For part two click here
Bibó was not a Marxist but a member of the National Peasant Party (NPP) — a party of radical reformists who adhered to a political position which was loosely described as “the third road” (or “third way”): neither Communist (i.e. Stalinist) or capitalist.
It was, in effect, left-reformist and probably closer to the politics of Bennism (but with an agrarian orientation) than anything else to which it could be compared in the UK today.
That political stream had a short existence from 1939 to 1948. In the Hungarian elections of 1945 the NPP won 42 seats in the National Assembly and in the (rigged) elections of 1949, as part of the so-called Hungarian Independent People’s Front (Communist Party dominated), it won 39 seats but was then swallowed up by Rákosi’s notorious “salami”tactics as the Communist Party “sliced” and destroyed the political opposition one-by-one.
Rákosi was the hard-line Stalinist Secretary of the Hungarian Communist Party in the immediate post-war period, later replaced by János Kádár.
In the anti-Stalinist 1956 Hungarian revolution Bibó joined the government of Imre Nagy and, by popular legend, was the last member of the inner committee remaining at his post as Russian troops took over the government building. He was arrested and after fifteen months in prison put on trial and given a life sentence.
After an amnesty in 1963 he was released but was given a minor clerical job in the statistical office and was under constant surveillance. In difficult circumstances he continued to write and some of his essays were smuggled out of Hungary and published in the west.
The Jewish Question in Hungary After 1944 was penned while it was still possible to publish articles which were critical and questioning, although you did have to tread carefully. It was published in the Hungarian journal Válasz (The Answer) over two issues in October-November in 1948. The Jewish Question was an attempt to address some important issues about the situation of the Jewish population in post-Second World War, post-Holocaust Hungary and in particular the disturbing resurgence of antisemitism so soon after 1945. Over half a million Hungarian Jews lost their lives during WW2: to disease, starvation, deportation to Auschwitz, death in Labour Battalions or random executions by gangs from the Hungarian fascist movement, the Arrow Cross. Despite what had happened during the Holocaust there was little in the way of sympathy for the survivors and it was not long before antisemitic incidents were reported. Bibó mentions three of these but does not give any details.
Bibó, who was not Jewish, noticed that the official response and that of many others to the terrible events of the war years was first, to argue that the majority of Hungarians were not involved in the atrocities, that it was the work of the Germans and their collaborators while decent people tried to do what they could to help. The second response was to condemn the resurgence of antisemitism and an affirmation that it must be fought with all available force. Bibó astutely observed:
“Any group of decent people who gather anywhere with the aim of saying something morally elevated, humane and comforting about this issue will find that no matter how hard they try, they cannot add to these two theses yet deep down, everyone feels that neither says anything, or, to be more precise, that there is something that they are not saying.”
It is to this idea — that there is something not being said, something under the surface — that Bibó addresses the rest of his long essay.
He begins by placing the issue of antisemitism within a historical perspective looking at how successive right-wing Hungarian governments had used far-right, fascist and semi-fascist groupings in the inter-war period to do their “dirty work” for them. Various pieces of anti-Jewish legislation were introduced, not to “steal the thunder” of the far right but to provide them with more ammunition by providing legal forms with which to carry on with their persecution. Yet Bibó speculates that for most Hungarians in the inter war years — the “solution of the Jewish issue” only meant decreeing that Jews earn less than non-Jews without any major changes in the structures of society and the economy. Few people considered that this nonsensical posturing could lead eventually to physical persecution and the anti-Jewish laws were passed off as “social reforms”. Some non-Jews benefitted from the anti-Jewish laws as they were able to take the jobs of Jews who had been fired, in the film industry, theatre and press for example. “These opportunities revealed and worsened the moral degradation of Hungarian society, presenting an appalling picture of insatiable avarice, a hypocritical lack of scruples, or at best cold opportunism…”
“Moral degradation” affected whole layers of society and Bibó specifically mentions the church and the intellectuals (many of whom were, of course, Jewish). The latter, on the occasions when they did speak out, protested against Jews being deprived of their equality as citizens. However, in a society where civil equality, particularly in the countryside, had never been highly developed, where national grievances (for example over the territory lost after the treaties at the end of WW1) dominated political discourse and often crowded out social concerns, the few voices speaking out for Jewry were, at best, marginal. As Bibó laments, the socialist movement in Hungary was small and isolated but did not even attempt to put forward a programme which rejected anti-Jewish legislation, affirmed Jewish rights, fought persecution, stood for Hungarian independence as against the steadily encroaching influence of the Nazis and advocated social and economic liberation for all Hungarians. This could have united the left-wing of the hitherto timid Hungarian Social Democratic Party, Hungarian intellectuals, Jewish activists and the illegal Communist Party, but it never happened. Those who did speak out often did so into a political void and were ignored or easily silenced.
