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Who are the real Hungarians?

With conservative and authoritarian waves across Europe ebbing and flowing, Hungary is once again getting its fair — or, to some, unfair — share of media exposure. Behaving somewhat like the bratty, pubescent step-child intimidated by its parent’s new step-partner, Hungary alternately acts out and retracts its behavior, putting on a show for its peers (the citizens), while knowing just when to rein it in so as not to be made homeless and destitute by its parents / guardians (the EU).

It would be easy to write Hungary off as a collection of rightwing and populist troublemakers, led by one oratorically gifted politician. While the oratory gift is no doubt true, it is important to have a look at both sides of the proverbial coin, those voters standing fully behind, and those opposing the present government. Who are the real Hungarians, the ones trying to make a living against all odds of (alleged) corruption? What drove those who support it to the party? Are Hungarians truly authoritarian at heart, truly conservative? Xenophobic?

It is a land of contradictions and a history rife in near-constant occupation. The Ottoman Empire, the Austrian Empire, and Soviet rule have all left their mark in historical monuments, language and customs, not to mention a deep distrust of the Other, the Invader. The conservative bastion run by an authoritarian government, on the one hand, and on the other, a popular party zone, drawing local and foreign millennial and students, not to mention sex tourism. Prostitution and porn stand side by side with conservative values espoused by the government. Exporting more than half of its citizens due to its economic situation, the county also draws a fair amount of new residents, among which are ultra-conservative and rightwing fanatics, who move here to “escape the onslaught of multiculturalism” in their own native countries.

Hungarians themselves fall on either side of the spectrum, and one would be forgiven for seeing the country either as warm party center or authoritarian home front. The truth lies somewhere in between. While many stand behind the present government, it also has its fair share of detractors. What everyone largely seems to agree on is that migrants are better placed somewhere else. Whether this is for love of country or hatred of the Other, is largely an individual perception.

“Hungary is like a beautiful jewelry box,” says Anna, a mother of five.

“We’re surrounded by mountains,” she continues, “in a valley. There’s so much beauty around us.”

“They lie and steal, and the health services are pitiful at best,” Rozália K., a pensioner, exclaims passionately. She means the government, the ruling party FIDESZ, born of a collective of university students, who after socialism vowed that they would change the world, or at the very least their own nation. Young, vibrant, charismatic, led by present prime minister Viktor Orbán, they spelled a new hope against corrupt politicians and underworld factions fighting it out amongst themselves in the mid-to late-nineties. FIDESZ changed all that when they were elected in 2010. At least they were supposed to.

Reality looks slightly different. Conversations in everyday life show that the population either stands behind its political leaders 100%, or else, they view the present government with contempt. As Rozália puts it, “the truth is, there is no better alternative. All parties are the same. The only good thing I can say about the present government is that they’re not letting in any migrants. But that’s it.”

A focus on family is one element with which the government tries to draw supporters. A large, happy family is precisely what Hungary is supposed to be. Orbán doesn’t rule by “divide and conquer,” or rather he does, but the division is not among the people themselves, rather along the lines of, we, the Hungarian family vs. The Other. The Other being anyone who does not belong, The Migrant. The Migrant has only one goal in the mind of the government and a significant portion of the population, to wreak as much havoc as he can, by spreading his seed and religion.

It is this hatred, or at the very least mistrust, of a common enemy that weaves itself like a thread through everyday Hungarian life, no matter on which side of the spectrum you fall. If people are divided where present leadership is concerned, they all seem to agree on this one point. The Migrant is not good for Hungary on account of his culture.

“Because one will not accept the other,” explains Rozália when questioned about the migrant situation. “The mentalities are too different, incompatible with each other.”

Most see this as merely a pragmatic fact of life.

“I don’t feel that because I don’t want to live with someone else that’s hatred,” says Anna. “A culture that’s fundamentally different to my own is hard to accept for me. I will work on not alienating them, but bringing people close. Yet, I also believe that everyone is happiest on their own native soil. If I went somewhere, and I fell on hard times, I’d want to be helped, but I’d feel happier if I was helped at home.”

Where she does see common ground is in the field of art. “I really believe in art,” she states. “Because in art there are no borders. Differences between people are not dependent on their respective nationalities but on cultural understanding. There are cultural differences between people of the same nation. I’d get along better with someone who has an artistic soul, no matter their ethnic origin. At the same time, your own cultural heritage is important. Cultural heritage is a thing of beauty. You have to protect and preserve your own culture, your nation’s treasure and cultural heritage. With cultural intermingling that will be lost.”

Religion is another factor. Where Hungarians raised during Communism define themselves as either atheist or religious, those coming of age before and after tend to largely believe in a higher power at the very least. Tatiana, a student, describes herself as religious because “when I was younger I went to church regularly, and I had bible study outside of school.” Tatiana sees the trouble with multiculturalism, why it can’t work, from a faith-based viewpoint, stating that “if a country has many different belief systems this may lead to conflict or smaller wars, and solidarity is  very important within a country. With many faiths, it would be hard to create one church or center of worship and make rules and laws.”

“I don’t judge people who are very religious,” Tatiana goes on. “For myself, I don’t believe strongly in any one faith. But I do believe in a higher power.”

It is not cruelty which drives people, rather an inability to imagine cultural mixing going well for once, despite historical evidence to the contrary. In a country where people’s family names point to cultural mixing, albeit chiefly on a Central European scale, it is interesting to see such fear of the Other among the Töröks, Lengyels, Némeths etc. Precisely those names, Turkish, Polish, and German respectively, serve as a constant reminder of the oppressive factor inherent in cultural mixing. And those are just a few family names designating non-Hungarian origin.

What many don’t see however, is that where in the past cultural mixing was dictated by the occupying forces, today it is due to freedom of movement and economic displacement, not to mention desolation of war. It is perhaps small wonder then, that those intent on maintaining populist thought, are looking for a scapegoat in power, the EU, and most recently, philanthropist and financier George Soros.

Perhaps art is indeed the only way to go.

Photo: Thomas Depenbusch/Creative Commons