Bringing Religion Back into Focus

Paul Hanebrink, In Defense of Christian Hungary: Religion, Nationalism, and Antisemitism, 1890-1944 (2006)

Paul Hanebrink’s book reassess the role of religion in nation building and, more specifically, in the growth of anti-Semitism and fascism in Hungary through the end of WWII. As he recounts interwar history, he clearly and convincingly describes how Hungarians defined their nation in terms of Christianity and tried to exclude non-Christian influences, which explains the indifference to the plight of the Jews by the Hungarian Church in WWII. (3) With this focus on religion, Hanebrink differentiates himself from other historians, who, he argues, treat religion as marginal to political developments. (2) They argue that political leaders used religion to legitimize their political power. (2-3)

A good example in Hanebrink’s book of Hungarians redefining their nation along religious lines is Gyula Szekfu, whose book Three Generations and What Came Afterward united and influenced Hungarian nationalists. Szekfu argued, according to Hanebrink, that 19th century Hungarians had abandoned Hungarian traditions for “foreign liberalism.” (118) As a result, foreign influences such as Jewish social and cultural values crept into Hungary and steered the nation away from modernity into disaster towards “war and revolution.” (118) For Szekfu, then, the foundations of the Hungarian nation were not with foreign, liberal influence; they were with supposed medieval bonds to Catholicism and Germany. (188). Considering Szekfu’s influence, one can understand the direction Hungary took in the Interwar years.

I like Hanebrink’s approach to religion. Certainly, any history of interwar Hungary or Central Europe must address the connections between religion, anti-Semitism, and fascism. After all, if religion were only a marginal issue, why were so many Jews killed and why in such heinous ways? Hanebrink includes much detail about the reaction of churches to the growth of the political Right both in Hungary and in Germany. For instance, he discusses Catholic leaders, who adopted fascist politics both to stop priests from joining the fascists and for political expediency. (159)

Finally, I should stress that In Defense of Christian Hungary is a well organized book and made it easier for me to understand Hungarian history. It is interesting to compare Hanebrink with Peter Sugar, whose book A History of Hungary was one of the national histories we could read for our September 13th class. Sugar’s book covers the whole of Hungarian history and lapses into basically chronological lists of events and people. There is so much detail that I had to reread sections regularly, especially on 19th and 20th century politics, to keep track of what happened. Hanebrink’s book, however, made following Hungarian history easier, because he revolved events around changes in religion, and there was a definite trajectory of events. I now feel I understand 19th and 20th century Hungarian politics much better.

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