Meet Europe’s New Fascists
Hungary’s far-right activists used to rally in the streets. Now they’re in parliament, where their party, Jobbik, is stoking hatred of Jews and Roma.
While Jobbik’s rise is a reflection of just how resoundingly the electorate lurched to the right, the party does not necessarily fit into the traditional left-right paradigm. Support for Jobbik is also a protest against the country’s political establishment. “If they only centered on anti-Semitism or anti-Roma issues, they would be a marginal thing,” Gabor Takacs, an analyst at the conservative think tank Nezopont, told me. “But what makes them attractive is their radicalism, their voice. And this is something that is very attractive to young people, mainly, who say ‘the politicians are all corrupt liars and I don’t understand their language and they always beat about the bush instead of tackling the problems.’ ” But unlike Western European countries, where right-wing parties rail against immigration, Hungary has a negligible immigrant population. What it does have are Roma and Jews.
In its warnings about an “Israeli occupation” of Hungarian business and real estate, its bloodcurdling cries against the Roma, and its slogan of “Hungary for the Hungarians,” Jobbik is tapping into very deep-seated Hungarian political traditions. One of the first things that struck me during my first visit to Hungary was the prevalence of bumper stickers and postcards depicting “Greater Hungary”—that is, Hungary as it was during the period of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, before it came out on the losing side in World War I. The loss of two-thirds of its territory and the dispersal of one-third of its people to the various successor states has left a profound psychological wound on the Hungarian right. Jobbik uses the map of Greater Hungary in its propaganda—a wooden engraving of one sits prominently on Gyöngyösi’s coffee table—and the party campaigned on the pledge that “the Trianon borders should be dropped within a few generations or as soon as possible.”
But popular support for Jobbik cannot be attributed only, or even mostly, to ideology. Most of the Hungarians voting for Jobbik do so because of what’s referred to as “the Roma issue”—that is, government’s persistent failure to integrate Gypsies (as they are colloquially, yet not pejoratively, known) into Hungarian society. A cultural lethargy and political correctness has inhibited the country from grappling with this issue, leaving many frustrated voters, particularly those in rural areas who live in close proximity to Roma, to choose a radical party that offers a simple solution to the problem: Put them in ghettos. Socialist Party leader Attila Mesterhazy accepts some share of the blame for the rise of Jobbik: “I would say the [Socialist Party] is responsible not for [Jobbik’s] creation, but how they could gain support in society, just because of the fact that our government did not pay much attention to these very poor people, frustrated people.” Many Jobbik voters, particularly in the more rural, eastern half of the country, are not ideological right-wingers, but frustrated, lower-middle-class people who abandoned the Socialists.
“If someone said 10 years ago that a neo-fascist party would get 20 percent of the vote, I would say they are crazy,” said Jeno Kaltenbach, the country’s first ombudsman for minority rights. But given that Hungary’s economic situation shows no sign of improving and that Prime Minister Orban has echoed Jobbik’s anti-E.U. rhetoric—even though he has resolutely resisted racism and anti-Semitism—the party is likely to remain a force in Hungarian politics for the foreseeable future.
“There’s a joke in Hungary about the researcher who is studying anti-Semitism,” Matyas Eorsi, a former member of parliament from a now defunct liberal party, the Alliance of Free Democrats, told me. “And he goes to a small village in Transylvania and asks an old man, ‘Excuse me sir, can I ask you: is there any anti-Semitism in your village?’ He replies: ‘Sir, not at all. But there’s a huge demand for it.’ ”
This apocryphal tale hints at a reality of Hungarian politics, which is that anti-Semitism has typically required clever ideologists and an adverse political and economic environment to make it truly dangerous. Though Jews, like members of other faiths, had to endure restrictions on religious practice during the Communist period, the sort of virulent anti-Semitism that one regularly hears today was kept under wraps. “Nowadays more people dare to speak openly about their anti-Semitic feelings,” said Laszlo Csosz, a historian at Budapest’s Holocaust Memorial Center. “So, I don’t think the number of anti-Semites radically increased. But they’ve become louder and more explicit.”
The strongest push-back against the nationalist right hasn’t come from the Roma or the Jews but has emerged from an unlikely source. Most Hungarians get their news from television, but because state media is now firmly in government hands, there is only one station that reliably airs news programs criticizing the government. During the day and early evening, this station’s news programs regularly feature stories about international criticism of the path Hungary has taken, and its talk shows provide a platform to Fidesz critics. And then, at 10 p.m., the Pat Robertson’s 700 Club begins.
