“His anti-Semitic indictment could equally be a philo-Semitic apology” | Julius Szekfű, the structure of biblical prophecy and the belated generation

Károly Halmos

ORCID 0000-0001-6654-3671

Translated by David Evans

An earlier version of this paper was published in the Hungarian quarterly Korall (available online). Parts interesting only for the Hungarian audience were omitted from the English version. An earlier English version (supported by The Excellence research program at ELTE University, under the leadership of László Csorba: Community Building: Family and Nation, Tradition and Innovation) was presented as an Erasmus lecture at Duke University (November 13rd, 2019). The final version of this paper was supported by the research program „Political Economy of Literature” MTA–BTK Momentum Hungarian Literature Research Group. English translation: David Evans.


The goal of the paper is to analyze Szekfű’s work as a speech act and to identify (a) the elements of prophesying in the historical-political (historisch-politisch – Ranke) essay of Gyula Szekfű and (b) the targeted readership of the book as if one tried to conclude from the features of a supplied product to the demand of the targeted buyers.

Introductory remarks

To start with the moral of any story, let us make some remarks on the present, that is, on what for earlier eras would become posterity.

Anti-Semitic clichés began to appear openly after 1989, confuting a belief that anti-Semitism disappeared during the Socialist Era and that anti-Semitism could only be related to right-wing political extremism.

In fact, anti-Semitism was very much a political weapon in the Socialist countries. Many of those who were Jewish or of Jewish origin (even those who were members of the communist party) were aware of the presence of a propensity to anti-Semitic sentiments. There were campaigns against Jews in the USSR, for example, as well as in satellite countries such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Romania. In Socialist Hungary it was suppressed as an explicit political ideology, yet it was exercised in the form of an informal numerus clausus, or restriction on numbers, in professions like the civil (particularly the foreign) service and academic fields (especially medicine).

After the Iron Curtain fell, the term anti-Semitic was used extensively, and it became loaded with quite different meanings. With time, the term was used as an ultima ratio. As for the writing of history in Hungary, we can state that after 2010 the term started to become a weapon in non-professional debates among professional historians (e. g. the Gerő-Romsics debate).

This process brought chaotic consequences: some historians started to address others as (i) being anti-Semitic and using anti-Semitic idioms /stereotypes; (ii) using anti-Semitic stereotypes but not being anti-Semitic; (iii) being anti-Semitic in their use of non-conventional idioms (coded language). This was very harmful to professional standards in history. The term ‘anti-Semitic’ started to lose its meaning exactly at a time when there was a pressing need to understand interwar anti-Semitism.

How can one look back in a historical perspective to pre-WWII (i.e. pre-1938) anti-Semitism, knowing what happened in 1944/1945? To give but a few conflicting examples:

