ECHOES OF HORRORIs Hungary sleepwalking into disaster?
RISE OF POPULISM
Amid the ongoing migration and a simmering financial crisis, economic inequality and increasing disillusionment with the European Union, Europe has seen the rise of right-wing, populist parties. They have made considerable electoral gains.
From Finland to the Netherlands and Poland, a new wave of rightwing parties has emerged. Even in those countries where right-wing populists haven’t gained power, groups such as the French National Front or Alternative for Germany have become increasingly popular among voters.
Emboldened by Britain's decision to leave the EU and the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, right-wing populist and far-right parties now compete for power across the Western world. Although Dutch voters said "no” to populism on March 15, it’s unlikely that this anti-establishment sentiment is going to disappear.
Last year in the Austrian presidential election the far-right candidate Norbert Hofer received 46% of the votes and Geert Wilders has also made significant gains in the Netherlands this month. Now Europe is turning its head towards Germany and France where right-wing nationalists will also be key players in the upcoming elections.
One of the trailblazers is undoubtedly Hungary’s right-wing populist leader Viktor Orban. Once a key figure in the country’s transition from communism to democracy, in the past three years he has been steadily steering the country towards a so-called “illiberal democracy” naming Turkey and Russia as models.
When his party, Fidesz came to power in 2010 it passed a package of constitutional amendments limiting the constitutional court’s powers and the independence of the entire judiciary branch. Orban appointed close friends to important positions and changed the electoral system that helped him retain power in 2014.
He created a new media regulator tightening control over print, broadcast and online news media and taxed the international media more heavily than domestic ones. Curiously, the Hungarian media landscape had come under the influence of a new type of wealthy oligarchs close to Mr. Orban with the most recent shutdown of the largest opposition newspaper “Nepszabadsag”.
(Picture credit: European People's Party, https://flic.kr/p/faEXBe)
But, in early 2015, his popularity started to decline dramatically due to corruption scandals. Voters started drifting towards the neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic, extreme-right Jobbik (the Movement for a Better Hungary) party, which also has a paramilitary wing, called the “New Hungarian Guard” reminiscent of the fascist Arrow Cross Party of the wartime period. Distressingly, Jobbik is the most popular political group among young people and in the last election they secured 20.54% of the total vote.
So how is it possible that a country that suffered so deeply from fascist and Nazi terror just a few decades ago is now turning to the extreme right? Andras Szakacs, political scientist at the Centre for Fair Political Analysis says that, despite the racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic rhetoric, Jobbik appeals to voters because it provides easy solutions.
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“The far right in Hungary has taken up unspoken issues and then built a solid foundation with actions. They did not win all those votes by calling Romanis gypsies- many people did that before. No, they took over the tasks the government did not take care of. They acted,” Mr Szakacs said.
While most people in the West would condemn this kind of approach, for the Hungarian electorate it was a political accomplishment - an accomplishment that other parties were trying to achieve with press conferences and press releases. “Basically, they satisfied needs and society was willing to compromise - in exchange for satisfying their needs they identified with a certain ideology,” he added.
However, Mr Orban quickly recognized the threat and took up on the migration issue in 2015 in order to tackle it. He posed as the Christian savior of Europe as he ordered a razor-wire fence along its southern border with Serbia and Croatia. During the refugee crisis state interference in media grew and by the time of the campaign for referendum on migrant quotas the state media lined up behind the government.
Democracy Reporting International found that a shocking 95% of relevant airtime endorsed the government’s position, and 91% of related news items were negative about refugees. Although the vote was invalid due to low turnout, 98% of the voters said no to migrants which is a result of a highly effective propaganda campaign across the country that veered towards hate speech.
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“They played to people’s fear and increased that as well,” says Andras Gero, Professor of History at the Central European University in Budapest. “It was not true when they said that migrants are coming here to take the jobs or that they were carrying diseases.”
Over the past few months commentators, including the Prince of Wales and American economist Paul Krugman, pointed out parallels between the current era and the 1930s and 1940s. Although Mr Gero rejects the idea that Hungary is returning to the “dark days” of the 1930s he does agree that the country’s reaction to the migration crisis echoed the horrors of the past.
“They put migrants into a stigmatised linguistic world and said things that rhymed with the anti-Semitic style that was used in the 1930s, such as comparing migrants to germs. And what can you do with a germ? Well the Nazis said that it had to be eliminated. This government said we should let the germs go to Germany. And that was the problem. The main problem was the rhetoric from the Hungarian government’s side.”
According to a 2013 report by Andras Kovacs of the Central European University, one in five Hungarians can be classed as an “extreme anti-Semite”.
