Hungarian Media Today at Crossroads

The Promotion of Democratic Values vs. Incitement of Hatred against Minorities…

by Karl Pfeifer
Lecture given at the conference on „Contemporary Hungarian Jewry and other minorities“ on Sunday, 13. November, 2011, Beit Hatfusoth, Tel Aviv University Campus.

Socialist Hungary has expelled me four times between 1980 and 1987 because of my publications. In the winter of 1983, when I was once again allowed back to Budapest, the chief press officer of the Foreign Ministry received me with two surprising statements: “Mr. Pfeifer, we won’t allow you to import Viennese anti-Semitism here.” – „We solved that problem once and for all in 1945 there is no anti-Semitism in Hungary.”[01]

Political, economic and social dislocations following the change of system and the speedy privatization enabled the völkisch (ethnic-nationalist) elements to revive the “Jewish Question” as instrument of politics.

Sándor Csóori a leading intellectual connected with the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) wrote already in autumn 1990 that “liberal Hungarian Jewry wished to ‘assimilate’ the Hungarians in style and thought”[02]

Anti-Semitism in the Hungarian Media has been constantly trivialized since then by insisting on freedom of opinion as the most important achievement of a democracy. In 1996 János Kis, the leader of the liberal SZDSZ-party stated confidently that Hungarian society would be strong enough to check and curb Nazi paroles. Not so.[03]

Since 1992 a noticeable anti-democratic shift had begun to occur in Hungary, often taking the form of xenophobia, racism and Antisemitism. As a matter of fact International Organizations have complained in their reports before the second Orbán government about Antisemitism in Hungarian media.[04]

Adam LeBor, a British journalist living in Hungary, wrote last autumn about Nobel prizewinner Imre Kertész: „Mr. Kertész, who lives in Berlin, says, of Hungary’s past, ‘Nothing has been worked through, everything is painted over with pretty colors. Budapest is a city without a memory.’ Mr. Kertész survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald. But that does not mean he is always right“. LeBor painted a rosy picture, pointing out different government activities and the lively Jewish culture.[05]

Unfortunately those activities and the Jewish culture do not impress the anti-Semitic agitators in the Hungarian media. When Imre Kertész won the Nobel Prize in 2002 there were crude anti-Semitic attacks.[06] But anti-Semitism is anything but new in democratic Hungary. In 1992 the Hungarian Historian László Karsai already published a book about present-day Hungarian anti-Semitic publications, and there are various English publications on the subject too.[07]

Despite the Holocaust museum and all the nice speeches about Judeo-Christian Values there is a straight path from self-acquittal towards the passionate search for a scapegoat: for those with “foreign” or “alien” hearts, the Communists, bankers, oligarchs, offshore-speculators, liberals, Jews, homosexuals and Gypsies. All of them are blamed for anything that goes or went wrong. This instinct of self-acquittal was strengthened, not counter-balanced by the political elite, sometimes loudly, sometimes tacitly, while the culture of reasonable speech and conduct disappeared more and more both from politics and public discourse.

Fidesz leaders are no xenophobes, racists or anti-Semites. They are coldly calculating cynics. After Fidesz lost the national elections in 2002, Fidesz systematically resorted to character assassinations of their adversaries, which were stigmatized, criminalized and held up as scapegoats. Political communication by verbal aggression became the norm. The party consciously played on negative instincts and vulgar emotions from which it hoped to benefit, in contrast to the extreme right that was viscerally racist and anti-Semitic. By doing that Fidesz made the rude hate-speech of the extreme right socially acceptable. The politically motivated search for scapegoats, the stigmatization and persecution of minorities, was turned into an instrument of governance.[08]

Whenever the present Fidesz-KDNP government is asked about open anti-Semitism and hate-speech in Fidesz-related media it rejects any and all responsibility. Its position has remained unchanged since December 2008: “Fidesz has found itself in a precarious situation: on the one hand, the leftwing – out of politically motivated orthodoxy – attempts to portray the party as anti-, while the extreme-right is determined to stamp it as a ‚quasi-Zionist‘ organization.“[09]

