Not much of any political relevance happens over weekends in general but on a long weekend, as Easter is in Hungary, politics takes a real holiday. Today’s highlight was the resurrection of Hungarian football and the “great game” at Felcsút, with 4,500 fans in attendance. Ferenc Puskás Academy went up against Real Madrid’s football academy; both teams were made up of seventeen-year-olds. The final score was Real Madrid 1, Puskás Academy 0. At least it wasn’t a rout. Earlier Real Madrid beat Melbourne 10-1.
I’m taking advantage of the holiday to take a historical trip back to Hungary in the 1930s. Not that these were happier times. On the contrary, then just as now the Hungarian extreme right made considerable gains. One often hears from Horthy apologists that the governor and his conservative governments were just as hard on the extreme right as they were on the extreme left, i.e. the communists. This wasn’t the case. Politicians of the Horthy era were much more zealous when it came to the few hundred illegal communist party members than they were with representatives of the extreme right. Horthy and his friends had a blind spot when it came to the extreme right even though by all measures they were the ones who posed a much greater threat to the regime than the weak and ineffectual communists did. Yet men like Mátyás Rákosi or Zoltán Vas received very long prison sentences while extremists on the right were rarely jailed. The longest sentence ever handed down for a right-wing extremist was three years, in the case of Ferenc Szálasi. Zoltán Vas, on the other hand, spent sixteen years in the infamous jail of Szeged.
Why did the interwar regime wage a half-hearted battle against the extreme right? Certainly not because government politicians found their racist ideas abhorrent. After all, more often than not they shared these people’s anti-Semitism. They found nothing wrong with nationalism; on the contrary, they pursued an openly revisionist foreign policy. What they found unacceptable was the socialism in “national socialism.” Official Hungary considered these men “revolutionaries” who wanted to turn the existing order upside down. Mátyás Matolcsy, a talented economist of extreme right views who died in jail after the war, didn’t mince words: “we must give up the idea of the sanctity of private property,” and “everybody can dispose of their property only so long as it does not infringe upon the universal interest of the nation.” The Arrow Cross party program called for the introduction of the Soviet system of a centrally organized planned economy. Their program also included total state control of the banking system. While Matolcsy wanted to expropriate only Jewish property, the Arrow Cross party was more “egalitarian.” They would have taken away, for example, all agricultural lands from large landowners, including lands owned by the Hungarian Catholic Church. In 1938 the Arrow Cross party published a pamphlet on the fundamental principles and beliefs of the movement, which was intended to serve the needs of the swelling numbers of followers. In it the author explained that the party wants to exchange the liberal capitalist regime for a “collective economy.” So, it’s no wonder that contemporaries labeled the Arrow Cross leaders Bolshevik revolutionaries who presented a danger to the existing order.
Krisztián Ungváry in his latest book, A Horthy-rendszer mérlege: Diszkrimináció, szociálpolitika és antiszemitizmus (The Balance Sheet of the Horthy Regime: Discrimination, Social Policy and Anti-Semitism in Hungary), quotes from a speech by the legitimist (opposition) Hugó Payr who visited a slum area full of unemployed workers. One of them said to him, “Sir, we are all Bolsheviks here.” When Payr inquired whether they were followers of the Arrow Cross movement, the answer was in the affirmative. Payr warned his fellow members of parliament that the middle classes who had been stirred up to embrace anti-Semitic passions didn’t realize that they were in fact helping to establish a new proletarian dictatorship. He invited them to accompany him to working class neighborhoods where “people already talk about which apartments they will requisition or rob.”
I think that while we are grappling with the growing influence of the neo-Nazis in today’s Hungary we should keep in mind what transpired in Hungary in the 1930s. There the result of the economic crisis was not the growth of the Hungarian Social Democratic Party but the incredible spread of the ideas of national socialism’s local version, the Hungarism of Ferenc Szálasi.
One has to assume that Viktor Orbán is unhappy about the growth of Jobbik because it may become a threat to his own party’s position, as was already seen at the election. If he has any sense, he will turn his attention to the poorest segments of Hungarian society and offer them tangible economic incentives. Until now he competed with Jobbik in the domain of nationalistic humbug, but surely that will not be enough.
The socialists have also neglected the poor and frustrated masses, whose numbers are growing. People talk about four million people under or very close to the poverty line. If one of the two major parties doesn’t take the initiative, Jobbik may triumph.
Moreover, until now the socialists and liberals refused to engage in a dialogue with Jobbik. After all, they are a racist and neo-Nazi group with whom the “better half” of society should refuse to conduct business. But this also meant that there was no public forum in which the ill-conceived ideas of Jobbik politicians could be confronted.
The socialists must pay more attention to Hungary’s poor as well as to the Hungarian extreme right. Those who voted for Jobbik must be convinced that Jobbik’s remedies are no remedies at all. On the contrary, they would mean a total collapse of the Hungarian economy and society. But at the same time the socialists have to offer about half of the citizenry a way out of their present misery.