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4 August 2022updated 05 Aug 2022 11:13am

Viktor Orbán’s American apologists

The Hungarian prime minister’s recent address was labelled “pure Nazi speech”, so why do some conservative intellectuals continue to defend him?

By John Ganz

Viktor Orbán’s address to the 31st Bálványos Summer University in Baile Tusnad, Romania, on 23 July prompted the resignation of a long-time adviser who called it a “pure Nazi speech” that was “worthy of Goebbels”. In his remarks Orbán cited Jean Raspail’s 1973 dystopian novel The Camp of the Saints, a favourite text of the racist far-right that depicts non-white hordes from the south and east overrunning the white West. Orbán also explicitly decried “race mixing”:

“This is why we [Europeans] have always fought: we are willing to mix with one another, but we do not want to become peoples of mixed-race. This is why we fought at Nándorfehérvár/Belgrade, this is why we stopped the Turks at Vienna, and – if I am not mistaken – this is why, in still older times – the French stopped the Arabs at Poitiers.

American right-wing intellectuals have long apologised for Orbán and fantasised about his soft-authoritarian regime as a possible direction for conservativism in the US. Orbán hosted a Conservative Political Action Conference in May 2022 and has been invited to address the same organisation in Texas this week. These intellectuals consistently mock the left’s argument that Orbán is embarking on the path of Europe’s interwar dictatorships, even when he placed his regime in the lineage of Miklós Horthy (the quasi-fascist leader who aligned himself with Hitler and Mussolini), stacked Hungary’s constitution in favour of his Fidesz Party, muzzled the media, hounded academics, or when he made thinly-veiled anti-Semitic attacks on George Soros as a kind of puppet master. Surely his recent speech, even in the eyes of his American admirers, crossed a line? Of course not.

The conservative American writer Rod Dreher remains a reliable lickspittle. He claims that Orbán was “using the term ‘race’ as a symbol of religion and culture (and I wish he would not have done that, because it makes it hard to explain what he means).” But race has no actual biological basis, and is always a “symbol”: an ideological category, a way of organising politics and society. It has always functioned in European politics as a way of tying together a number of concerns about national decline and the supposed encroachment of a civilizational enemy in a way that was easy to conceive and imagine. In late 19th-century France, the anti-Dreyfusard ideologues – Maurice Barrès, Édouard Drumont, Charles Maurras, and others – all viewed anti-Semitism in roughly the same way: the Jews offered a fortuitous symbolic representation of France’s national maladies. Many of them rejected biological racial theories and specifically insisted that their ideas were cultural or religious, rooted in France’s historical traditions. Whatever the justificatory root, they were anti-Semites and racists and helped prepare Europe for the catastrophe of the next century.

[See also: The threat of Viktor Orbán’s anti-mixed race speech]

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Responding to Orbán’s comments, few media commentators, including Dreher, have noted what is the significant historical context for this speech: Hungary’s history of anti-Semitism and its role during the Holocaust. That the leader of a European country, especially one with its history, would be willing to “go there” and invoke race is arguably the most shocking aspect of this episode.

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Hungary didn’t need the examples of fascist Italy and Nazi Germany to embark on its reactionary project. In 1919, far-right forces lead by Horthy put down Bela Kun’s short-lived Communist regime and initiated a bloody White Terror that targeted leftists and Jews. The counter-revolution gave birth to an ideological protoplasm called the “Szeged Idea”, named after the headquarters of Horthy’s troops. This concept was based on a “stabbed in the back” myth and a belief in a “Judeo-Bolshevik” conspiracy. Boosters of the Szeged Idea would later brag that they antedated both fascism and Nazism. Hungary had been even more “humiliated” by defeat in the First World War than Germany – the Treaty of Trianon took away two-thirds of Hungarian territory and had disastrous economic consequences for the country. Interwar politics became dominated by different combinations of national chauvinism, irredentism, and anti-Semitism.

Stanley Payne, a historian who specialises in the subject of European fascism, writes, “Of all states in interwar Europe, Hungary probably took the prize for the largest assortment per capita of fascist-type, semi-fascist, or right radical movements.” The postwar political system was divided essentially between right, far right, and extreme right: with the national conservatives around the regent Horthy in competition with explicitly fascist and national socialist groups such as the Arrow Cross Party. The conservatives prevailed with a mix of repression and rightward moves to co-opt fascist appeal. (Compare this to Fidesz’s double-moves with regards to its right flank in the Jobbik Party and the newer Our Homeland Movement.)

