Beyond Holocaust Studies: Rethinking the Holocaust in Hungary

Raz Segal. Journal of Genocide Research. Volume 16, Issue 1. January 2014.


This article argues that the ideological and emotional meanings of the terms ‘Holocaust’ and ‘antisemitism’ have obstructed their use as analytical concepts in Holocaust scholarship. It claims, specifically, that they frame the persecution and annihilation of Jews during World War II as unique, placing these events and processes apart from essential historical and political contexts. The destruction of Jews in wartime Hungary underscores how histories of state and nation building—in this case the drive to realize ‘Greater Hungary’ with a marked Magyar majority—generated multi-layered mass violence against non-Jews as well as Jews. Focusing on the multi-ethnic borderland of Subcarpathian Rus’ before the German invasion of Hungary in March 1944 illuminates the links in the state’s multi-layered attack against the region’s society and sheds new light on the particular victimization of Jews, also after March 1944. Almost all the scholarship on the Holocaust in Hungary has addressed the period after the German invasion, dealing with ghettoization and deportation to Auschwitz. This perspective has provided important insight, but it has also overshadowed significant dimensions in the history of wartime Hungary. The histories of the state’s borderlands, which have received limited attention, challenge this account of ‘the Holocaust’ in Hungary. This article uncovers how anxieties about disloyalty and foreignness played crucial roles in the exclusionary campaign against Jews, Roma and Carpatho-Ruthenians in Subcarpathian Rus’. The Hungarian authorities planned and carried out discriminatory and violent measures against them and, whenever national and international opportunities permitted, mass deportations. The examination of these related processes of mass violence lays bare the meaning of ‘antisemitism’ in a specific political context, highlighting connections between anti-Jewish policies and the persecution of other groups. Viewing this violence as it unfolded, rather than backward from the ‘final solution’ and Auschwitz, opens new paths to rethink ‘the Holocaust’ in Hungary.

Holocaust Studies functions as an exceptional scholarly field. No other field delimits the research on central events with global import such as World War I or World War II. Why the Holocaust, then? A large part of the answer relates to the evolution of Holocaust Studies as an emotional and ideological pursuit, as well as a scholarly field, in Israel, Europe and the United States. Among the main ideological and emotional concerns, two stand out: insistence on the singular nature of the Holocaust in history, and on antisemitism as a unique impetus for persecution and genocide. The terms ‘Holocaust’ and ‘antisemitism’ thus place the persecution and annihilation of Jews during World War II apart from history. Specifically, the few intersections of Holocaust history with work on genocide and political mass violence during World War II have caused much controversy. More broadly, the potential meeting points between the study of the Holocaust and scholarship on the phenomenon of genocide have yet to overcome these emotional and ideological hurdles.

Deconstructing the concepts of ‘Holocaust’ and ‘antisemitism’ in order to delve into the events and processes subsumed by them offers one way forward. The old controversies in Holocaust historiography between intentionalists and functionalists and the more recent debates about the Holocaust in the frame of Nazi colonial mass violence show, beyond the lingering disagreements, that a simplified notion of antisemitism blurs complex realities, in which anti-Jewish positions, emotions and policies intermingled with other interests and evolved into actions in pursuit of multiple goals. These discussions centred on Nazi Germany and its designs of genocide in the German-occupied territories in Poland and the Soviet Union. Current work on southeast Europe and the Balkan region takes this scholarly turn one step further, beyond the traditional focus on the German factor, highlighting projects of nation and state building that generated multi-layered political mass violence and targeted non-Jews as well as Jews for exclusion, mass deportation and mass murder. The Holocaust in Hungary offers a particularly illuminating case study in this emerging scholarship.

The period after the German invasion of Hungary in March 1944 has so far stood at the centre of analysis of the Holocaust in Hungary, addressing antisemitism, the ‘collaborating’ Hungarian state bureaucracy and the plans and policies of Nazi Germany. Looking primarily at the post-March 1944 period, limiting the discussion almost completely to the anti-Jewish measures and employing the paradigm of ‘collaboration’ has effectively pushed much of the history of Hungary aside. Specifically, the histories of the state’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious border areas during the war have received only limited attention, whether in relation to the period before the German invasion or after it. Hungary had lost these borderlands after World War I and occupied them during World War II, and they were at the heart of the vision of ‘Greater Hungary’ that framed the state’s political discourse before and during the war. Examining these borderlands, then, facilitates an analysis of the history of wartime Hungary as a whole—without viewing March 1944 as a point of rupture and involving non-Jews as well as Jews, Hungarian designs and policies in addition to those of Nazi Germany and local, regional and national initiative rather than ‘collaboration’.

The focus on the state’s borderlands thus provides an opportunity to rethink the Holocaust in Hungary. While the history of Budapest and its Jewish population during the war presents a different set of complexities, approximately 300,000 of the 500,000 victims among the state’s Jews had lived in those border territories. This article deals with the border region of Subcarpathian Rus’ and suggests several dimensions of this analytical shift. Subcarpathian Rus’ today constitutes the Transcarpathian oblast in western Ukraine. An eastern European borderland inhabited by a multi-ethnic and multilingual population, the region stretches from the Carpathian Mountains to the south, with its main towns at the foothills, where the Hungarian plain begins. Carpatho-Ruthenians, the majority population in Subcarpathian Rus’, numbered about 445,000 people in 1930 (sixty-three per cent). Around 115,000 Magyars made up the second largest group (fifteen per cent), and 100,000 Jews the third. Small numbers of Czechs, Slovaks, Romanians, Germans (Karpatendeutschen) and Roma also lived in the area.

