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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

James Kirchick
August 16, 2011
The Hungarian Parliament, Budapest.(Brandon Doran/Flickr)
The Hungarian Parliament, Budapest.(Brandon Doran/Flickr)

Speaking to a group of teenagers in Austria some years ago, the journalist Karl Pfeifer was asked if, in the depths of his sorrows as a young survivor of the Holocaust, he had ever contemplated suicide. “Suicide never,” was his reply. “But occasionally, murder.” Far from seeking vengeance, however, Pfeifer’s motivation arises from a passion for liberal values learned through personal experience with the two totalitarianisms of the 20th century. This has made him vigilant about threats to freedom that other people may be too comfortable to notice and brought him repeatedly back to Austria and Hungary, the countries from which he escaped during the war. Living through these periods made him brave—he has since assailed Hungarian communists and Austrian fascists and is today taking aim at Hungary’s controversial right-wing government—but it also gave him a distinctive sense of humor.

Traveling by train to Budapest, Hungary, from Vienna in the summer of 1980, Pfeifer was questioned by a female customs official who entered his compartment and asked him politely if he had anything to declare. Pfeifer replied that he did not, but the official looked inside his bag, where she found several dozen photocopies of a review of the memoir Seven Thousand Days in Siberia by Karlo Stajner, published in a Hungarian-language Yugoslavian newspaper. An Austrian-born, Croatian Communist, Stajner had traveled to Moscow in 1932 with dreams of building the international socialist revolution. But like so many others, he became a victim of the cold realities of Stalinist paranoia and was condemned to the gulag.

“I’m going to take away this dirt,” the border official told Pfeifer.

“I draw your attention to the fact that this is not dirt,” Pfeifer calmly replied in Hungarian, a language he’d had learned while living in Budapest from 1938 until fleeing for Palestine in 1943. “This comes from the official paper of the Socialist Youth of Yugoslavia,” he said, in which bristling critiques of the Soviet system were not uncommon.

Thus began Pfeifer’s troubles with the Hungarian Communist regime. (He would later discover from Austrian diplomats briefed about the circumstances that it was his use of the phrase “I draw your attention” and not “I beg to draw your attention” that drew the customs officer’s ire.) Pfeifer was taken off the train and brought to the customs station, where a higher-ranking officer informed him that he had “provoked” the official and would be deported back to Austria. Told that the Hungarian government would pay for his return ticket, he replied: “Finally, at 51 years of age, the Hungarian state pays something for me? Very good.”

Until his final deportation from the country in 1987, Pfeifer acted as a courier between Hungary’s dissidents and the West. “Through Karl Pfeifer we obtained real, normal contact with the democratic, liberal, outside world,” Attila Ara-Kovacs, a Hungarian dissident, said in a 2008 interview for an Austrian documentary about Pfeifer’s life, Somehow in Between. “This contact was very important for us. It naturally changed our lives.”

Pfeifer’s courier work started in May 1979, when a friend in Vienna asked him to deliver medicines to acquaintances in Budapest. Meeting those Budapest acquaintances, a group of sociologists, Pfeifer remarked that Hungary, then practicing a form of “goulash communism”—which allowed for a small degree of private enterprise, greater personal liberties, and easier travel to the West—was “quite free for a communist country.” Afterward, one of the sociologists, Tamás Földvári, took Pfeifer outside and said that his impression of Hungary was false. For instance, he said, workers in rural areas who complained about conditions were targeted for physical violence by the secret police.

Back in Vienna, Pfeifer got in touch with the editor of the social democratic newspaper Arbeiter Zeitung, or Worker’s News, who expressed interest in having Pfeifer publish dispatches from Hungary. Writing under the pseudonym Peter Koroly, Pfeifer began traveling back and forth to Budapest, banging out stories on his Hermes Baby typewriter about everything from the country’s periodic economic crises to the tide of young men refusing military service.

In 1982, two years after that first deportation from the Hungarian train, Pfeifer became editor of Die Gemeinde, or The Community, Vienna’s Jewish newspaper. Pfeifer, whose youthful energy belies his 83 years, told me recently at a Vienna café that this assignment changed his situation, “insofar as for the Austrians it was very uncomfortable” that he be denied entry to a neighboring country. Pfeifer sent a letter of protest to Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky, an assimilated Jew who nonetheless had former Nazis in his Cabinet. “I said, ‘Look, Waffen SS men, Arrow Cross men”—from the far right Hungarian party—“can go to Hungary. They get a visa, and I have family that are survivors and I cannot get in. It’s against human rights.’ ” Soon after sending the letter, Pfeifer got his visa.