Self-acquittal

Randolph L. Braham has published his study about „The Assault on Historical Memory: Hungarian Nationalist and the Holocaust“ ten years ago.[10]

In March 2011 the official Hungarian internet-site kormany.hu published an interview with András Levente Gál, the Secretary of Public Administration at the Ministry of Public Administration and Justice. Under the headline “More Active Consultation with Jewish Communities” Gál talks about his (first) visit to the permanent exhibit at Holocaust Documentation Center and Memorial Collection [HDKE] at the beginning of 2011: “I have notified a representative of the HDKE that part of the exhibit has to be reassessed, because it shows Horthy marching into various cities and regions […] there is no causal connection between the reintegration of Hungarian-inhabited areas with Hungary and Regent Miklós Horthy and the Hungarian army marching in to these areas and the subsequent death marches from these areas in which people were being herded into their deaths. This sort of skewed take on history gives rise to unnecessary tension.” He then quotes Sándor Márai: “Unfortunately, there were many of those who, in coveting the valuables of wealthy Jewish citizens, thereby steered Hungary — a country deprived of its legal capacity — in the direction of depravity […]for on March 19, 1944, German troops declared the takeover of a puppet government”.

The “skewed take on history” of the State Secretary is all too clear, yet unfortunately he does not bother to reveal more about potential viewers in whom the exhibit “gives rise to unnecessary tension” — besides of course, himself.[11]

Mr. Gál transfers responsibility for the Holocaust to the Germans, overlooking the fact, that without the wholehearted Hungarian collaboration the Germans would have been helpless.

Another example: the speeches by two Fidesz MPs, Sándor Lezsák and Zoltán Balog, on the occasion of unveiling of a bust of Bishop Ottokár Prohászka (1858-1927). They led to a vehement controversy in the Hungarian media.

“One of the central figures of clerical anti-Semitism was Ottokár Prohászka, the Bishop of Székesfehérvár. Identified as the apostle of Hungarian Catholic intellectuals, Prohászka’s spiritual leadership and sophisticated anti-Judaism exerted a profound influence on public opinion for several decades. His zoological imagery and scornful comments about the Jews often paralleled those made by the Nazis. On July 29, 1919, for example, he wrote, among other things: ‘In our case it is important to note that the Jews are eating us up and we have to defend ourselves against this bedbug epidemic. It is absolutely true that there are good Jews, but Jewry is foreign, a foreign power that suppresses Christianity, conquers and exploits us […] Here we are dealing with the rampage of a cunning, faithless, and immoral race, a bedbug invasion, a rat campaign.”[12] Prohászka had published his booklet „Die Judenfrage in Ungarn“ in 1920 with a German “völkisch” (ethnic-chauvinist) publisher; it was published at the same time in English too.

Sándor Lezsák (Fidesz), then the second Speaker of the Hungarian Parliament, spoke at the unveiling in 2008 about the „spiritual terror“ of a certain group against the suffering Hungarian people. He applauded Prohászka’s stance against „cosmopolitan parasites”. The reaction was immediate: Péter Gusztos, a young liberal MP, took a strong stand against the „outrageous speeches“ made at the unveiling.[13]

Hate-campaigns

In January 2011 the pro-government daily “Magyar Nemzet” launched a concentrated, politically motivated assault against the philosophers Ágnes Heller, Mihály Vajda, Sándor Radnoti, György Gábor, Kornél Steiger and György Geréby. The attacked philosophers were branded as liberal – scholars of different ideological persuasion were not targeted by the government. Ágnes Heller commented: „Coincidence nor not – three of the six attacked Persons are Jews and two are from German-Hungarian families. If deliberate, it would tie in with the old prejudice that philosophy is inherently un-Hungarian and represents an ‘alien’ mind-set.”[14]

After a new media law was announced and a media authority was nominated there were sharp reactions in the international press. One of the more outspoken defenses of Orbán appeared on January 4, 2011 in Magyar Hírlap, a paper closely connected to the government. Written by Zsolt Bayer, an old friend of Orbán, it rehashed the old chestnut that only Jews and their hirelings can be evil enough to criticize Hungary: “A stinking excrement called something like Cohen writes from somewhere in England that ‘a foul stench wafts’ from Hungary. Cohen, and Cohn-Bendit, and Schiff…. A pity they weren’t all buried up to their necks in the forest of Orgovány.”[15]

