anti-Semitism

Attack on the United States and friendship with “tolerant” Russia

Don’t think that the Hungarian government’s attack on the incoming American ambassador is independent of the Hungarian-Russian deal on the Paks power plant. Oh no, both have a great deal to do with the Hungarian government’s continuing war of independence. The newest ally in this fight is the “tolerant” and democratic Russia under Vladimir Putin. At least this is what András Bencsik, one of the organizers of the Peace Marches that demonstrated against the European Union, thinks.

If you think that I’m joking, you are wrong. Serious efforts are being made by Fidesz-Jobbik supporters  to recreate the old Soviet/Russian friendship from which twenty-three years ago Hungarians were happy to escape. The Fidesz-Jobbik label is not a mistake on my part. I consider Zsolt Bayer, András Bencsik, Gábor Széles and others involved in the Peace March movement outright anti-Semite neo-Nazis. And yes, they are supporters of the present government. The two are not mutually exclusive alternatives.

It all started with the letter addressed to Colleen Bell, the U.S. ambassador designate, who was accused by Gergely Gulyás, an influential member of Fidesz and an MP, of representing the interests of the Hungarian opposition. She was told in no uncertain terms that the Hungarian people will not stand for the tutelage of a foreign power. There is even talk of dragging the new ambassador before a parliamentary committee investigating American illegal spying on Hungarian politicians, including perhaps Viktor Orbán.

Of course, we all know that Gergely Gulyás would never dare to make such a frontal attack on the United States on his own. There is no question in my mind that a vicious anti-American propaganda is under way which might be connected to the forthcoming election as well as the possible domestic opposition to the Russian-Hungarian deal on Paks. In any case, the innocent victim of the political and diplomatic game will be Colleen Bell, who has not the foggiest idea what is waiting for her. I suspect she will soon be sorry that she ever had ambassadorial ambitions.

As soon as Gulyás set the tone, everybody on the right felt free to join the offensive. Even our “moderate” János Martonyi decided to line up and move Hungary’s attack against the United States abroad. He gave an interview to the Budapest correspondent of The Wall Street Journal in which he “urged the incoming U.S. ambassador to Budapest to stay independent in her judgment after Colleen Bradley Bell voiced concerns about the state of checks and balances in Hungary and independence of some of the country’s institutions.”

Naturally, Martonyi is more diplomatic than the far-right-wing Fidesz supporters like András Bencsik who feel just as comfortable in Jobbik’s Hungarian Guard as in Fidesz (and earlier, in the case of Bencsik, in communist circles). Bencsik is a man of action. This morning he wrote a short piece on Facebook in which he announced his plans to organize another Peace March, not surprisingly a week before the election, on March 29. Of course, one goal is to fire up the core Fidesz electorate. But it will be a demonstration against the United States “which takes up the role of the Soviet Union. It doesn’t send ambassadors but arrogant regional governors, instructors, commissars to the subjugated country whose job is to relay tidbits of the ideas of the enslaved people to the heart of the empire. Their job is to force these primitive people to lead a prescribed life: ‘checks and balances and marijuana.'” The last refers to President Obama’s views on the legalization of marijuana. “In comparison Russia is the home of tolerance.”

Bencsik in this Facebook note interprets “checks and balances” as some kind of geopolitical balance that was, for example, practiced by the princes of Transylvania who maneuvered  between the Ottoman and the Habsburg Empires. With closer relations with Russia, Bencsik argues, Hungary can have a larger role to play in foreign affairs and will thus receive greater independence. Of course, not everybody will be happy with this new Russian-Hungarian friendship, just as Izsák Schulhof mourned the departure of the Turks from Buda. What? Who is this Schulhof? Bencsik, an anti-Semite, naturally found his anti-Hungarian Jew who allegedly mourned the departure of the escaping Turks from Buda in 1686. As usual, the story is not accurate. A friend of mine sent me a link to a letter of a historian of the Budapest Historical Museum which sets the story straight. It seems that these anti-Semites manage to find some usually untrue story to depict Jews as historically against the Hungarian nation. The implication of Bencsik’s reference to Schulhof is that only Jews complain about the foreign policy of Viktor Orbán which otherwise gives greater leeway for diplomatic maneuvering and therefore is beneficial to Hungary.

paks1

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Some Hungarian weeklies had fantastic covers depicting this new love affair between Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin. András Bencsik’s Magyar Demokrata, on the other hand, decided to feature the new “museum quarter” in the heart of Budapest.

Heti Válasz opted for word play on “pax vobiscum” from the Catholic mass,  meaning “peace be with you,” while Figyelő talked about “atomic power.” HVG reminded its readers of the “Eastern bloc.” I especially like Magyar Narancs’s “The country is on Putin’s hook.” The pictures appeared on 444.hu.

The last straw: Either true depiction of the Hungarian Holocaust or Jewish boycott

The fallout from Sándor Szakály’s outrageous comments on the Kamenets-Podolskii mass murder of deportees delivered to German-occupied Ukraine is intensifying in Hungary. Instead of calling it what it was, the first atrocity in the Hungarian Holocaust, Szakály called it “a police action against aliens.” It seems that this was the last straw for Mazsihisz, the organization that represents non-Orthodox Jewish religious communities.

An exceptionally strongly worded statement appeared on Mazsihisz’s website this morning. Here is a translation of this very important document. We must keep in mind that in the past Mazsihisz was relatively inactive and avoided serious confrontations with the Hungarian government. The fact that such a statement was released by Mazsihisz shows how strained relations between the Orbán government and the Jewish communities have become in the last four years.

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MAZSIHISZ DEMANDS THE RESIGNATION OF SÁNDOR SZAKÁLY

The leadership of Mazsihisz is aghast and finds incomprehensible the relativization of the Holocaust by the “Veritas” Institute established by the Hungarian government. The director of the “Veritas” Institute, Sándor Szakály, called the deportation of Kamenets-Podolskii, the first mass murder of the Hungarian Holocaust, “a police action against aliens.” After the failure of his past efforts at falsifying history, we expect him to resign from his position.

The leadership of Mazsihisz calls on all politicians to refrain from using the 70th anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust as an element in the electoral campaign and asks all concerned to refrain from rewriting our past. If the government of Hungary is serious about facing the true history of the Holocaust,  it should immediately put an end to the disrespectful behavior that is ruinous for the credibility of the memorial year of 2014.

Because of the lack of information about the ideology of the new Holocaust Center at Józsefváros, because of what transpired at the Horthy Conference at the House of Terror, because of the falsification of history in the series “Lifesaving Stories” on Magyar Rádió, because of the erection of the [German occupation] memorial on Szabadság tér, and because of the statements of the director of the “Veritas” Institute, Mazsihisz is seriously contemplating refraining from participation in the events of the Holocaust Year. Moreover, we will make use of the grant we received from the Civil Grant Fund only if there is a change in the direction of the whole project.

