Back to 1939: The Hungarian right-wing press

One of my favorite essayists is András Nyerges who for a number of years has been writing a column entitled "Színrebontás" (Color Separation) in Élet és Irodalom and earlier in Magyar Hírlap. Nyerges is also a poet and novelist, but I'm most familiar with him through his writings in the press about the press. In his column he talks about the past as part of today. In almost all of his pieces he calls attention to the continuum of past and present. He must have spent countless hours in the Hungarian National Library's collection of newspapers and periodicals pouring over thousands and thousands of newspapers from the interwar period. He is especially fascinated by the publications of the extreme right. I wrote about Nyerges in this blog twice previously. Once when I finished his autobiographical volume about his childhood and again when I read one of his "Color Separation" pieces about Hungarian journalistic reactions to the rise of Hitler and the fall of the Weimar Republic ("The Hungarian Republic and Weimar," March 14, 2009). Last week he wrote about the 1939 elections apropos of the European parliamentary elections of 2009.

Nyerges doesn't dwell on the reasons for the rise of the extreme right in that particular election but rather concentrates on contemporary comments on the results of it. These comments have a familiar ring. For example, Nemzet Szava, a paper close to the Arrow Cross party, noted that the elections showed that "we are not extremists." Yes, they are mainstream and "the extremists are those leftists who are trying to turn the hands of the clock backwards." Magyar Szó, another far-right daily, proclaimed that "in the coming years there can be no other political trend but that of the right. The masses behind the last Mohicans of the liberal past have disappeared. The party that until very recently considered itself the only rightful representative of the Hungarian working people is in its death throes. As a political factor it is already gone." It might be useful here to quote Viktor Orbán from yesterday: "What happened was not an electoral accident. On June 7 a new political system came into being" that Orbán calls "centrist." "This new order has been taking shape for a long time down in the deep but now it came to the surface….The essence of this new system is that only one political force exists that is capable of governing." The demise of the socialists and liberals is complete, their resurrection, if at all, is far in the future.

The newspapers that supported MÉP (Magyar Élet Pártja), just like newspapers close to Fidesz today, were not too worried about the spectacular showing of the extreme right. Instead they rejoiced over the meager results of the left-liberal camp. For example, Új Magyarság's editorial a day after the elections stated that "the days of liberalism and democracy are over for good. From the very beginning of the campaign the public mood clearly predicted the victory of the right and the triumph of nationalism. Their march couldn't be stopped either by judeo-liberalism or by democracy whose credibility and reputation have been lost. Marxism, which everybody knew sooner or later would be the representative of only the Jewry, has suffered a frightful defeat. The liberal parties completely disappeared because the people realized that they have nothing in common with them." Not a word about the extreme right.

But the Hungarist/Nazi press had its answer to the editorial of Új Magyarság. Magyar Szó wrote: "The remaining small liberal camp and its weak press as well as the swollen [traditional] right try to frighten the political illiterates with the bogeyman of radicalism and comfort themselves that everything is just fine and dandy." (Similar to the voices after the EU election that hoped that the extremists once in parliament would be tamed because after all the voters for these parties are not really nice respectable citizens but members of the underclass.) Kálmán Hubay, president of the Arrow Cross Party in the absence of Ferenc Szálasi who was in jail at the time, made it clear that the size of their electorate shows that these parties are no longer representatives of fringe elements but must be considered mainstream. They need no taming. Hubay strongly objected to the "disrespectful" way others talked about them and their voters. "He regretted that he had to be the one to explain that one ought to talk differently about the second largest party in the country."

Then, just as now, everybody tried to figure out where the votes for the extremists were coming from. The traditional right tried to quiet fears that the votes came from their side and kept emphasizing that the Nazi votes came from the left. According to an interview published in Magyar Szó (June 2, 1939), Hubay was offended because such a supposition would indicate that "the present advance is not the triumph of an idea." After all, that would indicate that those who voted for Arrow Cross are people "who are always in opposition, who are only restless revolutionary elements. They were behind the Reds and now they stand behind the extreme right." However, said Hubay, this is not so and he can prove it by the numbers. He took the figures from the 1926 elections that he described as the "golden age of the Reds" when the social democrats received 128,000 votes; in 1939 they got 102,000 votes. The Arrow Cross Party alone received 673,871 votes so for Hubay it was a "mathematical puzzle" how it was possible that national socialist parties got their voters from the Social Democratic Party. Let me point out here that Hubay was misleading. In 1926 altogether 1,143,583 votes were cast; in 1929 almost double that–2,193,054!

