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
On the first day of his trial in May, Képíró was wheeled into court bearing a sign reading, “Murderers of a 97-year-old man!” After his acquittal was announced two months later, Jobbik members cheered the verdict.
Pfeifer had gradually come to realize the prevalence of anti-Semitism in Hungary in the course of his reporting during the 1980s. But the Communist-era suppression of free speech largely kept a lid on the sort of crude expressions that are now so depressingly common and that find their root in Hungary’s fascist past. “I knew there was anti-Semitism and I knew there is racism,” he told me. “I never doubted it. But it was a big surprise how, at the moment it was possible to have free speech, it became really tolerated by the public.” Today, in addition to writing for various Austrian newspapers and as the Vienna correspondent for the Budapest weekly Hetek, Pfeifer surveys the Hungarian political scene for the popular British political blogs Harry’s Place, which covers European extremist movements, and Engage, which addresses European racism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Zionism.
The rise in anti-Semitism is a consequence of a fiercely nationalistic victim narrative—hardly unique in Central Europe, but especially noxious in Hungary—which sees any outside forces, particularly those that are liberal and cosmopolitan, as threats to the country’s well-being. As characterized in a recent paper by the Hungarian scholar Magdalena Marsovszky, “One dreads the loss of ‘national unity’ and ultimately the ‘death of the nation,’ considering oneself the victim of modernization, European integration, and Western liberalism, and believes that what the communists did not destroy, will finally be accomplished by the liberals.” Not for nothing is George Soros—whose identity as an American, Hungarian-born, Jewish international financier makes him the very epitome of what Hungarian nationalists hate—at the center of many Hungarian anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
Over 500,000 Hungarian Jews were killed in the Holocaust, the vast majority of them at Auschwitz. Many, however, were slaughtered by their fellow Hungarians, their bodies dumped into the Danube. Today, about 100,000 Jews live in Hungary, giving the country the largest Jewish population in Central Europe. While Orbán and Fidesz officially condemn anti-Semitism, are pro-Israel, and decry Jobbik’s thuggery (a Fidesz Party spokesman has condemned Jobbik as “a party of violence”), there appears to be at least one prominent exception to that reprobation: Zsolt Bayer, a journalist, co-founder of Fidesz, personal friend of the prime minister, and a man who is regularly given to anti-Semitic outbursts.
A 2008 column is demonstrative; Bayer wrote of the “limitless hunger of the Jewish financiers in Brooklyn and Wall Street yuppies, which plunged the American and as a consequence the global monetary world into depression.” But Bayer outdid himself in an article published earlier this year. On January 4, following a series of attacks on the media-commission law by journalist Nick Cohen in London’s Observer, by Hungarian-born concert pianist Andras Schiff in a letter to the editor of the Washington Post, and by E.U. parliament Green faction leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Bayer wrote a column for Magyar Hirlap, a leading pro-Fidesz paper, comparing the commission’s critics to supporters of the old, Soviet-backed regime:
A stinking excrement called something like Cohen from somewhere in England writes that “foul stench wafts” from Hungary. Cohen, and Cohn-Bendit, and Schiff. [The social democratic newspaper] Népszava appears with the red figure of the man with the hammer and demands freedom of the press. Most people think that this is something new and that war like that didn’t take place before. Nonsense. There is nothing new under the sun. Unfortunately, they were not all buried up to their necks in the forest of Orgovány.
Orgovány was the site of a 1919 massacre of Hungarian Communists, some of them Jews, some nonpolitical Jews caught up in the general terror, by followers of Admiral Miklós Horthy, who later became regent of Hungary and formed an alliance with Adolf Hitler. Two weeks after this article appeared, a Fidesz-controlled county government gave Bayer an award for his cultural contributions. And two months after the article was published, as Pfeifer reported, Bayer appeared in a photo sitting comfortably next to the prime minister at a retreat marking the 23rd anniversary of Fidesz’s founding.
In response to Bayer’s piece and the award he received, Pfeifer wrote a commentary for Die Presse, a major conservative Viennese daily, titled “Fecal Anti-Semite Honored.” Later that day, Magyar Hirlap published a summary of Pfeifer’s article, translating it into Hungarian, and noted at the bottom that the author’s “parents escaped from the Anschluss in 1938 to Hungary. He lived a long time in Israel and returned to Austria to become a journalist.”
What followed in the comments section astonished Pfeifer. Some samples:
You rotten Jewish lice. I understand that you think it is natural that the Gypsies are killing Hungarians every week, since you are a rotten, lice-infested foreign pushy Jew, an enemy.
I see that you are disgusted by the bloodsucking parasitical Jewish lice and you are glad that these lice-ridden Jews go home.
A characteristic example of the people of vengeance, a [gas] oven deserter.
Yes, we are anti-Semites! Yes, the Hungarians hate the Jews like scabs! Our anti-Semitic fame should spread the more! And then the local Jews who hate the Magyars will leave the quicker and the Israeli Jewish occupiers will settle here in far fewer numbers. Because they bring only conflict and ruin, while sucking our blood like parasites and draining our vigour.
Vitriolic anti-Semitism in the anonymous comments section of a website is hardly limited to Hungary, as Lee Smith wrote in Tablet Magazine last year about the popular followings of writers in the United States like Stephen Walt and Glenn Greenwald who are critical of Israel. But in the context of Hungary’s media law, which mandates that news outlets must be “free of hate speech … attacks on human dignity or human rights, as well as free of any social exclusion of a person or a group,” the comments are certainly within the commission’s purview. Given the poisonous rhetoric that has become so prevalent in Hungary, with the rise of Jobbik being only the most visible expression, one can at least understand the motivations for, if not necessarily support the implementation of, such a law, were it actually intended as a response to racist rhetoric. But, as Pfeifer’s case would demonstrate, whatever inspired the law in principle, it is not being applied fairly in practice.
The first test of the media law had arrived on the day it went into effect: July 1. Following an anonymous complaint, Media and Communications Commissioner Jenő Bodonovich wrote to the editors of Népszava, a social democratic newspaper strongly critical of Fidesz, to inform them that he would launch an investigation into 18 reader comments that had been posted under an article, published June 8, about a speech that Hungarian President Pál Schmitt had delivered about Ferenc Mádl, a predecessor who had died suddenly. The complainant did not cite any particular comment, which ranged from someone calling Schmitt a “clown” to another wishing that Orbán would soon follow Mádl into the afterlife. In reaction to news of the commission’s investigation, a host of Hungarian news websites disabled their comment sections entirely.
Upon hearing news of the investigation, Pfeifer immediately sent a complaint to Bodonovich, citing the defamatory comments that were made about him in the comment section of Magyar Hirlap. “As a Journalist and Austrian citizen I ask for your opinion and want to know how you are going to proceed in this case,” he wrote. “The public outside the borders of Hungary is interested to find out how the new media law is going to be implemented against anti-Semitic, racist and homophobic hate speech.” He wanted to challenge the commission and see if it would be consistent in applying its mandate.
On July 26, Bodonovich wrote back, informing Pfeifer that he had no legal right to take measures against Magyar Hirlap and that he should take his complaints to a Hungarian court if he sought further redress. “You use a different measure in the case of Népszava and Magyar Hirlap,” Pfeifer concluded. “All this is eloquent evidence that equality of rights has been abolished in Hungary and one will also not be able to speak about freedom of speech and opinion.”
Israeli-born land-speed racer Amir Rosenbaum is the fastest Jew on earth. This weekend, at the Bonneville Salt Flats, he hopes to take his machine, the Infidel, back into the rarified territory of 400 miles per hour.