Ignore and Reassign: Examining Germany’s Memory Culture in Hungary’s Dark Mirror

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Critical engagement with the history of colonialism and colonial crimes has greatly increased in frequency and sophistication in recent years, even if it has admittedly done so from rather low levels in numerous countries. This ongoing process has already led to important new advances and fostered some rather vehement polemics that appear to be far from over. In this moment of critical engagement, it is worth recalling that a substantial majority of the victims of Nazi German empire building during World War II (WWII) as well as a large majority of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust–well over 90% of them–were from east of today’s Germany. They overwhelmingly came from a diverse area often labelled Eastern Europe, significant parts of which–as I will aim to show below–could be more usefully conceptualized as the periphery of Central Europe.

Despite multifaceted ties between the Federal Republic of Germany and countries on the periphery of Central Europe today, and some notable improvements in German-language academic scholarship during recent decades (when professional German historians have finally started to employ relevant languages in their research such as Polish, Yiddish, Ukrainian or Romanian, and have published several in-depth research monographs on crucial questions of German imperial history and major Nazi crimes committed “east of Germany”), acts of separation and a remarkable degree of distancing remain foundational to the functioning of German memory culture. These acts of symbolic separation and artificial distancing concern two supposedly distinct entities: Germany, on the one hand, and Eastern Europe, on the other–precisely the area where the worst Nazi German crimes were committed and where the vast majority of their victims used to reside.

Even when it comes to some of the most sophisticated and critical scholarly interventions these days, such as “The Catechism Debate” on this website or otherwise impressive new volumes such as Historiker streiten (two initiatives that admittedly had different agendas, foci, and lists of contributors), experts on Eastern Europe, not to mention scholars from East European countries, tend to remain almost wholly absent–and this absence is apparently so naturalized as to barely merit mention.

Assessed through looking at this artificial and problematic distinction, German memory culture, often praised for its progressive thrust or even its self-critical originality in recent decades, could be said to have remained remarkably self-centered and provincial. In other words, while large parts of the German public have devoted extensive and painful attention to Nazi crimes for several decades by now and have attempted to build a new post-national identity through an examination and clear rejection of recent patterns in Germany’s history, a proper Europeanization of memory and consciousness that would substantially incorporate “Eastern Europe” and would thus be much more adequate to the scale and geographic reach of Nazi and Axis crimes has been too slow to follow–not to speak of the development of more global perspectives that could help “provincialize Europe” and embed the crimes committed within the geography of Europe in global histories.

As I shall argue in this essay, it is in fact sufficient to travel fewer than 200 miles from the Federal Republic’s current borders to find the stark example of a country, that of Hungary, which represents the dark and often neglected other side of the same process of dealing with the past in Central Europe. As I will emphasize below, the proximate case of Hungary, with all its intimate historical and present-day connections to Germany, may be a particularly relevant one to examine German parochialism. Zooming in on this often-neglected case and its entanglements with Germany may also help us grasp the rather sorry consequences of the artificial separation between “German” and “East European” history and memory that was fortified in postwar Germany and continues to be largely maintained today.


Let me begin with a few basic facts. Prior to the Holocaust, the Jewish communities of Germany and of newly independent Hungary were roughly of the same size. The Hungarian capital of Budapest had the second largest urban Jewish population in Europe right after Warsaw.

Importantly, many Jews in Hungary were in effect bi- or even trilingual. Hungarian and German both became essential languages for them in the course of their nineteenth-century acculturation–and as Hungarian Jewish literary historian Aladár Komlós correctly underlined already in the age of the anti-Jewish genocide, German was in fact often acquired earlier, not to mention more easily due its greater proximity to Yiddish, than Hungarian. It was no coincidence, therefore, that young Jewish men educated at the Rabbinical Seminary in Pest and hoping to become rabbis of the dominant branch of Congress (or Neolog) Judaism in the country were required to attend courses at the Jüdisch-Theologisches Seminar in Breslau too, or that the intellectuals who emerged out of this acculturated Hungarian Jewish milieu to make a global impact in the twentieth century–such as György Lukács, Karl Mannheim, or Karl Polányi, all three of whom were born in Budapest between 1886 and 1893 and grew up multilingual–published significant parts of their seminal ideas first in the German language.

It remains surprisingly little known today that a significantly higher number of Holocaust victims came from the enlarged wartime territory of Hungary than from the territory of Germany in 1933 (or the somewhat reduced territories of the two Germanies after the war).

The single largest national group of victims in Auschwitz-Birkenau were, in fact, Jews from Hungary.

It is rarely properly understood outside certain circles in Hungary today that the main perpetrators of the genocide against Hungarian Jews from the German and the Hungarian sides were mutually dependent on each other. They simply could not have implemented without the other side’s active cooperation their most criminal and devastating campaign in 1944 which resulted in the swift murder of hundreds of thousands.

It must be qualified as unexpected, then, that a larger number of Holocaust survivors from the respective countries resided in postwar Hungary than in postwar Germany. The crucial difference, here, being that more Jews managed to flee the Nazi regime in Germany after 1933 than their Hungarian and German persecutors in Hungary. That is how it was possible for Hungary to lose significantly greater numbers of individuals to the anti-Jewish genocide and also to have more Holocaust survivors from the country residing in the country after the war.