The ascendance of right-wing populism in Hungary and the toxic referendum discourse has made a lot of people anxious about the future, including survivors of the Holocaust who spoke about what they went through in the 1940s and how do they go on with their lives in the current political atmosphere.
Gyorgy Vilmos Gati'Hungary will stay anti-Semite'
The happiest moment for Gyorgy Vilmos Gati was when his family reunited with their father after months of suffering in different concentration camps during the Holocaust. His father was taken to do forced labour and the rest of the family were deported to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp from their hometown Karcag after being closed in a ghetto for weeks.
From there, they were transported to Theresienstadt and by that time, his mother and grandmother were so ill that the SS guards decided to leave them outside the camp - fortunately, only for a couple of days as the camp was liberated by Soviet troops the next week and they returned to Hungary.
But, the events have changed the whole family, especially affecting the father who became a different person after they returned home. “Before the Holocaust, he was very religious, he prayed three times a day. But when got back and tried to get on with our lives he stopped. He blamed our religion for what happened and then ha gave up on it.”
Gyorgy emigrated to the U.S. in 1956 but moved back nine years later to care for his mother - he found his place in the Jewish community in Budapest, but he does not have much hope for the future.
“Anti-Semitism has always been here, it’s still here today and Hungary will stay anti-Semite. Society thinks that you are different because you have a different religion. People here don’t like Jews, which really hurts me. I don’t understand how you can differentiate between people based on religion."
TAMAS BOBELLA'It's a cruel situation'
As a child, the worst thing you could imagine is being separated from your parents. So, it is understandable that Tamas’s worst memory is when his father was taken by the fascist Arrow Cross Party for forced labour service in Yugoslavia and he was moved to the ghetto in Budapest.
He was set apart from his mother and he clearly remembers the terror he felt. “I suffered a lot. I did not know what was happening and I missed my mother so much. I lost a lot of weight and I got very very sick.
“We only got black coffee for breakfast, lunch and dinner and very little food. The conditions were awful I got infested with lice because I did not shower for weeks.”
They were liberated by the Soviets and his father eventually returned to Hungary from labour service. However, the events left a permanent mark on the family: his father came home from labour service beaten and sick and died four years later while Tamas was so weak and distressed that he could not go back to school for a year.
Many of his family members have also died after being deported to Auschwitz, and even after decades he still does not understand how something like this could happen.
“It’s a tragic story. They took innocent people just because they have different religion and it’s still a problem today. There are many primitive people in Hungary who don’t even know why they hate other people.
Although he is concerned about the future, he found peace in the Jewish community in Budapest where he frequently attends club meetings.
“In this society I don’t feel anti-Semitism. The community gives me a spiritual overflow and quietude. I get food here there are events, we are never bored. Hopefully things will get better in Hungary as well.”
Gyorgyi Ziegelmann“I think Viktor Orban is the reincarnation of Hitler”
Born: 1935, Budapest
Mrs Karoly Ziegelmann, Gyorgyi was 6-years-old when she witnessed her father being taken away by the Nazis from their home in Budapest in 1941. Later she would learn that he died of starvation on a death march from Bor, Yugoslavia (today Serbia) to Gyor, Hungary.
She, herself has gone through terrible ordeals in order to be here today - but she still cannot escape the horrors of her past.
“I can see everything happening again. This is how it started back then. First it was jokes, then they ridiculed Jews and it’s still here.“
In 1944 she was taken to one of the “yellow-star” houses, which were compulsory places of residence for Jews from 21 June 1944 until late November 1944.
“We were terrified. There were rifles everywhere. We thought that we could be shot at any moment,” she recalls “When I saw pictures from that time, I couldn’t recognise myself. I was so underweight, I looked so sick.”
She was later placed in a Red Cross care home, but she was not safe even there.
“They took the boys to the banks of the Danube, tied them together in groups of three and then they would shoot only one - so he brought down the others and they all died. As for the girls, they were hung on a lath by their legs and the officers would stick knitting needles into them from below.”
After she escaped, a soldier hid her and others at the German headquarters thinking that nobody would suspect that there were Jewish children in the basement.
“We were down there all day, freezing and squatting in very small places with no access to a bathroom or toilet. We got some pea puree once a day and learnt how to remove lice and worms from our hair and clothes.
“I was terrified because I heard the screaming and the bombing. And then suddenly everything went quiet.”
After the Soviet troops found them, she was taken to a hospital where she was disinfected.
“I didn’t cry until one boy came up to me, when he saw that I was waiting for my family to come for me and said ‘ What are you waiting for? Who are you waiting for? You will all die anyway. All of you Jews will die. Why are you waiting for anyone to come for you?”
