Extracts from the Jan 2013 Journal
The wealth of culture that the Jewish community of Vienna developed in the short period of its flourishing - between the middle of the nineteenth century and its destruction by the Nazis - is the more astonishing as Vienna had no Jewish community of any size before the mid-nineteenth century. Jews were banned from what was then the imperial capital until the revolution of 1848 and were not fully emancipated from all restrictions of residence until 1867, as part of the reforms that followed Austria’s defeat by Prussia in the war of 1866.
Viennese Jewry was a cultural centre of European-wide significance in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; the very concept of ‘fin-de-siècle Vienna’, with its avant-garde association with the dislocations and dissonances of Modernism, was in very large measure dependent on Viennese Jewry. For it was that community which was responsible for producing much of the city’s culture, in the form of its artists, composers, writers, theatre and film directors, as well as providing a large part of the audiences, readers, visitors to exhibitions and other consumers of culture, not to mention the producers, impresarios, gallery owners and art dealers who were the facilitators of the cultural scene.
The Jewish contribution to the culture of Vienna in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries extended across the range of cultural and intellectual activity. It encompassed a large number of famous names, as in the field of literature, to take just one example: Arthur Schnitzler, Karl Kraus, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Felix Salten, Hermann Broch, Franz Werfel, Elias Canetti, Friedrich Torberg, Hilde Spiel, Hugo Bettauer, Joseph Roth, Peter Altenberg, Stefan Zweig, Vicki Baum and Richard Beer Hoffmann. No list of Vienna’s Jews can omit the composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg, the conductor Bruno Walter, the director Max Reinhardt, the philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper, the lawyer Hans Kelsen, Theodor Herzl, founder of Zionism, and Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis. Then there are the cabaret artists and university professors, the journalists (not least Moritz Benedikt of the Neue Freie Presse), the feminists and photographers, the salonnières and sociologists …
This cultural flowering took place under historical and cultural conditions that were particular to Vienna. At the time of the full emancipation of the Jews of Austria in 1867, Vienna was still very much a city marked by the triumph of the Counter-Reformation in the seventeenth century and the Baroque culture that it produced there. This was most obviously true of the dominance of Catholicism and the Catholic Church, the religion of the Habsburg establishment, whose buildings and monuments occupied a prominent place on the city’s skyline, as it was of the influence of Catholicism on Vienna’s popular and high culture. Yet in the sixteenth century Vienna had been very receptive to the Reformation and a significant proportion of its citizens had been Protestants.
The triumph of the Counter-Reformation in the seventeenth century also saw the triumph of the Catholic house of Habsburg, which, apart from its hereditary rule over its Austrian lands, also held the office of Holy Roman Emperor and thus assumed the leading role in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. In 1521, the Austrian Duchies had come under the rule of Ferdinand I, a staunch Catholic from Spain. Ferdinand and his successors proceeded against religious dissenters with severe measures, aiming to squeeze Protestantism out of Viennese public life. That process was largely completed by the time of the second siege of Vienna by the Turks in 1683.
This had serious consequences for the character and quality of the civic life of Vienna. The city, like other European cities in the later Middle Ages, had begun to develop an autonomous urban civic and political life, centred on its burghers, merchants and traders. This segment of Viennese society, independent economically and in its politics, was also independent-minded in its welcome of the reformed Protestant religion and of the new ideas of humanism and rationalism that spread with the Renaissance. It was that entire spectrum of independence that was repressed by the forces of the Counter-Reformation and by Habsburg power.
Protestantism disappeared, and with it went Viennese municipal self-government and the budding free Viennese Bürgertum, bearer of the values of sturdy independence, free-thinking self-reliance and political autonomy. Instead, Vienna was to become the seat of the imperial court, where the high aristocracy held sway alongside the Catholic Church, with its overriding hostility to modern trends of thought. Vienna only regained its civic self-government in the mid-nineteenth century.
The resurgence of Catholicism had negative consequences for the Jews. The Jews of Vienna had experienced periodic bouts of persecution and expulsion over the centuries: the city’s great Catholic preachers, from Johannes Capistranus in the fifteenth century to Abraham a Sancta Clara in the seventeenth, had been notably hostile to Jews. In 1669, Emperor Leopold I set about expelling the Jews from Vienna, a prohibition that was not formally overturned for nearly 200 years. The Habsburgs needed Jews to finance their wars but treated them with scant respect once they had outlived their usefulness. Samuel Oppenheimer, Leopold I’s court banker from 1680 to 1703, acted as both financier and military contractor, making possible the war that saved Christendom from the infidel Turk in 1683. But when he died, the regime cancelled its debts to him and declared his bank bankrupt.
