Photo Gallery: Hungary's Cultural Revolution


Revanchism in Budapest Hungary's Right-Wing War on Culture

First, Hungary's right wing revamped the country's political landscape. Now, Budapest's cultural life would appear to be next in line. One of the capital's leading theaters is to be run by a pair of anti-Semitic nationalists. And it may be only the beginning.

István Márta says that he hasn't given up yet, but he knows he's fighting a losing battle. He is standing in the auditorium of his theater with a camera and acting as if all was well in the theater.

"What can I do?" he asks, a little too loudly and with a touch of annoyance in his voice.

"Nothing," says his assistant. "We can do nothing."

On stage, actors are rehearsing a scene from "Don Carlos." Together, they move forward and begin to moan, snort and gasp. Here on the stage in Budapest, modern director's theater feels no different than it does in German cities like Bochum, Freiburg or Cologne. "Don Carlos" will be Márta's penultimate production, to be followed by "The Magic Mountain." And then it'll be all over for Márta.

His theater will soon be under new management. Márta's successors are an actor who recently campaigned for the right-wing extremist Jobbik Party and a playwright who is a professed anti-Semite.

There are 77 days left. It is mid-November, and outside, on the front of the Art Deco theater near Budapest's iconic Andrássy Avenue, a huge installation has been built in protest, counting down the days. Márta has been the director of the Uj Színház, or "New Theater," for 13 years. Now he has become one of the first prominent victims in a culture war that has been raging in Budapest since right-wing populists came into power in Hungary last year. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's Fidesz Party controls the country with a two-thirds majority in parliament -- enough, in other words, to reconfigure a parliamentary democracy or even reshape an entire country. A new constitution takes effect on Jan. 1, 2012, and a new press law designed to prevent unwanted criticism of conditions in Hungary has been in place for the last few months.

A Battle for People's Thoughts

But a country's culture can't be changed that easily. In Hungary, culture is leftist and liberal, as it is in many other European countries. Culture does what it pleases and what it thinks. But to gain complete control over a country, one has to control what people think. This is precisely the issue on many people's minds in Hungary today: a battle for people's thoughts.

Already in recent months, the directors of a few provincial theaters have been replaced by government sympathizers. In Budapest, the artistic director of the National Opera was let go. Márta, at the New Theater, will be the next to go, and there is talk that the gay director of the National Theater may also be driven out.

The government is investigating 82-year-old Agnes Heller, Hungary's most famous philosopher, a former dissident, Marxist and student of the Marxist philosopher Georg Lukács. The government, with massive support from the right-wing press, claims that she squandered European Union grant money.

A monument to the poet Attila József on a square in front of the parliament building is expected to be taken down soon. József, whose works are classics of proletarian poetry, was a humanist with a Marxist worldview. He threw himself in front of a freight train in 1937. The new government does not believe that a monument to this sort of a person ought to be standing in front of the parliament. It's as if the Germans were to remove a statue of Friedrich Schiller because the poet had long hair.

A country is imposing a new way of thinking and a new culture on itself, a culture that ties in with pre-1920 Greater Hungary. Hungary today is a country trying to awaken a sense of national identity that never actually existed.

'Reptile of Hungarian Politics'

Márta, the current director of the New Theater, did nothing wrong. The theater is making money, and the productions have been favorably reviewed. He has produced the international theatrical canon, including works by Molière and Ostrowski, Büchner, Schiller and Shakespeare, as well as by Hungarian writers. Márta didn't expect to encounter a problem when he sent the mayor a 200-page document in the fall: his concept for the theater's artistic and financial future.

The mayor, István Tarlós, entered office since last year after 20 years of liberal leadership in the city. The writer Rudolf Ungváry describes Tarlós, a supporter of the governing party, as "a reptile of Hungarian politics, muscular and well-fed." Suddenly a second application for the directorship of the New Theater appeared on Tarlós's desk. It was less than 20 pages long, vague and incomplete. Those who saw it say it was obviously thrown together with little attention to detail.

It was submitted by György Dörner. Dörner, 58, does voice overs for Mel Gibson characters in the Hungarian versions of Hollywood films. He is a moderately successful actor who recited folk poetry at campaign events of the far-right Jobbik Party last year.

In his application, Dörner wrote that not only did he intend to rename the New Theater as the "Home Front Theater," but that he would also put an end to "degenerate, sick, liberal hegemony." The mayor liked what he read, although Dörner's suggestion to rename the theater went too far, even for Tarlós. In his application, Dörner also wrote that he intended to run the theater together with his friend István Csurka.

Everyone in Hungary knows István Csurka. Once a celebrated poet, he wrote stories and plays with such poetic force that even his rivals praised his works. Csurka was also a hero. As a well-known conservative dissident, he was arrested during the 1956 uprising, although it soon emerged that he had also cooperated with the Hungarian secret police during communist rule.

