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One of the most relevant and interesting topics of 20th century Hungarian and Polish history is the relationship between the so-called traditional anti-Semitism and the Hungarian and Polish societies’ involvement in the implementation of the Holocaust.

The Holocaust is thus much more connected to nationalism than to traditions of anti-Judaism and modern anti-Semitism. It is possible to claim that the anti-Jewish arguments of the period of World War II have their roots much more in the social, political and economic realities of World War I and the post-World War I than in the anti-Semitism intellectual heritage of the nations.[1]

In the period between WWI and WWII Poland was home to more Jews than any other country in Europe. “Its commonplace but simplistic identification with anti-Semitism was due largely to nationalist efforts to boycott Jewish business. That they failed was not for want of support by the Catholic clergy, for whom the Jewish question was more than economic.”[2] Poland and Hungary had one tragic similarity to Nazi Germany, the official anti-Semitism, even if this kind of policies can be not compared to the horrible crimes committed against the Jews by Hitler, but at the same time, “it cannot be forgotten that inter-war Hungary and Poland had a very sorry record in terms of its treatment of its own Jewish minority.”[3]

The Case of Hungary

The First World War ended with the defeat of Hungary and after this event there was the institution of a new anti-Semitic movement called the Awakening Hungarians. “Its members were recruited from among the disgruntled elements of the lower middle classes, from non-commissioned officers, small clerks with a sprinkling of a few officers. Later the movement was taken over by politicians close to Miklós Horthy, the future regent of Hungary.”[4]

The Communist regime (led by Kun) after the World War I had several Jews in the upper positions of the government. “After the Communist revolution had been suppressed, the establishment of the new regime was accompanied by riots and acts of violence against the Jews, the so-called White Terror,”[5]the number of whose victims has been estimated at 3,000 dead.

The commanders of the national army units often instigated the people to chase the Jews out of their communities. In some places they assured the people that they could do with the Jews whatever they wanted. In others, they posted announcements calling upon the population to smoke the Jews out.[6]

The new government stopped the violence against Jews, even if it is important to underline that the official policy of the government was anti-Semitic. In 1920 the so-called numerus clauses laws reduced the number of Jews in the higher institutions of learning to 5%. “The situation improved while Stephen Bethlen was prime minister (1921-31) and the negative reactions aroused by the anti-Jewish policy weakened this tendency, even though a widespread anti-Semitic activity continued. In 1928, an amendment was introduced to the numerus clauses act, but the restrictions were not entirely abolished. The Jews generally believed that the anti-Jewish current was only a fleeting phenomenon.”[7]

A sharp anti-Jewish turn took place during the late 1930’s as a result of the strengthening of the Rightist circles and growing German-Nazi influence. In 1938 the First Jewish Law was presented to Parliament; it restricted the number of Jews in the liberal professions, in the administration, and in commercial and industrial enterprises to 20%. The term Jew included not only members of the Jewish religion, but also those who became apostates after 1919 or who had been born of Jewish parents after that date. The bill aroused objections from the opposition parties, but it was ratified by both Houses of Parliament. In 1939 the Second Jewish Law was passed; it extended the application of the term Jew on a racial basis and came to include some 100,000 Christians (apostates or their children) and also reduced the number of Jews in economic activity, fixing it at 5%; the political rights of the Jews were also restricted. As a result of these laws, the sources of livelihood of 250,000 Hungarian Jews were closed for them.[8]

After the WWI the presence of Hungarian Jews was reduced by about a half (473,000 in 1920)[9] and it is possible to find this data in 1920s and 1930s. “The demographic decline of Hungarian Jewry in this period is evident by the sharp decline in the younger age groups (0-20) and increase in the older age groups. There was a marked tendency in the inter-war years to concentrate in towns, especially in the capital. Over half of Hungary’s Jewish population lived in Greater Budapest.”[10]

Horthy’s Years and the Numerus Clauses

“The counter-revolution was headed by Miklós Horthy (1920-1944) a former admiral in the navy of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Officers among those closest to Horthy, notably his nephew Ivan Héjjas, Gyula Gömbös and many others operating through individual groups called detachments ferreted out Jews, especially well-to-do Jews, in the cities.”[11] Jews were often accused of complicity with the Communists even if most of them was hostile to Communism.

Jews were dragged from their homes and taken to the cellars of hotels where the officers had established their headquarters, and beaten mercilessly. They were usually released after payment of very large sums, often their entire fortune. The list of the victims grew very long. The most notorious among the Jew beaters and torturers next to Héjjas were Pal Phoney and Michael Francis Kis, a sadist, who many years later was arrested as a mass murderer.[12]

In all the territories of Hungary anti-Communism and anti-Semitism became the same thing. As a consequence, “special camps were established at different places, camps of torture, and of inhuman mistreatment. Camps that became in Hungary as notorious as have become the names of Auschwitz, Dachau, Treblinka and other infamous camps of Hitler.”[13]

The official position of Horthy was against these crimes, but he didn’t implement a concrete action to stop them and He just ordered an investigation. “The fact was established that many of the officers’ victims were murdered and robbed. In spite of this, the investigating authorities did not recommend the prosecution of the criminals. On November 3rd 1921, Horthy issued an order of amnesty on behalf of those who committed certain excesses not for the sake of self enrichment but under the influence of public exasperation against the perpetrators of acts undermining the interests of the Hungarian fatherland and the Hungarian race.”[14]

About Horthy’s relationship with Hitler, it is important to underline:

the Regent reminded the Führer that Hungary had been the only true friend of Germany after the collapse in World War I and pointed out the high esteem enjoyed by the Germans by identifying the positions men of German origin held in Hungarian governmental and military apparatus.[15]

“The stamp was put on the official character of the anti-Semitism of the new regime by the restrictions on the admission of Jewish students to national universities. In the summer of 1920 the Hungarian Minister of Education issued an ordinance to limit the number of students admissible to national universities on the basis of their nationality or race.”[16] This ordinance was created for Jews and not for students of other minorities.

The Jews students were frequently beaten up and humiliated by their fellow students without any protection on the part of the university and police authorities. “At the University of Budapest, they had to sit in the last benches of the classrooms called benches of shame.”[17]

The numerus clauses are very relevant because these laws represented the first act of official anti-Semitism in Europe in contemporary times.

Several Hungarian politicians, such as László Endre, the future secretary of state, a sworn enemy of the Jews; Gyula Gömbös, Horthy’s friend who became prime minister in 1932; and others started a movement to steer Hungarian foreign policy in the direction of a close association with Adolf Hitler. Gömbös himself paid a visit to Hitler as early as 1920.[18]After his advent on June 20, 1933 to the prime ministry, Gömbös declared that Hitler is here to stay and so is fascism. He saluted Hitler after his elevation to the federal chancellorship and declared that he was proud of being his friend. It was this orientation of the Hungarian authorities toward Germany that made the occupation of the country and the deportation of Hungarian Jews such an easy task for the Nazis in the last phase of World War II.[19]

The numerus clauses and all the anti-Semitic laws were a clear signal of the strong relationship between Hitler and Horthy. It is important to consider the law of November 20, 1920 ( expulsion from Hungary of all Jews who had immigrated to the country after 1914) and the law of 1925, paragraph 15, point 7 (any foreigner who had entered the country as a result of an immigration movement contrary to the interest of the state must be expelled).[20] The Minister of Interior officially declared that these laws were necessary in order to prevent a Jewish invasion and, for this reason, industries and commercial enterprises had to avoid the presence of foreign workers.