Antisemitic Mass Violence in 19th-20th-Century Hungary

Vági Zoltán


Anti-Jewish Violence: a Permanent Historical Pattern

Outbreaks of antisemitic violence run through nineteenth- and twentieth-century Hungarian history as a bloody leitmotif. The period between the two national revolutions, 1848 and 1956, bore witness to several hundred non-state sponsored antisemitic massacres, pogroms, atrocities, and assaults. Aggressive forms of anti-Jewish sentiments emerged in times of economic crises, system changes, and political uncertainty. In those hundred or so years, every major turning point of Hungarian history was accompanied by a significant level of antisemitic violence.

Hungary experienced many dramatic rises and epic falls during this period. Its form of government and political structure changed numerous times. It was an oppressed occupied country by the Habsburgs (until 1867), a regional great power in the multiethnic Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867–1918), a republic (1918–1919), a communist dictatorship (1919), a right-wing autocracy (1920–1944), a Nazi-puppet state (1944–1945), formally a multiparty democracy (1945–1948), a Stalinist and then continuously softening communist dictatorship once again (1948–1990). It fought two revolutions for freedom and lost each struggle (1848–1849 and 1956). From 1867 to 1918, the Hungarian Kingdom was one of the most prominent players in the Central and Eastern European political arena, with great ethnic, religious, and cultural multiplicity. Losing World War I, two-thirds of its territory, and much of its population, it was reduced to a frustrated, small nation-state by 1920. Fuelled by ethnocentric ideologies, a sense of cultural superiority and thirst for territorial expansion, it joined Nazi Germany in World War II, and lost again to become a Soviet satellite state.

In the midst of all these dramatic changes, the forms, intensity, and parties of interethnic and intercultural conflicts varied significantly. During the 1848–1849 anti-Habsburg revolution, Hungarians, Serbs, and Romanians fought a bitter ethnically based civil war with each other. In the course of oppressive periods, governments practiced legislative and physical violence against various groups. Hungary’s Nazi-equivalents (the Arrow Cross) murdered Roma or deported them to German concentration camps during World War II. After 1945, the government expelled almost 200,000 ethnic Germans, having charged them with collaboration with the Nazis. Despite the horrific consequences of those atrocities, they did not create a general, permanent historical pattern, a coherent cultural tradition.  

Yet, this is exactly what happened in the case of anti-Jewish violence. Antisemitism went through many transformations in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Religious anti-Judaism and racial political antisemitism appeared on multiple levels and in different forms and proportions in public speech. During various periods the government opposed or tolerated antisemitism, or even moved that hatred to the center of its politics. However, there was one constant element: most major economic and political transitions were accompanied by waves of antisemitic actions. As we will see, elements of the civilian population unleashed anti-Jewish violence typically, but not exclusively, during political transitions that resulted in a power vacuum that disrupted public order. 

This antisemitic historical pattern is almost completely disregarded by the historical memory of most of the Hungarian public, as is the xenophobic, exclusionary, and racist phenomena of the Hungarian past in general. These, nevertheless, constitute a robust trend in the country’s historical traditions. When we Hungarians consider the past, we tend to give voice to the flattering—and undoubtedly existing—traditions of being a “accepting nation.” We frequently and gladly mention our king St. Stephen’s wise admonitions from the eleventh century about the weakness and the fragility of a country with uniform language and customs, the acceptance and settlement of the Cumans and other nomadic groups, the invitation of Saxon settlers into the country, the migration policies aimed at repopulating the territories largely emptied by the Ottoman wars, or the phenomena of intensive Magyarization at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Historical memory is less fond of recalling another extant tradition that led from centuries of discrimination and expulsion of Jews to the persecution of Protestants, antisemitic pogroms, and the blood libel and cannibalism accusations against Jews and the Roma.

1. 1848–1849: Revolution and Anti-Habsburg Fight for Freedom

“The licentiousness of the mob found support and aid in the bitter antipathy that the majority of the city’s citizens exhibit towards the Jews. Many Jews were terribly beaten along with their innocent families, and they were all counting the minutes amidst anxiety and terror,” reported the newspaper Pesti Hírlap on the pogrom that happened in Pozsony (Bratislava) [1]  on March 19, 1848, just a few days after the anti-Habsburg revolution broke out in the city of Pest. During the first months of the freedom fight, dozens of cities were the scenes of antisemitic actions with the participation of tens of thousands of civilians. [2]  The pogroms did not occur on unfertile ground. The institution of equal rights and emancipation for the Jews, who had lived under a number of feudal legal constraints, was an organic part of the agenda of the liberal nobility who pressed for general reform. These efforts met resistance from various layers of society, most fervently by urban craftsmen and traders afraid of economic competition. Their radical anti-Jewish sentiments were echoed by the speech of a Szatmár county representative in the national assembly, who said that as far as he is concerned, “even” Turks, Persians and Hindus are welcome in Hungary, but not the Jews.  

