“May your children live in interesting times.”
—Ancient Chinese curse (at least legendarily)
Well, the characters in this play certainly do live in interesting times. The time is December 1937, Acts I and II two weeks before Christmas, Act III on Christmas Eve, in Budapest, Hungary. The world is in the midst of the Great Depression, and keeping a business open—especially one carrying such luxury items as perfume—is a dicey proposition at best. Early in the play we learn that Hammerschmidt’s neighbors in Vaci Street have been closing one after another.
In neighboring Germany, Adolf Hitler had been named Chancellor in January 1933, at least partly out of fear of his thuggish Brown Shirts, and immediately embarked on a campaign to consolidate power, eliminate his opposition, and rearm the country in defiance of the terms of the universally (and, be it noted, justly) hated Versailles Treaty. In March 1936 he marched his troops into the previously demilitarized Rhineland. Britain and France stood by and did nothing. That November, Germany and Japan signed the Anti-Comintern Pact, an alliance directed at the Soviet Union and the core of what came to be known as the Axis. Italy signed on a year later, just a month before this play takes place. Less than two years later, Germany invaded Poland, and World War II was on.
Meanwhile, since even earlier in the 1930s, Hungary had been under the control of a right-wing government. As the Nazi regime grew more powerful and the German economy expanded under the impetus of rearmament, the Hungarians drew closer both politically and economically, becoming a major source of natural resources and manufacturing for Germany. By the time of the play, more than half of Hungary’s international trade (both imports and exports) was with Germany. One result was a measure of prosperity that allowed at least some people to be able to afford little luxuries like perfume.
While Hungary’s leaders had indulged in radical anti-Semitic rhetoric in their rise to power, there were still some Jews in government by the mid-1930s. Of course, anti-Semitism was nothing new in Europe, but now there were new grievances and a new virulence to it, as Jews were scapegoated first for the defeat and dismemberment of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire in World War I, and then for the Great Depression. The coded rhetoric of “international bankers” was employed frequently, along with increasingly vicious and very much uncoded language. By 1937 the first of Hungary’s Jewish Laws had been enacted, limiting Jewish participation to 20 percent in businesses and professions. Further restrictions were to come, and I’m sure the sorry denouement of that process is too well known to require comment from me.
And now we find ourselves in a time when candidates for president of the United States, a country “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” feel free to deploy the coded language of “international bankers” and very much uncoded rhetoric scapegoating entire classes of people (variously Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants, African Americans, LGBTQs, feminists, environmentalists—take your pick) for whatever needs scapegoating at the moment—crime, terrorism, the state of the economy, the national debt, bad schools, drugs, people’s inability to adjust when whatever skills they have become obsolete.
The lessons of history can be subtle and obscure at times. But the lesson could not be more clear in this regard: Scapegoating does not get you where you want to go; in fact, pursued to its logical conclusion, the result can only be your own undoing.
Let us hope we still have time to step back from the brink.