As the sociologist Michael Mann writes, “Other members of the authoritarian family kept [Hungary’s fascists] at bay, though only by stealing so many fascist clothes that it becomes difficult to distinguish who was truly a fascist.” The government of Gyula Gömbös, who was prime minister between 1932 and 1936, is instructive. Gömbös had been an organiser of the White Terror, primary exponent of the Szeged Idea and the leader of the “Party of Racial Defence”. Upon acceding to office, Gömbös tactically distanced himself from his past anti-Semitism saying, “To Jewry, I revised my viewpoint” but then returning to the old anti-Semitic stratagem of differentiating a good Jewry and a bad Jewry: “I know leading Jews who pray with me for the Hungarian fate and I know that part of Jewry which does not want or cannot fit into the nation’s social life, the Jews themselves will be the first to condemn….” Gömbös pledged to “secure our own national civilisation based on our own special racial peculiarities and upon Christian moral principles” – a statement that does not sound so unlike Orbán.

Immediately, Gömbös aligned the country with Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany and embarked on a series of policies that would discriminate against Jewish participation in society. In 1935, he pledged to Hermann Göring, who was then serving as president of the Reichstag and prime minister of Prussia, that he would impose a fully national socialist system within a few years. Gömbös died before he could make good on the promise but in 1938, his successor Kálmán Darányi put before parliament the first anti-Jewish law in 1938; it was followed by two more, in 1939 and 1941, with explicitly racial underpinnings.

[See also: How Viktor Orbán turned the Treaty of Trianon into a dangerous political weapon]

During the Second World War, like Vichy France, Horthy’s regime resisted Nazi pressure to deport Hungarian Jews en masse, but was happy to deliver tens of thousands of so-called “alien” Jews into the hands of the SS in Ukraine where they were massacred, or to press Jews into forced labour, which claimed more than 60,000 lives. When German forces occupied Hungary in early 1944, Horthy gave “free reign to persecution” in the words of the historian Miklós Molnár. The Holocaust proceeded in Hungary at lightning speed: an estimated 435,000 Jews were rounded up and deported to death camps. In July 1944, Horthy paused deportations, partly because he was concerned they were beginning to round up the more assimilated Jewry in Budapest. The fact that Horthy stopped the deportations is not much to his credit: the ability to do so only cements his responsibility. After Horthy and his ministers attempted to extricate Hungary from the Axis side in 1944, when it was clear that it would lose, he was overthrown and replaced with Ferenc Szálasi and the Arrow Cross Party, who revived the genocide once again, but many of the Hungarian Jews murdered in the Holocaust were killed between May and July, under Horthy’s watch. Since coming to power, in tone and policy, Orbán’s regime has inched closer to an embrace of the Horthy era and distorted Hungary’s role in the Holocaust.

The contemporary right often speaks of Europe’s decline, but the real sign of civilisational degeneration is a European leader speaking this way without fear of much censure, that there are intellectuals and media figures in the US prepared to defend him, that he is invited to speak at an American political conference, and that he met with the former US president Donald Trump. Orbán – whose country is so dependent on foreign capital that one of the only major economic coups he can brag about in his speech is the opening of another German car factory – is a petty leader in Europe who has somehow managed to convince the international right-wing intelligentsia that he’s the leader of nationalist vanguard. At the top of an insignificant economic and military power, he can’t really be said to be the head of anything, rather he’s become the big toe of the right, testing out the limits of what’s acceptable.

[See also: Viktor Orbán is using the war in Ukraine to entrench his power]

To fascists, anti-liberal, national conservatives have always been either their progenitors, allies or close competitors in the politics of nationalist grievance. We should remember that the conservative intelligentsia of the fascist era often also took to fascist regimes as apologists and rationalised appeals to race as being about holding back the hordes of communism or the cultural depredations of liberalism. The continued success of the far right today depends partly on this distortion of the historical record made possible through the intellectual class’s combination of deliberate illiteracy, hazy memory, and hair-splitting pedantry.