The culture into which the Jewish community of Vienna developed after 1867 still contained defining elements from the Baroque. The lavish ostentation of Baroque Catholic religious architecture and decoration helped to create a highly visual culture that appealed strongly to the senses, unlike the modest austerity that marked Protestant, and in its way also Jewish culture. The sensuous aspect of Vienna was noted by all observers, with its visual pageantry, its artistic pretensions and its sheer love of enjoyment and self-indulgence, which was assisted not a little by the city’s centuries-old association with its vineyards and their products.
But this pleasure-loving front concealed a profound awareness of the transitory and illusory nature of existence, which found expression in the Baroque metaphor of life as a dream. The Viennese were famed for their light-hearted charm, but that apparent frivolity contained an underlying element of fatalism, deriving from a sense of the unreality and impermanent insubstantiality of life, as well as an alarming propensity for brutality. It was, appropriately, in Vienna that Sigmund Freud conceived his project of the interpretation of dreams and his exploration of the influence of instinctive drives on the human mind.
After the defeat of the Turks in 1683, Vienna emerged as the capital of a great empire. However, Austria remained a disparate agglomeration of territories held together solely by the fact that they were ruled by the house of Habsburg, which relied for its legitimacy on the dynastic tradition whereby rule over its territories passed from one emperor to the next. Habsburg Austria was, first and foremost, a dynastic unit and for the Habsburgs dynastic interests took priority. The dynasty supplied the unifying factor binding together its many subject nationalities; consequently, when Habsburg rule collapsed in 1918, the Empire vanished from the map.
The Habsburgs derived unrivalled prestige from their position at the head of the Holy Roman Empire. But dynastic tradition and religious sanction could not supply the efficiency and cohesion required of a modern state. Austria never succeeded in meeting the challenges of the modern era. In the late eighteenth century, the reforms of Emperor Joseph II, which included the first declaration of tolerance for Jews, ended in failure. After 1789, the French Revolution confronted the Habsburg Empire with demands for popular democracy and for autonomous self-government for national groups; but the Habsburg autocracy never conceded the first demand, while the second would have spelt the break-up of the multi-ethnic Empire. The defeat of Napoleon in 1815 was followed by a long period of reaction under the chancellorship of Metternich, broken only by the revolution of 1848.
But that revolution failed. Its suppression was followed by another decade of absolute rule under the new emperor, Francis Joseph, until defeat in the Italian war of 1859 forced the start of constitutional reform, a process that culminated in the instalment of a liberal parliamentary regime after Austria’s defeat by Prussia in 1866. Even that, however, proved to be a false dawn. After the economic crash of 1873, the liberals were forced into retreat; in the 1890s, they lost control of Vienna, their stronghold, to the avowedly anti-liberal and anti-Semitic Christian Socials. The growth of radical nationalism and the failure of liberalism formed the background to the development of Viennese Jewry in the decades before 1914; along with the glittering prospects opened up to Jews by the modern metropolis, these factors created the matrix from which Viennese Jewish culture emerged.
This article is an abridged version of a lecture given at the London Jewish Cultural Centre on 12 September 2012. Part 2 will follow next month (Ed.).
It is a well-known fact that for a brief period during the 1920s Germany stood out as the leading film-producing country in Europe. Both in terms of the quality of its pictures and the sheer quantity of films produced, Germany was the only country which presented a serious challenge to the worldwide domination by the Americans. It was the UFA (Universum Film Aktien Gesellschaft), the conglomerate formed in December 1917, which led the way. It organised film production, distribution and exhibition in Germany on a large scale and thus was able to compete with the giant American film studios.
What is less well known is the leading role played by a remarkable group of talented Jewish film-makers, especially writers, directors and producers.
From the early 1910s onwards, one can already observe a notable Jewish presence. During the following years many Jews who had gained their first experience in the flourishing German theatre were newly attracted to the cinema. And the new arrivals included many talented individuals from countries such as Austria and Hungary, which could not offer the kind of opportunities and creative freedom to be found in Berlin. The directors Fritz Lang, Wilhelm Thiele and Carl Grune were Austrian, along with the writers Carl Mayer and Billy Wilder and the actor Anton Walbrook; from Hungary came the director Paul Czinner, the writer Emeric Pressburger and the actor Peter Lorre; while the brilliant Czech-born cameraman Karl Freund came from Bohemia.
