from Dissent Magazine: Marching Back to the Future
One Sunday morning in December 2007, some three hundred extreme nationalists dressed in black uniforms marched in military formation through a Hungarian village, protesting against what they called “Roma [Gypsy] delinquency.” They then gathered at a rally, where speakers demanded that Roma be segregated from mainstream society. The protesters were members of the Magyar Garda (Hungarian Guard), a new ultranationalist organization whose members pledge to defend Hungarian values and culture. The Magyar Garda is an offshoot of the far-right Jobbik Magyarországért Mozgalam (Movement for a Better Hungary), generally shortened to Jobbik. Jobbik is a play on words in Hungarian, meaning both “better” and “more to the right.” Jobbik has no members of Parliament, but is represented on several local councils, where its representatives often cooperate with Fidesz, the main conservative opposition party. Opinion polls usually give Jobbik 2 percent or 3 percent support, and the Garda boasts around 650 members.
Yet these numbers are deceptive: in Hungary’s febrile political atmosphere, the Garda dominated the political and media agenda for several months last year, continues to receive substantial press coverage, and has an effect on political life out of all proportion to its numbers. The Garda has triggered anger and consternation across the spectrum, soured the parliamentary atmosphere, increased social tension between Roma and non-Roma, and disrupted relations with Hungary’s neighbors. Jewish and Roma groups have demanded that the Garda be banned. The late U.S. Representative Tom Lantos, himself a survivor of the Hungarian Holocaust, angrily warned that no Garda member would ever be allowed to enter the United States; Hungarian prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsany proclaimed dramatically that “Fascists were gathering.” Yet paradoxically, the Garda may also have inadvertently provided a useful service for this post-communist country that in some ways is still in transition between two systems, by defining the limits of free—and hate—speech.
THE GARDA was launched in August 2007, when its first fifty-six members—a number chosen to commemorate the 1956 revolution—were inaugurated by Lajos Fur, a former minister of defense in Hungary’s first post- communist government, run by the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF). They paraded in Budapest’s historic Castle District, in front of the home of Hungary’s president, Laszlo Solyom, holding the Hungarian flag and the ancient “Arpad” banner of red and white stripes. They wore black boots, black trousers, black sleeveless vests and white shirts, and black caps emblazoned with the Arpad stripes. The symbolism seemed obvious: a homage to Mussolini, if not Hitler, and to the fusion between race, state, and national unity. The “Arpad” stripes are a part of Hungary’s coat of arms, but are now associated with the far right, as the Nazi Arrow Cross regime, which ruled the country in the winter of 1944–1945, incorporated the stripes into its flag. Three priests, from Hungary’s Catholic, Calvinist, and Evangelical churches, blessed the Garda’s flag. (The churches later claimed the priests were acting in a personal capacity.) Among those attending the inauguration was Maria Wittner, a member of Parliament for Fidesz. Wittner is a former ’56er, as those who fought in the revolution are known. Her death sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment, although her cellmate was executed, and her traumatic experiences mean she is granted a certain indulgence. Several dozen members of an even more extreme group, the Nemzeti Orsereg, also attended, wearing khaki paramilitary uniforms. The whole spectacle has so far been viewed on YouTube more than 33,000 times.
LAST EUROPEAN extremists usually fall into one of two categories: disheveled, obsessed pseudo-intellectuals spouting obscure conspiracy theories (Radovan Karadzic, the former leader of the Bosnian Serbs now wanted for genocide, was a wild-haired “poet” and psychiatrist) or “skinheads” who like beating people up. Gabor Vona, leader of both Jobbik and the Magyar Garda, is neither. An articulate and well-groomed twenty-nine year-old former history teacher, from Gyongyos, a small town east of Budapest, Vona describes himself as a “first-generation intellectual” from a paraszt background. Paraszt is usually translated as “peasant,” and is often used by city dwellers as a term of abuse, meaning “hick.” But in Hungarian it has another nuance, of a genuine son of the soil, a true “Magyar,” uncorrupted by the cosmopolitan city, with its slick ways and foreign influences.
Vona spotted a gap in the nationalist market after the decline of the Hungarian Justice and Life Party (MIEP), which lost its fourteen parliamentary seats in 2002. Jobbik and MIEP campaigned together in the 2006 elections, but neither has a single member of Parliament, and the two groups have grown apart. MIEP is led by the elderly playwright Istvan Csurka, who is obsessed with the Jewish ancestry of some of Hungary’s former communist leaders as well as with Israeli investors, who he believes are buying up Hungary on the cheap. MIEP’s focus on anti-Semitism still resonates on the far right, but the political agenda here has shifted somewhat since the early 1990s, when forty years of suppressed anti-Semitism (albeit cultural and political rather than violent) erupted after the collapse of communism. The Garda’s message is based not on negative but positive reinforcement. The Garda is absolutely not anti-Semitic, Vona says. It is not against anyone or anything but only for Hungary. Those who feel themselves to be truly “Magyar” can join, no matter what their faith. The Garda is not against Roma as such, only Roma criminals and “delinquents.” Even Roma can join, he claims, if they fit the membership requirements, although it is more or less unimaginable that any would want to.
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