Tag Archives: Anne Applebaum

Anne Applebaum’s encounter with Mária Schmidt

In an inversion of normal practice, the transcript of an interview that Mária Schmidt gave to Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anne Applebaum appeared on Schmidt’s blog, Látószög (Viewing Angle). If Schmidt was the interviewee, how could it happen that that she was the one who translated the interview into Hungarian and published it? János Széky, a columnist for Élet és Irodalom, expressed his astonishment on Twitter: “I just don’t get it.” If Applebaum arranges an interview with “Orbánist ideologist Mária Schmidt, spewing govt propaganda, why is it published on Schmidt’s own blog first?” Good question. As far as Anne Applebaum is concerned, the interview, which she initiated, was part of a research project she was planning for next year. In Mária Schmidt’s version, the interview took place because she “wanted to understand the changes in [Applebaum’s] thinking; why the independence and freedom of the region is no longer important to her.”

Schmidt obviously considered the publication of this interview to be politically significant, so she made sure that the right-wing Hungarian media was informed of its impending release. Identical articles appeared in Origo and Pesti Srácok, two of the most extreme right-wing media outlets of the Orbán government, articles which I suspect she herself wrote. Both had the same title: “Mária Schmidt: We are in a war of cultures.” In it we learned that Schmidt and Applebaum used to be good friends, but because Applebaum wrote several articles recently that “attacked the Hungarian government and the region” they became somewhat estranged. She didn’t neglect to mention that Applebaum was the recipient of the Petőfi Prize established by the Public Foundation for the Research of Central and East European History and Society in 2010, when Schmidt was on the board of the foundation. The day after the Origo and Pesti Srácok articles, the official government-edited Híradó, which is distributed to all media outlets, announced the interview’s availability. Naturally, her newly-acquired newspaper, Figyelő, also called attention to it. She made sure that the rather lengthy interview would reach a lot of people.

Anne Applebaum began the interview with her reactions to one of Mária Schmidt’s articles, “The grave digger of the left,” which appeared in April on the same blog in which she published the interview. The grave digger is, of course, George Soros. Applebaum was not exaggerating when she said in the interview that the accusations Schmidt piled on Soros are “absurd”; they have nothing to do with reality. But that’s not the only trouble. As I said in the first installment of my two-part review of this infamous article, “Schmidt’s piece is the result of shockingly bad research” or, even worse, an offering of “alternative historical facts.” There is no need to dissect this deplorable piece of scholarship again, but perhaps a quick read of my summary might be in order.

I must say that I’m not as charitable as Anne Applebaum, who thought highly of Schmidt as a historian, at least until she saw this blog post on Soros. I wouldn’t even call her a historian. She is a propagandist. I have never read anything by her that I consider to be a serious piece of scholarship. She has been working hard for years to come up with an alternative Hungarian history and a newly minted present reality. It is time to give up the idea of finding common ground with the Hungarian far right or, as Anne Applebaum called them, the Hungarian “neo-Bolsheviks.” Almost two years ago, Applebaum gave an interview to a Hungarian journalist whose writings at that time were supportive of the Orbán government. He cornered her at the GLOBSEC Tatra Summit Conference, where she expressed her reluctance to engage in political discussions with supporters of the government who refuse to admit the real nature of the regime. I think her instincts at that time were right. There is no use trying to have a rational conversation with someone like Mária Schmidt.

Anne Applebaum has been under attack ever since her op-ed piece appeared in the November 7 issue of The Washington Post on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. In this article she committed a mortal sin in the eyes of Viktor Orbán’s minions. She included their hero in a group of politicians—Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, and Jarosław Kaczyński—and called them neo-Bolsheviks who “have little to do with the right that has been part of Western politics since World War II, and … have no connection to existing conservative parties.” An accurate description of the current state of affairs.

The Hungarian reaction to this article was swift. Zoltán Kovács, the diligent spokesman for the prime minister’s office, announced that Anne Applebaum is suffering from “irrational Orbanophobia.” Instead of thinking of the one hundred million victims of communism, Applebaum used this date “as an opportunity to disparage democratic political parties and leaders—including Prime Minister Orbán—whom she dislikes, bizarrely comparing them to Bolsheviks.” What a disgrace to call him a neo-Bolshevik when in 1989 he “courageously stood up … to demand that the occupying Soviet troops leave the territory of Hungary.” With this article, Applebaum joins “an illustrious group, including the communist collaborator Paul Lendvai.”