The Hungarian diet in Pozsony (Magyar Nemzeti Múzeum)

Antisemitic anger was instigated not only in the building of the assembly, but outside of it as well.  On February 19, 1848, a pogrom shook the city of Pozsony, after the National Assembly seated in the city started to discuss the possibility of Jewish emancipation. It took three days for the army to restore order. In just a few weeks, on March 15, 1848, the anti-Habsburg revolution and freedom fight broke out, and the existing political system collapsed. The temporary public disorder and political uncertainty unleashed anti-Jewish sentiments among the mostly ethnic German urban citizens motivated largely by economic interest. Others embraced the pre-modern, superstitious antisemitism of the peasantry. On March 19, riots began again in the city after rumors circulated that the National Assembly had decided to introduce measures lifting traditional restrictions on Jews. After the two-day rampage, a spontaneous people’s assembly of Pozsony made the decision to expel the Jews from the city.

Similar expulsions were initiated by many municipalities across the country. At the end of March, Pécs ordered all Jews to leave. The ancient city of Esztergom followed a few days later. In Sopron, Jews were granted 72 hours for their exodus. At Temesvár (Timișoara), it was the Croatian population that most fervently urged expulsion. In Székesfehérvár, at a people’s assembly, thousands demanded that the Jews “go out of the city” within three days. Over the next 48 hours, the Jews fled to neighboring villages, leaving their possessions behind. The people’s assembly of Kassa (Košice) went even further: they were calling for a complete, nationwide purge of Jews. The Szombathely synagogue was destroyed; the Torah scrolls were torn into  pieces and thrown into a well.

The synagogue Szombathely (MZSML)

The wave of pogroms spread throughout the country. There were antisemitic disturbances in Keszthely and Körmend as well. At Rábahídvég the locals broke windows; in Kőszeg several hundred people demanded that the Jews be driven out. In Nádas (Hontianske Trsťany) drunken Slovakian peasants demolished and looted Jewish houses and the synagogue. The owners fled. At Vágújhely (Nové Mesto nad Váhom), on May 2, 1848, the population of the neighboring villages attacked the Jews. A Jewish National Guard unit of 60 men attempted to resist the attack, but they were swept away.

Antisemitic pogrom in the 19th century (Frankfurt, 1819)

Violence sparked in the large cities as well. On April 19, the mob attacked the Jewish quarter of Pest. Once again, it took the army to restore order. Four days later, the people of Pozsony attacked the Jews for the third time in two months. A mob of several thousand people demolished the Jewish school, desecrated the tombstones in the Jewish cemetery, and looted all Jewish houses and shops. Several people were killed and some forty were injured. The soldiers were chased away; their commander was almost stoned to death. Instead of intervening, the National Guard joined the looters in demanding the expulsion of Jews. The city council was able to pacify the mob only by issuing an edict ordering Jews to move back within the limits of the old ghetto within 24 hours.

In the six weeks following the revolution of March 15, antisemitic disturbances of various magnitudes broke out in more than thirty cities. Tens of thousands, among them Germans, Hungarians, and Slovaks, burghers, students, and peasants, participated in the pogroms. The nationwide persecution of Jews was halted by the new Hungarian government established by the revolution. City administrations were ordered to rescind their anti-Jewish ordinances. The government threatened to deploy armed forces to put down disturbances—and in many cases it acted on its word. However, there was a price to pay: not wishing to further instigate the anti-Jewish sentiments, the government temporarily took Jewish emancipation off its political agenda. For a while, it also excluded Jews from the revolutionary armed forces. These measures proved to be enough to restrain violence.  

2. 1881-1884: Atrocities, Blood Libels, Riots, Pogroms

Because of the legal emancipation of the Jews and their great contribution to the modernization of the country, the period of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy (1867–1918) has been interpreted by many as the “golden era.” These decades were a time of major transformation, when the post-feudal system was turned into a modern, capitalist economy. This change produced beneficiaries and losers simultaneously, and therefore resulted in growing social tensions. The frustration and anxiety of large groups were directed toward the Jews, who were seen by many as the architects of the capitalist system. Among these were owners of small and medium-sized estates, who could not manage their properties once their serfs had been liberated, and who soon found themselves bankrupt. They also included noblemen who failed to invest the income of their family estates in an enterprise, and stockholders bankrupted by the 1873 German-Austrian stock market crash. Although the liberal Hungarian political elite did not allow room for the anti-capitalist and antisemitic movements that went against its own philosophy of inclusion, by the end of the nineteenth century it had become increasingly obvious that antisemitism was gaining followers in parallel with the rise of anti-capitalism. It was spreading not only among the radical segments of the nobility, but also in broader strata of society. As in France and Germany, the financial crisis of 1873 boosted anti-Jewish sentiments in Hungary as well.

