Hungary’s Far-Right Turn

What’s behind Budapest’s sudden and extreme political shift?

“Canada is an island of peace and tolerance,” says Akos Kertesz, thrilled to be here, even if 80 is not the best age to start a new life. For Kertesz, public intellectual, author of more than 20 books, plays and hundreds of essays, starting a new life in a place where he doesn’t speak or write the language is terrifying. But it is not as terrifying as being threatened, shouted at and abused by strangers. That is what happened to Kertesz after he wrote an article that attacked Hungarians’ cherished views of who they are.

In a Hungarian-language American newspaper in August 2011, Kertesz wrote, somewhat carelessly, that Hungarians were “genetically subservient,” and thus preferred dictatorships (ultra-right during the 1930s and ’40s and, later, Soviet-style Communists) to democracy. He also charged that they were the only Europeans who had accepted no responsibility for the Holocaust, during which more than half a million Hungarian Jews were murdered, with the active assistance of police and government.

Kertesz later corrected the “genetically” bit, but not the overall message of his opinion piece.

Though Kertesz and others have said this sort of thing in the past, this time, it caused a media storm. The far-right Jobbik party demanded that Kertesz be stripped of his honours and distinctions; the prime minister agreed and promised a bill would come before parliament to deal with “such racist, anti-Hungarian, traitorous statements.” Email and blog attacks escalated with promises to reopen Dachau and shoot “this filthy Jewish maggot and his compatriots into the Danube.” Ultra-right news portals joined in the anti-Semitic invective.

Kertesz, whose face is well-known, was threatened on the street, shoved off the sidewalk and chased. His wife was afraid to leave the house. Their lawyer said there was no point going to the police until “blood had been spilled.” They were afraid to wait. “I am 80,” said Kertesz. “I do not wish to fight any longer.”

It is no secret that racist incidents have increased in recent years. A statue of Holocaust hero Raoul Wallenberg was defaced, and the monument to Jewish martyrs was spray-painted. Jewish cemeteries and homes have also been spray-painted, and gangs have attacked some Jews on the streets.

A year ago, a Jobbik party representative stood up in parliament, demanding that the general assembly make a list of all Jews in the House. No one, not even the opposition Socialists, stood to protest, though the government later explained it would not make such a list.

Though the Hungarian Garda, a nationalist organization, has been banned, it continues to march in slightly amended uniforms and under new names; the few Holocaust survivors who are still alive in Budapest today can be excused for feeling fearful.

At the Tom Lantos Conference on Jewish Life and Anti-Semitism in Europe, Deputy Prime Minister Tibor Navracsics said, “We cannot allow, especially knowing our own responsibility, anti-Semitism to gain strength in Hungary.”

Kertesz arrived in Canada in February 2012, seeking asylum. The Immigration and Refugee Board granted him refugee status, despite the fact that the Canadian government has designated Hungary a “safe country.” Since the new designation, Hungarian Roma fleeing aggressive discrimination are routinely returned home.

Kertesz’s honorary key to the city of Budapest was revoked after he left the country. His many books have been translated into 11 languages; English is not one of them. The first English-language translation of Kertesz’s book Makra is expected to be published here next year.