The comments of Kovács were at least halfway civil, which one couldn’t say about the articles in government papers. According to János Csontos, one of the worst of the bunch at Magyar Idők, “if political baseness were part of the Olympic Games, The Washington Post would receive a gold medal” for allowing Applebaum to publish that article. Her epithet for Orbán and his populist colleagues is not the result of “stupid prejudice” and “intellectual torpidity.” Here “a new tortuous ideology is being prepared.” In another article, a right-wing commentator alleged that “Applebaum’s pills have rolled away,” a turn of phrase indicating that the person in question has lost his/her mind. 888.hu described her article as “massive screaming,” a term most often used to describe pigs just before they are slaughtered. Another article, also in 888.hu, described her as a woman prone to hysterics who “since her husband is no longer foreign minister [of Poland], has been like an offended beast of prey that circulates around the world.” The article referred to her as Mrs. Sikorski (Sikorskiné). It described her article in The Washington Post as a piece of “overarching triteness.”

As you can see, the loyal followers have been rushing to the aid of their leader. They are aghast. It is bad enough that some critics call Orbán a populist, a fascist, a Mafioso, but a Bolshevik? I suspect that Mária Schmidt felt compelled to join the choir and come up with a contribution of her own, which just happened to be an interview which wasn’t hers. This interview with Anne Applebaum was the perfect vehicle to show her loyalty to “the anti-communist hero,” as she calls him in the interview whom Applebaum dared to call a neo-Bolshevik.

November 30, 2017

Moving to the center? Anne Applebaum’s essay on Viktor Orbán and Donald Trump

This morning I encountered Anne Applebaum’s name on the “Reggeli gyors” (Morning express) program on KlubRádió, on several Hungarian internet news sites, and in a Hungarian-language summary of foreign news related to Hungary that I receive daily. Anne Applebaum is an American journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author who has written several books on the Soviet Union and on Eastern Europe. She knows the region of East-Central Europe well, having spent several years in Poland while working as a correspondent for multiple British publications.

As a student of East-Central Europe, she is well acquainted with Hungary’s history and follows its current political events. She often writes about Hungarian affairs, so her name appears frequently in the Hungarian media. Every time an article of hers is published in The Washington Post, this or that Hungarian newspaper or internet site will report on its content. Hungarian journalists even follow her tweets.

As for her opinion of Viktor Orbán and his regime, it is devastating. This was not always the case. In 2010 she received the Petőfi Prize for her 2003 book on the Gulag, which was translated into Hungarian (as was her 2012 book Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956). The Petőfi Prize was established by the Public Foundation for the Research of Central and East European History and Society, which is a Fidesz-sponsored foundation. The prize was bestowed on her by Mária Schmidt, whom I call Viktor Orbán’s court historian.

Anne Applebaum (2015) Source: Václav Havel Library

If Anne Applebaum had any hopes for the Fidesz government in 2010, they evaporated soon after. She has written many harsh words on Hungarian domestic and foreign policy as well as on the government’s treatment of refugees. But this is not what I want to talk about here. Anyone who is interested in Anne Applebaum’s political opinions should visit her website, which offers an extensive collection of her writings over the years. Here I will focus on her latest article, “Beware: Trump may use the alt-right to turn himself into the center,” which appeared last night in The Washington Post, because it has a great deal to do with Hungary.

The article is about Donald Trump’s bigotry, which he has used as “an electoral tool, to excite a relatively small group of supporters.” He was successful mainly because the rest of his voters, mainstream Republicans, overlooked his tactics in their eagerness to win the election. Applebaum’s question is whether Trump will further manipulate racism “for political ends.” If he does and proves to be successful, the alt-right will gain strength, which might result in a level of violence that could offer Trump the opportunity to “present himself as the candidate of law and order.” In addition, “by encouraging the alt-right, Trump can also change our definition of what it means to be a moderate or a centrist.”

It is at this point that Anne Applebaum brings up the comparison with Hungary, where “the center-right ruling party, Fidesz, turned a neo-fascist alt-right party, Jobbik, into an electoral asset” and where Viktor Orbán can portray himself and his party as a centrist party that alone can save the country from extremism. A couple of years ago Fidesz used Jobbik very much as Anne Applebaum describes it, but I don’t believe this formula applies today.

