New fascist movements find fertile ground in the turmoil of eastern Europe
New fascist movements find fertile ground in the turmoil of eastern Europe
BY MICHAEL PETROU • The potential kingmaker in Hungary’s next election is a large white-haired man with a firm handshake and a subdued disposition who believes Jews are taking over the world.
István Csurka is the leader of the Hungarian Justice and Life Party (MIEP), an ultranationalist political group he founded in 1993. Five years later, Csurka and MIEP received 5.5 per cent of the popular vote in national elections, which was enough to earn 14 seats in the 386-seat parliament. In the 2002 elections, MIEP garnered approximately the same number of votes, but because of higher voter turnout failed to cross the five per cent threshold needed for parliamentary entry. Csurka has, therefore, never enjoyed the success of other European extremists such as Jörg Haider in Austria or Jean-Marie Le Pen in France, whom Csurka counts as a personal friend. But with the election expected to be close, Csurka’s support—should MIEP receive five per cent— could prove vital in a coalition government.
Csurka’s Budapest office is located in the hilly Buda side of the city, which overlooks the Danube River. There is nothing about the suburban building surrounded by trees to indicate it is the subject of any controversy. Csurka happens to be on the sidewalk outside, a 71-year-old man with a slow gait, his shoulders hunched against the cold. In his office, he eases himself into a chair behind a desk that supports an autographed book by David Irving, who was recently arrested in Austria on charges related to Holocaust denial. On the wall is a map of Hungary as it existed in 1899, before the state was carved up and reduced to about a third of its previous size by the Treaty of Trianon in 1920.
“David Irving is my personal friend,” says Csurka. “And it is our moral responsibility to stand with him.” As for the map of greater Hungary, Csurka sighs. “All of this was once ours,” he says. “But you should also know that this little bowl that is now Hungary is in just as much danger of being lost as that former great country, and we concentrate on protecting what we have.” When asked who or what is threatening Hungary, Csurka talks about “international capital,” “bankers” and “Bolsheviks.” His critics often accuse him of using these words as code for Jews. Csurka rejects this, so I ask him directly if Hungary’s
50,000Jews, who make up about 0.5 per cent of the 10-million-strong population, are a threat to the country (prior to the Second World War, Hungary had 400,000 Jews).
One weekly has headlines like ‘Judapest?’ and ads for a book called‘Was Christ a Jew?’ (The implied answer? No.)
“It is not a racial issue—this doesn’t exist,” he says. “But as a political issue, as a question of those who are in power and who control things, it does. When we talk about control of the media, banks, of all powers, especially financial, there is a small group that controls all this. And they are Jewish, whether they consider themselves to be Jewish or not. It is not a question of religion. It is an elite group that always pushes Jewish interests to the front. This happens at the behest of two powerful states controlled by these elites. And it is the smaller state, the Jewish one, that is controlling the largest.” Is he referring to the U.S. and Israel? Csurka nods. “The simple fact of the matter is that white Anglo-Saxon Protestants have lost power in America. That’s for sure.”
The brand of extreme nationalism propagated by István Csurka is in some ways unique to Hungary, drawing on specific grievances and perceived historic injustices. But it also reflects a trend across central and eastern Europe, where xenophobic and neofascist movements have sporadically flourished since the fall of Communism. The implosion of the Soviet Union left many former Soviet bloc countries cut adrift and, according to author and historian Christopher Williams, “desperately seeking for a restoration of past status. Some people across eastcentral Europe and the Soviet successor states, faced with the dual-edged sword of political and economic reform, have also turned to radical right groupings and parties.... Nationalists, anti-Semites, racists, xénophobes, populists and authoritarians of all types have competed for the attention of disillusioned voters,” he writes.
According to Eric Weaver, an American
historian who has been living in Hungary for 10 years and who has just written National Narcissism, a book on Hungarian nationalism, the transition from supporting Soviet Communism to backing neo-fascism is a smoother one than might initially be assumed. Both ideologies are illiberal, authoritarian, and thrive on scapegoats. In some countries, Jews have borne the brunt of right-wing resentment; elsewhere it has been Gypsies and other minorities. But it isn’t just economic turmoil that has fuelled the rise of radical parties. It is also due to widespread corruption and frustration that many Communist leaders managed to reinvent themselves and hold onto power through the transition to democracy. “If he focused on that and left out all the anti-Semitic crap, Csurka would be popular,” Weaver says. “He’d have Jewish supporters.”
It’s impossible to believe that any Jews would support Csurka now, however. A recent issue of his widely available weekly, the Magyar Forum, features a front-page article that reveals the supposed injustice of a highranking member of a Jewish umbrella organization simultaneously holding a position in government. Inside the paper are articles with play-on-words headlines such as “Judapest?” and lists of anti-Semitic books for sale that bear titles such as World Conquerors: the true war criminals, The Secret of Jewish Success, and Was Christ a Jew? (The implied answer is no.) Their covers feature cartoon images straight out of the 1930s, of obese, hooknosed Jews sprawling on bags of money or brandishing the hammer and sickle. Elsewhere in the paper is an ad sponsored by Hungarian-Canadians who have sent Csurka money.
A short tram ride from Csurka’s office, across the Danube, is Budapest’s largest synagogue, located at the edge of the ghetto where Jews were interned during the Second World War. A section of a brick wall topped with barbed wire has been left standing in the synagogue’s courtyard, and a sign marks the spot where Soviet tanks knocked the walls down during the city’s liberation on Jan. 18,1945On a small street behind the synagogue, inside the old Jewish ghetto, I find the offices of Péter Feldmájer, the head of the Alliance of Hungarian Jewish Communities, the largest Jewish umbrella group in the country. A plaque on the building notes that 67 members of one family were murdered here during the Holocaust. Feldmájer is a friendly man with a round belly and a neat beard. He acknowledges that overt anti-Semitism has increased in Hungary in the last 15 years. “Under Communism, anti-Semitic feelings were suppressed. People were afraid to say what they thought,” he says. “But when you have freedom, you have freedom of speech as well.”
Jews were victims of Soviet Communism, like all Hungarians, Feldmájer says, but adds:
“It didn’t help that many of Stalin’s henchmen were also Jewish.” With the collapse of Communism, pent-up anger could be freely expressed. “Everything changed,” Feldmájer says. “Not too long after the change of the regime, openly anti-Semitic voices were heard. This wasn’t surprising. The surprise was that at the highest levels of government, anti-Semitic writings were circulated.”
The darkest days for Feldmájer and many other Hungarian Jews were between 1998 and 2002, when István Csurka’s Hungarian Justice and Life Party sat in parliament and was part of Hungary’s political mainstream. This won’t happen again, he believes. Feldmájer says that Hungary’s flirtation with the far right was part of its growing pains during the transition from Communism to democracy, and few take Csurka seriously anymore. The world should know within months if Feldmájer is correct. An election is expected this spring. M
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