The Roots of Hate

Reportage

HEVES, Hungary—For ten years, Szabolc Szedlak toiled in a furniture store in Heves, Hungary, before deciding to chase the capitalist dream. He bought the store from his boss in 2005, but high taxes choked the life out of his business. It folded in June 2008. At the same time, his wife gave birth to their first child. With a second on the way, this spring he found a job as a maintenance man at a local kindergarten. Unable to afford their own place, the couple now lives with Szedlak’s parents. Szedlak has taken whatever work he can find, from painting houses to selling watermelons. Despite family and financial pressures, Szedlak still finds the time to volunteer. Politics has become his passion, and his bitter disenchantment led him to help form the Heves chapter of Jobbik, the most dynamic new far-right party in all of Europe.

The anti-Western, anti-minority Jobbik boasts a red-and-white-striped symbol—known as the ancient Hungarian “Arpad” coat of arms—that also resembles the emblem of the murderous Nazi-era Arrow Cross Party. This group, which briefly held power from 1944-45, was responsible for killing thousands of Hungarian Jews and Gypsies, and deported tens of thousands more. Jobbik maintains a militant arm, the Magyar Garda, or Hungarian Guard, which has marched through minority neighborhoods in black jackets and black boots sporting the Arpad insignia. In April, Jobbik capitalized on popular fury over the country’s faltering economy, winning 16.7 percent of the vote in national elections—the greatest performance so far for the ultra-right in any of the EU’s former communist states.

“I was just trying to provide for my family and my baby,” Szedlak explains, tapping his cigarette ashes into an empty beer can. “But after she was born, I saw that sitting and yelling at my TV doesn’t do any good. I don’t want her to grow up in such a lousy world.”

 

To many Hungarians, and tens of millions of other Central and Eastern Europeans, this is no ordinary economic crisis. The whipsawing booms and busts of the free market are still novelties that enrage folks like Szedlak, who find themselves all but helpless in the face of a vicious economic downturn and joblessness. Nothing like it has occurred in these parts since the Great Depression, which led to the rise of Hitler and the Nazi movement. It’s hardly surprising that Hungary now pulsates with its most powerful far-right sympathies since World War II. This dramatic shift to the right has seeped into a part of the world that, until two decades ago, saw the state wield total control over both society and economy. The roots of democracy have grown, but they haven’t burrowed so deep that they cannot be shaken.

Continue reading this essay in the World Policy Journal here or download a pdf here.

Hungary, Roma, Xenophobia