Europe's Capital of Anti-Semitism: Budapest Experiences A New Wave of Hate

By Erich Follath

Budapest survived fascism and communism and blossomed after the fall of the Iron Curtain. But the Hungarian capital is experiencing a rebirth of anti-Semitism. The far-right Jobbik is now the country's third largest party and Jews are being openly intimidated.

Photo Gallery: Anti-Semitism in Budapest Photos
DPA

The city was always good for drama -- for intrigues about life and death, for eternal love and murderous betrayal, for torture, political heroism and sexual escapades. Founded by the Romans, destroyed by the Mongols and oppressed by the Ottoman Turks, Budapest has reinvented itself time and again, flexible in the flux of time. It has also served as a laboratory of sorts for varying political ideologies, from National Socialism to fascism to communism.

The United Nations has named four spots in the city UNESCO world heritage sites: the panorama on the Danube River embankment, the Buda castle district, the Millennium underground railway and Andrássy Avenue. The Hungarians wanted to use the magnificent boulevard, which was designed and built as part of preparations for the nation's mythical millennium celebration in 1896, to demonstrate that they had assumed their rightful place in the center of the continent. The country fell to the Nazis 40 years later. The Arrow Cross Party, a Hungarian national socialist party briefly in power from October 1944 to March 1945, was still driving Jews into extermination camps after Adolf Eichmann, the "architect of the Holocaust," had already fled.

The Real Budapest

The New York Times recently dubbed Budapest "Hollywood on the Danube." More international films are produced there than in any other European city, partly because Budapest has state-of-the-art production studios and receives generous tax breaks from the government. Most of all, however, it's because of the city itself. Budapest is Europe in a nutshell, the perfect double for Rome, Paris, Madrid or Munich and the ideal setting for all kinds of movies. Anthony Hopkins is currently filming a thriller there, while Nicole Kidman appears in a comedy being produced in Budapest. Earlier this year, Robert Pattinson, the star of the "Twilight" films, shot scenes on Budapest's landmark Széchenyi Chain Bridge for the upcoming film "Bel Ami."

But there is also news from the real Budapest, and the real Hungary of recent months.

Neo-fascist thugs attacked Roma families, killing six people in a series of murders. The right-wing populists of the Fidesz Party won a two-thirds majority in the parliament, while the anti-Semitic Jobbik party captured 16.7 percent of the vote, making it the third-largest party in Hungary, next to the Socialists. Unknown vandals defiled the Holocaust Memorial with bloody pigs' feet. A new law granted the government direct or indirect control over about 80 percent of the media. The television channel Echo TV showed an image of Nobel laureate and Auschwitz survivor Imre Kertész together with a voiceover about rats. Civil servants can now be fired without cause. Krisztina Morvai, a member of the European Parliament for Jobbik, suggested that "liberal-Bolshevik Zionists" should start thinking about "where to flee and where to hide."

Nazi Allusions

On May 14, 2010, Gábor Vona, the chairman of Jobbik, was about to make an appearance at the Hungarian parliament, whose seat is probably the world's most beautiful parliament building, a domed, neo-Gothic structure protected by bronze lions. Everyone was concerned that Vona would appear dressed in a fascist uniform from the past. As it happened, he showed up in a black suit, to the relief of many in the audience. But shortly before the swearing-in ceremony, the radical right-wing politician threw off his jacket to reveal a vest reminiscent of the uniforms of the Arrow Cross Party. Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung described it as "sort of a Nazi outfit."

All of this is happening in a country that belongs to the European Union and NATO, a country normally associated more with the famous romantic relationship between Elisabeth of Bavaria, the former Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary, and Count Andrássy, or the landscapes of the Puszta, or Hungarian steppes. Hungary is a country that was dubbed "the happiest barrack of the Eastern bloc" during the Cold War, where respectable citizens cut the hole into the border fences that put an end to the Iron Curtain more than 20 years ago. Now, in the wake of the Fidesz victory in communal elections on Oct. 3, the capital is getting a right-wing mayor for the first time, the 62-year engineer István Tarlós.

What's going on in Budapest?

'I Survived Two Dictatorships'

György Konrád, 77, loves Budapest. The renowned Hungarian author and recipient of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade owes his life to this city, even though the city led to the downfall of so many Jews. He could never have imagined ever turning his back on Budapest. He isn't someone who runs away from things. "But now I no longer think it's impossible that I could feel compelled to leave Hungary for good," says Konrád, leaning on his silver-tipped cane. "I survived two dictatorships. It's possible that the third one is now on its way."

