungarian Jewry was stable during the ten-year premiership of Istvan Bethlen,
Concerning the Numerus Clausus, it is important to make a clear distinction between the attitudes of Hungary’s Jews, on the one hand, and of Jews living abroad, on the other. Hungarian Jews opposed what they regarded as foreign intervention in their internal af¬fairs. Jewish groups in the west, however, acted on the fear that other countries in central and eastern Europe might readily follow the Hungarian example. These groups proposed submitting the question of the Numerus Clausus to the Permanent Court of International Justice, but the move failed, mainly because of the objection of the British Foreign Office.
Ungvari rightly points out that “the Jewish Question dominates the discourse in Hun¬gary between the two world wars” (4). And likewise, he makes clear the distinction be¬tween the terms Christian as used in western Europe, especial in Germany and Italy, and in Hungary; “western European politics has no anti-Jewish edge or hidden nationalistic agenda” (260).
Some points are open to question in Ungvari’s book. He asserts that the Jews of Hun¬gary “identified themselves with the Hungarian cause, they participated on the Hungarian side in the revolt against Austria in 1848” (2). As recent research makes clear, this issue is problematic. In the face of later anti-Semitic reaction, the Jews emphasized their loyalty in 1848-1849, “The Transylvanian Jews … declared themselves to be Hungarians” (101). But only a minority, including Lipot Kecskemeti, the neolog rabbi of Oradea (Nagyvarad), whom the author quotes as an example, was an extreme assimilationist. The National Jew¬ish Party had many supporters in the town and in Transylvania in general.
In addition, Ungvari appears to overlook the orthodox. Yet in the 1860s, at the height of the polemics between the contenders, the adherents of the orthodox and the neologs were fairly evenly distributed. According to the statistics compiled by the Jewish commu¬nities in Hungary in 1930, 30 percent of the Jewish community was orthodox.
The author’s sharp criticism of Gyula Szekffi appears to be justified. “The poorest and nearly ridiculous passage of Szekffi’s Three Generations [Hiirom Nernzedik, 1938] was the comparison of the former Prime Minister of Hungary Istvan Tisza and [Endre] Ady” (299). It may be noted, however, that toward the end of the 1930s a gradual change oc¬curred in Szekfii’s reaction against the German orientation in Hungarian politics and so¬ciety. Still, Rusztem Vambery in a letter written to Harold Laski in 1946 noted: “Professor Szekfil, who though a serious scholar, was the Hungarian Alfred Rosenberg, who in his
Book Reviews 835
book, Three Generations, held the and the Jews responsible for the dis¬memberment of Hungary. This book was the leading spirit of the Hungarian counter¬revolution” (R. Vambêry to H. I aski; Public Record Office, London FO 371/59004 [19 III 1946] ).
Ungvari’s book has great merit as a historical and literary study. In addition, the sub¬ject of assimilation—what Hanak called the “unclosed process”—is closely connected to the present; the debates and polemics persist.
Bar-Ran University, Israel