Vichy and Budapest under the swastika – a comparison

Contrary to a reading of the German occupation of Europe and the history of the Shoa as one linear process, one can explain the mechanism of extermination as full of contradictions and pragmatic decisions held together by the leitmotiv of the national socialist ideology. The initial German preference for moderate forces in Croatia after the invasion of Yugoslavia instead of the Ustaše as well as the support for Antonescu in Romania instead of the Iron Guard are examples of this policy. Likewise, the history of the Shoa in France and Hungary is one of immense contradictions. Both countries became part of the German sphere of influence, but under somewhat different conditions: While France was divided into two zones after the German invasion with a neutral and sovereign state in the unoccupied south, Hungary became officially part of the Tripartite Pact in November 1940, gained territories of its neighbours from 1938 to 1941 thanks to its proximity to Berlin and joined the German attacks on Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. In terms of both states’ policy towards the “Jewish question”, the two countries dealt in a very different way with the German demand for the deportation of the Jewish population. While the Hungarian government refused to hand over the Hungarian Jews, despite its antisemitic laws and an intense “homegrown” antisemitism, the French government accepted the German demands and deported non-French Jews from the southern, unoccupied zone to the North, from where they were sent to Auschwitz, despite the long French tradition of Jewish emancipation and liberal democracy.

In the following, these seeming contradictions shall be analysed based on the question of the background of the decisions made by the two governments. Therefore, this essay focuses on the time before the occupation of the French southern zone in November 1942 and Hungary in 1944, respectively. Since the decisions of the two unoccupied governments shall be compared, the focus will thus be on the deportations from the French south rather than on the roundups in northern France, although they were organised by the French police as well. In the first part of the essay, the long-term ideological backgrounds, especially the nature of antisemitism in both countries before and after the First World War, will be examined. Based on this background, in the second part specific documents will be analysed in order to determine the scope of action of the two governments. The primary sources are documents from the German Foreign Office and the German occupation authorities in France. Robert Paxton has shown in his sensational book “La France de Vichy”[1] that the use of German documents can be a sufficient and even revealing source-base for an analysis of the history of the participation of an allied government in the extermination of the Jewish population. Still, we have to take into account that the solely German perspective has its limits; since the analysis is about the negotiations, though, they tell us enough about the decisions the two governments took.

The comparison between France and Hungary reveals the importance of the connection between the different long-term history of Antisemitism and Jewish Emancipation and the antisemitic policies in the Second World War in each state. Also, a comparison between the two countries shows the possibilities the German allies had under its predominance and the alternative decisions they took.

To begin with, the two countries developed a different definition of Jewish citizenship in the 19th century. In France, enlightened circles were pressing for the Jewish emancipation already by the 1780s.[2] The French revolution then made France the first European country to grant Jews “full political, legal, and social equality, eliminating all former barriers to their participation in every aspect of life”[3] in 1790 and 1791. Emancipation, from Enlightenment perspective, should strip Jews of their Jewish identity and make them socially and culturally indistinguishable from other – Christian – citizens. During the 19th century the French state held to the “civic definition of membership of the French nation state”[4]. This situation made Jewish life flourish and the new Jewish citizens believe in and feel part of the republic.

In Hungary, by contrast, the emancipation of Jews was not the result of a revolutionary idea, but closely linked to the political situation of the Habsburg Dual Monarchy. Since ethnic Magyars made up only about half of the population of Transleithania, the Magyar leadership welcomed the largely voluntary Magyarization of Jews. In their eyes, Jewish emancipation served the national cause, “both as enthusiastic new members of the Magyar nation and as the group with the most capability for modernizing the Hungarian economy”[5]. Hence the two definitions differed from the beginning on: While France regarded Jews who committed to the republic as full members of the democratic, political unity (in absence of a national question), emancipation in Hungary became a weapon in the conflict between the Magyar leadership and the ethnic minorities in the Hungarian half of the dual monarchy and a means of modernizing the economy. This rather pragmatic approach to the “Jewish question” in Hungary we will find again later in the interwar-period and the Second World War.

