Sunday 15 September 2019

Hungary dances to a different tune as populism holds sway

Hungarian PM Victor Orban. Photo: Reuters
Hungarian PM Victor Orban. Photo: Reuters

Fergal Keane

Music drifted from the park across the street. It reached us above the traffic, in small melancholy fragments from the little space where couples were dancing at a milonga - the open-air tango which draws the deft of foot to open spaces along the shores of the Danube on balmy spring evenings.

In fact, spring is gone. The city is in the full grip of summer. All day the heat pressed on our heads and shoulders as we navigated the hills of Buda and then crossed the river to the flatter terrain of Pest.

I am still hobbling on a crutch so I have slowed the pace for my children. But they are tolerant, indulgent even of this limping shadow who once, not very long ago, had urged them on through hot days in other cities, insisting they visit just one more historic site. I must have been a terrible bore to them when they longed to lounge beside a pool.

But now they are at an age when the history and the politics have meaning. This city is not what it might have been to them when they were young children - an immensity of old stone that went on and on, one footsore mile after another. Now I am assailed with questions about the past and present.

I talk of my great hero, Raoul Wallenberg, scion of a wealthy Swedish family, who daily risked his life to save the lives of Jews who were being rounded up for murder by the Nazis, a figure who represented the best of human nature in an age dominated by the very worst. "I will never be able to go back to Stockholm without knowing inside myself that I'd done all a man could do to save as many Jews as possible," he wrote. Wallenberg never made it back to Sweden. He was captured by Soviet forces in the closing days of the war and vanished into Stalin's gulags.

My dear friend, the late Suzy Halter, survived the Holocaust in Budapest when she managed to slip out of the line of Jews being marched to the railway station for transport to Auschwitz in the closing stages of the Holocaust.

With her husband Roman, a survivor of the death camps, she was a living link for my children to that terrible epoch.

Now that they are both gone, and each year brings the loss of more survivors of that time, I am left to wonder whether facts of themselves can save us from the madness of intolerance.

Without the voices of those who survived, who can say "I was there. I saw this. I endured", we are surely more vulnerable to the siren voices of unreason.

Of course we must be wary of seeing in every populist movement the potential for epoch-changing catastrophe. This is not the 1930s. We are not witnessing the rise of totalitarian movements bent on world domination. But the new populism carries the danger of normalising beliefs and language which we imagined had vanished from the discourse of European states.

Here in Hungary the prime minister, Viktor Orban, has attacked the Jewish multi-millionaire and philanthropist George Soros - himself of Hungarian origin - as an enemy who "speculates with money".

Orban told an election rally: "We are fighting an enemy that is different from us. Not open, but hiding; not straightforward, but crafty; not honest, but base; not national, but international; does not believe in working, but speculates with money; does not have its own homeland, but feels it owns the whole world."

His supporters deny that these words represent an anti-semitic statement and in the past Orban has condemned anti-semitism as "intolerable and unacceptable". We are left to make what we can of different words at different times. Whatever the prime minister's intentions, it is not hard to imagine how his words are received in a place with a long history of anti-semitism.

Orban is very popular here. People adrift in our complex and rapidly changing world respond to leaders who offer certainty. Appeals to national solidarity and pride and rejection of the other are back in vogue. I was present when the Hungarians erected their southern border fence during the great refugee and migration influx of 2015. One of my most vivid memories is of watching a Hungarian farmer and his wife as they contemplated the sight of thousands of Syrians, Afghans, Eritreans, Congolese, Nigerians, and others, trudging across the cornfields in the hope of a new life in Europe.

It was an epic shock to the people who lived in this part of Europe. Nobody had prepared them for this and they were scared. Little wonder they turned to those who offered barricades.

In the recent elections Orban was returned to power with a sweeping majority. While in Ireland we worry about the issue of a hard border and Brexit, it may well be that the gravest existential threat to the future of the EU comes from the rising tide of right-wing populism in the East. How long can the liberal democracies of Western Europe attempt to make common cause with governments like that of Viktor Orban, or the right-wing Law and Justice government in Poland?

As it happened we caught a brief glimpse of Orban.

We were sipping our drinks on the terrace of a cafe, listening to the music of the tango dancers from the park, when a phalanx of bodyguards appeared nearby. A stocky figure emerged and marched down the steps. The prime minister had been attending a private dinner nearby, our waiter explained.

In that soft night, with its music and seductive forgetfulness, Orban swept to his limousine - a man of action, a man who meant business.

Fergal Keane is a BBC Special Correspondent

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