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Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán’s xenophobia rejects the country’s multi-ethnic history

By Pál Nyíri    My son and I have come to see the Hungarian State Folk Ensemble’s show An Evocation of Subcarpathia. According to the introduction to the venerable troupe’s new show, it wants to showcase the multicultural musical and dance heritage of the Western Ukrainian region that formerly belonged to Czechoslovakia and, before then, Hungary, and had a mixed population that included Ruthenians, Slovaks, Hungarians, Romanians, Jews, Gypsies, and Hutsuls. That heritage – juxtaposed rather than hierarchically arranged, the text emphasises – is displayed in the folk dresses of the performers and the languages they sing in (including, counterfactually, Hebrew). But the photos projected on the wall mix nostalgia for a bygone time of diversity with nostalgia for Greater Hungary that is the bread and butter of contemporary Hungarian nationalism.

Photo: Laszlo Balogh/Reuters
Photo: Laszlo Balogh/Reuters

Before the show, I overhear an elderly man seated in the middle of the first row – a seat usually reserved for important guests or relatives of the performers – tells his companions what he thinks about the refugees, from Syria and elsewhere, who have been passing through Hungary in recent months. “Why is it that they are all men between 20 and 45? They are not refugees. They are an army!” The conspiracy theory that the refugee wave is a US-financed liberal plot to undermine Christian Europe enjoys a fair deal of popularity here. The Hungarian Prime Minister, who has emerged as the spokesman of those who wish to keep the refugees out of Europe, argues that they, as Muslims, are a threat to Europe’s identity. (The Washington Post has called him Europe’s Donald Trump.) As for Hungary, it has never been a multi-ethnic country and is not planning to be one now, so it wishes no part in any European refugee resettlement plan. (On that count, refugees wholeheartedly agree: they would much rather not settle here either.)

The catch is that the foundation of mainstream Hungarian nationalism is the reheated historical memory of the pre-1920 Hungarian state, nearly half of whose population, according to the last census, was ethnically not Hungarian, and much of the Hungarian-speaking urban population was Jewish. If Prime Minister Orbán dismisses the country’s multi-ethnic history, he casts doubt on that foundation, on which he has built an elaborate edifice of cultural and educational policies, including those that support tonight’s show.

Thanks to Mr Orbán and his government, Hungary has now become Europe’s black sheep, even though it is also likely that many Western Europeans applaud him. And to be sure, in many respects, it is a terrible country, where the ruling party maintains elaborate registers of sympathisers and opponents down to the village level, where academics who criticise the government publicly can face reprimands or smear campaigns, where business licences and tenders are openly distributed to party cronies, parliament members joke about the Holocaust with impunity, and hundreds of thousands of children, mostly Gypsy, do not have enough to eat. The mayor of Budapest, a former liberal who considers refugees sleeping in the open nothing but a nuisance and has criticised the government for being too lax, has previously called participants in the city’s gay pride march sick.

Despite government efforts to cultivate and finance a “nationally minded” cultural elite, Hungary is no dreary, parochial backwater for the arts. Like Putin’s Russia, Xi Jinping’s China or Erdo?an’s Turkey, it is home to a vibrant cultural scene, with a density of major festivals matched by few countries, including the largest in Europe, Sziget, which dubs itself “the Island of Freedom”. The folk music movement, born under state socialism, is now connected to the global “world music” scene and has long fed on sources from Gypsy and Balkans music. Yet the mainstreaming of nationalism has meant that part of the folk music scene, including tonight’s show, is largely frequented by supporters of the country’s current course and avoided by its critics. Efforts to bridge this chasm are generally unsuccessful. This summer, one of Budapest’s two Jewish cultural festivals canceled the appearance of a singer who turned out to have sung at events held by anti-Semitic and racist organisations. In response, the government minister who was to open the festival withdrew, and the official who appeared in his stead demanded that the festival apologise to the singer for defaming her. The director of the festival resigned.

I was struck by how the refugees celebrated their freedom after crossing the border from Hungary to Austria. Although Hungary has built a new iron curtain along its southern border – the EU’s external border – for the migrants, the real division still lies where it did a quarter century ago. For them, there still is a “free world”, and Hungary is not part of it.

Yet it is equally remarkable that thousands, if not tens of thousands, of volunteers have organised themselves online to help the migrants. Migration Aid and MigSzol, homegrown groups without support from abroad, and others without names have set up aid points at railway stations, helped guide migrants along their way, distributed food and clothing, and played with the children. While the state dispatched riot police, doctors offered medical help; folk/world music star Palya Bea held a concert at a railway station; award-winning director Fliegauf Benedek set up a documentary project; a former Prime Minister has been hosting refugees at his house. Most important, however, is that ordinary Hungarians, including most of my acquaintances, have spent significant amounts of time with the refugees. This in a country where the leisured class is small, and volunteering, accordingly, is uncommon. Most of those who are helping migrants have never been involved in volunteering before. Apparently, when “bare life” was thrust under their noses, it proved a powerful trigger of “compassionate cosmopolitanism” (Ulf Hannerz) that it generated a wave of new humanism in a rather merciless society where the poor tend to elicit little sympathy.

Analysts tend to point out that Orbán’s actions banked on a wave of xenophobia that met the tide of refugees. This, actually, is wrong. For the last fifteen years or so, Hungary has been one of Europe’s most xenophobic societies, as evidenced by various comparative surveys. Rejection of refugees has not grown since they have actually arrived in the flesh. In a country where all migrants have been treated as suspect, where no party has spoken up against the discrimination of foreigners, and where anti-immigrant bias has been pervasive, the oppositional, liberal and left-leaning media are now squarely on the side of the migrants. This is a remarkable positive development among all the misery.

Pál Nyíri is full Professor at VU University Amsterdam, holding the chair ‘Global History from an Anthropological Perspective’.


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