Jewish survivors of Nazi camps from Hungary in fact recorded thousands of witness accounts upon their return as early as 1945-46, about one fourth of which were recorded in the German language. Holocaust survivors also published hundreds of book-length memoirs in the early postwar years in Hungarian, while survivor historians–such as, most notably, journalist turned contemporary historian Jenő Lévai–released several impressive monographs already prior to the Sovietization of their country in the late 1940s. In the decades to come, an impressive number of teenage survivors from Hungary would accomplish major intellectual feats and enjoy admirable international reputations. Just think of the likes of Imre Kertész or György Konrád in literature, Ágnes Heller in philosophy, Iván Berend in historical studies, or János Kornai in economics–all of whom were born to Jewish families in Hungary between 1928 and 1933.

In accordance with the basic fact that the majority of victims of the war years from the country were what we would now term victims of the Holocaust, facets of the genocide against Hungarian Jews served as the major subject during the war crimes trials held in the country right after the war. The above mentioned may also help us account for why Jews from Hungary acted as the main witnesses at the Eichmann Trial in Jerusalem among those who had personally met Adolf Eichmann during the war years–another surprisingly little-known fact properly highlighted in Hanna Yablonka’s monograph The State of Israel vs. Adolf Eichmann.

In short, in the case of Hungarian history, we are dealing with a Jewish community approximately the size of Germany’s which had a higher number of Holocaust victims and a larger local community of survivors than Germany; a community with close affinities to German language and culture; and one with highly impressive intellectual accomplishments as well as a detailed (and remarkably early) record of dealing with the trauma of the Holocaust, all just a few hundred kilometers away from Germany’s current borders.

One might expect that German researchers and the larger public, having elevated Auschwitz-Birkenau into a symbol of universal, even unique, evil by the late twentieth century, would be greatly interested in exploring the history of a country and its Jews where the largest group of victims of this most infamous extermination and concentration camp came from–and whose histories were so profoundly and so tragically entangled with those of Germany and of German Jews.

However, if anything, the exact opposite has been the case for over three-quarters of a century. In our age when the Federal Republic has emerged as the major investor and trade partner of Hungary and, especially under Angela Merkel’s long tenure, acted as the crucial European Union ally of Hungary’s increasingly authoritarian right-wing regime, reports in the German media still recurrently misidentify the main Hungarian perpetrators of the mass deportations in the spring and summer of 1944 as members of the Arrow Cross party. (An extremist party responsible for mass murder, the Arrow Cross acquired power in mid-October of the same year whereas it was Döme Sztójay, appointed by Regent Miklós Horthy in March 1944, who headed the Hungarian government during the most devastating months of mass deportations.) The only truly significant research-based monograph devoted to the Holocaust in Hungary written in the German language, Das letzte Kapitel, published in 2002, has been penned by two intriguing and influential historians–Götz Aly and Christian Gerlach–who admittedly do not read Hungarian. German journalists dealing with critical issues in German memory culture may hence be quickly forgiven for casually confusing the country with its neighbors even today, as happened at the Berliner Zeitung just the other week–countries that speak wholly different languages and whose societies may also have experienced WWII in radically different ways.


In the postwar decades, Hungary was a Sovietized former Axis country. Due to the highly unequal chances of survival of the more and the less assimilated and to varying patterns of postwar emigration, it had a by and large “Central European-type” community of Holocaust survivors within the Eastern bloc after World War II–that is to say a chiefly urban, even metropolitan, highly educated, and predominantly progressive group of secularized Jews.

Hungary was also a country where the institutionalization of Holocaust remembrance became part and parcel of the post-1989 politics of Westernization and European integration. Somewhat ironically, the Europeanization wave of those years went hand in hand with new-old narratives of the “struggle for national independence.”

As Paul Hanebrink has shown in his insightful recent monograph A Specter Haunting Europe, the revival of anticommunism and ethnonationalism in a post-Soviet, former Axis country quickly revived the Judeo-Bolshevism myth too, a malevolent and explosive myth which had now become encoded in revisionist interpretations of twentieth-century history. Hungary’s path to the European Union (EU) actually encouraged the rearticulation of such ethnonationalist forms of anti-communism as long as they were now expressed in an anti-totalitarian key.

The small but crucial step here was to align anti-totalitarianism, clearly supported by new EU-level policies in the politics of history by the early twenty-first century, with what might be viewed as a logical extension of narratives focused on national independence: the idea that totalitarian regimes and their crimes resulted from the double occupation of the country by Nazis (from Germany) and communists (from the Soviet Union).

The idea of such a double occupation, of depicting totalitarianism and mass violence as resulting from foreign impositions, was convenient for Hungarian right-wing nationalists for two chief reasons. It aligned their perspectives with those of representatives of other countries in their broader region, such as Poland and the Baltic states, who were clearly eager to have the Molotov-Rippentrop Pact of 1939 and their countries’ subsequent double occupation recognized on the European level. (Note that Hungary’s territory was not actually impacted by the implementation of the secret protocols signed in August 1939; in fact, the country practically doubled its territory in the years 1938 to 1941.)

