“Why are you studying that?”
That was the usual question asked of me back in my university days, when I explained my area of interest – the interwar years in Europe (1919-1939), especially Eastern Europe. That inquiry, after I had elaborated my reasons, was followed up by ‘what can you do with that?”. As it turns out, contemporary history has provided the best answer – the nationalist politics of the 1930s is still being played out throughout Eastern Europe, the formerly socialist nations.
Let’s focus the scope of our view, otherwise this article will be unnecessarily lengthy.
Thirty years after the dissolution of the Eastern bloc, we can see that virulent East European nationalism is on the ascendant throughout Eastern European. To understand that point, we must examine the revanchist, retaliatory nature of that nationalism, recycled and revived as it is from the interwar period. 1930s nationalism is being replayed in the official politics of East European capitalist states, and Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orban provides a strong example.
Hungary, along with their East European counterparts, has advocated a revanchist, irredentist nationalism – focused on the recovery of lost territories, and the reclaiming of a purportedly wounded national pride. Orban has made public his intention to reverse the provisions of the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, which involved a defeated Hungary ceding territories to its neighbours. Restoring a ‘Greater Hungary’ is a goal of Orban’s ultranationalist administration – a policy that puts him in direct conflict with Hungary’s immediate neighbours.
The Trianon trauma as it is known by Orban and his ultrarightist advocates, involved Hungary losing two-thirds of its preWWI territory and 64 percent of its population. Embracing and mobilising this nationalist nostalgia is an adept technique – bemoaning loss of empire is a tactic employed by Tory Brexiteers in the UK. Orban’s revanchism also involves a sinister historian revisionism regarding the crimes of Hungary’s fascistic past.
Orban is obviously not going to declare open warfare against his neighbours to reclaim lost territories. He is however, aggressively pursuing an agenda to bind Hungarians living outside the current borders of Hungary to their nation in ways that actively destabilise his neighbours by focusing on ethnic irredentism. Tensions with Romania and the Ukraine have only increased during Orban’s tenure, producing divisions and disgruntlement within the EU and NATO alliance.
The region of Transylvania, currently administered by Romania, is home to thousands of ethnic Hungarians and was ceded under the terms of the Trianon treaty. In eerie parallels with the Nazi regime’s ‘championing’ of the Sudetenland Germans as part of Germany’s campaign to break up the Czechoslovak state, Orban has mobilised ethnic chauvinism to incite anti-Romanian feeling, and increase tensions with his Romanian neighbour.
Orban has deliberately cultivated a rehabilitative campaign for the interwar Hungarian regime of Admiral Miklos Horthy. The latter headed an authoritarian, clerically conservative anti-Semitic government, allied with Nazi Germany throughout the 1930s. Hungarian troops actively fought alongside Nazi German forces through WW2. Thousands of Hungarian Jews were persecuted and killed, labour and workers organisations suppressed, and a solid alliance with Mussolini’s fascist Italy was built.
The glorification of Horthy is inseparably bound up with the exoneration of Hungarian fascism and the promoting of anti-Semitism. Orban has purposely promoted anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, blaming George Soros ( billionaire and Jewish) of fomenting various sinister plots to undermine and overwhelm Christian Hungary. In fact, Orban has cynically combined anti-Semitism with Islamophobia, blaming the international Jewish conspiracy for bringing Syrian Muslim refugees to Europe to dilute Hungary’s Christian character.
Racially paranoid notions of an ethnic-transformative Muslim invasion of Europe are nothing new. Orban’s vitriolic denunciation of fictitious ‘Muslim invaders’ cannot be understood without considering the racially exclusionary nationalism of Hungary, and Eastern European nations harking back to the 1930s. Railing against refugees and migrants today contributes to a campaign of anti-immigration chauvinism, and also distracts from Hungary’s own complicity in genocidal anti-Semitism.
Patrick Kingsley, writing for the New York Times, notes the following:
Under Mr. Orban, anti-Semitic authors from the Horthy era have been added to the national curriculum, and the Constitution has been rewritten to imply that the Horthy government was not responsible for its actions during the final 14 months of World War II, a period during which the vast majority of Hungarian Jews were deported and murdered.
Changing the curriculum is not just an exercise in historical revisionism; it is a deliberate strategy to salvage Hungarian supremacist nationalism from the stain of murderous culpability for racist crimes.
Studying the history of the interwar years in Eastern Europe is paying off after all.