Hungarian Constitution of 1989

Jobbik is not a neo-Nazi party. At least not according to a Hungarian judge

First, before I recount the encounter of László Karsai with Jobbik, I should perhaps refresh your memory of the man. He is best  known as a historian of the Hungarian Holocaust, but his field of competence is much broader. He even wrote a book about the nationality question in France and another on the Flemish and the Walloons in Belgium. He studied the question of the Hungarian Gypsies between 1919 and 1945. If  readers of Hungarian Spectrum know his name it may be because I wrote about a controversy that erupted as a result of his refusal to attend a conference in Norway on Raoul Wallenberg. Karsai was one of the invited guests, but he backed out after he learned that Géza Jeszenszky, Hungarian ambassador to Norway, was one of the sponsors. Géza Jeszenszky wrote a university textbook on national minorities in East-Central Europe, and his chapter on the Gypsies was full of inaccuracies and reeked of prejudice.

Karsai can be controversial. For example, at the moment he is working on a biography of Ferenc Szálasi, the founder of the extreme right-wing Arrow Cross party. He discovered a number of new documents that prove that the generally accepted scholarly opinion of Szálasi might not be accurate. Especially with respect to Szálasi’s views on the Hungarian Jewry. On the other hand, he is convinced that Miklós Horthy knew more about the death camps than he later claimed. So, he does what a good historian should do: he tries to seek the truth even if it might not please some people.

As I noted earlier (more or less in passing), László Karsai is once again in the limelight. This time Jobbik sued him because in December 2011 Karsai called it a neo-Nazi party. He made the statement in the course of an interview on ATV’s early morning program called “Start.”

Jobbik’s leadership took its sweet time before deciding to make a court case out of the “incident.” It took Jobbik half a year to discover that its good reputation had been damaged by Karsai, but then they demanded satisfaction. One reason for the delay may have been that Karsai uttered his half a sentence on Jobbik’s ideological makeup in the course of discussing the emerging Horthy cult. The discussion wasn’t so much about Jobbik as about Jobbik’s attitude toward the Horthy regime.

Jobbik sought a verdict that would find that the party’s reputation had been impinged upon by Karsai; moreover, they demanded an apology from the historian. Karsai’s lawyer, on the other hand, argued that the nature of a party’s ideology is not a question that can be decided by court proceedings. It belongs to the free flow of scholarly debate within the historical community.

Jobbik tuntetok

Jobbik categorically denies that it is a Nazi or neo-Nazi party although there is extensive proof that the leading members of the party made no effort to hide their racism and anti-Semitism. Some of the organizations Jobbik has strategic alliances with proudly call themselves national socialists., which may be Jobbik’s publication, often talks about Adolf Hitler in laudatory terms.

The real question, however, is not whether Jobbik is a neo-Nazi party but whether this historical question can be debated publicly and whether judges are the ones who should decide this issue.

The historical community itself is divided on the question. Rudolf Paksa, a historian who wrote a book on the history of the Hungarian extreme right, claims that “Jobbik is definitely not a neo-Nazi party in the scientific sense. It is anti-Semitic, racist, homophobic and chauvinistic, but all these together still do not make it a neo-Nazi party. After all, there are no indications that Jobbik wants to establish a totalitarian dictatorship, which is an absolutely essential characteristic of national socialism.” At the same time Paksa found it outrageous that Jobbik wanted to decide the issue in a court of law. Paksa testified back in January that he hoped the judge would respect the freedom of expression and opinion.

After hearing the arguments, the judge decided to postpone the decision. It wasn’t until March 22, 2013 that the verdict was handed down by Péter Attila Takács, the presiding judge. According to Takács, Karsai besmirched the good name and reputation of Jobbik by calling it a neo-Nazi party. Karsai will have to pay 66,000 forints in court costs and within fifteen days he will have to apologize in writing, an apology that Jobbik may make public.

Why did Takács rule this way? The rationale for the verdict is, to my mind, peculiar to say the least. The problem, Takács wrote, is that the characterization of the party by Karsai didn’t take place as part of a scholarly discussion about the ideological makeup of Jobbik but in the context of the developing rehabilitation of the Horthy regime. Therefore it cannot be considered part of a scientific exchange.

Since then the verdict has become available in Beszélő (March 26, 2013) and I read with some interest that the judge, among other things, forbids László Karsai “from further infringement of the law.” How can one interpret this? Does it mean that in the future he cannot call Jobbik a neo-Nazi party if the conversation is not about Jobbik itself? Or that in certain circumstances he can label it as such without breaking the law? It’s hard to tell.

The important thing is that the judge found Jobbik’s arguments well founded and cited two paragraphs of the 1989 Constitution that was in force at the time of the incident. Paragraph 59(1) stipulates that “in the Republic of Hungary everyone is entitled to the protection of his or her reputation and to privacy, including the privacy of the home, of personal effects, particulars, papers, records and data, and to the privacy of personal affairs and secrets.” In addition, the judge cited paragraph 61(1)  that states that “in the Republic of Hungary everyone has the right to the free declaration of his views and opinions, and has the right of access to information of public interest, and also the freedom to disseminate such information.” I find the second line of reasoning truly outrageous. Jobbik has the right to the free declaration of its views and opinions but not László Karsai. Absolutely brilliant.

Naturally, László Karsai is appealing the verdict. Reading it, I had the feeling that Judge Takács might not have been the most impartial judge. Here are a couple of telling details from the verdict. Jobbik’s history is described in the most benign terms as a youth movement whose goal was “to unite young people committed to the national ideal.” “Well known people supported them: Mária Wittner, Gergely P0ngrácz, Gy. László Tóth, István Lovas, Mátyás Usztics.”  The judge forgot to mention that these well known personalities all belong to the extreme right. Jobbik wanted to offer “an alternative for radical right-wing voters.” Jobbik’s parliamentary caucus is the second largest after Fidesz-KDNP, and they have representation in the European Parliament. So, there is nothing wrong with it, I guess. This decision is a boost to Jobbik and the extreme right.

I might also mention that unfortunately Hungarian courts do not subscribe to the tenets of case law. If the judge had followed precedent, Karsai should have been exonerated because in 2010 Gábor Vona sued László Bartus, editor-in-chief of the Amerikai-Magyar Népszava published in New York. Bartus called Jobbik “a rotten, fascist, Nazi” party. The court dropped the case against Bartus, claiming that the editor simply exercised his right to free expression. The vagaries of Hungarian jurisprudence. It will always remain a mystery to me.