The persecution and annihilation of Jews in Subcarpathian Rus’ emerged within the context of plans by the Hungarian state to obliterate diversity and realize ‘Greater Hungary’ with a Magyar majority through various state measures and, whenever national and international opportunities allowed, violent population transfers. These schemes targeted Carpatho-Ruthenians and Roma in addition to Jews. Such contextualization challenges much of the scholarship on the Holocaust in Hungary, and focuses attention on multi-layered mass violence, where interrelated attacks take place on the same territory. Apart from historian Krisztián Ungváry’s work on these links in wartime Hungary, with almost no attention to Subcarpathian Rus’, they have remained unnoticed and unexplored. Focusing on processes rather than outcomes elucidates the destruction of Jewish communities in Subcarpathian Rus’ as rooted much more in processes and circumstances in Hungary than in German plans and industrial mass killing in Auschwitz.

This article, then, explores connections rather than the comparisons that have given rise to conceptual and methodological problems associated with the hierarchies created by the terms ‘Holocaust’, ‘genocide’ and ‘ethnic cleansing’. Such scales have marginalized an organic picture of World War II that would challenge the strict isolation and separation of these categories and, in the case of Hungary, points to new interpretative frameworks concerning the destruction of the Jewish communities and the mass murder of more than half a million Jews. By exploring how violence unfolded in wartime Hungary, rather than looking at it backward from Auschwitz and ‘the Holocaust’, we notice how it targeted several victim groups in the borderlands for similar reasons; began well before Berlin set out on the path of genocide; came into conflict with German mass violence at one time and, at another, complemented it; and surged in moments of opportunity to produce episodes of mass deportations.

In short, considering the Holocaust in Hungary as an integral part of the state’s history during World War II and as part of Hungarian designs that included violent population transfers adds crucial political dimensions to an analysis heretofore framed by the decontextualized evil of ‘the Holocaust’, Nazi Germany and ‘antisemitism’. Refocusing the lens and looking at ‘Greater Hungary’ sheds new light on processes, events and meanings that the central concepts of Holocaust Studies have blurred rather than clarified.

‘Greater Hungary’ in Subcarpathian Rus’: Framing the Magyar Nation

Hungary occupied Subcarpathian Rus’ in two stages in November 1938 and March 1939, joining Nazi Germany in obliterating interwar Czechoslovakia that ruled the region after World War I. Now renamed Kárpátalja, it remained under military rule until June 1939, when the Hungarian Regent, Miklós Horthy, appointed Baron Zsigmond Perényi as head of a civil administration. Perényi, a landlord with an estate in Nagyszőllős (today’s Vynohradovo), had spent the interwar years in Budapest and now returned to the region. He was a committed Hungarian nationalist and a trusted member of the conservative class that had ruled Hungary since 1920. But his political vision of Hungary remained rooted in bygone days, and turning Subcarpathian Rus’ into a part of a ‘Greater Hungary’ in line with the political language of ethno-national singularity and the international atmosphere of conflict and ethnic violence required more forceful figures in leading positions. Accordingly, in September 1940, Miklós Kozma, another conservative who had served (1935-37) as interior minister in the far right-wing government of Gyula Gömbös, became the appointed governor (Kormányzói Biztos) of the region. Kozma not only embraced discriminatory actions against Jews and other groups in the region, which had begun immediately after the Hungarian occupation; he sought to alter completely the social makeup of Subcarpathian Rus’ through multi-layered political mass violence—harsh discrimination, daily violence, arrests and torture, political persecution and, whenever possible, mass deportations—targeting Jews, Roma and Carpatho-Ruthenians. These policies spelled great suffering and disaster for almost all the inhabitants of the region. As non-Magyars, they constituted ‘problems’ to a Magyar-dominated ‘Greater Hungary’.

Hungary’s ruling elite before World War I chose aggressive policies that advanced assimilation of the kingdom’s minorities, particularly in border areas such as Subcarpathian Rus’, into the Magyar population—’magyarization’—with a view to consolidating a Magyar majority in a ‘Greater Hungary’. Hungary’s defeat and humiliation in World War I and the Trianon Treaty triggered radical change: the country had lost two-thirds of its pre-World War I territory and three-fifths of its population, mostly the minorities in the borderlands, including Subcarpathian Rus’. During the chaotic period of 1918-20, one goal united the Hungarian left and right and provided all political camps with legitimacy: the preservation of pre-World War I Hungarian territories and the fight against the invading Czech and Romanian armies in the north and east. All joined the struggle and all believed in it as a just cause. And when Horthy, who had become regent of the kingdom on 1 March 1920, and the Hungarian government accepted the Trianon Treaty on 4 June, all felt the weight of the disaster.

A new mood took hold of Hungary’s ruling cadres during the interwar years, permeated with the xenophobia and drive for ethno-national ‘homogenization’ and expansion that had become a staple of European politics at the time. The guiding political principle in imagining ‘Greater Hungary’ now shifted from ‘magyarization’ to exclusion. In 1934, Horthy set the tone by suggesting that the post-World War I Turkish-Greek ‘population exchanges’ should inspire similar policies vis-à-vis the minorities in Hungary. Horthy’s concern here focused particularly on the large German minority, about whom Hungarian nationalists had been anxious since the middle of the nineteenth century. And Bálint Hóman, Hungary’s minister of culture and education for almost a decade between 1932 and 1942, viewed the deportations of Carpatho-Ruthenians, Romanians and Serbs from Hungary as necessary. Wartime conditions sharpened this position. Henrik Werth, head of the general staff of the Hungarian army in 1941, urged the expulsion of Hungary’s Slav, Romanian and Roma populations together with the Jews, making an explicit connection between the two latter groups. ‘Greater Hungary’ thus stood at the heart of the political consensus in Hungary, and fostered the rise of increasingly exclusionist and violent ideas as legitimate political futures.