We call everybody’s attention to the words of Sándor Márai: “We cannot excuse, we cannot explain what happened, but we can admit it and can tell it.  This will be the duty of this generation.”

* * *

András Heisler, president of Mazsihisz

András Heisler, president of Mazsihisz

Since then Szakály was invited by Antónia Mészáros of ATV for a chat on her program. He started out on a high horse and tried to prove the correctness of his interpretation by reading passages from Randolph L. Braham’s work on the Hungarian Holocaust. Naturally, since the appearance of that monumental work several books and articles have appeared on the subject. Szakály is either unfamiliar with this research or purposely ignored it. By the end of the conversation, however, he was less sure of his views and admitted that perhaps he was wrong. But that is not a political issue, he claimed, but differences of opinion within the profession. Initially he categorically announced that he has no intention of resigning, but by the end he was quite contrite. Obviously he realized the precariousness of his situation.

Mazsihisz’s quasi ultimatum pushes Viktor Orbán into a corner. He either has to sack Szakály, force Mária Schmidt to allow a dialogue with the Jewish community concerning the new Holocaust Center, and give up the idea of erecting a monument to the German occupation which is an important part of the myth he wants to create about the innocence of Hungarians in the Holocaust, or he loses the support of the Hungarian and international Jewry which he seems to find very important. Perhaps he thinks that key members of the American Jewish community will rush to his aid and convince the American government that the current Hungarian government is democratic and especially sensitive when it comes to anti-Semitism. I doubt, however, that such an intervention on Viktor Orbán’s behalf, even if it materialized, could counterbalance, for example, Orbán’s “strategic alliance” with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

We will see what will happen. One thing is sure: the leadership of Mazsihisz is not exaggerating. A wholesale falsification of history has been under way for some time. On all fronts and not just the Holocaust. Lately, for instance, MTV launched a series on the late 1980s and the regime change. The job was given to someone who is not qualified, and the first two segments were apparently crawling with factual errors. And, of course, with revisionist history. On Duna TV there is another questionable historical series called “Heritage.” Put it this way, the number of programs dealing with history is far too high and therefore highly suspicious. One wishes that politicians would leave history alone. We would all be much better off.

Nora Berend: The antisemite question in Hungary

Nora Berend is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge. She received her B.A. at Eötvös Lóránd University, Budapest, spent a year at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, and completed her studies at Columbia University where she received her Ph.D.

Her field is medieval history, especially early Christianity at the “frontiers,” to which Hungary belongs. Her first book was At the Gate of Christendom: Jews, Muslims and ‘Pagans’ in Medieval Hungary, c. 1000 – c. 1300 (Cambridge University Press, 2001).

This article was originally published in Hungarian  in the December 30, 2013 issue of Népszabadság. Nora Berend generously translated her article into English for publication here.

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These days, once again people talk about the ‘Jewish question’ as if ‘the Jews’ were the cause of real problems. Those who speak of the Jewish question count Jews according to the Nazi racial laws, irrespective of the individual’s religious adhesion, self-identification or commitment to the state of Israel.

There has never been, nor is there today, a Jewish question in Hungary. On the contrary, there was, and is again, an antisemite question. Antisemitism, which is a political tool. Two types of state models can be detected throughout Hungarian history. One was based on rights: in the modern period this means that every citizen is equally a member of the state. The other model excludes certain groups in the interest of a supposed religious or racial unity. This exclusion can take many forms, from verbal abuse to murder.

There are some who believe that it is possible to stop at a certain point. For example, one can blame ‘the Jews’ for the fate of the country, and that is not antisemitism, because nobody was lined up next to the Danube and shot. Yet history has demonstrated that where hate speech spreads because it receives open or tacit state support, where some groups are seen as legitimate targets, there deeds also follow. Today antisemitism is established as a socially permitted form of thought and discourse.

What can be seen on the streets of Budapest

What can be seen on the streets of Budapest

Because of that, for many people, the threshold of the unacceptable has risen so high, that what in other countries would cause an outcry and public scandal became defensible positions in Hungary (for example, in Germany apart from the Neo-Nazis nobody would think of counting Jews in parliament or in the historical profession, especially defining who Jews are through racial rather than religious criteria). This is a disquieting measure of the acceptability of antisemitism. But what kind of Hungarian state is being protected by those who are doing the excluding?

The desired unity that is supposed to be protected  is never real: Hungary throughout its history has never been homogeneous, neither in religion nor in ‘race’. The ‘Christian’ kingdom in the past was home to a variety of pagans, Muslims, Christians who were branded heretical, and later Catholics and Protestants (who fought against each other). It was at most  rhetorically that one could speak of religious unity; it never existed in reality. One can speak even less of a Hungarian ‘race’ in a country where the first known data already depict a constant mixing of peoples.

The ‘Hungarians’ already at the time of their appearance in the Carpathian basin were a mixed population, and when they settled they merged with Slavs and others found in the area. During the following centuries, the process of mixing continued. Not only national heroes like János Hunyadi, Miklós Zrínyi or Sándor  Petőfi had been born to non-Hungarian parents, but even key figures in the ‘race protection’ movement such as Gyula Gömbös and Ferenc Szálasi were not ‘pure Hungarians’. Those who tried to define a Hungarian ‘race’ had to resort to a self-contradictory twisting of words: the people of Árpád and those peoples who ‘nerved together’ with them, stated Gömbös, naturally maintaining the right to decide who are unable to ‘nerve together’ with the Hungarians.

Only two real answers exist to the often repeated question, ‘What is a Hungarian?’: a Hungarian citizen, and anyone whose self-identification is Hungarian. The opposition between ‘Hungarian’ and ‘Jew’ is meaningless from every perspective apart from the antisemite’s. What antisemites gain from their antisemitism has been analysed by many, among them Károly Eötvös, defense lawyer in the Tiszaeszlár blood-libel trial in his book The great trial; Jean-Paul Sartre in his work, Anti-Semite and Jew, and Endre Ady in many of his articles. Not insignificant among those who gain in this way are those who make political capital from antisemitism. That it is possible to fall victim to one’s own political antisemitism has been demonstrated more than once.

Not long ago Csanád Szegedi, Jobbik’s representative in the European Parliament, turned quickly from a protector of Hungarians into a representative of Zionist interests in the eyes of his former party when his Jewish origin was revealed. The excuse to engineer the fall of  Prime Minister Béla Imrédy (1938-1939) was the Jewish origin of one of his great-grandparents. It was during his tenure as prime minister that the first Jewish Law was accepted, and the second one, which defined Jews as a race, prepared. These cases alone show the absurdity of Hungarian antisemitism in defense of the ‘homeland’ and the nation. Those who wish to build a homogeneous nation never act in the interests of the nation, but in those of their own power.

