Springtime for fascism: a global struggle
Jair Bolsonaro | AP

Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right candidate once considered an absurd apologist for the horrors of Brazil’s past military junta (1964-1985) came close to winning the presidency in an election on Oct. 7. Garnering 46 percent- of the vote, he almost prevented an end-of-October run off with Fernando Haddad, the candidate for the Worker’s Party.

“Let’s make Brazil Great! Let’s be proud of our homeland again!” has been his slogan.

Bolsonaro, an Army captain, has praised the use of torture during the years of the junta, only suggesting that leftist critics of the regime should have been killed rather than simply maimed. He has threatened to rape female political enemies. He has openly sought to make the election a referendum on democracy itself, threatening free speech by attacks on the press, warnings about socialism, and a religious message that, though a conservative Catholic, has resonated with Brazil’s large minority of evangelical Christians.

His reactionary message resonates for a variety of reasons. Economic doldrums in Brazil have caused general discontent and unemployment has climbed to 13 million. Crime rates, for similar reasons, resemble the American 70s and 80s when police departments across the country engaged in the counterproductive and counterintuitive strategy of neglecting entire neighborhoods in urban areas and then suddenly invaded those same communities with tactical assault teams. Bolsonaro has promised to flood the streets with firearms so the people can “defend their homes and families.”

Bolsonaro plays rhetorical games with the complex racial politics of Brazil, essentially using black Brazilians in the way Trump and Hungary’s Orbán have used Muslim immigrants, as the enemy.

The would-be strong man of Brazil is a latecomer to this right-wing populist message, the same message that had created a cyclone of political change in the 1930s. Trump’s ascendance has had a ripple effect as he has moved to strengthen some of the world’s most repressive regimes, with arms sales to Saudi Arabia (the nesting ground of Al-Qaeda and SIS) being only the most scurrilous example.

Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban | AP

We see much the same in Europe where Victor Orbán has ruled as head of the Fidesz Party since 2010. In that time  Orbán changed the constitution of the fragile Hungarian Republic in ways that make it almost impossible to unseat him. He’s created a Fox News Channel style of state television that shapes opinion of the nation’s ten million citizens while giving the appearance of offering just another free market option for information. Even the European Union, not known as the world’s foremost booster of democracy,  has raised questions about whether or not he has so degraded democracy in his country that Hungary must face sanction. Orbán thrives off this since he insistently seeks to move, rhetorically at least, the center of gravity from Brussels to “Prague, Budapest, and Bucharest.”

Orbán has had a good year. During the summer, amid uproar over the American government’s malicious detention policy, the separation of families, and the building of internment camps, Trump had a call with Orbán –  the subject of which focused on the favorite topic of demagogues these days; closed borders, the horror of refugees, and the need for a homogenous state.

Seemingly energized, Orbán’s party dictated terms to the Hungarian parliament, closing every possible loophole for immigrants entering the country. In fact, Fidesz forced through legislation that Stephen Miller only ponders in his most expansive moments of villainy; it’s now illegal to provide aid for immigrants in Hungary. Aid here has been given a broad definition. You are in legal jeopardy if you simply provide information to asylum seekers.

Don’t be at all surprised if we see a similar measure introduced in the United States in a bid to crush sanctuary cities, and maybe to jail Americans for peacefully protesting ICE.

Giuseppe Conte | AP

Other parts of Europe have recently moved in Orbán’s direction. Italy has formed a right-wing coalition government under Giuseppe Conte, a former lawyer who has never previously held political office. His anti-immigrant, anti-EU tone has been called populism when nativism makes much more sense. Not surprisingly, Italy became the one member of the G7 to take Trump’s part during the combative conference in May.

Meanwhile, in imitation of Putin, Orbán seems to have directly inserted himself into the recent election in Slovenia. In late May voting, the anti-immigrant Slovenian Democratic Party won a quarter of the vote, enough to create a coalition government. Various center and left parties came in at around ten percent. Billionaire supporters of Orbán largely control the Hungarian news services. Along with strangling opposition press by using a velvet hammer of cutting off advertising revenue, Orbán media outlets have purchased much of the information landscape in both Slovenia and Macedonia. Simultaneously, Orbán has supported and formed personal relationships with, the leaders of anti-democratic parties in Serbia, Croatia, and Poland.

A political analysis of Orbán’s concentration of power in Hungary would show a familiar story of economic dislocation and anxieties combined with the failure of leftist parties to unite behind a single candidate. Moreover, one of the dangerous aspects of most of post-Communist Eastern Europe has been the ease with which constitutions have been changed to suit governing parties (and the ruling classes that fund them).