I quote a comment by Prof. István Deák, which appeared in April 2011 in the New York Review of Books: “The reference is clearly to Jewry as a whole and to a famous incident, near a small Hungarian village, in 1919, when White counterrevolutionary officers murdered both suspected members of the former Red Republic and ordinary nonpolitical Jews. The contemptuous reference to ‘Schiff’ in Bayer’s article was to the famous pianist András Schiff, who is of Jewish Hungarian origin. In a letter to The Washington Post on January 1, 2011, Schiff had criticized the homophobia, ‘reactionary nationalism,’ anti-Semitism, and hatred for the Roma that, according to him, were sweeping through Hungary.”

“Following the publication of Bayer’s article, a group of Hungarians petitioned the new media authority to consider whether the contents of the article should be condemned for incitement to murder. So far, there has been no reaction from the authority; nor did Orbán publicly distance himself from his friend.”[16]

On March 30, 2011 a group picture of Bayer with Orbán and Fidesz-MEP Tamás Deutsch appeared in Hungary and on November 5, 2011 László Kövér (Government Party Fidesz), the speaker of the parliament spoke about “our friend Zsolt Bayer”.[17]

It must be said, however, that the prime minister has assured Hungarian Jewish leaders that Jewish rights and freedoms would be carefully protected. In an interview given to an Israeli newspaper, Orbán vigorously rejected the standard far right charge that there existed a worldwide Jewish conspiracy for Israel “to buy up Hungary” with the ultimate purpose of settling the Israeli population there. Instead, Orbán expressed his hope that more Israeli capital would be invested in Hungary.[18]

Fidesz MEP George Schöpflin replied to István Deák: „In reference to a decidedly unpleasant piece of journalism, Professor Deák notes, “nor did Orbán publicly distance himself from his friend,” i.e., the man who wrote it. True, but then there is freedom of the media in Hungary and it is hardly appropriate for a prime minister to go around distancing himself from what appears in the press.“

Deák replied: “Finally, there is the agitation against Jews and Roma. I am convinced that such sentiments are shared neither by the highest Fidesz party leadership nor by the majority of the country’s inhabitants; but they definitely have sympathy from the far right with its 17 percent of the parliamentary votes as well as from large segments of the government’s supporters.”
“Zsolt Bayer, one of the wildest anti-Semites, is among the founders of the Fidesz party, and he is, or at least until recently still was, very close to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. He and fellow party hacks do not hesitate to call the Roma ‘wild beasts’ and to complain about a global Jewish-Israeli conspiracy to colonize Hungary. For György Schöpflin this is no more than a ‘decidedly unpleasant piece of journalism’. The Jews and Roma attacked may feel that ‘unpleasant’ is far too mild a word to describe such virulent prejudice.”

“Finally, no one familiar with the US would have the slightest doubt that any American president would publicly condemn anti-ethnic utterances by officials of his government or members of his party.”[19]

Ethno-nationalism and modern anti-Semitism in Hungary can be seen as two sides of the same coin. Anti-Semitism has found its way into the media outlets of Hungary’s  “völkisch” ethnic-nationalist side, which is close to the Fidesz and the KDNP. In January 2009 for example the “völkisch” station EchoTV compared several well-known authors – Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertész, Péter Esterházy, György Spiró, and the late István Eörsi – with rats that have to be exterminated.[20]

And now an actual example: Thousands of Hungarians protested in October 2011 against the appointment of two far-right and anti-Semitic theater managers. Budapest Fidesz Mayor István Tarlos had overruled a professional panel’s advice and appointed György Dörner as director of the Hungarian capital’s prestigious “New Theatre”, despite grave concerns by Hungarian intellectuals, Jewish groups and international condemnation.

