Hungary: Loose Cannon


While German skinheads running amok and "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia-Herzegovina grab Western headlines, Hungary's own fascist resurgence—unfolding less telegenically, mostly in local papers and suit-and-tie parliamentary debate—has attracted far less international attention. Yet in some ways it's a lot scarier.

Few but the fringe publicly condone the Rostock rampages or the merciless assault on Sarajevo, whereas Hungary's supposedly centrist governing party has shown there's a place in its top leadership for an exponent of Jewish-conspiracy, genetic-purity, and lebensraum theories. The exponent is Istvan Csurka, a Hungarian member of parliament and dramatist whose barb-laced anticommunist plays earned him a wide following—and party bans—under the old regime. A founder and vice president of the country's largest coalition party, the Hungarian Democratic Forum, Csurka is now dusting off banners that were waved here with abandon during the fascist 1930s and '40s, touching long-unprobed nerves and daring the government to follow suit.

By last summer, Csurka's penchant for conspiracy theories and equating dissent with disloyalty surprised few. In March he referred to the opposition parties in Parliament—which include free-market liberals, social reformers, and socialists—as an undifferentiated "enemy," a red-ruled "murderous gang, rotten to the core." In April he dubbed the press a "com-lib or lib-com" clique.

Then in late August came what's been called Csurka's "intellectual Molotov cocktail"—a 20,000-word essay in Hungarian Forum, the party paper that he publishes. The piece fused his trademark nationalism with raw anti-Semitism, irredentism, xenophobia, and genetic speculation. Despite the essay's fascist overtones, Csurka has not been repudiated by the party or by Prime Minister József Antall.

In long, often oblique passages, Csurka outlined the conspiracy against long-suppressed "Hungarianness." A sinister "paratroopers' unit"—including (at one time or another) early-20th-century Progressives, bourgeois liberals, Bolsheviks, Wall Street magnates, and today's opposition—"is moving through the body of Hungarian society" in an "ever-changing form." It is now "selling Hungary out to IMF, which has replaced USSR as the new puppet master."

Csurka extolled "a national middle class rooted in the volk" and probed the decline of Magyar youth: "We cannot ignore any more the fact that this deterioration has genetic roots as well. We must understand that we've been living together far too long with handicapped social strata and groups where natural selection is nonexistent because it has no force among them. Society must now support the strong families that are fit for life and are organized for work and performance."

The unnamed inferior strata appear to be Gypsies. Csurka's anti-Semitism is more explicit. The communist era, he wrote, was an "unhealthy period where Jewry had a word to say and had open or hidden influence where it could be a decisive element." Today, "securing the hegemony of world Jewry" is one power path taken by closet reds who run opposition parties. Hungary's president, Arpad Göncz (whose part in the 1956 revolution earned him several years in jail), refuses to fire allegedly red state media heads because of orders from "those behind his back, the communist, reform communist, liberal and radical nomenklatura and his liaisons in Paris, New York and Tel Aviv."

Csurka longed for "the opportunities for new Hungarian living space" across the country's current borders. The Yalta agreement, he stated without elaboration, expires in 1995.

Csurka derided the three-party governing coalition, which is dominated by his own Democratic Forum, for weak-kneed compromise with other parties—whose support, since they comprise 44 percent of Parliament, is needed to pass laws that require two-thirds majorities for approval. In an unprecedented breach of party ranks, Csurka called on Prime Minister Antall, "a sick man" (his cancer is in remission), to pick a successor. "We have to break with ourselves, who've radiated weakness and uncertainty."

The opposition howled predictably. All eyes turned to Antall; at last, it seemed, Csurka had crossed the line and would be distanced or disowned.

That didn't happen. Three days after the essay appeared, Antall said he was still quite fit to govern, despite his illness, but otherwise tried to laugh off his party vice president, suggesting that Csurka's essay was a "gentlemanly gesture" to show strife-ridden opposition groups "that there may be tensions within the Democratic Forum as well."

Few laughed along. "Everyone is afraid of something," said Peter Feldmajer, a local Jewish leader. "They know that exactly the same movie has already been shown in this country before."

Like Germany—where similar remarks from even a peripheral politician would trigger an international storm of criticism—Hungary has a dark legacy to which Csurka can hark back. In World War II, Hungary allied itself with the Axis in an attempt to recover the lands it lost under the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, including large swatches of present-day Czechoslovakia, Romania, Ukraine, and the former Yugoslavia. During the war some 681,000 Hungarian Jews died or were killed, deported, or enslaved. After Budapest's ghetto fence came down, some Jews were among the Stalinist elite of the 1950s, but far more were purged. Today the old Magyar kingdom is widely and openly mourned, but the Jews are not, and communists feature far more prominently than fascists in the public demonology.

A few Democratic Forum M.P.s broke ranks and condemned Csurka. The most forthright, József Debreczeni, said Csurka's essay amounted to "a complete Nazi ideological foundation." Both the party's presidium and its national board criticized Debreczeni publicly for his stand and for making it in an opposition paper. The board added that Csurka's essay "in fact helps in forming the Democratic Forum's long-term strategy." The responses of local party leaders were vague and muted: One branch head said he "hesitated to give a responsible answer" until hearing the party line.

That came on August 31, 11 days after Csurka's essay appeared. Antall told Parliament that Csurka "misinterprets a number of issues and gives politically harmful and incorrect answers with which I cannot identify myself, in my own name or on behalf of my own government or the Democratic Forum board or presidium." Antall's specific criticism was limited to Csurka's remarks about the IMF and border revision. He then turned his fire toward the press for harping on the issue. Csurka remained party vice president.

Few think Antall, whose father helped rescue Polish Jews during the war, is anti-Semitic. But he prizes party unity, especially now that his coalition's popularity rating has plummeted to 16 percent. Economic doldrums—including a 11.1-percent unemployment rate, which the government expects to double by the end of next year—could well fuel Csurka's support, estimated at 80 percent of the party and pegged at 35 percent of the population in an August opinion poll.

Csurka's followers are not primarily racist or anti-Semitic. To judge by the crowd of 15,000 that showered him with "Long live Csurka" chants at a Budapest rally in September, they are mostly well-mannered, middle-aged or older couples. Many are frustrated by the government's failure to carry through on its promise of "historical justice." (In March, Hungary's constitutional court overturned an untested law under which former communists could have been tried for treason.) Unaccustomed to the hustle of the emerging private sector, they see little but obscurity and inflation-eroded pensions ahead of them.

Hence their faith in a vague, long-suppressed "Hungarianness" that, unlike the Magyar kingdom that brought Christianity to the Carpathian basin, can't be taken away. And hence their need for scapegoats: communists, who stole the prime of their lives; international capitalists, whose exploits make them obsolete; today's liberals, in cahoots with both; and Jews, who belong to all three groups.

Since Antall's tepid disavowal of Csurka, the renegade M.P. Debreczeni has been attacked by fellow party members: His local party branch has considered launching ethical proceedings against him, and his fellow M.P.s announced that they would try to make him retract his criticism of Csurka. Meanwhile, Hungarian Forum has attacked Jewish Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros's charitable foundation as a "Jewish-liberal-cosmopolitan-communist" conspiracy, with no party censure. At a Democratic Forum branch meeting in Budapest's third district on September 8, Csurka was urged to seek Antall's place as party president. He politely declined.

Ken Kasriel writes for Budapest Week. He has covered Hungarian politics for The Guardian and The Christian Science Monitor.