Even more crucially for our purposes, this idea of a double occupation allowed Hungarian nationalists to ignore the history of right-wing authoritarian radicalization in their own country that culminated in the mass deportations of 1944 just as they were seemingly following a “politically correct,” anti-totalitarian script of interpreting recent history. In other words, a member of the Axis powers on the periphery of Central Europe was retrospectively redefined as an East European victim of German and Soviet aggression.

Let me briefly note here–the subject would deserve a separate essay and much more, which others would certainly be more qualified to pen–that this rightist anti-totalitarianism has emerged as the dominant form of anti-colonialism on the periphery of Central Europe after the implosion of Soviet regimes. It is a nationalistic and strictly intra-European form of anti-colonialism that could easily be adapted to oppose Western liberal values and various facets of European integration, which are nowadays often labelled in such rightist circles as “dictates by Brussels.”

If the specifics of Hungarian Jewish history and of the anti-Jewish genocide on the periphery of Central Europe had been almost wholly ignored in postwar Germany, this seemingly EU-compatible form of historical revisionism in a former Axis country raised few eyebrows initially. Rather tellingly, Mária Schmidt, the director of the now rather infamous House of Terror Museum in Budapest, the institution that has perhaps done the most to popularize this rightist interpretation of recent history, has also been a member of the academic committee of the House of European History in Brussels. Having been widely taken as a “post-communist country” in the decades since 1989 while much more rarely understood as a former Axis member, the rightist interpretation of Hungary’s recent history as that of an “East European victim” in fact enjoyed rather broad acceptance both locally and internationally in the early years of the current century–not least because representatives of the Federal Republic have been eager to treat Hungary as a close and valued partner “somewhere far in Eastern Europe” and therefore with no direct lessons to offer.

While key actors in German memory culture have thus continued to pay limited attention to developments on the new-old periphery of Central Europe, in more recent years rightist political and memory entrepreneurs in Hungary have started to insist on something that critical memory scholars tend to find outrageous: a staunchly pro-Israeli stance which allows them to fight critical voices not least by labelling them antisemitic with a very broad brush–often for the mere act of criticizing ethnonationalist state policies. Such a discourse, it goes without saying, reflects the budding alliance between Hungary under PM Viktor Orbán and the State of Israel under Benjamin Netanyahu’s premiership.

The emergence of such an alliance may have perplexed numerous observers, but it should have come as little surprise. After all, as Ivan Krastev has rightly underlined, Israel exhibits the major features that East European nationalists wish their countries possessed. It is a small country based on a strong notion of ethnic and religious identity, a heavily securitized and militaristic state with a technologically advanced capitalist economy, and one that is taken seriously in global politics.

But doesn’t the Hungarian regime’s staunchly pro-Israeli stance sound rather familiar in today’s Germany too?

If so, that might well be because this stance was also intended to align Hungary’s right-wing and increasingly authoritarian regime with Germany’s priorities in terms of anti-antisemitism and support for Israel. The explicit ethnonationalism was added to this stance to help the current Hungarian regime strengthen its own profile as well as its budding alliance with the right-wing forces in the State of Israel. In other words, the Orbán regime’s openly pro-Israeli, seemingly anti-antisemitic and evidently ethnonationalist discourses, in all their bluntness, help reveal what the Federal Republic and the State of Israel more implicitly share with each other today. Rather than being “somewhere far in Eastern Europe” with no direct lessons to offer, the bluntness of the current Hungarian regime in fact holds a dark mirror in which the contours and implications of Germany’s dominant memory culture become visible for those who dare to look.


In sum, the diverse shapers of Germany’s memory culture have devoted extended and painful attention in recent decades to a barely fathomable genocide and its long aftermath in Central European Jewish history. At the same time, they have practically ignored a similarly devastating anti-Jewish genocide on the periphery of Central Europe which was deeply entangled with the one they have clearly prioritized in their provincialism. Contemporary German memory actors, starting from the assumption that developments in countries “east of Germany” can be of no direct relevance to them, then quietly accepted, if not wholly ignored, the rightist redefinition of a former Axis power as an “East European victim” of foreign impositions. As I have underlined above, such ignorance could manifest because of that imaginary line that many Germans continue to draw between “Germany” and “Eastern Europe,” where the major WWII-era crimes of German imperialism were committed and which, in many instances, are right across their borders or not more than just a few hundred miles away.

Now that the Federal Republic’s apologetic attitudes towards the State of Israel and its broad and problematic anti-antisemitic policies have come to eerily resemble those of Hungarian ethnonationalists, critical scholars of Germany could gain substantially from looking into the dark mirror the periphery of Central Europe holds. It would help them examine just how provincial the German process of grappling with the Nazi past has been and how problematic their attempts at distancing “Eastern Europe” from their Central European comfort zones.


Ferenc Laczó is a political and intellectual historian at Maastricht University. He is the author or editor of eleven books on Hungarian, Jewish, German, European, and global themes. This essay is dedicated to Hilton Als, in gratitude.

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