2017_4_Featured Review

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Genocide in the Carpathians: War, Social Breakdown, and Mass Violence, 1914–1945. By Raz Segal. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016. 211 pp.

Most of the characters of this drama were poor Ruthenians and Jews who survived through hard labor in remote villages isolated in the thick forests on the slopes of the mountains in Subcarpathian Ruthenia, a northeastern boundary region of the old Kingdom of Hungary at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Life against this backdrop may not have been idyllic, but there was a practice of peaceful coexistence in which ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity was viewed as natural and in which the lives of Jews and non-Jews were connected by a thousand threads in their everyday struggles. This is the picture Raz Segal draws at the beginning of his narrative, which is then followed by an account of how this world fell to pieces as it was caught in the maelstrom of global wars, changes of regime, and ethnic persecution and mass violence perpetrated as part of drives for nation and state building.

The threadwork of the social fabric of Subcarpathian Ruthenia began to unravel after World War I, when the region was transferred from Hungary to the new state of Czechoslovakia, the nationalizing policies of which (along with the national ideologies which were largely exported to the region) caused the local ethnic communities to feel for the first time that their collective interests were inherently in conflict. Carpathian Ruthenians and Jews, finally alienated from each other in the tempest of the new border changes and the next (the coming) world war, were faced simultaneously, but not side by side, with the oppressive measures and acts of the new Hungarian rulers, who launched an ethnic reengineering of the region in order to (re)integrate it as part of an ethno-national “Greater Hungary.” By the time the storm of war had subsided, the material and social world of the region lay in ruins. The greatest losses were suffered by the Jewish community, who were, first, in 1941, victims of mass massacres near the city of Kamianets-Podilskyi. Three years later, in the spring of 1944, following the German occupation of Hungary, nearly all of the surviving members of this Jewish community were deported to death camps and murdered.

What distinguishes Segal’s narrative from more traditional accounts of the Holocaust in Hungary is that he does not focus mostly or exclusively on the destruction of the Subcarpathian Jewry. Instead, he presents an integrated analysis of the multilayered ethnic discrimination and persecution that culminated during the period in which this region was under Hungary’s rule. To this end, he follows recent trends in Holocaust scholarship that shift the focus from German genocidal plans and practices to the Nazi-allied countries’ endeavors to build their own ethno-national states in accordance with and in the broader context of German ambitions. These policies were often most pronounced in the multiethnic wartime borderlands of these countries, where they formed a complex system of violence against all ethnic groups which were seen as obstacles to the creation of a society structured according to a strict ethnic hierarchy and were ultimately meant to be shaped into parts of an ethnically homogeneous state.

Though the body of secondary literature that deals, in one way or another, with the history of the multiethnic border regions that were a bone of contention between Hungary and its neighboring states is vast and rich, in Hungarian historiography, and especially in Hungarian(-related) Holocaust literature, the integrated approach used by Segal has few predecessors; from this viewpoint, Genocide in the Carpathians is clearly a pioneering work. Segal’s general effort to delineate the initiatives taken by the Hungarian state in the ethnic persecution and genocide against peoples living in its extended wartime territory is also praiseworthy. However, one of his foremost goals is based on a serious misperception. I am thinking of his effort to urge historians to rethink what he perceives as the established narrative about the Holocaust in Hungary, which, he claims, portrays the country as a mere collaborator in German genocidal politics. According to Segal, “Scholarship on the Holocaust in Hungary (…) ascribes mass violence in Hungary mostly to German influence and, after March 1944, German policies, while portraying pre-1944 mass atrocities as anomalies to a general atmosphere that provided Jews with safety, even as they faced stigmatization and a whole host of restrictions and discriminatory measures” (p.15).

It is a sad fact that the recognition of Hungary’s responsibility has been a neuralgic point in public discourses on the events of the Holocaust, and since the current right-wing Hungarian government’s official memory policy promotes a nationalistic and apologetic interpretation of the past, the problem has become even more acute in recent years. It is similarly disturbing that some figures in Hungarian public life who claim to be historians have aimed to reinforce these kinds of interpretations and omissions. This viewpoint, however, is simply not shared by established researchers on the Holocaust in Hungary, and it is indeed difficult to understand how Segal came to this conclusion, unless the explanation lies in his clearly limited use of the secondary literature in Hungarian or his misreading of works by Hungarian scholars, like László Karsai, Zoltán Vági, Gábor Kádár, and László Csősz, whose writings have been published in international languages.