As tools, antisemites use hate speech, exclusion, the opposition of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. Spontaneous hatred, based on discontent and ignorance exists in every society, and it can be mobilized more easily the worse people’s economic conditions are and the more hopeless their future is. But the task of the state is not to unleash and incite hatred, but rather to dispel it through information, and if necessary, to prohibit its manifestations. It would be the task of the same state to create such living conditions for its citizens that they do not grasp at the promises of hate speech as solutions in their hopelessness.

Today in Hungary it is possible to make antisemitic and anti-Roma statements and the homeless can be turned into enemies. The generation which grows up in this atmosphere learns that there are people who are not human beings: who can be humiliated, who are not protected by laws, who can be trampled upon. Today in Hungary the Roma are in the worst position from this perspective, since in their case exclusion – because of their heavily disadvantaged status as well as the physical attacks and even murders committed against them – easily turns into a question of life and death.

That the mechanism of exclusion is not tied to religion or ‘race’ is clearly seen from the fact that with the growth of poverty, the poor and homeless are beginning to be categorized as enemies. Using exclusion as a tool, nationalist blather can be sold to some people, for a while. It may seem that there are the winners. But in fact long term, the exclusionary functioning of a state only produces losers. As the Calvinist bishop Dezső Baltazár wrote between the two world wars, the rights of the Jews are a measure of human rights. Where Jews are deprived of their rights, anyone can be deprived of theirs at any time.

It is an old wisdom that history is the teacher of life; and the knowledge that we could learn from history, but we do not want to, is equally old. In Hungary, as in every other country, one can only live a human life in the true sense of the word if instead of hate, there is a protection of rights, instead of exclusion, there is respect of human dignity, instead of nationalistic slogans, there is a guarantee of the rights of citizens. True patriots do not try to figure out whom to exclude from among ‘the Hungarians’, but instead want to find a way for the Hungarian state to ensure life worthy of human beings for each of its citizens.

The end of Hungarian sovereignty on March 19, 1944?

On the last day of 2013 at 6:32 p.m. MTI, the Hungarian news agency, reported that the government had decided to erect sometime before March 19, 2014 a memorial to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of the country’s occupation by Germany. Most commentators are baffled. They don’t understand why it is necessary to commemorate such an event. And why it was announced only three months before the deadline. And why did they wait until New Year’s Eve for the announcement? In addition, as one blogger noted, MTI referred to Magyar Közlöny‘s December 31 issue as the source of the news, but at the time of the announcement that particular issue was still not available.

Due to time constraints there will be no competition for the design. The government most likely already has its favorite artist, who will come up with something that will please the conservative taste of the government party’s politicians. And it will be placed on the same Szabadság tér which is already home to the Soviet memorial marking the liberation of Hungary in April of 1945.

In order to understand this latest move of the Orbán government we have to go back to the preamble of the new constitution which states  that “We date the restoration of our country’s self-determination, lost on the nineteenth day of March 1944, from the second day of May 1990, when the first freely elected body of popular representation was formed.” Clearly, the Fidesz government refuses to recognize any Hungarian responsibility for what happened after the German occupation. This is a falsification of history. Not only did Miklós Horthy remain in his post after March 19 but he still had a fair amount of freedom to act. For example, to appoint governments or even to stop the deportations when he came to fear that Hungary’s German ally would lose the war and he personally might be held responsible for the deportation and ultimate death of approximately 600,000 Jewish citizens of Hungary.

Együtt 2014-PM was the first to raise an objection to this “nonsense memorial,” as someone called it. Péter Juhász demanded a suspension of the project. According to Juhász, instead of a monument to the occupation the government should erect a column to commemorate the members of the resistance movement and the victims. Mind you, the former were appallingly few.

Mazsihisz, the association of Jewish religious communities, also objected to the decision. In their objection they pointed to the hurried decision without any prior consultation which “raised worries in the Jewish community at home and abroad.” They recognize only a Memorial Year of the Hungarian Holocaust, which allows for open and fruitful dialogue, not central decisions whose purpose is not at all clear.

MEASZ (Magyar Ellenállók es Antifasiszták Szövetsége), the association of anti-fascists and members of the resistance movement, hoped that the announcement about a new memorial is just a “bad joke.” They fear that the monument might become a gathering place for Hungary’s neo-Nazis.

Well, knowing the Fidesz government, I can predict that all these organizations can protest till Doomsday. On March 19, with sorrowful pomp and circumstance, Fidesz supporters will commemorate the loss of Hungarian sovereignty at the unveiling.

Jobbik, as might have been predicted, welcomed the idea. As far as the politicians of this neo-Nazi party are concerned, the memorial to German occupation should actually replace the Soviet monument standing on the same square right across from the U.S. Embassy. They would take the Soviet statue to the cemetery in which there is a section where high-ranking communist leaders are buried. So, there is no question on which side Jobbik stands.

Up to now only one historian was asked about his reaction to the project–Krisztián Ungváry, whose excellent book on anti-Semitism between the two world wars appeared a couple of weeks ago. The title of the book is A Horthy-rendszer mérlege: Diszkrimináció, szociálpolitika és antiszemitizmus  [The Balance Sheet of the Horthy Regime: Discrimination, Social Policy and anti-Semitism in Hungary] (Pécs: Jelenkor, 2013). It is a book of more than 600 pages and so far I’ve managed to read only 120 pages of it. But even that is enough to recognize that interwar Hungarian governments systematically strove to eliminate Jewish economic and professional preponderance and influence. It wasn’t only the numerus clausus; there were numerous administrative measures that made the economic and professional advancement of Hungary’s Jewish citizens difficult. That effort began in the early 1920s and continued all through the period.

Hungarian gendarmes supervise the transportation of provincial Jews to the designated railroad stations

Hungarian gendarmes supervise the transportation of provincial Jews to the designated railroad stations /Múlt-Kor

Ungváry points out that it is nonsense to claim that Hungary lost its right to self-determination on March 19, 1944. First, Hungary was an ally of Germany, and thus Hungary’s occupation cannot be compared to the German occupation of other countries in both the West and the East. Second, the Hungarian parliament, whose members were elected in 1939, was in session even after March 19, 1944. Moreover, the majority of the ministers of the Sztójai and Lakatos governments appointed by Horthy after March 19 also served in the government of Miklós Kállay (March 1942-March 19, 1944).

But the exculpatory rewriting of Hungarian history continues unabated. In a year or so the new school textbooks, which will be approved by a new body whose members will be selected by the government, will carry on the job of proving that the Hungarian government and the Hungarian people had nothing whatsoever to do with the deportation of the Hungarian Jewry. It was exclusively the Germans’ fault.

The risk of political Christianity: An interview with Tamás Fabiny, Lutheran bishop

Gábor Czene of  Népszabadság conducted an interview with Tamás Fabiny, bishop of the northern district of the Hungarian Lutheran Church. Fabiny was ordained in Erlangen, Germany in 1982. He also studied in the United States. In addition to his church activities he worked for Duna TV. Since 2010 he has been the vice chairman of the Lutheran World Federation.

