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Dr. Chodakiewicz discusses “Hungary’s Christian Nationalist Past, Present, and Future”

On Wednesday, December 12, 2012, Dr. Marek Chodakiewicz, Professor of History and holder of the the Kościuszko Chair in Polish Studies at IWP, discussed “Hungary’s Christian Nationalist Past, Present, and Future.” A recording of his remarks, as well as the text of his lecture, can be found below.

In response to Freedom House’s ill-informed and superficial report on Hungary, Budapest’s ambassador in Washington, György Szapáry, issued an open letter to clarify the situation. Rebutting the report point by point, the most symbolic fragment of the letter virtually encapsulated the gist of the controversy. Where Hungary’s detractors complained about “the [constitutional] preamble’s heavy reliance on Christian language,” the diplomat responded that this was a “quote from… the Hungarian National Anthem (“God bless the Hungarians“), a symbol of national unity for more than 150 years, sung by Hungarians at every major public and private ceremony. The Preamble also explicitly acknowledges the important part Christianity has played in Hungarian history. It is a historical fact that Hungary’s birth as a European nation is intimately linked with Hungary’s King Saint Stephen’s unifying the nation under the umbrella of Christianity. To quote the Fundamental Law: “We recognize the role of Christianity in preserving nationhood. We value the various religious traditions of our country.” The Ambassador continued: “frankly, this criticism (…) is a very cheap shot from an institution like the Freedom House created by a country like the United States where the words “God bless America” is [sic are] on every American’s lips no matter what his or her religious affiliation or beliefs are.”  

While exuding the spirit of the Freedom House report, historian Peter Hanebrink’s  In Defense of Christian Hungary presents much a more sophisticated version of the same liberal argument.  In his seemingly measured monograph he argues that “the logic of exclusion” of Jewish citizens led gradually to Auschwitz. Aside from the murderers themselves, others are to blame, namely the Christian denominations, the Catholic Church in particular. The churches advanced a spiritual project of a “utopian” Christian nationalist Hungary that was juxtaposed to and contrasted with the “Jewish Hungary,” a liberal and radical one, infused, allegedly, with an alien, “Jewish” spirit. And when the slippery slope of exclusion inexorably pushed the Jewish Hungarians into the gas ovens of the Nazis, the Christian hierarchs, both Catholic and Protestant, did very little, if anything to help their fellow citizens. The historian ends on an ominous note reminding everyone that presently the Hungarian right has resurrected much of the pre-war discourse, institutions, and symbols of Christian Nationalism, making all who consider themselves progressives, along with the non-Christians, the Jewish minority in particular, very uncomfortable.

It is legitimate to describe the sins of commission and omission of the Christian majority during the Holocaust; to ask whether enough was done to help the victims; to assess the crimes; and to assign blame. Blasting the extreme nationalist radicals is a must. Smashing racism is necessary. Last but not least, it is pertinent and morally justified to point out how horribly wrong the conservatives and others on the Right had been (and unfortunately in all too many cases continue to be) to have identified all the pathologies of modernity with “the Jews.” All this is understandable. However, a scholar loses much of his credibility when his ideological agenda informs his narrative so excessively.   

Hanebrink objects to Hungary’s search for the restoration of its Christian identity after the depredations of Communist and Nazi totalitarianisms. He implies that only a civic identity is a guarantee against the return of discrimination and mass extermination. Religion is suspect for it excludes. It should be expelled from the public square and practiced in private (and its apparent demise in Western Europe goes unlamented and is explicitly contrasted with Hungary’s official attitude toward faith). The historian feels so strongly about it, referring to the Christian nationalist project as “utopian,” that one wonders whether he even distinguishes between the constitutional provisions and the civil society. Hanebrink is, of course, entitled to his own preferences and prejudices. 

And we can likewise expose and debunk them. Let us examine, for example, a highly controversial proposition implicitly permeating the book that ugly anti-Jewish invective inevitably leads to the Holocaust. Well, people do gripe about something or other much of the time, including demonizing real and abstract phenomena. Genocide occurs, thank God, only very infrequently. At least in most cases positing that verbal abuse must lead to mass murder is a fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this). This seems to apply to Hungary’s conservative Catholics and Protestants, but not radical nationalists.  Liberal scholar Peter Pulzer has usefully differentiated between conservative anti-Semitism, which is basically bigotry, on the one hand, and exterminationist anti-Semitism, which explicitly causes death. 

