I have known the dark ages of Hungary. As a child, during World War Two, I experienced first-hand Hungarian ultra-nationalism and anti-Semitism. I managed to avoid deportation and murder in Auschwitz by fleeing to Palestine in 1943, along with 49 other Jewish children.
Decades later, I returned to Hungary during the years of Communism. As a journalist writing for major Austrian newspapers, my reporting included interviewing dissidents. As a result, the Kadar regime expelled me four times from the country, the last time in 1987.
This personal history makes me extremely sensitive to current developments in Hungary and the shadows that are once again rising there.
Consider, for example, the current government campaign against the work of the Hungarian-born American billionaire George Soros. Mr. Soros’s Open Society Foundations has given more than $200 million to Hungarian groups since the fall of Communism, supporting a host of humanitarian issues—including independent groups that support human rights and are often critical of the government.
As a result, George Soros is demonized and presented as the source of all evil by the government. The rhetoric used reminds me of the anti-Semitic propaganda from my childhood, according to which the Jews were responsible for all of Hungary’s problems, like poverty, ignorance, and landless peasants.
Moreover, the government media portrays Mr. Soros as an agent of “international finance.” We know that this is a code for “Jews.” You don’t have to be explicitly anti-Semitic, you can be implicitly anti-Semitic – the message is quite clear for mainstream Hungarian society, which has never come to terms with its own prejudices against Jews.
Finally, Soros is presented by the government as responsible for mass migration to Europe. Did the 86-year-old investor really go to Syria and Iraq to politely ask people to come to Europe? This is a worldview deeply rooted in conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism.
This goes beyond the attacks on Soros. When Orbán refers to “ethnic homogeneity” as a factor of prosperity for the country, I am worried. This reminds me of a 1941 law that banned all forms of sexual intercourse between Jews and Gentiles, in the name of ethnic purity. This was done under the rule of the ultra-nationalist and Nazi collaborator Miklos Horthy. In Horthy times, anti-Semitism was a national policy. It is not the case today, but hatred against Jews has free flow and conspiracy theories are clearly targeted at the Jewish community, the largest one in Central Europe.
This poisonous rhetoric is the product of a political system that has grown increasingly authoritarian under Mr. Orbán’s Fidesz government, and it is being used by that government to strengthen its control. The Fidesz government and its allies own the majority of media outlets, including all of the TV and radio stations which have large audiences in rural Hungary, where the vast majority of the party electorate resides. Media outlets presenting views in opposition to the government are not accessible to the average Hungarian, therefore most people believe what the government propaganda tells them. And that message is straightforward: if you criticize the government, you are an enemy of the nation.
The government is now seeking to extend its power with a new law tightening controls on the funding of groups such as the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee—rights groups which receive some of their funding from…yes, George Soros’ Open Society Foundations. Thus the rhetoric of anti-Semitism is being deployed to serve the government’s ultimate political aim of consolidating its control – while supposedly remaining a democratic member of the European Union.
It’s worth remembering that under the Horthy regime too there was a parliament, and it was possible to express critical views in a handful of opposition papers. Yet that did not make the regime a democratic one.
Fidesz is a member of the European People’s Party, the club of conservative parties in the European Union. But Fidesz is not a conservative party. Conservative parties do not mobilize mass rallies to defend the “sovereignty of the Hungarian nation,” unlike in 2012 when 400,000 people took to the streets of Budapest at the urging of the government media – with the infamous anti-Semitic journalist Zsolt Bayer marching in the front rank. Conservative parties do not touch private property, unlike Fidesz, which nationalized pension funds in 2010 to finance the state’s expenditures. Conservative parties do not falsify history, unlike in Hungary where the state established the national think tank “Veritas,” downplaying the participation of Hungarians in the murder of 500,000 Hungarian Jews during the Second World War.
The upcoming law on NGOs will further silence the last opposition voices in a member state of the European Union. The government propaganda plays with the fear of “the other”: the migrants, the Jews, foreign capital. But who pays attention to Hungarians? Who is concerned about the disastrous state of healthcare and education in the country? By annihilating critical voices, the anti-NGO law will spring the trap on the real victims of the government: ordinary Hungarians.
Karl Pfeifer is an Austrian-born journalist of Hungarian Jewish origin and a member of the board of the Archives of the Austrian Resistance. He is author of several books. A movie about his life can be seen at https://vimeo.com/124834106