The Lutheran Church is the smallest of the three most important Hungarian congregations, after the Catholic and the Hungarian Reformed Churches. To my mind the Hungarian Lutherans have the most enlightened views on many issues, including the topics Bishop Fabiny is talking about here.

* * *

– We hear you are an eager fan of the football club Fradi – or at least you were in your childhood. Do you still attend matches?

– Hardly ever. But when the Fradi fell out of the first division, I went to their match as a demonstration. I felt an obligation to be there. I even wrote an article for the Lutheran weekly on the ability to lose. That we don’t always have to win. That a loss also has a lesson to teach.

– As for the state of Hungarian football today, that article will be appropriate for a long time. What do you think of the stadiums being built nowadays? For example, in a small village called Felcsút they are building an arena for 3500 spectators.

–I am astonished. I understand if the Prime Minister likes football and I can even imagine that he wants to prove that a small town can also have big dreams. But I just read that a match at the Puskás Academy was attended by only a hundred people. I support the founding of football academies in the country. With such a luxury investment, it would have been better to show some restraint.

– During the former socialist government, you said you could hardly wait to be the critic of a conservative government. With that, you not only expressed your demand for political change but also preserved the right of criticism. At a conference last spring you already warned about the risks of “political” Christianity.

Bishop Tamás Fabiny

Bishop Tamás Fabiny

– The conference was organized by young Christian Democrats and I had the feeling that they didn’t expect such an attitude from me. No problem. If I would always say what is expected of me, I would lose my credibility. Political Christianity refers to a situation in which those in power try to exploit the churches in a paternalistic way. When they want to use the churches as a tool for reaching their own goals. I cannot accept from any party, not even from a mayor to treat us as their natural partners and demand political support from the churches. We have to cooperate with everyone to create a common set of values but we are not “natural partners” of anyone. The churches suffered enough during the dictatorship when they were expected to support the state without criticism. Luckily, even at that time there were some people who resisted. We mustn’t forget that the churches also experienced a lot of humiliation and unjust exclusion during the governance of the present opposition parties. On the other hand, we cannot deny that the churches themselves try to flirt with the powers-to-be from time to time. If there were a healthy financing system of churches in Hungary – which is not the case now – they wouldn’t be forced to have constant financial negotiations with the government. I am thinking of a transparent and reliable financing system which would remain unaffected by political changes. Not what some people are saying, namely that the believers should keep up the churches. That is ridiculous. Just as if someone said that the Hungarian State Opera should be financed from the ticket income of the friends of the opera. Churches are not only carrying out tasks in education and the social sphere but also their spiritual work could have a healing effect on the society.

– How deeply are the parties immersed in political Christianity?

– All parties show some signs of the phenomenon, but Jobbik is the most outstanding example. The vocabulary and the ideas of Jobbik and the way they are using the most important Christian symbol, the cross, for political purposes is clearly blasphemous. But I am just as unhappy about the cross appearing in the party image of the Christian Democratic Party. I also do not rejoice when Prime Minister Viktor Orbán starts his speeches with “dear congregation” and ends them with “Soli Deo Gloria”. It is good if he thinks like that as a private person, but it shouldn’t be brought to a government level. The late Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ) had an infamous slogan: “My kingdom come!” I criticized them just as I criticized a poster of the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) at the time of the first free elections in 1990. This one said: “Thy kingdom come!” In my opinion, MDF was the more blasphemous of the two. The liberal party at least uncovered itself, showing how egocentric they are. But the other example, taking the biblical phrase in its original form, mixed up Hungary with the kingdom of God. But no more about political parties. I didn’t leave anyone out, did I?

– Yes, you did. The Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP).

– Speaking of that crew, I could – maybe a bit unjustly – refer to the whole era of communism…

– Let’s not go into that. We should just speak about the MSZP today.

– Let me just mention the Democratic Coalition (DK), whose leader is only generating sympathy for political Christianity with his radical anti-clericalism. As I see it, he doesn’t understand a word of what I call public Christianity and which I hold as an undeniable right. Coming back to the socialists, their signing of the treaty with the Vatican didn’t lack political intentions either. I admit that they were also driven by righteous purposes but basically it was a deal. It was a way for the socialists to win over the Catholic Church.

– Your thoughts that were broadcast on the radio were published a few days ago as a book. At the presentation, before reading a piece called “The homeless Jesus” you referred to the newest regulations about the homeless as “painful and unjust”. I cannot recall though the churches having protested very actively against the criminalization of homelessness.

– We are not hypocrites: everyone knows that this is a complex issue. No one is happy—including me–when he steps out of his house only to see that someone has urinated again in front of the door. Yet, we try to help. My family and I take blankets or food to the homeless finding shelter at the bus stop near us. We are in the middle of preparing a Lutheran statement which basically says that prohibiting the homeless from dwelling in public places is not a solution. The institutional background needs to be developed. As long as there is no sufficient financing and infrastructure, it is meaningless for the mayor of Budapest or others in Parliament to say that there are attractive shelters in the city. Because there are not. It shouldn’t be possible to – or should I say, it is a sin to – criminalize the homeless, especially before we have provided them with sufficient provisions. But your question was why didn’t we protest more loudly. There were some interviews though, in which I and my colleagues working closely with the homeless expressed their opinion. I am proud of our pastor Márta Román Bolba who has spoken at several demonstrations. Together with the members of the group City for Everyone and with the homeless she participated in the civil disobedience action at the meeting of the Council of Budapest.  She did everything she possibly could. It is important to underline that she is not just a “tolerated” person in the Evangelical–Lutheran Church. On the contrary: she is fully supported by the leaders of our church. I wish there were more people like her. At the time of Advent, we have to specially emphasize this service of the church. It is not only deeds of charity but a testimony about Jesus: in his birth, God humiliated and lowered himself to the very deep. I would very much like this insensitive society to hear this radical theological message.

– In your book, you also write about a “sick church.” How serious is this illness and what is its nature?

– It is an illness in itself that we are divided by schisms although God created the church to be one. There are many symptoms. The church often appears to be lame: it moves with difficulty and is slow in its reactions. With Pope Francis, maybe even the big Catholic church will change in this regard. Another symptom is self-importance: the church thinks it always has a solution for every question. Luther makes a clear differentiation between the theology of the glory and the theology of the cross. Smaller neo-Protestant groups often think that success is a blessing from God and that the extent of success shows our proximity to God. Therefore they cling to power as if the place of the church would be on the glorious side. However, Luther teaches that the church has to stand beside the suffering, those on the periphery, the underprivileged and the outcasts. The church is also ill because it has many unsettled issues. One of those is the secret agent issue.

– Unlike the Catholic and the Reformed Church, the Lutheran Church started to reveal its past with a great intensity. Then the process seems to have stopped.

