The “Jewish Question” in Europe: The Case of Hungary (From: Nationalities Papers)

From: Nationalities Papers

Vol 29. (2001) No. 4. 704-706


Tamás Ungvári, The “Jewish Question” in Europe. The Case of Hungary (Atlantic Studies on Society in Change). Boulder: East European Monographs, 2000, 380 pp.


Although in all post-communist societies that had a significant Jewish population before the Holocaust there is an ongoing interest in the Jewish past and in the nature of the “Jewish question,” it seems that Hungary is leading the way in terms of both quantity and quality of the works published. Hungarian–Jewish relations continue to pose an enigma, which can be tackled from various disciplinary perspectives. The revival of Jewish life in Hungary, which has the largest Jewish population in Central Europe, numbering some 80,000–100,000, the revival of anti-Semitism, also present in the Hungarian parliament, the numerous debates in public discourse through the media, and the almost daily references to various matters linked to Jews all indicate that the “Jewish question”—however it is defined—still needs answers.

The numerous studies, books and articles are all attempts to deal with the nature of the tragic relationship between Hungarians and Jews, who were accepted while being rejected, and sent to their death following one of the most symbiotic relationships between two ethnic groups in Europe. This relationship was summed up by István Deák in the title of his review of István Szabó’s Sunshine in the New York Review of Books: “Strangers at Home”1 (20 July 2000).
Indeed, Ungvári’s study is a penetrating work approaching its topics from a wide perspective: the history of ideas, and cultural, literary and social history. These “strangers at home” were embraced by the Hungarians through the granting of emancipation, and the long and arduous road to assimilation was opened to them. The dilemmas of Jewish integration into Hungarian
society within the limits offered by the host nation are presented by the author from both sides.
Emancipation and assimilation is a two-way road; it does something to both the Hungarian and to the Jew. Ungvári traces the changing image of the Jew in Hungarian modern culture: the classic stereotypes left intact, with often a romanticized picture, but mingled with the emerging image of the new Jew, about to become a part of Hungarian society. The author discusses the Hungarian discourse on perceptions of the “nation” and the role of Jewish emancipation in the ways and means by which Hungarians have defined or redefined themselves. Ungvári presents to the English reader (this being a translation from Hungarian) the well-known debates before the First World War and during the interwar period on the nature of the “Jewish question” in the eyes of Hungarian intellectuals. The urban versus populist debates were at the center of Hungarian intellectual life, and the “Jewish question” was at the heart of this debate. The Jews were presented by the populists as an alien body, destroying the delicate fabric of rural society, as it appears in Dezs´ó Szabó’s The Swept Away Village.

Ungvári takes the reader into the intricate labyrinth of Hungarian intellectual discourse in the interwar years, when, in the shadow of Trianon, Hungarians perhaps discussed more the Jewish question than the Hungarian question. The measure of one’s Hungarianess was rendered rather by how that person related to the Jews, than by the same individual’s attitude concerning the destiny of the Hungarians. The views of László Nemeth, the leading mind behind the populist movement, of Dezs´ó Szabó, who inspired the movement, and of other leading representatives of the interwar generation—many of them republished and debated once again in post-communist Hungary—are presented to the Western reader in a style and narrative typical of Central European intellectuals, with long and complex sentences, often hiding the author’s thesis and intentions.
In the long run Jewish assimilation failed, especially when looking from the perspective of several generations. Both sides, Hungarians and Jews, have had different perceptions and aims in this complex process of emancipation and assimilation. Hungary was perceived by the Jews as a “home” and they did become a most loyal part of the nation, but they also felt that they were “strangers at home.”
Ungvári analyzes the Jewish part of the story, focusing on internal Jewish debates and on the Jewish–Hungarian relationship from this side of the fence. He traces the ideas of “selfhating” Jews who embraced the Hungarians by discarding and criticizing Judaism. Towards the end of the monograph in a discus sion on “Who Are the Jews and Who Are the Hungarians,” he includes György Aczél in the category of “Jewish self-hatred” without too much elaboration of the issue. Perhaps the former “cultural czar” of Hungary, still considered a controversial figure, complicates the image of the “self-hating” Jew. Judging from brief, but interesting meetings with Aczél in 1989 in Israel, this reviewer had the impression that Aczél was on a nostalgic trip visiting his old colleagues in the left-wing Ha’shomer Hatzair movement who took a different road to Marxism than Aczél, viz. combining it with Zionism. It was then that Aczél perceived that the greatest mistake of Marxism was that it underestimated the power of national belonging. Many of the newly emancipated Jews became ardent anti-Zionists and added more fuel to anti-Semitic stereotypes. Ungvári discusses less the views of the small interwar Zionist movement, the members of which were the first ones, and in fact the only ones, to warn of the roads taken by Hungary since the numerus clausus laws of the early 1920s.
Ungvári did not attempt to trace the road to the Holocaust, and the role of Hungarians in the destruction of this community which they had embraced since the mid-nineteenth century. He only hinted to the question whether “words can kill,” and if yes how lethal were the words so much present in the interwar Hungarian nationalist discourse. Neither did he tackle the delicate and sensitive issue raised only after the collapse of communism concerning the behaviour of Hungarian intellectuals leading Hungarian society in its darkest hours when Hungarian Jews were rejected, ejected and sent to their deaths during the Holocaust. Sadly, those Jews who defended so vehemently their Hungarian identity during the interwar period, and even until March 1944, shared the fate of those who, though still attached to Hungarian culture and language, did not choose the road to assimilation. The author knows very well, but did not choose to emphasize, that it was the Hungarian anti-Semitic legislation from 1938 onwards which put a tragic end to the intellectual debates about “Who is a Jew?” that took place in the pages of glossy journals in the interwar period. Was Miklós Radnóti (1909–1944), one of the most talented of poets, a “Jew” or a “Hungarian”? In any case we know only one clear answer: that he was not deported by the Hungarians, and executed in Austria, for being a member of the Hungarian nation. Was he in Istvan Déak’s words one of those hundreds of thousands of miserable “strangers” who felt being “at home”?
The author traces, rather briefly, the present stage of the “Jewish question” in Hungary and the revival of anti-Semitism. He does not dwell on the communist regime’s impact on the issues he discusses in the book, but gives a general picture of the attitudes in today’s Hungary, and, in contrast to many observers, he writes, “The rude and vulgar type of anti-Semitism pops up occasionally in pubs and in private life and can be considered negligible” (p. 290).

Although it is a matter of debate when anti-Semitism is of the “rude and vulgar” type, one only has to read the weeklies Magyar Fórum and Demokrata to feel that the same ideals and ideas that characterized earlier Hungarian anti-Semitic discourse are to be found again today. But at another point Ungvári refers to a “latent anti-Semitism in various forms. Hidden anti-Semitism is creating a new version of history in retrospect.” Ungvári is not completely an objective bystander, since in an interview with the popular weekly 168 óra he said, “Before the War there were forty-two of us round the family table. After it, three remained. Nice, young men dissappeared. I see before me their faces, remembrance and forgiveness are two different things”2 (No. 30, 2000).



  1. The New York Review of Books, July 20, 2000.
  2. 168 óra, No. 30, 2000.

Raphael Vago

Tel-Aviv University


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Ungvári Tamás