A 100 years after Trianon: the (far-)right in today’s Hungary

2020-12-08

“What is considered extreme now will be part of the government narrative within a decade” – these are the words of one of the interviewees of Political Capital, who held discussions with the leaders of Hungarian far-right organizations. Hungary belongs to the group of countries where the self-proclaimed nationalist governing parties try to get the most possible votes from the far right by recycling more and more topics and messages from the radical movements. In addition to the terms considered previously extremist infiltrating mainstream politics gradually, far-right movements have not only thematized the government’s narratives successfully, but also set the scene for the cabinet’s actions as well.

Three years after our previous major investigation, Political Capital decided to re-assess the situation of the radical and far right in Hungary. We wanted to see what we can expect in terms of the spread of divisive, discriminative and hate-inciting narratives. We focused on three aspects: I) the current state of the radical and the far-right scene; II) the narratives around Trianon; III) the capacity of the education system to halt the radicalisation tendencies and strengthen the democratic commitment of future generations.

You can reach the full study in Hungarian here.

I. Observations on the current state of the Hungarian far right

During the emerging political, societal and economic crisis that started to unfold in 2006, the far-right in Hungary gained new strength. After 2010, however, the movement started to gradually lose ground and even entered a sort of crisis by the middle of the decade. In order to understand where the nationalist radical scene stands now, and to gain a more complete view of the far-right movement’s visions, values and ideologies, we interviewed 8 prominent figures of 7 organizations, and included the findings in our study.

Rearrangement on the far right

The weakening of the radical nationalist scene can primarily be attributed to changes in party politics. The Fidesz government that gained power in 2010 has taken a number of topics and messages from the far right from the very beginning (e. g. in the fields of cultural and remembrance politics, economic and social policies and in foreign politics), and utilized more and more elements from their toolset of political tactics and methods. The year 2015 raised the bar to new heights with the start of the cabinet’s “migrant campaign” that painted asylum-seekers as enemies and immigration was deemed the highest priority topic for many years to come. Creating imaginary enemies and scapegoats, inciting fears and hatred became the central element of Fidesz’s tactics, connected to the “one camp, one flag” strategy of the party. The strategy aims at controlling the entire political right to rule over its topics and keep its actors in check.

Parallel to Fidesz’s shift to the far right, the extremist party Jobbik accelerated its strategy to become a “people’s party”. Aimed originally at broadening the camp with more moderate electorate (and at the same time leading to the loss of the former connections with radical nationalists), Jobbik probably did not see any other option because they could no longer challenge Fidesz from the right.

The changing political climate favored the far right as the governing party and its media helped their messages to appear increasingly in the public discourse and to become more accepted (like the catchphrase of “ethnic homogeneity” used by the prime minister, the conspiracy theories about George Soros or painting immigration as a Muslim invasion). As a backlash, the far-right formations had to face the fact that Fidesz not only took over their topics but echoed them even louder than they could. With the fall of the socialist-liberal government, they also entered a void concerning their objectives – “national radicalism became hollow”. The crisis surfaced the long existing rifts in the movement and uncovered the absence of a common vision. Members started a process of self-reflection to redefine themselves and their objectives.

The reflection resulted in the rearrangement of the scene; new figures, tactics and focuses emerged. The final outcome became especially visible in 2020 when a number of Jobbik’s politicians left the party to start Mi Hazánk Mozgalom (Our Homeland Movement, MH) that has representatives in the National Assembly via their independent members, while Légió Hungária was formed by actors leaving HVIM. Both organizations represented a return to the “roots” considering topics, messages, tactics and political style as well. The Hungarian far-right made (apart from the anti-Roma sentiments that can be considered traditional in the movement) anti-immigration and the anti-LGBTQ stances its main topic in accordance with international trends. These topics also feature a significant idea of a Jewish conspiracy that follows the traditions of anti-Semitism.

Organized action

The largest organizations of the radical and far-right movement are Hatvannégy Vármegye Ifjúsági Mozgalom (Sixty-Four Counties Youth Movement, HVIM), Betyársereg (Army of Outlaws, BS), Magyar Önvédelmi Mozgalom (Hungarian Self-defence Movement, MÖM) and Légió Hungária (Hungarian Legion, LH). Identitás Generáció (Identity Generation, IG) separates itself both organizationally and in its ideology from these organizations that can be considered traditional; IG is the member of the pan-European identitarian movement. Apart from IG, the organizations are closely connected, they organize events together, show common activity in certain issues, although they differ in their vision, ideology, activities and appearance as well. All the ‘traditional’ organizations apart from LH support the MH party, they act cooperatively and propagate the party’s actions and messages. The formerly traditionally introverted far-right scene made a visible step out onto the international stage, maintaining active relations mostly with German and northern European organizations, and they also connect to numerous regional (e. g. Bulgarian, Serbian, Ukrainian) and other western European actors. This opening up is part of the global development of the far-right’s internationalization.