But they did, and at the age of ten Gyorgyi was “reborn”. Although she lost everyone in her family over the decades, she is not letting sadness to take over her anymore: instead she is focusing on helping others and frequently participates in demonstrations against the Hungarian government’s actions.
“What they did to those poor Syrian men... They are evil. They are so evil. In my opinion, Viktor Orban is the reincarnation of Hitler.”
'It’s absolutely terrifying'Julianna Karman
Born: 1939, Szeged
Deported: 1944, Austria
Julianna Karman has been living in a spacious apartment next to the Hungarian parliament for the past 60 years and not once she felt scared to go out on the street - until now. Recent events in the country including the rise of the far right and the populist government’s reaction to refugees brought back memories to her that she kept buried in her mind for so long.
The reaction she received when returned to the country after escaping Nazi persecution was appalling at best, with one lady telling her that it seemed like ‘more Jews came back than were deported,’ Today she feels like not much has changed since those days.
“People in this country don’t have common sense and they just can’t accept when someone is different. Sadly it’s a tradition in Hungary. There are still people who wish they could live in the times before the war.”
Julianna was born in Szeged, one the largest cities in Hungary. She was five years old when her family was forced into a ghetto by the invading Nazis. After weeks spent in misery they were escorted to a brickyard where they waited for the transport that would determine their entire life - they were not taken to Auschwitz, but to Strasshof where Ludwig Knapp, an Austrian farmer took them to his estate to work as wood-cutters.
“They put us in woodsheds where circumstances were primitive and brutal. My parents and brother had to work every day but while they got some food, I got nothing. I have no idea how I survived.”
Later, Mr Knapp (to the right) discovered that the Gestapo was near the farm to deport his workers to a death camp, Theresienstadt, and so he hid them in the attic of the woodsheds (top left picture) to save their lives. They spent long weeks there in terrible conditions with little food until Auschwitz was finally liberated and they could return home.
“The memories are haunting me. Despite trying not to think of it, the older I am the deeper I feel the trauma. That event defined my whole life and the way I’m thinking and you can’t, you cannot forget it. It left a deep mark.”
She is increasingly worried that the rise of the far-right extremist party JOBBIK and the populist right-wing government’s treatment of refugees are not just a parallel with the past but an indication for the future.
“How it is going to grow throughout the years and whether there will be someone who can hold these people back. You get comments from politicians implying that jews do not belong here. Not openly, but you never know when they will start openly call out people because of their religion.”
Picture: "Hungary in the 1940s - Hungary in the 2010s"
MARIANN ACS'Morally and ideologically I am against the Hungarian government.'
Born: 1928, Budapest
Deported: Ravensbruck concentration camp
Unable to walk anymore, Mariann Acs spends her days watching TV and listening to the radio in her modest one-bedroom apartment in a well-known care home in Budapest. Although she is secluded from the outside world, she pays attention to what is happening in the country.
“I know what’s going on. And morally and ideologically I am against the Hungarian government,” she said.
Such strong words might come as a surprise from someone who has not set foot outside the premises of a care home for years, but coming from Mariann every word is twice as important.
She is one of the few thousand survivors of the women-only concentration camp that was established in Ravensbrück in 1938, intended to hold exclusively female inmates. She is also one of the handful of women on whom the Nazis conducted medical experiments.
When deportations of Jews started in Budapest during the Second World War, she and her family escaped from a ‘yellow-star’ house and went into hiding. However, someone reported them and in a week they were on their way to Furstenberg where they were made to walk to the concentration camp in Ravensbruck.
“It was the 24th of December, Christmas Eve. We had to spend the night outside, lying on the cold ground. In the morning they took us to the showers, which was similar to the one in Auschwitz but thankfully it was water in the tap and not gas.”
Later they moved into their new ‘home’ the 31st barracks where she would share a bunk with her 74-year-old grandmother and 44-year-old mother. Slowly they settled into a pattern where they had to stand outside from 4am for hours and then do pointless work for such as shovelling sand to each other in a circle.
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“It made no sense they just wanted to torture us. I got in a really bad shape and my friends had to carry me to the dune to work. We got there and they made us dig trenches with our bare hands and when I collapsed SS soldiers set their dog on me.
“It dragged me by my hands and bit me. Then my friends carried me to a pit where the soldiers couldn’t see me to help me.”
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By the time Mariann got back to the barrack her mother and grandmother were taken - to where, she still does not know, but when the soldiers started selecting people for ‘work’ she started to get suspicious.
“It was very scary. I could smell the burnt people. So I told them that I was still strong and I wanted to work.”
