antisemitism,  Europe

Anti-Semitism in Hungary is stronger than ever

The Berlin weekly “Jungle World” recently published an interview by Karl Pfeifer with the Hungarian-Jewish philosopher Agnes Heller.

Karl Pfeifer: Some Hungarian media such as “Echo TV”, “Magyar Hírlap”, “Magyar Demokrata” and to some extent also “Magyar Nemzet”, have published anti-Semitic statements of a kind that would not be possible in mainstream media in Western Europe.

Agnes Heller: Yes, in Hungary you can have anti-Semitic discourse that is impossible in Western Europe. Some people began to make openly anti-Semitic statements right after 1989, and when they saw that Hungarian society showed almost no resistance to it, they felt reassured and continued to do so. I believe that only a small number of Hungarians are actually anti-Semitic but only a few have stood up against this intensification of anti-Semitism; the majority tends to look away and keep quiet.

K.P.: When my friend György Gadó stood up in Parliament and spoke out against this wave of aggressive anti-Semitism and the rehabilitation after 1989 of the [wartime] Royal Constabulary, his own party, the liberal SZDSZ, abandoned him. I talked to a few SZDSZ politicians at the time and they expressed the view that the anti-Semites and Nazis were entitled to freedom of expression, in the spirit of the US First Amendment.

A.H.: That’s correct; I spent 23 years in the US and am used to the idea of freedom of expression. Except that in the States racist or anti-Semitic statements provoke a strong reaction. If you talk like this in the US you are told to shut up. The problem in Hungary is not that anti-Semites are allowed to speak freely but that nobody tells these people to shut up.

K.P.: Foreign media have claimed that the new Prime Minister Viktor Orbán would distance himself from the extreme rightwing party Jobbik and abolish the Hungarian Guard. Although he did meet the Jobbik MPs and told them he opposed the existence of the paramilitary guards, he did not distance himself from their neo-nazi Arrow Cross ideology. “Echo TV”, which is close to Fidesz, has aired crude anti-Semitic programmes, for example by Zsolt Bayer, a journalist who is close to Fidesz, as is the owner of this TV station, the millionaire Gábor Széles. And these are the signals Fidesz has been sending out for domestic consumption.

A.H.: I have no way of looking into Orbán’s soul and have no idea what’s going on in there; that is not my task. What I do see is that he has been putting on dictatorial airs. He is the kind of person who does not tolerate any opposing views. He alone knows what’s right and what’s wrong.

His Fidesz is actually a democratic party but not a liberal one. In Hungary the majority rules the minority. The minority has practically no rights, and Fidesz has filled all the positions in the state: from the country’s President to the Supreme Court. That means there is absolutely no separation of powers. And the separation of powers is a principle of genuine democracy. After communism was overthrown a new constitution was drawn up (now it is being rewritten), which reflected the interests of the parties at the time. For instance, they wanted to prevent former communists from being elected President. That is why they decided that the President should be elected not by the people but by parliament. And because of that modern Hungarian democracy has been sidetracked right from the start. All powers have been given to parliament, and now all powers have gone to a single party. Over the previous eight years it was not like that: there was a two-party coalition. But now Fidesz has a two-thirds majority, so now it can change the constitution in a completely legal and democratic way, making it even worse.

K.P.: You spent a long time in America and know the West; here in Western Europe we have noticed that “anti-Zionism”, a codeword for anti-Semitism under Kádár, has been spreading fast, particularly in universities– for example in Great Britain where there is now a movement that attempts a boycott of Israeli universities, except for those Israelis who have publicly distanced themselves from their country. This is a new development.

A.H.: You are right. Before 1989 only Eastern Europe was anti-Semitic in this way, albeit pretending to be “anti-Zionist”. This attitude has now become mainstream in my country.

K.P.: The Left in Germany, including the “Left Party”, is split over this issue. It includes some people who are passionately anti-Israeli and others who are not. But here in Hungary there is almost nothing left of the Left. Here the hatred of Israel comes predominantly from the extreme right.

A.H.: Anti-Israeli feelings play a big role in our rightwing extremism. A key part of their propaganda is directed against Israel. For example, they say Israel wants to buy up Hungary, that Israeli capitalists already own the country and Hungary is being ruled by Israel. In present-day Hungary the anti-Jewish propaganda of the rightwing extremists is also very closely linked to anti-Israeli propaganda. They do not differentiate between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.

The propaganda of the Kádár regime in the fifties and sixties was likewise directed against “imperialist” Israel and it sided with the “left-wing” Arab states, although in reality they were either reactionary monarchies or military dictatorships.

K.P.: What was it that made János Kádár’s regime collapse after decades in power?

A.H.: The question that really ought to be asked is why the Kádár regime survived for so long while lacking any legitimacy. Communism in Hungary was illegitimate. If there had been free elections the Hungarians would have elected another party instead of János Kádár’s party at any time. The collapse came at the first possible moment, and it was not for the first time; it already happened in 1956. The Kádár regime was just as illegitimate as the Rákosi regime. Without the Soviet army it would not have lasted a minute.

K.P.: Kádár’s regime enjoyed roughly the same support among the population as the interwar regime of Horthy: 30 to 35 percent. Most Hungarians – except the tiny democratic opposition – had made an accommodation with the regime, in so far as they could. In spite of all this, was it not the most liberal regime in Eastern Europe?

