Hungary is home to one of the most vibrant Jewish communities in all of Europe, some 100,000 strong. Budapest, the capital, features more Jewish schools, synagogues, theaters and social organizations than any other European city east of Paris.
For all its vibrancy, though, the second-largest Jewish community in continental Europe now finds itself in the middle of a political tempest — one that mixes a long tradition of antisemitism, surging rightwing radicalism, a split national identity, growing economic woes and the unrestrained ambitions of a demagogic party leader.
Jews have played a central in modern Hungarian history. The transformation of an agrarian backwater into a modern society in the 19th century was in large part driven by Jewish merchants and intellectuals. But it also left Hungary deeply divided, between an open-minded capital reaching out to the world and an insulated, nationalist countryside. Today, more than a century later, that divide is still palpable, nowhere more so than in rural Hungarians’ preoccupation with how history has treated their land.
In the Treaty of Trianon signed after World War I, Hungary lost two-thirds of its territory and population. In the process, large ethnic Hungarian minorities were created in neighboring Romania, Serbia and Slovakia. In 1919 a short-lived Communist regime, led mostly by Jews, gave way to the nationalist reign of Miklos Horthy, who fought alongside Nazi Germany in World War II.
Horthy’s regime collaborated in the murder of approximately 600,000 Hungarian Jews. The mass deportations to Auschwitz in the summer of 1944 — engineered by Adolf Eichmann and aided by the Arrow Cross, the Hungarian version of the S.S. — destroyed nearly every Jewish community outside of the capital. Only in Budapest were large numbers of Jews able to survive, with the help of foreign diplomats like Sweden’s Raoul Wallenberg, gentile citizens and the fortuitous arrival of the Red Army.
A significant number of Jewish Holocaust survivors supported the Communist party and rose to high position in Soviet-dominated Hungary. But they also helped to bring down the regime in 1989 and spark the revolution that ended Communism’s grip over eastern Europe.
Hungary has become a democratic country, joining the European Union in 2004. But its politics have also became the most polarized in Europe, split between a left led by former Communists and an array of conservative, nationalist forces still deploring the loss of Hungarian land and subsequent suffering inflicted by the Soviets.
A decade ago Viktor Orban, a former liberal student leader, consolidated the right into his Fidesz Party and was voted in as prime minister. He was knocked out of office in 2002, and lost the 2006 elections to Socialist Ferenc Gyurcsány, but he remains a fixture in Hungarian politics.
Orban was at the forefront of last year’s protests against Gyurcsány, a former Communist official turned businessman who has admitted to lying in order to win reelection. Orban has formed an informal alliance with a new far-right movement, the Hungarian Guard, and while he has not used antisemitic language himself, he is seen by many to have encouraged an atmosphere in which slurs against Gypsies and Jews are considered to be acceptable. According to Paul Lendvai, a Hungarian-born author now living in Vienna, when Orban accuses his political foes of being unpatriotic, the anti-Jewish undertone is obvious to most supporters.
A large swath of the media has turned rightward, and some outlets now give openly antisemitic voices a platform. In papers like the nationalist Magyar Hirlap, Hungarian Jews, and intellectuals in particular, are painted as closet communists or agents of foreign capitalists whose goal is to deflate Hungarian national pride.
It appears to be only a matter of time before Orban returns to power, given that Gyurcsány’s government lost its majority in parliament last month and is growing more unpopular by the day. What would Orban’s return to the premiership mean for Hungary’s Jews?
The pessimistic view is that Orban would continue his rightward lurch, stepping up attacks against real and imagined foes. The verbal assaults by right-wingers would turn physical, and induce thousands of Jews to leave Hungary, presumably for other countries in the European Union (where beginning in 2011 Hungarians will be allowed to live and work without restrictions). Were such a scenario to play out, interventions by Hungary’s E.U. partners would only harden Orban’s nationalist stance and sharpen the country’s polarization.
The more optimistic view, which is held by more than a few Hungarians, is that the antisemitism in the Hungarian media is an isolated phenomenon, that political support for far-right parties is quite small, and that Orban’s goal is to regain power and not to drive the country into isolation. Once Orban is back in charge, according to this view, he would tone down the rhetoric and try to avoid anything that would scare away foreign investors and thereby damage Hungary’s crisis-prone economy.
Neo-Nazi activities subsided when the Fidesz Party was in power from 1998 to 2002, as Budapest-based Jewish blogger Bruno Britter has pointed out, and during Orban’s time in office most antisemitic voices were effectively silenced. Concerned about upsetting his E.U. partners, the optimists say, Orban will do as he did during his first term in office.
Which of these views will prove to be accurate is anyone’s guess. But this much is clear: If history is any indication, as go Hungary’s Jews goes the rest of the country. If Hungarians become divided over the 100,000 Jews in their midst, the fate of the first European nation to break free from Communism may be a bleak one indeed.
Eric Frey is managing editor of the Vienna daily Der Standard.