Part I: The Re-Conception of Hungarian Nationalism

(Originally published as the first in a two-part series on Hungarian nationalism on The Diplomacist)

From Greece to Hungary, Europe's unsettling electoral shift to the far-right is beginning to falter. Since the mid-to-late 2000's, groups such as the Golden Dawn Party in Greece and the Jobbik movement in Hungary have capitalized on economic malaise and latent hyper-nationalist tendencies to propel organized racism into domestic politics. But today, a low-intensity street war is underway between the remaining Golden Dawn supporters and left-wing groups fighting to end Greece's recent flirtation with violent fascism. In Hungary, Europe's best-represented far-right party, The Movement for a Better Hungary, or Jobbik, is facing a media frenzy surrounding revelations regarding one of the party's founders and most vocal firebrands, Csanad Szegedi. 

At Jobbik rallies, the red-white-and-green tricolor flag of the modern Hungarian state flutters alongside red and black banners of the Hungarian Arrow Cross, the party that governed as a Nazi puppet during the twilight of the Second World War. Under the Arrow Cross, some 600,000 Hungarian Jews were deported to their deaths in gas chambers around Europe. Like parallel parties in other European nations, Jobbik is fervently anti-integration, and have orchestrated EU flag-burnings outside the European Commission headquarters in Budapest. TheHungarian Guard, their unofficial “paramilitary” unit, founded by Szegedi in 2007 and banned by courts two years later, recruited uneducated, unemployed Hungarian youth to participate in mock military drills and “anti-Gypsy-crime” marches, morbid exhibitions that often ended in bloodshed.

Jobbik was founded by university students, among them Csanad Szegedi, in the post-Soviet era of the 1990's, when Communist prohibitions on Hungarian nationalism had recently been lifted. Economically, the ossified system of state socialism that had gripped Hungarian markets since 1945 was giving way to mass privatizations and entrance into the capitalist world economy, which arrived in Hungary on a renewed wave of unemployment and inequality. Propelled by these market and social forces, Jobbik focused resentment towards Hungary’s most significant minority—the Roma—who count for approximately four percent of the country's population. In many urban locales, however, that figure is closer to ten percent, as is the case in Csanad Szegedi’s home city of Mikolc, a “crumbling industrial city whose high unemployment and large Roma population” made it the ideal setting to launch Szegedi’s career as a party organizer in the early 2000’s. 

The murder of a Hungarian schoolteacher in 2006 by a Roma gang gave Jobbik the political fuel it needed to creep from the periphery of the Hungarian political scene, dominated by ineffective Socialist and Conservative factions, into the limelight. Csanad Szegedi, who had climbed the ranks of Jobbik to become No. 2, began proposing the formation of “public order zones,” where Gypsies, (the name by which the Roma are commonly referred), would remain under tight police supervision and their youth would be educated in segregated boarding schools—an unsettling notion in a nation that experienced significant state repression during the Communist era and, before that, the horrors of the Holocaust. Szegedi’s machinations succeeded not in developing these dystopian communities, but in earning Jobbik a place at the political table. The sensationalism of their message garnered seventeen per cent of the national vote in 2010 elections, claiming for Jobbik forty-seven seats out of the four-hundred-and-eighty-six seat parliament.

Even after the disbanding of his Hungarian Guard, Szegedi appeared on his first day of work at the European Parliament wearing the banned uniform. A Polish politician reported that EU legislators mistook him for an electrician. As one of three Jobbik politicians represented in the European Parliament, Szegedi made routine speeches spouting the party’s hateful worldview. One day it was the “Jewish intelligentsia” — artists, journalists, and activists — who were desecrating “the holy throne” of St. Stephen, Hungary’s first king and the spiritual authority of all subsequent Hungarian leaders. Another day it was Jewish business interests “buying up” Hungarian state assets after the large-scale privatizations after the fall of Communism, or the Israeli Jews, who Szegedi labelled “lice-infested, dirty murderers.”

But Szegedi’s prestige as a far-right activist and politician did not merely stem from his flagrant pronouncements or avant-garde stunts. His real political dexterity could be seen from his clever marketing of the Jobbik ideology to a new, restless generation of Europeans. Frustrated, jobless European youth have flocked to parties with similarly xenophobic messages since the 2008 and 2009 economic crises, ushered into these formerly fringe groups through social media, heavy metal music, and publicity stunts. When the crisis hit Hungary, Szegedi seized upon the much-exploited historical association between world Jewry and the international capital market and banking system, despite the fact that Hungary’s Jewish population, like Greece’s, had been decimated during the 1930’s and 40’s to a fraction of its previously modest size. 

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