16×9: Csanad Szegedi and the rise of Europe’s far right

FULL STORY: Right Wing Resurgence

When Csanad Szegedi was a boy growing up in Hungary, it was not uncommon for him to hear anti-Semitic jokes told by his own father or at school. By the time he reached university in the early 2000s, Szegedi was a Hungarian nationalist moving in far-right circles.

In 2002, he and some of his pals travelled to Austria to hear Jorg Haider, the leader of the far-right Austrian Freedom Party, give a talk. Szegedi was impressed by the hip and polished manner Haider evinced – a far cry from the spittle-spewing rants of fascists of a bygone era.

Szegedi soon joined Jobbik, a new far-right Hungarian party founded in 2003 that was nationalistic, youthful and blamed the country’s woes on Roma Gypsies and the European Union (EU).

“We were conservative youngsters and we thought that sooner or later we would need to establish a youthful, modern, radical right wing party,” Szegedi told 16×9 in an exclusive interview.

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Szegedi quickly established himself as one of Jobbik’s charismatic young leaders, rising to become a vice-president, and one of three representatives for the party elected to the European Parliament in 2009.

By then, Szegedi had helped set up the Hungarian Guard, whose members dressed in black uniforms and staged militaristic rallies and marches in Hungary’s streets.

In his first appearance in the European Parliament, Szegedi wore his Hungarian Guard uniform, even though the Hungarian courts had banned the organization for its attacks on minorities.

READ MORE: Blind eye turned to influence of far-right in Ukrainian crisis: critics

Jobbik soon discovered the electoral merits of criticizing the Jewish community, suggesting Jews and Israelis wanted to take over Hungary’s economy. At one rally, Szegedi gave a speech in which he said EU membership for Hungary “just brought us a whole lot of Canaanites” – inferring that the European upper crust had brought too many Jews to Hungary.

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In 2010, Jobbik won 17 per cent of the vote in Hungary’s national elections, picking up 47 seats in parliament. Its success reflected an alarming trend roiling across Europe – the rise of far-right and even openly Neo-Nazi parties.

Plagued by chronic economic woes and growing divisions within the EU, Europe is now a breeding ground for far-right ideologues in countries like France, Austria, Sweden, Hungary, Norway, UK, and Greece, who claim that visible minorities and immigrants are the cause of their countries’ problems.

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In fact, a member of Greece’s openly Neo-Nazi party, Golden Dawn, murdered a popular antifascist rapper last year, which led the government to arrest the party’s leadership. Photos found in possession of one party leader revealed members having Nazi memorabilia and carrying machine guns.

Yet Hungary is where the far right has enjoyed almost unprecedented success.

The rise of Jobbik and its various paramilitary organizations, has brought a great deal of attention to this Eastern European country of 10 million. The fact that 10% of its population are Roma Gypsies has given the far right a handy scapegoat to target. Indeed, in recent years, at least half a dozen Roma Gypsies have been killed at the hands of far right Hungarian extremists.

Hungary has a dark history in this respect: in the 1930s, Admiral Miklos Horthy, the head of Hungary’s government, allied his country with Nazi Germany. In the late ‘30s, Hungary even passed a spate of anti-Semitic laws modeled on Germany’s Nuremberg laws. And when the war commenced, Hungary joined the Axis powers, with its soldiers fighting alongside German troops on the eastern front.

At the time of the war, Hungary had a large Jewish population. In 1944, after Horthy began to distance himself from Hitler, Germany occupied Hungary, and then ordered the deportation of 600,000 Hungarian Jews to the concentration camps, where 450,000 perished. The Horthy regime assisted the Nazis in helping round up the Jewish population. Today, parties like Jobbik and their paramilitary supporters are enthusiasts of the Horthy regime.

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One consequence of this tragedy has been that many Hungarian Jews hid their Jewish roots after the war.

Fast forward to 2010 and political opponents of Csanad Szegedi began circulating rumours that the Jobbik star was actually Jewish. Szegedi sought out his grandmother to find out if this was true. She eventually admitted her Jewish roots, which she’d forbade Szegedi’s mother to reveal, and told him she’d survived Auschwitz where most of her family had perished.

When Szegedi finally admitted his Jewish roots to Jobbik in 2012, the party had a mixed reaction. Part of the party wanted to retain him to use as a “shield” against accusations they were anti-Semitic. But in the end, he was expelled on dubious grounds of corruption.

Soon afterwards, Szegedi contacted a Chabad Orthodox synagogue in Budapest and asked to meet the rabbis. They eventually agreed to take him in and he began attending services and became an observant member. The discovery of his Jewish past, Szegedi tells 16×9 “had many implications, as I had to revise all my previous views, I had to accept historical facts that I had not regarded as such before. What I specifically mean is the Holocaust…”

Still, many in the Jewish community are unwilling to forgive Szegedi for his past. This past December, the Westmount Chabad in Montreal arranged for him to give a talk. But Holocaust survivors tried unsuccessfully to dissuade the Chabad from going ahead with the event. Thus, when Szegedi arrived in Montreal, someone had tipped off border authorities with the (no longer accurate) claim he was an anti-Semite. The border authorities didn’t bother verifying the charge, and only allowed Szegedi into the country for a few hours before deporting him: as a result, he was never able to give his talk in person in Montreal.

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Today, the former (admitted) anti-Semite regrets his past and warns people about the new face of fascism stalking Europe: “Today what is most dangerous is well-groomed anti-Semitism and neo-Nazism. Jobbik is dangerous for this…Jobbik’s rhetoric is, and it’s often used in the extreme right, coded anti-Semitism.”

Don’t miss “Right Wing Resurgence” this Saturday at 7pm on 16×9.

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