The history of antisemitism in both countries took a quite different course. In France, the Dreyfus-Affair is certainly the most important incident in this respect. It occurred in a time when, beginning in the 1880s, antisemitism grew due to the catastrophic military defeat against the Prussian army, a fundamental constitutional change and a Europe-wide economic depression. The arrest and accusation of treason and espionage for the German enemy of the Alsatian Jew Alfred Dreyfus became the perfect occasion for all opponents of the Third Republic and the liberal state in general to express their criticism. In their minds, all Jews were in the enemy camp because of their mentioned gratitude to the Republic. Yet, his final triumph in 1906 discredited antisemitism in France for the next two decades.[6] In a broader perspective, however, Dreyfus and with him all French Jews became a symbol of a rational, Enlightenment and republican modernity.[7] This association then became important again in the 1930s, when a new wave of antisemitism, caused to a big extent by the world economic crisis, was linked to anticommunism. In this mood, a strong chauvinistic attitude emerged, which was directed not only against Jews. Still, orthodox Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who often only spoke Yiddish were the most visible among the 2,45 million foreigners in France in 1935.[8] The Jewish and socialist head of the Popular Front government, Leon Blum, finally became the symbol of the failure of the republican, capitalist system for all opponents of the liberal state. The phoney war then entailed an increase in antisemitic expressions. “For many, the foreigners and the Jews in general, had dragged France into a hopeless and unnecessary war for personal reasons.”[9]

In Hungary, the First World War was a true watershed in the history of antisemitism. Although one of the first antisemitic movements occurred in Hungary in the 19th century, before 1914 the government considered antisemitism “an attack on one of the central pillars of the Magyar national cause”[10] and thus challenged it. The situation worsened dramatically after the war and Béla Kun’s short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic, in which Jews had played an important role and which was associated with Jewish Marxism by its opponents after its suppression by the Romanian army and Horthy’s counter-revolutionary forces. What is more, in post-Trianon Hungary the Jews were no longer needed to achieve a Magyar majority since Budapest did not rule the former national minorities of the Habsburg monarchy any more. Instead, the “community of interest” was now based most of all on economic terms.[11] The association of the Jewish population with the “national enemy”, Bolshevism, explains the first antisemitic law enacted in the 20th century, an anti-Jewish Numerus Clausus. Yet, the next antisemitic laws started only in 1938, when the proportion of Jewish employees in certain professions was reduces to 20 per cent.[12] A second law in 1939 went even further and provided for the removal of Jews from the public service by means of an exacerbated quotation of twelve or six percent for certain professions and an even stricter Numerus Clausus of six percent. A third law prohibited marriage between Jews and non-Jews in 1941.[13] In the justification of this law the government stated for the first time the aim of “racial purity of the Hungarian Nation” and expressed the will to segregate Jews from the rest of society. In addition, it contained an extension of the definition of the term “Jew”.[14] This third law was, as the second one to an extent, without doubt based on German pressure.[15]

These laws and the general emergence of antisemitism was one part of a political radicalisation and the rise of fascism in the 1930s following the economic crisis and the fall of agrarian prices, which hit the still predominantly rural society of Hungary particularly hard.[16] Different national socialist parties like the Arrow Cross movement used this situation to explain Hungary’s problems with their antisemitic propaganda and received together about 25 percent in the 1939 election.[17] The antisemitic laws were often justified by politicians as countering this wide-spread antisemitism. What is more, the radicalisation expressed in the three antisemitic laws was part of the rapprochement with Nazi-Germany, which was seen as the power able and willing to re-draw the borders of central Europe in favour of Hungary.[18]