  • István Bibó (1911-1979), who served as an emblematic moral example for the democratic opposition from the 1970s onwards, was a proponent of Hungarian racism (fajvédelem) before the Second World War, but, as a racist, he argued that after the Jewish laws there was no need to continue the political campaign against the Jews. As he put it, the political targets should be those who used Anti-Semitic legislation for their own ends, who used the power of the state to get rid of their competitors.
  • László Ravasz (1882-1975), Calvinist bishop [and father-in-law of I. Bibó], declared himself anti-Semitic because he loved his Jewish neighbours so much that he wanted to convert them from their erroneous beliefs. Having earlier voted for the so-called Jewish Laws, during the Shoah he tried to organize the rescue of Jews.
  • István Hajnal (1892-1956), a founder of Hungarian social history, who, in the light of the most repressive, so-called 4th Jewish Law (article XV of 1942), declared in a professional journal that Jewish individuals “were not rassenbiologisch determined, morally disabled” beings but “people of complete value”. He unequivocally spoke of revoking the opportunities of the Jews and stated that this was not likely to be done without the suffering of Jewish individuals. On the other hand, he stressed that all the restrictions be put into effect without causing any harm to the dignity of the Jews.1
  • Julius Szekfű (1883-1955), whose oeuvre leads to regular debate as to whether or not he was anti-Semitic, was one of Hungary’s most influential historians. He could be described as a counterpart of Friedrich Meinecke (1862-1954) in Germany. They were both attracted to the example that Leopold von Ranke provided for historians – that of the princely historian. They did not take part directly in politics2 but did not refrain from exercising influence on the political class. Ranke established the Historisch-politische Zeitschrift, while Meinecke did not mind becoming a historical-political commentator. Szekfű also had an interest in this kind of public history. The first piece he wrote in this genre was a book on Francis II Rákóczi in exile – an essay nominally on a 18th-century warlord and prince of Hungary, the moral of which was a reference to Lajos Kossuth, one of the founders of modern Hungary. Both Meinecke and Szekfű expressed their opinions on each of the World Wars. Meinecke published Probleme des Weltkriegs. Aufsätze in 1917, Nach der Revolution. Geschichtliche Betrachtungen über unsere Lage in 1919, and Die deutsche Katastrophe. Betrachtungen und Erinnerungen in 1946. Concurrently, Szekfű wrote Der Staat Ungarn (1917), Három nemzedék (Three Generations) in 1920 and Valahol utat vesztettünk (How We Lost Our Way) in 1943-1944, as well as Forradalom után (After the Revolution) in 1947.

The most debated of Szekfű’s essays was Three Generations. His remarks on Jews reflect anti-Semitic stereotypes, but do not establish a coherent pattern of anti-Semitism. Therefore, it is worth investigating the rhetorical tactics and strategy of this work. If we want to get an overall picture, we must take a look at one of the author’s earlier works.

Der Staat Ungarn

During the First World War, Szekfű intended to write this book for the educated German audience in a series that had reportedly aimed to raise the political awareness of the learned public. The book was not an academic monograph: it only had a bibliography, but no footnotes. Its intentions were clear, however, while the wording was balanced and by no means excessive. (The explicit intention was – like Meinecke – to interpret history from the perspective of the maximum achievable level of national sovereignty.3) The book was critical of the constitutional arrangement of the Dual Monarchy and of Hungary’s economic resources. As for the country’s political institutions, he found that the greatest danger in political life was the nationality question. This was not a new idea: the political class had been afraid of the disintegrating forces represented by the nationalities of the Empire. It was the formulation of the cause that was unusual. Szekfű stated that the national question was dangerous because it was an ultima ratio, and as such it disabled rational political debate, which in the long run would corrupt political life.

As for the economic potential of Hungary, Szekfű identified two serious problems: firstly the economic inability of society to withstand the burden of its national culture, and secondly the fact that social integration could not keep up with the successful advance of the institutions of capitalism. True or not, these are rational arguments.

The book was later translated into Hungarian – for, as Szekfű later put it, a “rather narrow Hungarian audience”.

Three Generations

Three Generations is a story of 19th-century Hungarian liberalism from the Vormärz era to the end of the First World War. Later it was enhanced with the story of the interwar period. This history was described as a decline of liberal politics, with capitalism characterized by disproportionate Jewish economic power.

The book has since then been one of the most influential historical books in Hungary. This fact raises several questions. First and foremost: was it a piece of historical scholarship at all? One can easily check that the book does not meet academic standards. So the second question is: how can such a book have such an influence? But this question is a bit biased. The real question is what the book says about its presumed audience, and whether these presumptions correlate with our expectations of that audience. That is to say, we can expect a closer look at the book to gives us a nuanced view of Hungarian social history.

