Life Amongst The Neo-Nazis in Budapest
As a backpacker, the Hungarian city of Budapest seemed like a place of rich culture by day, and a hub for hedonism once night fell. Living amongst such an affordable slice of European history was a dream for the curious, the young and the broke.
The first Nazi night dragged me back to reality.
Budapest has been regularly plagued with Nazi nights. Parades of neo-Nazis march freely through the city streets, brandishing fascist symbols and slogans. Nearly 3,000 Hitler fanboys gathered for a commemorative celebration of the Hungarian Nazis in February, unimpeded by the police or the government. In March, Hungarian National Day very quickly devolved into a violent neo-Nazi rally, as apparently that’s the modern manifestation of Hungarian nationalism.
Statues portraying Hungary as victims of the war have been erected in the capital, overseen by the widely condemned, far-right wing PM Viktor Orbán, and Nazi memorabilia is sold openly in street markets and vintage stores. Branded “blatantly xenophobic” by the UN high commissioner for human rights, Hungary’s rapidly spiralling descent into far-right, fascist state is a jarring scene for travellers and expats in the capital.
The first march I witnessed was in early February 2019. I was vaguely aware of Hungary’s morally questionable Prime Minister, but ignorant about the extent to which the country had become a “haven for the alt-right“.
They call it the ‘Day of Honour’: a touching tribute to fallen soldiers. Naturally, by fallen soldiers they’re referring to the Hungarians that volunteered to fight for Nazi Germany, corralling tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews, and shipping them off for the slaughter in the concentration camps.
Dressed in Nazi uniforms and home-made t-shirts with Adolf Hitler’s face ironed on them, participants are proud of their fascist leanings. They make no secret of their allegiances. Carrying assault rifles and hand grenades, the group chant “Jews Out” and lay wreaths in memory of the Waffen-SS soldiers killed during the 1945 Battle of Budapest. One of the darkest days in Hungarian history, this battle caused the deaths of 38,000 civilians, including 15,000 Jews executed by the governing army.
Groups of neo-Nazis across Europe have been gathering for this march annually, with official representatives from fascist groups in Serbia, Ukraine, Sweden, Germany, Italy and Russia. These are the groups that the Hungarian Prime Minister has referred to as “the true refugees… (wanting) to find the Europe they have lost in their homelands”.
This hasn’t gone unnoticed on the international stage, with various Jewish publications highlighting the obvious dangers of letting these marches proceed freely. In conversation with The Jerusalem Post, chairman of the rabbinical council of the Mazsihisz Jewish Federation in Hungary, Rabbi Zoltan Radnoti, emphasised this point, highlighting that “if neo-Nazis can spread their hatred of Jews and foreigners in the European public domain, it is a danger to the whole of Europe”.
The group responsible for organising the marches, Blood & Honour, has already been banned from Germany, Italy and Russia. A motion was introduced in Hungary to ban the commemoration, but it was struck down. A white supremacist group founded in the UK, Blood & Honour have spread their message of hatred across Europe, adopting their name from the motto of the Hitler Youth. The Bulgarian and Dutch divisions of the group were responsible for organising the rallies held in Budapest, filled with supporters from a mix of European nations, but still touted as “proof that there are still Hungarians in our homeland who have not degenerated” by the group’s master of ceremonies.
The Hungarian national holiday on the 15th of March is unabashedly nationalistic in nature. A tribute to the failed Hungarian Revolution of 1848, in which Hungary attempted to gain independence from the Austrian empire, the holiday isn’t focused on white supremacy at its core. Yet, on the morning of the 15th, migrants and long-term travellers in Budapest started to warn tourists that it wasn’t going to be a peaceful evening.
An excuse to gather in large numbers, and openly spread patriotic, nationalistic and anti-immigrant rhetoric, the night quickly devolves into violence. Despite being a safe city for a drunken stumble home every other night of the year, the hostel I lived in during my two months in Budapest coordinated and paid for taxis home for their black guests and staff, because of the danger of them being targeted during these neo-Nazi outbreaks. All guests were encouraged to stay to certain areas, to travel in groups or pairs, and to duck inside if they should see a large group marching their way.