In connection with the above, Segal’s other main goal is to integrate the extreme policies adopted against Jews and other ethnic minorities in Subcarpathian Rus and Hungary’s other multiethnic wartime borderlands into the whole of Hungary’s anti-Jewish policies and, more generally, the country’s ethnopolitics. While such an effort could yield seminal results, Segal’s overall narrative leaves one with the impression that he has not studied these issues in a comprehensive manner. Rather, he has examined them through the magnifying glass of events in Subcarpathian Rus; he effectively suggests that the mass atrocities which were committed in the border regions were generally and inherently characteristic of the nature of Hungary’s anti-Jewish policies as such. This interpretation leads to a conclusion which is as misleading as the portrayal of these extreme acts as anomalies that were somehow alien to Hungary’s general anti-Jewish policies.

Hungary’s Jewish (ethno-)policies were a complex and dynamic system of ideas and acts shaped by various and often conflicting domestic and foreign political, social, and economic interests, expectations, and goals. An examination of these policies cannot neglect the fact that they were by no means straightforward or evenly unfolding processes: they were pursued by different governments under changing circumstances. These policies were further influenced by the choices made by decision-makers and executors at various levels of administration and by the interplay between central decisions and local and regional initiatives. It is clear that the extreme atrocities committed in the border regions were integral elements of Hungary’s anti-Jewish policies, yet it is also clear that overall these kinds of measures were not dominant throughout Hungary before the spring of 1944 and, from the spring of 1942 until the spring of 1944 (i.e. under the administration of Miklós Kállay), they were atypical even in the border regions. No serious scholar claims that Hungary was a “safe haven” for Jews before the country’s occupation by Germany, but it is similarly indisputable that the situation was more stable for the majority of Jews in Hungary prior to 1944 than it was for Jews in many other places in Nazi-ruled Europe. Many of the Jewish inhabitants of the (re-)occupied territories believed that mass atrocities would not be committed by the Hungarian state: their tragic experiences soon showed just how mistaken they were. Still, in general, Jews in Trianon Hungary could with some justification continue to feel safer long into the war years. If Genocide in the Carpathians had more thoroughly exposed the structural and other factors that help explain this, it would have brought us much closer to an understanding of the mechanism of the Holocaust in Hungary.

The most remarkable parts of the book include those in which Segal analyzes the changes in ethnic relations between Carpathian Ruthenians and Jews. Disturbances arose first between the two World Wars in what until then had been a generally conflict-free coexistence. Over the course of the interwar years, ever more Carpathian Ruthenians began to strive for the development of a national-ethnic communal identity, while Jews also faced new dilemmas. Many Carpathian Ruthenians, who were developing a Ukranophile orientation and were increasingly frustrated by Prague’s refusal to grant the region the autonomy which had been promised, observed with a sense of betrayal that Jews seemed to switch loyalties from their Carpathian Ruthenian neighbors to the new Czechoslovak state. For many, Jews came to be seen as agents of the state’s “Czech-ification” efforts, who thus helped thwart the collective aspirations of the Carpathian Ruthenians. During the short existence of an independent Carpathian Ukraine between October 1938 and March 1939, Carpathian Ruthenians committed anti-Semitic atrocities. This was one of the key reasons why many Jews greeted the entry of the Hungarian Army into the region as the harbinger of their salvation (they were clinging, as it quickly turned out, to false hopes) and why they remained passive witnesses to the violence committed against Carpathian Ruthenians by the Hungarian troops. Although the Carpatho-Ruthenians in Subcarpathian Rus were themselves victims of discrimination, their limited agency was not the only, perhaps not even the main reason that the majority of them – although they shared a rather similar fate to the Jews – were unwilling to express solidarity or to cooperate with the latter against Hungarian oppression. Segal argues that it was rather anti-Jewish resentment growing out of the specific conjunctures of the two ethnic groups’ shared past during, first and foremost, the Czechoslovak era that eventually made most Carpathian Ruthenians choose to avert their gaze and prompted some of them to express malice towards Jews and even a willingness to collaborate when their Jewish neighbors faced the violence of the Hungarian state (esp. pp.45–50, 84–85, 104–08).