Non-Hungarian readers might still ask why they would pay attention to an unimportant historian from a small country on a faraway continent and his views of an important historian from that same country. I hope the way intellectual history will be connected to social history will arouse some interest. This connection will be made by attempting to interpret a twist in the narrative of the book. The twist is as follows: there is a certain discrepancy between the rhetoric and the logical structure of the book. The former emphasises the external factors facing the Hungarians, the latter the self-blaming objections that make the essence of the book. This is something that should be explained. Many commentators on Szekfű’s book have quite a problem interpreting the fact that Szekfű is operating with anti-Semitic stereotypes while the book itself is also critical of failures of the Hungarian national character. From a logical point of view, it is an either-or question.


In Der Staat Ungarn, as we have seen, Szekfű undertook a rational analysis of Hungarian history. Unlike this book, Three Generations has a much more expressive style. In a later, enhanced edition, the author tried to explain that this was because of a certain need for prophecy. This is of course an interpretation made with the benefit of hindsight, and one that may or may not be verifiable. Some try to understand it as a metaphor of the historian’s role, i.e., seeing the historian as a prophet of the past. The first edition of the book, however, does apparently not support the notion that the book was a kind of prophecy. What the book says of the author is that the narrator experienced a kind of Entzauberung (disenchantment), which is exactly the opposite of the prophetical attitude that is characterized by ecstasy:

  • laying on the ground unconscious, unclothed4;

Unconsciousness could be caused

  • by alcoholic drinks,5
  • by bawling and cutting themselves.6

These characterizations partly refer to the prophets of Baal – that is, to false prophets.

But there is another hint in the book, in the last words of the preface: “… salvavi animam meam”.7 These three Latin words could certainly be a simple rhetorical trick: flattery intended to win the goodwill of the reader. It implies that the narrator and the reader both understand Latin, i.e., are both in possession of what at the time was a key prerequisite for being a member of the establishment, and thereby suggests that they are peers. This could be the case, were it not for these three words. The phrase can be traced back to the prophet Ezekiel. And this opens a new perspective in understanding the text.

Before we continue, we must ask if all these references could be the product of conscious action on Szekfű’s part, whether they are merely there by chance, or if he merely wanted to hint at his Catholic roots. Firstly, we have to emphasize that Szekfű does not quote the full proverb (dixi et salvavi, etc), but only the second part. Rhetorically the dixi (‘I have spoken’) part is used to signal the end of an oratorical performance. And it does not even need to be a rhetorical act. Karl Marx concluded his unpublished comments on the programme of the German Social Democrats in this fashion in 1875. (The memorandum was made open to the public in 1891, some years after Marx’s death). The missing dixi puts the emphasis on the act of salvation. The unresolved question is whether Szekfű, a Catholic, had any opportunity to become acquainted with a part of the Old Testament.

Taking a look at the life of Julius Szekfű, we find that one of his favourite professors was Henrik Marczali. Marczali was from a rabbinical family. One of his important editions was the Historical Sources of Hungary’s Arpadian Era.8 In these medieval sources Ezekiel is mentioned, which is no wonder, because a biblical understanding of history was quite common in the Middle Ages (and afterwards, too).

To return to Ezekiel, the text of the prophecy that matches the Latin paraphrase is as follows:

However, if you have warned the righteous man that the righteous should not sin and he does not sin, he shall surely live because he took warning; and you have delivered yourself. [Ez 3,21]

The Book of Ezekiel builds a firm fundament for the prophecies:

Son of man, I have appointed you a watchman to the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from My mouth, warn them from Me. [Ez 3,17]

If we look at the life of the person who received the calling to be a watchman, we find interesting parallels with his 20th-century counterpart:

Table 1. Comparison of the available facts on the lives of Ezekiel and Julius Szekfű

sourceEzekielJulius Szekfű
BornEz 1,1622 BCE1883
LineageEz 1,3kohen (clerical)local elite (advocate) family
OccupationEz 1,3priest (intellectual)historian (intellectual)
Age at the start of his propheciesEz 1,13037
Location at the start of his careerEz 4-5Jerusalem (Capital city)Vienna (Imperial capital city)
Location at the start of his propheciesEz 1,3Babylon (exile)Budapest (intellectual periphery)
Family statusEz 24,18widowerchildless marriage
Characterization of his callingEz21,6-7making people lamenthope of self-healing from depression
Attitude to his audience
sometimes rude, scandalous, frosty“had contact neither with workers nor with peasants”