Antisemitism gained momentum in 1882, when in Tiszaeszlár, a small village in the eastern part of the country, a Christian maid disappeared. Soon, the ancient blood libel was revived: local Jews had supposedly killed the girl, in order to spill her blood for their religious rituals. [3]  The fabricated accusations collapsed before the court, and the indicted Jews were acquitted, but this did not stop a new wave of pogroms from sweeping across Hungary. [4]

The magnitude of the wave of violence was such that the army had to be called in to subdue the mobs in Moson, Vas, Somogy, Zala, Szabolcs, Sáros, Veszprém, Ung, Trencsén, Pozsony, and Sopron counties as well. When, in August 1883, the Jews who had been accused in the Tiszaeszlár trial were acquitted, violence broke out again.

Október 17-ére a pogromhangulat megérkezett a főváros közelébe: Rákospalotán a helyiek „le a zsidóval!” és „halált a zsidókra!” ordítással rohanták meg a zsidó üzleteket. A boltokat kirabolták, a berendezést összetörték. [5]

Eközben folytak a tiszaeszlári per előkészületei. A tárgyalás végül 1883. június 19. és augusztus 3. között zajlott a nyíregyházi törvényszéken. A zsidókat felmentették.

Kapcsolódó kép

A tiszaeszlári ügy tárgyalása Nyíregyházán

Ez azonban nem csendesítette le az erőszakot, sőt: a tavasszal és nyáron is folyamatos zavargások csak most lángoltak fel igazán. 1883 augusztusa és 1884 júniusa között mintegy 100–130 településen támadtak meg zsidókat, fosztottak ki lakásokat és boltokat. Zala és Somogy vármegyékben statáriumot, azaz kvázi-hadiállapotot és kijárási tilalmat kellett bevezetni. A legtöbb helyen csak a katonaság tudta helyreállítani a rendet, gyakran sortűzzel. Budapesten augusztus 7–13. között napokig tört-zúzott az Istóczyt és Onódyt éltető, megvadult tömeg. Az ostromállapotot végül az igen keményen fellépő rendőrség számolta fel nagy nehezen. Több mint 200 embert letartóztattak, főleg iparosokat, segédeket, napszámosokat.

Az 1881−1884-es zavargás- és pogromhullám lényegében az egész országra kiterjedt. Fő tűzfészkei Pozsony, Sopron, Moson és Nyitra megyékben, valamint a Délnyugat-Dunántúlon (Zalában, Somogyban és Vasban) voltak.

Kapcsolódó kép

The Tiszaeszlár trial

Once again, the army had to be called in to disperse the mob beating Jews and pillaging shops in Budapest. More than 200 people were arrested, most of them artisans, apprentices, and day laborers. Over the next year, Jews were attacked and their houses and shops were ransacked in more than 100 localities. In Nyulas (Jois), a pregnant woman was shot; in Zalaegerszeg, a Jew was beaten to death; in Sárhida, a Jewish innkeeper was murdered. In Zala and Somogy counties, martial law had to be introduced. In most places, only armed soldiers were able to restore order, sometimes by shooting at the mob.

The 1881–1884 wave of violence spread to practically all parts of the country. Overall, several hundred pogroms, atrocities, and disturbances took place. The main foci of violence were Pozsony, Sopron, Moson and Nyitra counties as well as those in Southwestern Transdanubia: Zala, Somogy and Vas. We know of several dozen incidents in the capital and its environs, at least two dozen in the counties of Transylvania, but only a few in the Southern regions. There are surprisingly few reports of incidents from Northeastern Hungary and Carpathian Ruthenia, although Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish communities, seen by many as the most alien, lived there.

While riots claimed a number of Jewish lives, the main objective was loot and  destruction of property rather than murder. Interestingly, there was a much larger number of victims among the rioters themselves. Dozens of attackers died, mostly as a consequence of the stern measures employed by the army and police. The majority of the perpetrators were young men, but women also played a part in the events. In Kisfalud, for instance, women supplied the roof tiles that the men used to break the windows of the Jews, and they were also present in the riots in Zalaegerszeg. The majority of the attackers were artisans, laborers, and peasants. In many cases, outside provocateurs appeared to fire up the mob, and often distributed money to the participants.

In the last decade of the nineteenth century, antisemitism lost ground. The National Antisemitic Party that was organized and gained popularity by exploiting the powerful outburst of anti-Jewish sentiments virtually disappeared by the 1892 general elections.