Because the Hungarian regime of János Kádár was trying to present itself as practicing a more reformed version of communism, it tolerated Pfeifer entering the country. But that didn’t stop authorities from deporting him three more times over the ensuing years. “The more they did it, the more I hated their guts,” he told me. The last straw was a 1987 meeting in Budapest with a high-ranking official from the Hungarian Foreign Ministry, who informed Pfeifer that the Hungarian government would no longer allow him to meet with any members of the opposition. Pfeifer responded that, as “a modest Austrian journalist and not a Hungarian policeman,” he did not know whether the Hungarians he interviewed were members of the opposition. “Would you be so kind as to give me a written list and I promise you I won’t meet anybody on the list?” he asked. This sly retort led to Pfeifer’s last expulsion. When Hungary opened the archives of its Communist-era secret police following the democratic transition in 1991, Pfeifer discovered that he had a 100-page file in which regime agents accused him of “ideological subversion,” an allegation that today makes him “incredibly proud,” he told me.

Anti-Semitism was not, at least initially, a major concern for Pfeifer in his early journalism about Hungary. “I was of the opinion that this problem had more or less solved itself in the people’s republics,” he recounts in the documentary. “Whereby I was terribly wrong.” In 1982, he decided to report on the 100th anniversary of the “Tiszaeszlár Affair,” an incident involving the disappearance of a young Christian girl in a northern Hungarian village that had led to a Jewish blood libel, pogroms, and the formation of a political faction called the National Anti-Semitic Party. Meeting with a high-level official in the Hungarian Foreign Ministry, Pfeifer was told, “We won’t allow you to import anti-Semitism from Austria to Hungary. We have solved this problem once and for all in 1945.”

Living under regimes that denied the particularly Jewish aspects of the Holocaust and the continuing evils of anti-Semitism within their own societies, the people of the Eastern Bloc did not experience, in the same way Western Europeans did, the decades-long, postwar process of atonement and recognition for the crimes committed against their Jewish populations. This is the battle for historical truth that Pfeifer has fought for decades.


Born in the Austrian spa town of Baden bei Wien to Hungarian parents in 1928, Karl Pfiefer fled with his family to Hungary following the Nazi Anschluss of 1938. In Budapest, Pfeifer was recruited into the Hashomir Hatzair socialist Zionist youth movement. Paradoxically, he believes that the anti-Semitism he experienced as a young boy saved him from a far worse fate. “Somehow, one has to be thankful for Austrian anti-Semitism,” Pfeifer says with a chuckle in Somehow in Between. “Of the 180,000 [Austrian] Jews, 120,000 fled thanks to Austrian anti-Semitism.”

Things were not much better in Budapest. “In Hungary, people had illusions,” he says in the film. Every morning, students in his Jewish school rose to recite a nationalistic poem, which went something along the lines of, “I believe in one homeland. I believe in one God. I believe in a divine justice. I believe in the resurrection of Hungary.” That “resurrection” was a not-so-thinly veiled reference to the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, the post-World War I agreement that broke up the Austro-Hungarian Empire and left about a third of ethnic Hungarians living outside the Hungarian successor state and that remains a curse word among latter-day Hungarian nationalists. “I always said it the other way round,” Pfeifer recalls in Somehow in Between. “I do not believe in one God. I do not believe in divine justice. And I certainly do not believe in the resurrection of Hungary.” Pfeifer’s ardent Zionism and disavowal of Hungarian identity led to fierce fights with his father, who beat him repeatedly.

Continue reading: “Nazi tones,” a controversial suicide, and the new Hungarian right. Or view as a single page.

In November 1942, shortly before departing on a kindertransport headed for Palestine, Pfeifer asked his uncle why he wouldn’t sell his lumber business. “Haven’t you heard that Jews are being burned in gas ovens in Poland?” Pfeifer asked.

“What?” his uncle replied. “Where did you hear that?”

Pfeifer said that the source of the information was the BBC, but it was actually his comrades in Hashomer Hatzair who had told him. Regardless, this revelation had little effect on his uncle, who replied that he bad been a decorated officer in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I and that such things could never happen to patriotic Jewish Hungarians. “You’re an adult,” Pfeifer responded. “You have to decide for yourself.” Pfeifer’s uncle and his family, including his wife, two sons, daughter, son-in-law, and grandchild would be deported to Auschwitz. Only his uncle’s son-in-law survived.

After joining the Palmach and fighting in the 1948 Israeli war of independence, Pfeifer had an itinerant, 30-year career working in the shipping and hotel industries. After the fall of the Soviet Union, he continued his journalism career but turned his attentions from Hungary to Austria, where his anti-fascist credentials proved useful. Writing for newspapers, reporting for Kol Israel International radio, and appearing on television, Pfeifer became a leading figure in the campaign to correct the historical misperception that most Austrians continued to hold about their nation’s innocence during World War II and to reconcile that myth with its deep complicity in the Holocaust. “For the Austrian political establishment, the argument was a simple one: from 1938 to 1945 Austria did not even exist,” Pfeifer has written. “Thus Austrians could not be held responsible for what happened to their Jewish compatriots and only the Germans were to blame for the Holocaust. Quod Erat Demonstrandum.” Austria’s continuing inability to come to terms with the nation’s role in the crimes of the Third Reich became evident in the rise of a man who would become a Pfeifer nemesis, Jörg Haider, the late leader of the far-right Freedom Party.