This is ATV, owned by a group of Hungarian investors who are mainly members of the Faith Church, a Pentecostal Christian sect. Led by Pastor Sandor Nemeth, a former Catholic theologian who is one of the loudest and most passionate opponents of the Hungarian far right, the church claims about 50,000 members. Though he leads a socially conservative flock, Nemeth and the journalists in his mini-media empire stand foursquare against the type of nationalism that, in Europe especially, comes packaged with explicitly religious ornamentation. “Ever since the beginning of the 1990s, the right in Hungary has always represented traditional nationalism, and this is something we could not align ourselves with because we consider this whole ideology to be full of poison,” Nemeth told me. “What we’ve seen is a nostalgia and a sympathy toward the pre-Second World War ideologies and movements, which were all represented in the political right. And we saw that in quite a number of groups within the right, anti-Semitism wasn’t far from them. They haven’t distanced themselves. They haven’t put an end to this period.”
In addition to ATV, the church also publishes a weekly news magazine, Hetek, which regularly exposes the foibles and dangers of Jobbik. A few days before I interviewed Gyöngyösi, Hetek published an article in which anonymous sources within the party accused him of being a mole for Hungary’s domestic intelligence agency. When I asked Gyöngyösi about this claim, he replied that Hetek had paid the men to make these accusations. (“We don’t use such methods,” said Peter Morvay, who holds senior editorial positions at Hetek and ATV.) Morvay said that the station has doubled its ratings since the Fidesz government took power and regularly reaches a daily audience of about 1 million viewers—a huge number in a country of 10 million people. Only 5 percent of the station’s content is explicitly Christian-oriented, he says, and fewer than half of its employees are members of the church.
Nemeth feels an obligation to be involved politically because so much of the anti-Semitic rhetoric in Hungary emanates from prejudices that have been inflamed by Christian churches. “There are nationalists in Hungary who try to stand on Christian grounds, but when I say ‘Christian’ I mean in a cultural and political sense, not in the original spiritual sense because most of these people are not Christians, they are pseudo-Christians,” he told me. The church’s anti-extremist campaign goes beyond investigative journalism and stinging editorials. Members infiltrated skinhead movements beginning in the 1990s and hosted a road-show exhibition on the 50th anniversary of the Holocaust in Hungary. It currently operates a “Jobbik-watch network” across the country, restores Jewish cemeteries, and plans to launch a campaign, “All Together for Jerusalem,” to emphasize the historical connection between Jerusalem and the Jewish people. The church’s media organs are unabashedly pro-Israel. Nemeth said that, through the church and its media, he wants to “promote people like Theodore Herzl, who was born in Hungary, and he’s the founder of the state of Israel, and many Hungarians don’t know of his connections to Hungary.”
The Faith Church has won praise from the country’s Jewish community and some liberal figures that are otherwise skeptical of evangelical Christians. Karl Pfeifer, an Austrian journalist who has reported frequently from and about Hungary for three decades, recalls that when he first met Nemeth in the early 1980s, the pastor promised him that he was going to build a movement to combat Hungarian anti-Semitism. “When I heard this I said the Yiddish word, ‘Halevai,’ It will be good,” said Pfeifer, a Holocaust survivor. “They are real friends of Israel and the Jewish people,” said Peter Feldmajer, the head of the Hungarian Jewish community. The church was originally aligned with the Alliance of Free Democrats, the extinct liberal party. But, according to Matyas Eorsi, the former MP, it “started to dislike us because we approved homosexuality, euthanasia, and abortion.” Today, while espousing socially conservative views, the church has not shifted to the political right, and, unlike most large institutions within the country, it is independent of Fidesz.
Hungary is not, as some in the European media have alleged, becoming a fascist dictatorship. The rise of the far right has, somewhat ironically, coincided with a revival of Jewish life. The opposition media, in spite of the new regulatory authority, remains fiercely critical of the government, as the popularity of ATV and Hetek attests. Public protests are frequent and proceed unhindered. But as Hungary faces the worst set of crises to befall it since the communist period, things are likely to get worse before they get better. As Gyöngyösi told me: “Extraordinary times create extraordinary situations.”
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