This brings us to the second part of our analysis, the two different relations to Germany culminating in the two varying reactions to the German exterminatory policy. In both cases it is important to state that the antisemitism which made the exclusion of the Jewish population possible was not imported from Germany, but had its own roots. Also, however, in both cases the governments did not share the German exterminatory antisemitism[19], their final aim was not the complete and systematic extermination of all European Jews, although both governments played their part in this process. Still, the situation of Vichy differed in many respects. The disastrous defeat against the Germans explains the need for a scapegoat, which was found in the “decadence” of the Third Republic and the Jews who were, as shown above, associated with the liberal, Enlightened, republican modernity by its opponents who came to power in 1940. Besides, the French government in Vichy dealt with a different military situation than rather autonomous Hungary: although the south was not occupied by the Germans, the threat to do so remained. In addition, the French POWs in Germany were a means of pressure and a remainder of the German supremacy. Yet, the first antisemitic laws were passed without any direct German pressure.[20] Some of them were not directed at Jews only, but at foreigners in general, like a “law limiting employment in the public sector to individuals born of French fathers”[21]. Vichy also annulled two pre-war laws with serious consequences for Jews living in France: a liberal naturalisation law of 1927 and a decree from 1939 which had prohibited attacks in the press “based on race or religion”[22]. In October 1940 a “Statut des Juifs” followed these measures which defined the term “Jew” and excluded Jews from public service, the army and other important professions like journalism. “The timing suggests that the statute had been in preparation well before the publication of the German decrees. The surprising priority awarded to the ‘Jewish question’ cannot be explained as a result of direct German pressure.”[23] In the following, Vichy issued “26 laws and 24 decrees on the Jews”.[24] Most importantly, in July 1941 a census was ordered in the southern zone. “This was a breach with the Republican tradition confining questions of religion and ethnic origin to the private sphere; it had grave consequences when Jews started to be rounded up in 1942.”[25] These laws, in a broader perspective, are a perfect example of the initially mentioned contradictions of the Vichy policy: their definition of the term “Jew” was even more radical than the German one, but, “unlike the Germans, [they] allowed some people to escape the full consequences of its anti-Semitic policy”.[26] Another example is the yellow badge, which was not introduced in the south despite the German demand to do so.

Without these laws, the deportation of foreign, non-French Jews from the southern zone would not have been possible. The negotiations preceding the handing over of 41,951 Jews in 1942 started already in 1941. A report of a meeting between the German military commander of France, Otto von Stülpnagel, and the new “Commissioner-General for Jewish Questions” of Vichy, Xavier Vallat, on 5 April 1941 shows the still sceptical attitude of the French government towards a deportation, since, as Vallat stated, “there were few countries left which were willing to receive Jews.” He advocates the French autonomy by presenting the intensified anti-Jewish guidelines Pétain instructed him to elaborate. What is more, one can see the distinctions Vichy made between different groups of Jews: Vallat tried to justify the exception of some 6000-7000 bereaved of world war combatants from the anti-Jewish measures. Since the French people would interpret such an act as German pressure against war veterans, it would be better to leave them alone and advance on the other Jews “all the more radical”.[27] The willingness of the French government to deport Jews from the south then seems to have changed in less than a year. A document from February 1942 cites a German consul general, Krug von Nidda, who believed that the French would even provide Jews from the south if there were clear proposals. Von Nidda also is quoted as believing the French government would be happy to get rid of the “the Jews” in any way after many talks with French politicians, among them François Darlan.[28] This shows that there were talks about this issue between German and French authorities, but on the same time it proves that inside the French leadership intentions had changed.

