Hungary has a new hero.
Towns and villages are putting up statues and naming streets after Miklos Horthy, a former head of state who led the country into World War II on Adolf Hitler’s side.
The base for a Horthy statue is already standing in Csokako, population 1,383, a village dotted with small vineyards an hour’s drive west of Budapest. The sculpture will be unveiled on June 16 in a park below the ruins of a 13th-century fort.
From such hamlets to the halls of the neo-Gothic Parliament in Budapest, where the nationalist Jobbik is the second-largest opposition party, radicalism and its symbols are spreading as Hungary heads into its second recession in four years. Prime Minister Viktor Orban is seeking to obtain an international bailout after Hungary’s debt was downgraded to junk last year.
“Where there are economic problems, there are tensions between peoples and groups,” said Gabor Bognar, 47, Csokako’s deputy mayor. “If we don’t allow people to let their steam out by erecting a statue, then they’re not going to stop there.”
Nationalists are making gains across Europe as leaders struggle to avert prolonged economic turmoil. What’s different in Hungary is that Orban is accused by Jewish groups and political analysts of including parts of the radical agenda in his own policies, a charge the government denies. Orban, 49, has condemned a flurry of anti-Semitic attacks in the past month, which the Jewish group Mazsihisz has called a “tide of hatred inundating Hungary.”
The government expanded the reading curriculum for schools last month to include books by Jozsef Nyiro, a member of Parliament during World War II. He also was an ally of Ferenc Szalasi, a former head of the fascist Arrow Cross party who was executed for war crimes. More than 500,000 Hungarians, mostly Jews, were killed in the Holocaust, according to the Budapest-based Holocaust Memorial Center.
Parliament speaker Laszlo Kover, who co-founded the ruling Fidesz party along with Orban, organized a reburial ceremony for Nyiro in the ethnic-Hungarian part of northern Romania, where the author was born. The May 27 ceremony took place without Nyiro’s ashes after Romania barred them.
Romania “doesn’t accept commemorations and anniversaries for people who were known for anti-Romanian, anti-Semite and pro-fascist behavior,” Premier Victor Ponta said in a speech on June 2, demanding an apology from Orban.
Orban considers Nyiro’s reburial a “funerary matter” and the inclusion of his books in the curriculum “is clearly about his literary work,” government spokesman Andras Giro-Szasz said June 12 in an e-mailed response to questions.
“That the current government is openly associating itself with the ideology of the regime that collaborated with the fascists is unique in Europe,” Attila Mesterhazy, president of the Socialist Party, the largest opposition group, said in a June 2 statement. “That it’s trying to force this kind of thinking on the nation is inexcusable.”
Orban, Hungary’s most powerful premier since the fall of communism after winning a two-thirds parliamentary majority in 2010, is hedging his response, condemning specific attacks while including some of the radical agenda in his policies, according to Attila Juhasz, an analyst at Political Capital in Budapest.
“Fidesz senses that Jobbik is a serious rival and is trying to take the wind out of its sails by taking over parts of its agenda,” Juhasz said. “The problem is all this is doing is strengthening the extremist ideology on which Jobbik thrives.”
Backing for Orban’s party dropped to 22 percent among eligible voters in May, the lowest in more than a decade, from 26 percent in April, according to a Median poll published in HVG weekly on June 7. Jobbik, whose website describes the party as having “radical methods,” was third with 11 percent. No error margin or other details were given.
Forty-three percent of respondents, the most in 11 years, said they didn’t know whom to support, a “serious consequence of the general disillusionment” in Hungary, Median said.
“It is completely baseless to accuse the government that it accepts or accepted at any time radical, anti-Semitic and incendiary contents,” Giro-Szasz said, adding that the cabinet “profoundly rejects and takes decisive action against all forms of racism, anti-Semitism, discrimination and intimidation.”
Giro-Szasz cited a government initiative that banned paramilitary groups, laws that make it a crime to deny Holocaust or communist-era crimes and memorial events that celebrate the life of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who rescued Jews from deportations, as evidence for his point.
Some radical Hungarians aren’t getting the message. Jozsef Schweitzer, a 90-year-old rabbi, was accosted by a person shouting “I hate all Jews” outside his apartment building in Budapest near Europe’s largest synagogue, the Jewish group Mazsihisz said in a June 5 statement.
A day earlier, a reporter from the daily newspaper Nepszabadsag was called a “dirty Jewish whore” and was spat on by people while covering a taxi strike in Budapest, according to video footage posted on the publication’s website.
