Lövészárkok a hátországban. Középosztály, zsidókérdés, antiszemitizmus az első világháború Magyarországán

TitleLövészárkok a hátországban. Középosztály, zsidókérdés, antiszemitizmus az első világháború Magyarországán
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsLaczó, Ferenc
Author(s) of reviewed materialBihari, Péter

book Title translated: Trenches in the Hinterland. The Middle Class, the Jewish Question and Anti-Semitism in Hungary of the First World War.

PublisherBudapest: Napvilág Kiadó
ISSN ISBN 978 963 9697 23 2
Review year


Full Text

Lövészárkok a hátországban is the newly released, improved and supplemented, Hungarian-language version of the dissertation Péter Bihari defended at the Department of History of the Central European University back in 2005. It is the result of Bihari’s long-standing interest in the social and cultural history of Hungary during the First World War, the event that constitutes the great turning point of history when “all went wrong.” The decisiveness of this event has been duly recognized in Hungary too, though, in marked contrast to other countries, its real impact has previously not received sufficient attention by historians. Lövészárkok a hátországban is based on a large number and diverse kinds of sources, stretching from private correspondences to press reports, including even humorous publications. Moreover, it draws on many of the internationally most significant scholarly works dealing with the First World War and also includes some comparative reflections, mostly relating Hungary and Germany. When discussing changes in everyday living conditions during the war, Bihari’s primarily focus is Budapest while his exploration of societal and cultural changes has a country-wide scope.
Crucial to the argument put forward in Lövészárkok a hátországban is the idea that while in Britain or France the war strengthened national unity and the sense of “togetherness,” in major countries of the Central Powers such as Germany, Transleithenian Austria or Hungary proper, it further worsened internal societal, cultural and political divisions. These newly enhanced divisions became highly significant factors of the fading of liberalism as well as the organization of the new and massive force of ethnic nationalism towards the end of the war (p.8).
The book begins by discussing how this fundamental division has progressively deepened in Hungary over time, starting prior to the outbreak of the war in 1914. Bihari takes the years 1895-96, 1905-06 and 1916-17 as prime examples to introduce the idea of the gradual emergence of mutually exclusive camps of radicals and conservatives, separated by an increasingly large socio-cultural gap that also acquired decisive political significance by the second half of the First World War (pp.38-9). Moreover, Bihari rightly insists that the war as experienced on the Hungarian home front ought to be divided into various phases: in many instances the year 1916 constituted the turning point, when Hungary also began to fight (as part of the Dual Monarchy) a total war (p.32), and its own special version of the Burgfrieden (characterized by a peculiar immobility, i.e. the continuing rule of civilians without the extension of the base of government) definitely ended (p.77).
Issues related to the Jewish question and anti-Semitism are among the main focuses ofLövészárkok a hátországban, even though Bihari claims that the problem area has interested him as a crucially important aspect of the fundamental divisions of the middle classes, particularly of the Bildungsbürgertum, a group with altogether 190, 000 members according to his estimate (p.46). He calls attention to the immense and unique role Jewish people played in the modernization of Hungary, as shown by Victor Karády’s empirical studies (p.52).[1] Bihari also questions that there is sufficient proof for the structural assimilation of Jews in the early decades of the 20th century (p.53), while qualifying (perhaps somewhat inconsistently) the strengthening of modern (political) anti-Semitism as paradoxical, given the successes of assimilation (p.64).
Bihari’s focus on the middle classes is justified, since the war seems to have harmed the middle classes the most, especially the publicly employed clerks and intellectuals. As he shows, the enormously high rate of inflation (900%) caused their living standards to decline sharply (p.95). Moreover, they also lost part of their social prestige (p.137). As a consequence, over time many in this declining stratum increasingly radicalized their ideological-historical argumentation (p.141). Starting already in 1916 the perception of the rapid decline of the “historical” (i.e. Christian) middle class was permanently contrasted with the rise of the modern “Jewish” middle strata (p.250).
Bihari’s crucial revisionist point is that Hungary’s anti-Semitic turn in 1918-20 did not constitute a surprisingly new development, a radical break of sorts as it has been so often claimed. The question of the middle class and the position of Jews practically became two sides of the same coin even before: they were almost always discussed together during the second half of the First World War, revealing a similarity of diagnosis even between people who propagated highly different ideas (p.162-3). Significantly, on the day the Burgfrieden ended in the Hungarian Parliament, the 23rd of August 1916, the first debate based on explicit attacks of Jewry took place as well (p.201). This coincided with the anti-Semitic turn in large sectors of the Hungarian press, which Bihari aptly illustrates (p.213), as well as with similar developments in Germany.
In this period between 1916 and 1918, discourses were turning increasingly apocalyptic, starting the process of calling for a “final settlement of accounts.” Bihari notes that while leftist radicalism despised the capitalists as much as rightist radicalism despised the Jews, these two categories were merging in public discourse (p.230). In right-wing circles, the capitalist "who makes gold for himself out of the blood of others" came to be identified with the Jews, while the "suffering majority" with Christian society (p.194). In Bihari's overall assessment, anti-Semitism became a widespread cultural code (Volkov) by 1918 in Hungary too (p.15).
According to the author, this new radicalizing anti-Semitism had three basic sources: the Christian churches (the Roman Catholic Church in particular), the anti-Semitic turn of new layers of society (such as the peasantry), while political-tactical considerations in relevant elite clusters were also at work (pp.249-50). Next to denouncing some questionable practices of banks and war deliverers through anti-Semitic insinuations or “accents,” particular issues recurrently raised by anti-Semitic authors were the propensity of Jews to purchase landed property and their widespread "occupation of space" in institutions of higher education and the professions.
In sum, in Hungary, again much like in Germany, this deepening crisis of the middle classes got more and more connected to the Jewish question, and the First World War served as a catalyst of anti-Semitic radicalization. Indicative of this is that by 1917-18, the term middle class was barely used without additional adjectives (p. 148). Having long-term causes that began to make a much stronger impact during the war, origins, religion, political convictions and commitment began to be largely interrelated in Hungary (p.49). The revolution in 1918, according to the debatable claim of Bihari, had a dual structure and differing meanings in the capital city and the rest of the country (p.242).
In his conclusion, Bihari talks of a distorted kind of Jewish integration, which led not to assimilation but to the strengthening of anti-Semitism (p.247-8). The Jewish question became one of the basic issues of Hungarian modernization: next to being a political issue, it also had strong social and cultural dimensions. Bihari even calls the intensification of the anti-Jewish drive “as inevitable as the breakup of historic Hungary” (p.252).
Lövészárkok a hátországban is based on the exploration of a large number of previously insufficiently known sources, and is thereby able to offer an important corrective to conventional understanding. It discusses the social and cultural history of the First World War in Hungary on many different levels,[2] though the presentation of these levels could have been somewhat better organized. In my view, there are some rather abrupt thematic changes without accompanying explanations of the links between these various themes. For instance, there is a chapter discussing new mass culture, censorship as well as various forms of racism. Elsewhere the discussion of urban-rural relations is followed by the exploration of the changing roles of women.

