Once Again, Books Are Burning in Europe

Many more Hungarians are looking to 'reclaim' Hungary's Nazi past; not only the extremists who publicly burn the works of Jewish writers to cheering crowds.

Mate Hajba
Mate Hajba
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Mate Hajba
Mate Hajba

On November 9, the night sky was lit up by a pyre of burning books, as a cheering crowd exulted in the destruction of works of Jewish and other 'transgressive' authors. But this scene isn't from 1938: It's exactly 75 years later and we are in Hungary, not Nazi Germany.

As Hungary's far right grows, there is a corresponding rise in the numbers of Hungarians looking back at the era of World War Two with nostalgia, if not complete identification.

“On the 9th of November 2013, we are orchestrating an offensive against the forces of darkness,” proclaimed the website of a Hungarian neo-Nazi group. The group issued a nationwide invitation to gather those objects and literature that "poison our lives" and to set them alight. Amongst the proposed literature were "unethical works, pornographic magazines, pro-abortion publications, Zionist prints," and - ironically enough - "chauvinistic and hate-mongering pieces."

And thus, wearing camouflage uniforms, Hungarian neo-Nazis burned books by writers such as Imre Kertész, winner of the Nobel Prize in literature and survivor of Auschwitz, and Miklós Radnóti, a poet and translator, who fell victim to 'ethnic cleansing' during the war. Photographs of the book burnings were uploaded to the website that instigated the entire event; three different locations can be identified, although there were apparently images from other locations that the website decided not to publish.

This was not the first time that the Magyar Nemzeti Arcvonal (Hungarian National Frontline) group and its associates have recreated Nazi actions with such enthusiasm and fidelity to the original. Book burnings honoring Kristallnacht‎ have been held regularly for the past few years.

But the glorification of World War Two has greater resonance in Hungary than just among the members of this group. People from the far right have put the controversial figure of Miklós Horthy, governor of Hungary during the time of the persecution of its Jewish population, on a pedestal - quite literally. Recently a bust of him was unveiled in front of a Calvinist church in Budapest. The statue is located on church property and funded by the supporters of Hungary’s third most popular party, the far-right Jobbik. Despite its high public visibility, its situation on private land means there are no legal means to remove it.

Horthy is a controversial figure and his guilt is still debated. One the one hand, it is unquestionable that he stopped the trains deporting Budapest's Jews to the concentration camps, that he tried covertly to break the country's ties with Hitler and to open dialogue with the Allies; but his plan was discovered, and then reversed.

The equivocation about his guilt was also expressed by the fact he was summoned only as a witness and not a defendant at the Nuremberg trials. However, there is also no doubt that he was anti-Semitic not only in thought but in action as well; the fact that he strictly implemented the Nazis' anti-Jewish laws by itself makes him a figure unworthy of any emulation.

The governing Fidesz party prefers to abstain from voicing an opinion on the recent Horthy revival. Close to national elections, the self-proclaimed center-right Fidesz is attempting to lure voters from the far-right using rhetoric enhanced by nationalism.

This is the reason behind the ruling party's new fashion - to add the word ‘national’ before every political act. Thus the new constitution now starts with the ‘National Avowal,’ there is a ‘Declaration of National Cooperation’ hanging in every government building, and there is a ‘National Core Curriculum.’ The required reading list includes Kertész and other Jewish authors but also various writers with far more problematic biographies, such as József Nyírő, a Nazi sympathizer who played an active role as a member of parliament under the Nazi dictatorship.

The co-option of politically divisive figures such as Horthy and Nyírő comes at a time when the conversation about what kind of civil society should be cultivated in Hungary – a development frozen during 50 years of socialism -is at a low ebb. The state's attention is focused on the political indoctrination of the education system rather than breaking a long-held taboo in Hungary on speaking about and reflecting on a difficult wartime past. This silence has led to a basic ignorance about the events of World War Two that is easily exploited by the far right.

Those Hungarians who seem to be set on repeating the darker periods of the country’s history have ceased to be mere outliers and are creeping towards the mainstream. But the majority of Hungarians still oppose their glorification of the injustices committed by a Hungarian government of a previous generation, and they oppose the hatred which found such public expression in the book burnings of 1938 and 2013.

Máté Hajba is a Young Voices Advocate and blogger from Budapest, where he is studying law. He is also the program director and youth coordinator at a Hungarian economics think tank and vice director at Polgári Platform, an organization that promotes democratic values, political engagement and pluralism in Hungary.

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