The earliest Jewish film pioneers, from about 1911, were producer-director Joe May (Joseph Mandel), a former director of theatre and operetta, the Galicia-born actor Henrik Galeen (Heinrich Wiesenberg), who soon graduated to scriptwriting and then directing, and Paul Davidson. Starting out as a film distributor and owner of a chain of cinemas, Davidson was especially successful in attracting talented figures from the theatre when he first began producing films too through his Union Film, which soon developed into the most prestigious production company in Germany.
The first really important breakthrough was in 1914-16, when an especially interesting group from the theatre included many who would soon become established figures. In 1914 alone Richard Oswald and Robert Wiene, along with Galeen, began directing their first films, while the artist Paul Leni gained his initial experience as an art director before graduating to directing in 1916. But most important of all was the first appearance on screen of Ernst Lubitsch. He played a supporting role in one of his first pictures, Die Firma Hierat (The Hierat Company), filmed in 1913, then again played a Jewish comic character as the star of the sequel, Der Stolz der Firma (The Pride of the Company, 1914). And soon after he began directing his films too.
In the following years Lubitsch made his name as a Jewish actor-director in such inventive and entertaining short features as Schuhpalast Pinkus (The Pinkus Shoe Palace, 1916), his first big success as a director and in which he appeared as an ambitious but likeable young shoe shop employee, and Meyer aus Berlin (Meyer from Berlin, 1918). These films also marked the beginning of a ten-year relationship with producer Paul Davidson as Lubitsch emerged as the leading director in Germany. Lubitsch himself noted at the time that ‘Jewish humour, wherever it appears, is sympathetic and artistic and plays such a big role everywhere that it would be ridiculous not to include it in cinema.’
The other outstanding new arrival on the scene at this time (1915) was the producer Erich Pommer. A few years younger than Davidson, he would soon emerge as a leading force in the industry, hiring and promoting many of the new Jewish writers and directors, including Robert Wiene, E. A. Dupont, Fritz Lang, the Romanian-born Lupu Pick and Carl Mayer. Both the half-Jewish Lang (Jewish mother, Catholic father) and Dupont started out as scriptwriters but soon graduated to directing. Karl Grune and Pick came from the theatre, as did Fritz Kortner, best known as a brilliant actor who occasionally directed as well.
The formation of the giant UFA combine in 1917, incorporating Davidson’s Union Film and Pommer’s Decla Co., further set the scene for the explosion of talent which took place beginning in the immediate post-war years, with many of the Jewish film-makers prominent. There was quite a range of different types of films too.
Lang, for example, had his first major success as a writer-director with the elaborate two-part thriller Die Spinnen (The Spiders) in 1918-19, produced by Pommer and photographed by Freund, while Mme. DuBarry (also 1919) was an elaborate historical drama from Lubitsch and Davidson which starred Pola Negri and Emil Jannings. There were also a few films with Jewish themes. Writer-director Richard Oswald (born Ornstein) brought a number of Jewish subjects to the screen in 1914-18, including two films starring Rudolf Schildkraut: Dämon und Mensch (Devil and Man, 1915) and Schlemihl. Ein Lebensbild (Schlemihl: A Biography, 1916). And he then produced a highly original and controversial feature on the subject of homosexuality in Anders als die Andern (Different from the Others) in 1919.
Davidson produced two memorable Jewish films: Der Gelbe Schein (The Yellow Passport) in 1918 starring Pola Negri as a young Jewess in Tsarist Russia forced to take a ‘yellow passort’ classifying her as a prostitute so as to travel to St Petersburg, and a remarkable film version of the classic Jewish folk drama Der Golem (The Golem) in 1920. Set in the 16th century, this film made use of some extraordinary stylised sets depicting the Prague ghetto, while Karl Freund once again played an essential role behind the camera providing atmospheric lighting. However, the most celebrated title of these years was Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr Caligari), a horror-fantasy-drama produced by Pommer and directed by Robert Wiene in 1919. Best remembered for its extraordinary distorted and stylised sets and the powerful performances of Conrad Veidt and Werner Krauss in the leading roles, the nightmarish story and script were provided by two Jewish writers, Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz.
One of the most brilliant figures of the German silent cinema, Mayer went on to script two of the most important films of the burgeoning Kammerspielfilm movement of realistic contemporary social dramas in 1921: Scherben (Shattered), directed by Lupu Pick, and Hintertreppe (Backstairs), directed by Paul Leni with sets designed by Alfred Junge. Mayer also provided the original story for Karl Grune’s Die Strasse (The Street, 1923), a key film in the related genre of urban street films or Strassenfilm.