In Hungary there are three main political forces: the left-liberals, Jobbik, and Fidesz. After 2006 the left-liberal group lost a great deal of its appeal, and at roughly the same time Jobbik, representing the extreme right, became an important political party. It was in this political climate that Viktor Orbán portrayed himself as the head of a right-of-center party that would save Hungary and Europe from the curse of a government of Gábor Vona, the leader of a racist, anti-Semitic party, which proudly declared itself to be an enemy of democracy.

But, as Anne Applebaum correctly points out, as time went by Fidesz, in order to maintain its support, took over more and more of Jobbik’s program. Applebaum says in this article that “Fidesz borrowed some of Jobbik’s ideas and language.” I think she is too kind. It wasn’t borrowing. It was a wholesale adoption of Jobbik’s program. From day one the Orbán government began fulfilling all of the important nationalistic demands of Jobbik, until the two parties and their constituents were barely distinguishable.

As the result of Fidesz’s rapid move to the right, it became increasingly difficult to maintain the myth of Fidesz as a central force, balancing between the “communists” and the “Nazis.” If Anne Applebaum had written this piece a few years ago, I would have fully agreed with her, but today I believe the picture needs to be refined.

As Fidesz was moving to the far right, becoming a nationalistic party with racist, anti-Semitic undertones, Gábor Vona of Jobbik realized that the political territory his party once occupied was being usurped. He decided to move his party more toward the center, with some success. Thus, the myth that the Fidesz government guarantees law and order in the face of a physically dangerous extreme right has collapsed. Today there is no longer a serious threat of extremists, akin to the alt-right extremists we saw demonstrating in Charlottesville, using deadly force in Hungary.

So, let’s go back to the United States and the “centrist” scenario Anne Applebaum foresees as a possibility. Viktor Orbán is a shrewd, intelligent politician, which we can’t say about Donald Trump. Such sophisticated thinking is, to my mind, unimaginable from Trump. I also believe that both his temperament and his deep-seated political views incline him toward extremism. I cannot picture him as a centrist in any guise, promising calm and the rule of law. He thrives on conflict and discord.

Before the 2010 Hungarians election I said in a lecture that “one doesn’t know where Jobbik ends and where Fidesz begins.” Today I am convinced that the same can be said about Donald Trump and the alt-right in all of its variations.

August 18, 2017

“Keep quiet”–A documentary on Csanád Szegedi’s conversion from anti-Semite to observant Jew

A couple of weeks ago I received a DVD preview copy of the just released documentary “Keep Quiet,” directed by Joseph Martin and Sam Blair and distributed by Kino Lorber, Inc. The documentary deals with Csanád Szegedi, one of the most outspoken anti-Semites in the far-right Jobbik party, who at the pinnacle of his political career was confronted with the fact that he is actually Jewish. He became a practicing Orthodox Jew soon after his expulsion from Jobbik.

Of course, I’m familiar with the story of Csanád Szegedi because his drama played out in front of our eyes in 2012, but I still watched the movie with fascination. Perhaps because of his past in politics, Szegedi feels comfortable in front of the camera and is surprisingly articulate. His facility with language and the excellent direction make the film move smoothly.

After watching Szegedi up close and personal, instead of seeing him as a far-right firebrand giving political speeches, I feel more sympathy for him now than I did before. Of course, I share many of the concerns of those who are less than convinced about both Szegedi’s story and his transformation. One of the main reasons for people’s distrust is the extreme nature of his conversion. We know hundreds of cases of people who one day, almost by accident, discover that they are Jewish, yet they don’t join an ultra-Orthodox (Lubavitch/Chabad ) community, especially since Chabad fundamentalism is alien to Hungarian Jewry.

Csanád Szegedi in the uniform of Magyar Gárda “Hungary belongs to the Hungarians”

The documentary clarifies the reasons for Szegedi’s odd choice of Chabad orthodoxy. First, though certainly not a defining reason, he believes that his grandmother, despite her very vague recollections of her childhood, was brought up in an Orthodox home. I do hope he realizes that the Orthodox community in Miskolc, where the family is from, had little to do with Chabad. Second, the pragmatic reason: no other Jewish group was ready to take him in. And third, the psychological reason. Szegedi talks at length of his need to belong to a close-knit group, which he found in Jobbik, the movement he joined in 2003 at the age of 21 while a student at the Catholic Péter Pázmány University in Budapest. His father, who, by the way, is absent from the film altogether, while we meet his Jewish grandmother and mother, is a committed right-winger. At the dinner table Csanád soaked up all the right-wing nationalistic views of his father. It seems that in high school he again found himself among boys who shared his views. Therefore, it is not at all surprising that as soon as Jobbik was established as a youth movement, Szegedi joined the group.

