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The Lives of Others

Hungary has made a hard turn to the political right, but Holocaust survivor Karl Pfeifer, who in three decades of journalism has assailed Hungarian communists and Austrian fascists, refuses to let anti-Semitism return unchecked

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The Hungarian Parliament, Budapest. (Brandon Doran/Flickr)
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In April, the Hungarian parliament approved a constitution, the first since the country’s democratic transition, in a vote that was boycotted by the Socialist and Liberal parties. In addition to changing the name of the country from the Republic of Hungary to Hungary—which critics allege is an example of Fidesz’s lack of respect for democracy—the new constitution also reduces the powers of the country’s highest court. (The constitution also defines marriage as between a man and a woman and states that life begins at conception.) The Venice Commission, the E.U.’s legal advisory body, criticized the process by which the constitution was adopted for its “lack of transparency, shortcomings in the dialogue between the majority and the opposition, the insufficient opportunities for an adequate public debate, and a very tight time-frame.” The constitution’s preamble declares that “the state sovereignty of Hungary” was “lost on March 19, 1944” (the day Germany occupied Hungary) and not restored until “May 2, 1990, when the first freely elected representative body of the people was constituted.” Thus, Hungary and Hungarians are rendered not responsible for the crimes that took place during this 46-year period.

The most controversial aspect of the Orbán agenda, however, is a series of media provisions that many critics say will cement Fidesz’s authority over the press. The first has been the abolishing of a constitutional provision “preventing information monopolies.” The second involved the creation of a media council—with members all chosen by Fidesz—that has the ability to regulate and potentially penalize newspapers, television, radio, and Internet outlets for coverage determined to be “unbalanced” or offensive to “human dignity.” The commission can fine news outlets and journalists up to $1 million for violating the law and compel journalists to reveal their sources. Adding to the law’s notoriety was the fact that the Hungarian parliament passed it on Jan. 1, 2011, the day Hungary assumed the presidency of the European Union. The country’s entering the continental spotlight just as it was going about passing highly controversial laws was a major setback for Hungary’s international stature. (After sharp E.U. criticism, the Hungarian parliament amended the provision requiring all media outlets to provide “balanced” coverage.)

Concomitant with the ascension of Fidesz has been an unambiguously sinister development: the growing power of the far-right Jobbik Party, which won 17 percent in last year’s election and entered parliament for the first time. (In 2009, the party picked up three seats in the European Parliament, where it has since formed an alliance with the far-right British National Party.) All of these developments recently led U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, co-chairman of the congressional Committee on Security and Cooperation in Europe, to issue a statement titled “Democracy at Risk in Hungary,” in which he said that though “in 1989, Hungary stood as an inspiration for democracy and human rights advocates around the globe,” now “I hope that other countries looking for transformative examples will steer clear of this Hungarian model.”

It has become fashionable to label any right-of-center European tendency “neo-fascist,” but to apply the term to Jobbik is not hyperbolic. With slogans like “Hungary belongs to the Hungarians” and a campaign promise to put an end to “Gypsy crime,” Jobbik members regularly engage in anti-Semitic incitement. (The use of the latter term, which came about during the Communist era is, Pfeifer says, “bloody awful.”) Accused of being a Nazi by a newspaper interviewer last year, a Jobbik party leader replied proudly that he was a “Nazi, a fascist, an anti-Semite if that is what is necessary to represent the ‘true Hungarian’ interests and the sanctity of the thousand-year-old Hungarian state.” In 2009, the Hungarian Supreme Court outlawed the party’s paramilitary wing, which wore uniforms eerily redolent of the war-era fascist Arrow Cross party and whose members terrorized Roma neighborhoods. “Jobbik’s rowdies make the late Jörg Haider and his Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) sound like a harmless bunch of choirboys in retrospect,” wrote journalist Walter Mayr in Germany’s Der Spiegel.

Jobbik occasionally tries to mask its anti-Semitism behind virulent criticism of Israel, but to call its attempts half-hearted would be a vast overstatement. The cover of the current issue of its magazine, Barikád, or Barricade, features the face of accused Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Breivik, who expressed sympathies for Israel, in front of an Israeli flag and under the headline “Zionist terrorism.” The cover story from last March featured a doctored image of a statue of a Catholic saint in Budapest holding a menorah, next to the caption, “Wake up Budapest! Is this what you want?”

So obsessed is it with the supposed perfidy of Jews, Jobbik cozies up to some of the most obscurantist forces in the Muslim world. Earlier this year, a Jobbik MP praised the Iranian government at a reception at its embassy in Budapest, decrying the “ruthless Western propaganda against Iran,” a nation that “shows today a mirror for the West, through which it can see its own hypocrisy, cynicism, corruption, as well as the double standards and lies of its civilization.” In late 2009, the left-wing organizers of a pro-Palestinian conference in London booted a Jobbik European Parliament Member, Krisztina Morvai, who had been scheduled to attend; earlier in the year, Morvai had written an open letter to the Israeli ambassador to Hungary, in which she revealed that she had “rejoiced” upon hearing about Israeli casualties incurred during Operation Cast Lead. “The only way to talk to people like you is by assuming the style of Hamas,” she wrote in the letter. “I wish all of you lice-infested, dirty murderers will receive Hamas’ ‘kisses.’ ” Jobbik’s positions have become so extreme that the Palestinian Authority ambassador to Hungary not so subtly distanced himself from the party, telling a Jewish Hungarian magazine that we “do not wish to be in partnership with racist people.”

