Márton Gyöngyösi, a member of the Hungarian parliament, does not look the least bit like a neo-Nazi. That may be the most frightening thing about him.
Born in 1977 to a globetrotting trade-official father, Gyöngyösi spent his formative years in places as diverse as Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, and India. He received a degree in economics and political science from Trinity College, Dublin, and went on to a successful career as a corporate accountant, working for firms like KPMG and Ernst & Young. But in 2006, he quit accounting to join Jobbik, “The Movement for a Better Hungary.” Founded in 2003, the far-right, nationalist party is now one of the most powerful political forces in the country.
While Gyöngyösi opts for well-cut suits over the leather jackets typical of Hungary’s neo-Nazis, he has the unfortunate habit of sounding like one. In a February interview with London’s Jewish Chronicle, Gyöngyösi asked whether Jews “have the right to talk about what happened during the Second World War,” given Israel’s “Nazi system.” Discussions about the forced transportation of over 400,000 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz unnerves him: “Me, should I say sorry for this when 70 years later, I am still reminded on the hour, every hour about it? Let’s get over it, for Christ’s sake. I find this question outrageous,” he told the paper. “It has become a fantastic business to jiggle around with the numbers” of dead Jews. Holocaust survivors and their descendants who seek restitution for stolen property also grate. “This money-searching is playing with fire in Hungary,” he said. The comments only added to the growing sense of unease felt by Hungary’s 100,000 Jews.
A week after the dust-up, Gyöngyösi told me that the quotes printed in the Jewish Chronicle were “taken out of context” and “completely manipulated.” And when I sat across from him in his Budapest office overlooking the icy Danube, I didn’t see this side of Jobbik’s foreign-affairs spokesman. He was gracious and didn’t betray a trace of anger or resentment. But his distinguished pedigree and flawless English make his words—the sort of thing one would expect to hear from a half-literate skinhead—all the more chilling. Meet Márton Gyöngyösi, the clean-cut, savvy face of 21st-century European fascism currently on the rise in Hungary.
Last Thursday, Jobbik MP Zsolt Baráth delivered a five-minute speech from the floor of parliament commemorating a blood libel that took place 130 years ago. Several days before Passover in 1882, a young girl was murdered in the Hungarian village of Tiszaeszlár, and the local Jewish community was blamed. A group of 15 accused Jews were eventually acquitted in a court trial, but the murder victim, Eszter Solymosi, has since become a martyr figure for the Hungarian right. A memorial constructed in her honor several years ago is a pilgrimage spot for Jobbik members and other far-right activists. “As we can see, there is no clear explanation, we do not know what happened to Eszter,” Baráth said. “Nevertheless, there is one point common to the known variants: The Jewry and the leadership of the country were severely implicated in the case.”
This was hardly the worst outburst by a Jobbik figure; that honor would probably go to European Parliament Member Krisztina Morvai, who, in a 2009 Internet posting, wrote, “I would be greatly pleased if those who call themselves proud Hungarian Jews played in their leisure with their tiny circumcised dicks, instead of besmirching me. Your kind of people are used to seeing all of our kind of people stand to attention and adjust to you every time you fart. Would you kindly acknowledge this is now OVER. We have raised our head up high and we shall no longer tolerate your kind of terror. We shall take back our country.”
Jobbik leaders deny that they are a fascist movement. “We are not communists, fascists, or National Socialists,” Gabor Vona, the party’s 33-year-old leader, declared in a speech to several thousand Jobbik supporters this winter. “But—and this is important for everyone to understand very clearly—we are also not democrats.” (In his spare time, Vona founded Magyar Garda, or Hungarian Guard, a paramilitary organization whose members would strut around Budapest wearing fascist insignia condemning “Gypsy Crime” and demanding segregation. The Guard was officially banned by the country’s constitutional court in 2009, but it is not uncommon to still see Jobbik members dress in fascist regalia for public displays.)
The party’s rejection of democracy at home has translated into an affinity for authoritarians abroad. Prominently displayed on Gyöngyösi’s bookshelf is a “Twinning Agreement” between Tiszavasvári, a small town in eastern Hungary, and the sister city of Ardabil in Iran. Last January, after a Jobbik candidate won the mayoralty, Gyöngyösi and Vona paid a visit to Tiszavasvári with the Iranian ambassador to Hungary. Since then, Jobbik has taken a particular interest in Iran. In 2008, Vona said that representatives from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard should monitor Hungary’s 2010 parliamentary election to protect against any irregularities.
The Islamic Republic might seem like a strange ally for a group that describes itself as a “radically patriotic Christian party.” But given Jobbik’s virulently anti-Europe rhetoric, anti-Western worldview, and undisguised anti-Semitism, it’s not hard to see why the party has embraced the mullahs.
Jobbik’s turn eastward also has roots in a cultural philosophy known as “Turanism,” a pan-Turkic ideology emphasizing the alleged origins of Hungarians among the peoples of the Central Asian steppes. Ferenc Szalasi, the leader of Hungary’s wartime fascist Arrow Cross party, espoused the existence of a “Turanian-Hungarian” race. One of the unspoken functions of Turanism is to emphasize the racial peculiarity of Hungarians and thereby establish Hungary as a country in which the Jews and the Roma have no place. While the Communists suppressed Turanism, since it challenged their own claims to universal brotherhood, the Hungarian far right, with Jobbik in the forefront, has revived it. Jobbik leader Vona has declared that “an alliance based and developed on the principles of Turanism instead of the Euro-Atlantic alliance would be more effective in serving the needs and interests of our nation.”
Jobbik, Gyöngyösi told me, rejects the Western “neoliberal” order, describing the European Union as “a collapsing union.” The party’s rejection of the “Euro-Atlanticist foreign policy” is based on more than just disgust for the supranational structures of the E.U. bureaucracy, the euro-zone crisis, and the perceived decadence of the post-Christian West; it has a deeper, atavistic basis. In a discourse citing Samuel Huntington and Carl Jung, Gyöngyösi explained how Hungarians have a “double identity,” Western and Eastern, owing to the influence of 13th-century Mongol invaders and the 150-year-long Ottoman conquest that commenced in the 16th century. These are not just matters of historical curiosity, they are present in a “very living culture” revealed in the Hungarian language, folk dancing, and mythology. It can also be traced genetically. There are three groups, Gyöngyösi told me, into which Europeans can be racially divided: “Germanic, Latin, and the Slavic. We are neither. If you look at the Hungarian faces they are very different from the Latin, Slavic, Germanic.” Given this account of what constitutes a true Hungarian, it’s difficult to see where the Jews and Roma fit in.
Jobbik came to the fore two years ago this month, when, after eight years of unpopular socialist government, Hungarian voters elected Viktor Orban’s nationalist, conservative Fidesz party to power with an unprecedented two-thirds majority of seats in parliament. Jobbik stunned Europe when it won 17 percent of the vote, becoming the country’s third-largest political party. The relationship between Fidesz and Jobbik is complicated—Jobbik is not a formal member of the ruling coalition—and yet, Fidesz leaders play a dangerous game by trying to appeal to their constituents without going too far.
The Orban government has set out on a course of rapid and thorough change, passing over 350 laws since coming to power. Orban’s critics allege he has set about to undo the country’s democracy by purging the civil service and filling it with party loyalists, establishing a media authority that threatens press freedom, eroding checks and balances, robbing the judiciary of its independence, and introducing a new constitution without sufficiently consulting the opposition or the country at large. Among other changes, the new constitution proclaims Hungary to be a Christian nation, defines life as beginning at conception, and stipulates that marriage is between a man and a woman.
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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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.