iktor Orbán’s address to the 31st Bálványos Summer University in Baile Tusnad, Romania, on 23 July prompted the resignation of a long-time adviser who called it a “pure Nazi speech” that was “worthy of Goebbels”. In his remarks Orbán cited Jean Raspail’s 1973 dystopian novel The Camp of the Saints, a favourite text of the racist far-right that depicts non-white hordes from the south and east overrunning the white West. Orbán also explicitly decried “race mixing”:
“This is why we [Europeans] have always fought: we are willing to mix with one another, but we do not want to become peoples of mixed-race. This is why we fought at Nándorfehérvár/Belgrade, this is why we stopped the Turks at Vienna, and – if I am not mistaken – this is why, in still older times – the French stopped the Arabs at Poitiers.“
American right-wing intellectuals have long apologised for Orbán and fantasised about his soft-authoritarian regime as a possible direction for conservativism in the US. Orbán hosted a Conservative Political Action Conference in May 2022 and has been invited to address the same organisation in Texas this week. These intellectuals consistently mock the left’s argument that Orbán is embarking on the path of Europe’s interwar dictatorships, even when he placed his regime in the lineage of Miklós Horthy (the quasi-fascist leader who aligned himself with Hitler and Mussolini), stacked Hungary’s constitution in favour of his Fidesz Party, muzzled the media, hounded academics, or when he made thinly-veiled anti-Semitic attacks on George Soros as a kind of puppet master. Surely his recent speech, even in the eyes of his American admirers, crossed a line? Of course not.
The conservative American writer Rod Dreher remains a reliable lickspittle. He claims that Orbán was “using the term ‘race’ as a symbol of religion and culture (and I wish he would not have done that, because it makes it hard to explain what he means).” But race has no actual biological basis, and is always a “symbol”: an ideological category, a way of organising politics and society. It has always functioned in European politics as a way of tying together a number of concerns about national decline and the supposed encroachment of a civilizational enemy in a way that was easy to conceive and imagine. In late 19th-century France, the anti-Dreyfusard ideologues – Maurice Barrès, Édouard Drumont, Charles Maurras, and others – all viewed anti-Semitism in roughly the same way: the Jews offered a fortuitous symbolic representation of France’s national maladies. Many of them rejected biological racial theories and specifically insisted that their ideas were cultural or religious, rooted in France’s historical traditions. Whatever the justificatory root, they were anti-Semites and racists and helped prepare Europe for the catastrophe of the next century.
Responding to Orbán’s comments, few media commentators, including Dreher, have noted what is the significant historical context for this speech: Hungary’s history of anti-Semitism and its role during the Holocaust. That the leader of a European country, especially one with its history, would be willing to “go there” and invoke race is arguably the most shocking aspect of this episode.
Hungary didn’t need the examples of fascist Italy and Nazi Germany to embark on its reactionary project. In 1919, far-right forces lead by Horthy put down Bela Kun’s short-lived Communist regime and initiated a bloody White Terror that targeted leftists and Jews. The counter-revolution gave birth to an ideological protoplasm called the “Szeged Idea”, named after the headquarters of Horthy’s troops. This concept was based on a “stabbed in the back” myth and a belief in a “Judeo-Bolshevik” conspiracy. Boosters of the Szeged Idea would later brag that they antedated both fascism and Nazism. Hungary had been even more “humiliated” by defeat in the First World War than Germany – the Treaty of Trianon took away two-thirds of Hungarian territory and had disastrous economic consequences for the country. Interwar politics became dominated by different combinations of national chauvinism, irredentism, and anti-Semitism.