Hungarian soldiers committed small-scale massacres of Carpatho-Ruthenians as they marched into towns and villages in the region in March 1939. Some also lashed out at Jews. Shmu’el Vyzer, who was fifteen years old in 1939, remembered that an old Jew waited for the arrival of Hungarian soldiers on the main road of Felsőbisztra (Verkhniy Bystryy), exclaiming, ‘Long live the Hungarian army’. Still a soldier beat him and tore his beard. Another survivor, from Beregszász (Berehovo), provided information in his DEGOB testimony immediately after the war about the pillaging and looting of ‘irregular troops’.

The new Hungarian authorities quickly moved from sporadic violence to institutional persecution. The plight of forty-nine-year-old Sámuel Hollender from Nagybereg (Beregi) illuminates the underlining rationale of the new rulers. On 13 February 1939, the sub-prefect (Alispán) of Bereg County and Ugocsa County suggested incarcerating Hollender because of anti-Hungarian remarks he had allegedly made the preceding October, before the Hungarian occupation. The two gendarmes who had arrested Hollender on 23 November 1938 acted ‘according to information’ from one Béla Fábián. But the gendarmes also stressed that such ‘anti-Hungarian activity’ stemmed from support for the Czech Agrarian Party and ‘will induce anti-Hungarian feelings among the population’. The Royal Hungarian Gendarmerie’s company commander in town promptly notified the Hungarian military command in nearby Beregszász, emphasizing that Hollender’s internment was ‘very much, almost absolutely necessary’. The correspondence about the case mentions seven other individuals from Nagybereg, whose ‘anti-Hungarian activity’ as ‘Czech sympathizers’ or simply their identification as ‘Communists, social-democrats and Agrarian Party leaders’ rendered their internment ‘necessary … as soon as possible’.

This case demonstrates an imagined necessity that already held the possibility of far more sweeping policies to ensure a ‘Greater Hungary’ purged of people perceived as subversive, especially in its borderlands. The emphasis on disloyalty used by the gendarmes in Nagybereg resonated with central decision makers. Shortly thereafter, in June 1939, the Ministry of the Interior applied it to all Jews in the region as ‘suspicious elements … who are problematic from a political and economic perspective’. Jews in Subcarpathian Rus’, however, hardly possessed the kind of economic power that such language suggested. In fact, the Hungarian occupation and the beginning of war in September 1939 fuelled a decline in the economic condition of an already impoverished population. Decree 1939/1100 of the prime minister (4 February 1939) had singled out the Jews for economic persecution, which deprived thousands of families in the territories occupied in November 1938 of their business licences. Decree 1940/3380 in May 1940 targeted the rest of the Jews in Subcarpathian Rus’ in the area occupied in March 1939.

The language of these decrees followed the same logic as that of the gendarmes who dealt with Sámuel Hollender’s case: those deemed disloyal to the Hungarian state because of their alleged hostility to Hungarian interests in the interwar years could not enjoy the privileges of Hungarian citizens. Economic interests and the influence of Nazi Germany no doubt pushed this discriminatory process forward, but these decrees, as well as the anti-Jewish legislation in Hungary, aimed first and foremost to define and delineate the ethno-national political body.

The image of ‘Greater Hungary’ portrayed a new political geography of most of the Danubian Basin, in which a large Magyar majority would control a territory unwelcoming towards minority populations. This vision translated into destructive impulses and initiatives whenever opportunities presented themselves, and it prompted a multi-layered attack against most of the region’s inhabitants.

Mass Deportations, Multi-Layered Mass Violence: Jews, Roma, Carpatho-Ruthenians

The Hungarian authorities began to expel Jews from Subcarpathian Rus’ immediately after the Hungarian occupation of the southwestern part of the region in November 1938. These somewhat unorganized instances quickly acquired some routine. Once Hungarian forces conquered the rest of the region in March 1939, they applied this practice there as well. By December 1939, several thousand Jews had been forcefully expelled, first, until March 1939, to no-man’s lands between Czech, Slovak and Hungarian territories, and later to Poland.

The National Central Alien Control Office (Külföldieket Ellenőrző Országos Központi Hatóság: KEOKH), a body within the Public Security Department in the Ministry of the Interior, planned and oversaw many of these deportations. The head of the KEOKH branch office in Sátoraljaújhely instructed (6 March 1940) the chief constable (Főszolgabiró) of Ungvár (Uzhhorod) to prepare a list of expelled Jews in his area of jurisdiction. The correspondence and lists concerning the town of Radvánc (Radvanka) give an example of the extent of the deportations. At least seventy-one heads of families, almost all of whom, according to the Public Notary Office in Radvánc, were Jewish men born outside of Hungary, had already been deported or were ‘under the effect of an expulsion decision’ by April 1940. The documents provide no clear indication as to whether the deportation orders pertained to family members as well, but a request—that if they ‘have their own income and live in a separate household, they should be enlisted as independent persons and should be included on the list with the data required for heads of households’—implies as much. If so, the total number of targeted Jews in Radvánc amounted to around three hundred, nearly half of the town’s Jewish population.