In 1995, Pfeifer published a review in Die Gemeinde of a Freedom Party “yearbook,” accusing it of possessing “Nazi tones.” More than half of Pfeifer’s article consisted of quotations from an article written by an Austrian academic named Werner Pfeifenberger, who alleged that Germany had not started World War II because “in 1933 Judea had already declared war on all of Germany.” Pfeifenberger had written that “this world war” started by Jews “is by far not yet over” and cited as evidence “the hate tirades of the slander campaign against Kurt Waldheim,” the former United Nations secretary general who was elected president of Austria in 1986 despite his having participated in Nazi atrocities. Pfeifenberger sued Pfeifer for libel and lost.

In 1999, the Freedom Party finished second in nationwide legislative elections, with 27 percent of the vote. At a press conference in which Haider announced that he would join a coalition government, a move that eventually led the European Union to impose sanctions on Austria and Israel to recall its ambassador, Pfeifer directly confronted Haider. Citing Haider’s association with a wide variety of Holocaust deniers and Nazi enthusiasts, Pfeifer asked, “What kind of credibility do you have if you are unable to cut ties to these people?” By chance, two weeks later, the Vienna Public Prosecutor’s office announced that it would press charges against Pfeifenberger for violating the country’s National Socialism Prohibition Act for the claims made in his 1995 article. On May 13, 2000, days before he was to stand trial, Pfeifenberger committed suicide.

The following month, a far-right Vienna magazine accused Pfeifer of being part of a 10-man conspiracy that “opened up a man hunt, which was to result in the death of the hunted.” Pfeifer sued the paper for defamation, and he initially won in a Viennese court. The magazine appealed the verdict to Austria’s highest tribunal, however, which overruled the earlier decision. One justice on the three-judge panel, Doris Trieb, pointed her finger at Pfeifer while telling him that he bore “moral” responsibility for Pfeifenberger’s suicide.

In 2003, Pfeifer brought the case before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. Four years later, in a landmark decision, the Strasbourg panel ruled against the Austrian government, finding that “the reasons advanced by the domestic courts for protecting freedom of expression outweighed the right of the applicant to have his reputation safeguarded.” The European Court ordered the government of Austria to award Pfeifer a settlement of 5,000 euros in damages and 10,000 euros for legal expenses. “It was hard enough to stand three years in Austrian courts because I did not believe that ‘the Jews declared war in 1933 on Germany,’ ” Pfeifer told Haaretz at the time. “But then to see Dr. Trieb point her finger at me and accuse me of being responsible ‘only morally’ for a man’s suicide was even harder.”


In the nationwide Hungarian elections held in April of last year, the right-wing Fidesz Party of Viktor Orbán won a landslide victory: Its 53 percent of the popular vote, due to the country’s electoral system, translated into two-thirds of the seats in parliament. The previous Socialist government, which had ruled for eight years, had been tainted by countless scandals, and its incompetence was largely blamed for the country’s being one of the hardest hit by the 2008 economic crisis, during which it was forced to borrow $25 billion from the International Monetary Fund. With Fidesz’s overwhelming victory, Hungary became the first country in Central Europe since the breakup of the Soviet Union to be governed by a single party not in coalition.

Since taking power, Orbán—who first earned fame in Hungary as a student activist when he gave a speech in 1989 calling for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from his country—has introduced a series of nationalistic and centralizing measures that have earned international opprobrium as signs of creeping authoritarianism. The first was his decision to grant passports to ethnic Hungarians who are citizens of other countries—a sop to those within Hungary who continue to view the 90-year-old Treaty of Trianon with resentment and shame, and a major provocation to neighbors, like Slovakia, where sizable Hungarian minorities reside. In June, the speaker of the Hungarian parliament said that the use of arms to settle a border dispute in the 1990s with Slovakia would have been justified.

In January, Orbán’s government launched what many claimed was a politically motivated investigation of five Hungarian academics for the misuse of research funds. The academics, including the Jewish philosopher Agnes Heller, are all vocal critics of the Fidesz party and were accused of misappropriating portions of the $2 million in government money they had received in support of various research projects. Attacks in the right-wing press have taken on an anti-intellectual tone, demanding to know, for instance, why one of the researchers used funds for new translations of Plato when the works had already been translated into Hungarian.

Continue reading: Hungary’s new constitution, the far-right Jobbik Party, and the resurgence of anti-Semitism. Or view as a single page.

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.

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.”

James Kirchick, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a columnist at Tablet magazine and the author of The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues and the Coming Dark Age. He is writing a history of gay Washington, D.C. His Twitter feed is @jkirchick.

James Kirchick is a Tablet columnist and the author of Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington (Henry Holt, 2022). He tweets @jkirchick.