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Hungary: Europe’s creeping fascism

Luke Cooper reports on his recent visit to Hungary, an EU member state where democratic freedoms are no longer taken for granted

9 to 11 minute read

Shoes on the Danube Promenade

Just along from the Hungarian parliament building, visitors to Budapest can find Shoes on the Danube Bank. Consisting of 60 shoes facing the river looking westwards, it is a deeply poignant memorial to the Budapest Jews who were murdered by the fascist Arrow Cross government between 1944 and 1945. They were ordered to remove their shoes before being shot. Their bodies fell into the river.

Those killed in this way were only a fraction of Hungarian victims of the Holocaust. In 56 days during the summer of 1944 alone, Hungarian authorities worked with the Nazi regime to deport 437,402 Jews, primarily to the extermination camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau. Standing so close to the Hungarian parliament, the memorial is a reminder of the fragility of democracy and the terrible atrocities committed during the Second World War.

New and old forms

There is nothing specifically Hungarian about these experiences, of course. Europe has an intensely violent and racist history. No corner of the continent can claim innocence when it comes to the history and legacy of fascism.

The sheer horror of this past can also sometimes blind us to the emergence of nationalism and fascism in new forms. If there are no extermination camps, should we therefore be content that the contemporary far right has adapted to, and accepted, democracy and minority rights? Progressives and democrats in many European countries today face this question squarely. Germany, Italy, France, Britain, Austria, Poland, the Netherlands, Sweden and Spain, to name only some of the most prominent cases, are all countries that have either a growing or consolidated far-right presence in their national political scene.

Perhaps because of the history attached to the terminology of fascism, many observers are reluctant to describe these developments in such language, preferring instead to label it ‘far-right populism’. The danger of this linguistic shift is that it can aid the normalisation of these new far-right forces into an accepted part of the European political landscape. Twentieth-century fascism did not, after all, begin the journey to the extermination camps by acknowledging this as its goal.

Part of the mobilising power of the new far right in Europe lies in the ‘memory politics’ of how 20th-century fascism is thought about today. The new far right rejects any notion of national responsibility for fascism. They claim they are not in continuity with these historical movements, while drawing on an idea of majority-white victimhood that resembles classical fascist discourses: that a liberal elite is systematically disadvantaging white-native populations to the benefit of ethnic and religious minorities.

Illiberal democracy

Today, Hungary stands at the centre of these developments. Since 2010, under prime minister Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz government, the country has pioneered what they call ‘illiberal democracy’. For international observers the language Orbán and his party use is particularly striking for just how explicitly they reject liberal norms. They oppose the notion that civil society has rights and freedoms in relation to the state on the grounds that these are private associations, which have not been elected by the majority. They use similar ‘majoritarian’ sophistry to reject the idea that minority groups and ethnicities have human rights.

Whereas far-right parties are usually thought of as becoming more moderate as they move closer to power, Fidesz tells a different story. The party began life after the fall of communism as a young, liberal, even idealistic party, but over time has become deeply conservative. Zsuzsanna Szelényi, a Hungarian oppositionist, left the party in 1994. She draws a parallel between Orbán’s autocratic takeover of the party from 1992 onwards with his rule in office.

‘Very early on Viktor Orbán… pushed the party… with a strong hand… The whole decision making process, especially related to party finances, very quickly became un-transparent,’ she says. For Szelényi, it was Orbán’s desire for power, rather than any deep ideological commitment to nationalist values, that has motivated him.

Fascism in Hungary?

Many Hungarian oppositionists share this perspective. They argue that the often-shocking pronouncements of the Fidesz government on migration and Islam are used cynically to win support and de-legitimise opponents.
Dániel Bartha, the director of a Budapest-based think-tank, argues that the biggest concrete effect of the Orbán regime has been ‘power concentration on a massive scale’. Fidesz has created a new loyal elite in business, public institutions, universities and the media, justified through Hungarian nationalism and economic development.

One effect has been the abolition of a level playing field among parties competing in elections. Vast amounts of taxpayers’ money have been spent on government ‘information campaigns’, for example, that have targeted George Soros and outgoing EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker as figures representing a pro-immigrant, anti-Christian conspiracy of global liberalism against Hungary.

Independent media has been aggressively marginalised as the government has lavished advertising revenue on supportive outlets, while boycotting critical ones. Its business supporters have then joined in, starving them of funds. Public sector broadcasters have also been turned into uncritical supporters of the government.

International appeal

Orbán’s rhetoric is without nuance and caveats. His speeches are all translated into English by the Hungarian government and published online, underlining his eagerness to promote these views globally.

Conservative politicians have arguably assisted these efforts. Fidesz remains a member of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) grouping, albeit currently suspended pending an investigation. Manfred Weber, the leader of the EPP, tweeted his congratulations to Orbán following his 2018 victory in the Hungarian elections, in spite of the fact that just a few days earlier Orbán had told Hungarian voters they faced a struggle to save their homeland from ‘the alchemical workshop of George Soros’ and that ‘migration is the rust that would slowly but surely consume our country.’

The combination of antisemitism and Islamophobia, where Jews are attacked for giving support to Muslim immigration, is a key theme of the new far right.

Other centre-right politicians have also happily aligned with the Fidesz regime. In March, Orbán spoke at a conference in Budapest on migration alongside former French president Nicolas Sarkozy. Orbán used his speech to outline his version of the so‑called ‘great replacement’ alt-right conspiracy theory, which says migration is part of a liberal elite plot.