Not Real Hungarians

When the Soviet era ended and Csurka was no longer forced to hide his views in poetry and could express his thoughts openly, he said that the old Greater Hungary should be recaptured and the country wrested from the control of the Jews. He founded a party, the "Hungarian Truth and Life Party," and fought against what he called a "phony Hungary hostile to the nation" and the "foreign-hearted."

The horrible term "foreign-hearted" pops up again and again in the Hungarian far right. The nationalists use it to describe people who, in their view, are not real Hungarians -- mainly liberals and Jews. In 1998, Csurka's party was elected into parliament and cooperated with current Prime Minister Orbán. The two men know each other well. As great a poet as he is, Csurka is an even greater lunatic. He is convinced that the Zionists are planning to establish a second Jewish homeland in Hungary.

It was simply inconceivable that Dörner could succeed with his application in the middle of Europe and in an EU country. An eight-member panel of experts reviewed his application. Six of them, all theater professionals, recommended tossing it into the wastebasket immediately. The two others -- the envoy from the Culture Ministry and a representative of the City of Budapest -- abstained. Nevertheless, the mayor chose Dörner. Why? There are rumors that he received a recommendation from higher up the political ladder and, in fact, that the order to hire Dörner and Csurka came from the very top.

There were protests, of course: demonstrations in front of the theater, statements of solidarity and letters of protest. German conductor Christoph von Dohnányi cancelled a guest appearance at the State Opera, and the Academy of the Arts in Berlin sent a letter to Budapest to protest "the anti-Semitic views of the politician and author Csurka and the pro-fascist proximity to the Jobbik Party of theater man Dörner." In his brief response, Mayor Tarlós wrote that he would not tolerate the Berlin academy's "meddlesome" letter.

Why doesn't the mayor explain such a crude decision?

Because he didn't make it, says current New Theater director Márta.

But what does the new director say?

'Blabbing on about Jews'

It is a Thursday morning in mid-November and Dörner, who lives outside Budapest, is still sleeping. The woman who answers the phone says that he was up late the night before shooting a film. When we finally reach Dörner at around noon, he says, in his Mel Gibson voice, that he prefers to exercise his right to make no comment. He adds that he has nothing to explain -- and hangs up.

Csurka does not respond to any of the messages left with his secretaries. One says that she doesn't know if he is in Budapest. The 77-year-old politician is a busy man, says another. A bodyguard chimes in, saying that his boss hates the Western media.

In addition to being a poet and a politician, Csurka publishes a weekly newspaper called Magyar Fórum. The editorial offices are in downtown Budapest. A man who looks like a bouncer in a bar is standing at the reception desk. He has a hanging eyelid and is wearing a Jack Daniel's T-shirt stretched tightly across his enormous stomach.

"You again. I recognize your voice," he says. "You're the one who's been calling all this time. I told you that Mr. Csurka has no time for you." He reaches for the phone, speaks with someone and then shakes his head.

Here at his weekly newspaper, Csurka has recently begun writing commentaries under the headline "Ascher Café," diatribes filled with hate and accusations. "People make fun of our application," Csurka writes, "because in it we expressed national thoughts and not their liberal consensus."

The commentary's title "Ascher Café" is a reference to Tamás Ascher, perhaps Hungary's most famous film director, the Director of the Academy of Drama and Film, and a Jew. For Csurka, Ascher symbolizes the Jewish-liberal coffeehouse cultural conspiracy he has been fighting for decades. Csurka writes: "It isn't just the social-liberal cultural policy, but also the Ascher Café's dominance over the theater that is so oppressive. We are withdrawing culture from the control of Tamás Ascher, the head of the café, the great director, who also directs films in Los Angeles and is, with all certainty, descended from a family of Ashkenazi Jews from Odessa."

'We Stopped Thinking after That'

Ascher tosses Csurka's newspaper aside. He can't read it, he says. He is sitting in the cafeteria of his theater, the József Katona Theater in the city's 5th District, where he and his cast are currently rehearsing "Woyzeck," by the German playwright Georg Büchner, in an adaptation by Robert Wilson and Tom Waits. Ascher tells the story of how, as a student 20 years ago, he rang the doorbell of the man who vilifies him today. He wanted to tell Csurka how much he admired him and ask him for his permission to create a stage version of one of Csurka's stories. The men liked each other. "But when he was drunk, he would immediately start blabbing on about Jews." Ascher says he was accustomed to hearing anti-Semitic remarks, which reemerged in 1989 after having been covered up by the previous socialist regime.