Dörner plans to share the job with the self-confessed informer of the communist secret police István Csurka who leads the Hungarian Justice and Life Party (MIEP), a party known for its anti-Semitic rhetoric. They have said they want to rename the theatre “Hinterland-Theatre”, because “new is not necessarily good,” especially “in the degenerate sick liberal hegemony.”

That Csurka is talking this way is no big surprise: He has said all along that Hungarians are “being exploited” and “oppressed” by Jews who “dominate the economy and literature.” He has also warned of a “Jewish conspiracy” whose perpetrators are sitting in New York and Tel Aviv. MIEP has invited controversial figures to its meetings, including British author and Holocaust denier David Irving and French far-right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen.[21] Csurka’s recent article published on October 23, 2011 is an example of venomous anti-Semitism.[22]

Five Honorary citizens of Budapest wrote an open letter to mayor Tarlós and reminded him of what “Csurka said when Imre Kertész (also an honorary citizen of Budapest) was awarded with the Nobel Prize: ‘that now Auschwitz was rewarded with the Nobel Prize’. The fact that István Csurka, who never hid his anti-Semitism, did not support the Jobbik but Fidesz in last year’s general elections makes your present decision highly suspicious.”

“Indeed it is difficult not to suspect some highly cynical background deals, if not a large-scale secret cooperation with the racist extreme right. You should publicly, openly and convincingly refute these assumptions without delay. We emphatically ask you to give a detailed answer to our question at the earliest possible time. We don’t want to hear that the decision was yours: this is evident. What we want to know is its exact reason. For the sake of Budapest’s good name you should dispel any suspicion that the leader of Budapest gives in to pressure from the extreme right or has extreme right wing notions himself. Please publish your real motives.”[23]

I also refer to the recommendation of the Vienna based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which was created to maintain security, peace and good governance in Europe. It recommends in its ANALYSIS of September 2010 that Hungary follow the Council’s of Europe advice on “Hate Speech”.[24]

And while many writings with racist or anti-Semitic content have been published since the enactment of the media law only Echo TV was punished with a fine of 1.500 EUR ( or 7.500 Shekel)[25]

Conclusion

All of the above anti-Semitic outbursts were strongly reacted against in the Hungarian liberal media. However the influence of media promoting tolerance, non-discrimination, mutual respect and understanding has diminished. Civil society was not able to counter racist or anti-Semitic stereotypes – probably because anti-Semitism is such a handy explanation of the world. The Jewish world conspiracy with centers in Tel Aviv and Washington DC is a boilerplate of the “völkisch” media. Its ideology is hermetically closed and those influenced by it neither care about nor want to recognize any objective reality.

It’s an ideology whose proponents dream of a uniquely Hungarian social order based on some inner harmony. This ideology is frighteningly similar to what was said and published in the thirties.
Randolph Braham in his history of the Holocaust in Hungary:

„The legislative memorandum relating to this first comprehensive anti-Jewish draft bill, like that for the Second Anti-Jewish law, was provided by Count Pál Teleki, a leading member of the conservative aristocratic ruling wing of the Right, who emphasized the danger and detrimental effect of the Jews’ encroachment and the necessity of defending the nation against that encroachment. It further stressed that the restriction of the Jews was a national duty.”[26]

In May 1938, six years before the German occupation of Hungary, after the legislation discriminating against Jews was passed by Parliament, the Catholic poet Mihály Babits wrote a poem about „The Book of the prophet Jona“. His dictum “Those who keep silent become companions in crime“ became a well-known saying in Hungary.

Today, when Human dignity is violated in Hungary many Hungarians are silent, only a minority protests.

“Aggressive nationalism, racism, chauvinism, xenophobia and Antisemitism create ethnic, political and social tensions within and between States. They also undermine international stability and worldwide efforts to place universal human rights on a firm foundation”[27]
Article 1 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU stipulates – that Human dignity must be respected and protected everywhere in the EU, also in Hungary.