From now on we will learn what a prophet must do, and we will see how these exigencies work in the 20th-century text. The verses of Ezekiel are as follows:

Then He said to me, “Son of man, eat what you find; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel.” [Ez 3,1]

“For you are not being sent to a people of unintelligible speech or difficult language, but to the house of Israel,
nor to many peoples of unintelligible speech or difficult language, whose words you cannot understand. But I have sent you to them who should listen to you;
yet the house of Israel will not be willing to listen to you, since they are not willing to listen to Me. Surely the whole house of Israel is stubborn and obstinate. [Ez 3,5-7]9

There is a clear distinction between social strata in terms of education. This is the distinction Szekfű is also making, albeit not explicitly. In Der Staat Ungarn he was warning the educated middle class. (Although the book was also published in Hungarian, we must keep in mind that in this era the Hungarian upper middle class had at least a working knowledge of German.) In Three Generations (a book written only in Hungarian), he is turning to a new audience. Compared to the Latin text, this is a farewell to his educated readership. The target audience of Three Generations consists of those with “obscure lips”. In a sense they might be considered the remnants of society still able to console themselves.10

The sins condemned by Ezekiel were the lost purity of the sanctuary and the acceptance of foreign cults. It would not be far from the truth if we identified Szekfű’s rejection of foreign cultural elements with the scandalous style of Ezekiel. In order to make the audience accept the prophecy, the prophet should make use of his own fate, and interpret his personal suffering so as to make the prophecy more believable. The individual and his role should be inseparable – this is what is expected of today’s politicians, too.11 Being a prophet requires not only moral integrity but also political wisdom.12

There is a kind of doublespeak appearing here. There is an explicit identification of the goals: personal conviction and national commitment. Behind this lies the real comfort of the soul – the speech act (i.e., the book Three Generations itself) that is calling for commitment and obedience to the will of the Lord,

The ‘political’ character of prophecy requires the dislike of the rivals:

Then the word of the LORD came to me saying, “Son of man, prophesy against the prophets of Israel who prophesy, and say to those who prophesy from their own inspiration, ‘Listen to the word of the LORD!’” [Ez 13, 1-2]

In order for radical renewal the prophet must show the past to be disgusting:

Then you will remember your evil ways and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves in your own sight for your iniquities and your abominations. ‘I am not doing this for your sake,’ declares the Lord GOD, ‘let it be known to you. Be ashamed and confounded for your ways, O house of Israel!’ [Ez 36, 31-32]

This is what Szekfű did when he condemned the course of 19th-century Hungarian history, the history of an era of liberalism becoming widespread, of Jewish emancipation, and of growing urbanization. Szekfű spoke as if liberalism were corrupt, as if Jewish emancipation were Jewish expansion, and as if urbanization meant cultural decline. It is easy to see the ideological pattern. It is to be stressed that it is not only the pattern but also the narrative that matters. This is to say: had 19th-century Hungary been characterized by illiberalism, then Szekfű would have argued for liberalism, and so on.

This is because it is expected of a prophecy that it be effective [see: Ez 3, 21]. If not, the prophet will be considered to be a false one:

“Did you not see a false vision and speak a lying divination when you said, ‘The LORD declares,’ but it is not I who have spoken?” [Ez 13, 7]