The distinct lack of concern displayed by Orbán’s government sheds a stark light on the Hungarian government’s disregard for victims’ voices. President of the Hungarian Federation of Jewish Communities András Heisler met with the Prime Minister last year to discuss the increasing presence of Hungarian neo-Nazism, and was placidly assured that the government was seeking legal solutions to ending the marches, that the government was doing all they could to quell the rising tide of anti-Semitism.
Nazi symbols and propaganda are technically illegal in Hungary, yet nobody stops marchers’ cries of “Glory to the Waffen SS!” There is no regard for the market stalls openly selling Nazi paraphernalia, and if you’re ever looking for a subtle swastika pin, or a terribly tasteful bust of Adolf Hitler to add a bit of personality to your bedside table, the vintage stores of Budapest are the place for you.
Rather than make any effort to quash these open displays of anti-Semitism, the government are far more focused on rewriting their own role in the war, erecting statues depicting Hungary as an innocent victim in Nazi Germany’s sphere of influence. Holocaust victims and their relatives have erected a protest at the feet of the controversial statue built in memory to the people of Hungary during World War II, with personal possessions of people interned in Nazi concentration camps and multilingual signs detailing the crimes committed by the Hungarian population against the Jews of Budapest. Implored by Jewish communities and foreign politicians to remove the statue, Orbán continues to brush off criticism of the construction, which he considers “morally precise and immaculate”, even after being informed that the Hebrew inscription on the statue actually mistranslated “victims” as “sacrificed animals”.
Wandering the streets of Budapest, you’ll find yourself shrouded in Hungarian history. Many of the ornate (if slightly dilapidated) buildings feature statues, busts or plaques placed in tribute to famous and heroic Hungarians. Pay slightly closer attention, and you can identify any number of convicted war criminals, vicious anti-semites and generally distasteful characters. A statue of Hungarian hero Imre Nagy, leader of the failed anti-communist Hungarian revolution, was removed, replaced by one celebrating the country’s communist past, as Orbán strengthened ties with Vladimir Putin.
Curiously, the Prime Minister has also been cultivating a budding friendship with Israeli leader Benjamin Netenyahu. Orbán has come out vehemently denying having blasé attitude towards his country’s rampant anti-Semitism, claiming to maintain a “zero tolerance” policy towards this discriminatory behaviour. He also made assurances to his new friend Netenyahu, acknowledging Hungarian culpability in the Holocaust, and assuring nothing of its like would happen again. Although, this is directly contradicted by his actions, and his assertion that condemning flagrantly anti-Semitic media would somehow be a violation of free speech.
Despite this track record, the Hungarian foreign minister has confronted critics and stated that “bilateral relations between Hungary and Israel have never been as good as they are now”. US-based paper The American Spectator has used this connection as evidence that criticism of Orbán and his associates can be chalked up to “fake news”. They go on to claim that Judaism is protected in Hungary by the government’s ruthless anti-migrant policies, insinuating that the lack of Muslim refugees being granted entry into the country minimised the number of anti-Semites in the country “the greatest existential threat to Jews and non-Jews alike in other European countries”.
For our small community of budget backpackers who have found a temporary home in Hungary, the notion that our fellow settlers are amongst the worst of the alt-right and white supremacist radicals in Europe seems bizarre. Yet, it’s crucial that tourists understand who they’re funding when funnelling money into the city and its government.
Viciously anti-refugees, and unperturbed by violent neo-Nazi displays, the state of Hungarian politics seems dystopic. Far right political leaders are calling for names of Jews to be placed on lists, and chose to locate their offices in the heart of the Jewish district, purposefully placed where worshippers will pass their headquarters as they make their way to the synagogue. Executive director of the Hungarian Jewish Congregations’ Association and holocaust survivor, Gusztav Zoltai, has described modern Hungary as, “The shame of Europe, the shame of the world.”
Cover via EPA PHOTO/MTI Imre FOELDI; inset by the author