In a mad world, we can be ‘them’, too

It wasn’t long after I arrived in Budapest that I first heard of ‘them’. I was at the opera with a new Hungarian acquaintance – a well-educated, well-travelled woman of a similar vintage. We got to talking about one of her colleagues whom we both knew. She nodded to me knowingly while declaring that he was one of ‘them’. I asked no questions. I didn’t want to know.

Sometime later, while discussing the banking crisis over dinner in a Budapest restaurant with a group of well-heeled, well-travelled, well-educated contemporaries, I was surprised to hear that our present precarious predicament was all ‘their’ fault. I asked no questions. I didn’t want to know.

Last week, while bemoaning what appears to be a somewhat alarming descent into social madness, I was pointedly reminded that ‘they’ are the root cause of all Hungary’s problems. I’d had enough. I needed to find out why they are so despised, why they are so openly hated, why they seem to get the blame for everything.

Local or global?

I did some checking to see if friends in other countries had come across them – and, perversely, because I love this country so much, I was slightly relieved to find that ‘they’ are held in low regard in Belgium, Germany, Poland, and the UK (then I stopped checking). It’s not just Hungary. But on reflection, that doesn’t make it any better. When I asked why, no-one could or would explain it to me.

But then I turned to my old friends Messrs Google and Bing and asked why so many people seem to be ‘anti-Them’. I found that historians have actually done some work on this topic and have listed six reasons why they are so hated. The first is economic – they have too much wealth and too much power. The second, their arrogant claim that they are the chosen people. The third, they’re a convenient scapegoat. The fourth, they’re guilty of deicide. The fifth, they’re different. And finally, sixth, they’re an inferior race.

Truth or myth?

Wow. A heady list of charges indeed … were they true. Let’s look at them in turn. In 17th-20th century Poland and Russia, they were hated – and yet they were extremely poor and wielded no influence whatsoever.  As for being the chosen people – doesn’t everyone think that of themselves? I’ve sat in church with many of my compatriots in full knowledge that they believe themselves to be hand-picked by the Man Himself. Convenient to blame? Well, in order to be scapegoat you have to be hated first. As for guilty of deicide? My bible says that Jesus was killed by the Romans and back in 1963, the Second Vatican Council officially exonerated them as the killers of Jesus. So what’s the issue there? Dislike of the unliked is more common and easier to understand but yet they seem to be damned if they try to assimilate [think Aryan response to charges of infecting the pure race with inferior genes] and damned if they stay to themselves. And finally, the race card. Are they a race? As a practising Irish Catholic, I could convert and become one of them, should I so desire. Yet I could never become an Inuit or an Athabaskan Indian.

Fact or fiction?

Just how mad does the world have to get before the pendulum swings back and reason begins to prevail? Or did reason ever prevail when it comes to them? I wonder if Roman Catholic Bishop Richard Williamson ever met with President Eisenhower, what they would have to talk about. The former is on record for denying the holocaust, the latter on his visit to the camps, said he ‘made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to propaganda’. That would be an interesting conversation indeed!

In another life, when living in small-town Alaska, one of the Irish lads I knew got a much coveted union position at the oil terminal. There were just six of us Irish in a town of 4000 at that time. Many who had drowned their Irishness in green beer some months earlier on St Patrick’s Day, took umbrage. My then boyfriend had a knife pulled on him in the pub because he was ‘dating one of them’. I was accused of taking jobs from Americans. The bank where my friend’s wife worked was spray-painted – Éire go home – as was the Union hall. Overnight, a wall dividing them and us had been built. But thankfully, there were many who chose to climb over that wall or go around it; many who accepted us for who we were; many who remembered that, no matter where we come from or what we believe, we are all members of the human race.

First published in the Budapest Times 3 November 2011

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19 Responses

  1. Wow. I don’t think I have read a more substantial or thought-provoking (visceral rather than academic) blog post. Ever. I will be watching for comments as I digest this.

  2. Well I discussed this article this afternoon and wished I hadn’t. I have been a “British” them a couple of times in my life. I have always found racial or religious prejudice hard to accept and was shocked to have the same “them” you got from someone close to me recently. Today I had another “them”. Do I ignore it and turn the other cheek or fight it. Last time I fought it and the dust has still not really settled.

    As you know Mary I have used some of your past articles as the basis of lessons and you kindly recorded a piece for me last year. Every so often you come out with a really magic discussion article. This one is 1 in a thousand but can I use it I have to ask. Well done for giving me hard time.

    1. Am reminded of the verse by Martin Niemöller, Tim (and for more about him, see

      First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a communist; Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist; Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist; Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew; Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak out for me.

      Mary Murphy

  3. I too, as a Hungarian, have been the “other” and that just happens in more open societies as well but maybe not as openly as in Hungary. I live in Australia and had been looking desperately for a job for 1.5 years but didn’t even manage to get a call. Then I changed my name on the CV to George (from Gyula). 5 job interviews in the next few weeks and I managed to secure a job right away. Unfortunately this is not a joke.
    But just yesterday I was at a friend’s house, drinking beer, barbecuing when this friend started to blame “them”, blame “the others”. It was like arguing about religion. There was no point, there was no reasoning, no logic behind it. It’s obviously deeply rooted in people’s mind and I felt I was wasting my time (and I probably was) by trying to change his views.
    So what should I have done? In an ideal world I should have stood up, closed the door and never ever talked to this racist “friend”. But that’s just not possible. And wouldn’t I be doing the same thing as my racist friend? Wouldn’t I be isolating myself from the “others”, from the racists in this case? I don’t know. I don’t have an answer.