As mentioned above, Szekfű is operating with anti-Semitic stereotypes, but the book itself is rather critical of perceived failures of the Hungarian national character, viz. that Hungarians are discordant among each other, are not disciplined, and fail to capitalize on their rich resources, giving up the field of commerce in favour of foreigners. This is a pattern that can be found in Ezekiel [Ez 16, 1-63, especially verses 16, 5-8, 13-15, 20-21, 29, 33, 38]; it is a type of Old Testament-based historical narrative quite familiar to Hungarians, one that can even be found in the Hungarian national anthem.13 The roles are given in the narrative (decay, moral deterioration, harlotry, and foreign lands and merchants taking advantage of careless and irresponsible behaviour); it is only the casting of these roles that is not determined. Jewish merchants were for Szekfű what the Chaldeans were for Ezekiel. For Ezekiel, however, foreigners are merely tools for Israel to perform the sins it is blamed for by God. Szekfű is not so explicit. It seems as if he was writing for his audience at two different levels.

Let us look more closely at the exigencies of a prophecy. What if the prophecy fails? Observing the story in reverse order, we have to conclude that Szekfű was a false prophet. This is something Szekfű had to face when he launched an enhanced edition of his work. Circumstances had changed dramatically. To understand this, we must make a short digression into Hungarian social history.

Digression 1: A short social history of Hungarian politics before the First World War and in the interwar period

The first half of the interwar period was characterized by a tendency towards economic and political consolidation. This was the so-called Bethlen era, after prime minister István Bethlen, who was in office for a decade. The Great Crisis was not only an industrial collapse and economic downturn but was also the beginning of a change in the course of Hungarian politics. In 1848 Hungary changed the basis of its political system from the corporative mandates to the Lower House of the Diet to the popular mandates to the House of Representatives of the Parliament. Measured in terms of individual votes, before 1848 about 2-3 per cent of the male population could vote, and this was more than doubled in that revolutionary year. Under the new system, votes were equal, but the franchise remained open, as before. The percentage of the electoral base was quite broad if compared to other countries in Europe at the time. This percentage, however, did not change during the forthcoming decades in Hungary as part of the Habsburg Empire. Voting was based on several criteria and these criteria were disadvantageous for the population on the mountainous fringe of the country, that was usually more underdeveloped than the plain or the gently hilly central part of Hungary. As a matter of fact, non-Magyar ethnic groups, quite a few of which were not of a Western Christian religious denomination, were very much overrepresented in the mountainous areas. (This is what Szekfű referred to in Der Staat Ungarn as an intoxicating factor.) Seven decades were spent bribing the political electorate rather than trying to acquire the political techniques that a general electoral franchise would demand. As the electoral base was still very narrow at the turn of the 20th century, it was very easy to neglect or suppress the political affections and propensities of the broader population. Before the Great War a new franchise system was prepared, but the dualistic system passed away with no elections (and no experiences of such elections) having taken place in line with this new law.

After 1918 Hungary was re-established within a much narrower framework than before. The elite of the country intended to keep continuity with the country as it had been within the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. In international terms, prime minister Bethlen based his government on Western, essentially Anglo-American support, but failed to succeed with after the total collapse of the Gold Standard. As for domestic affairs, the best way to achieve his goal of continuity was to keep political radicalism at bay. His internal conservative-liberal alliance was not capable of integrating the growing radical opposition. After the crisis, aristocracy lost many of its positions, and new elements received a chance to participate in politics. These new elements were altogether more radical and nationalist than the political elite of the Bethlen regime. Radical internationalists (communists) were excluded from political participation, as before.

Julius Szekfű was an intellectual supporter of the Bethlen regime and an enemy of the post-crisis regimes.


