A 1937 letter from Berlin I read a couple of years ago said: “The streets are clean, people have jobs. The café’s, restaurants and terraces are filled every day. The women are lovelier than ever. Yet, there is this strange undercurrent. All this marching and uniforms, it makes me uneasy. One hears things about beatings and about people being taken away, disappearing. Jews and others. We try not to talk about it, not to think about it. Yet it feels like a beast is awakening, ready to destroy.”
These lines came to mind while I was sitting on a terrace drinking coffee on a square just off Vaci Utca, the famous Budapest shopping street. Last week I was in Budapest as part of a group at the European Youth Centre that trained young people to counter online hate.
Photo credit: The Contrarion Hungarian
In Budapest the streets are clean and beautiful, everybody laughs and smiles, while the Hungarian Guard, a paramilitary outfit modelled on the SS, marches in the street and people are beaten up. Today, if you live in Hungary and you are Roma, Jewish or a member of the LGBT community, you have a problem.
During recent years, waves of anti-Roma violence, antisemitic attacks, bumper-stickers with the text ‘Jew free car,’ homophobic attacks on the annual Gay pride parade, antisemitic defacement of synagogues and Jewish graves, all became ‘normal.’
In 2010, during a recent speech by the mayor of Budapest, right-wingers shouted slogans such as ‘send Jews to the concentration camps‘ and ‘Jewish pigs!’
“Vilified for claiming Holocaust restitution”
In Hungary, antisemitism and hate against gypsies were always present, but they were swept under the carpet by communist governments. The new constitution however, does not protect the rights of Gays and Lesbians. Roma live in fear and the Jewish community tries to endure the new pogrom-like atmosphere. Before World War II, there were half a million Jews living in Hungary. Now there are only 100,000 and they are under growing attack and vilified for claiming Holocaust restitution.
Márton Gyöngyösi, Hungarian parliament member for Jobbik (Jobbik Magyarországért Mozgalom),a Hungarian radical nationalist political party, has said: “It has become a fantastic business to jiggle around with the numbers of dead Jews.” Last month, another Jobbik MP, Zsolt Baráth, held a speech in parliament reviving an anti-Jewish blood libel from 1882.
During a briefing I attended by Hungarian NGOs and other experts, it became clear that the current situation is dire. Peter Molnar, Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Media and Communication Studies at Central European University in Budapest, and a former Member of Parliament remarked, “Right now, if I have to make a hierarchy of the minorities under attack in Hungary, I would say first the Roma, then the Jews and then the LGBT community.”
In 2010, during the last Hungarian election, Jobbik became the 3rd party of the country, winning 17% of the vote. The coalition government that was formed after the election, does not have Jobbik in it – but the largest party, the nationalist conservative Fidesz relies on Jobbik support and openly tries to please and appease it. Jobbik itself denies being fascist or racist, but its leader, Gabor Vorna, says that Jobbik is not democrat.
In a smart back-stage, front-stage strategy Vorna has created the Hungarian Guard, who march the streets in Nazi uniforms and have been said to be responsible for most of the hate crime and attacks against Roma, Jews and LGBTs. On top of that, unaffiliated skinheads and neo-Nazis create even more trouble. During 2008 and 2009, a number of Molotov cocktail and gun attacks against the Roma community resulted in the death of six Roma. The killers were neo-Nazis.
“Jobbik loves extreme Islamists and especially Iran”
So, does Jobbik like anybody? Well, ‘normal’ Hungarians of course, who are, in a familiar sounding mythology, the descendants of a great and pure Central-Asian ‘Turkic’ race, which also includes the Persians. It may therefore come as no surprise that Jobbik loves extreme Islamists and especially Iran, feeling very comfortable with shared antisemitism and Holocaust denial.
This is not 1937, but it seems there are too many similarities including a bad economic situation, high unemployment, the Euro-crisis, inflation of the Forint, the national currency as well as anti-democratic strong leaders about to take over.
Photo credit: Budapest Daily Photo
As the saying goes, ‘history repeats itself the second time as a farce.’ Well, for a start, there is very little farcical about repeating pogroms.
Hungary is not Germany in 1937 and Hungary is not the only European country suffering under an increase of populism, neo-Nazism and extremism. But, Hungary could well be a new flashpoint.
While I was having my coffee, I read on my Blackberry that the Budapest monument for Raoul Wallenberg had been desecrated. Hanging from the statue were pig legs covered in blood.
All of a sudden, the coffee didn’t taste so good.
In 2010, former Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai, in an unwitting allusion to the 1937 letter from Berlin said, the “monster is at the door, threatening to crush Hungarian democracy.”
I don’t like coincidences like that at all.