It was also pointed out that the Arrow Cross campaign was well organized and their propaganda more effective than that of other parties. Magyar Szó dwelt on this on June 2, 1939. "The Arrow Cross party proved at the elections that masses are behind it and that in its functioning, in its tactics, in its propaganda and in its organizational methods they are cleverer, stronger, and smarter than the others." I think a similar situation exists today. Both Fidesz and Jobbik are much better at propaganda, organization, and campaign tactics than their opponents. Jobbik's discovery of the not so latent anti-Roma feelings prevalent in the country and its organization of the Hungarian Guard certainly were very effective in its campaign and brought unexpected and spectacular results.

As for the relationship between the traditional right and the extreme right, it is worth reading István Milotay's piece in Új Magyarság, a government paper (June 4, 1939). According to Milotay the Hungarian press "that is still in mostly Jewish hands" tried everything to stop the march of the right. They waged a "crusade" against their leaders and "yet they didn't succeed." But then comes the really interesting part. Milotay realized that the appearance of the extreme right that "is behind the [traditional] right majority is restless" and thus the "conservative right" is facing an opposition like "its own shadow." And he continued: "the right-wing majority must face those spirits that they themselves let out from the magic bottle and which now freed know neither limit nor consideration." Nyerges remarks here that if Milotay had finished his analysis here he could be considered an objective observer. However, he offered his advice to the "right majority" on the issue of how to handle this delicate situation. He suggested cooperation with the extreme right. After all, the extreme right-wing parties "cannot be suppressed by sheer force and their repression would only increase their resistance and their conquering strength." At the end of the article he added that, after all, these extremist parties "may become useful, stimulating, improving factors…. My guess is that as far as the larger goals are concerned there is hardly any difference between the right-wing parties."

This Milotay piece also sounds very familiar. There are those who keep repeating that Viktor Orbán allowed the evil genie out of the bottle and now is facing an opposition on his right as well. There are also voices that suggest not fighting the extremists because any attempt at suppressing them would only give them strength. There are those who suggest cooperation with the extreme right on the, in my opinion, naive assumption that they can be tamed. As we know, Viktor Orbán for weeks after the election refused to deal with Jobbik. For a while he acted as if Jobbik didn't exist. His party did extremely well and he didn't seem to care that Jobbik received almost 15% of the votes. And finally, according to many observers there are no basic differences between Fidesz and Jobbik. The differences are superficial and mostly noticeable in linguistic usage.

But let's get back to 1939. Milotay's offer of cooperation wasn't welcomed by Hubay who in light of his party's strength answered in A Nép. "We are not intoxicated by our victory, we are not celebrating, we are not partying, we are not toasting and we don't heap praise on each other. It's not our style…. We want to prepare ourselves for the next elections that will be decisive." And finally he made it clear that "we are not making deals with anyone. We are going ahead on our lonely road." How familiar. Viktor Orbán only yesterday made it clear for the first time that he will not have Jobbik members in his government. It didn't take more than an hour before Gábor Vona answered: they have no plans to share power with Fidesz or anyone else. He is going "on his lonely road" to the decisive moment when he will govern Hungary.

According to Nyerges the results of the 1939 elections didn't lead to self-examination on the part of either the left or the traditional right. Neither of the two camps took the warnings coming from the extreme right seriously. Just like Vona, the national socialists were certain that at the next elections there will be a "national socialist majority." As it turned out, without Hitler's help that couldn't happen. So let's be hopeful. The only worry is that Orbán might cooperate with Jobbik out of desperation and  make too many concessions to the extreme right. Something like that happened once, between 1998 and 2002, but then MIÉP was nowhere near as strong as Jobbik seems now. The consequences of such cooperation might pose a greater danger in 2010 and beyond.

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I don’t really agree with this portrayal. I think it’s alarmist. This is not to say that there are no similarities in the situation: linguistically there seem to be uncanny rhetorical resemblences. Firstly, the MSZP in 2009 is a different beast to the SZDP of 1939. Very different. By 1939 the SZDP had been driven off the ballot paper across large parts of the country. There was a concerted right-wing campaign to marginalise the left and gerrymander the elections, driving people off the register. (See Antal Ban, Anna Kethly’s accounts for more details of this). This is hinted at, in what you quote, but not spelt out. 1945 was Hungary’s first election under universal suffrage. Or am I wrong? In 2009 the MSZP is the governing party, in office, if not in power. The SZDP in 1939 was tolerated only as a small group in Parliament, like the MDF is now. Secondly, economic realities pushed Hungary towards the German-Italy alliance in the 1930s. Such realities as they exist now revolve around the need to work within the EU framework, and the need to upgrade the economy so there is some chance of identifying trade and services opportunities in Europe and… Read more »
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[…] turning to one of my favorite essayists, András Nyerges, for inspiration. I’ve written about Nyerges several times. He is a full-time novelist and poet, but on the side once a month or […]