– We haven’t stopped at all. Seemingly there was a break of two years, but during this time exhaustive background work was accomplished. The synod of our church decided that the past of the church leadership has to be explored first. In a few weeks, a sizable book will present full documentation about the lives of two Lutheran bishops, Zoltán Káldy and Ernő Ottlyk.

– Were both of them secret agents?

– Yes. But it is an interesting comparison as it will be visible what a difference there is between one agent and another. You can even compare how they reported about the same event. Zoltán Káldy used the code name Pécsi, Ernő Ottlyk was Szamosi. But it wouldn’t be proper to say more about the details before the book is published. I don’t want to excuse either of the two. But it is true that Zoltán Káldy – helped by signing an agent’s mandate – tried to implement his own ideas about church leadership. Ernő Ottlyk was seeking his own benefit in a distasteful manner, causing real injury to others. As for my personal involvement: I was ordained by Bishop Káldy. In 1983, before travelling to Canada on official business they tried to recruit me. I called my father in a perplexed state. Bishop Káldy was the only other person whom I told what happened. To my great astonishment and joy, he also found it natural that I shouldn’t cooperate. If they approach me once more, I should say I don’t want to work with them and this is also Bishop Káldy’s message, he said. And so I did. They stopped coming to me and there were no unpleasant consequences.

– I was quite shocked to hear a Lutheran professor give a lecture on Luther’s anti-Semitism at a recent conference. How can you accept the fact that the “initiator of Reformation” had anti-Semitic views?

– It is not a pleasant topic to face but it would be even worse to hide it. We have to speak straight.

– Doesn’t it affect one’s faith?

– No. I don’t believe in Luther but in God. On the other hand, I cannot follow his example in this question but in other respects I still do. The Lutheran politician Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinszky also expressed anti-Semitic views in a difficult phase of his life. The great difference is that he was a racist in his youth and later became an anti-fascist. Unfortunately Luther followed a reverse order. Someone said once that it would have been better for poor Luther if God had called him out of this world three years earlier. It was only in the last three years of his life that he expressed anti-Semitic thoughts, not earlier. Of course he had some really unacceptable sentences.

– Even if they weren’t his own invention. He mostly drew on the texts of an earlier author.

– Although the context of the sixteenth century was different from today, a sentence like “set fire to synagogues” should not be written down at any time. In his earlier works, Luther speaks positively of the Jews. His later anti-Semitism casts a shadow over his life work but does not cover it as a whole. His unacceptable statements can only be quoted by the Lutheran church as a negative example. 2013 was the year of tolerance in our church. We organized a series of exhibitions, conferences and cultural events. At a meeting for Lutheran school principals and teachers, we emphasized that in a Lutheran school there is no place for expressing anti-Roma, anti-gay, or anti-Semite views. In this church, there is simply no space for any extremism.

Karl Pfeifer: Interview with Paul A. Shapiro in Vienna

The Vienna Wiesenthal Institute for Holocaust Studies and the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum organized a conference on “Collaboration in Eastern Europe during World War II and the Holocaust.” The three-day conference took place in Vienna between December 5 and 7. The conference aimed at bringing together scholars from all disciplines working on complicity and collaboration in a number of European countries to share their research with each other and the public. Karl Pfeifer, a faithful reader of and contributor to Hungarian Spectrum, was present and arranged an interview with Paul A. Shapiro, Director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies. You may remember Mr. Shapiro’s testimony entitled “The Trajectory of Democracy: Why Hungary Matters,” which was delivered at the hearing of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe on March 20, 2013 and which could be read in its entirety on Hungarian Spectrum. Here is Karl’s interview with Mr. Shapiro.

* * *

Karl Pfeifer: Mr. Shapiro, how do you view this symposium? What is your opinion about it and what are your thoughts on the situation in Eastern Europe? Paul A. Shapiro: The purpose of organizing this symposium together with the Vienna Wiesenthal Institute was to bring together a group of especially young researchers to talk about issues of collaboration during the Holocaust. As you could hear from the lectures, this subject is a very complicated one. It involves more than just the collaboration of states, it involves more than just the collaboration of people who might have joined SS units from among the local population or people who might have been in the local police unit that participated in the crimes of the Nazi era and the murder of the Jews during the era of Nazi domination of Europe. The questions go right to the involvement of bureaucrats, the involvement of professionals, the involvement of individuals who for one reason or another were willing to participate in mass murder or to acquiesce in mass murder or to stand aside thinking that they were playing no role. But, of course, when crimes are being committed, when governments are engaging in the persecution of one group or another, people who stand aside are empowering the persecutors, empowering the perpetrators. To be a so-called bystander is not a neutral act. In fact it is enabling the killers to commit their crimes.

Paul A. Shapiro, delivering his address to the conference /   The Simon Wiesenthal Institute, Vienna

Paul A. Shapiro, delivering his address to the conference / The Simon Wiesenthal Institute, Vienna

You can see large participation here by scholars from countries of the former USSR where this subject is really new since the fall of communism and the disintegration of the USSR. You can see a large number of scholars from the countries of former communist countries of Eastern Europe where the subject of local collaboration could not be addressed in a forthright way in the past. So, our goal was to bring together a group of historians in Vienna. We decided on Vienna because it was easier to organize it physically here rather than in Washington. The idea was to encourage a working process between scholars from the East and the West, especially young people who will work on the subject matter for the next thirty or forty years. We wanted to bring them together to think about one of the most difficult issues from the Holocaust era which is the failure of everyone, of states, of professions, of local organizations, of churches and of individuals to protect people who were members of a society but found themselves with no protection whatsoever.

KP: Let’s go to the next question, about Hungary. You made a very concise and important contribution to the hearing of the American Congress on Hungary and I would like to have your opinion on how one can explain that the country that was the most advanced among the former communist countries after the change of the system became one of the most, I would say, the most dangerous country for the Jews not in the physical sense so much, but where hatred toward Jews is manifested openly and spread in the media close to the government party, Fidesz. Like Echo TV, Magyar Hirlap, a daily, and the weekly Demokrata. What is your opinion about that?

PS: So, you ask me to explain that. This is very complicated. There is a combination of ideology, of seeking to create a new national narrative in the aftermath of the communist era, of anti-Semitism of an old style that has combined to create this situation. Explaining it is very complicated. Understanding what one’s obligation is to do in such a situation is actually less complicated.

KP: Could you tell me?

PS: In this particular situation it would be essential that the Hungarian government, Hungarian society find a way to change the trajectory the country is on.  The country is moving toward increasing hatred of Jews resulting in increasing danger for Jews and other national minorities. We believe that some of this is the result of a desire to obscure or to distort the history of the Holocaust. It is more difficult to promote anti-Semitism when one recognizes the degree of Hungarian participation in the destruction and murder of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews just a few decades ago. It is difficult to justify a positive image, for instance, of Miklós Horthy or the propagandists of the fascist era and the cultural figures of the fascist era, like Nyirő.

KP: Wass, Tormay.