It seemed at first that evidence of Hungarian citizenship would protect Jews from deportation, and obtaining it thus consumed the time and energies of many Jews, both those who had arrived in the region during World War I as refugees and those whose families had settled there in the nineteenth century but never felt the need to take care of their legal status. The set of required documents included birth certificate, parents’ marriage certificate, residence permits, official employment and tax information and proof of real estate ownership, if relevant. Jenő Krausz from Bustyaháza (Bushtyno) wrote to his son on 17 April 1941, explaining that he had been to visit the border police in Aknaszlatina (Solotvyno) ‘because of the citizenship documents I have been ordered to submit. It cost me a lot of money and pains: the fifty pengős that you sent, and I sold my pocket watch to be able to send [the documents] to Pest to the Ministry’. Yet, as we shall see, the essence of citizenship in Hungary had changed and no longer relied on formal status. Such efforts would therefore often prove futile during the extensive deportations that began three months later.

The brief military control of the Hungarian army in East Galicia in July 1941, as Hungary joined Nazi Germany in its attack on the Soviet Union (22 June 1941), served as a pretext for the first major attempt to implement large-scale violent population transfers in Subcarpathian Rus’. Writing to Hungarian Prime Minister László Bárdossy, Miklós Kozma declared on 10 July 1941: ‘At the beginning of next week, I will push all the non-Hungarian Galicians who escaped here [referring to Jews], the uncovered Ukrainian agitators and Gypsies across the border’. While Roma appear explicitly in the letter, the two other groups point to a more inclusive operation than the text suggests and to the dominance of Hungarian concerns about disloyalty and foreignness. The deportation of Jews and Roma in the summer of 1941 did not eventually include Carpatho-Ruthenians. However, the latter occupied a central place in the worldview and designs of the Hungarian authorities.

Bárdossy’s and Kozma’s correspondence reveals the extent to which Carpatho-Ruthenians attracted their attention. They discussed German agents in charge of ‘Ukrainian propaganda’ in the region; vague plans about the deportation of family members of Carpatho-Ruthenians who had ‘just escaped from here [to the Soviet Union]’; the annulment of Hungarian citizenship of those escapees; anti-Hungarian Ukrainian leaflets; and the departure of ‘six [Basilian] Fathers’ from the region, who ‘will never return’. Furthermore, the day after Kozma had written to Bárdossy, he crowed in his diary: ‘Pest has started to move, and is following me in the new situation. 1) Foreign citizens; 2) Military zone; 3) Ukrainian agitators; 4) Gypsies’. Kozma again explicitly tied Hungarian designs regarding three non-Magyar groups in the region in a way that could facilitate sweeping deportations. Others shared his agenda. A few days after his letter, Árpád Siménfalvy, the lord lieutenant (Főispán) of Ung County and the town of Ungvár, wrote approvingly (16 July): ‘It is a matter of common knowledge that His Excellency Kozma is removing Jews of non-Hungarian citizenship from Subcarpathia to the north and is using this occasion to cleanse Subcarpathia from wandering Gypsies, too’.

The regional authorities were not the only ones to concern themselves with broad projects of violent population transfers. The head of the KEOKH, Sándor Siménfalvy, issued (12 July) the central decree for the deportations of summer 1941, relating to all of Hungary and targeting no one group in particular, speaking instead of ‘foreign citizens’. Most of the central and local decrees featured similar language, such as ‘aliens’ and ‘non-Hungarian citizens’, for while Jews stood at the top of the list of victims—and, with Roma, were the most defenceless—the Hungarian authorities targeted other groups as well. In fact, the 12 July decree requested that lists of ‘foreigners’ record ‘descent’. If Jews alone had occupied the Hungarian authorities’ attention, there would have been no need for this information.

The brothers Sándor and Árpád Siménfalvy grew up in Subcarpathian Rus’, in Nagyszőllős. Their roles in the deportations of summer 1941 point to the central place of Magyars from the territories that Hungary had lost after World War I in translating ‘Greater Hungary’ from public imagination to political reality. Many more took part in the task. The fact that both the KEOKH and the Subcarpathian Rus’ governor’s office devised and carried out plans for these violent population transfers proves that all concerned agreed, drawing upon the broad ideological consensus that had crystallized in the interwar period. Several state authorities thus furnished more than enough perpetrators on the ground: gendarmes and policemen in the border police branches, who gathered the victims, beat and robbed them and transported them to the border; and soldiers, who literally dumped the deportees on the other side of the Carpathian Mountains. Shmuel Yung was born in 1920 in Taracújfalu (Novoselytsya). The village notary refused to provide his family with Hungarian citizenship certificates, even though all were born there. When the gendarmes came to deport the family ‘they asked no questions—whether any person was born there or not’. The gendarmes took Shmuel, his parents, his brother and two sisters by truck to Huszt (Khust), where they waited for three days before a train transported them to Kőrösmező (Iasynia), the site of a transit and registration camp established by the KEOKH for the mass deportation campaign. They stayed there for three or four days, with barely any food and sleeping on the floor, after which ‘the Hungarians brought us to Horodenka, in East Galicia, and left us in a large open area’.

Hungary’s leaders decided to put an official end to large-scale deportations on 15 August 1941 not because of any difference of opinion with their regional representatives nor due to any concern for the fate of their victims, and also not in response to the pleas of Jewish leaders in Budapest, but first and foremost because the German occupying forces in East Galicia made it clear that they would not allow their continuation. The Germans on the other side of the Carpathian Mountains evidently grasped the numerical significance of words such as ‘foreigners’ and ‘non-Hungarian citizens’, and they stopped the flow of deportees immediately.