Orbán’s support in Hungary and his largely successful bid to become a regional power has little to do with any real dislocations brought about by immigration. In fact, it’s long been what’s called a “transit country.” Immigrants, many of them from the Balkans or Russia, once passed through in relatively large numbers on their way to other EU states. Muslims, the focus of Orbán’s demagoguery, are a tiny part of the country’s population; there are about five thousand Muslims in a population of ten million. Most claim “Hungarian” as their ethnicity. This has not prevented them from becoming the focus of street violence and harassment.

I discovered on a trip to Budapest in the spring of 2018 that something older, and frightening, stands in the shadows behind these political and social realities. Hungary labors under the burden of its memories and what it has chosen to do with them.

Ghosts of the Reich

The inability of Hungary to face its own history plays a much greater role in the success of Fidesz than economic anxiety or simple prejudice. Orbán’s political stratagems are closely allied with Hungary’s current cultural history.

I stayed in old ‘Pest, in an apartment just around the corner from the New York Café, an extraordinarily elegant 1890s remnant of 19th century café culture. Today it still serves the best coffees and pastries in the city but has lost its decadent appeal. High priced breakfasts for tourists have replaced the availability of newspapers and small journals from all over Europe or the chance to sit for hours with books and coffee, pen and paper.

Capitalism has changed Hungary in other discordant ways. A T.G.I.F or a KFC has been inserted here and there beside the baroque architecture of the Hapsburgs. The same has happened in other central and eastern European capitals, most infamously in Prague with its street signs pointing you to Hradcany, the Charles Bridge, and the closest Pizza Hut.

The politics of Budapest have made the ugly invasion of consumerism all the more jarring. The golden arches in Budapest are a garish gravestone to the utopian sentiments of the 1990s, Francis Fukuyama and a chorus of free marketers claiming “the end of history” in which neo-liberal market economies would spontaneously bring democracy. Consumerism, open markets, and the monopolies and gangsterism that inevitably follow have come to Hungary. So has authoritarianism.

Neo-fascist politics, like the more familiar version of the 1930s, depends on historical memory wounded by a sense of grievance. Most travelers in Central and Eastern Europe are aware of the “Museums of Communism” that have sprung up in the region’s major capitals. Less well known may be the role they play in creating nativist and nationalistic narratives. Such public history sites, if they deserve the name, receive funding from sources with very specific conservative agendas. An American restaurateur started the “Museum of Communism” in Prague.

Orbán’s Hungary does something particularly strange with its historical memory of communism. The “House of Terror” opened in 2002, while Orbán remained an influential opposition leader. The director of the museum, Dr. Marie Schmidt, served at the time as one of Orbán’s advisors. Controversy greeted the opening of the site in Hungary even in 2002 when critics pointed out that it seemed to serve a right-wing version of Hungary’s political history, conflating socialism with Stalinism, and downplaying Hungary’s collusion with Nazi Germany.

Nowhere in this presentation do we learn that the Hungarian conscript and Arrow Cross Party thugs joined the Wehrmacht and SS forces ensuring that the city would become a ruin by their decision to make a concerted a suicidal stand against Soviet forces on the Danube. They acted on the orders of the Fuhrer himself who saw the city as symbolic of the old Austrian Empire into which he had been born.

The “House of Terror” does not inform visitors that Hungarian troops largely maintained the death camp Bergen-Belsen. You will not learn that the victims of Hungary’s repressive Communist regime were, as was so frequently true in eastern Europe, themselves Communists who opted out of Stalin’s cult of personality. You won’t learn that Hungarian partisan forces who fought the Nazis alongside the Red Army were made up primarily of people connected to various socialist movements.

What you do learn about is the profound sense of grievance that the some in the country hold toward the world.

Visitors are confronted with Hungary as the victim of the Soviet Union, and receive only the most subtle introduction into the Hungarian government’s collaboration with the Nazis.

When you enter the “House of Terror,” you find yourself in a dark room with one large screen along with the numerous small screens that show ruin, devastation, tanks rolling down streets, soldiers on the march; all images of invasion and suppression. Many of these are images of the Red Army entering Budapest in 1945. Some of them are apparently of the Soviet incursion in 1956. Images that inflame, combined with a lack of precision, are the point. Orbán offers what Trump and Bolsonaro offer; the opportunity to feel anger and express it.


W. Scott Poole
W. Scott Poole

Scott Poole is Professor and Associate Chair, Department of History at College of Charleston. He is the author of Wasteland: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror.