neo nazis

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.

Viktor Orbán and the 4000-year-old history of marriage between one man and one woman

The Budapest Pride, a yearly parade of gays, lesbians, and their supporters, was held on Saturday. About ten years ago these parades normally took place without much to-do, but the growth of the far right changed all that. Instead of being a free-wheeling, joyous affair, it is now a “march” between a wall of policemen. Beyond the cordons are the frenzied, screaming neo-Nazis.

The parade itself went off peacefully enough. But once it was over and the crowd dispersed, three people were brutally attacked by a group of thirty skinheads dressed in black uniforms. Policemen arrived on the scene quickly. But instead of going after the attackers, they demanded ID cards from the victims. They simply let the attackers leave. Opposition parties are demanding a police investigation.

It turned out that Ulrike Lunacek, an Austrian Green member of the European Parliament, was among those marching in the parade. Readers of Hungarian Spectrum may recall her as the person who had a serious run-in with Zsolt Bayer, who talked about her on HírTV in a truly unspeakable manner. I often wondered whether Bayer knew that Lunacek is a lesbian. I suspect that he didn’t, at least at the time. Otherwise, he would have used even stronger and even less acceptable language.

In any case, while Lunacek was in Budapest she had a chat with a reporter for Népszabadság. The conversation soon turned to a discussion of Viktor Orbán’s performance in the European Parliament last week. In his speech Orbán tried to defend the Hungarian parliament’s decision to include in the constitution a definition of marriage as the joining of  “one man and one woman.”  Whatever you think of this definition, as usual he didn’t do a good job researching the topic of marriage from a historical perspective. He asserted that “marriage between one man and one woman is a Judaeo-Christian tradition going back 4,000 years.”

gender symbolsUlrike Lunacek pointed out that marriage in the sense of a civil contract is relatively new, starting only a couple of hundred years ago. She might have added, more to the point, that there is also something dreadfully wrong with the 4,000 years. According to most Biblical scholars, polygyny continued to be practiced well into the biblical period in ancient Israel. In fact, there were instances among the population in Israel as late as the second century CE. The Torah is full of laws governing the practice of polygamy, and we know of several prominent Biblical figures who had more than one wife. For example, Esau, Jacob, David, and Solomon. Even Herod with the special permission of the Romans.

In Greece the situation was the same. The richer the man the more wives he had. Marriages, just as in ancient Israel, were arranged. By the age of fourteen girls were married off to men who were usually a great deal older. The average marriage age for men in ancient Greece was about 30.

Rome was different. It was a strictly monogamous society. Marriage meant the joining in matrimony of one man and one woman. It was a very strict rule, and that’s why Herod had to get special permission from his Roman overlords to have more than one wife.

So, we can forget about the 4,000 years. Our views on marriage today come largely from the teachings of Jesus and the Roman practice of monogamy. I’m no Biblical scholar, so I can’t judge whether there was any connection between Roman marital mores and those of the Judaean society in which Jesus lived.

It is hard to tell from where this erroneous  information about the marital practices of ancient times comes from. But Christian Democratic politicians keep repeating this magic number, which is wrong no matter what calendar they use. The only thing I don’t understand is why Zoltán Balog, Orbán’s spiritual adviser who is after all a Protestant minister, doesn’t straighten him out on the subject. He, as opposed to the Catholic Christian Democrats, ought to be familiar with the Bible.

The Orbán government’s swift move toward the far right

I wrote about some of the people who received high awards from the Orbán government on March 15, one of the official national holidays in Hungary. They were either racist, antisemitic neo-Nazis or representatives of unscientific, bogus “scholarship” whose numbers have been growing in Hungary in the last twenty years or so. The greatest attention was showered on Ferenc Szaniszló, who received the Táncsics Prize from Zoltán Balog.

I left the story at the point that Zoltán Balog claimed that he knew nothing about Szaniszló’s program on EchoTV. He simply accepted the recommendation of the committee appointed by the Orbán government and made up of right-leaning journalists. Balog also insisted that he couldn’t withdraw the prize. Either Szaniszló gives it back on his own volition or everything remains as is. (I might mention here that when the writer Ákos Kertész made the mistake of saying something derogatory about Hungarians his honorary citizenship of Budapest was withdrawn without the slightest difficulty.) In any case, Balog wrote a letter to Szaniszló in which he practically begged him to return the prize. He did, but only after he delivered another of his harangues on March 18 in an extra edition of Világ-Panoráma. This extra edition was just as long as his other programs, but this time it dealt only with all the indignities he had to suffer from the “szocik” and the “liberok.” One shouldn’t have expected anything else, but at least at the end he announced that he would return the prize–but not to the ministry but to the U.S. Embassy!