Of course, nowadays Konrád doesn't have to fear a knock on his door that might end in his being taken away. Nevertheless, he cringed when he heard the sound of riding boots and heels clicking together in the courtyard of a house adjacent to his summerhouse above Lake Balaton. "The paramilitary organization of the neo-fascists was conducting exercises there -- on the property of my neighbor, who was imprisoned under the communists, was my friend for a long time and has now apparently defected to the far right," says Konrád.

The incident reawakened painful, repressed memories of the village of his childhood, Berettyóújfalu, 225 kilometers (140 miles) from the capital. It was a place where storks built nests above the synagogue, where the air smelled of lavender and oak wood, where children lived for the taste of cheesecake and hot cocoa, and where the clatter of hoofs could be heard outside the family's hardware store.

"Ever since I was five, I knew that they would kill me if Hitler won," Konrád recalls. He was 11 when they began picking up other Jewish pupils from his school. Soon his father and mother were also taken away. In June 1944, as the new head of the family, he forced his sister to pack her things and, using the money in his parents' hidden safe, bought train tickets to Budapest. He never saw any of his classmates again. They had all been sent to the gas chambers.

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1. Countries with Hungarian Speakers
lakechamplainer 10/14/2010
A quick check in Wikipedia shows that there are significant numbers of Hungarian speakers in Romania, Slovakia, Serbia, the Ukraine and in Slovenia, Austria and Croatia. If the Hungarian right continues with their attempt "to reunite with their brothers", the governments in these countries, to say nothing of Russia, Germany and the United States, will not look kindly on their efforts. Presumably they must understand that such a policy aimed at a "Greater Hungary" will lead to repression on the Hungarian speakers in these other countries.
2. Please try to be fair!
Kmetty 10/15/2010
The article is somewhat correct about the revival of Nationalism and the anti-Jewish and anti-Roma sentiments by a small (15%) minority in Hungary. The same tendencies are observed in France, Netherlands and even in Germany. It is too strong and unfair to make Hungary the capital of Anti-semitism in the EU. Hungary is still suffering from the WW1 peace treaty of Trianon, the WW2 peace treaty of Yalta and the abandonment by the West during their bloody uprising against the Soviet Union in 1956. There is not much Hungary can do that will please the liberal Weatern news media. The majority of Hungarians (Over 80%) are tolerant of their minorities, and all religions and are proud members of the European community.
3.
BTraven 10/15/2010
The good times of the “goulash-communism” are over now Weimar is looming. I have just scanned the article which is very well written, however, I miss a hint that EU’s austerity measures have contributed to the bad condition of Hungary. Perhaps I have read it over.
4. Fallacy of the excluded middle
Livius Tullius 10/15/2010
The article is extremely poorly sourced. It interviews three liberal intellectuals plus the obligatory "nazi bogeyman" type, all of whom are persons lost in their personal grudges against society (ironically, it is Varkonyi who hates Hungary the most of all...). The only interviewee who seems capable of a nuanced view, Noemi Kiss, is almost a hidden footnote. How come that when German media writes about Hungary, it never, ever interviews any people from the mainstream right or the mainstream left? Why no opinions from Fidesz, the Socialist Party or the Greens? It might seem from the hit pieces published in Spiegel and its kind that all Hungary is about the affairs of these sad old men and the far right. But right! Who cares what the majority of society thinks! Let's again focus on the freaky fringes, slander an entire country and feel good about it! Bravo, German media! Bravo, bravo, bravo!
5.
getusedto 10/15/2010
Actually the article is making a false image, false connections. It's easy to do that for a foreign country. You use a picture that looks like a fascist army, but it's in reality a group which helps the poor, tries to provide protection for people who are attacked by thiefs, helps in rebuilding when floods or other events happen. This group was born seeing the impotence of the police and other state services in helping common people. Man (and group of men) should be sized up according to his deeds, not to the look! About the lot of rascist people in Hungary... there are very few hardcore (and in fact that is more of a psychopathological phenomena in EVERY country, and should be treated according to that). But when a society sees that there are privileged groups exploiting them, there a healthy resistance happens to be born. That's what you seem not to like and picture it as nazi. I may have an advice - the predatorious "elites" you are certainly protecting should have its own psychological introspection as well! Hate is coming from the discriminating lines of this article, not from the very majority of Hungarian people. At most they are angry and feeling deprived and under pressure. It's not by chance. Hungarian people may never rest, for centuries now. There is always a blood-sucking empire over them, and when they try to get some more autonomy, get their lifes in their hands, you write articles like this. Greetings from Hungary, anyway.
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