Common background

The career of the figures we interviewed in the far-right movement shows the strong connections that exist between the organizations and at the same time depicts the constant transformation of the far-right. While the year 2006 was equally fundamental for most of them in their commitment to the movement, their personal motivations reach a lot further back in time. Most of the figures interviewed obtained their world view from a right-wing, conservative family and patriotic, Christian upbringing. Many of them also stressed the importance of the noble and/or Transylvanian family heritage, military experience and stories in the family and the role of ascendants in the Horthy era. Family traumas like fleeing form Transylvania, or persecution after World War 2 or 1956 also played a role. Companionship played an important role for many of them both in the formation of their worldview and in their socialization in the movement, together with the community experience built by subcultural elements like music, concerts and organizational events.

Values, topics, narratives, enemies

The traditional far-right organizations share a number of common characteristics. Their centralized and strongly hierarchic structure includes a tight circle of leaders making the decisions, and they all show a strong militant character in their activities, values and organizational structure alike. Neither of them can relate to modern republican values, the concept of equality based on the idea of human dignity is far removed from their worldview that is built basically on merits and hierarchy, and they have an ambivalent, not at all uniform relation to freedom. Most of them object being described as chauvinist, racist, antisemitic, Nazi, “nyilas” (member of the Arrow Cross Party) or Neo-Nazi and the like, even though their world view and system of values are centered around – with more or less difference – the sense of superiority whether it is the white race, the Hungarian nation, the Christian/European culture or the traditional values. Their typical values all include the nation, tradition, Christianity, order, security, community and the need for a strong, authoritarian state – while liberalism is unanimously refused.

As the organizations we examined mostly define their agenda and narratives against something (e. g. groups of people, global or local trends), a significant element of their identity is the common enemy concept they imagine for themselves or generalize from examples of extremity. According to the extremist narrative, some groups pose a threat to the “own” ethnic and cultural group’s existence from the outside (immigrants), while others (e. g. liberals, gay people) threaten it from the inside. Certain groups are painted to be dangerous because of their strength, power or influence (e. g. the Jewish conspiracy), while others mean danger on the contrary for being underdeveloped or in a poor situation (the Roma or the immigrants). As usual, the enemy concepts featured in the far-right narratives are “strawmen” detached from the related groups, even existing independently from them.

In accordance with the international trends of the far right, the so called “Great Replacement” narrative is in the center of their reasoning. It includes the belief of well-organized outside enemies (e. g. Muslim immigrants) and inside enemies (e. g. liberals, gay people) threatening the civilization and race of white Europeans. This narrative kept reoccurring in our interviews and one of the reasons for its success is that it concentrates all the insecurities and fears related to the loss of ethnic and cultural privileges due to changes in society. There is also a significant need to prepare for the imminent “Great Collapse”, the change to eradicate the present world order. The most extreme conception to expedite the collapse does not seem to be present in Hungary, however, the idea of a disaster or emergency in society – mostly in the form of a war – exists in the far-right mentality.

The topics that occurred as answers to questions or spontaneously were dominated by the immigration and LGBTQ-issues (present as both a demographic and a moral problem), and the unevenly extremist, but always paternalistic anti-Roma attitude. The reasons against immigration included the denial of the willingness of migrants to integrate, the conflict of value systems, the invasion and Islamization, the protection of Christian values, and the weakening of Europe. The conflict around sexual orientation and gender identity – that for certain organizations evolved to be almost of the highest importance and to provoke the most vehement reaction in recent years – is the expression of “protecting the race, the nation and tradition” together with anti-liberalism and anti-western attitudes. The significance of the “Roma-issue” is indicated by its spontaneous emergence in almost all of the interviews, with some considering it as the downright main problem of Hungarian society. The problem itself was identified in multiple ways: some stressed the unemployment of the Roma people, the crimes committed by them and the situation of public security, the “gypsyfication” of certain settlements. As far as traditional far-right topics are concerned, antisemitism does not appear as an individual topic. However, it clearly dominates the scene’s mentality; most of the issues’ final explanation is the “Jewish conspiracy to rule the world” that is considered an obvious fact.