Joe May directed an exotic action-adventure movie in two parts: Das indische Grabmal (The Indian Tomb) in 1921, co-scripted by the prolific Fritz Lang, who demonstrated his mastery of low-key drama and elaborate thrillers with Der müde Tod (Destiny), also in 1921, followed by Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (Dr Mabuse the Gambler, 1922). And in 1921 Lubitsch contributed one last, brilliant costume drama for producer Davidson: Das Weib des Pharao (The Loves of Pharaoh).
Two years later Ludwig Berger made a successful venture into lightweight fantasy with an entertaining adaptation of the cinderella story, produced by Pommer and appropriately retitled Der verlorene Schuh (The Lost Shoe). Filmed at around the same time, E. A. Dupont’s Das Alte Gesetz (The Ancient Law) is of special interest as it presents a fully realised depiction of life in a Jewish shtetl in Eastern Europe – a relative rarity within the German silent cinema. In a plot which anticipates that of The Jazz Singer four years later, the young, aspiring actor hero, the son of a rabbi, played by Ernst Deutsch, rejects his Jewish heritage to travel to Vienna to appear on stage at the Burgtheater, but is reconciled with his father at the end.
In 1924 Paul Leni directed his most remarkable and darkest film, Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (Waxworks), reflecting his strong visual background as a leading production designer. The script was by Henrik Galeen, who had also co-scripted Der Golem four years earlier and then gone on to direct and co-script a similarly dark and mysterious drama, Der Student von Prag (The Student of Prague, 1926) starring Conrad Veidt.
At around this time (1924) a young Alfred Hitchcock was employed as the art director of German/British joint productions, co-produced by Pommer and the young British-Jewish producer Michael Balcon and filmed at the UFA studios in Babelsberg. As he recalled in the 1970s, ‘Those were the great days of the German pictures … The studio where I worked was tremendous, bigger than Universal is today.’
With major assistance from cameraman Karl Freund, Dupont in turn had his biggest international success with the circus and trapeze drama Varieté (Variety), starring Emil Jannings and produced by Pommer. Fresh from Der Letzte Mann (The Last Man) the previous year (scripted by Carl Mayer), Freund’s remarkable run of films continued in 1925-26 with Metropolis, the largest, most ambitious (and costly) production of the decade. This imaginative, futuristic fantasy-drama was produced by Pommer and directed by Fritz Lang, with elaborate sets, mass action sequences and innovative special effects devised by cameraman Eugen Schüfftan.
Unfortunately, UFA’s growing financial problems emerged more clearly in 1925 when Metropolis was in production. Unfairly blamed for the crisis, Pommer resigned as production chief in January 1926. He was immediately attracted to Hollywood along with a number of the Jewish directors, including Paul Leni, Ludwig Berger, Lothar Mendes, Paul Stein and E. A. Dupont, as well as the writer Carl Mayer and F. W. Murnau. Nevertheless, the Jewish contribution to the late German silent cinema continued to be exceptional.
While this brief survey has drawn attention to the many leading Jewish film-makers and a number of key films, it is difficult to do more than hint at the large number of pictures turned out year after year, with the participation of many of the less well known Jewish writers, directors, producers, technicians and actors. (The appendix to Professor S. S. Prawer’s book Between Two Worlds: Jewish Presences in German and Austrian Film, 1910-1933 (2005) provides a check list of, among others, over 30 Jewish directors, 40 writers, 20 cameramen and 20 producers.)
For example, Marlene Dietrich starred in a number of films in 1926-29, working with such Jewish directors as Willi Wolff, Robert Land, Alexander Korda and Kurt Bernhardt. Bernhardt’s Die Frau nach der Mann sich sehnt (The Women Men Yearn For, 1929) co-starred Fritz Kortner and benefited from a typically Jewish production team, including scriptwriter Ladislaus Vajda, art director Robert Neppach, and Curt Courant behind the cameras.
After a relatively unsuccessful stint in Hollywood, Pommer returned to Germany and produced four last silent films with a number of his favourite Jewish collaborators. (According to Pommer biographer Ursula Hardt, his productions ‘all made the 1928-29 list of Germany’s most popular films’.) Director Hanns Schwarz teamed up with writer Hans Szekely on two features, including The Wonderful Lie, starring Franz Lederer and referred to by Prawer as ‘the last of UFA’s lavishly mounted prestige films of the silent era’. At the same time, the veteran director Joe May turned out two last notable films in the Social Realist vein: Homecoming (Heimkehr) and Asphalt, with Jewish actresses Dita Parlo and Betty Amann in the leading roles.