Let us consider a hypothetical. A dog named Cathy dislikes cats and she often barks at them. Another dog called Frank positively loathes the animals. One day, he resolves to kill all the felines he can catch. No one can reasonably blame Cathy for the massacre. She was not the killer. Frank was. Pardon the cartoonish imagination straight from Art Spiegelman, the artist who graced us with a racist cartoon on the Holocaust, pitting the cats (Nazis) against the mice (Jews) with the connivance of the pigs (Christian Poles) which in congruence with America’s popular culture was elevated from fiction to history (Maus, 1991).

Just imagine the howls of toleration if one suggested the following syllogism. The liberals advocate the division between church and state, and ghettoizing belief in the private sphere. So do the Communists and Nazis, who persecute and, ultimately, exterminate the clergy and the faithful. So should we blame liberalism for the mass murder of the religious in the Soviet Union or in occupied Poland’s Warthegau? The anti-religious thrust of the liberal ideology and its demonization of the clergy can be taken for granted after all. If Christianity allegedly led to Hitler and the Holocaust, didn’t liberal secularism result in Stalin, and the Holodomor, and Mao, and the Laogai? Should we lay about 30 million Christian Orthodox martyrs in Russia at the feet of Paul Miliukov or Vladimir Nabokov? Or Lenin and Stalin?

Let us further look at the intellectual context and timing that produced Hanebrink’s monograph in 2006. The early new millennium was the height of the Goldhagenian madness in the United States and Western Europe. According to leftist pundit Daniel Goldhagen and his emulators, Christianity and the Vatican were to blame for the Holocaust. It was “Hitler’s Pope” this and “Hitler’s Pope” that. 

Well, it is no longer 2006. Six years later, after quite a bit of an effort by the late dean of the Holocaust studies Raul Hilberg himself, the chief Oxfordian Zionist Martin Gilbert, rabbi David Dallin, and other solid scholars, the much besmirched Pius XII has been restored to his rightful place of glory at Yad Vashem. Thus, thanks to those traditionalist and empiricist leading thinkers and scholars, the liberal Goldhagenian argument has been re-examined to an extent.

They have pointed out that treating Christianity as only a political proposition is positively Marxist and reductionist. Positing that the project of a Christian nation must inevitably lead to a “racial nation” is grossly deterministic and fallacious. Slippery slope anyone? And do appreciate the context of the Second World War in Hungary and the modus operandi of the Christian churches. The hierarchs tend to work like diplomats, and not like early Christian martyrs giving witness and giving up their lives. It was the silent diplomacy of Pius XII which worked best to save Jews.  

And speaking about sacrificing lives, how many today would stand up to defend Jews when it really mattered? One does not recall too many liberal-led demonstrations and civic protest actions to stop the Jewish deportations in Hungary in 1944. Did any liberal self-immolate to object to the Holocaust? Why did the liberals not hide Jewish fugitives en masse? Who was giving witness? Honored by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Gentile, Sister Margit Slachta was no liberation theologian. She was a hard core, orthodox Catholic with all that entails.

And, therefore, what’s wrong with trying to restore continuity of tradition in post-Communist Hungary? Fidesz has led the way to reconstruct a liberal Christian nationalism. It is commodious enough for anyone to join. One does not even need to convert; one can just appreciate the indispensability of things permanent for the project of restoring Hungary that had been ravaged by half a century of totalitarianism and over 20 years of nihilistic post-Communism. It is also telling that the scholar is annoyed by the fact that, like the Christian hierarchs of the past, contemporary Hungarian conservatives consider both Nazis and Communists as secular, modern neo-pagan enemies of humanity. But the restored continuity with Hungary’s patriotic past, its liberal Christian nationalism, demands that both Hitler and Stalin be condemned. And most Hungarians seem to agree, for they have given a clear democratic mandate to the Right. 

Too bad Hanebrink has sadly failed to progress much beyond Goldhagen. Hungary could use an honest debate about its past, including the Jewish tragedy. But such a debate entails a dialogue, and not a monologue that too often amounts to an attempted intimidation.

Paul A. Hanebrink, In Defense of Christian Hungary: Religion, Nationalism, and Antisemitism, 1890-1944 (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2006).

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
Washington, DC, 30 November 2012