Győző Istóczy, leading person of National Antisemitic Party (

However, the years of relative tranquility were not without antisemitic incidents either. In May 1887, a Jewish family was expelled from the village of Budaörs by a group of local antisemites. The same month the ancient blood libel emerged again in Pozsony, one of the usual epicenters of antisemitic movements. Law enforcement had to be deployed to suppress the potential explosion of violence. The same happened in December 1892 in the Transylvanian city of Kolozsvár (Cluj-Napoca). In June 1898, in the Tab district of Somogy County, several Jews were beaten up in the wake of yet another blood libel accusation. In December 1901, far-right university students attacked theaters performing Yiddish pieces in Budapest. In Salgótarján, during the heated election campaign of 1905, the military had to put a halt to the violent actions of the antisemitic mob raiding Jewish homes and shops as well as the local synagogue. [6]    

3. Revolutions and Counterrevolutions: 1918–1920

At the turn of the twentieth century, political antisemitism returned with renewed intensity, combined with anti-capitalist arguments. At the same time, emerging Social Darwinism began to serve as the basis for race-based nationalism. Anti-Jewish sentiments gained strength during World War I. As a result of the prolonged war, the rationing of food and other basic items, together with ethnic tensions that were destabilizing the Monarchy, antisemitism broke out of its political isolation and flooded Hungarian public life in 1916. [7]  The Hungarian Parliament and press were discussing the “Jewish question” with an intensity that foreshadowed public discourse during the 1930s anti-Jewish legislation. For antisemitism—which had been artificially repressed by the traditional political elite of the Monarchy—to be unleashed, just one more factor was missing: a political and/or economic crisis that would weaken the power of the state.

This was brought about by defeat in World War I and by the independence movements of the various nationalities, bursting apart the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. In Hungary a revolution broke out in October 1918, which by March 1919 led to a communist dictatorship, the Hungarian Soviet Republic. But Bolshevik rule collapsed due to resistance from society and as a consequence of military defeat by neighboring countries. Power slipped into the hands of right-wing conservative Admiral Miklós Horthy and his “National Army.”

The frequent system changes of this period triggered further antisemitic waves of violence. With the fall of the Monarchy in October 1918, law and order evaporated and the countryside descended into chaos. Soldiers returning en masse from the front, peasants angered by the privations of war, and the desolate urban populations began their pillaging. Antisemitic violence was not limited to any particular region. From Mohol (Mol) in the south to Pócspetri in the north, from Dénesfa in the west to Gyöngyös in the east, from Héjjasfalva (Vânători) in Transylvania to Rózsavölgy (Ružindol) in Northern Hungary, several thousand Jews were attacked and beaten. Their houses and shops were looted and destroyed.

Many towns hosted repeated atrocities. In Kiskunfélegyháza, locals attacked Jews three times in a single year. In the last winter of the war, in February 1918, the hungry crowds already had been shouting: “the Jews and the rich have their lard and their meat.” They soon began to rob Jewish-owned shops. According to the police report, some 5,000 people participated in the unrest. Restoring order took three days for the 300 soldiers and gendarmes deployed in the town. On November 11, 1918, after a whole day of celebrating the end of the war by locals,  on the streets, the evening brought anti-Jewish violence. Soldiers and civilians broke into stores. After drinking the alcohol they found, they began to rob Jewish-owned shops and houses on the edge of town. Several people were injured in the chaos. In February 1919, the police raided the market. When a policeman confiscated the goods of black marketeers, a demonstration evolved into a riot. The mob again attacked Jewish-owned businesses and residences. Some people were beaten to death; others were about to be shot. When law enforcement units arrived at the scene, rioters attacked and disarmed them. The desperate local authorities asked the government for assistance. Two hundred soldiers arrived and martial law was declared. [8]  

The November 3 assembly of locals turned into an antisemitic riot in Salgótarján as well. The drunken crowd demolished a Jewish-owned shop in nearby Baglyasalja. When the local National Guard commander attempted to calm them down, he was ridiculed even by his own men. Finally, the police were called by telephone because the drunken looters “were strongly in favor of murdering the Jews, and we were certain that the first shop would be followed by a second, and that our Israelite public servants and then the others would also be attacked.” [9]  Six weeks later, the region descended into unrest again. That time, miners fired up by communists against the government and the “war profiteers” occupied the mines, the post office, and the railway, then attacked, once again, the Jews. They spent several days taking home the plundered valuables. During the looting, law enforcement units were afraid to take action against the rampaging crowd. [10]

By March 1919, the revolution had given birth to the Hungarian Soviet Republic, the first communist dictatorship in Hungary. Politicians of Jewish descent constituted approximately 60 percent of the top ranks of the Bolshevik leadership. [11]  According to the antisemitic trope that has remained very popular ever since, the communist dictatorship was a “rule of Jews.” But if the Soviet Republic had indeed been ruled by “the Jews,” its policies should clearly have represented Jewish interests. Yet, along with other groups, the bourgeoisie was among the prime targets of oppression, and that strata of society had a particularly high proportion of Jews. “We will exterminate, if necessary, the entire bourgeoisie”—that was how Tibor Szamuely, the leader of the Bolshevik terror, summarized his “philosophy.” [12]  

Because in Hungary the bourgeoisie and the middle classes were significantly Jewish, it would have been hard to interpret that as a philosemitic program. Therefore it is not surprising that many of the victims of the communists were Jewish. [13]  

Yet all of that was only a prelude to the swell of atrocities following the fall of the Bolshevik dictatorship. [14]  Miklós Horthy’s new regime was built on antisemitic violence. The showdown against the communists became intertwined with anti-Jewish actions. Special units of his “National Army” murdered many Jews who had nothing to do with the Soviet Republic; some of them actually had been persecuted by the Red forces as well. [15]  While most of the atrocities were committed by members of Horthy’s units, the non-Jewish population also participated in the wave of riots that swept through the country.  In nearly 40 instances, Jews were plundered, raped, and murdered by their own neighbors. Some of the pogroms were actively fomented by the special units, others broke out spontaneously.

