In Defense of Christian Hungary: Religion, Nationalism, and Antisemitism, 1890-1944

TitleIn Defense of Christian Hungary: Religion, Nationalism, and Antisemitism, 1890-1944
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsLaczó, Ferenc
Author(s) of reviewed materialHanebrink, Paul A.
PublisherCornell University Press: Ithaca, New York
ISBN Number978-0801444852
Review year


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Hanebrink’s book deals with what he terms Christian nationalism in Hungary, particularly in the inter-war period, when the more concrete definition of this symbolic entity desired by many was heavily contested. Religious (the agenda of Christianizing Hungary), cultural (imbuing public spaces with the “Christian spirit” and fighting the “Jewish spirit”) and racial visions (of anti-Semitism) of a Christian Hungary were competing for preeminence. In other words, there were various fusions of religious and secular elements and Christian nationalism remained largely undefined for much of the Horthy era.

Hanebrink claims that religious Christians together with secular nationalists pushed anti-Semitism to the center of public life in Hungary: even though their visions were opposed to each other, they nevertheless managed to reinforce the idea that exclusionary politics was necessary. While it is true that these two groups also shared their illiberalism and antimodernism as well as their antidemocratic concept of a new moral order, Hanebrink does not discuss how and why exactly these two groups ought to be distinguished.

Hanebrink’s primary aim is to “take seriously the Christianity in Christian nationalist ideology in Hungary.” [p.3] The Catholics and the Calvinists are the almost exclusive focus of In Defense of Christian Hungary, which also means that Jews as social actors are absent. Hanebrink exposes mostly similarities between these two Christian denominations, though also remarks on some significant differences, for instance how the statism of the Catholics differed from the ethnicism of the Calvinists (the latter being an almost 100% Magyar religious group). The latter also tended to be more socially progressive than the typically conservative Catholics. These Christian churches remained profoundly ambiguous towards radical anti-Semitism even at the time of the Shoah, though mostly they remained clearly opposed to fascism itself. This ambiguity can be seen in the efforts made to distinguish converts who were “racially defined as Jews” (an estimated 10% of all “racial Jews”) over Jews by religion, which attempts also led to some successes in selectively fighting discrimination. Christians being persecuted as “racially Jewish” also meant the defeat of the Christians at the hand of secular nationalists, by 1941 the latest, and so in this respect the Shoah was not implemented on the Christian principle of differentiation. Still, the churches’ ambiguities proved fatal and their traditional Christian anti-Judaism was implicated when they continued to see-saw between the extreme right and more conservative “compassionate anti-Semitism” even at the time of the genocide, offering no principled opposition. They were still insisting on essential Jewish differences, aimed to bolster their “national credentials” and opposed only the means while affirming the goals of anti-Semitism, so Hanebrink.

Though the book deals mostly with the inter-war period and the years of the Second World War, the first chapter is devoted to the pre-World War I period, especially the struggle for religious equality, which was simultaneous and partly overlapping with the struggle for the supremacy of civil law (so the groups in opposition to Catholic predominance can variously be called Protestants and Jews or liberals), and the political polarization and the emergence of Christian political organization that followed. Arguing largely on the basis of Miklós Szabó’s magisterial treatment of the period, Hanebrink claims the vision of Christian Hungary was created already prior to the war when a “culture war” was intensifying, though this vision became dominant only after this watershed. It is interesting to read that the Catholic opposition to the racial anti-Jewish law of 1941 (which, having supported the first two in 1938 and 1939, they opposed) was similar to their opposition to religious equality and the primacy of civil law in the 1890s. This also implies that Catholics might have lived in a very different historical time from that familiar to us from the chronologies of secular history. It is intriguing to see their behavior and seeming blindness to the unfolding events of the early 1940s, and ask to what extent this blindness was genuine (or self-enforced) and to what extent did it derive from cowardice and even selfishness? This and other similar questions are not directly posed in this book, since Hanebrink’s narrativistic focus and dispassionate treatment does not allow him to fully engage with such intriguing and truly controversial matters. There are only few sustained arguments in the book, which tend to get repeated a number of times. The book's tone is restrained and the factual narrative is only infrequently interrupted by analysis of more complex questions.

In Defense of Christian Hungary also suffers from a number of weaknesses. Firstly, it uses only a very small amount of primary materials and is largely based on secondary sources (again, not overwhelming in quantity) mostly in languages other than Hungarian (see f.e. how Hanebrink discusses Mályusz on the basis of Vardy’s book on historiography, without using Mályusz’s original texts), not to mention that the Hungarian historical works used are not always the most recent ones (on Gömbös he relies on Kónya’s rather outdated study from 1968). Similarly, Hanebrink shows a lack of familiarity with Hungarian literary works (referring to the népiek, he only discusses the work of Géza Kiss, leaving out all the major authors without even naming them; remarking on the Hungarian literary canon, his footnote refers to Frigyesi's book on Bartók). In most of the chapters, no archival evidence is  presented. From this it follows that large parts of the book can do little more than reproduce a mainstream narrative of Hungarian history and little is offered in addition. In this regard, it is telling that we can find an entire chapter devoted to the story of 1918-1919 until the fall of the Republic of Councils, which one would not expect in a specialized monograph on Christian nationalism.

Secondly, the approach used to describe the role of the churches and religion in Hungary is a top-down one. The focus is almost exclusively on a few individuals high up in the churches' hierarchies: Prohászka, Bangha, Mindszenty and Ravasz are the real actors of the book, though their biographies also remain somewhat sketchy. This approach, alongside the lack of the work's grounding in social history (which can be seen in many ways, including f.e. Hanebrink’s common and often mistaken use of the word “gentry”), makes this a historical work of the traditional political history type. Thirdly, the book lacks an international perspective and a comparative basis of reflection, which in the case of Catholics would have been needed to properly contextualize the Hungarian story. In sum, In Defense of Christian Hungary provides a readable introductory narrative to the history it purports to cover, but it is does not engage in more sophisticated pursuits of Hungarian intellectual, cultural or social history.