Skeletons in the Closet

The governments of Poland and Hungary have attempted to build an alliance with Israel for several years now, based on their ideological affinity to Likud, the ruling party in the country. The general condemnation of anti-Semitism by Orbán and Kaczyński is accompanied, however, by a historical policy based on the affirmation of political traditions of which anti-Semitism was an extremely important part.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu very cordially received the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in July 2018. Both politicians emphasized that their personal relations and the relations between their countries were very close, and justified it with ideological similarities between Fidesz and Likud. Indeed, in recent years both politicians have declared a hostile attitude to Muslims, a skeptical approach to the European Union, liberal democracy, rule of law and human rights (including sharp criticism of George Soros, a liberal American philanthropist of Hungarian-Jewish origin), as well as admiration for the US president Donald Trump. After Law and Justice (PiS) assumed power in 2015, Poland has also attempted to build an alliance with Israel based on ideological affinities.

At the same time, however, PiS and Fidesz have pursued an identity and historical policy for domestic consumption which involves presenting the history of their own nations as almost exclusively composed of heroes and victims, and an affirmation of political traditions (National Democracy and the extreme-right sections of the war-time underground in Poland, and the regime of Admiral Miklós Horthy in Hungary) for which anti-Semitism was a very important element of their identity. Part of this policy is an unprecedented leniency towards far-right groups, often voicing more or less openly anti-Semitic views. These groups have been admitted into the mainstream in both countries (interviews in pro-government media, joint celebrations of historical anniversaries with the local structures of Fidesz and PiS, privileged treatment of demonstrations organized by them, for example, the Independence March in Warsaw, which is the largest regular nationalist manifestation in Europe).

Public support for anti-Semitic views

Over the long term, the greatest challenge for the alliance of Poland and Hungary with Israel is the historical policy of the governments in Warsaw and Budapest, downplaying or denying the responsibility of Hungarians and Poles for their complicity in the Holocaust. This policy enjoys very large social support. Opinion polls in both countries indicate that an overwhelming majority of Poles and Hungarians believe that they suffered during the war as much as the Jews and that their ancestors often helped Jews and rarely persecuted them. Sociological research also demonstrates that support for anti-Semitic views in both countries, especially among right-wing voters, has been growing over the last few years and has reached a significant level.

Orbán launched this historical policy during his first term 1998-2002 when its flagship project came into being, namely the House of Terror devoted to the history of Hungary in 1941-1989.

It cannot be disputed that the main perpetrator of the Holocaust was Nazi Germany. This great crime occurred so rapidly, and on such a large scale, thanks to collaboration of groups within other nations of occupied Europe. The cases of Poland and Hungary are radically different. During World War II, Hungary was an ally of Germany for the longest time, although in 1944 it gradually lost its sovereignty. Unlike other allies of Hitler, Hungary did not undertake any serious attempt at armed struggle against Germany.

Military support of Hungarian political forces for the alliance with Hitler was very high during the first phase of the war. It began to decline after 1943, but the pro-German option maintained significant support within Hungarian society up until the end of the war, as did the Fascist party (the Arrow Cross), which took power in October 1944. Poland was the first country, however, to offer armed resistance to Germans, and the German occupation of Poland was one of the most brutal in Europe, leading to the death of more than two million ethnic Poles. The Germans did not attempt to create a collaborating government in Poland and no serious Polish political force was interested in large-scale cooperation with the Germans. These differences are reflected in what is highlighted in the historical policies of both countries.

Hungarians: Victims of… German Occupation

The foundation of Orbán’s historical policy involves downplaying the responsibility of Horthy’s Hungary for its complicity in the Holocaust. This is done in three contexts:

—  presenting the deportations of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz in the summer of 1944 as organized exclusively by the Germans, for Hungary since March 1944 supposedly had been under full German occupation;
—  emphasizing above all the crimes against Jews perpetrated by the Hungarian Fascist Ferenc Szálasi from October 1944 until March 1945, when Hungary indeed was no more than a German satellite;
—  devoting much more attention to the crimes of the Communist regime in Hungary than to the Holocaust of Hungarian Jews.

Orbán launched this historical policy during his first term (1998-2002), when its flagship project came into being, namely the House of Terror devoted to the history of Hungary in 1941-1989. Out of more than 25 rooms, only two small ones show the crimes of Szálasi’s Arrow Crossers. All the rest is focused on the Communist period. The exhibition in the House of Terror gives very little space to the deportation to the German death camp Auschwitz of almost 440,000 Hungarian Jews in May-July 1944, where almost all of them were murdered in just a few weeks. This was the fastest Holocaust during World War II. The display in the House of Terror does not make mention of the crucial role of the Hungarian administration, police and gendarmerie in carrying out the operation.