At around the same time, Paul Czinner directed his last silent film starring his wife Elizabeth Bergner - an adaptation of a classic Arthur Schnitzler story, Fräulein Else, with Karl Freund on hand behind the camera to give the film a visual style lacking in Czinner’s stolid approach.
Finally, the German silent cinema was brought to a close by Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday), a surprisingly original production filmed entirely on the streets and nearby lakeside (Wannsee and Nikolassee) of Berlin in 1929. The filming of this modest little contemporary story brought together a group of aspiring new young talents all of whom would go on to have impressive careers in the cinema, mainly in the USA. The co-directors were Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer, the co-writers Curt Siodmak (brother of Robert) and Billy Wilder, the camera assistant Fred Zinnemann, and the experienced Eugen Schüfftan as cameraman, with production assistance provided by Moriz Seeler and Seymour Nebenzahl.
Clearly, the remarkable quality and scope of the Jewish involvement in the early German cinema is one of the most interesting, and neglected, stories of the silent cinema [more...]
Numerous statues and memorial plaques are being unveiled and prominent squares and avenues renamed up and down Hungary in honour of Admiral Miklós Horthy, the country’s wartime regent and the politician most responsible for the murder of close to 600,000 Jews during the Holocaust.
Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate, recently returned a prestigious decoration bestowed on him by the Hungarian government in protest against its rehabilitation of two minor, deceased writers whose only claim to fame was their anti-Semitism. The latest International Religious Freedom report issued by the American State Department criticised the rise of anti-Semitism in Hungary and the failure of the authorities to prosecute the disseminators of racist statements.
Much of the blame for all this must lie with Viktor Orbán, the authoritarian, populist, ultra-conservative Hungarian prime minister. But in this timely and brilliant new political analysis, Paul Lendvai, the doyen of European foreign correspondents, carefully and rightly refrains from calling him an anti-Semite.
In his unbridled lust for personal power, Orbán has foolishly released the long suppressed, xenophobic hatreds festering in the collective consciousness of this much-abused society. Those demons are now poised to destroy him and capture his people.
Lendvai and many others well disposed towards Hungary fear that, in the absence of a credible, coherent, democratic-minded parliamentary opposition, the rising discontent of the electorate may one day force Orbán’s Fidesz administration to share power with the relentlessly growing far-right Jobbik party, a creature of his own making.
Lendvai has been based in neighbouring Vienna since the failed anti-Soviet Hungarian revolution of 1956, in which he participated as a freedom fighter. He is a Jew who lost many of his family in the Holocaust and witnessed as a young adolescent in Budapest the gratuitous murder of tens of thousands of civilian captives by the Nazi rabble of the Hungarian Arrow Cross – the role models of the Jobbik party today – during the final phase of the Second World War.
His sympathetic coverage of Hungary’s now floundering efforts to build a liberal democracy after the painful decades of Soviet tyranny, which ended nearly a quarter-century ago, has won this country many friends abroad.
I worked with Lendvai for years when he was Central Europe correspondent of The Financial Times newspaper of London, where I often prepared his copy for publication, and I learned to respect the insightful, reliable, sober accuracy of his reportage. Now aged 81 and the editor-in-chief of the Viennese journal Europäische Rundschau, Lendvai is often quoted and consulted by the English- and German-language press and academia.
But his name is constantly being smeared by the rightist Hungarian mass communication media, linking him, without any verifiable evidence, to the bygone Communist secret police. His book launches in the German-speaking world are occasionally marred by threats of physical violence posed by the vociferous expatriate Hungarian far right. His new book is essential reading for diplomats, politicians and investors as well as the informed public concerned with the phenomenal current rise of anti-Semitism in this region.
The book has been impressively endorsed by the Hungarian political and intellectual elite in their own way. The first prospective publisher of an earlier, Hungarian version of this book backed out from the project under government pressure, but the book was eventually published by another publisher and immediately became a best-seller.
The analysis describes Orbán as a ‘master tactician’, ‘a gifted populist’, a ‘radical and consummate opportunist’, a ‘ruthless power politician who believes not in ideas but in maximizing his power without any compunction’, and an irresponsible manipulator ‘giving vent to Hungarian nationalism’ and ‘tapping into fear and prejudice at a moment of crisis’.