A document from September 1942 referring back to talks in May even shows that René Bousquet, secretary general of the Vichy police, asked Heydrich in a meeting about the deportation of Jews form the northern zone if also stateless Jews from the south could be deported, which was refused because of transportation difficulties.[29] In July 1942, finally, two documents show the distinction Vichy made between “foreign” and “French” Jews. In the first one, Bousquet tells several SS-officers the preference of his government to deport the foreign Jews “at first”. As the Germans accepted this, he agreed to arrest a number of foreign Jews in the whole of France which was determined by the Germans.[30] In a second one, Laval is quoted as having accepted this deal. In addition, he proposed to deport the children under 16 years together with their parents. “The question of Jewish children (“Judenkindern”) remaining in the occupied part does not interest him.”[31] This shows that the distinction must not be overrated: many of these children had become French citizens at birth and are thus, by definition, not foreign.[32]

These documents show that the French government acted without direct German pressure and even in part on their own initiative. At this point, the French definition of citizenship may help us understand these – contradictory – decisions: The antisemite Vichy-leadership still stuck to the old idea that Jews could be part of the nation by assimilation, rather than stripping all Jews of the French citizenship, although it changed it to a system of different grades of citizenship in which Jews were strongly discriminated against and could not be part of the state apparatus. Foreign Jews Vichy did not care about and handed them over to the Germans, although it has to be remarked that Vichy, although aware of the horrible conditions these people were sent to, probably did not know that their extermination was the final aim of the Germans, at least not when the deportations started.[33] The case of the French children, however, shows the limits of this explanation.

In the Hungarian case, the negotiations had a different frame. Since the country was a German ally, there were no occupation authorities. Besides, unlike in the case of Slovakia, Bulgaria and Rumania, the independent governments in Budapest refused to accept a German “Judenberater” in their country. Therefore, the negotiations about the deportation of the Hungarian Jews took place via the diplomatic channels. The following documents show the attempt of the Hungarian government to avoid the deportation of their Jewish population to the Germans. In the record of a talk between the Hungarian legate, Döme Sztójay, and Martin Luther, a central figure of the Jewish policy of the German Foreign Office, on 6 October 1942, the latter suggested further measures against the Hungarian Jews in and outside Hungary, most importantly the introduction of the yellow badge, as well as deportations. Sztójay’s reaction was rather sceptical. He wanted to know if the measures against Jews living in Germany and the occupied territories applied for Italian Jews as well. Since Luther assured him this would be the case he agreed. In the case of deportations, however, Sztójay stated that it would be very difficult to deport all Jews because of their large number. Also he asked Luther if the Jews would have “further existence” after the “evacuation to the East”, since his prime minister was very interested in this question and there would be rumours that unsettled him. Luther’s answer that the Jews would live in a “Jewish preserve” seem to have calmed him.[34] Although Sztójay gave in to the German pressure in the case of Hungarian Jews living abroad at this meeting, both this issue and the deportations remained points of conflict. In fact, Sztójay protested in dozens of note verbales against the deportation of Hungarian Jews living abroad to the extermination camps.[35]

The record of a talk between the prime minister, Miklós Kállay, and the German legate in Budapest a few days later reveals the insistence to deal with the “Jewish question” independently, since it would be a domestic issue. He referred to an antisemitic speech he held recently and again to the vast number of the Jews as an obstacle to remove them.[36] The sovereignty of Hungary in this issue we can find in another document as well, a letter from the Hungarian legation in Berlin, where, interestingly, economic reasons were stated which made a removal of the Jews from Hungary impossible. The legation even claimed the removal of all Jews from the economy would be against German interests since 80 percent of the Hungarian economy was working for the German war effort. Also, the yellow badge could not be introduced because it would jeopardize the social and lawful order.[37] The last analysed document from December 1942 shows the delaying game Budapest played. Kállay telled von Jagow again he would soon have an answer for him, but the situation would be more difficult in Hungary than in other countries. The government even had to show consideration for the parliament where rumours about the “treatment of the Jews in the East” were discussed.[38] Indeed, Hungary had a functioning parliament until the German occupation in 1944, in which even social democrats participated. Maybe this played a part in the decision-making. In France, by contrast, there could be no open discussion about the deportations, which were decided by the dictatorship.