Our interviews also revealed the helplessness caused by and the sensitivity of the COVID-19 pandemic, which defined 2020 both from a political and economic point of view. The issue of the pandemic seems seriously divisive for the radical nationalist community: virus- and mask deniers are challenging the ones to accept prevention measures. This division might be the reason why the majority of the organizations did not communicate or took a stance on the virus, they merely called to follow the regulations or offered virtual community events. Opinion leaders of the far-right scene are subtly skeptical about the seriousness of the virus and the pandemic, and blame the media for inciting panic – although more of them stated that they do not deny the virus and the regulations have to be followed. Their ideas on the effects of the outbreak and its political and economic consequences align with the popular conspiracy theories, the vision of the previously mentioned collapse of society, and foreshadow the possibility of increasing control and oppression of societies.

Closely related

There is a symbiotic relationship between Fidesz, which aims to dominate the complete political field on the right, and the radical and far-right actors. the former taking topics and messages from the latter, viewing themselves as a driving force, as an actor channeling the society’s needs and steering the public discourse and the government towards the appropriate direction. This also hints at their relation to Fidesz’s politics: although they do not fully agree with several of the steps taken by the cabinet, at the level of specifics they mostly expressed support for the government’s actions, and the vast majority claimed that the country had been moving in the right direction since 2010. They mainly highlighted family policies, actions against immigration, the reinforcement of defense, the strengthening of national consciousness and conservative values as positives, while mentioned corruption and oversimplifying government communication as negatives. A significant part of the organizations feel that they have to endure less headwinds than before in terms of legal and institutional framework as well as the public discourse. They view the Fidesz government in many cases as a nationalist force that is bound by the realities of realpolitik or by the attention of international communities meaning they cannot go as far as they would see necessary. While they have reservations about the effectiveness or courageousness of the government’s steps, their direction is highly supported. Interestingly, a remarkably small portion of the organizations find it problematic that the government takes and recycles their topics; the majority rather welcomes that ideas, which used to be considered radical, have infiltrated the political mainstream within a few years.

II. Narratives of the Trianon trauma

An analysis of the political narratives related to the Trianon Peace Treaty in Hungarian public discourse is not only crucial because of the 100th anniversary of the treaty, but also because the strategy of PM Orbán aiming to monopolize the issue of nation-building. Narratives previously only accepted and used on the far-right scene have almost all infiltrated the government's communication and now form an important part of mainstream politics. The governmental rhetoric’s shift to the right has taken a serious toll on the far right, which has been “driven out” from its own topics.

Trianon as a pillar of polarization

The unprocessed nature of the historical traumas of the 20th century has broadly contributed to the polarization of public discourse in Hungary, but the importance of the Trianon-issue was even more enhanced by the turns of remembrance politics in the last hundred years.

The peace treaties following the Great War paradoxically contributed at the same time to the creation of an independent Hungary for the first time in 400 years, while separating the country from approximately two thirds of its former lands and population, forcing nearly three million Hungarians into minority.

Revisionist ambitions between the two world wars were overshadowed by the country’s alliance with Hitler’s Germany, which is one of the main reasons for millions of Hungarians today not being able to feel the trauma of Trianon - they merely consider it as one of the steps leading to the Holocaust. After the concealment during the era of state socialism, the issue could only break into the public domain with the 1989 regime change, ending decades of repression.

Even though József Antall, the first freely elected head of government of the country defined himself as the prime minister of 15 million Hungarians, made the relationship towards the Hungarian communities outside the country the symbol of right-wing national commitment, the memory and symbols of Trianon in the 1990s were mostly taken up by far-right movements and political parties.

Supporting the Hungarians outside of the country seemed to be a consensual issue as one of the priorities in Hungarian foreign policy. This consensus was first disrupted by Viktor Orbán, then in opposition, and the faultlines deepened further in 2004 with the referendum (invalid and failed due to low turnout) on the dual citizenship of ethnic Hungarians living abroad. The referendum initiative could not only be used to unite the right-wing camp and form its identity, but also to stigmatize the left campaigning for a “no” vote as an “anti-national” group. This played a crucial role both in the deterioration of the left’s popularity between 2006 and 2010, and in the rise of Viktor Orbán and the incorporation of Trianon-narratives into the mainstream.

