Out of the shadows: Anti-Semitism in the streets of Hungary

Contrary to the popular saying, historians if asked will often tell us that history does not repeat itself. However, this is not to say that how we understand the past does not affect the present. To paraphrase esteemed historian Margaret MacMillan, history can serve as helpful guide to the present however the potential “uses and abuses” of history are endless and call for careful consideration[i].

Internationally celebrated Hungarian composer Ivan Fischer has recently debuted his opera The Red Heifer, which he hopes will help challenge the rise of anti-Semitism in Hungary that has occurred in recent years. The opera is based on an infamous Hungarian blood libel from the 19th century in which a group of Jews were falsely accused of murdering a young Hungarian girl. A cautionary tale against the perils of prejudice, The Red Heifer represents a positive use of history to comment on contemporary affairs. Speaking to The New York Times, Fischer said the increased popularly of Hungary’s far-right Jobbik party spurred him into action[ii].

Jobbik, in contrast, manipulates history in ways that encourage social discrimination to achieve its political aims. Originally founded as an extremist youth group in 1999, Jobbik established itself as a political party in 2003, and became the third largest party in the 2010 parliamentary elections with an openly anti-Semitic and anti-Roma platform. While there are innumerable factors that have contributed to Jobbik’s increased popularity, one of the most important appears to be the party’s mobilization of the myth of “Judeo-Bolshevism”.  Since the 1919 revolutions in Central Europe, supporters of the myth have traditionally perceived and portrayed Communism in Hungary as a political occupation or conspiracy directed by and serving “Jewish interests”[iii]. In its simplest terms, “Jeudo-Bolshevism” equates Hungarian nationalism with being anti-Communist (counter-revolutionary) and anti-Semitic. According to historian Eliza Ablovatski, “anti-Semitism was not only used to justify anti-Jewish violence in the counterrevolution, but anti-Semitic ideology actually held the counter-revolution together”[iv]. The myth of Judeo-Bolshevism, she continues, provided a “seemingly coherent political and historical narrative” which unfortunately continues to resonate today[v].

A recent succession of troubling events in Hungary suggests that the 2010 electoral shift to the right marks a progression towards a normalization of anti-Semitism in the public sphere. In May 2013, Hungary captivated the attention of the international media when hundreds of Jobbik supporters and Hungarian “ultra nationalists” protested the Jewish World Congress Meeting, which was held in Budapest[vi]. In November 2012, deputy group leader of Jobbik, Marton Gyongyosi, caused a scandal after publically requesting that a list of all Hungarian officials of Jewish origin be compiled since they pose a potential “national security risk”[vii]. This volatile sentiment also fits into the “Judeo-Bolshevik” myth that Jews do not have roots and are not truly Hungarian. The Hungarian government has recently hired a well known American public relations specialist which suggests it is aware the situation is becoming worse[viii]. However, the lack of government intervention into the increasing depictions of far-right support in daily life throughout the country may indicate their efforts continue to be merely cosmetic.

In May 2013, a Budapest street was named after openly anti-Semitic Hungarian author Cecil Tormay (1876-1937). According to the Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary, Tormay’s work was highly influential amongst the political leadership of Hungary during the 1940s[ix]. Despite appeals to the mayor for the signs removal, no action has yet been taken[x]. Similar far-right authors from the 1940’s such as Nazi supporter József Nyírő have also been reportedly added to the Hungarian curriculum[xi].  Despite being one of the most controversial figures in Hungarian history, former state leader (1920-1940) Miklos Horthy is also being re-written into daily life in Hungary.  In what The Economist referred to as a “controversial Renaissance”, commemorations to Horthy have been unveiled throughout the country, including a statue in Csókakő, an honorary plaque at Horthy’s college, and the renaming of the town square in Gyömrő [xii].

 The implied permanence of these changes to Hungary’s educational and physical landscapes amidst what appears to be at best a growing indifference towards anti-Semitism, is ominous. The unquestioned re-integration of such social and political figures in Hungarian history could also be used to support Jobbik’s misrepresentations of Hungarian history. Despite the negative international coverage such events have received, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has said the power to make decisions regarding such monuments lies with the local governments[xiii]. A hands off approach does not bode well for social unity and given that Orbán’s Fidesz party will likely need to court far-right support in order to maintain a majority in the upcoming 2014 elections, far right politics in Hungary are poised to benefit from further leniency in coming months.


[i] MacMillan, Margaret. “In conversation with Allen Greg, the Uses and Abuses of History”. TVO. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KT3DVexxa3U (date accessed October 31st, 2013)

[ii] Donadio, Rachel. “In Hungary a New Opera Joins the Chorus Against Anti-Semitism”. New York Times. 20 October 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/21/arts/music/in-hungary-a-new-opera-joins-the-chorus-against-anti-semitism.html?_r=1& (date accessed October 31st, 2013)

[iii] Ablovatski, Eliza.  “The 1919 Central European revolutions and the Judeo-Bolshevik myth”. European Review of History, Vol. 17, No. 3 (June 2010): 474.

[iv] Ibid, 474.

[v] Ibid, 474.

[vi] BBC News. “Jobbik rally against World Jewish Congress in Budapest” BBC, 4 May 2014, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-22413301 (date accessed October 29, 2013)

[vii] BBC News. “Hungary anti-Semitism: MP condemned over ‘list of Jews”. BBC, 27 Nov 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-20510648 (date accessed October 29, 2013)

[viii] JTA. “Anti-Semitic? Us? Hungary launches PR blitz to combat racist image”. Haartz, Oct. 25, 2013, http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/jewish-world-news/1.554364  (date accessed October 26, 2013).

[ix] Ibid

[x] Ibid

[xi] A.L.B. “Does Hungary have a new hero?” The Economist, 18 June 2012,http://www.economist.com/blogs/easternapproaches/2012/06/hungarian-history (date accessed October 26, 2013).

[xii] JTA. “Anti-Semitic? Us? Hungary launches PR blitz to combat racist image”, Haartz. http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/jewish-world-news/1.554364

[xiii] A.L.B. “Does Hungary have a new hero?” The Economist. http://www.economist.com/blogs/easternapproaches/2012/06/hungarian-history