The obvious contradiction between the antisemitic laws passed between 1938 and 1941 and this policy towards the Germans may be explained by both the long-term, rather pragmatic and economic relationship between the Hungarian state and its Jewish inhabitants shown above and the military situation of the war which increasingly seemed to develop in the disadvantage of Germany. After the fall of fascism in Italy and the defeat of the Hungarian army at the Don in 1943, Kállay’s government made serious considerations of how to leave the axis powers and the war.[39] In this situation, it was considered better to stop all further antisemitic measures to have a better stand in negotiations with the Western Allies.

To conclude, one thing seems clear: the cultural or civilizational split of Western and Eastern Europe fails in the explanation of the different reactions of Budapest and Vichy to the German demands. To give an exact answer in this history of contradictions seems quite difficult. The Vichy government built its legitimacy among others on the exclusion of the Jewish population from the public life, but it did not strip all of them of their citizenship, i.e. it did not completely change the relationship between the state and the Jews, but it made them to second class citizens and, for the first since the revolution and emancipation, defined and counted them based on their “difference” from Christian French. In the talks with the Germans it offered the Jews it did not care for at all and which did not even match this definition since they were foreign. In Hungary, by contrast, the old basic (economic) relationship between State and Jews also remained intact, but – as in France – Jews became more and more second class citizens. The Hungarian government(s) did not radicalise itself enough (maybe because it was no full scale dictatorship) to made the final step towards deportation. It’s higher degree of independence from Germany made it possible to hold out the radical German antisemites and its Hungarian national socialist allies until 1944.


Primary sources

  • Klarsfeld, Serge: Vichy – Auschwitz. Die “Endlösung der Judenfrage in Frankreich (Darmstadt: WBG, 2007).
    • XXIV-15: The German military commander in France; Administration office, Paris 05.04.1941.
    • LXXI-84: Zeitsche: Notes for legate Schleier, Paris 28.02.1942.
    • XXVI-40: File note, Paris 04.07.1942.
    • XLIX-35: Letter to the RSHA, Paris 06.07.1942.
  • „Akten zur deutschen auswärtigen Politik“. Serie E, Bd. III: 01.10.-31-12.1942.
    • 12, Berlin 06.10.1942.
    • 100, Berlin 27.10.1942.
    • 245, Berlin 02.12.1942.
    • 283, Paris 11.09.1942.

Secondary sources

Beller, Steven: Antisemitism. A Very Short Introduction, Second Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

Carsten, F. L.: The Rise of Fascism, Second Edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980).

Gerlach, Christian; Götz, Aly: Das letzte Kapitel. Realpolitik, Ideologie und der Mord an den ungarischen Juden 1944/1945 (Stuttgart: DVA, 2002).

Hanebrink, Paul A.: In defense of Christian Hungary. Religion, Nationalism, and Antisemitism, 1890-1944 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2006).

Jackson, Julian: France: The Dark Years, 1940-1944 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

Katzburg, Nathaniel: Hungary and the Jews. Policy and Legislaiton 1920-1943 (Ramat-Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press, 1981).

Marrus, Michael R. and Paxton, Robert O.: Vichy France and The Jews (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1995).

Paxton, Robert O.: La France de Vichy, Paris 1973; originally published as Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order (New York: Columbia University Press, 1972).

Ránki, György: Unternehmen Margarethe. Die deutsche Besetzung Ungarns (Budapest: Corvina Kiadó, 1978).

Temkin, Moshik: ‘Avec un certain malaise’: The Paxtonian Trauma in France, 1973-74, Journal of Contemporary History, 38(2) (2003), pp. 291-306.

Susan Zuccotti: The Holocaust, the French, and the Jews (New York: BasicBooks, 1993).

Vinen, Richard: The Unfree French. Life under the Occupation (London: Allen Lane, 2006).

[1] Paxton, Robert O.: La France de Vichy, Paris 1973; originally published as Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order (New York: Columbia University Press, 1972).

