As Hungary votes, memories of a mythical past loom large

Ahead of Sunday's parliamentary election Sunday, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is framing Hungary as a homogeneous Christian nation standing against a migrant tide. But the country's national identity may be proving hollow and fragile. Part of an occasional series on Finding 'Home.'

Bernadett Szabo/Reuters
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán attends a memorial event in Budapest April 6. Mr. Orbán has made defense of the “Christian nation” – against migrants, against globalism, against American-Hungarian philanthropist George Soros – the centerpiece of his platform.

The crowd is rapturous, as Hungarian far-right rocker János Petrás strides onto the stage, launching into the song he starts all of his concerts with lately, “Soldiers of Hungary.”

He rouses the audience with his lyrics, calling on Hungarians – real Hungarians, meaning white and Christian – to get on their feet and defend a nation pitted against “half the world.”

Many of his fans know the words by heart and sing along, joining him in choruses about “freedom” for the “homeland” and the “holy land.” Sweat drips down his face. Fists pump in the air.

Mr. Petrás has penned 186 disparate songs for his band Kárpátia, but all of them are essentially about one thing: “Loving the homeland,” he says in an interview before the concert, held in a ho-hum community center in this nondescript town outside  Budapest. And for him there is no doubt about it: His homeland is under threat. “Europe is a Christian continent, a Christian place, and it is under attack by migrants, and also by the liberal point-of-view.”

There are no campaign posters here for Hungary’s parliamentary elections, set for Sunday, but this may as well be a political rally for incumbent Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. These rockers were once more closely aligned with the far-right fringe in Hungary, but Mr. Orbán has since co-opted their message on homeland.

In fact, as he seeks to win a third consecutive term, he has made defense of the “Christian nation” – against migrants; against globalism; against American-Hungarian Jewish philanthropist George Soros, whom Orbán blames for both; and most recently even against the United Nations – the centerpiece of his platform.

Yet, in his zero-sum portrayal of the stakes, whipping up nationalism and nostalgia along the way, the fear of others has grown, and many say the strong homeland that so many Hungarians seek has, in fact, never been more fragile. Surveys show xenophobia at its highest since the fall of communism.

“It is raising suspicions in society, not just against the target,” says Endre Sík, a Hungarian sociologist who measures xenophobic attitudes, “but also against each other.”

Christianity and xenophobia

Leading up to the ballot, Orbán has dialed up the panic. On March 15, he gave a speech marking the 170th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, which painted Hungary, and Europe, at the “epicenter of a civilizational struggle” in which mass migration is threatening “Christian culture,” he said. “This is our homeland, this is our life, and we have no other.”

These words resonate among his base, who in them see patriotism. Gyorgyi Marosvalgyi, a 60-year-old elementary school teacher dressed in an elegant yellow scarf, is one of the few concert-goers to take a seat at the Kárpátia concert before it begins. She says Petrás’s songs give her the chills. “I have the feeling of cooperation, of all being together,” she says. “I shiver when I hear the words, thinking about our ancestors, and the past to be proud of.”

Sara Miller Llana/The Christian Science Monitor
Far-right rocker János Petrás (r.) and his band, Kárpátia, sing to a rapturous crowd about homeland in a town outside Budapest.

But she calls the future “very questionable,” and that’s why she plans to vote for Orbán Sunday. “His purpose is to stop migrants. He is a very religious man,” she says. “He works for a Hungarian vision of the country.”

That vision has changed dramatically over the past 30-plus years. In his studies, Mr. Sík has asked the same question on xenophobia since 1992: Should Hungary allow in all asylum seekers, none, or only some? In 1992, 15 percent of respondents chose none. The year Orbán won his second term, in 2010, it was 29 percent. In 2017, 60 percent said none, the highest on record. He calls this the intentional push of the “moral panic button” to shore up support.

And the message jars with some of the Hungarian faithful's view of what it means to be a Christian. The religious roots of Hungary trace back to Stephen I, who in 1000 AD founded the Kingdom of Hungary and later was venerated as its patron saint. Though like in all Soviet nations, religion was largely repressed here during the Communist era, Hungary, like Poland, retained its Catholic identity. But unlike Poland, Hungary has not been a particularly churchgoing society, and in fact Catholic affiliation has declined since 1991. For Christians, Orbán's revival of a religious identity in Hungary ought to be rejuvenating. But that's not the case for some.

The day after the concert is Palm Sunday, which is called Flower Sunday in Hungary, during which church-goers carry bunches of pussy willows.

After mass at the Church of the Holy Family of Zugliget, Attila Herbak is buying jam with his wife and four young girls. He discusses the sense of community inside the church and points to a plaque which commemorates the role it played helping East German refugees escaping for West Germany in 1989, after Hungary dismantled its border with Austria.

That, he says, reflects Christian ethos. “Orbán is creating an enemy, either the EU, or George Soros, migrants, whatever it is. But it’s not the reality, it doesn’t exist,” he says. Of those who seek to defend a Christian nation against all others, he says simply, “I don’t understand how they can say they are Christians.”

‘Open society’

Andras Kovats, director of Menedek, which helps asylum seekers and refugees, says he sees a missed opportunity in the new embrace of Hungary's Christian identity. Instead of being used as a symbol of differentiation between “us” and “them,” he says, it should be an inspiration for building bridges.