Belonging to a community is extremely important to Szegedi. Without the warmth that such a close-knit community provides, he is lost. And once he was tossed out of Jobbik, he was utterly destroyed. Not just because his political career came to an abrupt end but because he was cut loose. He was suddenly outside of a circle where he felt at home. He even contemplated suicide.

Szegedi’s need for belonging and acceptance led him to the odd choice of the tiny ultra-Orthodox Chabad community in Hungary. Baruch Oberlander, a transplant from Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, was the only one who was ready to forgive his sins and show him the road to redemption. No other Jewish group wanted anything to do with him. It is enough to watch the angry crowd that confronted Oberlander in Montreal in 2013 after listening to the speech that Szegedi wrote. (Szegedi had been deported from Canada before he could deliver his speech in person.) His speech didn’t convince the crowd. They were furious and practically attacked the poor rabbi. Even Oberlander admits that his decision to accept Szegedi into the Chabad community was controversial.

Csanád Szegedi with Rabbi Barruch Oberlander

Perhaps what got less than adequate coverage in the film is Szegedi’s extreme Hungarian nationalism. His own given name “Csanád” is one of those Hungarian names that became fashionable in the last 30 years or so. Nationalistic Hungarian parents chose ancient Hungarian names for their children. There couldn’t have been too many Csanáds in the eighties when Szegedi was born. In 1972, for example, when a book was published on “suggested” and “acceptable” given names, only one Csanád was born in the whole country. Szegedi himself was so enamored with old Hungarian names that he published a book on the subject in 2002: The Complete Repository of Given Names of Hungarian Origin—More Than 8,400 Ancient Names of Hungarian Origin. In a long interview, given in 2015, he described himself as a “proud Hungarian Jew.” His second book’s title is I Believe in the Resurrection of Hungary, a line from a revisionist three-line Hungarian Creed: “I believe in God, I believe in one country: / I believe in the divine everlasting truth, / I believe in the resurrection of Hungary.”

Many people in Hungary simply don’t believe that Csanád was totally ignorant of his Jewish heritage. One reason for this disbelief is Szegedi’s own public comments after one of his colleagues confronted him in 2012. In addition, newspapers reported wildly divergent stories about his knowledge of the true facts. In the film he admits that he knew that his grandmother was adopted by a Jewish family called Klein but, as far as he knew, she herself was not Jewish. In the course of the film, we find out that the parents of Szegedi’s grandmother died in the Holocaust while she herself survived Auschwitz. After her return her only surviving uncle adopted her.

We don’t learn much about the family dynamics. Why the absence of the father? How much did the father know about his wife’s Jewishness? Why did the grandmother and the mother take so lightly Csanád’s loud and insistent anti-Semitism? Why didn’t they try to explain to the young man that anti-Semitism is unacceptable? One understands that, given what happened, many Jews wanted to hide their true identity. They just “kept quiet,” as Szegedi’s grandmother explained her silence. But they didn’t have to give away their secrets in order to teach Csanád the norms of decent human behavior.

So, many questions remain about Csanád Szegedi and his family, but I think I got to know him much better thanks to this fascinating documentary. In September 2016 the Jewish weekly Szombat reported that the World Zionist Organization and a Hungarian Chabad organization called Tett és Védelem Alapítvány (Action and Defense Foundation) had organized a conference on fighting anti-Semitism. Here apparently Szegedi announced that he had already filed all the necessary papers in preparation for his Aliyah to Israel. Yet, at the end of the film he admitted that he doesn’t know whether he will be committed to ultra-orthodoxy for the rest of his life.

Anne Applebaum, the American-Polish journalist who has written extensively about communism and about Central and Eastern Europe, gives excellent commentaries throughout the film. It is a thought-provoking production, and I’m glad that I had the opportunity to preview it.

February 12, 2017