Hungary: a lesson for lovers of populism on left and right

by Rob Marchant

It is pleasing to see Jeremy Corbyn get something right, for once.

A couple of months ago, he recorded this video message in support of Hungarian socialists, rightly warning how their country was in danger of becoming home to despotism, although he put it more politely. In his words, that the far-right government “is not only weakening democracy, but allowing intolerance and racism to take hold” (ok, so the irony meter in the Leader’s Office was switched off that day).

In contrast, our country’s government, in the person of its idiot Foreign Secretary, was quick to congratulate recently reelected president Viktor Orbán in a lugubrious tweet, failing to mention his racist campaign, or his fixing of the media and electoral system to win. I suppose that, in the post-Brexit world, his low calculation is less maintaining a democratic continent and more “any port in a storm”.

As Nick Cohen pointed out recently, Orbán is – like Putin – starting to treat harmless NGOs as enemies of the state. Not to mention demonising one of the country’s great entrepreneurs and philanthropists, George Soros, by fabricating ridiculous stories that he will flood the country with immigrants (he is clearly neither a government nor standing for office). As Cohen says, “It’s as if UK ministers were pretending the choice before the electorate was between the Conservative party and Human Rights Watch.” Quite. But more of Soros later.

Back to Budapest, where I was last week. A beautiful city and not – not yet – the seat of a dictatorship.

But it very soon is likely to be, as its election a matter of days ago has largely demonstrated. Not only did Orbán’s authoritarian Fidesz party win (again), the anti-immigration rhetoric seems now to have reached fever pitch. And that’s before we even start with Jobbik, an ugly and even more far-right party, which came in second with a fifth of the vote. In short, the “top two” choice is now between the far right and the really far right.

Their anti-immigration obsession is odd really, when you consider the following. Officially, Hungary has an ethnic mix not unlike the historically tolerant UK (82% describe themselves Hungarian or German), and a tiny Muslim population. Nearly 15% do not reveal their ethnicity anyway, and one genuinely wonders whether the ethnic Hungarian population is not even higher, as the thing that strikes you most about Hungary as you walk around its capital is the sheer, well, whiteness of everyone compared with London or Paris. There are immigrants, yes, but it’s almost as if they never leave their houses.

All the more strange, then, that Hungarian politicians should complain so vociferously about such an apparently modest number. The explanation, of course, is that Hungary no longer enjoys a level playing-field for its elections in terms of media coverage – or, indeed, outside of election time, for that matter. So Orbán can propagandise with the electorate about the evil immigrants to his heart’s content.

The posters were mostly about immigration. Or Soros. If you want to unite your people and distract attention away from what you’re doing, make them feel like victims and create a bogeyman. Worked for Putin, as well as for a certain house-painter from a bordering country.

On the Saturday, there was a huge, pro-democracy demonstration. Historically, people don’t usually take to the streets to defend democracy unless they perceive a clear and present danger to it.

Indeed, if you really want an idea of where Fidesz is taking Hungary, apart from tinkering with the constitution (rarely a good idea for freedom or democracy: Erdogán, anyone? Chávez? Putin?), you could do worse than look at their position on their own history.

For example, I was intrigued to find in Wikipedia, when looking up wartime leader Miklos Horthy – whom, you may remember, hooked up with Hitler and fought against the Allies – that the entry seemed inordinately kind to him. That he essentially was dragged kicking and screaming towards the Nazi alliance, rather than jumping in with both feet; that he protected its Jews rather than deporting them. To me it screamed “apologism”. But more information was needed.

It was also apparent that the piece had been recently edited by someone in Hungary. Could it be, I wondered, that Orbán and his dodgy pals are looking to rehabilitate the Nazi collaborator? Or was it just paranoia?

Anecdotal though the confirmation may have been, it was compelling. On examining a monument to the fallen of Hungary’s Jews, it suddenly became clear what was going on. The monument – a sculpture of the Angel Gabriel – was supposed to be a tribute to those who had died at the hands of the Nazis. It was only when you looked a little closer, you could see that a little pile of protest material had been added in front of it. Candles, notes, objects.

