The Hungarian Labor Service System 1939-1945. RANDOLPH
L. BRAHAM. Bolder, Col.: East European Quarterly, 1977. x, 159
pp. $11.00. (Distributed by Columbia University Press).
in Canadian Slavonic Papers - Revue Canadienne des Slavistes. Vol. 21, No. 1 (March 1979): 137-138.
The Golden Age of Hungarian Jewry came tto a sudden halt with the collapse of the Habsburg Empire. Less than a century earlier, in the 1840s, the influx of Jewish masses to liberal Hungary laid the foundation for the creation of a new class, a Magyarized bourgeoisie. Their subsequent patriotic and assimilative behaviour, in contrast with the attitude of other nationalities in Hungary, induced a unique and most fruitful alliance of gentry and Jewry between 1867 and 1918. The Versailles Treaties, in particular the Treaty of Trianon, brought a major reduction in size of the Hungarian state-leaving many members of the ruling and emerging Christian middle classes with fewer opportunities for advancement in the civil service, the armed forces and the Catholic Church, or with minimal chance of success in the overcrowded professions. The frustrated gentile middle classes now turned to anti-Semitism as a convenient tool in the easing of the impact of economic and social dislocations. As a result fascism and nazism found many converts in Hungary, although the Magyar-type nineteenth-centuny liberalism was not entirely forgotten. In fact, it saved the lives of many Hungarian Jews once the shadows of the Holocaust overtook Admiral Horthy's kingdom. Professor Braham's story of the Hungarian Labour Service System demonstrates the Janus face of the Hungarian regime.
The military labour service system was originally created to employ ' unreliable" men of military age to further Hungary's war effort. Eventually it was used primarily as one of the components of the Hungarian solution of the "Jewish question." At first not all Jewish adult males were drafted into labour batallions. For example, many Jewish soldiers participated in the reoccupation of Northern Transylvania on the eve of the Second World War. Internal and German political pressures, however, soon led to a general deterioration in the position of the Jews in Hungary not exempting the fate of the labour batallions.
Braham, himself a former victim of the system, has given us an objective analysis of a chapter in the tragedy of the Jewry in Hungary, an important episode in World War II history. Braham's work may not be, as he claims, the first general documented account on the topic - Jenö Lévai's Black Book was published in English in 1948 (The Black Book on the Martyrdom of Hungarian Jewry, Zurich, 1948) it is, nevertheless,an excellent piece of scholarship. As a minor criticism it can be noted that the appendixes are of little use: the maps are blurred and the statistics on human losses are rounded in certain places and in others are not. What is significant is that the author manages to provide insight into the suffering and heroism of Jewish servicemen while correctly depicting the behaviour of their Hungarian officers and guards, the inhumanity of some and the compassionate understanding of others.
[Peter I. Hidas, Dawson College]