Just along from the Hungarian parliament building, visitors to Budapest can find Shoes on the Danube Bank. Consisting of 60 shoes facing the river looking westwards, it is a deeply poignant memorial to the Budapest Jews who were murdered by the fascist Arrow Cross government in 1944–1945. They were ordered to remove their shoes before being shot. Their bodies fell into the river.
Those killed in this way were only a fraction of Hungarian victims of the Holocaust. In 56 days during the summer of 1944 alone, Hungarian authorities worked with the Nazi regime to deport 437,402 Jews, primarily to the extermination camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau. Standing so close to the Hungarian parliament, the memorial is a reminder of the fragility of democracy and the terrible atrocities committed during the Second World War.
New and old forms
There is nothing specifically Hungarian about these experiences, of course. Europe has an intensely violent and racist history. No corner of the continent can claim innocence when it comes to the history and legacy of fascism.
The sheer horror of this past can also sometimes blind us to the emergence of nationalism and fascism in new forms. If there are no extermination camps, should we therefore be content that the contemporary far right has adapted to, and accepted, democracy and minority rights? Progressives and democrats in many European countries today face this question squarely. Germany, Italy, France, Britain, Austria, Poland, the Netherlands, Sweden and Spain, to name only some of the most prominent cases, are all countries that have either a growing or consolidated far-right presence in their national political scene.
Perhaps because of the history attached to the terminology of fascism, many observers are reluctant to describe these developments in such language, preferring instead to label it “far-right populism”. The danger of this linguistic shift is that it can aid the normalisation of these new far-right forces into an accepted part of the European political landscape. Twentieth-century fascism did not, after all, begin the journey to the extermination camps by acknowledging this as its goal.
Part of the mobilising power of the new far right in Europe lies in the “memory politics” of how 20th-century fascism is thought about today. The new far right rejects any notion of national responsibility for fascism. They claim they are not in continuity with these historical movements, while drawing on an idea of majority-white victimhood that resembles classical fascist discourses: that a liberal elite is systematically disadvantaging white-native populations to the benefit of ethnic and religious minorities.
Today, Hungary stands at the centre of these developments. Since 2010, under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz government, the country has pioneered what they call “illiberal democracy”. For international observers the language Orbán and his party use is particularly striking for just how explicitly they reject liberal norms. They oppose the notion that civil society has rights and freedoms in relation to the state on the grounds that these are private associations, which have not been elected by the majority. They use similar “majoritarian” sophistry to reject the idea that minority groups and ethnicities have human rights.
Whereas far-right parties are usually thought of as becoming more moderate as they move closer to power, Fidesz tells a different story. The party began life after the fall of communism as a young, liberal, even idealistic party, but over time has become deeply conservative. Zsuzsanna Szelényi, a Hungarian oppositionist, left the party in 1994. She draws a parallel between Orbán’s autocratic takeover of the party from 1992 onwards with his rule in office.
“Very early on Viktor Orbán … pushed the party … with a strong hand … The whole decision making process, especially related to party finances, very quickly became un-transparent,” she says. For Szelényi, it was Orbán’s desire for power, rather than any deep ideological commitment to nationalist values, that has motivated him.
Concentration of power
Many Hungarian oppositionists share this perspective. They argue that the often-shocking pronouncements of the Fidesz government on migration and Islam are used cynically to win support and de-legitimise opponents.
Dániel Bartha, the director of a Budapest-based think-tank, argues that the biggest concrete effect of the Orbán regime has been “power concentration on a massive scale”. Fidesz has created a new loyal elite in business, public institutions, universities and the media, which is justified through the language of Hungarian nationalism and economic development.
One effect has been the abolition of a level playing field among parties competing in elections. Vast amounts of taxpayers’ money have been spent on government “information campaigns” that have targeted the likes of George Soros and [former] EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker as figures representing a pro-immigrant, anti-Christian conspiracy of global liberalism against Hungary.
Independent media has been aggressively marginalised as the government has lavished advertising revenue on supportive outlets, while boycotting critical ones. Its business supporters have then joined in, starving them of funds. Public sector broadcasters have also been turned into uncritical supporters of the government.
Orbán’s rhetoric is without nuance and caveats. His speeches are all translated into English by the Hungarian government and published online, underlining his eagerness to promote these views globally. Conservative politicians have arguably assisted these efforts. Fidesz remains a member of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) grouping, albeit currently suspended pending an investigation.
Manfred Weber, the leader of the EPP, tweeted his congratulations to Orbán following his 2018 victory in the Hungarian elections, in spite of the fact that just a few days earlier Orbán had told Hungarian voters they faced a struggle to save their homeland from “the alchemical workshop of George Soros” and that “migration is the rust that would slowly but surely consume our country”. The combination of antisemitism and Islamophobia, where Jews are attacked for giving support to Muslim immigration, is a key theme of the new far right.
Other centre-right politicians have also happily aligned with the Fidesz regime. In March, Orbán spoke at a conference in Budapest on migration alongside former French president Nicolas Sarkozy. Orbán used his speech to outline his version of the so‑called “great replacement” alt-right conspiracy theory, which says migration is part of a liberal elite plot.
In Britain, Orbán’s biggest supporter has been Nigel Farage. “Thank God, there is one European leader who is prepared to stand up for his principles, his nation, his culture, and his people,” Farage said recently. The rise of Farage’s new Brexit Party has been a boost to the European far right.
EU institutions will be a critical theatre for the fight against the rise of fascism in the decade ahead. Whatever the final nature of Britain’s position in Europe, it is essential that we join the international resistance to the far-right advance and take our anti-fascist responsibilities seriously.
[Luke Cooper is a visiting fellow on the Europe’s Futures programme at the Institute of Human Sciences (Vienna). He is currently working on a book and podcast documentary series on the crisis of Europe. Reprinted from Red Pepper.]