Holocaust memorials and Jewish cemeteries have been vandalized, and anti-Semitic and anti-Roma graffiti appeared in a spate of incidents after a man poured red paint over a Horthy statue on May 16 in the southwestern town of Kereki. He placed a sign reading “Mass Murderer, War Criminal” around its neck, according to a photo posted on Facebook and reported in Hungarian media.
Orban wrote Jewish leaders in Szekesfehervar, the town west of Budapest where he was born, that he was “pained and outraged” after the local Jewish cemetery was vandalized, MTI state news service reported on June 4.
A day after Rabbi Schweitzer was heckled, the government published a statement saying it was doing “everything to suppress the hateful voices, which are incompatible with European norms” and pledged to “defend all citizens from such attacks.” President Janos Ader the same day said “we have no other choice. We have to clean up other people’s filth.”
To some Jewish groups, that is not enough.
“Every day Jewish people are attacked, and while the prime minister says he’s defending the Jewish community, we’re not feeling this,” Tamas Vero, a rabbi in Budapest, said by phone. “If he is against intolerance, then why is he making children read authors who represent such hateful ideology?”
The Jewish community, numbering as many as 120,000 in a country of 10 million, isn’t the only one being targeted by radicals. Jobbik pledged before the 2010 election to crack down on “Roma crime.”
Gabor Vona, the party’s 33-year-old president, founded a paramilitary group in 2007 that patrolled towns and villages with Roma, also known as Gypsy, populations, saying national police weren’t up to the task. Its uniforms were emblazoned with the red-and-white stripes of a historic Hungarian Arpad flag, which resembles the symbol the Arrow Cross regime used.
Jobbik won 836,774 votes in the 2010 parliamentary elections out of 5.1 million votes cast, a sevenfold increase from 2006. Then, the party failed to win a single seat after sharing a ballot with another radical party.
It is being boosted by the economic decline of Hungary, which the European Commission forecasts will be the only non-euro EU economy in eastern Europe to shrink in annual terms this year. Orban’s policies, including the nationalization of private pension funds, spooked investors, contributing to the downgrade and pushing the government to seek an International Monetary Fund loan as 10-year bond yields exceeded 10 percent in January.
The unemployment rate was 11.5 percent in the February-April period, close to the 11.8 percent record two years ago. The rate helps Jobbik because the party counts “relatively well-educated and well-off people” among its backers, said Juhasz of Political Capital. These are the citizens who are now concerned about losing work and slipping into poverty, he said.
In Csokako, where red and yellow roses bloom next to a municipal building as youngsters practice folk dancing, the town council, composed of a ruling party mayor and six independents, unanimously approved a civic initiative for the Horthy statue.
“Why should I have blocked this initiative?” asked Mayor Gyorgy Furesz, who, like many Csokako natives, tends to a small vineyard in his backyard. “Hungarian society needs to grow up and accept that there are different kinds of people.”
Not all locals agree. Horthy, who temporarily recaptured with Hitler’s help parts of the territories Hungary lost after World War I, “shouldn’t be considered a positive hero, since he did end up leading the country into a war that we lost,” said Gyorgy Csizmarik, 52, as he cleaned up his driveway.
Hungary restricted university access for Jews in 1920 during Horthy’s first year in power, making it the first country in Europe to pass an anti-Semitic law after World War I, according to the Holocaust center. Horthy resigned 24 years later, in October 1944, when the country was under Nazi occupation. About 437,000 Hungarians had been sent to death camps between May and July of that year.
The revival of radical historical figures is part of a search for identity by Hungarians who were told under communism that “everything that happened before World War II was taboo,” according to Andras Lanczi, president of the Budapest-based Szazadveg Foundation, which advises the government on policy.
“There is confusion in people’s minds and there’s also hate, and our democracy doesn’t seem to be able to handle this,” Lanczi said. “It’s a dilemma: Can we tolerate intolerance?”
Hungarian society is questioning Horthy’s role and the government “doesn’t want to interfere in this historical debate as it considers this a scientific question,” Giro-Szasz said.
In Csokako, the red-and-white Arpad flag flies by the Hungarian flag. Horthy’s statue will be placed next to a memorial with a black granite slab in the form of greater Hungary, a reminder of the loss of two-thirds of the country’s territory after World War I.
“People are always fighting with symbols,” said Kata Bognar, 22, as she headed to folk-dance practice with her boyfriend. “The Horthy statue really divided the town, but I don’t think that statue is going to hurt anyone.”