Hungary has come into wider European awareness for all the wrong reasons. Spending £73 million (yes, £73 million) on a 400 meter razor wire fence and anti-refugee propaganda; detaining thousands of refugees; putting them on trains; transporting them in the opposite direction from their destinations; writing numbers onto their skin; using tear gas on refugees in detention centres; splitting families up as they’re redistributed to other detention centres; directing the police to get rid of reporters . . . if Europe had begun to forget the ‘processing’ of vulnerable groups during the Second World War we were sharply reminded this week.
Hungary’s PM, Viktor Orban won the Economist’s ‘Politics of the Gutter Award” in 2007. He combines right-wing austerity and market liberalisation with Communist authoritarianism and it plays well to people who like A Strong Leader ™ more than they like a competent leader. Orban has developed his party’s relationship to the far right anti-EU party, Jobbik, the party that proposed that razor wire fence.
8 or so years ago we wouldn’t have known about all this unless we had a particular interest in Hungary, but social media has brought the rise of fascist groups, from Greece, France, Eastern Europe, Germany, Spain and elsewhere, into our homes. Most of us have ignored it, just as we clicked past the pictures of drowned children that have been brought to us for the last 18 months. But finally, the picture of three year old Aylan reached a newspaper which meant it reached everyone who went into a newsagents, whether they had a computer or not. And, in a bitter stroke of luck, Aylan’s very public death coincided with sinister events in Hungary.
When ill-will remains unchallenged, as the West has ignored Hungary for decades, it become normalised. It becomes possible to resurrect our darkest instincts and begin hunting Roma and Gay people again, to smash the windows of Jewish businesses. Here in the UK it becomes possible for us to say things to friends and colleagues and strangers at bus stops that we wouldn’t have dreamed of saying out loud 6 months ago.
Pub Geniuses say, "You've got to ask yourself, why are all these people coming over here rather than popping over to Saudi?" and they have their crowd of supporters who add totally bogus, hate-based information about free homes and benefits. Because parents put their children in leaky boats and make them walk 3,000 miles across Europe for a grotty hostel and no recourse to public funds. We say things about Muslims with impunity whilst ignoring the fact that the Far Right have murdered many more people in the UK and are a genuine and enduring terrorist threat.
When images of people being gassed and transported and processed reached Europe, Hungary suddenly changed its tune. They released the refugees, suddenly not needing all those trains and processing camps and people in uniform. A few hours later, Hungary compassionately supplied some coaches to drive the refugees the remaining few miles to the boarder. At the boarder, Austrians with blankets, food, open hearts and open minds met these determined, brave, enterprising, desperate people and welcomed them.
Germany is where most refugees want to go and they’ve opened their boarders, because they know all too well what happens when people dehumanise other human beings. The Orban government has humiliated itself, belatedly realising that, like the Pub Genius, whilst it can whip up a storm with its supporters the rest of the world can see what it’s doing. In a purely political sense it has inadvertently handed a lot of power to ordinary Hungarian citizens who have been disgusted by their governments behaviour.
And in politics as in life, power is everything.
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