[2] Beller, Steven: Antisemitism. A Very Short Introduction, Second Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 25.

[3] Susan Zuccotti: The Holocaust, the French, and the Jews (New York: BasicBooks, 1993), p. 7.

[4] Beller: Antisemitism, p. 26.

[5] Ibid., p. 20.

[6] Zuccotti: The Holocaust, pp. 12-16.

[7] Beller: Antisemitism, pp. 23-24.

[8] Zuccotti: The Holocaust, pp. 24-25.

[9] Ibid., p. 41.

[10] Beller: Antisemitism, p. 20.

[11] Katzburg, Nathaniel: Hungary and the Jews. Policy and Legislaiton 1920-1943 (Ramat-Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press, 1981), p. 214.

[12] Gerlach, Christian; Götz, Aly: Das letzte Kapitel. Realpolitik, Ideologie und der Mord an den ungarischen Juden 1944/1945 (Stuttgart: DVA, 2002), p. 38.

[13] Ibid., pp. 46-48.

[14] Ibid., pp. 48-49.

[15] Katzburg: Hungary and the Jews, p. 218.

[16] Carsten, F. L.: The Rise of Fascism, Second Edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), p. 173.

[17] Hanebrink, Paul A.: In defense of Christian Hungary. Religion, Nationalism, and Antisemitism, 1890-1944 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2006), pp. 164-65.

[18] Ibid., p. 166.

[19] Marrus, Michael R. and Paxton, Robert O.: Vichy France and The Jews (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1995), p. xvii.

[20] Ibid., p. 5.

[21] Zuccotti: The Holocaust, p. 53.

[22] Ibid., p. 53.

[23] Ibid., p. 56.

[24] Jackson, Julian: France: The Dark Years, 1940-1944 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 356.

[25] Ibid., pp. 356-57.

[26] Vinen, Richard: The Unfree French. Life under the Occupation (London: Allen Lane, 2006), p. 141.

[27] Doc. XXIV-15: The German military commander in France; Administration office, Paris 05.04.1941, in Klarsfeld, Serge: Vichy – Auschwitz. Die “Endlösung der Judenfrage in Frankreich (Darmstadt: WBG, 2007), pp. 387-389.

[28] Doc. LXXI-84: Zeitsche: Notes for legate Schleier, Paris 28.02.1942, In: Klarsfeld: Vichy, pp. 400-01.

[29] Doc. 283, Paris 11.09.1942, in „Akten zur deutschen auswärtigen Politik“, Serie E, Bd. III: 01.10.-31.12.1942.

[30] Doc. XXVI-40: File note, Paris 04.07.1942, in Klarsfeld: Vichy, pp. 422-425.

[31] Doc. XLIX-35: Letter to the RSHA, Paris 06.07.1942, In Klarsfeld: Vichy, pp. 427-28.

[32] Zuccotti: The Holocaust, p. 99.

[33] Zuccotti: The Holocaust, pp. 100-01.

[34] Doc. 12 („Notes of Unterstaatssekretär Luther“), Berlin 06.10.1942, in ADAP, E III, 01.10.-31.12.1942.

[35] Gerlach; Aly: Das letzte Kapitel, p. 81.

[36] Doc. 100 (“The legate in Budapest von Jagow to the Foreign Office”), Berlin 27.10.1942, in ADAP, E III, 01.10.-31.12.1942.

[37] Doc. 245 (“The Hungarian legation in Berlin to the Foreign Office”), Berlin 02.12.1942, in ADAP, E III, 01.10.-31.12.1942.

[38] Doc. 250 („Notes of Unterstaatssekretär Luther“), Berlin 03.12.1942, in ADAP, E III, 01.10.-31.12.1942.

[39] Ránki, György: Unternehmen Margarethe. Die deutsche Besetzung Ungarns (Budapest: Corvina Kiadó, 1978), pp. 9-11.