  1. Problem Solved! Astonishing but true: Imre Nagy, returning to his native Hungary from Russian emigration, used to call Rákosi the “Jew”. Jewish born Communists who hang other people are generally considered being motivated by their Jewish identity, while a Christian-born Communist who does the same is regarded independently of his native religion. Which is documented in the article Who is an Anti-Semite by Sándor Révész that appeared 2008 in the magazine „Élet és Irodalom“ (Life and Literature). I experienced this twenty-five years earlier, in 1983.
    Socialist Hungary expelled me at least four times between 1980 and 1987 because of my publications and the Austrian foreign ministry informed me in 1983 that I would be allowed to enter Hungary if I would suggest a non topical theme. So I informed the Hungarian press attaché in Vienna that I wanted to write about something historic: about the way Hungarian media were reporting the 100th anniversary of the Tiszaeszlár Blood Libel. “No problem there”, I was told.
    Well, the Chief of the press-department of the Foreign Ministry on Bem Square in Budapest saw it differently and received me with two surprising statements: “Mr. Pfeifer, we won’t allow you to import Viennese anti-Semitism here.” „We solved that problem once and for all in 1945, there is no anti-Semitism in Hungary.”
    One day later I was received by three young men in the Department for Religious Affairs who tried to convince me again there was no anti-Semitism in Hungary. So I asked them about the religion of János Kádár before he became a Communist. (That was before Kádár’s biography had appeared.) They did not know. I then pointed out that everybody knew that Rákosi, Gerő, Farkas und Révai were born Jewish, but nobody seemed to have an idea in Kádárs case.
    I do not believe that Imre Nagy ever thought of Kádárs Catholic baptism when the latter condemned him to death – Kádár, who, as we know now, has hanged more people than Rákosi. And while Rákosi’s bloody deeds are held against him to this day, they are customarily excused in Kádár’s case – probably because of the firmly held belief that it is more agreeable for a victim to be hanged from gallows erected by a “true Hungarian” than by a “Jew”.
    And while the death penalty has obviously nothing to do with the childhood religion of any Communist leader, it seems to be indispensable for any Communist dictatorship up to the present.
    English translation Flora and Stephen Tree. © Karl Pfeifer, http://www.es.hu/karl_pfeifer;megoldottak;2008-06-23.html []
  2. Hitel, Sept. 5,1990, p 6 []
  3. János Kis “Szólásszabadság és náci beszéd” (Freedom of Speech and Nazi Speech) Népszabadság 30.3.1996, pp 17-21. []
  4. Fidesz near Think-tank December 2008: http://www.budapestanalyses.hu/docs/En/Analyses_Archive/analysys_208_en.html; For example ECRI report 2009 http://www.coe.int/t/dghl/monitoring/ecri/country-by-country/hungary/HUN-CbC-IV-2009-003-ENG.pdf []
  5. Adam LeBor Economist on Oct 22, 2010
    http://www.economist.com/blogs/easternapproaches/2010/10/anti-semitism_hungary []
  6. Judit Csáki: “Auschwitz by the Minute” – Reflections on the anti-Semitism Discourse Surrounding Nobel Prizewinner Imre Kertész’ Reception in Hungary. Pp 189-208
    www.hagalil.com/anti-Semitismus/ungarn/anti-Semitism-2003.pdf
    Steven Tötösy de Zepetnek: „Imre Kertész’s Nobel Prize, Public Discourse, and the Media” http://docs.lib.purdue.edu/clcweb/vol7/iss4/
    Magdalena Marsovszky Aus der Rezeption des Nobelpreises für Imre Kertész in Ungarn: „Geschmacksterror einer Minderheit“, Dokument der Kultursendung „Éjjeli Menedék“ (Nachtflucht) des öffentlich-rechtlichen Fernsehens am 22.11.2002, 22.55 Uhr
    http://www.klick-nach-rechts.de/gegen-rechts/2002/12/kertesz.htm []
  7. Kirekesztök, Antiszemita irások 1881-1992, Anti-Semitic Discourse in Hungary 2000, 2001, 2002-2003, 2004-2005, http://www.hagalil.com/anti-Semitismus/ungarn/index.htm []
