Funny what a weather-vane the Second World War becomes in the hands of politicians and journalists. Europe faces the biggest refugee crisis since the 1939-1945 conflict, we are solemnly told. And there are the Hungarian police standing before the crowds of poor and desperate souls – most of them Muslims – outside Budapest’s main railway station, where even ticket-holders could not board the trains. Funny how the old memory buds don’t kick in at this point. For just 71 years ago, the Hungarian police were forcing tens of thousands of Jews on to trains out of Budapest, desperate to get them to Auschwitz on time. Adolf Eichmann was setting the rules.
And don’t think that the Hungarians were just unwilling tools of Germany’s march into Hungary towards the end of the war. The Hungarian police actually escorted the Jewish deportation trains right up to the border of Austria – which was then part of the Großdeutsches Reich – so that the Nazi authorities could speed them on to the extermination camps. The Jews to be liquidated – of Hungary’s Jewish population, 565,000 were to be murdered in the Holocaust – came not just from the cities but from the smallest of Hungarian towns, even from the rail junction of Bicske which was only captured by the advancing Soviet army in early 1945. It seems that only three Jews from Bicske survived.
Odd, isn’t it, how no one has made this particular connection with the Second World War. Because Bicske was the rail station to which the mysterious and unmarked Hungarian train took the largely Muslim refugees last week – those hundreds who, clutching rail tickets to Munich, thought they were on their way to Germany and suddenly found that their carriages pulled in to the little Hungarian town already infamous for its police-controlled refugee centre.
Nothing like 1944, of course. The cops offered the refugees bottled water and food. The last thing they wanted to do was to send the Muslims on to Germany. But they didn’t want them in Hungary either.
We have, I suppose, to thank the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, for that – he who has presciently noted for us that “those arriving have been raised in another religion, and represent a radically different culture. Most of them are not Christians, but Muslims.” Well, blow me down. The guy’s not just a politician – he’s a social historian. But while I grant that Eastern Europeans take their religion a bit more seriously than Western Europeans, this is taking Christian “culture” a bit far. As Orban wrote in the Frankfurter Allgemeine: “This is an important question, because Europe and European identity is rooted in Christianity.” Let the EU remember that. And I hope I’ll be forgiven for remembering that the Catholic Church in Hungary was, long before Hitler, among the most anti-Semitic in Europe.
In 1919, for example, the Bishop of Szekesfehervar, Ottakar Prohaszka, told his people that it was “important to note that the Jews are eating us up and we have to defend ourselves against this bedbug epidemic”. Jewry was “a foreign power that suppresses Christianity”. When Eichmann ordered the deportation of Hungarian Jews, Catholic leaders in Budapest were more concerned to protect Jewish converts to Christianity than to save the lives of unconverted Jews. Only appeals from the Pope, President Roosevelt and the Swedish King Gustav V pushed them into more serious objections to the Nazis. Bishop Prohaszka’s seat at Szekesfehervar, I hate to add, was the birthplace of Viktor Orban and is the county town for Bicske.
Like Bosnia and Serbia, Hungary was part of the Ottoman empire and Hungarian “patriots” have long regarded the “Turkish” period with extreme distaste. Ivo Andric, that fine Yugoslav novelist of The Bridge on the Drina, wrote in his doctoral thesis of how the converted Muslims of Bosnia were, in effect, a wedge driven between the Catholic and Orthodox Christian churches. The 2011 Hungarian census, however, shows that only 5,579 Muslims are living in Hungary – a mere 0.056 per cent of the population. Even if Hungary was to take a fraction of the refugees travelling through its territory today, how much would the Muslim population grow. By 3 per cent? Four per cent?
And given the behaviour of the princes of the Hungarian church in the early half of the last century, I can only wonder about that Christian “culture” that Mr Orban wants to protect. The Council of Europe report, which this year condemned the prevalence of anti-Semitic speech in Hungary – reminding us that a right-wing journalist expressing racist views was handed a journalism award by Orban’s government – probably tells us more than we want to know about the body politic of the Budapest government. Public demonstrations in Hungary in favour of the refugees suggest that Mr Orban, like so many European leaders, does not represent his people.
But there is an eastern and central European problem – exemplified by Hungary – that no-one has yet felt able to discuss: the degree to which we at the time regarded their subjugation by the Soviet Union as a punishment for their Fascist history. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, however, we welcomed them into the EU, feeling ashamed to have left them to their fate as Moscow’s pawns after the Second World War.
We applied a similar standard to Austria, which only endured a brief period of partial Soviet occupation. Because it called itself “Hitler’s first victim” after the 1938 German Anschluss, we forgot that its displays of anti-Jewish hatred after the Fuehrer arrived in Vienna were so ferocious that fleeing Austrian Jews found Nazi Berlin less dangerous than their home country.
Rather like Italy, which wisely got rid of Mussolini before the end of the war, these nations remained politically unreconstructed when they emerged from the permafrost of the Cold War. I always thought we were a bit too quick to open our arms to them. But they’d paid and what more valuable a reward for their endurance than membership of the EU? Now we are beginning to discover what the Hungarian state looks like. And so are the Muslim refugees of the Middle East.
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