A.H.: Yes, you’re right, that’s what people in Hungary thought. It was a negative legitimacy, the lesser evil. Already in the sixties, and certainly in the seventies, the situation in Hungary had stabilized. The motto was: live and let live. People were not forced to make public declarations of support for the regime and they could express their views in private. Everybody knew where the boundaries of freedom of expression lay, that is, people became used to not saying what they really thought. In this respect the population played along with the government. People knew that if you went public with your criticism there would be repercussions and you might even be arrested. This continued right until the mid-eighties. After that it was possible to say much more, as the regime was close to collapse. We [alluding to a group of academics who were told to leave the country in 1977] had crossed this line, were openly critical and as a result we lost our jobs, we had our passports taken away and were no longer allowed to live in Hungary. The secret police had always operated in Hungary; we had almost as many spies as the GDR. I was given files of their reports, some took pictures of us, some had reported on us, conversations in this room were also reported and we were followed in the streets, and all this made life difficult. People who did not pursue intellectual activities, who did not speak out about politics, were unaffected; they were able to live here, their jobs were secure. Some really ugly compromises were made. In my view that is one of the key reasons why Hungary took such a bad turn after 1989. It is the Kádár regime that is to blame because it taught people that there are lines that must not be crossed, that one has to cooperate, that one ought to be cowardly, that one has to keep one’s mouth shut – and these habits have survived, in spite of the change of regime.

K.P.: Nevertheless, crude anti-Semitism of the kind that had not been common even under Horthy and that is common today could not be publicly articulated in the media and in politics under Kádár. After 1989, anti-Semitism suddenly became “salonfähig”.

A.H.: That’s not quite true. There was anti-Zionism and there were pronounced anti-Israeli policies, and the regime expressed official support for the Palestinian movement against “Israeli imperialism”. This was not traditional anti-Semitism, in that no direct reference to the Jews was ever made but the line in the party newspaper was: Israel is the enemy, Israel is aggressive, Israel is allied with America, Israel is spying, Israel is involved in a world conspiracy. Jews were not mentioned but it was clear they were being referred to. Those who wished to adopt an anti-Semitic tone in their writing were able to do so, although this was disguised as anti-imperialism. For example, for a very long time it was not possible to speak of Auschwitz, one could only speak of fascism and not of national socialism. Fascism and Nazism were not distinguished. Only fascism had existed and it was the fascists who had killed communists and socialists. Not until the late eighties was it possible to refer to Jews as special victims of the Nazis. Until then the talk had always been of concentration camps where communists and anti-fascists had been held and killed.

Of course, this did not apply only to Hungary, as one could experience during visits to Auschwitz. In those days the big exhibition in Auschwitz did not mention the Jews at all, only communists and anti-fascist who had been shot dead. When I first visited Auschwitz in 1963, Birkenau was not mentioned at all, as if it had never existed. We had to ask around to find our way there because we knew what had happened here. And there was the same atmosphere in Hungary. There were no signs of direct anti-Semitism but you could not write about the Jews either positively or negatively. There were no Jewish organisations apart from the official Jewish community.

K.P.: The historian Miklós Szabó thought that the over 100,000 Jews who had survived the war, mainly in Budapest, and who included a relatively high percentage of intellectuals, managed to salvage some progressive traditions.

A.H.: That is true. The Jewish intellectuals of Budapest were particularly active in the democratic opposition against the Kádár regime because they were critically minded, because they did not like the regime.

At the beginning of the Kádár era most Jewish intellectuals were pro-communist but they soon became disillusioned. The group around Imre Nagy included many former Stalinists who had become anti-Stalinists and many of them played an important part in 1956. And then, when they saw whom Kádár arrested after taking power, they noticed how many Jewish intellectuals were among them. Of course, they were not religious Jews but rather, as one used to say in Hungary and in the other countries under “real-existing” socialism, “people of Jewish descent”. This interesting expression referred to people who did not define themselves as Jews, either because they had an internationalist outlook and did not want to identify with any particular nationality or religion, or because they regarded themselves as wholly Hungarian. This is what changed after the fall of communism. Anti-Semitism is stronger than ever but there is also a whole array of confident Jewish organisations. Today there are many young people, not only of “Jewish descent” but also of “Christian descent”, who are interested in Jewish culture. People ought to be aware of this dual development.

K.P.: The Fidesz government’s economic zig-zag course has been met with wild enthusiasm among the left and rightwing extremists abroad. However, their nationalist policies are not particularly popular with the Hungarian minorities in Slovakia and Romania. In Slovakia’s general election the nationalist party MKP, which has strong ties to Fidesz, did not manage to pass the five per cent threshold and is no longer represented in parliament. By contrast, more than eight per cent of voters have shown their trust in the bi-national party Híd-Most. And in Romania the Hungarian RMDSZ Party is part of the government in spite of being (badly) advised by Fidesz to leave the coalition. What is your view of this?

A.H.: The Hungarians in Slovakia and also in Romania want to live in peace with the majority population and don’t feel like playing the role of a buffer for Fidesz. In both countries they are now part of the ruling coalition. And if the areas with a high concentration of Hungarians in the neighbouring countries were granted autonomy, Fidesz would find no supporters there at all.

K.P.: But this is not likely to happen in the near future precisely because Fidesz is trying to escalate nationalism. Apart from the policy of “national symbols” they have nothing to offer and that is exactly why they have played this card. How long can these policies continue?

Fidesz is of course trying to fan the flames of national grievances. Fortunately the majority of Hungarians in the neighbouring countries aren’t buying it. However, the question is: how long can Fidesz satisfy the people with its policy of national symbols. It’s really difficult to make predictions about this, although it seems clear that Fidesz cannot keep its election promises. And once the voters realize that, the tide of opinion may turn. Nevertheless, as long as no sensible, influential leftwing opposition party exists, Fidesz will not lose the population’s support. And such a party does not exist in Hungary today.

Translation: Julia Sherwood
The interview appeared in Jungle World on 26.08.2010.