After coming to power in 2010, one of the first measures by Orbán was to simplify the process for obtaining the dual citizenship for Hungarians forced to live outside the country’s borders. The next step was to grant them voting rights in the national elections, while the Hungarian National Assembly declared the anniversary of the Trianon treaty to be a National Day of Unity. Parallelly to the gradual radicalization of the Orbán-regime, an alternative historical narrative was being constructed based on the victimization of Hungarians and their constant fight in past and present alike with real or imaginary enemies. The topics previously thriving only on the far right thus infiltrated official communications, enabling most of the previously far right Trianon narratives to appear on the government’s side as well. Probably the strongest extremity of them, the exclusion of the opposition from the nation is also part of the government’s statements now.

From conspiracies to revision – major Trianon-narratives

Our research aimed to reveal the Trianon-narratives dominating the current far-right and/or governmental discourse to uncover both similarities and differences. We have examined the public statements of far-right and government-leading politicians, opinion formers and organizations, adding a media analysis of politically extremist media sources and the extensive media empire supporting the government.

Although countless and sometimes contradicting narratives have surfaced about Trianon, we list the ones most characteristic of the far-right and governmental scenes.

The Trianon Peace Treaty was…

  • a result of the lost world war
  • the result of the exaggerated claims of great powers
  • the biggest injustice in world history
  • the result of undermining work of internal enemies
  • the result of a conspiracy by Freemasons.

Also …

  • the left tends to attack their own nation
  • there is a sense of cultural superiority over the neighboring nations or world powers
  • and revision is depicted as possible/impossible.

The prime minister’s two-faced rhetoric on Trianon

The most attention focused on the prime minister’s statements, also serving as a guide to other politicians and opinion formers of the governing parties. Orbán’s communication on the Trianon-issue during the memorial year followed the usual pattern, using different tones for different audiences. This strategy allows for a higher level of radicalism when addressing his own voting base compared to the one used on the international scene. While his international press conference to launch the year on 9 January was focused on international cooperation and restraint, Orbán wished to rouse the feelings of national pride and excellence when speaking at the national holiday on 20 August. However confrontational his latter speech was, it still remained moderate regarding the topic of Trianon. Contrarily, in a speech that was given at a more private, rural location, the closest in time to the centenary but aimed especially at his own voter base, he blamed the “West” and the “conspiracy in Budapest” for Trianon equally. This way the responsibility is attributed to external and internal enemies at the same time, matching the concepts of enemies of past and present days as well. He touched on feelings of the fear of hatred against Hungarians and of cultural superiority as well, so during his public appearances throughout the memorial year the PM’s speeches included all the above-mentioned, more extremist Trianon-narratives – with the exception of revisionism. As we will later see, this agenda is echoed in media controlled by the government and the outlets standing close to it.

The far right and revisionism

The gradually radicalized government communication almost completely disregards territorial revision, this topic does not appear as a feasible option on the government’s side apart from some rare examples. Our examination of the statements of the far-right scene and interviews we conducted with the leaders of the organizations involved show that even though the most extreme versions of revisionist narratives were addressed, there is by far no complete ideological consensus throughout the scene on this issue.

While one of the extremist parties represented in the national assembly – Mi Hazánk Mozgalom (Our Homeland Movement) – even advocated for repealing the Trianon Peace Treaty, not all of the most prominent far-right organizations stood by the idea.

Légió Hungária for example does not argue in favor of revision but autonomy, and even expressed its reservations stating that a territorial revision is technically unlikely but the claim for territories cannot be waived as a matter of principle, on moral grounds.

Magyar Önvédelmi Mozgalom (Hungarian Self-Defense Movement), on the other hand, considers revision to be the only acceptable solution. Their statements focus on persecution and victimization of Hungarians, the injustice committed, and cultural superiority as well. One of the dominant figures of the far right, György Budaházy is also an outspoken supporter of revision, he even started a public petition for the revision of the borders defined by the Trianon treaty. His reasoning that dismisses autonomy includes the mistreatment of Hungarian communities by the successor states of the former Austria-Hungary, the sense of cultural superiority and the necessity to remedy this historical injustice.

Hatvannégy Vármegye Ifjúsági Mozgalom (Sixty-Four Counties Youth Movement) which claims credit for elevating the Trianon-issue into the mainstream, has issued a broad spectrum of statements. While claiming the borders to be illegitimate, they also promote dialogue with the neighboring nations, a kind of cooperation in the Carpathian Basin.

Trianon-narratives in the press

Main narratives of articles published in far-right media outlets

In the first nine months of the centenary of the Trianon treaty, the 16 examined far-right websites published 527 relevant articles. The majority of the coverage appeared around the anniversary in June, but the issue was on the agenda almost for the entire year. The most active sites were Kuruc.info, Elemi.hu (currently unavailable) and Hunhir.info, publishing four fifths of all the articles over these three platforms.