In the enhanced 1934 edition he argued against his former self, claiming that he had been morally naïve for having believed that the principle that sin draws punishment must also be valid at the level of nations. As Szekfű was a well-trained historian, this argument of his does not seem very likely from the point of view of logic, but it was nevertheless the best way for him to change the course of the narrative. In any case, his argument calls for self-containment. Here one can also find some parallels to Ezekiel that could be elaborated, but it is more important to find out which audience he was addressing in this new situation. A quotation from Szekfű will be needed to understand the point:

“It is just as harmful to believe that this male generation right at the height of its career will pass power to the next generation only because the younger one is perhaps healthier in mind and would lead the nation back to the proper path.14

Let us make a short calculation. If the peak of a man’s life is from his mid-30s to his mid-50s, then the generation referred to is the one born in the last two decades of the 19th century. To give examples: Miklós Horthy and István Bethlen, prominent figures from the first half of the interwar period, were born before 1880, while (also only as examples) Gyula Gömbös and Béla Imrédy (both typical politicians of the post-1929 era) were born after that year. The members of this generation born in the late 19th century were those performing military service during the Great War (or the last cohorts were those surviving the war as adolescents in the hinterland). Their general feeling was one of discontent – the emotional stress caused by the discrepancy between their personal sufferings and sacrifices and the result that all of this had been in vain. One of the sacrifices made by those preparing themselves for an intellectual profession was the delay in their studies because of military service.15 If we look at the situation in market terms, there was an expanding demand for professionals in the dualist era, there were those preparing to provide supply for this demand, and then the market collapsed, leading to cut-throat competition. Any advantage that would previously have been gone unnoticed could now become significant and could be interpreted as immoral.

On the other hand, it was these same people returning from combat who had become comrades during their military service – which, as we know, in a lot of cases establishes very long-lasting human bonds. These people became the rank and file of the post-WWI friendships that acted as a basis for their operations. They were likely to hold anti-Semitism as one of their key beliefs.16

Digression 2: A short history of modern Hungarian anti-Semitism

Hungarian historiography usually considers the golden age of the dualistic era to have been free of anti-Semitism, claiming that this ideology emerged only after the war. This view can be questioned for several reasons. It is more correct to say that the narrow political base made it harder for anti-Semitism to become a political ideology. Nevertheless, we have evidence that it was present among those who were excluded from political participation. In the revolutionary year of 1848 there were anti-Jewish disturbances in the royal chartered cities of Hungary, e. g. Pozsony (often the home of the Hungarian diet; today Bratislava), Pest (the cradle of the revolution) and Székesfehérvár (ancient coronation town, in decline at the time). There were anti-Semitic acts in 1882-1883, when Western anti-Semitic political ideology met Eastern anti-Jewish hatred. The question remains of how this became a widespread feeling. One of the factors was increased mobility. One of the unintended results of the war was increased mobility in society, and the forced mixing of members of different strata who had previously been kept separate. The other factor was moral panic, which sees people ready to accept simple explanations of complicated problems. Such were the circumstances when the Hungarian state collapsed at the very end of the Second World War. All in all, we can say that growing anti-Semitism was a consequence of widening political participation and of widespread personal frustration. A propensity to political extremes was repeatedly a part of Hungarian social history. To give a 20th-century example: in 1938 the secret ballot and universal franchise were introduced, and in 1939 far-right movements managed to acquire a quarter of the mandates, receiving nearly eleven times as many votes as in 1935 (c. 550,000 compared to 51,000).


So, we have hopefully arrived at a slightly better understanding of the audience Szekfű was addressing in the first edition of his Three Generations. It was this frustrated generation that was trying to cure its moral panic with anti-Semitism. For Szekfű these people were not his peers. Yet if in 1920 he wanted to address them, he had to speak their language, to use their anti-Semitic vocabulary, to drive home his message, in the form of an implicit invitation to collective self-criticism, in order to provide a tabula rasa for the new regime.