The Hungarian orders targeted people without Hungarian citizenship, i.e. those bereft of the protection a state extends to its citizens. But the term ‘citizenship’ in this case had already lost its conventional legal meaning, and had become a corollary of ethnic identification by exclusion as defined by the state. Indeed, clause 7 of Decree 3850/1941 ME (in effect since 23 May 1941) by the prime minister, which amended previous laws concerning the citizenship of the inhabitants of Subcarpathian Rus’, explicitly excluded Jews from the possibility of regaining Hungarian citizenship status based on citizenship before the Trianon Treaty. Hence, it mattered not at all whether Jews held the required papers to show their formal belonging to the Hungarian state; the latter had already labelled them as unwanted strangers and, if needed, collected or simply destroyed identification papers, virtually turning the people who had held them into ‘non-Hungarian citizens’.

These deportations therefore threatened many more than solely Jews without Hungarian citizenship. The goal was to deport as many Subcarpathian Rus’ Jews as possible. In some localities, the authorities accomplished this objective with terrible success. In Lipcse (Lypcha) in Máramaros County, for instance, only eighty of the 542 Jews who had lived there remained after the deportations of 1941. And in Szinevér (Synevyr) the whole Jewish community was erased.

While the drive for total uprooting of the region’s Jews has been well established in recent scholarship, nowhere has the key question—why?—emerged. Was this simply a manifestation of an extreme position aimed exclusively against Jews? Or rather part of a far-reaching vision regarding the future of Subcarpathian Rus’? Multi-layered mass violence that occurred in the other borderlands that fell to Hungarian hands during World War II suggests the latter. Romanians in Transylvania and ‘Serbs, Bosnians, Montenegrins, gypsies, or Jews [in the Délvidék] who did not (themselves or their parents) have citizenship within the territory of Greater Hungary before October 31, 1918’ suffered episodes of mass deportations and political mass violence. Serbs—another group without real power at the time—suffered the most: the Hungarian state expelled 30,000 Serbs to German-controlled Serbia, despite strong protests by the German authorities. The requirements regarding citizenship and date of settlement remained dead letters in this case as well.

The number of Jews violently deported from Subcarpathian Rus’ in the summer of 1941 remains unknown. We know that by 9 August more than fifteen thousand Jews had been deported and two thousand more, imprisoned in Kőrösmező, would soon face expulsion. But the operation lasted almost another week, and the Hungarian authorities most probably could not register every victim, especially due to the participation of different forces and the destruction of entire communities in some cases. It is thus reasonable to posit that as many as twenty thousand Subcarpathian Rus’ Jews—about one-fifth of the region’s Jewish population—were deported in the summer of 1941. Most of them met a cruel death at the hands of the local Ukrainian population in East Galicia and Ukraine and mainly in the Kamenets-Podolsk mass killing by German units and their accomplices at the end of August 1941.

As we saw, it was ‘a matter of common knowledge’ that the Hungarian authorities also deported Roma, but the available sources provide no hint about the number of victims. What came of the plans regarding Carpatho-Ruthenians? Mainly due to the stand of the German authorities beyond the Carpathians, who would not accept more deportees from Hungary after 15 August, the Hungarian government could not even begin to organize and carry out deportations of Carpatho-Ruthenians. But the summer of 1941 signalled a new level of commitment to the idea of ‘Greater Hungary’ and of political mass violence in its service. This multi-layered assault continued in 1942.

Making Life Unbearable: Carpatho-Ruthenians and Roma, 1942-43

The massacres of Carpatho-Ruthenians in March 1939 set the ground for the political persecution that would descend on the region’s society under Hungarian control. Tens of thousands of Carpatho-Ruthenians, mainly those suspected of Ukrainian or Soviet sympathies, suffered arrest, torture, internment, expulsion and death during the Hungarian occupation. The leading Ukrainophile Vincent Shandor, for example, reported on the arrest and torture of his sister and brother. The threat of a ‘secret Ukrainian organization’ in 1942 and Hungarian reports that it had ‘spread to almost the whole Subcarpathian area’ made life very hard for many Carpatho-Ruthenians. And as Budapest reversed the Czechoslovak land reform, the regional authorities transferred thousands of Carpatho-Ruthenians from rich to poor lands. Because many Carpatho-Ruthenians eked out a subsistence living at the time, these measures exacerbated their daily struggle.

The drive against Carpatho-Ruthenians targeted their culture as well. Ukrainophile cultural activities came under particular attack, and Ukrainian-language publications ceased to appear. Russophiles fared no better: Kozma reportedly threatened ‘to crush into powder and send to the grave anyone who dare call himself a Russian’. The persecutory justification here centred mainly on loyalty, which explains why Kozma permitted an Uhro-Rusyn orientation, that is, a limited regional identity tied to Hungary. It remains unclear how many Carpatho-Ruthenians saw themselves as Uhro-Rusyns, but Hungarian oppression and violence must have seriously limited the appeal of the Uhro-Rusyn idea. In any case, according to the Hungarian future advocated by Bálint Hóman, Henrik Werth and other Hungarian nationalists, a victorious Hungary would not need to resort to such enforced loyalty. If Hungarian leaders and officials could imagine the mass deportation of Romanians from Transylvania after the war, they could easily envision an identical fate for the stateless and largely defenceless Carpatho-Ruthenians.

The Roma population in the region suffered worse, as they represented the ultimate outsiders and were portrayed in anxiety-ridden language. The commander of the gendarmerie unit at Csap (Chop), for example, referred to Roma as ‘the home of dirt and infectious disease’. Contrary to received wisdom, the Hungarian authorities treated Roma as a ‘question to be fundamentally solved’ from the outset of their occupation of the region. At times, the Hungarian authorities viewed Jews and Roma as interrelated ‘problems’: the chief constable of the town of Nagykapos, for instance, requested in December 1940 ‘regulation’ of ‘wandering Gypsies’, adding that a ‘similar regulation is needed with regard to wandering Jews’. It is striking that the logic of the persecution of Jews in this document follows simultaneously anti-Jewish and anti-Roma anxieties, which echo the general drive of the Hungarian state against those perceived as ‘foreigners’ and ‘wandering’—again, without much consideration for their formal status. Indeed, ‘wandering’ could easily expand to include, as in nearby Nyitra-Poszony County, not only nomadic Roma but also settled Roma ‘without sufficient income’. In fact, the legal committee of that county suggested dealing with the ‘Gypsy question in general’ as a struggle against ‘undesirable elements’. The rationale for persecution here emanates from an acute impulse, beyond the threat of disloyalty: the urge to remove a group perceived as foreign, unreliable and inherently diseased and dirty.