Orbán hails from a family of semi-skilled workers who prospered under the Communist regime and acquired great wealth afterwards during his two stints at the helm of power. His second period of rule was secured by a landslide election victory in April 2010 following a sustained campaign of violent street demonstrators.
The violence was fuelled by the frustration and insecurity sparked by the global recession in a post-Communist electorate totally unprepared for the boom/bust cycles of Western capitalism. That was the opportunity seized by Hungary’s neo-Nazis to emerge as the nastiest and best organised of their ilk within the 27 member countries of the European Union.
Xenophobia here feeds on fertile soil. Some seven decades after the Holocaust, Hungary still doggedly declines to confront its murderous past. As the generations march on, their inherited sense of suppressed guilt periodically surfaces in aggressive denial.
For example, the Hungarian history atlas prescribed for secondary school use in 2009 did not even mention the wartime anti-Jewish racial laws, the deportations to Auschwitz - or indeed the Holocaust. And the war-time propaganda trash promoting popular racial hatred against the Jews is still in circulation.
Lendvai quotes a long list of depressing educational and social data. Only four per cent of the present generation of Hungarians aged 18-30 know the meaning of the word ‘Holocaust’; only 13 per cent can give a figure for the number of its victims; two-thirds of the adult population believe that the Jews of Hungary are too powerful; half squarely blame the Jews for the world economic crisis.
Jobbik won 47 of the 386 seats in the single-chamber Hungarian parliament in the last elections, capturing 23 per cent of the vote. Its supporters are mostly young men and their numbers are dramatically swelling at the expense of Orbán’s Fidesz party. This lures Orbán further into the mire of radical-rightist politics as he courts the young racists in the hope of reversing the trend.
So the police stand idly by as Jobbik’s uniformed paramilitary wing, outlawed by the courts under a previous administration, marches again, displaying the regalia of the defunct Arrow Cross, spreading fear in the targeted Jewish and Roma communities. There have been numerous recent attacks in the Old Ghetto district of Budapest on unaccompanied elderly Jews, including a widely loved and respected retired chief rabbi aged 90.
Lendvai notes that ‘the genies Orbán has conjured up in his thirst for power have spun out of control ... [Yet] I still believe that the real danger comes not from the neo-Nazis or those who seek solutions in violence but rather from the fine silence of the political Right around Orbán and, with a very few exceptions, the Catholic and Protestant churches.’
Orbán’s popularity is significantly waning. His administration could face defeat in the 2014 elections if the fractured democratic opposition manages to form a single platform.
Paradoxically, the substantial current decline of Orbán’s approval rates stems from his astonishing success. He has built a political establishment totally subject to his personal control and reduced the legislature to a reliable rubber stamp.
Fidesz won 53 per cent of the vote in the last elections, cast in a 64 per cent turnout. By means of a quirk of the electoral law, this gave the party a two-thirds parliamentary majority. All the deputies of his party and even the state president and the chairman of the legislature have been chosen personally by Orbán. Consequently, they owe their loyalty to him rather than to the electorate.
In just over two years, this parliament has managed in a frenzy of legislation to disable the essential checks and balances of democratic control. No aspect of Orbán’s radical reform programme had been disclosed, let alone debated, before the elections. The centre-piece of the reform is a new constitution passed without cross-party consensus and already modified six times.
It shirks Hungary’s enduring culpability for the Holocaust and trivialises its significance by equating that crime against all humanity with the subsequent Soviet occupation. The constitution also drops the word ‘Republic’ from the official name of this country, leaving the door open for Orbán to crown himself king!
A long series of new laws and decrees exposes the press to prohibitive fines potentially issued at will at the hands of a committee of political appointees, emasculates the judiciary by replacing independent-minded judges by party hacks, and redraws the constituency boundaries to favour Fidesz. The administration has also challenged or undermined the independence and effectiveness of such essential institutions as the central bank and the office of the parliamentary ombudsman.
This is how the Financial Times has summed up the effect of the legislative and electoral reforms: ‘Together they bestow inordinate power on the ruling party. The prime minister can claim to have won the last election fairly. Now he is deploying a two-thirds majority in parliament to deny opponents the same possibility.’
But there is more. An effective change of administration under the new rules would be nearly impossible to establish because, even if another party were to win the elections, the existing Fidesz office-holders in charge of the key national institutions would continue to run the country. The reason: these executives have been appointed for terms ranging from six to nine years by law stipulating that they could be removed from office only by subsequent legislation requiring another two-thirds parliamentary majority.
Outside these institutions, Orbán’s extra-parliamentary power extends through cliental networks embracing the mass media, business, industry, agriculture, diaspora organisations, art and education funding, regional administration and, of course, the civil service.