Horthy and his "white" troops entering Budapest in 1919

Jews were murdered, for example, in Celldömölk and Diszel. In Tinnye, five people were beaten and looted by the locals; in Kisbér, there were four such victims. In Ráczalmáskulcs, a Jew was tied to the tail of a horse, and an epileptic war veteran was dragged off along with his wife by armed peasants. A military officer saved them from being hanged. In Simontornya, the public assembly decided that the Jews had to leave within 48 hours. In Mezőszentgyörgy, Jews were given 12 hours to “emigrate to Palestine.” In Gyöngyös, in early 1920, a mob of 2,000 people attacked the local Jews following the meeting of the extreme right-wing Association of Awakening Hungarians. During the pogrom of Tapolca, in late August 1919, the mob included soldiers, railway workers, local residents, peasants from the neighboring villages, even women and children. Two Jews were killed. The riot was ended by a military unit arriving in an armored train.

Terror flooded the streets of Budapest as well. Right-wing extremist student associations terrorized Jewish students at the universities. The opening of the academic year was cancelled in 1919, partially because of the ongoing “Jew-beatings.” Before occupying the city in November 1919, Horthy allegedly told his men: “There’s going to be no pogrom, but some people will swim.” [16]  The Admiral’s “permissive” words meant additional months of terror for the Budapest Jews. Until the summer of 1920, members of the special units regularly beat up, tortured, and murdered Jews in the capital. The nationwide rage was eventually ended by Horthy himself who wished to consolidate his newly acquired power. The units were disbanded and public order was restored. While violent antisemitism was suppressed, it was never completely eliminated; beating up and humiliating Jewish students in the universities by “patriotic fraternities” became an every-day occurrence during the coming years all around the country.

4. The Holocaust in Hungary

The 1919–1920 foundation of Miklós Horthy’s regime brought about the fourth wave of pogroms in 71 years (1848, 1881–84, 1918, 1919). It was the first one not opposed and suppressed by the government. Quite the contrary: it happened with the silent approval of Horthy and his circle. Also, this was the first occasion when part of the atrocities were committed by organized, paramilitary units, and anti-Jewish violence was institutionalized for the first time.

Antisemitism became the ideological and political cornerstone of the Horthy regime. In 1920, Hungary passed one of the first antisemitic laws in post-World War I Europe. Before German occupation began, in March 1944, nearly 300 anti-Jewish laws and decrees had been introduced in Hungary, the overwhelming majority of them after 1938. [17]  State-sponsored antisemitic actions claimed thousands of lives between 1941 and the mass deportations of 1944. In the summer of 1941, nearly 20,000 Jews were deported to Ukraine by the Hungarian authorities; there, most of the deportees were massacred by the SS and their local collaborators. In January 1942, approximately 1,000 Jews were murdered by the Hungarian military and gendarmerie in Újvidék (Novi Sad).

Újvidék: corpses of the gendarmerie (MZSML)

Many Jews who had been conscripted into the labor service were killed by Hungarian army personnel. [18]  

After the beginning of the German occupation of the country in March 1944, in the course of just a few months, Jews were plundered, disenfranchised, and ghettoized. Finally the Hungarian authorities “set a record” by deporting 430,000 Jews to Auschwitz-Birkenau in less than two months. Yielding to international pressure and the understanding that his German allies were losing the war, Horthy suspended the deportations in early July 1944, hence for the time being hindering the deportation of the Budapest Jews, who were to have been shipped off to the death camp in the following weeks.

Horthy seized control in 1919 with the involvement of foreign powers; after twenty-five years, he lost it the same way. After he failed to break away from Germany’s side, in October 1944 the Nazis forced him to resign and hand over power to the far-right Arrow Cross Party and its leader, Ferenc Szálasi. Under the Arrow Cross regime, additional tens of thousands of Jews were handed over to the Germans and thousands were murdered in Hungary.  

Considering the history outlined above of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it might be surprising that we have no knowledge of traditional pogroms during the era of the Holocaust, the largest state-sponsored series of antisemitic actions in Hungarian history. Unlike in other Eastern European regions (e.g., Polish, Ukrainian, and Lithuanian territories), we see no example of the local population murdering Jews on a mass scale.  