In Britain, Orbán’s biggest supporter has been Nigel Farage. ‘Thank God, there is one European leader who is prepared to stand up for his principles, his nation, his culture, and his people,’ Farage said recently. The rise of Farage’s new Brexit Party has been a boost to the European far right.

EU institutions will be a critical theatre for the fight against the rise of fascism in the decade ahead. Whatever the final nature of Britain’s position in Europe, it is essential that we join the international resistance to the far-right advance and take our anti-fascist responsibilities seriously.

Voices from Hungarian civil society

Caught up in the government’s campaign of hate

Zoltán Mester

Since 2006, the Emberség Erejével (With the Power of Humanity) Foundation has been engaged in human rights education in Pécs, near the Croatian border, in southern Hungary. The city is the centre of an economically underdeveloped, poor region, a vibrant university town, and a European Capital of Culture in 2010.

In 2010, the foundation began to work with disadvantaged children living in a poor part of Pécs, and in 2013 it opened a school for them. The main mission, besides helping learning, is to create equal opportunities, so poor children can experience activities that are unusually inaccessible to them.
It is the foundation’s most recent activity, though, which has provoked a full attack from the powerful. The Growing Civic Communities programme will see the foundation distribute 100 million forints (£270,000) to civil society and community organisations over three years, from the Open Society Foundation. This has seen us caught up in the government’s propaganda campaigns against George Soros and Hungarian NGOs supported by his foundations.

The culmination of the hate campaign was an adoption of a statement by the Pécs General Assembly, which asked the townspeople not to let us rent an office for our foundation. As a result, we lost our rental property, but fortunately we got a lot of other offers.

Today, the centrally organized propaganda campaign has lost its intensity, though government representatives are still trying to make our work more difficult.
We have developed a strategy of focusing on positive communication, trying to do the work we believe in, regardless of the circumstances, with universal and European values that are currently not very popular in Hungary. In our opinion, in the 30 years since the change of regime, there has never been such a great need for European organizations, institutions and foundations to be active and effective in supporting Hungarian society.

Fighting for the right to housing in an illiberal democracy

Éva Tessza Udvarhelyi

The City is for All is a grassroots housing advocacy group fighting for the dignity of homeless people and the right to housing for all. Our group was founded in 2009 by homeless people and their allies. Since our foundation, we have been actively fighting against the criminalisation of homelessness, evictions without alternative placement, the destruction of self-built shacks, the police harassment of homeless people as well as for the right to an address and the right to decent social services among other things.

In the past three years, around 10,000 evictions have taken place in Hungary, which means that tens of thousands of people have lost their homes. While the Orbán government has dedicated huge amounts of public money to support home ownership of more well-off families, it terminated the national housing allowance scheme available to low-income people, refuses to develop public housing and ignores the exponentially rising rents in urban centers.

In addition to aggressively dismantling the welfare state and the rule of law that affect all Hungarians, the Orbán government has specifically targeted street homeless people by passing a series of laws since 2010 that made Hungary the only country in the world that criminalizes sleeping in public space at the level of the constitution. The latest variation of this law, which makes it possible to detain homeless people and put them in jail for sleeping on the street, is currently being reviewed by the Constitutional Court.

The City is for All and our sister organisation the Streetlawyer Association, along with many other NGOs and artists, public intellectuals, actors, medical professionals, social professionals and regular citizens, have stood up against this unjust and inhumane law by protesting, providing legal aid and representation and offering individual support to homeless people.

Waiting for the end of the darkness as the free media fades

Nagy Gergely Miklós

The landscape of Hungarian media has been changed a lot during the nine years of Orbán government – though the word ‘change’ is too mild for how frightening the shift has been.

To be honest, I’m not sure exactly when it started. Before 2010 (the year Orbán came to power) there was a wide range of different media, with left-wing, liberal or right-wing values. Dailies, news portals, weeklies, radio – the usual. Our democracy wasn’t perfect, and it was young, but the media landscape felt quite normal.

Now it is all gone.

Now we don’t talk about ‘left-wing’ or ‘right-wing’ press any more, but about the expanding propaganda machine. This media pushes out anti‑immigration messages 24 hours day, and attempts to intimidate and destroy anyone who dares to publicly criticise the government.

Sometimes they use people’s personal information against them. Sometimes they bully people’s family members. They wield the full force of public media to serve power.

Hungary’s ruling party, Fidesz, continues to buy up media outlets, close them, control the advertising market, and generally suffocate the remains of the real press or transform it into yet more propaganda.

To be frank, I am not very optimistic about the situation. All of this fits into a bigger picture. What Orbán has done and does day by day is not something new, but a special version of the new wave of national populism. Simple messages, named scapegoats, always at a high volume. In Western Europe or in the USA, the various institutes and wider civil society would have more capacity to resist these voices and their populist impacts. But a country like Hungary, which hasn’t got very deep roots in democratic traditions, could get into bigger trouble.

Nevertheless, the lesson is very clear for us and could be for everybody: if any government starts to attack the press, that is just the first sign. Don’t wait for the second.

Luke Cooper is a visiting fellow on the Europe’s Futures programme at the Institute of Human Sciences (Vienna). He is currently working on a book and podcast documentary series on the crisis of Europe

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