My Week with Hungary's Far Right
May 21 2013
Members of Magyar Nemzeti Garda, a Hungarian nationalist militia.
Hungary has one of the most highly organized far-right movements in Europe. The Jobbik party—admired by those fed up with government corruption, derided by opponents as anti-Gypsy, anti-Semite, neo-Nazi homophobes—look set to become the second biggest presence in Hungarian parliament when the elections take place in 2014. I spent a week with them trying to find out what motivates their hate.
There’s something stirring in Europe. In Bulgaria, Greece, Poland, France, Spain, and the Ukraine, support for nationalism is growing and the parties that represent nationalist interests are making tangible strides. Jobbik preaches an ideology of restoring Hungary to its former glory, which—although vague and the exact intention I'd imagine most political parties are going for—obviously becomes more attractive and believable when there are Gypsies to scapegoat. That ideology has led to their enjoying huge success at the ballots, with their uniformed nationalist militias often marching through the streets unopposed.
Last November, I watched in horror as 10,000 far-right nationalists swarmed through Warsaw. I was making a film about the rise of the far right in Poland and saw fascists in balaclavas attacking press photographers and fighting pitched battles with police. I thought these would be the worst scenes of fascism I would ever witness in Europe, but it's clear that Hungary has bigger problems on the horizon.
On May Day in Budapest, I found myself standing in the middle of an 8,000-strong crowd of Jobbik supporters, watching nationalist rockers Karpathia play awful patriotic rock songs. The crowd was a bizarre mix of saluting neo-Nazi skinheads, elderly nationalists, and ordinary young Hungarians. I was there with Channel 4 News, and while the crew was busy shooting footage of the stalls selling whips and axes and the bouncy castles and petting zoos run by skinheads, I managed to find myself alone in the crowd as the national anthem started up.
I've never heard the Hungarian national anthem before, but the entire crowd was on their feet, standing to attention, staring reverently into the distance. And so was I—standing in their midst, mumbling words to myself and hoping I wouldn’t stand out. In a crowd like this, it's clear that things could go sour pretty quickly if they realized I was part of the “liberal media.” Yes, I had my all-access Jobbik pass, but I couldn't see that helping to ward off a pack of furious fascists particularly well. Or at all.
After dark, the respectable mask slipped. While a Jobbik official watched, I was slapped in the head by a reveller annoyed that “Jews” were at his festival. He then poured a beer over my head. Although irritating and sticky, it could have been worse —I was in a forest at night surrounded by thousands of nationalists and stalls selling whips and axes. That said, it was also weirdly comforting: they gave up the pretence of decency and turned into the far right I'm accustomed to—drunk, sloppy, and taking a swing at anyone who doesn't look like them.
I had spent that morning watching a Magyar Nemzeti Garda (a nationalist militia linked to Jobbik) training session. The group's leader explained their political motivations: “There are two major problems. The problem within the country is the gypsy crime, and the external threat is the Jewish territorial expansion." Gypsies and Jews—rhetoric recycled from the start of the 20th century that seems to be making a big comeback in Hungary.
But even with their recycled fascist ideology, marching around in military uniforms and saluting the flag like TA recruits in their first orientation session, the Garda seemed pretty harmless. The group explained how they give blood, help homeless people, and carry out other useful patriotic activities—all of which seemed to be at odds with their military structure, uniforms, and the stories I'd heard about them.
However, in villages like Gyongyospata—or any other area with a large Gypsy population—the real role of the militias becomes much more apparent. In 2011, tensions between Jobbik and the local Roma gypsy population came to a head and hundreds of uniformed nationalists descended on the village to act as vigilantes and patrol the dilapidated ghetto the gypsies call home.
Jobbik held torch-lit rallies outside the gypsy homes and there were violent clashes between gypsies and a neo-Nazi group. Since the fighting, the town has become a Jobbik stronghold. The night before I arrived, locals had fallen out with the gypsies again—the Jobbik mayor claiming that they had refused to keep quiet during the national anthem at a town festival, causing him to call off the entire event.
A Roma girl in Gyongyospata.
The Roma have no kind words for the mayor, which isn't much of a surprise. Despite the tidy paved roads on the mayor's side, the village apparently has no money to pave the roads in most gypsy areas. They have, however, managed to find the cash to install CCTV cameras outside a number of gypsy homes. One family who invited us in for coffee told us that they'd lived in the village for 600 years, but—along with many others—are now fleeing to Canada in fear of further nationalist attacks.
Estimates suggest that there are as many as one million Roma people living in Hungary, but unemployment within the community stands at 60 percent—six times the national average and a convenient figure for nationalists to lash out at. Jobbik says they will put the unemployed Romani to work, but aren’t clear as to how exactly they're planning on creating meaningful employment for them.
Marginalised and poverty-stricken, the gypsy community has become an easy scapegoat for the right. One Jobbik activist told me that, “60 percent of Roma are criminals; if you think I’m racist come and live next to them.” Weirdly, though, everyone I spoke to knows of someone who's been a victim of Roma crime, but has never been a victim themselves.
Members of Magyar Nemzeti Garda.
Back in Budapest at a Jobbik rally against the World Jewish Congress, militias lined up in military formation. The Jewish Congress has moved here from Jerusalem to highlight the rise of anti-Semitism in Hungary and let Jobbik know that they won’t stand idly by as their religion is used as a get-out clause for a nation's problems. Fascists don't like Jews standing up for themselves, so Jobbik sent in the seemingly friendly Garda group we'd filmed earlier that week, as well as a group dressed in black wearing helmets and gas masks.
Jobbik wants the secret service to investigate any Hungarians with dual Israeli citizenship, as they believe there's a Jewish conspiracy to try to buy Hungary—a laughable case of paranoia all based on a throwaway remark made by Israeli President Shimon Peres a few years ago.
A lone, elderly protester takes a stand against the Jewish Congress's arrival, holding aloft a picture of a swastika. He is quietly removed from the front of the stage and Jobbik security takes him over to police, who then take down his details. Across the street, men in paramilitary outfits carry out drills with impunity.
Later, I join a cruise on the Danube for the assembled Jewish delegates from across the world and ask them why they've come here. “Because we won’t let this happen again,” is the universal answer. Police line the banks of the river, terrified that there will be some kind of incident.
Shoes on the Danube monument.
We float past the shoes on the Danube monument, where the fascist Hungarian Arrow Guard shot Jews and let their bodies fall into the river, making them remove their shoes first. The monument has resonance with everyone on the boat; many of their families fled Europe in the 40s to escape the anti-Semitism that was plaguing the country. Seventy years later, after decades of trying to move on from the persecution Hungarian Jews suffered, some Hungarians are again perfectly happy to march around the city proudly displaying the Arrow Guard insignia.
If you're in the UK, watch Channel 4 News tomorrow at 7 PM for Brian's special report on the far-right in Hungary.
Follow Brian on Twitter: @brianwhelanhack
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