With these analyses, Segal contributes to a growing body of scholarship which urges us to look beyond the literal meaning of the word “bystanders” and its misleading implication of lack of engagement and action when trying to understand behaviors and motives of people who were neither victims nor perpetrators of mass violence. Instead, as Segal points out, only a close examination of the circumstances, contexts, and collective histories of the people involved furthers a nuanced understanding of why they acted in the ways they did, including in situations in which failing to act can and should be interpreted as an active choice (see also: pp.9–13).

Segal poses a similar challenge to the concept of anti-Semitism. As he observes, this catch-all term tends to obscure rather than illuminate why people turned against their Jewish neighbors during the Holocaust (and at other times in history), especially because it is so commonly associated with hatred. Instead of accepting “anti-Semitism,” a term which tends to imply an abstract and timeless emotional-ideological position, as an explanation, Segal suggests the examination of specific motivations, attitudes, and patterns of behavior, including or even especially those in which hatred does not play a central role. Applying methodologies and findings from the study of emotions, he concludes that the term “resentment” is more fitting as a characterization of the sentiments of Carpathian Ruthenians towards Jews, a resentment which arose primarily as a response to the failure of the attempts of Carpathian Ruthenians to gain autonomy and the real or perceived roles played by Jews in this.

Segal’s suggestion may add to our understanding of the phenomenon, but it is not entirely convincing. He is undoubtedly right to point out that the concept of anti-Semitism should be applied to concrete social phenomena and processes in a nuanced way if we wish to grasp their true nature and the actual motivations behind them. Many scholars fail to do this, even if the simple and direct association of the term with hatred is perhaps not as widespread in historical scholarship as Segal suggests. While the term “bystanders” bears the connotations of passivity and indifference and thus ought to be used with reservations, the term anti-Semitism appears more neutral and does not come with clear-cut explanations of its meaning(s), much less its causes: thus, it may allow less simplistic scholarly elaborations. If we use “anti-Semitism” as a summary and descriptive term which covers various expressions of anti-Jewish sentiment and practice (emotions, attitudes, acts, and policies) and we do not use it as if it were self-explanatory, then we might arrive at a more multi-dimensional and multi-layered understanding of its nature than if we simply reject the term altogether, not least of all since in the scholarly debates, the term “anti-Semitism” is more widely known, used, and recognized.

I would also add that Segal ends up using the term “resentment” in much the same way in which he claims others use “anti-Semitism”: that is, as a general concept to explain motivations for effectively all sorts of anti-Jewish social practices and acts. In the end, we may get a more accurate portrayal of the dominant emotional-attitudinal position in the Carpatho-Ruthenian community, but all other presumably existing positions remain hidden.

Segal also fails to make a similar effort to clarify the attitudes of ethnic Hungarians towards Jews. Ironically, he seems largely satisfied to characterize these attitudes with the term “anti-Semitism” or even simply hatred. Does he really believe that the anti-Jewish sentiments of ethnic Hungarians, in contrast to those of Carpathian Ruthenians, were driven simply or primarily by hatred? If so, what are the historical-political-social reasons for this difference?

Presumably, however, he has neglected the whole issue. Indeed, one of the most unfortunate deficiencies of the book is that it fails to provide an analysis of social relations between ethnic Hungarians (or for that matter Czechs, or any ethnic group other than Carpathian Ruthenians) and Jews in Subcarpathian Rus.

The very limited amount of secondary literature on the role of “bystanders” in the Hungarian Holocaust has dealt almost exclusively with ethnic Hungarians, and so Segal’s study of Carpathian Ruthenians as “bystanders” is of unquestionable value. However, the reason he gives for limiting his inquiry to relations between Jews and Carpathian Ruthenians (that is, because they were the only two ethnic groups present throughout the region and that many settlements were inhabited solely by them) is problematic (p.137). In Hungarian-occupied Subcarpathian Rus, ethnic Hungarians constituted around 10 percent of the population, though in some larger towns their proportions were around 25-30 percent. Independently of their sheer numbers though, Hungarians composed the politically dominant ethnic group, and they enjoyed a privileged status as the main beneficiary of the state’s “re-Magyarizing” efforts and the associated discriminatory practices and policies against Jews, Carpathian Ruthenians and others. Thus, ethnic Hungarians could take the most advantage of the oppression of ethnic minorities, but also had the greatest ability to help the persecuted in some way. Moreover, Segal explains the attitudes of Carpathian Ruthenians towards Jews with reference to developments in interwar Czechoslovakia, but he ignores the fact that the communal history of Subcarpathia’s Hungarians as members of an ethnic minority in interwar Czechoslovakia could also have exerted a decisive influence on their social relations with Jews. These circumstances surely produced regionally-specific “bystander” attitudes and actions among ethnic Hungarians, which would merit further study. One of the author’s primary aims was allegedly to study the region in its multi-ethnic and multi-cultural entirety. He has failed, however, to do this and so the picture he drew of it remained two-dimensional.

