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Book Review 241: The Gold Train

July 29, 2012 - Harry Eagar
THE GOLD TRAIN: The Destruction of the Jews and the Looting of Hungary, by Ronald W. Zweig.312 pages, illustrated. Morrow, $26.95

I approached Ronald Zweig’s “The Gold Train” with unease. Compared with the murder of 400,000 Jews in Hungary, ought we to be concerned about the minor crime of stealing their gold? It turns out, we should.

On the superficial level of historical truth, the story needed to be researched because a version is current that is largely bogus. That needs correction.

Of greater significance is the insight it provides into the antinational actions of the Hungarian extreme rightwing, and the dishonorable behavior of so many of the people who were involved in the gold after the war.

In the usual historiography of central Europe, the nationalism of the Hungarians is cited as a destabilizing factor in the decline of the Habsburg Empire. But it turns out that Hungarian extreme nationalism was qualified. There were rightists who were persuaded that Hungary must be subservient to Germany. Fear of Russia and Bolshevism were part of that, but only part. Jew-hatred played its part.

As had happened in Vienna around 1900, anti-Semitic parties had a hard time getting traction. When everybody hates Jews, a platform of Jew-hatred is not enough for electoral success. The conservative, aristocratic and anti-German elite kept the farthest right (Arrow Cross) at bay until the fighting started.

The Arrow Cross plundered the Jews, but they also plundered Hungary, sending as much of its portable economic assets to Germany as possible.

The Jews of Hungary (wholly assimilated to Magyarism except for newcomers) had been systematically plundered and excluded from economic activity since 1938, so the final looting in 1944 did not accumulate the fabulous sums that the “Gold Train” was reputed to carry. The aggregate value was large, says Zweig, but only because it amounted to the household goods of 800,000 people, some poor, some well-off.

But values of $300 million (1945 dollars, say $3 billion today) were exaggerated.

Still, gold is gold and brings out the bad in people. The central villain, so far as the gold is concerned, was Hungarian policeman Arpad Toldi, a nationalist and Jew-hater, who, however, was willing to forget politics for the chance to grab the gold (and diamonds) for himself.

Most of the loot was recovered by the Americans and French in Austria, but half a dozen boxes of gold are still missing,. The man who probably knew where they were was killed in a drunken brawl in 1951.

The disposition of the gold takes up half the book. It was deemed impossible, in almost all cases, to return the stolen goods to the owners, or their heirs, both because individual items were unidentifiable and because the owners had been murdered so comprehensively that they had no heirs.

A reasonable solution was to use the value to support the displaced and persecuted victims of Nazism, and this was done, more or less,

Some of the proceeds were used to help create the state of Israel, to the distress of the British, whose soldiers were being slain there by Jewish partisans. The UK government’s position regarding the disposition of the loot was conflicted but not dishonorable.

The behavior of the French was typically dishonorable and incompetent. For a while, they lost the loot they had seized. They wanted to spend some of the money on helping displaced persecutors of Jews, a strange position that would sound logical only to a Frenchman. Zweig is too polite to suggest that animus against Jews was part of their thinking, but we can take that as read.

Less honorable still were the actions of the Hungarians and the Russians who occupied Hungary. Only the Americans come off as generally honest and humane.

In the end, the fantasies of wealth were (and still are) fantasies. Zweig’s concluding paragraph deserves quotation in full:

“The destruction of European Jewry during the Holocaust took place over a wide geographical area and time span, beginning in Germany with the rise of the Nazis to power in January 1933 and ending with the Allied victory in Europe in May 1945. The motives of the perpetrators included genocide, the exploitation of forced labour, and economic spoliation. Ultimately, however, these objectives were contradictory. Some degree of wealth could be transferred from one population to another by organized plunder, especially where that wealth was concentrated in a few hands. But the roots of popular wealth and prosperity are social, and they were destroyed when the societies that sustained them and gave them value were laid waste, This was the madness of genocide. Although justice demanded that the material damage of the Holocaust be undone, the real damage was in the individual lives lost and the devastation of a vibrant community, and that could not be made good again.”

The same lesson, absent the murders, applies to rightwing American economic policy today.


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