Unfortunately, it does not become clear whether the work aims to discuss right-wing radicalization (on which Miklós Szabó has written an excellent monograph, frequently referred to by Bihari) or the polarization between the two sides in the first place. Which of these understandings is more justified might be an impossible issue to settle with sufficient proof, not to mention the fact that it is also an eminently political question. My complaint rather concerns the fact that Bihari seems to use both models without noting that there is a contradiction between them. This is particularly problematic since thereby the basic assessment of the increasingly intense and at times vicious debates on the so called Jewish question remains unclear. Bihari seems to remain ambivalent whether this phenomenon was basically an effect of "primordial" anti-Semitism, or it ought to be seen as an outcome of verifiable relations between Jewish and non-Jewish members of society. In other words, was the problem of a fictional or a structural character? Moreover, while Bihari discusses new Christian political and semi-political organizations and ideas, similarly important questions related to Jewish political actors and their ideas are less articulated, and so the question is not answered whether various processes of self-identification of Jews with the liberals and the Left have been simultaneous with right-wing radicalization (as a strictly understood polarization model would imply) or it took place in defensive reaction to it.

Another, smaller issue is that Bihari fails to provide working definitions of some of his basic concepts, such as mentality or culture,[3] nor does he articulate a theoretical stance on the controversial matter of how historians ought to understand and analyze the complex and potentially somewhat elusive concept of mentality. In practice, the large majority of his sources are textual ones. These reservations notwithstanding, Lövészárkok a hátországban remains an important work that provides a new and significant empirical contribution and it ought to trigger more needed debate between various historical understandings of the successes and failures of Hungarian modernization and the often tragic developments of the country’s political culture during the 20th century.

[1] The realms in which Jewish people played highly significant roles included many forms of modern culture. Bihari’s case study on the rise of metropolitan mass culture during the war years shows how this process led also to an increase in the attacks on the “rootless” and “foreign” capital city of Budapest (p.172), leading to similar polarization as in other realms (p.186). In turn, this made certain terms (such as radical, Jewish, budapesti, cosmopolitan, leftist on the one hand, or conservative, Christian, Hungarian, national, rightist on the other) largely interchangeable in contemporary political discourse (p.41).

[2] Throughout the book, the political debate is also often addressed.

[3] Similarly, the way they are related to political developments remains unspecified.