In contrast, one of the book’s strengths lies in the sections focusing on the experiences and reactions of Subcarpathian Jews facing discrimination and violence (esp. pp.81–85, and 98–100). However, it would have been nice to have found a more systematic analysis here too, that goes beyond the Jewish participation in the small-scale communist resistance (p.84) and presents the various coping, survival, and resistance strategies adopted by Jews. Regardless of how “successful” these strategies were or how much opportunity there was to pursue them, a more detailed description of them would have provided a way to see the victims in a less passive position. Apart from this, Segal introduces his general conclusion in a convincing manner, and here his local examples are in harmony with phenomena described in the broader secondary literature: his finding is that most of the Jewish community was unable to grasp the reality of mass murder, deportations, and death camps, despite the warnings they had been given and the information they had received. Most of them were overwhelmed and paralyzed by the persecution and violence they had experienced, which resulted in internal and external crises, a denial of incomprehensible realities, and a tendency to grasp for false hopes instead of taking action. Additionally, active resistance and self-rescue could not become widespread, because most Jews who faced deportation belonged to the more vulnerable strata (women, children, and the elderly), since most of the men had been pressed into forced military labor. In the generally indifferent or even hostile social environment surrounding them, an environment which included both ethnic Hungarians and Carpathian Ruthenians, very few of them could have counted on effective help in any case. Chances to escape or hide were drastically reduced in the spring of 1944, when, with the advance of the Red Army, the Jews of Subcarpathian Rus were rushed into ghettos and deported before all the other Jewish communities in Hungary (pp.81–85, 98–101).

Last but not least, while Segal briefly deals with the issues of the theft and redistribution of Jewish property before and after the German occupation (pp.67–70, 96–98), he generally downplays the significance of the economic aspects of ethnic discrimination and persecution. In these policies, the interrelationships between economic, socio-political, and ethno-national factors composed such a coherent system that neglect of any of these factors, or emphasis on one of them at the expense of others, can only lead to misunderstanding. For example, Segal claims that the confiscation of Jewish lands “probably affected most Jews in the region in a rather minor way. The significance of this anti-Jewish legislation, however, lay in the political, not the economic, realm: like the change of street names, it attempted to realign space according to ethnonational criteria” (pp.69–70). The second part of this statement is indisputable. But it is not clear, in a country in which the issue of land distribution was one of the most acute problems, how the economic and social significance of such measures could be secondary, or how such a policy could have had only minor effects on the Jews of a region in which their percentage in agriculture was uniquely high. Segal dispenses with the issue of Carpathian Ruthenians as beneficiaries and profiteers of the theft of Jewish belongings with the simple claim that since Hungarian authorities did not intend to provide Carpathian Ruthenians with property seized from Jews, the Carpathian Ruthenians did not substantially benefit from the plunder of their Jewish neighbors (pp.109, 187–88). The fact that Carpathian Ruthenians did not get more or did not get much, however, does not mean they did not try to do so. As the earlier secondary literature shows (esp. by Kinga Frojimovics), non-Jews in Subcarpathian Rus, regardless of ethnicity, tried to take advantage of the possibilities offered by the Hungarian state; in certain places, most of the people who made requests for “Jewish land” were not ethnic Hungarians, but rather Carpathian Ruthenians.

Notwithstanding its occasional shortcomings and controversial claims, Raz Segal’s concise study offers an innovative and insightful summary of international, state-level, and regional policies, as well as some of the social interactions and ethnic conflicts in the history of the Subcarpathian region in the first half of the twentieth century. The book’s integrated analysis, which puts anti-Jewish persecution and genocide into their broader contexts of nation and state-building, ethnic re-engineering, and multilayered violence, will hopefully serve as inspiration for similar research efforts in Hungary and beyond.


Linda Margittai

University of Szeged