Nearly fifteen years later, he had to accept that his expectations had been mistaken. Szekfű was in an impasse, not in the Rankean historical-political sense, but in the field of daily politics. Although he could be sure that the German orientation would fail in the long run, in day-to-day politics Keynes’s quip applies: “in the long run we are all dead”. All he could do was to address the next generation, of which he spoke in the text quoted, and the members of which he considered would be healthier in their political minds. This was the generation of the so-called ‘folk writers’ (népi írók) where ‘folk’ i. e. ‘people’ stands less for ‘political populist’ and more for ‘folk-oriented’, ‘genuine’ or ‘coming from the lower social strata’. (This generation was only somewhat younger than the war-ravaged one: their average birth year was 1904. For example, although their master, Dezső Szabó, was born in 1879, the intellectual beacon of the new generation, László Németh, was born in 1901, and the one most talented in politics, Ferenc Erdei, in 1909.) In 1934 Szekfű tried to inhibit the cooperation between the previous opposition and the new opposition. For a move on the political chess table, it was a rational one. Alas, this was a heroic and hopeless task, because this new intellectual generation was perhaps even more radical, pro-land reform and an enemy of the aristocratic magnates than the previous one had been.


This said, there is one very important point where Szekfű did not or did not want to follow the thread of Ezekiel’s prophecies. This is the problem of the generation as a collective phenomenon. In Ezekiel the question comes up in the famous Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones.

So I prophesied as He commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they came to life and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army. [Ez 37, 10]

Then He said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel; behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope has perished. We are completely cut off.’” [Ez 37, 11]

Therefore prophesy and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD, “Behold, I will open your graves and cause you to come up out of your graves, My people; and I will bring you into the land of Israel.”’ [Ez 37, 12]

The interpretation that this promise of Israel’s god does not refer to everyone, only to those slain (i.e. in a battle), is supported by other loci of the prophecy:

“If I were to cause wild beasts to pass through the land and they depopulated it, and it became desolate so that no one would pass through it because of the beasts,

though these three men were in its midst, as I live,” declares the Lord GOD, “they could not deliver either their sons or their daughters. They alone would be delivered, but the country would be desolate.” [Ez 14,15-16]

Although Szekfű was warning against collectivism,17 he ultimately used a form of doublespeak. In the narrative he does not get rid of the collective and does not undertake to speak to the individual. As today’s historians would say, it does not work at the level of the individual. The lack of individual examples is the reason that the work will stir anger again and again and will not help to soothe this anger. Szekfű’s typical narrative tools are obliteration and interference. Let us take an example. Quite a few statements concerning the so-called Jewish question were included as reported speech. Statements with negative Werturteil were put into the mouths of famous figures of the national literary canon or of prominent Vormärz politicians. This represents a trap for the sceptical reader. If he does not want to accept the statements, that is, to acknowledge the harmful effects of Jewish immigration, then he has to refute the authorities cited. If he refutes these authorities, then he can either keep his opinion to himself or risk the charge of being unpatriotic.

In the end, we are forced to admit that Szekfű did his very best as regards the techniques of prophesying and performative speech. Yet he did so in vain because he failed to imbue his narrative with moral authenticity. He wanted to prepare a tabula rasa for the new interwar regime but committed the same error he had attributed to previous political generations: that of producing form without content.

Szekfű was born in 1883 yet acted as if he were a decade ahead of his time.

Discussion and conclusion

Julius Szekfű’s Three Generations is a book that still has an influence on Hungarian intellectual life. If nothing else, this provides ample grounds to ask why the rhetoric and logical structure of the book do not match each other. Our investigation has shown that, despite being a book by a professional historian, the narrative of Three Generations follows a very old structure, that of the biblical prophecy. This pattern fits the genre of the book: a historical-political treatise, or, in today’s terms, a work of public history. This paper has tried to show that the debates on the amount or intensity of anti-Semitism in the work of Julius Szekfű are misleading, and that the anti-Semitic vocabulary of the book reflect more the mindset of the target audience than that of the author. This statement is totally in line with Szekfű’s own credo that he clarified in his other works on historical personalities, viz. a politician in exile is to all intents and purposes a dead politician.


MTA Kézirattár (HAS Library and Information Centre, Department of Manuscripts & Rare Books)

Ms 327 Sajtókivágás-gyűjtemény Szekfű Gyula Három nemzedékéről.

