Two issues have recently occurred as reminders of the unpleasant past for Jews in Hungary. One is the coming into force on January 1, 2012 of the new constitution, The Fundamental Law of Hungary, passed on April 25, 2011. A paragraph in the Prologue can be read to deny any Hungarian responsibility for wartime actions in the country: "We do not recognize the suspension of our historical constitution due to foreign occupations. We deny any statute of limitations for the inhumane crimes committed against the Hungarian nation and its citizens under the national socialist and communist dictatorships." The implication, though not overtly stated, was that as Hungary was invaded and occupied by the Nazis in March 1944, and then later by the Red Army, its government and citizens could not be held responsible for the deportation of Jews to extermination camps. In more venal fashion this disclaimer could also limit payment of restitution claims by Jews against the state.
Even more disturbing has been the revival of the infamous blood libel accusation against Jews, the accusation that goes back to the first major one in 1144 in Norwich, England that Jews murder Christian children to use their blood to bake matzos for Passover. In the last few years this has been echoed by people in Russia, Poland, the Palestinian Hamas group, by the Syrian Minister of Defense, Mustafa Tiass, in a book in 1986, and by the leader of the branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel.
The accusation was echoed in a public space in Budapest. Zsolt Barath, one of the leaders of Jobbik, the new Nazi party which has 47 seats in the Hungarian legislature, is known as a Holocaust denier. On April 3, 2012 in a speech in the parliament he referred to the Tiszaeszlar case, 1882-83 in which 15 Jews were accused of murdering a 14 year-old Christian domestic servant for her blood. They were acquitted but the case was followed by pogroms against Hungarian Jews. The town of Tiszaeszlar has become a pilgrimage site for antisemites. Barath argued that the acquittal was due to outside pressure, in effect Jewish international financiers. Hungary, in the views of this Nazi, was again 130 years later facing similar pressure of Jewish finance. It is not unusual for the malicious, the ignorant or misguided to use the blood libel accusation. It is devastating that it should be used in a European parliament.
The list of distinguished Jews, past and present, who were born in, or originated from, territory controlled by Hungary, and who made important contributions to science, mathematics, scholarship, political and economic activity, and culture is endless. Among them are Theodor Herzl, John von Neumann, Milton Friedman, Tony Curtis, Leslie Howard, George Szell, Elie Wiesel, Arthur Koestler, Robert Capa, and George Soros.
In spite of that contribution to Hungarian culture the story of the Hungarian Jewish community has not been a happy one. The Wannsee Conference of German leaders in January 1942 outlined plans for the deportation and extermination of all Jews in German occupied territory. Its chairman, Reinhard Heydrich, head of the German Main Security Office including the Gestapo, calculated there were 742,800 Jews in the territory controlled by Hungary. Of these, 568,000 were killed by Nazi Germany and by the pro Nazi party the Hungarian Arrow Cross.
Hungary even before the war, from 1938 on, had introduced a number of antisemitic laws, so called "race protective" orders, according to which Jews, as in Nazi Germany, were essentially removed from the economy, preventing them from employment in law, press, films, theater, and from travelling except in street cars.
In the months of July and August 1941, over 16,000 Jews were deported from Hungary, an ally of Germany at the beginning of the war, to Galicia, then under German rule: all of them were killed. In January 1942 the Hungarian police murdered 3,500 people, of whom 800 were Jews. Most of their bodies were thrown into the river Danube; victims were made to remove their shoes before being thrown into the river -- a set of iron shoes now stands along the riverbank. Other victims were publicly hanged.
The main malfeasance committed in the country came after March 1944 when Hungary was occupied by German forces. The Regent of Hungary, the conservative Admiral Miklos Horthy, who ruled the country had not stood up to Hitler but he had not totally succumbed to or supported German demands. With the German invasion ghettos were established for 70,000 people and Jews were obliged to wear the Star of David. The main criminal in charge of the Holocaust in Hungary was Adolph Eichmann, not exemplifying the "banality of evil," but the energetic and ruthless head of a special unit to deport Jews. In this activity, Eichmann was aided by Hungarian soldiers, police, and government officials. In two months in summer 1944, 437,000 Hungarian Jews were deported to their death.
The deportations ended on July 6, 1944, partly as a result of D Day and partly because of Horthy's awareness of the advance of the Russian forces into Hungary. The Germans replaced Horthy, who would no longer be a partner of the Nazis, by Ferenc Szalasi, the leader of the anti-Semitic Arrow Cross party which was responsible for killing over 80,000 Jews, some of whom were sent on death marches. Some of these killers were tried as war criminals in Soviet Union courts after the war, but many went unpunished.
Budapest, which once had a Jewish population of 825,000, today has less than 70,000. Prejudice against them remains. A recent survey of Hungarians showed that 75 percent believe that Jews have too much power in the business world.
How unfortunate that Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved so many Jews in Budapest, and Tom Lantos, the Congressman who was a refugee from Hungary, are not alive to pour scorn on recent developments in Hungary.
Michael Curtis is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Rutgers University, and author of Should Israel Exist? A Sovereign Nation under Attack by the International Community.