PS: And the result of their actions was mass murder. For our museum the link between contemporary anti-Semitism and distortion of the Holocaust is direct. This is what motivates us to address the historical issues in a direct way. And to encourage the Hungarian government to do the same. Not to simply say that this is a controversial issue. Calling it a controversial issue means that it hasn’t been explained well enough to the population at large. Because the facts are clear. The political motivations extend behind certain actions of the Hungarian government today. This is also clear. It is the government that wants to be reelected. There is strong popular, populist support for the Jobbik party and strong populist support for Fidesz as well, and the government is seeking to ensure its electoral victory in the coming year. This seems to work politically. On the other hand, there are long-term consequences of choosing the path of accepting manifestations of anti-Semitism, of not publicly criticizing in a powerful way members of the government and members of Fidesz who make anti-Semitic statements or who participate in actions to rehabilitate Miklós Horthy or who participate in the inclusion in textbooks of the works of fascist writers without explaining that these people were also killers. This is inexcusable because the long-term consequence of such policies is that the young people of Hungary will think that to be a killer, to be a fascist, was not something wrong. No democratic society will prosper if that is the lesson, if that is taught to young people.

KP: Perfect. Thank you very much, Mr. Shapiro. I appreciated it.

The fate of the Radnóti statue in Abda

The name of Miklós Radnóti has been all over the news in the last week or so. Radnóti, who lost his life in the Holocaust, is considered to be one of the great poets of Hungary. He died on November 10, 1944, during a forced march of a Jewish labor battalion from Bor, Serbia, through Hungary toward the German-Austrian border. Most of the battalion died en route in one way or the other. Radnóti was most likely shot and buried in a mass grave in a small village, Abda, adjacent to the city of Győr. In 1980 a statue was erected in his honor at the site where he was killed.

Why all this sudden interest in Radnóti? First, because on November 15 in Miskolc a neo-Nazi group called the Hungarian National Front decided to make a bonfire of books that were not to their members’ liking. Among the books journalists on the scene discovered was a volume of the complete works of Miklós Radnóti.

The statue of Miklós Radnóti before its destruction

The statue of Miklós Radnóti before its destruction

Some people found that shocking enough, but two days later the country learned the sad news that an unknown perpetrator had destroyed the statue of Radnóti in Abda. A local paper, Kisalföld, first reported the news. When MTI picked up the story, the agency decided to be extremely cautious in its wording: “The Radnóti statue broke.”  Yes, just broke. I guess by itself. The decision makers at MTI liked this description so much that they repeated it every time the fate of the statue came up. Exactly three times.

Soon enough, however, it became known that the statue didn’t just break by itself but that a car hit it with such force that the statue actually broke in half. In fact, the damage is so great that it will have to be replaced by a replica of the original.

The Hungarian left immediately assumed that the destruction of the statue was deliberate and that the motive behind it was anti-Semitism. The politician who is the district’s socialist candidate for next year’s election expressed his opinion that the “guilty ones” will soon be found and that they will get what they deserve.

Meanwhile, the police began to investigate and came to the conclusion that it was a simple car accident. However, if it was an accident, why did the driver flee the scene without reporting it? 444.hu, an investigative Internet paper, immediately raised doubts about the police’s description of the likely events. The journalist pointed out that the statue is at least 10 meters from the main road. In order to run into it one would have to break through a guard rail and drive across a ditch. Here is a picture of the spot and a Google map of the same.

The highway and the evergreens that surrounded the statue

The highway and the evergreens that surrounded the statue

Radnoti szobor2Cink.hu, on the other hand, accused the left-liberal media of manipulation, which they said began already with the local paper that first reported the incident. After all, the reporter of Kisalföld called attention to the fact that this is not the first time that Radnóti’s statue was defaced. A couple of years back someone poured red paint all over it. So, their assumption was that it was a deliberate political act. Cink.hu also found fault with ATV’s reporting of the case and complained in general that the left-liberal media had already decided the case without having any concrete information of the circumstances. The reporter also mentioned that at the time of the accident, around 2 a.m., there was dense fog in the area and it was therefore quite possible that the driver accidentally drove into the statue.

Gépnarancs, a left-wing blog, is also certain that the destruction of statue couldn’t have been accidental. It must, the blogger surmises, have something to do with the Miskolc book burning.

This is what the statue looked like after the accident

This is what the statue looked like after the accident

Within a day the police found an abandoned and badly damaged black Mercedes in Öttevény, a village west of Abda. The next day, on November 19, Szabolcs P., a twenty-five-year-old from Pápa, went to the police and told the following story of accidentally driving into Radnóti’s statue. The car was not his, it was borrowed. He and a friend of his were on their way to Győr to a bar when in the fog he lost his way and accidentally drove across the evergreen shrubs behind the statute and crashed into it. He got scared and drove away, but then he ran out of gas, which is why he abandoned the car in Öttevény. He and his companion hitched a ride to Győr from where they took a bus to Pápa.

The abandoned black Mercedes with damaged left front

The abandoned black Mercedes with damaged left front

The Győr police  seems to be satisfied with this story. However, another local online paper,  inforabakoz.huhas serious doubts about the veracity of Szabolcs P.’s story. According to the driver of the Mercedes they were traveling to Győr, but what remains of the evergreen shrubs indicates that the car hit the statue traveling from the other direction–that is, it was hit by a car traveling away from Győr. From the direction Szabolcs P. claims he hit the statue there are no tire marks. Moreover, the car was found in Öttevény, which is not on the way to Győr where the two men were allegedly heading.

I would also like to add my own observation concerning the damaged car. As one can see, it is the left side of the Mercedes that had to come into in contact with the statue. But if Szabolcs P. was driving toward Győr, it should have been the right-hand side that got damaged.

Interestingly, the website of the Győr police which, by the way, has very little useful information on the accident itself, has a small news item asking people whether the future replacement statue should be surrounded by some kind of barrier, like an iron railing. The article also says that members of the Győr police driving at 50 km/h reached the place where the statue once stood in 7 seconds. And, yes, they were driving from Győr toward Abda and not vice versa as Szabolcs P. claimed he was driving. So, perhaps the police after all know something that they haven’t bothered to share with the public.

These delaying tactics of the Hungarian police are regrettable. It would be much better to inform the public of police findings as soon as possible. Otherwise doubts remain, just as they remain in the case of the Baja video.

Ákos Kertész granted political asylum in Canada

The Hungarian media is stunned. Ákos Kertész, a Kossuth Prize-winning Hungarian author, received political asylum in Canada because he feared for his life after he wrote an article in  Amerikai Népszava, published in New York and available on the Internet. I wrote two articles about the Kertész case, the first on September 7, 2011, shortly after the appearance of the controversial article, and the second on March 4, 2012, right after the news spread in Hungarian Internet circles that Kertész had arrived in Montreal on February 29 and had turned to immigration authorities asking for political asylum.  A Hungarian-language press release was sent to Hungarian media organs officially announcing Kertész’s arrival in Canada.