This does not mean that there were no atrocities committed by civilians. According to survivor accounts, in the so-called Southern Province (Délvidék), Jewish labor servicemen marching from Serbia to Hungary in the fall of 1944 frequently were assaulted by locals fleeing toward the heart of the country. “Women, youngsters entertained themselves by shooting at us and beating us with whips,” remembered Kálmán Fisch in 1945. [19]  Pál Smilovits reported the same: “It happened that 13- and 14-year-old girls and boys, young women took their rifles and shot our poor comrades, drawing their aims from the cars.” [20]  According to Rezső Rosenthal, a similar bloodshed was halted by the SS man escorting the column of the labor servicemen. [21]  

At the turn of 1944–1945, thousands of slave laborers working on the western border were lodged in agricultural buildings (barns, shacks, and the like) attached to private houses. The “hosts” sometimes treated them humanely, but more often they were hostile; it also happened that they murdered the Jews. In Hidegség, a 20-year-old man beat two people to death. [22]  The locals attacked the labor servicemen and beat them up with clubs in Harka. [23]  At many places the Jews were guarded and brutalized by the paramilitary units enlisted from the ranks of the local civilians, mainly Germans and sometimes Croatians. [24]    

During the Szálasi regime, thousands of Jews were murdered by various Arrow Cross authorities.

The special force of the Arrow Cross law enforcement, the National Organization for Calling to Account (Nemzeti Számonkérő Szervezet), “focused” predominantly on the political prisoners and (often alleged) members of the anti-Nazi resistance. The Political Department of the Budapest Police (Budapesti rendőrfőkapitányság Politikai Rendészeti Osztálya) hunted military deserters and Jews in hiding.

Budapest: a victim of the Arrow Cross terror in the Danube (Magyar Nemzeti Múzeum)

Nevertheless, Jews were most often tortured and murdered by the paramilitary units of the Arrow Cross Party Force (nyilas pártszolgálat) and National Armed Force (fegyveres nemzetszolgálat). A significant portion of their membership consisted of civilians who joined the militias after the Arrow Cross takeover, the enlistees motivated in large measure by a desire to murder and loot. They were fresh recruits who became members of “law enforcement” simply by putting on an armband and taking weapons in hand.  

Even though these atrocities committed by civilians claimed thousands of Jewish lives in 1944–1945, they cannot be classified as “classic” pogroms. The reasons for the lack of such events during this period are manifold. First, by 1944 the Hungarian population was accustomed to the notion that anti-Jewish actions were a state monopoly. Since the launch of the discriminatory legislation in 1938, state agencies implemented increasingly severe anti-Jewish policies, including violent actions, such as the forceful roundup and deportation of “foreign” Jews in 1941 or the plunder and assaults by the Hungarian army in the territories occupied by Hungary in 1938–1941. The government exceeded even the wildest dreams of the radical antisemites in 1944. The disenfranchisement, ghettoization, and deportation of the Jews were carried out quickly, efficiently, and with extraordinary brutality. The state-sponsored violence did not only stir up, but also channeled and controlled the population’s antisemitic sentiments.

 Second, during the pogroms of the previous decades, financial gain was a crucial factor in the rioters’ motivations. In 1944, the looting and redistribution of Jewish-owned property was organized by the government itself. There were “legal” and non-violent means to obtain possession of the neighbor’s or the business rival’s assets. [25]  

However, probably the most important contributing reason is that despite the German occupation and the tribulations of the war (bombardments, rationing, and so on), public order was not dismantled and there was no power vacuum for an extended period of time. The traditional state administration was in place; the “normal” conditions of life were not disrupted. However, parallel to the Arrow Cross takeover, Soviet troops invaded the country and the Hungarian state was collapsing. It is no accident that this was the time when most of the above-mentioned civilian atrocities were committed.

5. A new wave of hatred: 1946-1948

The extreme poverty of the war-torn country and the continuously intensifying struggle between the political parties created an uncertain, volatile situation in the immediate postwar years. Between 1945 and 1948, at least 250 incidents occurred in which—among other factors—antisemitic motivations played a role. [26]  In more than twenty cases, these escalated into mass violence, plunder, devastation, or murder.

The atrocities peaked in the period between February and August 1946. This was a time of heightened social and economic tensions. Hungary experienced the largest-scale inflations of world history. At the end of July 1946, prices were on average increasing by 158,486 percent every day and food shortages also escalated in this period.

The fate of Jewish assets played a key role in this wave of violence as well. In 1947, close to 100,000 law suites arose nationwide where a survivor tried to reclaim the property that he or she had handed over to an acquaintance for safeguarding during the Holocaust. According to a contemporary estimate, only in Budapest did the police investigate about 60,000 ownership claims. Tensions around the issue of property played a significant role in the outbursts of antisemitic violence.

Another reason triggering the wave of pogroms was nakedly political: having been defeated in the free elections in November 1945, the Communist Party planned a counterattack against their strongest rivals, the Smallholders, in the spring of 1946. Communists, who wanted to refute the label “Jewish party” through demonstrative action against the “capitalists,” incited the public against “black marketers” and “price speculators,” labels that many people easily interpreted as antisemitic slogans. This accusation was used at a communist-organized incident in the summer of 1946 in Miskolc, when a Jewish mill owner and his production manager were lynched by a mob of young factory workers. The Jewish police officer interrogating the perpetrators was beaten to death after the rioters stormed police headquarters.

