Roma Holocaust

A week in Hungary: worrisome developments

There is no silly season or “uborka szezon” in Hungary this year. In fact, I could easily write three or four times a day about not at all silly stories. Today I decided to catch up and offer a smorgasbord of “illiberal” news.

Let’s start with Zoltán Balog’s unfortunate statement about the Gypsy Holocaust on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the murder of thousands of Gypsies in Auschwitz. Balog, minister of human resources and a very close associate and spiritual adviser of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, has an uncanny knack for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.

On Sunday morning Balog was interviewed on the state radio’s program Vasárnapi Újság. This program, even during the socialist-liberal government, was known for its far-right tendencies, but it was a favorite of Viktor Orbán who often appeared there. Balog was asked to say a few words appropriate for the occasion. Instead of paying tribute to the Roma victims of the Holocaust, he began ruminating about the proper historical interpretation of the deportation of the Hungarian Gypsies while showing a total ignorance of the details. He said that there are a lot of uncertainties–for example, the  number of victims–and offered up the nonsensical excuse that “no Hungarian Gypsies were ever deported from Hungary. Only from Austria.” He also had some advice for the Roma. They shouldn’t dwell too much on tragic events because Gypsy culture is already prone to portray its members as victims, as people who are at the bottom of society. And such an attitude hurts their chances of success.

The reaction in opposition circles was uniformly negative to this latest Balog faux pas. A lot of people interpreted Balog’s words as Holocaust denial or at least a diminishing of its importance. Historians expressed their astonishment that the minister in charge of Hungary’s Roma strategy knows so little about the details of the events of 1944 and the fate of about 5,000 Hungarian Roma who perished and the tens of thousands who were deported.

As usual came the standard excuse: his adversaries misinterpreted his words, although this time he added that he could have expressed himself more clearly. Instead of admitting his mistake, however, he launched into an attack against his political opponents. It is not he “who has to explain himself but the Left under whose governance Gypsies were murdered in Hungary.” As if the Gyurcsány-Bajnai governments were responsible for the serial murders of several Gypsies.

Now let’s move on to another story that broke a few days ago. Some eagle-eyed journalist found an interesting picture on the front page of the publication of the Hungarian Medical Association. It was taken in the enormous study of Viktor Orbán in the parliamentary building when the president and the vice president of the association paid a visit to the prime minister. In the background a poster depicting the crown and the Hungarian colors reads: Győzelem (Victory).

A few telephone calls to historians revealed that the poster was designed by Sándor Légrády (1906-1987), who made quite a name for himself as a designer of Hungarian stamps. The poster Viktor Orbán so proudly displays in his office was done in 1940-41 to commemorate the Hungarian army’s entry into the territories Hungary received in the Second Vienna Award (August 30, 1940). I might add that Légrády was a politically committed person who in 1941 became an undersecretary in the prime minister’s office ( Bárdossy government, April 1940-March 1942) and who was later transferred to the ministry of defense. Because of his posters extolling the war he was briefly detained in 1945 but was acquitted two years later.

Viktor Orbán's study with the controversial poster in the background

Viktor Orbán’s study with the controversial poster in the background

What is such a poster doing in the Hungarian prime minister’s office? The official account is that he received the poster as a gift after the 2014 parliamentary election. A Fidesz politician explained the significance of the poster. Viktor Orbán began his infamous speech in Tasnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad by thanking the Transylvanian Hungarians for their support. Their votes gave Fidesz that one extra seat in parliament that ensured the continuation of the two-thirds parliamentary majority that allows Viktor Orbán to continue his rule unchecked. About 100,000 people who may never have set foot in the country decided the fate of Hungary for four years if not for longer.

This explanation is believable, but one must question the decision to display such an irredentist poster in the prime minister’s office. The year 1941 marked Hungary’s entrance into World War II. It was the year Germany attacked the Soviet Union. It was the year the United States entered the war. It is an affront to Romania, to Russia, and indirectly to all the countries who fought Nazi Germany and her allies–including, of course, Hungary. Just like his spiritual adviser, Orbán has no sense. A few years ago he proudly displayed a Greater Hungary decal on his car!

I would also like to mention that since leading American newspapers raised their voices in critical editorials against Viktor Orbán’s designs to transform Hungary into an illiberal state, the whole right-wing media has begun an anti-American campaign. At least three leading Fidesz opinion makers spoke out–István Tamás (Nemzeti.net, July 30), Tamás Fricz (Magyar Nemzet, August 4), and Zsolt Bayer (Magyar Hírlap, August 6). Soon I will devote a full post to the Orbán government’s anti-American propaganda campaign.

Here is another timely topic: the fate of some Roma families in Miskolc. On June 25 I wrote about the local Fidesz leadership’s plans to evict Roma families from their homes in order to make space for a new football stadium. The city was ready to pay 2 million forints to each family if they moved out of Miskolc altogether. Well, the evictions have begun. A young couple with a small child were the first victims. Then came an older woman who is disabled. Roma activists are trying to prevent the forceful removal of hundreds of families, but I doubt that they will be successful.

And finally, the situation of the NGOs. Viktor Orbán declared war on them in his speech and he was not kidding. Only yesterday papers reported that, although the Hungarian government made some concessions concerning the distribution of funds, the Norwegian authorities refuse to release the funds until the investigation of these NGOs stops. Viktor Orbán is not backing down. A criminal investigation of Ökotárs Alapítvány, the firm that distributes the Norwegian funds to NGOs, has begun. The charge is embezzlement.

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