The first thing which caught my eye was a little wry note in English, saying, “My mother died at Auschwitz. Thanks, Angel Gabriel.” Hmmm. It’s as if Hungary’s Jews were not really happy with this monument to them.

I looked closer. There was a letter in Spanish. An excerpt from the translated text follows:

“The construction of this monument of German occupation here at Freedom Square was conceived and decreed by the government without public consensus, despite continuing protests between January 2 and 20 July 2014. Its main figures were put in place at night, in secret, and no inauguration was held…

In the center of the monument is the archangel Gabriel with the sceptre, raising his arm toward the imperial eagle, representing Germany. The current Hungarian government, led by Viktor Orban, wanted Gabriel to represent the innocence of Hungary in the course of the Second World War…

The erection of this monument is an attempt by the current government and its ruling party, Fidesz, to falsify history, and diminish the role of Hungary in the Holocaust.”

Of course! Historical revisionism, 21st century style. Now I got the sarcastic comment about Angel Gabriel.

The upshot is this: it seems that a number of Hungary’s Jews (and we can only guess whether it is a majority) clearly feel that this monument was a hand-washing exercise, carried out to try and make the population feel good about their country’s role in the war (see above rehabilitation of Horthy) and proud of being Hungarian.

Well, they shouldn’t be, because Hungary’s role in the war was shameful, though of course nothing to do with modern Hungarians or, indeed, those older ones who resisted the Horthy regime.

Just as Putin (not to mention some members of our own Leader’s Office) is apparently comfortable with the burgeoning rehabilitation of Josef Stalin, Orbán is clearly fine with the same happening to Horthy. Putin’s primary goal in life is making Russians feel that Russia has returned to greatness. Orbán’s populist authoritarianism aims at much the same for Hungarians.

Although it seems almost inevitable that Hungary will continue to slide slowly into dictatorship, as Russia has pretty much already done, there remains a question: in that event, will the EU actually do the decent thing and kick it out?

One would think so: indeed, the EU’s Guy Verhofstadt (and, I’m sure, others) has recently been making noises to that effect. But think about this: if it came down to keeping a dictatorial Orbán inside the EU versus letting him drift directly into some kind of deeper alliance with Putin (he has already some very significant bilateral trade agreements, for example on nuclear tech), one wonders if the resolve of the EU’s great and good to maintain it as a democratic club would remain quite so strong.

Finally, we might reflect on the irony that – in spite of Corbyn’s rightly protesting the lack of democracy and human rights under the Orbán regime – the populist, EU-hating, “elitist Jews” rhetoric of Orbán has a close parallel in our own country. Or rather, in those activists which the upper echelons of our own party seem to be finding it so difficult to expel. Far left, far right: same difference.

And further: forget the debates about trade. The point many seem to miss in all the debates about the EU is that it was founded as a bulwark against precisely the kind of politics now surging in Eastern Europe. Its current weakness, aided and abetted by Brexit, rampant nationalism and immigration paranoia, is helping people like Orbán take fellow Europeans back to the 1930s. We disregard the importance of this at our peril.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left

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8 Responses to “Hungary: a lesson for lovers of populism on left and right”

  1. Ydoethur says:

    Horthy did refuse to deport Hungary’s Jews. That’s why the Nazis invaded Hungary and overthrew him in 1944. So that’s not historical revisionism.

    There are many things you can legitimately criticise Horthy for over his treatment of the Jews and Jewish refugees, including the loss of civil rights, pogroms, restrictions on movement etc. He was not a nice man. But that isn’t one of them.

  2. It makes it even stranger that Netanyahu should cozy up to Orban. It doesn’t look like Ntanyahu and his government have many principles at all does it?