Miskolc, 1944 előtt

The Miskolc synagogue (MZSML)

Local political conflicts led to a pogrom in another industrial center, Ózd, in February 1946. Upon hearing rumors about an alleged assassination attempt against a local communist leader (a former member of the Arrow Cross Party), the ironworkers raided and robbed Jewish houses and stores.

As a particular feature of this wave of pogroms, a modern interpretation of the old blood libel accusation surfaced and swept across the country. It was predominant in Eastern Hungary, but cases were also reported from Budapest, where the superstitious fear of Jews kidnapping and murdering children triggered antisemitic incidents.  

6. The 1956 Revolution

The communist dictatorship of 1949–1956 was falsely interpreted by many as a “Jewish revenge” for the Holocaust, particularly since many Jews participated in the political leadership as well as in the law enforcement and administrative apparatuses. Considering this and the history of the previous century, the number of antisemitic incidents during the 1956 anti-communist revolution was relatively low, and anti-Jewish violence was marginal. Nevertheless, several cases occurred varying from verbal insults to violent riots. [27]  

Most of these happened in a span of just a few days: between October 26 and 28, in the interim period when the regime’s local administration had lost power and the new, revolutionary authorities had not yet stabilized their positions. The new forces usually tried to stop the violence: e.g., in Füzesgyarmat members of the National Guard had to rescue the Moskovits brothers from the hands of the mob ready to lynch them.

In some cases it is difficult to deconstruct the motivations behind the incidents or to identify how much antisemitism may have been a main driving force, since anti-Jewish and anti-communist sentiments were tightly entwined. For example, in Miskolc, the crowd beat to death two Jews, the local police deputy chief and another individual, who probably had worked for the communist secret services. In other cases the anti-Jewish element is obvious: in Hajdúnánás locals who were intoxicated by alcohol plundered from Jews, attacked the synagogue, beat up people, and broke into Jewish-owned homes.

7. Some conclusions

Antisemitic violence has been part of the Hungarian historical tradition, but this pattern is almost completely missing from the country’s national public memory. However, the violent practice had been so tightly interwoven with local heritage that certain areas became the hotbed of anti-Jewish violence during more than one pogrom wave. For example, in the Northeastern city of Salgótarján and its surroundings, Jews were attacked three times: in 1905, in the heat of the election campaign; in 1918, in the last weeks of World War I when the Austro-Hungarian Empire fell apart; and in 1919, by the mob instigated by the local communists. In the Southeastern location of Kiskunfélegyháza, in the span of a year in 1918−1919, three antisemitic riots broke out. Many villages in Zala County, in Southwest Hungary, saw anti-Jewish mass violence in 1848, 1883, and 1919 as well. In Miskolc, in the Northeast, within a decade Jews had been murdered by the locals twice: in 1946 out of anti-capitalist rage, while in 1956 due to anticommunist anger.  

As we demonstrated, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, whenever public order was loosened and power vacuum situations were generated, antisemitic hatred exploded. Revolution or counterrevolution, “red” or “white” terror, world war, freedom fight or domestic political turmoil: the events took the same spin. Exploiting the weakening of state, masses of civilians stormed their Jewish neighbors. Radical economic transformations (such as in the 1870–1880s) or dire financial and tense, volatile political situations (e.g. in 1946) also played a part in the waves of pogroms and atrocities. It is indicative that during the two iconic revolutions of the era (1848 and 1956), most of the incidents happened in the interim period between the fall of the old and the stabilization of the new power (March–April 1848 and October 26–28, 1956, respectively).

Many of the perpetrators belonged to the losers of the given transition and/or system change. Often, the hatred against these changes’ real or alleged beneficiaries was exploited, mongered, and directed by extremist political forces and actors. During the Holocaust, when the government organized anti-Jewish violence on a mass scale, outbursts of antisemitic sentiment were less prevalent—almost non-existent, actually—and were restricted only to the last months, when the war brought along the collapse of the state.   

[1]  When localities appear that do not belong to Hungary today, the current name appears in parentheses.

[2]  For the antisemitic incidents of 1848–1849, see Géza Komoróczy, A zsidók története Magyarországon  [The History of the Jews in Hungary], Vols. 1-2 (Pozsony: Kalligram, 2012), 1: 1101–1188; Róbert Hermann, Antiszemita atrocitások az 1848-1849-es forradalom és szabadságharc időszakában  [Antisemitic Atrocities during the 1848-1849 Revolution and Freedom Fight] (manuscript); Idem, Antiszemita zavargások, atrocitások, pogromok 1848-1849  [Antisemitic Riots, Atrocities, Pogroms 1848-1849] (manuscript); Gábor Kádár and Zoltán Vági, A végső döntés: Berlin, Budapest, Birkenau 1944  [The Final Decision. Berlin, Budapest, Birkenau 1944] (Budapest: Jaffa, 2013), 77–87.