Balog might have thought that his troubles were over, but then came the revelation in Heti Válasz, a right-wing, pro-Fidesz publication, that Balog hadn’t told the truth earlier. The committee didn’t recommend Szaniszló for the prize. In fact, as Ágnes Osztovits, who is on the staff of Heti Válasz, revealed, the committee endorsed only one person, a reporter for Magyar Rádió, out of the three who eventually received the awards. In addition to Szaniszló, Márta Ágnes Vertse of Vatikán Rádió was also picked by the ministry against the advice of the nominating committee. Moreover, Heti Válasz learned who promoted Szaniszló and Vertse. None other than the new undersecretary in charge of cultural affairs, János Halász. Balog doesn’t seem to have much luck with his undersecretaries. He couldn’t get along with László L. Simon, who after eight months was fired, and now here is Balog’s own man who immediately gets him into trouble. Both the American and the Israeli embassies officially protested and demanded immediate action in connection with the case.

Szaniszló became an international cause célèbre, although he wasn’t the only one whose recognition by the Hungarian government was questionable. Let’s start with the award of the “Magyar Érdemrend középkeresztje” to Gábor Széles, who is the owner of the very EchoTV that employs Szaniszló in addition to Zsolt Bayer. Széles is also the owner of Magyar Hírlap where Zsolt Bayer is senior editor. Or there is Kornél Bakay, the “archaeologist” who received the “Magyar Érdemrend Tisztikereszt (polgári tagozat)” on March 15. When he was the director of the museum in Szombathely in 2003 Bakay organized an exhibit entitled “Soldiers of Horthy, Arrowmen of Szálasi.” On the basis of this exhibit it became clear that Bakay is “an enthusiastic propagandist of the Szálasi cult.” After a huge outcry the exhibit was dismantled.

The government claims that these awards, decorations, and prizes demonstrate the “Hungarian nation’s recognition of and gratitude to those who represent the best of the nation.” So, let’s see what János Petrás, lead singer of the “nemzeti” rock band, represents because he also received the “Magyar Arany Érdemkereszt (polgári tagozat).” This pride of the nation said at the “Magyar Sziget” neo-Nazi gathering in 2009: “Those people–who are really not human as far as we are concerned–are misfits, inferior somethings. They are gay and they are proud of it….One day this breed will become extinct. They should go somewhere and live together but separately. We will pass a law that will state that we don’t tolerate this perversity.”

It is hard to imagine that all these awards, prizes, and decorations given to people belonging to the far right are simply mistakes. There is a concerted effort to court the Hungarian neo-Nazis. It is government policy. So is the whipping up of nationalist sentiment.

Orbán imitates members of the Magyar GárdaPhoto MTI / Attila Kovács

Orbán imitates the uniform of the Magyar Gárda
Photo MTI / Attila Kovács

This morning I was reading about Viktor Orbán’s latest Friday morning interview on Magyar Rádió when I noticed something that might be significant. Normally on such an occasion Orbán wears a suit but no tie. This morning it was brisk in Budapest. During the day, around 6°C. At 7:00 a.m. it was most likely close to O°. Yet Orbán appeared in a white shirt with a black vest. An outfit preferred by people who are close to Jobbik or the far right in general. Journalists noted, for example, that Attila Vidnyánszky, the new director of the National Theater, began wearing this type of outfit lately; he seems to have committed his career to creating a truly “national” theater.

I suspect that Orbán’s choice of clothing this morning was a conscious decision to be identified with the Hungarian far right. The outfit was certainly appropriate, given the content of the speech in which he made no bones about his determination not to accept lectures or limits on Hungary’s national sovereignty from Brussels. As one of the headlines in a paper reporting on the speech read, “Orbán: They shouldn’t phone here from Brussels.” And that was before it became known that José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, will in the future personally oversee all contested issues concerning the amendments to the Hungarian constitution. Perhaps it is not only telephone calls that should stop coming from Brussels. What about money?