"We Hungarians, especially those on the right, are at the political state of consciousness that existed in 1948. We stopped thinking after that, and only started thinking again in 1989," says Hungarian journalist Rudolf Ungváry.

Even today, many Hungarians believe that only the Germans were responsible for the 560,000 Hungarian Jews who were murdered during the Holocaust. But, says Ungváry, Adolf Eichmann's staff in Hungary consisted of only two dozen members of the SS. According to Ungváry, it was the Hungarian police force that organized the deportation of the Jews to the German extermination camps. But the country has never confronted this part of its past. In postwar Germany, the conservative government of then-Chancellor Konrad Adenauer also took former Nazis on the road to Western democracy, whereas in Hungary the members of the far right went underground. They have since resurfaced as horrific zombies and are trying to gain control over the country.

Among these zombies is Sándor Pörzse. One of the most prominent members of Jobbik, he is also a member of parliament, the editor-in-chief of the party magazine Barikád and a founding member of the party's paramilitary organization, the Hungarian Guard, which is now banned.

A Supporter of Hungary

The word Jobbik means "the right ones," in both senses of the term. The party acts as something of a far-right opposition to a right-wing government. They are in favor of a Greater Hungary, opposed to Europe, opposed to Roma and, though not as openly, opposed to Jews. Pörzse has been known to occasionally wear the Hungarian Guard uniform, even though it costs him a fine of €180 each time, which doesn't seem to bother him.

When Pörzse, 52, steps out of his SUV on this day, he is dressed as if he were visiting an exclusive ski resort: a heavy, casual leather jacket over a sport coat, and fashionable boots. His dark-brown hair is longish and parted in the middle; he doesn't have the dim-witted face of the typical member of Germany's far-right extremist National Democratic Party (NPD).

He agrees to meet with us in the lobby of the parliament building, which once housed the communist central committee. It is a clear gesture that says: Look, this party is legitimate, Jobbik is the third-largest force in the parliament and will soon be the second-largest. Pörzse is a former professional football player and was later a well-known TV host at the right-wing stations HIR and Echo-TV. Today, he is a fascist.

"Wrong," Pörzse says immediately, looking oddly calm and relaxed. Fascists were the supporters of Mussolini, he says, but he isn't one. He is a supporter of Hungary.

And what does he think about the Nazis? Pörzse stretches, takes a deep breath and thinks for a moment, clearly enjoying the tension. Finally he says, smiling contentedly, "They were war criminals."

He is still on good terms with Prime Minister Orbán. The two men used to play football together. But the government, says Pörzse, is far too moderate and half-hearted. It publicly distances itself from Jobbik's radicalism.

A Culture War

"We must resort to harsh tactics now," he says. "The country is so sick that aspirin is no longer effective." The Hungarian people seem to agree with Jobbik, as evidenced by the party's rise in popularity in public opinion polls. This is partly because Jobbik has figured out how to reach people -- not through politics, but through resentments disguised as culture. This explains the uniforms, the torchlight parades, the nationalist song-singing evenings and the paramilitary organization.

"After the political turnaround has been completed," Pörzse says, "we must now recapture our spot in the culture."

The country is in the middle of a culture war, and the national concept of culture will prevail, says Pörzse. This is why he is calling for the dismissal of Róbert Alföldi, the homosexual director of the National Theater. Pörzse calls it a national theater without a national culture, a place where, as he says, he once saw a play in which actors dressed as Hungarian soldiers masturbated on a map of Greater Hungary.

Pörzse says that he, the nationalists and people on the right have been locked out of the culture for decades. In his view, the country has always been ruled by outsiders: first the Habsburgs, then the Soviets and finally the liberals. As a result, nationalist feelings have always been suppressed. "This has opened wounds," he says. "Peace is inconceivable."

After an hour, Pörzse drives away in his SUV in an obviously good mood. The sun is mirrored in the Danube and shines on the neo-Gothic parliament building, probably Europe's most beautiful. A few kilometers away, the words "75 days left" appear on the installation in front of the New Theater.

The New Hungary

György Konrád is standing in his dark apartment in Budapest's 2nd District, supporting himself with a cane. Konrád is now 78. In 1944, at the age of 11, he and his parents barely managed to escape being shipped off to Auschwitz. Later, he became one of the country's most important authors and suffered at the hands of the Communists' repressive policies. He is the 1991 recipient of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade.

A democratically elected government is slowly establishing a soft dictatorship. That's what is happening here in Hungary, says Konrád.

Many years ago, he received a visit from István Csurka, who will be the head of the New Theater in Budapest in a few weeks. Csurka had brought him his first book. Konrád read it and told Csurka that he was a very talented author. Today, Csurka wants to make sure that someone like Konrád will no longer play a role in the new Hungary.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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