The affirmation of Horthy’s regime

This omission results from the claim that Hungary lost its sovereignty in March 1944. This view has become the foundation of Hungarian national identity after Orbán’s return to power in 2010. The preamble to the new Constitution adopted in 2010 even contains a statement to that effect. In 2014, on the 100 anniversary of the deportation of the Jews, a Monument to the Victims of the German Occupation was built in Budapest, presenting Hungary (the Archangel Gabriel) as an innocent victim of German aggression (a swooping eagle). The problem is that the German occupation took place in March 1944 without a single shot and did not abolish or replace any Hungarian state institutions.

The negative reactions from these groups has been one of the reasons which has prevented the establishment thus far of the House of Fates, intended by Orbán as a museum on the Holocaust in Europe.

A large part of the Hungarian elite supported it (especially the generals) and an overwhelming majority, including Horthy, were reconciled with it. The participation of the Germans in the physical deportation was negligible and Horthy was able to stop it after a few weeks. The House of Terror also “forgets” to inform the visitors that, before the German occupation in March 1944, Horthy’s regime was complicit in the death of almost 65,000 Jews (as compared to about 50,000 victims of the Arrow Crossers) and was ready to deport 100,000 Jews to Germany. It is worth recalling that the number of victims among Hungarian Jews, before the German occupation in March 1944, was much higher than the number of victims of the Communist regime.

The policy of condoning or even affirming Horthy’s regime was markedly intensified after Orbán’s return to power in 2010. In recent years Horthy and certain anti-Semitic politicians of his regime, including those active during Szálasi’s period, have been commemorated (street names, plaques, religious ceremonies, monuments, galas, conferences, etc.). Under this policy, anti-Semitic pre-war writers have been introduced into the school curricula.

Criticism from the Jewish community in Hungary

In June 2017, Orbán went as far as calling Admiral Horthy an outstanding statesman. In contrast, under pressure from international opinion, Orbán reluctantly withdrew from some controversial plans to commemorate anti-Semites, and in July 2017, during Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit to Budapest, he stated that Horthy’s government had “made a mistake and even committed a sin […], because we decided to cooperate with the Nazis instead of protecting the Jewish community”.

Referring, however, to the Horthy’s regime’s participation in the extermination of half a million Hungarian Jews (one of the most assimilated Jewish communities in Europe) as a mere “sin” and hiding it under the vague formulation of “cooperation with the Nazis” means that Orbán is not actually willing to genuinely confront the dark chapters of the Hungarian past.

Orbán’s historical policy has met with criticism from the Jewish community in Hungary, one of the largest in Europe, as well as from Western politicians, Israeli parties other than Likud and from academic communities including the Yad Vashem Institute. The negative reactions from these groups has been one of the reasons which has prevented the establishment thus far of the House of Fates, intended by Orbán as a museum on the Holocaust in Europe. People particularly strongly objected to the plan to make Mária Schmidt, who created and now runs the House of Terror, director of the new institution.

The most righteous among the nations?

In the case of PiS, the basis of the historical policy has been an emphasis on Polish heroism and martyrdom during World War II, including the exceptionally positive attitudes of Poles towards Jews (providing massive help and compassion).

PiS politicians claim that the allegedly humanitarian attitude of the Poles resulting from its unique Polish identity based on Catholicism, and from the “typically” Polish traditions of the nobility and chivalry. PiS’s historical narrative on Polish-Jewish relations radically differs, however, from the results of research published in the spring of this year in the monumental work “It Is Still the Night” (1700 pages) by historians from the Polish Center for Holocaust Research, which is highly regarded in international academic circles.

According to the authors, roughly 200-300 thousand Jews in Poland sought out rescue, after the liquidation of the ghettos by the Germans, in 1942-1945. Only 40-50 thousand of them survived. In the opinion of the authors, “the message of the numbers is inexorable: two out of every three Jews seeking rescue died—most often at the hands of their neighbors, Christians. Despite local differences, our research provides evidence for a significant— and larger than it has seemed until now—scale of Polish participation in the destruction of their Jewish fellow citizens. Although for many it may be difficult to accept, the historical evidence assembled in this book does not leave the slightest doubt in this matter: large—to a significant extent possible to define and identify—groups of the Polish population took part in liquidation operations, and then in 1942-1945 directly or indirectly caused the death of thousands of Jews seeking rescue on the Aryan side”.