One of the crucial questions that Bibó addresses is the official and public response to the Holocaust. Time and again those in authority and particularly the Communist Party refused to address the stark fact that without the active assistance of the police, politicians, civil servants and whole swathes of the Hungarian people, the Holocaust could not have happened or would have happened in a more muted form. The occupying Nazis and their Arrow Cross allies became the answer to everything and the question of responsibility, in the present and historically, was shunted off onto someone else. Bibó makes the point that Hungarian society never confronted this fact and, to this day, what he says is still true.
People did help Jews hide during the last few years of the war; there were individuals who did heroic deeds but:
“No matter how much sympathy or readiness to help may have existed here and there in this country, the persecuted did not and could not feel that the country, the community as a whole stood on their side or felt sympathy for them. We can recite as many true stories as we like concerning the Hungarian heroes of humanity and helpfulness, but it cannot be seriously alleged even for a moment, that the whole of persecuted Jewry had cause to feel gratitude toward the whole of the Hungarian nation, or that these two peoples grew closer to each other during the time of persecution — as was the case in Denmark, Holland, Yugoslavia, France [This is inaccurate. Did Bibó have up-to-date information about the situation in France?] and even Italy. And this is the decisive factor everything else is just empty talk.”
Bibó goes on to ask what were the causes of “Hungarian society’s moral bankruptcy”?
He notes two important contrasts: on the one hand Hungarian Jews were met with “…malevolence, lack of sympathy, narrow-mindedness, and cowardice”. But, he adds, Hungary is not a country which is fundamentally malevolent, lacking in sympathy, narrow-minded or cowardly. “However, humanity, empathy, and courage are not isolated and free-standing qualities, but traits that depend on social circumstances.”
The idea that a country can be judged by the number of heroes or self-sacrificing saints teeming over with brotherly love is mere romanticism — these qualities can only emerge in certain social and communal circumstances. It is that sense of solidarity, community approval and support that was missing in Hungary. Why was this? Bibó suggests that at key points in Hungarian history: the defeat of the 1848 war of Independence, the 1867 “Great Compromise” (which created Austria-Hungary), the revolutions of 1918 and 1919 and the 1920 Trianon Treaty (by which Hungary lost much of its territory to its neighbours) — the vision of a better society, whatever form it might have taken (Marxist, social democratic or bourgeois-liberal), was sacrificed to “…an increasingly entangling set of unrealistic political dogmas, focusing on the restoration and viability of historical Hungary [i.e. Hungary prior to World War One] and the historical hierarchy of its society.”
It is within this framework that the utterly disastrous decision of the Hungarian government to go war as an ally of Nazi Germany must be analysed. Successive Hungarian governments in the inter-war years had expressed the desire to recover the “lost territories”, particularly Transylvania (ceded to Romania in 1920) and this irredentism dominated Hungarian political life. Unable to do much themselves, Hungarian governments had to rely on the regional powerbrokers to do their work for them — this meant an alliance with Nazi Germany and eventually joining the war when the Nazis invaded the USSR.
Thus, what Bibó sees as “righteous national grievances” (I disagree with Bibó here) — the claim to the “lost territories” — ultimately results in an alliance with fascism.
“Within this process, those with less critical sense could not fathom the point in time when policies of alleviating national injuries and economically supplanting Jews deteriorated into political hooliganism and genocide.”
“The possibility for any type of human and courageous manifestations by wavering, middle-of-the-road average individuals was still precluded in part by their political miseducation and in part by the shamefully misleading behaviour of the country’s leaders. People were still convinced that, shocked as they may have been by the murder of Jews, they had to obey loyally the official Hungarian state apparatus and, as good Hungarians, wish for a German victory. In the final analysis, they tried to believe that they were witnessing the ‘degeneration’ of a process that was originally just, basically well-meaning, and well-initiated. If they felt sorry for the Jews or, especially, if they helped them, they did this in spite of their beliefs, with divided wavering consciences.”
What about the view that the majority of people in society did not know what was happening in Auschwitz or the other death camps? Or, if they had heard about the camps’ existence they simply didn’t believe it. Sentiments of this kind been encountered before in various places and in different contexts (for example it has long been the dishonest lament of many Stalinists that they had no idea about the existence of the Gulag). For Bibó, the arguments are more complex than simply believing or not believing,
“As for us Hungarians, we started ‘doubting’ the stories about the extermination camps just when we had learned enough about the deportation trains to suspect that stories of the death camps were true. Moreover, we did not disbelieve because we steadfastly believed in human goodness, but in order not to have to face our own responsibility.”