When the wounded nation strikes back

Dániel Z. Kárpát | Photo: Budapest Beacon/Balázs Pivarnyik

Many scholars and observers have noted that our historical moment is marked by an extraordinary populist nationalist conjuncture (Brubaker 2017). Across European contexts and beyond, radical right parties have obtained double-digit support on a platform protesting European and global integration. Existing scholarship has focused on the supply side of populism, examining its drivers. Scholars have argued in support of a cultural backlash against immigration and diversification (Norris and Inglehart 2016, Goodwin 2018), the rising inequality thesis (Kalb 2016) and a demand for dignity by people who feel their identities have been destabilized (Fukuyama 2018). Others in turn have focused on the refugee crisis of 2015 (Mudde 2016) as a critical event triggering nationalist responses. However, less attention has been given to how populists appeal to past, historical events and how they use history to their “thicken” nativist discourse. In the Hungarian context, at least, the appropriation of history is integral to populist nationalism and instrumental for its appeal.

In 2015, I did ethnographic fieldwork amongst supporters and politicians of Jobbik- Movement for a better Hungary. Although Jobbik promises a better future, their politics is not linear, but represents what Timothy Snyder (2018) has recently described as “a politics of eternity” that places the nation at the center of a cyclical story of threats and victimhood. Moreover, the politicians I interviewed used this cyclical history in a dual way; both to present Hungary as a defenseless and innocent victim of outside forces and to strengthen the ethno-nationalist spirit needed to defend a nation and civilization perceived to be in danger

Eternity politicians

According to Snyder (2018), eternity politicians leap from one moment to another, over decades or centuries to build a dual myth of victimhood and danger. Such fusing of historical events and time periods are evident in the case of Jobbik. Several of the most profiled Jobbik politicians such as former leader Gábor Vona or the party’s Vice President Dániel Kárpát, either hold degrees in history or have a keen interest in history. While having no living memory of the time periods they use, they look backwards in order to pioneer an eternity politics of threats and enemies, both real and perceived.

Like other Hungarian nationalists they nurture the narrative of Hungary as the innocent victim of history; wounded, betrayed, humiliated and dispossessed by external forces and enemies. In the logic of Jobbik, Hungary used to be a part of a Great Empire, then a kingdom deprived of its territories, then displaced and suppressed by Soviet communism, then an innocent victim of invasion by Nazi Germany and today reduced to Europe’s underdog that has to follow directives from the European Union that want to impose a Muslim invasion on European soil. Hungary is presented as a defenseless martyr of history. Memories of a wounded nation are used to mobilize nationalist passions in the present.

 Cycles of threats and victimhood

The front page of a 2018 issue of the nationalist magazine Karpatia, formerly edited by the Jobbik Vice President, Dániel Kárpát and posted on his Facebook page showed a front page with the map of Greater Hungary and the words “No more Trianon.”  Jobbik has an irredentist agenda and actively appeals to a feeling of loss and bereavement triggered by the Peace Treaty of Trianon in 1920 where Hungary’s new borders where defined. Maps of Greater Hungary with its pre-First World War borders, including parts of today’s Romania and Slovakia are central to Jobbik’s ideology. At the Jobbik office I visited in Budapest they sold Greater Hungary watches, stickers and t-shirts. Driving with Karpat to a Jobbik event I asked him whether Greater Hungary is not a long time ago. He replied instantly: “It is only a drop in history.”

Such irredentist nostalgia for lost territories can function as a potent source of identity in times of perceived insecurity. Past memories of territorial loss, dispossession and displacement can also structure present fears and perceived threats to identity caused by European integration or immigration.

A 2015 issue of Barikád, the Jobbik party magazine that has a monthly circulation of over 10,000 readers, illustrates the new perceived threat to the nation: liberal elites and migrants. The front page depicts a military vehicle wrapped in international newspaper, from the German papers Suddeutsche Zeitung and Frankfurter Allgemeine, to The New York Times and the Daily Mirror, firing at a map of Hungary attached to a shooting target. The headline reads ‘The Line of Fire’, followed by the lines ‘an internationally coordinated campaign going on against Hungary’, reflecting the perception that Hungary is under attack by the international community. 2015 was merely classified as just one more instance of a timeless threat.

Cycles of heroic defence

The logic of cycles of old innocent victimhood and heroic defense play out in response to a new “crisis”. In their processes of recruitment and belonging, Jobbik fuses pagan, fascist and Christian symbols. The reappearance of the Turul bird, a mythological bird of the pre-Christian Hungarian sagas coupled with the Christian cross and white and red Arpad stripes are used to in order to fuse time periods and symbols and to therefore reinforce ethno-religious boundaries against a more diverse present.

Memories of the 1956 uprising against communism is in turn coupled with the revival of Miklos Horthy’s memory to boost a nationalist moral when faced with a new perceived existential threat; the mass movement of migrants from Muslim lands across Hungarian territory. Horty ruled Hungary from 1920 to 1944. He signed numerous anti-Jewish laws in 1920, 1938, and 1939, and was allied with Hitler before resisting Nazi invasion.

In Jobbik’s view, Horthy was ‘the greatest statesman of the twentieth century’, a regent that put Hungary on the path of prosperity following the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I. Since Jobbik gained power the party has erected numerous statues in his memory. The most controversial is placed in the heart of Budapest at Szabadság Tér (Freedom Place) outside the entrance of the church of the Calvinist minister Lóránt Hegedüs Jr, a notable anti-Semite and admirer of the British historian and Holocaust denier David Irving (Schiff 2013).

The falsification of history and the nurturing of innocence is instrumental in turning past atrocities into a basis for the reemergence of radical nationalism. Moreover the dual practice of building cycles of innocent victimhood and heroic defence is symptomatic of how the Hungarian radical right appropriated history in particular self-serving way, using historical allusion to move radical nationalism from the margins to the mainstream.

Dr Cathrine Thorleifsson is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Researcher at the Center for Research on Extremism (C-REX), University of Oslo. Her profile can be found here:

© Cathrine Thorleifsson. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).