Local pogroms against Jews

It should be noted that the number of Jewish victims estimated in “It Is Still the Night” does not even take into account the complicity of various organizations and informal Polish groups assisting the German forces, which played a key role in these operations, in the liquidation of the ghettos, when the massacres and deportations of Jews to death camps occurred. Moreover, in the summer of 1941 after the German aggression against the Soviet Union, a wave of local pogroms were committed against Jews by their neighbors, including also Poles, in the Polish lands then occupied by the Soviets. Other murders, although on a smaller scale, including pogroms of Jews by Poles, took place immediately after the end of World War II. Denouncing Jews in hiding by the Poles continued throughout the entire war.

A critical reflection of PiS on Polish attitudes towards the Jews during World War II was very unlikely from the start, for it would require an in-depth analysis of the prolonged impact of the nationalist ideology promoted by Roman Dmowski’s National Democracy on Polish society, one of its crucial elements being anti-Semitism. This political formation was unambiguously supported by the mainstream of the Catholic Church in Poland. PiS manifests a positive, and with some of its leaders even very affirmative, attitude towards National Democracy. Moreover, PiS promotes nationalist armed formations from the times of World War II (National Armed Forces, National Military Union), which were strongly anti-Semitic, as a model of patriotism. PiS’s assessment of the role of the Catholic Church in Polish history is, not surprisingly, completely uncritical and hagiographic.

The price of straddling the fence

In late January 2018, on the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Polish Parliament passed an amendment to the Act on the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) making it a criminal offence to “counter-factually” attribute co-responsibility for the crimes perpetrated by Nazi Germany to the Polish nation. The amendment was sharply criticized by foreign academic circles, EU states, the USA, Israel (including Prime Minister Netanyahu) and the Jewish diaspora, all of them fearing that the new law could be used for blocking discussion on the participation of Polish people in the Holocaust. It should be stated that in the case of certain Israeli politicians and journalists this criticism was very radical. One demonstration of this is the deliberate use of the formulation “Polish death camps”, which implicitly questions the primarily German responsibility for the Holocaust.

Due to the crisis with Israel, Polish-American relations underwent the most serious deterioration since 1989. Fearing that the cooling of relations with the USA could bring negative consequences for Polish security, after a few months of behind-the-scenes negotiations with Israel, PiS removed the amendments from the law in June 2018, breaking all parliamentary procedures in the process. The Prime Ministers of Poland and Israel also signed a joint declaration on the history of the Holocaust in Poland.

Jarosław Kaczyński stated that the declaration was a diplomatic success for Poland—a not completely unfounded claim. According to him, “the Israeli government […] fully confirmed the Polish position: the perpetrators are the Germans; Polish society and the Polish underground state had nothing to do with the Holocaust; on the contrary, it did what it could to save its citizens of Jewish nationality”.

A critical reflection of PiS on Polish attitudes towards the Jews during World War II was very unlikely from the start.

A negative spillover on the relations

According to the Yad Vashem Institute, however, the declaration is an “insult to historical truth”, for it contains “highly problematic formulations which contradict the existing and accepted historical knowledge”. In Yad Vashem’s opinion “helping Jews by Poles during the Holocaust was relatively rare, while attacks and even murders perpetrated on Jews were a widespread occurrence”. The Institute argues that the declaration contained an “attempt at enhancing the role of Polish help and presenting it as a large-scale phenomenon, and at minimizing the role of Poles who persecuted the Jews”. Yad Vashem also criticized the use of the vague term “collaborators” in the declaration. The Institute emphasized that “they were Poles and Catholics and that they cooperated with the German occupants, whom they hated, in persecuting the Jewish citizens of Poland”.

Additionally, Israel’s Minister of Education introduced a new mandatory set of courses for school trips to Poland, informing about the role of Polish people in the Holocaust. Up until the present, the materials for students contained a great deal of information on Polish-Jewish relations, but a focus on the direct involvement of Poles in killing Jews was not required. This situation demonstrates a marked difference between the position of Likud, on the one hand, and of PiS and Fidesz, on the other. The latter enjoys a constitutional majority, PiS has an absolute majority, while Likud has only 25 percent of seats in the parliament and belongs to a coalition of six parties. Its members, as well as the opposition, have sharply criticized the declaration signed by Netanyahu.

In summary, the chasm between the historical policy of Poland and Hungary and that of Israel will in all probability only deepen. This situation may cause a negative spillover on the relations between these countries, the sense of ideological affinity between Fidesz, PiS and Likud notwithstanding. When all is said and done, historical memory turns out to be more important than ideology.

Adam Balcer

is a political scientist, expert in the Polish foreign policy. He works as a Project Manager at WiseEUROPA and a National Researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). He gives lectures at the Centre of East European Studies (SEW) at the Warsaw University.

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