Following the appearance of Ákos Kertész’s open letter in the Amerikai-Magyar Népszava [on August 29, 2011] a hate campaign was launched against him not only in the City Council of Budapest but also in Parliament. At the insistence of Jobbik, the anti-Semite Hungarian Nazi party, the City Council’s pro-government majority deprived him of his Freedom of Budapest award. The pro-government media openly incited the extremists against him. As a result he was exposed to constant physical harassment and threats. He was physically attacked in public. He felt that his life was in danger.

There must be grave reasons for an eighty-year-old writer who is attached to his birthplace in a million ways to come to such a decision and to take such a step full of risks. Kertész’s case says a lot about a country from which a writer must escape because of one of his writings. 

Kertész said, ‘I came to this conclusion with grave difficulty because for me the Hungarian language means life. Hungary is my birthplace, my home. I made this painful decision not against Hungary and the Hungarian people with whom I always shared the same fate. I was forced to make this decision because of the current Hungarian government. I hope that one day I will be able to return to a democratic, tolerant, humane Hungary.’ Otherwise, for the time being the writer is not going to make public statements concerning his decision.

What did Ákos Kertész do that so upset the Hungarian government, the leadership of the City of Budapest, and the right-wing media? In an open letter he bitterly complained about Hungarians who are “genetically servile”and who therefore allow the dictatorial Viktor Orbán to rule over them. He compared his fellow Hungarians to pigs who for the slop the farmer puts in front of them happily grunt, not realizing that they will be killed.

You can imagine what the reaction to this letter was. Although he admitted that his choice of the word “genetically” made no sense, the attacks on him continued for about six months. When it became known that Kertész had asked for political asylum in Canada, Szentkorona Rádió, a far-right Internet publication, included a picture of a pig with the caption: “He can go to Canada to grunt.”

At that time I noted that Kertész’s arrival in Canada and his description of his experiences before his departure might have an adverse effect on the Orbán’s government’s standing in the West. Because from there on it doesn’t matter how often government officials or Fidesz politicians try to convince the world that there is no anti-Semitism in Hungary, it will be very difficult to maintain that fiction.

Ákos Kertész at home in Canada

Ákos Kertész at home in Canada

Now that Kertész  has been granted refugee status in Canada that fiction is definitely dead. The Canadian government’s decision ratifies the claim that if the Hungarian authorities and certain segments of the Hungarian public find that criticism by a Hungarian with Jewish roots is “unfair,” they harass, threaten, and physically attack him. This is what happened to Kertész, who is 80 years old and “does not wish to fight any longer,” as he told Anna Porter, who wrote a short article dealing with his political asylum status in Maclean’s.

Many of Kertész’s books–there are about twenty all told–have been translated into multiple languages, though not into English. I learned from Anna Porter’s article that his best known novel, Makra, will be published shortly in Canada.

Kertész has begun a new life in Canada, which he considers to be “an island of peace and tolerance.” Kertész wrote a longer article, the first since his arrival in Canada, for Amerikai Népszava in which he expressed his “deep gratitude to Canada” and thank to his old and new friends, including the editor-in-chief of the paper, László Bartus. He called Amerikai Népszava “the bravest Hungarian paper which is the most consistent representative of human rights [and] liberal democracy” and praised its readership for their democratic, tolerant and intelligent comments. This readership appreciates Ákos Kertész’s devotion to democracy and his bravery for taking such a big step. It is worth taking a look at the comments that follow his article. They wish him all the luck and happiness in his new country. So do I.

New poll on Hungarian anti-Semitism

In the last few days I have encountered a number of studies, television interviews, and polls on Hungarian anti-Semitism. The inspiration for this sudden burst of information is undoubtedly an international conference organized by the Tom Lantos Institute, which is described as “an independent human and minority rights organization with a particular focus on Jewish and Roma communities and other transnational minorities.” So far their activities have been meager and even their website is unfinished. This conference, held in the chamber of the former Upper House of the Hungarian Parliament, was a closed affair for invited guests only, most of whom were foreigner visitors.

I should actually devote a whole post to the rocky history of the Institute, which is currently an instrument of the Hungarian government whose attitude toward the issue of anti-Semitism is ambivalent at best. On the one hand, the government tries to convince the world of its progressive attitude and fair handling of the issue and, on the other, it promotes the rehabilitation of the Horthy regime in which several discriminatory laws were enacted which eventually led to the horror of the Hungarian Holocaust. Moreover, for political reasons the governing party, Fidesz, usually placates the neo-Nazi anti-Semitic Jobbik party by giving in to their demands, which often entails the rehabilitation of anti-Semitic characters from the past. That’s why Stefan J. Bos of BosNewsLife entitled his article on the Lantos Institute’s conference “Hungary’s Crocodile Tears Over the Holocaust.”

Let’s see the results of some recent studies on anti-Semitism in Hungary. According to the sociologist András Kovács, who conducted about fifteen such studies between 1993 and 2011, the number of anti-Semites has grown over the years, especially since 2009, but he adds that the Hungarian population is quite xenophobic in general, and when they were asked about their attitude towards the Arabs, the Gypsies, the Blacks, the Chinese, the Hungarian Germans, and the Jews, the Jews actually came off best. That is, they were hated the least. Still, the percentage of people who vehemently hate the Jews jumped from 9% to about 20% between 2009 and 2013.

A few days ago a new poll was taken by Political Capital, which focuses exclusively on Internet users. So, the poll is skewed because in Hungary relatively few people over the age of 60 use the Internet. The percentage of young people included in this poll is higher than in the population as a whole. According to Political Capital, those for whom Jews are “antipathetic” make up 28% of the adult population. I tried to use the equivalent of the Hungarian original (ellenszenvezők) instead of “anti-Semitic” (antiszemiták) because the latter linguistic choice would probably have altered the results. “Anti-Semitic” is certainly a more loaded term than “antipathetic.” The team conducting the survey also offered a “sympathetic” (rokonszenvezők) category, and the percentage of the sample who opted for that choice was surprisingly high, 34%. The percentage of those who claim to be neutral is also high, 26%.

Not surprisingly, there are great differences in people’s attitudes toward Jews when it comes to party preferences. Jobbik has the highest percentage of anti-Semites, 75%, while E14, LMP, and DK have the lowest, 14%. Fidesz voters show an interesting pattern: 33% dislike Jews, 27% claim to be neutral, 22% like them, and a very large percentage in comparison to the others simply have no opinion, 18%. Among MSZP voters the percentage of those who find Jews to be an unsympathetic lot is almost as high as among Fidesz voters but at the same time 45% of them actually sympathize with Jews and only 15% are neutral on the issue.