This harsh anti-Roma position entailed policies that included raids, enforced curfew, internment and withholding of food ration coupons. Raids against Roma became common in all of Hungary during World War II, and regional and local authorities carried them out in Subcarpathian Rus’ on a regular basis. The sub-prefect of Bereg County and Ugocsa County ordered the chief constables under his authority to conduct raids in June 1939, and gendarmerie units in Nagybereg, Mezőkászony (Koson), Bátyu (Bat’ovo), Beregszász, Bene and Nagybégány (Velyka Bigan) complied. Gendarmes in Ung County received similar orders in May and again in October and November 1940.

The accounts of victims who lived in the region during the Hungarian occupation describe the suffering that these policies brought. Kalman Sabo, a Rom from Beregszász, recalled his humiliation at the hands of Hungarian gendarmes, describing in detail how a gendarme beat him severely in 1943, when he was only nine years old. Morris Muller, a Jewish survivor from Huszt, confirmed that Roma ‘had a hard time’, and Yaakov Halpert, a Jewish survivor from Nagyszőllős, commented that Roma suffered even more than Jews under Hungarian rule.

Such an atmosphere no doubt helped Hungarian officials to imagine the deportations of Roma in the summer of 1941 as ‘common knowledge’, as Árpád Siménfalvy wrote on 16 July. Indeed, many public officials called for the internment of Roma in labour camps that year. The raids now tightened. Whereas in 1939 and 1940 many Roma managed to move between counties so as to avoid raids, the sub-prefect of Ugocsa County issued strict orders to his chief constables to track down Roma who might escape from raids in the neighbouring Szatmár County in May 1942. In the summer and autumn of that year, Roma faced further discrimination, hardship and violence, as authorities forbade them to leave their residences between sunset and sunrise and provided food ration coupons only to Roma (and their families) employed as musicians or in field, wood or mud work. Life had become unbearable under such conditions, but the region’s Roma would soon experience still harsher tribulations.

‘Jews Have No Place’: 1942-43

The Hungarian authorities in Subcarpathian Rus’ put the Jews at the top of the list of groups targeted for persecution. As we have seen, the wave of mass deportations in the summer of 1941 came to a stop mainly due to the refusal of German authorities in East Galicia to allow its continuation, which left Hungarian occupation authorities unsatisfied. The German occupiers on the other side of the border, who had just begun to murder entire Jewish communities, would not accept more Jews into the territories under their control, and Kozma’s efforts to persuade them failed. Various figures in the Hungarian extreme right, also among senior officers in the army, turned to Berlin in their efforts to deport all the Jews in the region in 1942. But extremists held no monopoly on such ideas, certainly not in Subcarpathian Rus’. The total deportation of Jews had appeared on Kozma’s agenda since he became governor, long before leading Nazis began to pressure the Hungarian government to include the country’s Jews in the ‘final solution’; indeed, a year before any decision about a European-wide ‘final solution’. After Kozma died in December 1941, others in the region kept his vision alive. In April 1942, Árpád Siménfalvy sent a long report to the Ministry of the Interior with parts of the minutes of the Ungvár municipal committee annual meeting. He suggested establishing a national authority to plan and carry out ‘the relocation of the Jews’. He explained that

[t]he year 1942 will be the year of great efforts and decisions … Thousands of tanks, airplanes and armies of millions are fighting for the final victory, cultures crumble and nations sink from one day to the other in the trapdoor of history. This incredible struggle with its horrible devices and consequences stands unparalleled in world history; and behind it the contours of a new European order, a world based on a Christian national worldview, a new millennium, a new European life are forming. … Jews have no place in the ongoing world struggle and in the new Europe that will emerge from it. … [W]e Hungarians have to literally liquidate this [Jewish] question based on our own strength and resolution … because it would mean a terrible threat to our homeland if we postpone this question or wait for external forces to solve it.

The envisioned order of Hitler’s Europe created a sense of heightened urgency, but it remained in the hands of Hungarians to prove their ‘European legal standing that is worthy of our Hungarian national mission’.

Local authorities, enthusiastic to partake in the task, abounded with ideas that, following Árpád Siménfalvy’s prescription, would restrict Jews’ place. The chief notary of Huszt, József Bíró, proposed, for example, to address the housing problem in town by simply confiscating Jewish apartments. Others refused to allow the stop in mass deportations in the summer of 1941 to take the wind out of their sails and pressed forward with small-scale deportations whenever possible. The Aknaszlatina Border Area Police Office, for instance, informed the Financial Directorate at Máramarossziget in June 1942 of the expulsions of nine Jews from Aknaszlatina. The officials of the Financial Directorate made ‘arrangements … so that all the public debt of the expelled individuals should be insured and recovered’. In December 1942, the same office requested the district notary office to ‘inform us in due time about the discharge date from military service [labour battalions]’ of five additional Jews from the same town who were slated for expulsion.