An approximate quarter of the articles were dominated by the narrative of the rough situation of out-of-country Hungarian communities (mainly in Transylvania and in Slovakia), raising the question of the responsibility of the neighboring governments. The second most common narrative was territorial revision as a possible/necessary step, mentioned in nearly a fifth of the articles. The third most common narrative discussed the exaggerated claims of the great powers, their collusion and their intent to destroy the Hungarian population as the background for the decision a hundred years ago. More than a tenth of all the articles included this perspective.

Narrative

Ratio of relevant articles*

mistreatment of local Hungarian communities by the neighboring governments

24%

revision is possible

19%

the result of the exaggerated claims of the great powers

11%

the left tends to attack their own nation

5%

the result of undermining work of inside enemies

2%

the result of a conspiracy by Freemasons

2%

cultural superiority

1%

the biggest injustice in world history

1%

the solution is the government’s national policy

1%

EU is not a solution

1%

a loss for all Hungarians

1%

the result of the lost world war

1%

EU is a solution

0%

revision is not possible

0%

*As several narratives can show up in an article, the sum of these data exceeds the 100%

The main narratives of articles published in the pro-government media

Government-controlled media produced tens of thousands of relevant articles during the first nine months of the year, making the analysis of their content impossible at the level of our current study. To sample the narratives of the pro-government media, we examined the articles published on a single day, 3 June 2020., the day before the centenary, as this was the day when the messages discussing the following day were published.

In an interview with László Kövér, Speaker of the National Assembly and prominent Fidesz politician stated that the “Hungarian left has attacked its own nation repeatedly over the past hundred years. The Trianon borders would have been drawn very differently had the Hungarian left not betrayed its country. Today’s leftist liberal politicians lack the commitment to their nation.” This narrative considered remarkably extremist previously has by now become a common element of the government’s communication.

Zsolt Semjén, the deputy prime minister for national politics discussed the same sentiments in a festive speech in Csurgó, also on 3 June, adding Freemasons’ conspiracy narrative to the mix – which contains anti-Semitic overtones.

It is not by accident that the words of the speaker of the assembly and the deputy prime minister reached the biggest audience as most of the outlets of the exceptionally extensive government-controlled media empire reported on their statements in details. Although more restrained statements were also made from the government side, it can be said that the narratives by the two mentioned politicians were the ones that the government communication aimed to transmit most of all to the electorate.

This is all indicated by the fact that among the pro-government media articles published on 3 June, 15% presented the narrative of the left attacking its nation.

Narrative

Ratio of relevant articles*

the solution is the government’s national policy

21%

the left tends to attack their own nation

15%

the biggest injustice in world history

14%

result of the undermining work of inside enemies

8%

 EU is not a solution

8%

cultural superiority

8%

exaggerated claims of the great powers

5%

mistreatment of local Hungarian communities by the neighboring governments

4%

revision is not possible

4%

 conspiracy by Freemasons

4%

a loss for all Hungarians

4%

the result of the lost world war

3%

revision is possible

0%

EU is a solution

0%

*As several narratives can show up in an article, the sum of these data exceeds the 100%

III. The National Core Curriculum and the Education for Democracy

Susceptibility to extreme ideas depends, to a large extent, on the stimuli that reach young people during their school years. Prevention may be a solution to stop the spreading of extremist ideas. Teachers and experts we interviewed emphasize that the transfer of democratic values is a complex process. According to their personal experience, students can learn that they have a say in decisions which affect their own lives and that they can learn to stand up for themselves and others at school. Many studies confirm that the young generation is already rather apolitical, and the tendency is expected to intensify as a result of the latest National Core Curriculum (NAT) introduced early 2020.

Since the Public Education Act requires party-related political struggles to be kept outside the walls of educational institutions, all topics of public life are taboos. Teachers are often unprepared to react to certain phenomena and topics – such as bullying, prejudice against different social groups, as well as sexism, racism – since they do not have a designated place in the curriculum. The vast majority of the overwhelmed, underpaid teachers choose not to take risks because they fear retaliation and conflicts within educational districts.

Involving external experts and NGOs may be a solution, but it is only enough to make up for the system-level shortcomings. Cooperation between schools and NGOs is mostly occasional, much of the methodological knowledge and good practices remain unapplied, while cooperation is further hindered by the government's long-term campaign against civil society organisations. Schools in underdeveloped areas are in an even more difficult situation as several other problems are also simultaneously present (segregation, school aggression, antigypsyism).

You can reach the full study in Hungarian here.

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