Biblical sources

Ez: Ezékiel könyve.
http://biblia.hit.hu/bible/21/EZE/ ill.:
https://www.bibleserver.com/text/EU/Hesekiel – utolsó letöltések: 2018. július 19.

Lutherbibel 2018: Lutherbibel 2017 In: Bibelserver. ERF Medien, Wetzlar.
https://www.bibleserver.com utolsó letöltés: 2018. július 19.

Zürcher 2018: Zürcher Bibel é.n. In: Bibelserver. ERF Medien, Wetzlar.
https://www.bibleserver.com utolsó letöltés: 2018. július 19.


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1 Hajnal 1942: 456.

2 This does not apply to Szekfű after the Second World War.

3 A reference to Meinecke’s Weltbürgertum und Nationalstaat (Cosmopolitanism and the National State, 1908).

4 He proceeded there to Naioth in Ramah; and the Spirit of God came upon him also, so that he went along prophesying continually until he came to Naioth in Ramah. He also stripped off his clothes, and he too prophesied before Samuel and lay down naked all that day and all that night. Therefore they say, “Is Saul also among the prophets? [1Sam 19, 23‑24]

5 And these also reel with wine and stagger from strong drink:
The priest and the prophet reel with strong drink,
They are confused by wine, they stagger from strong drink;
They reel while having visions,
They totter when rendering judgment. [Isaiah 28,7]

6 So they cried with a loud voice and cut themselves according to their custom with swords and lances until the blood gushed out on them. [1Kings 18,28]

7 The formula is considered a proverb by the Pallas Great Encyclopedia.

8 Marczali, Heinrich (1882): Ungarns Geschichtsquellen im Zeitalter der Árpáden. Hertz, Berlin. http://real-eod.mtak.hu/1209/1/ungarnsgeschich00marcgoog.pdf

9 N.B. [Ez 3,6] in Hungarian reads as follows: “Had I sent you to peoples with obscure lips and difficult tongues whose speech you would not understand, surely, had I sent you to them, they would listen to you.” This seems to be different from what the English translation suggests. But we are not looking for the meaning of the original text of the Bible. We want to understand some Hungarian cultural phenomena, so we should keep to the text as the Hungarian audience knew it.

10 For thus says the Lord GOD, ‘How much more when I send My four severe judgments against Jerusalem: sword, famine, wild beasts, and plague to cut off man and beast from it!

‘Yet, behold, survivors will be left in it who will be brought out, both sons and daughters. Behold, they are going to come forth to you and you will see their conduct and actions; then you will be comforted for the calamity which I have brought against Jerusalem for everything which I have brought upon it. [Ez 14, 21-22]

11 As for you, son of man, groan with breaking heart and bitter grief, groan in their sight.

And when they say to you, ‘Why do you groan?’ you shall say, ‘Because of the news that is coming; and every heart will melt, all hands will be feeble, every spirit will faint, and all knees will be weak as water. Behold, it comes, and it will happen,’ declares the Lord GOD. [Ez 21, 6-7]

12 Again, when a righteous man turns away from his righteousness and commits iniquity, and I place an obstacle before him, he will die; since you have not warned him, he shall die in his sin, and his righteous deeds which he has done shall not be remembered; but his blood I will require at your hand. [Ez 3, 20]

However, if you have warned the righteous man that the righteous should not sin and he does not sin, he shall surely live because he took warning; and you have delivered yourself. [Ez 3,20-21]

13 Kölcsey, Ferenc: National Anthem. On Hungary’s Stormy Past. Loew, William N. (English translation). URL: http://www.mek.iif.hu/porta/szint/human/szepirod/magyar/kolcsey/anthem/html/

14 Szekfű n.d. [1934]: 382.

15 Újváry 2010: 432.

16 Újváry 2010: 415.

17 Szekfű n.d. [1934]: 469–472.