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.

* * *

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 magnificence of Hungarians

Viktor Orbán normally gives “interviews” on Magyar Rádió on Friday mornings. Why did I put the word interview in quotation marks? Because these weekly performances are not really interviews. I’m convinced that the questions posed are not new to the prime minister. I wouldn’t be surprised if his office supplied the radio station with the material ahead of time. So, the reporter’s questions simply serve as a vehicle for Orbán’s messages to the nation on any given week.

Some of these weekly orations are not worth spending time on. They are just rehashes of government propaganda. But there are always some that are worth dissecting. Yesterday’s was one of the more memorable ones because there were so many false numbers, illogical statements, and highly controversial word usage.

Let me start with the last item. Yesterday I must have gotten at least a dozen letters from my friends in Hungary and elsewhere expressing their dismay at Viktor Orbán’s reference to Hungarians as a special kind of people. And now I have to bore you with the meaning of a Hungarian word that Orbán used twice during this interview. The word is “fajta.” “Faj” means race or species and “fajta” is a subgroup within it. But it can also mean “kind” or “sort.” So, for example, you might ask at the farmers’ market “what kind of apples” the farmer is selling. Or, you might be curious about the kind of dogs the Obamas have. Some dictionaries also translate the word as “race.” You could also translate the word as “stock,” meaning blood relations or inherited characteristics. In any case, Orbán talked about the Hungarian “fajta” twice during his interview.

Viktor Orbán in Magyar Rádió / Photo Szilárd Koszticsák, MTI

Viktor Orbán at Magyar Rádió / Photo Szilárd Koszticsák, MTI

Pusztaranger, the foremost German-language blog on Hungarian politics, devoted two posts to the question. In the first article, the blogger used the word “Rasse” which later was changed to “Spezies.” In either case, as we can see, “race” and “species” can in certain instances be interchangeable, and Viktor Orbán is a master of this kind of double talk. On the one hand, using a word with an ambiguous meaning allows him to claim total innocence of the charge of racist motives while, on the other hand, he can please his right-wing followers by pointing out the special, superior attributes of Hungarians that distinguish them from the rest of mankind.

The topics Orbán covered Friday are wide-ranging and I can’t cover them all. Therefore I will concentrate on two related topics, the specific values that distinguish Hungarians from other nationalities and how these values translate into the alleged economic success of the Orbán government.

This subject came up at the very beginning of the interview after the reporter inquired about the secret of the “surprisingly good economic results” achieved in the third quarter of the year. Did they have something to do with increased agricultural yields thanks to the good weather or were they perhaps due to the economic policies of the government?

And here is the modest and totally illogical answer. No, the good numbers have nothing to do with either. We must thank “the people who want to work.” Four or five years ago “we were a country where many thought they would rather live on the dole than work…. It is a cultural change, a change in mentality, that is behind our achievement–what I mean, behind the country’s achievement.” I assume I don’t have to dwell on the absurdity of this claim. The first problem is that the economy is not better than it was four or five years ago; it is worse. And the explanation for economic growth as simply the willingness of people to work is total nonsense. The serious economic crises in the 1930s or in the 2008-20012 period had nothing to do with lazy people who refused to get out of bed.

I suspect, however, that Orbán truly believes this absurdity because later he returned to the theme: “There is growth in Hungary if the people want to work harder. And people want to work more if they see a reason to do so.” Here, of course, he is alluding to the very unjust flat tax introduced by the Orbán government, what Gordon Bajnai called Viktor Orbán’s “original sin.” As if people’s well-being depended solely on the number of hours they work or how hard they work. We know that, thanks to the flat tax, the rich have grown richer and the poor and middling sort are doing worse financially. Naturally, this income disparity is not a result of the rich working harder and the rest of society slacking off.

Yet Orbán repeats this nonsense ad nauseam and couples it with a paean to the virtues of Hungarians. “The Hungarian is an industrious kind [fajta]. There are groups of people where this is not so unequivocal, but in Hungary if an opportunity presents itself and if the people see that with more work one can prosper then they will be willing to work harder and longer hours…. In my opinion this is the engine of economic growth in Hungary. This new public spirit, this new mentality, the vital instinct, this Hungarian vital instinct.” One could ask which groups of people or nations Orbán had in mind when he alluded to societies whose members are slothful. Moreover, today there are almost half a million people who cannot find work in Hungary. Another half a million have already left Hungary to try their luck abroad. What are we talking about?

And finally about half way through the interview Orbán again used the controversial word “fajta.” “We are an endangered species. Our numbers continually decrease. There are more burials than christenings. Consequently, as long as we don’t turn this tendency around, it doesn’t matter how well we might live; in reality, the Hungarian nation, individually and collectively, cannot feel secure. In fact, we will be in a serious life threatening situation.”

Since when do we talk about burials and christenings instead of the birth rate and mortality rate? I guess since Orbán discovered his religious soul. First of all, not all inhabitants of Hungary are Christians. Second, I know that a lot of parents don’t bother to have their children baptized, especially since the churches are unwilling to baptize a child whose parents themselves were not baptized or whose marriage was not blessed by the church. As for having a church wedding, the “pagan” couple must undergo extensive religious education prior to the wedding ceremony. Not too many people will go to all that trouble. So, I suspect that there are many children who never get baptized, especially since about 25% of the adult population describe themselves as atheists. As for the burials. More and more people dispense with burials and opt for scattering the ashes of their loved ones in their favorite forests or in the Danube.

Viktor Orbán sees a Hungary that doesn’t exist; it is a figment of his imagination. I’m convinced that by now he cannot distinguish between the imagined and the real. But yes, I agree with him that Hungarians are in grave danger–as long as they are led by someone like Viktor Orbán.