  8. For more details, please turn to “Indictment Against the Hungarian Government” issued by the Canadian Hungarian Democratic Charter, Montreal, 2011, October 23, www.hungariancharter.com []
  9. Fidesz near Think-tank December 2008: http://www.budapestanalyses.hu/docs/En/Analyses_Archive/analysys_208_en.html []
  10. http://www.ushmm.org/research/center/publications/occasional/2001-01/paper.pdf []
  11. 168 óra, 28 March 2011 and http://esbalogh.typepad.com/hungarianspectrum/2011/05/rewriting-history-the-fate-of-the-holocaust-memorial-center.html []
  12. http://www1.yadvashem.org/odot_pdf/Microsoft%20Word%20-%202278.pdf. http://engageonline.wordpress.com/2009/10/11/karl-pfeifer-anti-semitism-explicit-and-implicit-in-hungary/ []
  13. http://esbalogh.typepad.com/hungarianspectrum/2008/10/ottok%C3%A1r-proh%C3%A1szka-and-anti-Semitism.html []
  14. http://www.juedische-allgemeine.de/article/view/id/9605 []
  15. http://www.magyarhirlap.hu/velemeny/ugyanaz_a_buz.html http://esbalogh.typepad.com/hungarianspectrum/2011/01/the-hungarian-government-under-siege-from-many-quarters.html []
  16. István Deák The Threat New York Review of Books April 28, 2011 []
  17. László Kövér in Fidesz near HírTv, Péntek 8, http://galamus.hu/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=99521 []
  18. http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4020522,00.html []
  19. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/jun/23/threat-hungary-exchange/ []
  20. http://www.hagalil.com/2011/06/21/anti-Semitism-in-hungary/ In the INDICTMENT OF THE HUNGARIAN GOVERNMENT’S ANTI-DEMOCRATIC CONDUCT by the Canadian-Hungarian Democratic Charter one can find a documentation of Media ownership http://hungariancharter.com/documents/indictment/
    See also László Molnár, anti-Semitism in Hungary, http://www.jcpa.org/JCPA/Templates/ShowPage.asp?DRIT=3&DBID=1&LNGID=1&TMID=111&FID=624&PID=0&IID=5229&TTL=anti-Semitism_in_Hungary []
  21. http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,,15484656,00.html []
  22. Csurka István: Történelemhamisítás – Ascher Café 2011. október 23. vasárnap, 09:48. http://www.miep.hu/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=4735:csurka-istvan-toertenelemhamisitas-ascher-cafe&catid=41:hirek&Itemid=63 []
  23. The open letter was signed on 12 October 2011 by Ádám Fischer conductor, honorary citizen of Budapest Zsuzsa Ferge professor of sociology, honorary citizen of Budapest László Donáth Lutheran pastor, honorary citizen of Budapest Ágnes Heller philosopher, honorary citizen of Budapest György Konrád writer, honorary citizen of Budapest Gábor Zsámbéki, theatre director, honorary citizen of Budapest http://artistsagainstracism.eu/?p=268 []
  24. The Council of Europe Definition of Hate Speech: all forms of expression which spread, incite, promote or justify racial hatred, xenophobia, anti-Semitism or other forms of hatred based on intolerance, including: intolerance expressed by aggressive nationalism and ethnocentrism, discrimination and hostility against minorities,migrants and people of immigrant origin. http://www.osce.org/fom/71218 []
  25. The Media Council fined the right-wing television channel Echo TV 500,000 HUF (approximately 1,500 EUR) on 5 September 2011 over a February broadcast of the programme “Worldpanorama,” which contained openly racist statements. The presenter spoke of “Gypsies, Gypsy terrorism” and the “Nazi liberals” whose goal is to “inflict parasitic human-like figures on Hungarians.”The broadcast violated media regulations on respecting human dignity and incitement to hatred, the Media Council said.
    http://www.seemo.org/hungary/reports/reports-sep2011.html []
  26. Randolph L. Braham, The Politics of Genocide, The Holocaust in Hungary, 1994, Volume 1, p. 125 []
  27. 1993,Rome Council Meeting Decisions, Freedom of expression, Free flow of information, Freedom of Media, CSCE/OSCE Main Provisions 1975-2007, OSCE, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, p. 20 []