Today marks 70 years since the Germans occupied its nominal ally Hungary—and the start of the principal phase in the destruction of Hungarian Jewry by the Germans and Hungarians.
The Hungarian Regent Admiral Miklos Horthy had been trying to extricate the country from its alliance with Nazi Germany since the obliteration of Hungarian forces on the Stalingrad line at the city of Voronezh on Jan. 13, 1943. When Hitler understood, early in 1944, that Horthy planned to pull back his remaining troops from the Eastern Front, a small German force was dispatched to Hungary to ensure that this would not happen. The Germans pushed for concerted action against Hungarian Jewry, and Horthy not only did not resist—he put the government apparatus at their disposal. The well-oiled process of destruction of the Jews followed quickly: restrictions, wearing the Jewish badge, confiscations, the establishment of ghettos and systematic deportations. When the first major wave of deportations ended, 437,000 Jews had been deported, almost all to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Today, it is fashionable in Hungary to put all the blame on the Germans for the murder of nearly 600,000 out of over 800,000 Jews from Greater Hungary during the war. But the German force in Hungary was quite small; the Kommando charged with carrying out the deportations, headed by Adolf Eichmann, numbered only about 150 men. Officials of the Hungarian Interior Ministry, the Gendarmes and local authorities worked closely with Eichmann to implement the deportations. In late 1944, after Horthy was replaced by the fascist Arrow Cross leader Ferenc Szálasi, deportations were renewed, this time toward Austria, and continued until Soviet forces took Buda and Pest in early 1945. This was not a marginal group of fanatics, but part of the Hungarian mainstream.
And, more to the point: Hungarian actions against the Jews did not begin in 1944 with the arrival of the Germans. In August 1941 Horthy’s government deported 18,000 Jews from Hungary to the Ukraine near the city of Kamianets-Podilskyi. In the first major killing operation carried out by an Einsatzgruppen unit, 23,000 Jews were massacred, among them about 16,000 from Hungary. Several months later, in January 1942, in Novi Sad, Hungarians murdered about 700 Jews and several thousand Serbs.
There was also the abominable treatment of Jewish forced laborers on the Eastern Front. As Hungary began gearing up for a potential conflict in 1939, the authorities decided that men who were considered unworthy of bearing arms for the Hungarian nation should be made to serve in what became the Labor Service System. By 1941 Jews were categorically defined as unworthy, and from the summer of that year were drafted to labor companies. Beginning in March 1942, the Hungarian Second Army was sent to the Eastern Front to fight the Soviets beside the Germans. Eventually 250,000 soldiers were sent there alongside 45,000 Jewish forced laborers, and thousands of non-Jewish laborers.
Although the Labor Service System was not established as a vehicle of murder, it became one, primarily because of the treatment of the men on the front. Their difficult labor was routinely augmented by brutal and humiliating harassment—most infamously, being made to pull wagons in place of perfectly healthy horses. In a great many instances the Hungarian soldiers responsible for the Jewish men stole their food, and resold small portions of it to them for exorbitant prices. Suffering from hunger, disease, exposure to the elements and cruel treatment, many men died. Some were killed after being assigned deadly tasks; the most gruesome was to clear minefields with only sticks, and without any previous training. Others were murdered outright. Some 400 Labor Service men, sick with typhus, were burned alive in a barn near the Kolkhoz of Doroschitz.
It is true that some senior defense officials in Budapest and some Hungarian officers in the field tried to curb this mistreatment, but their orders generally went unheeded. Of the 45,000 Jewish forced laborers, men who had been subjected to almost unbelievable cruelty and had been placed in a battle area with no means to defend themselves, 80 percent never returned home. The responsibility for the fate of the Labor Service men lies squarely on the shoulders of the Hungarians, and the great majority died well before any German soldier had set foot in Hungary.
The 19th of March is an appropriate day for commemorating the Shoah in Hungary, but no less appropriate is that on that day, Hungarians should look squarely into the mirror of their history and without blinking, assume unambiguous responsibility for the role the country played in the devastation of their Jewish neighbors.
Dr. Robert Rozett is the Director of the Yad Vashem Libraries and the author of Conscripted Slaves: Hungarian Jewish Forced Laborers on the Eastern Front.
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