[3]  For the Tiszaeszlár blood libel case, see the groundbreaking work of Károly Eötvös, A nagy per, mely ezer éve folyik s még sincs vége  [The Great Trial That Has Been Going on for a Thousand Years and to which There  Still Is No  End in Sight] (Budapest: Révai, 1904), and the most recent and most thorough scholarly monograph by György Kövér, A tiszaeszlári dráma: Társadalomtörténeti látószögek  [Drama in Tiszaeszlár: Aspects of Social History] (Budapest: Osiris, 2011).

[4]  For the history and details of the riots, see Kádár and Vági, A végső döntés , 88–99 Judit Kubinszky, Adalékok az 1883: Évi antiszemita zavargásokhoz  [Additional Data on the History of the 1883 Antisemitic Riots], Századok , 1968/1-2, and Kövér, A tiszaeszlári dráma , 595–655.

[5]   „Zsidóhecc Rákospalotán.”  Budapesti Hírlap,  1882. 10. 18. 6.

[6]  See these incidents in details in Anna Deme and Gábor Kádár, Interetnikai konfliktusok, antiszemita erőszak, zsidó ellenállás 1887-1918  [Interethnic Conflicts, Antisemitic Violence, Jewish Resistance, 1887-1918] (manuscript), and Gábor Kádár and Zoltán Vági, Zsidóellenes attitűdök és antiszemita erőszak a 19-20. század fordulójának Magyarországán  [Anti-Jewish Attitudes and Antisemitic Violence in Hungary at the Turn of the 19 th  to the  20 th  Century] (manuscript).

[7]  About the antisemitic tide of the war years, see Péter Bihari: Lövészárkok a hátországban: Középosztály, zsidókérdés, antiszemitizmus az első világháború Magyarországán  [Trenches in the Hinterland: Middle Class, Jewish Question, Antisemitism in Hungary during World War I] (Budapest: Napvilág, 2008).

[8]  For the events in Kiskunfélegyháza, see Tibor Iványosi-Szabó (ed), Olvasókönyv Kiskunfélegyház történetéhez  [Textbook on the History of Kecskemét] (Kecskemét, Vár. Tes., 1985), 327–347.

[9]  Letter of mine director Schmidt. Quoted by Cecília Pásztor (ed.), Salgótarjáni zsidótörténet  [Jewish History of Salgótarján] (Salgótarján: Nógrád Megyei Levéltár, 2003), 46.

[10]  Pásztor, Salgótarjáni zsidótörténet , 44–47.

[11]  János Gyurgyák, A zsidókérdés Magyarországon  [The Jewish Question in Hungary] (Budapest: Osiris, 2001), 103.

[12]  Quoted by Konrád Salamon, Proletárdiktatúra és a terror [Communist Dictatorship and Terror], Rubicon , 2011/2, pp. 16-23, here 22.

[13]  See several examples in the Jewish journal Egyenlőség  (September 11, 1919; October 12, 1919) and Péter Ujvári (ed.), Magyar Zsidó Lexikon  [Hungarian Jewish Lexicon] (Budapest, 1929), 220.

[14]  For the details of the antisemitic atrocities of 1919–1920, see Hungarian Jewish Archives, PIH I-E, Box B 10/3.

[15]  See examples in Kádár and Vági, A végső döntés , 110.

[16]  Recollection of Ödön Beniczky (1925) in Dezső Nemes (ed.), Iratok az ellenforradalom történetéhez. 1. köt . [Documents on the History of the Counterrevolution. Vol. 1.] (Budapest: Szikra, 1953), 195–196.

[17]  For details, see László Karsai, “Anti-Jewish Laws and Decrees in Hungary, 1920-1944,” in The Holocaust in Hungary: A European Perspective , ed. Judit Molnár (Budapest: Balassi, 2005), 144-148.

[18]  For details of these events, see Zoltán Vági, László Csősz, and Gábor Kádár, The Holocaust in Hungary: Evolution of a Genocide  (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, series “Documenting Life and Destruction. Holocaust Sources in Context,” 2013), xxxviii–lxvii and 1–69.

[19]  Hungarian Jewish Archives, DEGOB protocols, no. 554.

[20]  Ibid., no. 3199.

[21]  Ibid., no. 3062.

[22]  Ibid., no. 1524.

[23]  Ibid., no. 2121.

[24]  For example in Kópháza. Hungarian Jewish Archives, ibid., no. 3161

[25]  For details of the state-organized plunder, see Vági, Csősz, and Kádár, The Holocaust in Hungary , 177–211.

[26]  László Csősz, Népirtás után: Zsidóellenes atrocitások Magyarországon 1945-1948  [After Genocide: Anti-Jewish Atrocities in Hungary 1945-1948] (manuscript).

[27]  For details see, Attila Szakolczai, Antiszemita bűncselekmények az 1956-os forradalomban  [Antisemitic Crimes in the 1956 Revolution] (manuscript).