In a speech explaining why he requires all his new agents to visit the Holocaust Memorial Museum, FBI director James Comey said this:
In their minds, the murderers and accomplices of Germany, and Poland, and Hungary, and so many, many other places didn’t do something evil. They convinced themselves it was the right thing to do, the thing they had to do.
This muddled statement outraged Poland’s Foreign Ministry, who “summoned” the U.S. Ambassador Stephen Mull to protest and demand an apology. And an apology was offered, of course. Mull emphasized that the position of the United States is that “Nazi Germany alone bears responsibility” for the Holocaust, even if nothing in Comey’s speech maintained otherwise.
Hungary, where the anti-Semitic far-right Jobbik party has been doing pretty well for itself lately, was also slighted.
There isn’t much to be gained from re-prosecuting the crimes of Nazis or their accomplices, especially when Jewry is faced with a similarly potent, if less dangerous (for now), strain of anti-Semitism emanating from the Middle East. What is perplexing, however, is that Comey chose Hungary and Poland, rather than a host of other nations with populations far more enthusiastic about the extermination of European Jewry—countries like Austria, Rumania, Croatia, France, Latvia, or Ukraine.
It almost as if the director of a department that deals with domestic intelligence and security service of the United States should not be giving speeches about this sort of thing.
Nonetheless. Comey might have picked the wrong targets, but it’s another thing to start acting like the Hungarians and Poles bore no culpability. In a piece titled “FBI director got it wrong on the Holocaust,” the typically fantastic historian Anne Applebaum, who is married to speaker of the Polish parliament, sounds a lot like a person doing just that.
In two poorly worded sentences, he sounded to Polish readers as if he were repeating the World War II myth that most drives them crazy: Namely, that somehow, those who lived in occupied Eastern Europe shared full responsibility for a German policy.
Applebaum goes on to offer number of reasonable points. It’s important to make distinctions on where to place the moral onus, which lays predominantly on Germans, most of whom were planning, participating, ignoring, or complicit in extermination. There is also a big difference between nations like Poland, who resisted German rule, and governments that collaborated with Nazis.
Yet, Applebaum takes it farther. If Comey’s lack of precision upsets Applebaum, shouldn’t she be just as careful when she writes about the role Poland and Hungary played during the war?
Applebaum rightly points out that the mass murder and deportation of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz began in earnest in March 1944, after the government dissolved and the country become a “lawless, violent zone where anything was possible.”
Yet, it was the Hungarians, on their own, who allied themselves Nazi Germany in the first place. Miklos Horthy, popular among everyday Hungarians, enacted anti-Semitic laws in 1920, and then more intense laws in 1938. Years before the Germans displaced him for trying to cut a deal with the Russians, Horthy sent more than 100,000 Jewish men into forced labor, of which 40,000 never came back. The Hungarians sent around 20,000 Jews who held foreign citizenship to the Germans to be murdered—less than many countries, but more than others.
After Horthy was removed, the mass deportation of 450,000 Hungarian Jews to concentration camps began. It was run by Hungarians using Hungarian infrastructure and Hungarian workers with the knowledge of many Hungarian citizens. Hungarians were the ones who collected the Jews from the ghettos. They knew were to go and round them up because they had put them there is the first place. There were countries a lot worse than Hungary in Europe. And there were better (Finland and sometimes Bulgaria, who were also allied with Nazi Germany, for instance), but that hardly makes Hungary innocent.
When the Russian victory was imminent, the Hungarian Arrow Cross were still rounding up Jews, murdering them either on the banks of the Danube or marching them hundreds of miles away from the front to be shot. It is true that Hungarians weren’t as industrious at liquidating Jews as their neighbors in Rumania or Austria, but many of them tried their best.
Then, of course, many Christians saved Jews—including my father. Whether any of the murderers in Hungary convinced themselves it was the right thing to do, I doubt Comey is in a position to know.
Poland is more complicated. It is true that there are more Polish “Righteous Among the Nations” than of any other ethnicity. Applebaum says that in Poland the “many people were frightened by or indifferent to the fate of the Jews, and some murdered in order to avoid being murdered.” Even if you bought all of that, there is no mention of the Polish-led progroms or the willing collaborators or deeply embedded anti-Semitism in that nation—both before and after World War II.
A few years back, Jan Gross wrote his Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, stirring a debate among Poles about their own role in the Holocaust. In a piece in Tablet detailing the the fallout, Denise Grollmus neatly sums up how Poles see themselves:
When Gross’ book was first published in 2001, it created enormous controversy in Poland, where Communist revisionism not only rewrote the Holocaust’s role in Poland’s national narrative, but also reinforced the Poles’ perception of themselves as absolute victims. Many Poles point to the fact that, unlike most European nations, Poland never officially collaborated with the Nazis, never ran their camps or established Polish SS groups. As a result of this resistance, more than 20 percent of the country’s population was destroyed. For that reason, Auschwitz has long been considered a site not of Jewish suffering, but of Polish suffering—even though half of the country’s death toll included 90 percent of its Jewish population.
The Poles were victims, there is no doubt. And sometimes they were persecutors. There were collaborators and there were heroes. Poland’s government has apologized for wartime acts perpetrated by its citizens. This year, Hungary acknowledged its own part in the Holocaust, as well. It’s obvious that Comey’s bromide-heavy speech intended to make a broader point about the ability of people to rationalize their wicked behavior. Perhaps he mentioned Hungary because of contemporary events. Perhaps he mentioned Poland because he didn’t want to pile on Greece. Who knows? Whatever the case, one bureaucrat’s hazy thinking is no reason to start whitewashing history.