As Palm Sunday mass is underway elsewhere, his organization is celebrating the Persian New Year at a Budapest restaurant named, fittingly, Refuge, where he is welcoming a diverse crowd of locals and his clients. “If we talk about Christianity, our Christian heritage, I think we ought to talk about it in a positive manner. This is something we have, something which gives us strength,” he says. “But this political discourse, this identification of the community as a Christian community, is very much based on political fear-mongering and fighting. It’s a constant combat.”

“These people come to Europe because they see it as the land of opportunity, the land of their future. If we have such strong values, then why not share it with these people?” he says at the celebration. “The kind of society we advocate for is a society strong enough to remain open.”

The very phrase “open society” is a loaded one, as it shares a name with Mr. Soros’s Open Society Foundations. Soros has long been a target of Orbán – and populist leaders throughout Europe – who claim the 87-year-old Holocaust survivor wants to bring his left-wing vision of the world to traditional societies via his nonprofit funding. Billboards ahead of the campaign feature his face with the claim that he’ll dismantle the border fence that Hungary erected in 2015 during Europe’s migrant influx.

Orbán railed against Soros in his March 15 speech. “In the end we sent the Sultan home with his Janissaries, the Habsburg emperor with his accomplices, and the Soviets with their comrades. And now we will send Uncle Georgie home.”

Csaba Csontos, spokesman for the Budapest branch of Soros’s Open Society Foundations, condemned the speech for its divisive nature. “Unfortunately the government party has no other message to Hungarians than Soros-bashing, a message that is anti-migrant, anti-Soros, anti-international entities,” he says. And the anti-Soros campaign has magnified anti-Semitism in the country, he adds. “It is Mr. Orbán’s narrative that liberalism, someone with liberal ideas, equals a globalist, the people without homeland.”

A history of loss

Such globalists get Petrás, who won a top cultural award from the Orbán government, going. His newest album is called Territorium, and its message is this: “Everyone should stay where they are,” he says, "similar to how animals are. Everyone has their own place in the world, this is our place.”

And yet his notion of Hungary’s own territory is much more expansive than present-day borders. His ballads, surprisingly folkish and pop-like, are odes to the Kingdom of Hungary, before the Treaty of Trianon of 1920 that left the Hungarian state landlocked and with two-thirds less land. He sings about the plight of ethnic Hungarians outside the country, getting him banned from performing in many, including most recently Romania in December.

Outside the show, merchandise features black hoodies with an embroidered turul, the mythical bird that guided the Magyars on their founding of the Hungarian nation. Ancient Hungary is on his mind each time Petrás plays.

“Every concert puts one nail into the coffin of the Treaty of Trianon,” he says.

Krisztián Ungváry, an historian and author of “The Siege of Budapest,” says a sense of loss runs through Hungarian history, from territorial and population loss under the Treaty of Trianon to the failure of the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. Many Hungarians still blame the US and NATO for the latter, based on a Communist-propagated myth that the West had promised backing for the uprising. (Petrás, when asked where his patriotism derives, says his father drove an ambulance riddled with 32 bullet holes during the uprising.)

Mr. Ungváry says Hungary has often been on the losing side of liberal pacts and treaties, and today Orbán masterfully plays on old resentments in his nationalist drive. In Orbán’s narrative, the EU, the most liberal of projects, threatens Hungary’s pride and place in history. In emphasizing the country’s Christian roots, Orbán is not speaking to a deep religiosity in Hungarian society but a fear of multiculturalism imposed by the West. “Viktor Orbán has positioned himself as a savior from Western Europe,” he says.

‘We have to talk about these questions’

Árpád Schilling says that the transformation to democracy and capitalist society happened so quickly that people were told what they were supposed to believe and how they were supposed to act, but not taught their rights and responsibilities – what he believes lies at the root of Orbán’s power today.

Mr. Schilling was a successful theater director in Hungary but left it behind in 2008 to focus exclusively on community building, particularly for youths, with his Krétakör Foundation. It takes pro-democracy, pro-inclusiveness projects into rural communities that deal with the toughest questions of the day, from gender to race to migration. He blames not just the ruling party but the opposition too for failing to engage in real dialogue around these issues.

“Everyone is against migration, but nobody knows what it is,” he says. “We need to talk about what we think about our own migration, of the hundreds of thousands of Hungarians who have left this country for better jobs or better lives, about how we feel when British people say ‘we don’t need Eastern European immigrants.’ We are very insulted. We think, ‘how do you talk about us like that?’” he says. “The first thing we have to do is talk about these questions.”

Schilling says too many lack the educational tools to discern the contradictions. Instead, he says, Orbán tells the people that Soros wants to relocate hundreds of thousands of migrants to Hungary, and ruin the “homeland,” and they believe him. “Orbán gives this pride to people but in a very bad way, because we can be proud only if we think all the people are enemies around us.”

Mr. Kovats, of Menedek, says it is normal for communities to fear the kind of changes that new immigration, geopolitics, and cultural change imply. Two years ago, at the height of the migration crisis, their organization led a campaign precisely about the legitimacy of fear. “That is fundamental in our training, that to be afraid is absolutely valid,” he says. “But it is the solution that has to differ. If you are afraid and if you remain in that status, then you lose. You can’t win a fight if you're hunkered down.”

The idea of home is elastic, he says. People want to improve their homes, to move to new ones, to renovate them to reflect the times. Home, both spiritual and physical, should be a show of strength to the world. “If your home is in order, then you are probably very proud of it, you want to invite guests. If your home is in disarray or you have problems at home, you are less likely to invite anyone in.”

Today he sees a society guarding its home. “People are afraid and don’t get the right answers.”

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