Hardship and violence became routine. An infantry company commander in Munkács, for instance, thought that Jews’ homes would serve nicely as sites for a ‘partisan exercise’ in May 1942, just before his unit left for the front. The rationale stemmed from the state’s policies and widespread positions in the Hungarian army, which had just played a central role in planning and perpetrating mass killings in Hungarian-occupied Délvidék: a group collectively deemed ‘foreign’ and slated for removal now became ‘the enemy’. The ‘exercise’ quickly turned into real-life ‘looting and assaulting of Jews’.

Whereas soldiers only passed through Subcarpathian Rus’, the daily presence of the dreaded Hungarian gendarmes ensured that many could not forget their violence. Morris Muller, for example, described how they mistreated Jews on the streets of Huszt. And Menahem Vayg recounted the painful encounter of his father with gendarmes in Alsóapsa (Nyzhnya Apsha). In particular, the torture of the victims in the gendarmerie’s investigation headquarters in the region, the Kohner Castle above Munkács, served as a reminder to all the region’s inhabitants of the occupation authorities’ power over their lives. Two letters from a mother and a father in Beregszász to their son, Shimon, probably written in January 1944, convey a sense of the atmosphere in those days. ‘We cannot relax for even a minute’, wrote the mother. And the father added that ‘we have had enough, too much … I wanted to write a lot of things but I am not capable of gathering my thoughts’.

Jews in neighbouring northern Transylvania faced similar distress and a concerted drive to push them out of the country. In Csíkszereda, whence the Hungarian authorities had already deported Jews in 1940, deportation orders rained down on Jews in 1942. Károly Herskovits, the wife of the head of the Jewish community, turned for help to Margit Slachta, the founder of the Sisters of Social Service (1923) and a well-known opponent of anti-Jewish measures in Hungary. Herskovits wrote to her (16 June 1942) that since the return of Hungarian rule in August 1940, ‘Jews have been almost constantly deported from the town’. Slachta thereupon sought the assistance of Countess Móric Esterházy (18 June), a member of the Hungarian Red Cross, mentioning that similar events had plagued the lives of Jews in Borszék and warning that ‘[t]he general situation is rapidly deteriorating; it seems that the Hungarian state would like to follow the example of Slovakia’. Emma Strobl, a member of Slachta’s Sisters of Social Service, confirmed the widespread agreement about Árpád Siménfalvy’s ‘national mission’ when she informed Slachta (10 July) of her conversation with the town’s police chief: ‘we should not think that this [the deportations] is the will of only one man … a lot of people are backing it’. Indeed, the vision of ‘Greater Hungary’ enjoyed a wide consensus, and it fired the imagination of people like Árpád Siménfalvy, whose actions brought immense suffering, loss and death to hundreds of thousands of Jews and non-Jews in wartime Hungary, before as well as after March 1944.

Conclusion: The Holocaust in Hungary: Shifting the Perspective

This article rethinks the Holocaust in Hungary by shifting the perspective regarding both time and space. The persecution and annihilation of Jews in Hungary unfolded first and foremost in the context of Hungary’s wartime history, and the period before the German invasion in March 1944 provides necessary dimensions to understand this process of mass violence. The state’s occupied border territories, which stood at the heart of the widely shared political imagination of Hungarian society after World War I, also tell us much about this history. Anti-Jewish policies evolved according to vital Hungarian interests, and not primarily due to pressure from Berlin. Indeed, for the Jews in Szinevér (and other localities), as we have seen, total destruction occurred in the summer of 1941—before the German leadership sent its diplomats to pressure the Hungarian government to deliver the country’s Jews for annihilation in Nazi death camps and well before the German occupation of Hungary. Furthermore, the goal of a Magyar-dominated ‘Greater Hungary’ prompted multi-layered mass violence that targeted Roma and Carpatho-Ruthenians for persecution in Subcarpathian Rus’ in addition to Jews. Legislators in Budapest, county sub-prefects and local gendarmes made sure that harassment, discrimination, violence and sometimes death pervaded daily lives. But some moments between 1938 and 1944, particularly during the summer of 1941, opened opportunities to realize the ultimate desire of the authorities: to remove as many of the region’s minority populations as possible.

The sources and testimonies in this article challenge the idea that Hungary served as a safe haven for Jews before March 1944, a common perception that László Karsai, a central figure in the study of the Holocaust in Hungary, has recently formulated as no less than a ‘protective policy vis-à-vis the Jews [in which] humanitarian considerations played a role’. By contrast, historian Kinga Frojimovics has rightly argued that the KEOKH functioned, at least partly, as a ‘”dejewification commando” operating in Hungary before the Germans occupied the country’. But Frojimovics completely overlooks the links between ‘dejewification’ and the violent drive against other groups. ‘Antisemitism’ certainly figured as a central aspect in the policies aimed to achieve ‘Greater Hungary’, but the integrated examination of Hungary’s wartime history uncovers how images of disloyalty and foreignness stood at the centre of animosities against all three persecuted groups in Subcarpathian Rus’, picturing them as threats to the ethno-national Magyar state. The links between the layers of violence against different groups in the region thus elucidate the persecution and deportation of Jews, as they trace how anti-Jewish positions acquired specific meaning, became functional and translated into policies and violence that aimed at more than just uprooting Jews. Indeed, if we view the histories of Jews and the history of the places where they lived as closely intertwined, placing the genocide of the Jews in Hungary in its proper historical context helps to explain it.