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But not much later the SS soldiers came up with a different plan for her: she was transferred to the hospital where German doctors started conducting medical experiments on her. Nazi human experimentation was a series of medical experiments on large numbers of prisoners during the Second World War.
In Ravensbruck they tried two types of experiments: one that tested the efficacy of sulfonamides drugs by cutting into and infecting of leg bones and muscles with virulent bacteria, and cutting nerves. The second one explored the possibility of transplanting bones from one person to another.
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“First, the doctor gave me a medicine that made me very sick and then when I got better he blew air into my lungs. Then they transplanted something into me, god-knows-what, it was probably some animal’s organ.”
Fortunately, a few days later the camp was liberated and she was taken to a hospital to heal. By that time she was only 36 kg and she could not walk at all. After four months she returned to Hungary, where she spent years in a sanatorium to recover from the horrors.
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Being institutionalised again is more like a blessing for her than a burden: that way she is not exposed to hatred.
“Here, in this care home I don’t feel it, but I know that it’s out there. It worries me what’s going on in the country and I am scared. I am worried that without a revolution we won’t be able to get things in order in Hungary. If it’s going to happen then it won’t be in a legal way.”
She is also deeply offended by the re-emerging anti-Semitism in society.
“The Holocaust is part of Hungarian history. They have to accept it. It’s not a Jewish question. Hungarians were integrated and they have certificates that they are Hungarians. Nobody is allowed to call me a ‘Jew’.”
As for the future, she does not have much hope: she is strongly opposed to the current government and condemns the far-right’s behaviour.
“If we had a strong opposition this could not happen. I am worried that Orban will only get stronger and stronger and become more corrupt.”
TIBOR FISCH'Anti-Semitism is rearing its head again'
Born: 1931, Budapest
Taken to: Budapest ghetto, 1944
In Hungary, Tibor could be considered a millionaire - if only he accepted the compensation he is getting from Germany as a victim of the Holocaust. However, he does not care for money and he would rather see that payment go to those who really need it.
“I always think about other people who need help more than I do. I don’t have great needs, I don’t have big dreams, so I give up on this to help others. I don’t want it, they should bury me from that money.”
Tibor and his family have been living on the premises of the Budapest ghetto even before it was turned into one. When the deportations began they moved to the basement of their building with many others.
“I was a child and I didn’t know what was happening. I knew I was Jewish but I didn’t know why they hated us. We thought it was all a game but then we went outside and saw the piles of dead bodies, all of them starved to death."
Over the past decades Tibor has traveled to 17 different countries but he does not want to leave his homeland anymore - even though he does not feel entirely comfortable here.
“Unfortunately once again anti-Semitism is rearing its head and we are not safe here. I don’t really have family so I am not scared, but we must not only think about one person.
“There is open anti-Semitism even in the Parliament. Not word by word but you know what they imply. I am not really scared because I am so old, I don’t have much left. I don’t have any visions for the future.”
Gyorgy Kovacs 'I was thinking of leaving the country.'
Born: 1931, Budapest
Deported: 1944, Budapest ghetto
Gyorgy Kovacs passes the Great Synagogue in Hungary every day on his way to have lunch and attend club meetings at the social services of the Federation of Jewish Communities. When he looks at the cemetery courtyard of the synagogue he remembers the time when it was just a garden with piles of bodies in it.
“My heart always breaks a little every time I see that those who were born the same time as I did, died here in the Ghetto and they were simply buried in a mass grave.”
He was 15-years old when they had to move to a Yellow-star house where he would share a tiny space with his mother and siblings. They had very little income because of the anti-Jewish laws and measures in Hungary so he decided to find a job - the problem was he could only leave the house between 11am and 5pm.
“When the deportations started I was going home from work and I was running late. I remember being really scared because I didn’t know what was going to happen if I don’t make it to the house by 5pm. But I had to make a detour because I was warned that there were soldiers nearby and they were selecting Jews to transport to extermination camps.”
Although he avoided deportation, he still lived his life in fear for weeks since there were police raids every day at the yellow-star house he was staying at. His mother sensed that they could not stay there if they wanted to survive - so she got a fake Schutzpass for them and they moved to an overcrowded ‘safe house’.
“It was suspicious, that so many people had Schutzpasses. The house was so full of people they were lying on the floor like bricks next to each other, there were even some sleeping in the stairwell.”
His mother then already suspected that it was not going to end well, so she organised their ‘escape’. But, nobody wanted to risk their lives by providing accommodation for them so eventually they went to the ghetto voluntarily.
“Everything was terrible, the food, the living conditions. I was not old enough to go to labour camps, but I was exposed to all the atrocities that others went through.”