  3. Rob Marchant says:

    @Ydoethur: I’m not sure I said he organised deportation of Jews himself. However, fact is that he ordered no resistance to the occupation, and appointed a government which then collaborated fully with the Nazis in deporting them. It is inconceivable that he didn’t know what would happen. But he didn’t like Jews anyway, and didn’t care. He simply preferred that other people did the dirty work.

    “Hungarian authorities deported 437,402 Hungarian Jews on 147 trains in just 56 days between May 15 and July 9, 1944. Apart from 15,000, all of these deportees were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau.”

    For more info I recommend sections 5 and 7 of the following:

  4. Mike Homfray says:

    The problem is that Orban came to power after the left were shamed by blatant lies about economic forecats – and they have never managed to recover.

    Like many centrists, this article fails to understand the appeal of populism

  5. Ed Myatt says:

    And it would be nice to see Marchant, once, just once, get something right. Don’t hold your breath, anyone.

  6. Tafia says:

    You miss the point about the Hungarians and immigration – by a country mile and more.

    The problem is those refugees. Yes the Hungarians have a small muslim population – but they aren’t middle eastern muslims, they are like muslims in Bosnia and Croatia – th3y are white, they smoke (even the women), they drink (even the women), they go out on their own (even the women), they are partial to forbidden things (such as smoked ham, pork schnizel and sausages), the women wear make up, have careers wear european clothing including mini-skirts and skimpy halter tops. You wouldn’t notice they were muslim if you sat next to them.

    But the refugees aren’t – they are middle eastern muslims. far more traditional, try and adhere to the Koran, women wearing headscarves and in some instances face veils, won’t integrate to Hungarian values, etc etc etc.

    They don’t want them transiting their country, they don’t want them settling there and they will not be told by the EU that they will take a proportionate share – that is not going to happen. Germany encouraged them, Germany can keep them, Germany can deal with the consequences.

    And before you think that’s a shocking way to treat muslims, it’s also how the Hungarian muslims think – they don’t want then bringing their traditional islamic ideas either. And they also think the same way over non-muslim immgrants – if you want to come to Hungary you adopt the Hungarian way or you piss off.

    The Visegrad 4+2 are not going to accept greater EU federalisation. Quite the opposite – they want the opposite. That waht they do in their countries is up to them, and they want their borders back.

  7. Des Black says:

    The Hungarian people have looked in horror at the dystopian mess that western Europeans have got into as a result of uncontrolled Muslim (& other) immigration. The terrorism, misogyny, organised child abuse on an industrial scale, electoral fraud & anti-Semitism – not that the British left can teach them much about that.
    Orban wants to keep Hungary Hungarian & Christian because he can see that the massive birth rate of Muslims (plus on-going new arrivals) places the west on a road to hell.
    PS – the EU lecturing others about democracy is laughable.

  8. Dave Roberts says:

    It is some time since I have had the pleasure of commenting on a post by Tafia but I can now do so. Well summed up sir but there is also the geographic context in which the whole thing must be put. Hungary was for about five centuries occupied by the Ottoman Turks and has a long oral, folk and written tradition of historical memory about that period.

    Next door, in Austria as late as the early seventeenth century the same Ottomans reached the gates of Vienna for the last time and where thrown back by a coalition of largely Catholic monarchies especially that of Poland. There is therefore a well founded fear of Islam based on a not too distant folk memory as well as well documented history.

    Thrown into all of this is the fact that even after the Ottomans were expelled it wasn’t until 1921 that the country became an independent entity albeit with, not unlike other European peoples, some of its population scattered across other new nation states.

    While Jews might not have enjoyed full civil liberties under Horthy it wasn’t until 1944 and the arrival of Adolph Eichmann even as the Soviets were advancing to the borders of the country that mass arrests and deportations began using road and rail transport that was desperately needed by the Wermacht to resist the approaching Russians.

    Yes of course Urban is a populist and the left particularly the Marxist element of it are having difficulty coming to terms with that just as they haven’t really got a grip of and their heads around the collapse of communism. The centre cannot hold wrote Yeats and it now seems that in parts of Europe a beast is slouching toward Jerusalem to be born.

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