The researchers of Political Capital call attention to the fact that “anti-Semitism is a politically induced phenomenon.” Although in terms of percentages Fidesz and Jobbik voters are very far from each other on anti-Semitism and although the difference is relatively small between Fidesz and MSZP, when it comes to hard-core anti-Semitism (including a belief in theories of an international Jewish conspiracy) Fidesz and Jobbik anti-Semites are very close to one another. Here is the graphic illustrating Political Capital’s contention. In the lower left quadrant are anti-Semites of the parties who don’t believe in conspiracy theories while in the upper right quadrant are the Jobbik and Fidesz anti-Semites who do believe in conspiracy theories.

Fidesz-Jobbik antisemites

That is, the nature of Fidesz-Jobbik anti-Semitism is fundamentally different from that on the democratic side. But why? Political Capital’s researchers claim that anti-Semitism is a politically induced phenomenon. Well, that is quite clear in the case of Jobbik because this party’s messages are unequivocal. The party’s sympathizers are barraged with hard-core anti-Semitic messages. But what’s happening in Fidesz? I suspect that the double talk and ambivalence that can found in Fidesz communication is responsible for the high number of Fidesz believers in an international Jewish conspiracy. Some Fidesz voters view the incessant anti-foreign, anti-capitalism remarks as coded anti-Semitic messages and translate them into unambiguous statements. Moreover, it is often asserted that about 30% of Fidesz voters are already so far to the right that they could easily vote for Jobbik. In fact, many of them indicate Jobbik as their second choice when asked by pollsters.

I think that those who fall for the “crocodile tears” should keep all of this in mind. Viktor Orbán, who is politically very savvy and who has his finger on the pulse of his followers, believes that he cannot ignore the feelings of his flock. Whether he is an anti-Semite or not doesn’t really matter. What matters is his careful tiptoeing around this issue for the sake of his followers whose anti-Semitism is deeply ingrained.

Linguistic misunderstandings in a Hungarian context

On a Sunday in the middle of the summer not much is going on, and therefore I’m free to move away from everyday politics and venture into something I find equally exciting. Some history and some linguistics. Well, it is not very high level linguistics I’m talking about but rather the difficulties of understanding the true meanings of words, especially in a foreign language.

By way of background I should mention that Rui Tavares is the latest target of the Orbán government and its satellite media. He is right up there near Ferenc Gyurcsány and Gordon Bajnai. I happen to think that he’s in pretty good company since I view both Gyurcsány and Bajnai as among the best Hungarian politics has to offer today. Ignorance and bias are the charges most frequently leveled against Tavares. A reporter for HírTV thought that he could unequivocally prove in a single stroke that Tavares is both ignorant and biased.

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Breughel

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Breughel

Magyar Nemzet triumphantly announced that, interestingly enough, “the discriminatory” Dutch constitution doesn’t seem to bother Rui Tavares even as he tries to find fault with the Hungarian Basic Laws. It turned out that this information about the allegedly faulty Dutch constitution came from a HírTV  reporter. Armed with this “damaging” passage, the reporter went off to Brussels to confront Rui Tavares, who didn’t have a ready “yes or no” answer about the passage in question. The reporter was convinced that he now had proof positive that Tavares, in his zeal to condemn the Hungarian constitution, had turned a blind eye to the discriminatory Dutch constitution. Both Magyar Nemzet and HírTV were elated.

There was one very serious problem with this discovery. Our reporter’s English left something to be desired. The sentence in question in the Dutch constitution reads in English translation: “The right of every Dutch national to a free choice of work shall be recognized.” The Hungarian reporter thought that the word “national” here referred to “those of Dutch nationality” and after all, he argued, there are citizens of the Netherlands who are not of Dutch extraction. But “national” as a noun in English means “citizen” or “subject.”

By the way, the title of  this particular episode of  his TV show “Célpont” was “Tavaris és Tavares,” a stupid pun on “tovarish” or “comrade” in Russian. I don’t think that HírTV ever corrected the false statements about the Dutch constitution. Those who want to take the trouble to watch this episode will have a fair idea of the quality and tone of HírTV.

Well, this was an error committed by a Hungarian interpreting the meaning of a non-Hungarian word. But it can happen the other way around as well. Here is a good example from 1989.

This time we have to go back to the career of Zoltán Bíró, the anti-Semitic literary historian who was just named to head a new research institute that is supposed to rewrite the history of regime change in Hungary. A few days ago I mentioned him and dwelt briefly on his political career. At this point I quoted Zoltán Ripp who wrote an excellent book on the change of regime covering the years between 1987 and 1990. In it he mentions that Bïró had a significant role to play in reviving the old cleavage and enmity between the “népi-nemzeti” and “urbanista” traditions. As I’ve often said, rendering “népi-nemzeti” into English is well-nigh impossible. In any case, the New York Times article which I couldn’t find translated these two troublesome words as “populist-nationalist.” And with it came a huge misunderstanding.

János Avar, the well-known journalist and an expert on U.S. politics and history, e-mailed me right after the appearance of my post on Bíró. He called my attention to an article he wrote on this very subject in 2007. He did find The New York Times article, but because Bíró and others at the time gave the date as September 28 I never suspected that the article in question actually appeared only on October 25. Avar had more patience and was more thorough than yours truly.

The American reporter for the NYT in Budapest at the time gave a fair description of the by-now famous gathering in Lakitelek in September 1987 and mentioned that those who gathered there were “népiesek” and “nemzetiek,” which he rendered as “populists and nationalists.” The Hungarians on the spot had to be the ones who tried to explain to the American the correct meaning of these words.  According to Avar, “népies” is a mirror translation of the German “völkisch” which recently has taken on a fairly sinister meaning. My favorite German on-line dictionary says that “völkisch” means nationalist, nationalistic, ethnic, racist, voelkisch. However, it is certainly not “populist,” which we use to mean appealing to the interests or prejudices of ordinary people.

The völkisch/narodnik/népies Hungarians were up in arms and immediately suspected that the article was the result of some kind of Jewish conspiracy of the urbanists who were trying to blacken their names in the West. They suspected that the article was not really written by the reporter for The New York Times but was “dictated” by one of the Jewish members of the Democratic Opposition. They were convinced that the words “populist” and “nationalist” were code words for anti-Semites.

As János Avar rightly points out in his 2007 article,  neither “Jewish” nor “anti-Semitism” was, as in Hungary, a taboo word in the United States. If the reporter had been told that there was an anti-Semitic tinge to the gathering, he would not have hesitated to say so.

Don’t think that this was just a fleeting episode that is not worth bothering about today. Bíró as well as other right-wing and anti-Semitic nationalists continue to bring up the allegedly unpatriotic and antagonistic behavior of the Democratic Opposition toward themselves, the true patriots. In their eyes the urbanists were not true Hungarians. They wanted to imitate the West instead of returning to true Hungarian roots. Since there were a fair number of urbanists who were of Jewish extraction, the völkisch crowd found its domestic enemies. It was perhaps Bíró’s and some of his cohorts’ bad conscience that assigned unintended meanings to the words “populist” and “nationalist.”