Many of the key relationships in this informal maze of dependence were forged in the dying days of Soviet power. Its dominant participants then were among the brightest Communist cadres who learned how to secure for themselves and each other the choicest pieces from the disintegrating state structure. Today, they are the Hungarian oligarchs.
To survive, an autocratic, populist regime must focus the hostility of its outraged electorate on real or imagined enemies abroad. Orbán has thus declared a national ‘freedom struggle’, in the idealised spirit of the 1956 revolution, against such safe targets as the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and, of course, foreign correspondents – especially Lendvai.
All this has frightened away foreign investors. The three principal global credit rating agencies have responded by downgrading Hungary’s public debt to junk status. As a result, the state is now exposed to the mercies of the short-term commercial money markets to service its relentlessly mounting debt burden from loans carrying wildly unsustainable interest rates in the region of ten per cent.
Cheaper money may or may not be forthcoming from the IMF, which does not want to see Hungary go bankrupt for fear of fresh riots possibly fanned and exploited by the volatile neo-Nazis. But even then, the far right alone could never muster political control.
Charles Gati, the distinguished Hungarian-born American academic, is quoted by Lendvai as saying: ‘This country is no longer a Western-style democracy. It is an illiberal, or managed, democracy in the sense that all the important decisions are made by Orbán.’ George Kondád, the sociologist and best-selling novelist and Lendvai’s lifelong comrade in the struggle to build a liberal democracy here, shrugs that despite all the efforts since the collapse of Communism, Hungary, to him, has remained ‘a junk country with a junk administration and a junk prime minister’. Lendvai grimly states: ‘In my view, there is nothing to suggest that the Orbán regime could be seriously threatened [at the polls] by the Left in the foreseeable future.’
Lendvai despairs, but I do not. For the tyrants of the modern world tend to survive for any significant length of time only when protected by mighty domestic industrial infrastructures or by foreign interests – and Orbán enjoys no such support. He is in charge of a weak European economy surrounded by neighbours committed to integration with the mature Western democracies.
The Hungarian prime minister is a lonely, frail man driven by a fatal attraction to power and plagued by its attendant paranoia. His command structure is based on the unquestioning obedience of professional managers prepared to serve any cause or master. When Orbán inevitably succumbs to the intolerable, dual pressure exerted by the democratic opposition and the paranoia generated by his own style of administration, his painfully constructed edifice of control must collapse with him.
My parents never spoke to me about their past in Germany. My mother’s sister, I was told, died of liver failure when young. Yet her absence was always present. Suspicious, I started to delve. It took me the better part of 50 years to find her.
When I finally acquired my mother’s papers, I ‘discovered’ that Anna, as I shall call her, had been in a mental hospital in the 1930s and, in about 1940, had been sent to Posnan in Poland, where she had ‘unfortunately died’. This, I was to discover, was the lie that the authorities at the Brandenburg euthanasia centre told most victims’ families and, significantly, the presiding court authorities. Actually, Anna was gassed at the Brandenburg killing centre in July 1940.
The 70,000 victims of the Nazi euthanasia programme - T4 Aktion in Nazi-speak - and the programme itself have received relatively little publicity either in Germany or Britain (see Anthony Grenville, ‘(Mis)understanding the Holocaust’, AJR Journal, May 2011). The programme, an extension of the sterilisation programme, itself a product of the German medical profession’s longstanding interest in genetics, was intended to ‘purify German blood’. Ninety-nine per cent of the T4 victims were deemed mentally subnormal. (One example was of a woman considered a touch slovenly over her housework.) The T4 programme was the first to gas its victims.
These are some of the forgotten victims of Nazi barbarism. There are many reasons for this. Few have chosen to campaign for the T4 victims, in comparison, for example, with the murdered Jews. Many families still prefer not to (or even no longer do) remember what happened to their long-ago, ‘not-quite-right’ relatives. Moreover, almost none of the doctors and nurses who had administered and taken part in the T4 programme were sacked post-Nazism: they in turn appointed people in their own ideological mould to succeed them.
There is another reason. Finally, in 2011 there was a memorial for the 7,000 murdered at Brandenburg and, for the first time in Germany, a book of the dead has been published. For this purpose, Astrid Ley and others had to go to court to win permission to release names held under the so-called rules of patient and doctor confidentiality. It is a crucial precedent.