Taking the whole historical picture of ‘Greater Hungary’ as a subject of investigation throws the limited analytical potential of the term ‘antisemitism’ into sharp relief. Treating anti-Jewish persecution and violence in local contexts pushes us to identify, describe and explain the connections between these events and processes and others happening at the same time and place, including other instances of mass violence. Yet, oddly, although widening the lens to include such links would follow standard professional practice, histories of ‘antisemitism’ have remained largely severed from relevant contexts, reflecting the central role of the term in formulating both the history of Jews and the Holocaust within and beyond that history as unique. Here, by contrast, the concept serves as a research question: what kind of ideas and positions constitute ‘antisemitism’ in this case? What made them operational at a specific juncture? And what kind of actions did they prescribe?

This critique of the term ‘antisemitism’ highlights the shift in the concept of citizenship in Hungary from the late nineteenth century to the interwar years. As the project of a Magyar-dominated ‘Greater Hungary’ changed from a civilizing mission—’magyarization’—to a violent drive for ethno-national consolidation, inclusion in the nation became an essential rather than a formal or legal matter. Although the vision of ‘Greater Hungary’ differed from colonialism, we observe in this fateful shift the early colonial view and aim to reshape subjugated groups (in whole or in part) to resemble the masters, what Homi Bhabha has described as mimicry. He has explained that colonial discourses that seek to transform colonial subjects in the image of the occupier contain an inherent ambivalence: the ‘reformed other’ turns out to be almost the same as his/her conqueror, ‘but not quite‘. This imitational slippage—for, by essence, all imitations remain incomplete—already points to potential processes, whereby ‘mimicry—a difference that is almost nothing but not quite—[turns to] menace—a difference that is almost total but not quite’. While the small difference that remained in mimicry still allowed for formal inclusion as a Magyar until World War I, it turned thereafter to a basic indication of the inability to ever become a true Magyar and it thus signified the inherent ‘otherness’ and disloyalty of minority populations.

In Subcarpathian Rus’ and elsewhere in Hungary, Jews represented the ultimate ‘other’. According to Árpád Siménfalvy’s formulation of the ‘Christian’ vision of ‘Greater Hungary’, Jews’ religious difference exacerbated their assumed political hostility towards the state. Historian Paul Hanebrink has indeed examined the persecution and destruction of Jews in wartime Hungary as part of a Christian project. Yet Hanebrink has not considered that this position stemmed from a Western Christian worldview and entailed a struggle not only against Jews but also against Eastern Christians—hence the intersection of nationalist and religious meanings in the conflict between Catholic and Calvinist Magyars and Orthodox Romanians and Serbs since the late nineteenth century. While most Carpatho-Ruthenians were Greek Catholics, in this case as well the historical efforts of the Hungarian Catholic Church to control and ‘magyarize’ the region’s Catholics combined nationalist and religious agendas. Budapest’s ‘colonial view’ played a part here, as the Hungarian authorities looked down on the region’s Slavic population.

Roma aroused the most contempt from Hungarian authorities, and we have seen how the latter linked the threat that, in their eyes, Roma posed to the nation and state with the danger they saw in Jews. The persecution and annihilation of Jews in wartime Hungary thus formed a central part of the broader political drive against groups deemed foreign and disloyal. All three groups experienced the state’s routine persecution, but the limited window of opportunity for mass deportations in the summer of 1941 targeted Jews and Roma—the most excluded from the vision of ‘Greater Hungary’ and also the most defenceless in the face of the extreme violence it entailed. Positing ‘antisemitism’ as a motivation of the state during World War II, certainly in the borderlands, makes sense when seen in the specific political context that, in effect, turned tens of thousands of Jews and non-Jews into stateless people.

Hungarian visions, interests and policies continued to play key roles in the period after the German invasion in March 1944, also concerning the persecution and destruction of Jews and Jewish communities across the country. Anti-Jewish and anti-Roma measures and violence before March 1944 ensured that, after the German invasion, local and regional officials eagerly planned, initiated and implemented anti-Jewish and anti-Roma policies according to the ethno-national design. The small SS force (eight officers and forty enlisted men) stationed in the Hungarian Kassa Gendarmerie District that included Subcarpathian Rus’, had almost no impact on the swift ghettoization and deportation of the Jews from Subcarpathian Rus’ in the spring of 1944. The anti-Roma violence in the summer of 1944 that came on the heels of the anti-Jewish campaign—completely unrelated to German plans—likewise drew on the anti-Roma fears, commitments and policies of Hungarian perpetrators in the region since 1938. Moreover, realizing ‘Greater Hungary’ continued even as ‘Greater Germany’ shrank and German soldiers retreated from the country. Hungarian officials, some of whom had just taken an active part in the ghettoization and deportation of Jews, again took advantage of foreign occupation—this time Soviet—in order to further Hungarian ethno-nationalism. They thus engaged in the mass deportations of around two hundred thousand ethnic Germans from Hungary.

Hence, instead of thinking about the annihilation of Jews in Subcarpathian Rus’ mostly (or exclusively) as a product of Nazi ideology and the German invasion of Hungary, we observe the decisive impact of Hungarian ethno-nationalism, continuities from 1939 through 1941 to 1944 and the ways in which a process of political mass violence might escalate and become genocidal. If the German invasion of Hungary gave the Hungarian authorities all over the country an opportunity to move rapidly in their quest to remake society in the frame of ‘Greater Hungary’, the violent implications of that vision contributed to making the ‘final solution’ a truly international project of mass murder. There is actually a geographic dividing point in the process: the Hungarian authorities transferred control of the deportation trains to the German authorities in Kassa, from where the trains continued to Auschwitz; the former expelled the Jews out of the country, the latter murdered them. These were, in effect, two related but separate processes of mass violence, and we should understand each of them, without one (genocide) overshadowing the other (‘ethnic cleansing’). This requires that we shift the perspective from ‘the Holocaust’ to the history of Hungary during World War II and look at it beyond the constraining terms of Holocaust Studies.