    1. First, congrats on the job Gyula – the same used to happen in Dublin in the 1980s but was related to your address. I, too, have some friends who speak in terms of ‘them’ and ‘they’ – and while originally I never asked or spoke out, now I’m thinking that I have to. Just to say ‘you know, I don’t agree with what you think and what you’re saying and if we are going to stay friends, perhaps we shouldn’t talk about it any more’. But then, what sort of friendship is it, if there are no-go areas? And I agree with you – if I close the door on them, then am I as bad as they are? What about loving the sinner but hating the sin? I can’t offer any answers either, Gyula, but I know that it’s getting harder and harder to simply sit back and say nothing.

      Mary Murphy

  4. I definitely approve your piece in this weeks’s BT. I think that the dear old Catholic Church is fundamentally to blame for it all, the deicide story. Plus the fact that the Jews were a distinctive minority in many places after the diaspora, and minorities are always liable to have a hard time, especially if they have any get-up-‘n -go about them. In pre-WW2 Hungary they were not only assimilated, but also many were successful and, as was found out the hard way, useful as engineers, doctors, bakers . . . They weren’t just fat-cat bankers, and the artistic sponsorship of those that were well-off was considerable. They owned the newspapers, which was where so many writers published their work, or had day-jobs that enabled them to do their literary work. And yet even here in minute Zánka I’ve come across anti-Semitism: my neighbours’ 16.year old son used to come round to practise his English, and one day I had a 19th century gazeteer lying about,
    so we looked up Zánka. It said that the population in 1851 was 53 Catholic, 364 Reform, 130 Lutheran and 16 Jews . . . and at the mention of the Jews this smart 16-year old snorted derisively – and he is a very pleasant, well-brought up boy. I’m in the middle of reading Martin Gilbert’s account of WW2, and he makes it perfectly clear that it wasn’t only the Nazis that pitched into the Jews – Ukrainians and Lithuanians led the field in some areas. And yet I remember when I was a student, living in the family home in Leeds and working in Lewis’s store in the hols, I had a colleague in the shop, a Jewish married woman (Leeds has the biggest Jewish population in UK outside London) who said ‘You must come round, we’ll show you some Jewish cooking etc.’, at which my mother was appalled: ‘You can’t go there, she’s Jewish’. I was never hard enough with my parents. Well was it said by whoever that ‘parents fuck you up.’

    1. Bernard – reminds me of a trip to Azerbaijan earier this year where school kids are being taught how ‘bad’ Armenians are. With this sort of ‘traditional’ learning, it’s no wonder we’re such a screwed up race.

    2. I’ve traced you to Zanka.I’ll be in Budapest Sept 25-29.It would be nice to meet up.Any chance?How are you anyway.Best of luck.
      Michael Stafford(KES and Pembroke

  5. Dear Mary,
    Your article about “THEM” is stunning. Stunningly awful and stunningly well written. Thank you. When I started reading it, I thought that the focus was going to be a gay man and gay people. It is beyond discouraging to be reminded that this is still with us, that humanity does not learn from history. Teaching about the Holocaust did not prevent a Rwanda, nor a Bosnia. Studying the Great Depression did not prevent our current financial crisis, as regulations were stripped away little by little.
    Am reading ORDINARY MEN by Christopher R. Browning, about a Polish Police Battalion during WWII. These men were not regular military. They were auxiliary, older than the average age of soldiers. These “ordinary men” massacred thousands and deported tens of thousands. Some had a tough time with the killing at first, then……. . I started reading the book before reading your post. While reading the horrifying details, I did then at least think of it as a teaching tool. I guess that that “teaching tool’ is yet to be discovered or invented. Perhaps the only hope is for one-on-one realization of our commoness.
    Getting to know you better by this means is a privilege that is new to me.
    Best Regards.

    1. Must look for that book, Roberta. Thanks for the tip. I really doubt man’s capacity ever to learn from its mistakes. Especially when there are those who do not recognise the mistake in the first place.

    2. To be fair, battalion 101 were not a “Polish Police Battalion” but a German Police battalion (recruited in Hamburg) which operated in Poland.
      I just mention this because I am aware how Polish people resent being seen as collaborators with the Nazis during the war – not that they, or any other people, have absolutely no blood on their hands. But then I would rather not attribute blame for any crime to a whole people at all – we are individuals, and it makes no sense to blame someone for the past sins of their compatriots of a previous generation.

  6. Mary, thanks for this. Changed my day from a routine to a good thinking and reflecting exercise.
    In average, we are stupid enough to blame many different “them” – not seeing that very often we are “them” to someone else.

    A reflection following the one from Roberta: I remember the message from an Australian movie. It goes something like: “The tragic of war is not in the fact that crazy people do crazy things, but that ordinary people do crazy things.”

  7. Always good to have a wake-up call Milutin. Boggles the mind to see what’s going on in the world today and how sheeplike we can be. Ordinary people and crazy things indeed.

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