Such affinity for reactionary Islam might seem strange for a Christian nationalist party that hates immigration, and it puts Jobbik at odds with the rest of its allies on the nativist, European far right, whose aversion to Islam of all kinds has come under a harsh spotlight in the wake of the massacre in Norway. But Jobbik’s turn east is part of a broader foreign policy vision, increasingly popular due to the current financial crisis, that rejects the post-Communist Hungarian consensus of Atlanticism and closer E.U. ties. It is, in this sense, a more extreme shade of Orbán’s own nationalistic impulses.

In late 2008, Hungarian anti-Semites seized upon a humorous aside that Israeli President Shimon Peres made at an economic forum about the skill of Israeli real estate agents: “We are buying Manhattan, Hungary, Romania, and Poland,” he joked. As Pfeifer documented, Jobbik created an election poster featuring Peres’ face and a Star of David, promising that Israel would never “occupy” Hungary. In a 2010 speech, Jobbik leader Gabor Vona claimed that the “Jewish buy-up has started, openly encouraged by the prime minister [sic] of Israel, Shimon Peres.” Barikád, meanwhile, warned of the “free-for-all looting in Judapest.”

The resurgence of anti-Semitism is hardly limited to Jobbik supporters; on the contrary, the party seems to be feeding off sentiments that are accepted by a majority of Hungarians. Last year, a leading Hungarian rabbi told the Times of London, “Insulting Jews on the street is nothing new here, but now it’s done more brazenly.” A 2009 poll commissioned by the Anti-Defamation League found that 67 percent of Hungarians agreed with the statement that “Jews have too much power in the business world,” 56 percent with “Jews still talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust,” and 40 percent with “Jews are more loyal to Israel than their own country.”

Last month, in a move that some say struck a blow against the country’s attempts to come to terms with its Holocaust past, a Budapest court acquitted a 97-year-old Hungarian man, Sándor Képíró, of war crimes that he allegedly committed while conducting anti-partisan raids as a member of the Hungarian gendarmerie in the Serbian city of Novi Sad in 1942. He had twice been convicted of participating in the massacres, once by a pre-Nazi-occupied Hungarian court in 1944, and again by a Communist one in 1946, by which time Képíró had already fled to Argentina. He did not return to Hungary until 1996; 10 years later, made aware of his resurfacing, the Simon Wiesenthal Center listed him as its most-wanted war criminal.

Continue reading: hate speech, “a stinking excrement,” and a test of the media law. Or view as a single page.

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jacob arnon says:

I have been reading Karl Pfeifer for years, now. I am glad to see an article about the brave work that he is doing on Tablet.

I hope you will next publish some of his essays.

Thank you for this informative and disturbing article about Hungarian Anti-Semitism. Unfortunately, I am not surprised.
It is evident that hate, racism, and Anti-Semitism in Hungary are currently combined with a fierce Hungarian nationalistic pride that views freedom of the press (and of expression) as dangerous. Karl Pfeifer is to be commended for having the courage to speak up repeatedly against such forces throughout his career. The question is, how many In positions of power in Europe are listening?

Al Blue says:

Oh, vey, nore Holocaustamania agit-prop ! Spare us !
That our fellow Jews were way overrepresented in the
Stalinist hungarian govt before the 56 Revolution might
have something to do with it. Also the Red Bela Kun terror
regime after WW1 in Hungary, mostly Jews again.

leon vestey says:

For God’s sake stop the lies. The Holohoax is no longer credible. If Karl dos not like it he can bugger off to Israel and sit around with the other liars.

I have been living in hungary for ten years. Antisemitism is rampant. Its everywhere “Zsidozni” (to talk bad about jews) is a national sport. There is a minority of hungarians that is NOT nazi. But they are also the target of the hateful majority. Kun Béla and jewish participation in communism is an excuse. The truth is that hungarians are a bitter people. They are basically unhappy. And they blame the jews.

Hans Schneider says:

I thought that all jews were killed by the nazis ? At least that is what the media says….

Big Man says:

Perhaps the Hungarian people have a memory – let’s start with the communist totalitarian butcher, Mátyás Rákosi.

Virginia says:

I read that David Duke was very active in Eastern Europe these past years. He was photographed in New Orleans in his Nazi uniform before Katrina Was he in Hungary or Austria?

Michael says:

It’s the uprising, stupid.

This is great! How do you learn this stuff?

I have read several good stuff here. Definitely worth bookmarking for revisiting. I surprise how much effort you put to create such a excellent informative website.

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The Lives of Others

Hungary has made a hard turn to the political right, but Holocaust survivor Karl Pfeifer, who in three decades of journalism has assailed Hungarian communists and Austrian fascists, refuses to let anti-Semitism return unchecked