After the liberation of the ghetto he also had to deal with the loss of his father and grandmothers who could not recover from the horrors of the ghetto and died just two weeks later.
“For a long time I just couldn’t process that I lost all of them in three week. Time helps, and the further we got from that time the more distant these memories get as well.
“But it does come back to me from time to time, especially that it seems like anti-Semitism is still alive. I thought that after everything that happened here I should leave the country.”
The rise of populist movements in Europe has stirred unhappy memories and had commentators and others comparing the current political situation to what happened in the 1930s and 1940s.
Given the magnitude of the horrors that were inflicted on Europe by Nazi Germany, it is a paradox that the West’s response to the rise of fascism and the far-right has always been complacent.
In 1938 when Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany, the reaction from France and Britain was very mild which led Hitler to conclude that he could use even more aggressive tactics in order to expand the Third Reich. And he did - with disastrous consequences.
Today, we see the West turning a blind eye to the surge of the far right across the continent and a similar kind of inaction towards the situation in Hungary, where a new generation are increasingly attracted to rightwing extremism and anti-Semitism is a part of common speech.
Szabolcs Szita, historian and director of the Holocaust Memorial Center in Budapest, says that it is extremely worrying that Hungary does not seem to learn from its history.
“Anti-semitism is nonsense and a poison, but the fact that we are here in the 21st century and in Budapest, is alarming. If we are not working consistently on a solution, it will be hard to eliminate and the consequences could be catastrophic.”
“People used to asked me if the Holocaust could happen again. I would say yes. Yes.”
However, with the ever changing political landscape, Jews are not the only target of racism anymore. Zsuzsanna Toronyi, the director of the Hungarian Jewish Museum says that Muslims, Romanis and migrants are as much of a victim of hate speech as Jews.
“Hungary has new social problems which they treat with the racist approach of the 1930s, or 1980s. It’s always been here and what worries me is that it is becoming a part of common speech.”
Hungary held a referendum last October on whether to approve or reject the EU quotas under which Hungary would have had to resettle 1,294 refugees. Although, the vote was invalid due to low turnout, 98% of voters cast ballots supporting the government’s position.
The campaign to persuade people to vote "No" cost almost £30m and was overtly anti-migrant, fuelled by government propaganda across the media that equaled to a campaign of hate and fear according to some critics.
'If you come to Hungary, you have to respect our laws'
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While this year, Europe is paying attention to Germany and France, 2018 will be the year when Hungarian people will decide their next leader. Viktor Orban and his governing Fidesz party have plenty of breathing space as recent opinion polls show that they still enjoy huge popularity among voters.
The economy seems to be improving post-recession - mostly driven by an influx of EU funds and record low (0,9) interest rates. But, the fiscal forecast looks healthy with the IMF predicting that ‘employment will grow further and the economy may begin to operate at full capacity in the course of 2017,’ This allows the government to distribute some pre-electoral gifts including VAT and corporation tax cuts, advancing their intention to become Central Europe’s new “tax haven”.
But despite the comfortable lead in polls, Mr Orban cannot rest as the far-right party Jobbik and the left is looking for new ways to to challenge his iron grip on power. However, the left is extremely fragmented and it is unlikely that they can successfully challenge FIDESZ especially after the fiasco in the 2014 General Election, where the centre-left (an alliance of five parties) only received 26% of the votes that translated into 38 MPs - opposed to Fidesz-KDNP’s “supermajority” of 133.
As for the far-right JOBBIK, there is an attempt to shift to the centre, hoping to remove the party’s radical edge in order to challenge Orban. In a symbolic gesture, party leader Gabor Vona sent Hanukkah greetings to Jews in Budapest to try to distance itself from its anti-Semitic past. However, it is difficult to erase the memories when Jobbik has openly vilified Jews and marched through Roma-populated areas with its paramilitary wing.
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Andras Szakacs, a political scientist at the Centre for Fair Political Analysis believes that the future is not as obvious as it seems as history is “fluctuating” and opposition parties will not just sit back and watch others win everything.
“Political blocs are formed on both sides - like in Hungary - and we can talk about bad populist turns, extremists, the rise of the right, but every action is followed by a reaction in politics.
“Everyone is constantly looking for answers and they find it in different places, so the situations of the parties are changing all the time. Undoubtedly, there is a dangerous populist challenge which is typical in this age, but that doesn’t mean that radicals and extremists are going to win everywhere.”
The history of the continent indicates where this can lead. Hungary’s future looks disturbingly like Europe’s past, but this time the threat is internal. It is a warning Europe should heed.