I attended the commemoration in Brandenburg in September. I stood close to the ground where Anna was gassed. As I crunched over the gravel and dust where the prison and killing unit had stood, I thought: Here lie Anna’s ashes. The good citizens of Brandenburg had protested at all the smoke emanating from that long chimney, which worried the administrators of the T4 programme, who wanted their activities well concealed. So, some time after Anna's incineration the corpses were burnt elsewhere.
At the beginning of the T4 programme, it was ability to work which determined whether you lived or died. But between April and July 1940 the criteria changed to whether or not the patient was ‘Jewish’. The medical profession (who had the highest membership of the Nazi Party of any occupational group) had, during the Weimar Republic, increasingly defined the Jews as a threat to the German race. Of those murdered at Brandenburg, 10 per cent were Jewish. (In the Reich as a whole, the percentage of Jews was 0.8, in Berlin 3.8. Thus the 10 per cent figure both reveals not only the disproportionate number of Jews killed but also the fact that, as opposed to common mythology, most of the T4 victims were not Jewish.) It has not been established who took the decision to ‘prioritise’ the Jewish patients but it marks one of the first instances of systematised murder on the basis of being Jewish.
For anybody interested in the euthanasia programme, in particular in Brandenburg, the first and one of the key killing centres, I strongly recommend The ‘Euthanasia Institution’ at Brandenburg an der Havel: Murder of the Ill and Handicapped during National Socialism (edited by Astrid Ley and Annette Hinz-Wessels, Metropol Verlag, 2012, in English and German), which accompanies the Brandenburg memorial exhibition and from which I have drawn some of the above data. I would also like to thank Dr Ley for helping me to find my aunt.
The Bible Lands Museum, situated opposite the Israel Museum, houses a broad range of archeological artefacts from all over the ancient Near East. In accordance with the vision of its founder, the late Eli Borovsky, it refers to the various cultures of the ancient Near East, each of which contributed to modern history and culture.
The Museum also seeks to foster co-operation and understanding between the cultures of the region, focusing particularly on promoting interaction between Jewish and Muslim cultures. To this end it has established a number of educational projects, some of them funded by Israel’s administrative institutions, others by outside donors, but all of them with the same objective.
One fine September morning I met with the Museum’s spokesperson, Anat Sella, together with Ragheda Kashkush, the energetic young lady from East Jerusalem who heads the Image of Abraham project, to learn about the Museum’s educational work.
‘Abraham, whom the Muslims know as Ibrahim, is the common ancestor of both peoples,’ Ragheda explained. ‘This is the aspect we try to emphasise when we bring classes of ten-year-olds from both religions together for the joint activities that the programme involves.’
The programme, which has been running for 16 years, combines a class from a school in East Jerusalem with one from West Jerusalem once a week for a four-hour session of learning about the ancient cultures of the region, interacting with one another, and working together on projects involving games, study and handicrafts. Each class undergoes several preparatory sessions in which facilitators from the Museum go to the schools and, in co-operation with the class teachers, prepare the children in their own language for participation in the project. Part of the preparatory activity involves providing each child with a bilingual Arabic-Hebrew phrasebook, thereby enabling some elementary communication.
Each week the children are divided into three groups comprising both Arabs and Jews, with two facilitators in each group, in addition to the class teacher and an accompanying parent, to ensure that the activities are conducted in both languages. Despite initial hesitancy, the children learn to co-operate as they tour the galleries, build models, prepare projects and undertake tasks. When the children have a break to eat the food they have brought from home they are encouraged to share with children from the other group. One of the meetings involves baking pittot, the traditional round bread that is widespread throughout the Middle East today.
With 60 children per project, at four projects a year, approximately 240 children participate in the project annually. Over the course of 16 years, almost 4,000 children have taken part at some point, and many of them are now adults. That is a tremendous achievement and constitutes a bold step towards building mutual respect and understanding between the two nations. The programme stresses the shared heritage and similarities as well as the differences between Judaism and Islam.
At the end of the course a joint meeting is held, together with all the parents from both sides. Everyone is given a tour of the Museum, and the participants in the programme prepare models or projects that can be displayed in their schools, as well as putting on performances for the parents. Refreshments are served, and entertainment is provided, often involving joint sing-alongs or drumming groups.
A new project, aimed at providing a similar programme for slightly older children, is currently being prepared, and it is hoped that this will be launched later this year.
Although no statistics are available, the organisers of the programme are convinced that the attitudes of both sets of children, as well as of their teachers and parents, are vastly improved as a result of their participation. In addition, many of the children are able to learn about the history of their own culture and experience a museum in a positive and constructive way.