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Viktor Orbán Fitting His Face to the Mask

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban looks up during a plenary session at the European Parliament (EP) in Brussels, Belgium, April 26, 2017. (Eric Vidal/Reuters)

I’ve been writing, somewhat sympathetically, about the nationalist movements in Hungary and Poland for some time, as I find most of the journalism about these nations to be pretty poor. Intelligent people say things about these that are plainly untrue all the time now, for instance, that there is no press freedom, or that fascism is ascendant in these nations. Neither is true. But events change, and people change, and so should our assessments. Something happened in Budapest yesterday that probably doesn’t surprise people who believed in the caricature, but it did surprise me.

Yesterday Viktor Orbán, the nationalist leader of Hungary, gave a blistering speech during an event that was part commemoration of Hungary’s exit from the Hapsburg Empire, and part campaign rally for Orbán and his party Fidesz, who are facing an election three weeks from now.

The political context: Fidesz commands the support of half of the country, maybe more. The largest opposition party, Jobbik, is fascist. Jobbik’s support occasionally cracks through into the high teens but rarely breaks through. Liberal greens, Communists, and a few other parties are below that. My own excursion into Hungary and my interviews there led me to believe that “populist” was a bit of a misnomer for Orbán’s party. They represent a portion of the country that is doing rather better than those who support Jobbik.

Orbán’s history and his evolution as a political figure is a story I want to tell at length at another time. But even liberal Hungarians, like the novelist Tibor Fischer, have been inclined to defend him from the worst smears, for instance the charge of anti-Semitism. It was Orbán who made denial of the Holocaust a crime. It was Orbán’s government who financed the Oscar-winning film Son of Saul about the death camp at Auschwitz. Orbán basked in the success of the film, even as fascists in Hungary denounced it as “Jewish propaganda.” The House of Terror Museum, which his government helped found and funds, documents the fascist persecution of Jews, and Stalin’s purge of Jews in Hungary’s state apparatus.

And I myself have heard Jewish community leaders in Budapest give praise to the government — not unqualified — but praise nonetheless. I’ve heard them note wryly on the side that, unlike in Paris, Jewish synagogues and community centers in Budapest need no protection from machine-gun toting soldiers and metal detectors. This is an undisguised endorsement of the government’s position against mass migration. (Although, even here, there is a longer and more complicated story to tell.)

All this is to say that I was surprised and scandalized, by a section of  Orbán’s speech yesterday. He pounded on themes of Hungary’s national survival, appropriate to the occasion, and a constant in national histories. And, I can squint and see the raw political logic for making George Soros the adversary he campaigns against. The opposition parties in Hungary are nincompoops, non-entities, and outright fascists. Orbán wants to punch up, not down. And Soros does indeed have a vision for  governance at odds with Orbán’s, and Soros vigorously fights for it. But the section of Orbán’s speech against George Soros reads like a litany of anti-Semitic cliches. A friend’s translation of the relevant section is below:

Dear Ladies and Gentlemen! I know that this struggle is difficult for all of us. I understand if some of us are even scared. It is understandable because our opponent is different than we are. Not straightforward, but hiding, not direct but crafty, not honest but base, not national but international, doesn’t believe in labour rather speculates with money, has no country of its own because he feels the world is his in its entirety. Not generous but avenger and always attacks the heart, especially, if the heart is colored red-white-and-green. But dear friends, we have always known that the stakes are high. Hungarian history has made us accept that we have to fight for things which are a given for more fortunate nations. Here it is enough that we make one wrong step, enough to have one clumsy government, bad election results once, and everything we have fought for so hard is lost. This is one draughty part of the world here, where history doesn’t give us a break even though we feel like we’ve deserved it already. Our ancestors have said it right: “a cowardly people doesn’t deserve a country”. And we have summoned our courage whenever we needed to. It was never easy. Just look at the statues here, at this square! Count Andrássy was sentenced to death by the Austrian emperor, Rákóczi prince died in exile, Kossuth was forced to leave the country, István Tisza was shot by communists. It never came easy, but in the end, we always prevailed. Eventually we sent home the sultan with his janissaries, the Habsburg emperor with his soldiers, the Soviets with their comrades and now we are sending home uncle Gyuri [a nickname for “George”] together with his network. We ask you to go back to America, make the Americans happy, not us! [Emphasis mine.]

One thing I learned in Hungary is that Viktor Orbán is an intelligent man. It would not be difficult for him to come up with different language for opposing George Soros’s political ambitions. He has done so in the past. And it is impossible to believe he does not know the provenance of the rhetoric above, which comes out of the darkest parts of European history, and Hungary’s history.

Orbán has often pitted “globalists” and “speculators” against those with national loyalties who work before. Many Hungarians do feel like their national wealth has been robbed of them, and they have good reason to feel this way. (And this, by the way, is a reason to criticize Orbán’s own forms of cronyism, also.)  But this speech reads like a checklist drawn from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Nothing can justify reintroducing this into European political life. It’s dishonorable to use language like this, and dangerous. I can’t even conjure a base political goal for this language. It will not drain support from fascists. And it will incense his opponents in Western Europe, as it incenses me. To follow my own advice on fairness, I am putting out some inquiries to Jewish members of the Fidesz government. If they will speak to me about it, I’ll update this space.

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