09/29/2015 12:48 pm ET Updated Sep 28, 2016

Denying the Past and the Refugee Crisis: Hungary and Germany

Individuals, groups, or nations that greatly harm others usually do all that is possible to avoid acknowledging their responsibility. They deny what they have done or claim that their actions were necessary self-defense. As a result, they don't look at themselves, consider the roots of their actions, and attempt to change.

The best known example is Turkey's denial of the genocide of the Armenians. In Rwanda, where I have worked for many years on reconciliation, the former victim group, the Tutsis, rule the country. The genocide has been extensively explored, with justice processes that are important for reconciliation. But Tutsis killing probably between 200,000 and 300,000 Hutu civilians has not been acknowledged. It is never mentioned in the public domain.

Avoidance and denial result in a perpetrator group retaining some of the culture and characteristics that led to its actions. It is one likely root of Hungary's behavior in response to the influx of refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries. The refugees did not plan to stay in Hungary, but after arduous journeys, often of hundreds of miles, hoped to move on to Germany and other West European countries. Hungary stopped them from boarding trains. Police surrounded them and kept them around one of the train stations in Budapest. Some were told they would be taken to the border, but their train took them to a camp. After days under extremely uncomfortable conditions around the station, many started to walk toward Austria. Perhaps in response to news broadcasts around the world showing huge numbers of men, women, and children marching, Hungary provided buses to take them to the border.

Then the Hungarian parliament passed a law that people entering the country illegally can receive a three year prison sentence. It also authorized the use of rubber bullets and tear gas against migrants. The Hungarians also built a fence with razor wire. At a border crossing with Serbia, the hundreds of refugees gathered there were not allowed entry. Some got impatient, started to throw stones. The large group of Hungarian police on the other side of the border responded with tear gas, water cannons, and when some managed to enter through a gate, beating the refugees with batons, breaking skulls.

Why did Hungary stop people escaping war from passing through to the West? Were Hungarians reminded of the invasion and occupation by Turkey in the 14th and 15th centuries?
The Hungarian Prime Minister said "The migrants are not only banging on our doors but they are breaking them down. ....even millions besiege the borders of Hungary and the European Union." Did Hungarians imagine themselves the saviors of Europe, as they did once upon a time, stopping the Muslim hordes from entering? Or not engaging with and recently even denying their role in the Holocaust, have they not faced up to their prejudice toward "others"?

In recent times the government and a strong right wing movement represented by the Jobbik party (derived from jobb--both to the right, and better) in Parliament, have been portraying Hungary in WW II as a victim of Germany, and the killing of about 500,000 Jews as the responsibility of Germany alone. In 2014 the government had a large statue built in central Budapest, with a Germanic eagle engulfing the angel Gabriel representing Hungary. When I visited the site last year as it was being built, there were signs and written statements around it protesting the statue, mostly presumably not only by survivors of the Holocaust.

Hungary was an ally of Germany in the war. The conventional wisdom is that it hoped that Germany would help it recover territories it lost in WWI. But its attitude toward Jews was congenial to Nazi policies. Hungary passed an anti-Jewish law in 1920, limiting the admission of Jews to universities, before anyone had heard about Hitler.

In early 1944, the ruler of Hungary, Miklos Horthy, believing that the war was lost, tried to arrange a separate peace with the allies. The Germans found out and occupied Hungary in March 1944. During that summer, Adolf Eichman, 50 SS men, and about 200,000 Hungarian police, Gendarmes, and volunteers, the former acting on government orders, rounded up over 450,000 Hungarian Jews from the countryside, packed them in crowded wagons, and sent them to Auschwitz. In October, the Hungarian Nazi party, the Arrow Cross, took power. Its members gathered up Jews from the streets of Budapest and took them to the Danube. Sometimes they shot them, sometimes they tied several together, shot one or two, and pushed them into the river.

Hungary did not have an easy time under communist rule and Soviet dominance. But that ended 25 years ago. Not acknowledging the past has a role in the upsurge of both anti-semitism, and strong anti-Roma (gypsy) sentiments, not only private but also public, in statements by intellectuals, right-wing politicians, and the media. The government presumably does not want to alienate the many people who hold such sentiments and does nothing about it, or worse, shares those sentiments.

Germany, which has been accepting very large numbers of refugees, is a rare exception that has faced its past. This awareness and acceptance of responsibility have been progressive, and the result of many forces. As allied troops entered Germany and discovered the extermination camps, Eisenhower ordered that Germans living around the camps come and see the evil their country perpetrated, the huge numbers of dead bodies, the emaciated survivors. At the Nuremberg trials, where the top leaders of Nazi Germany were tried, thousands of documents and extensive film footage of atrocities were presented, from the meticulous records that the Nazis themselves produced. Under occupation by the Western allies for a number of years, West Germany also established a well-functioning democracy.

Still, in 1987 when I gave a lecture at the University of Trier about the origins of genocides, a professor of education said, "But since Jews have been persecuted at many places, isn't it the case that something must be wrong with them?" I also met then with a large group of German students to learn what they knew about the Holocaust. It was mainly Turkish residents of Germany who went to a special school who knew its history. The German students argued about the exact number of Jews killed, seemingly avoiding the question of why, of responsibility.

Since then many memorials have been built, Holocaust Museums created, so that the German public has been further exposed to the past. Awareness of and genuine engagement with the harm one has caused and empathy for victims can lead to openness to new suffering and working to make others' lives better.

Ervin Staub is Professor of Psychology Emeritus and Founding Director of the doctoral program in the Psychology of Peace and Violence at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. His most recent book, published in March 2015, is The roots of goodness and resistance to evil: inclusive caring, moral courage, altruism born of suffering, active bystandership and heroism. His last book before that is the award winning Overcoming evil: Genocide, violent  conflict and terrorism, published in 2011.