In February 1945, the Soviet Army finally defeated the Nazi German forces controlling Hungary, driving them out of Budapest. Hungary had been an Axis power since 1940 and ruled by protofascist dictator Miklós Horthy since the 1920s; in March 1944 German forces occupied the country, before replacing Horthy with Ferenc Szálasi, leader of the Nazi-inspired Arrow Cross Party, seven months later. Both the Axis and Allied powers had long considered Budapest a city of great political and geographical significance. But now, Hitler declared Budapest a “fortress” to be defended at all costs. The Soviets’ entrance into the city thus became an important symbol of Germany’s inevitable defeat — and led to one of the bloodiest battles of World War II.
February 11 was a key date in this battle, coming as it did after a weeks-long siege. Faced with the joint Soviet and Romanian forces’ capture of Buda, the hilly and affluent side of the capital, the SS and Wehrmacht and Hungarian soldiers had built a stronghold in and around Buda Castle, a fortress that sat atop a high hill. Surrounded on all sides, they faced a choice: surrender to Stalin’s army, or starve from lack of supplies. Defying Hitler’s orders, Waffen-SS General Karl Pfeffer-Wildenbruch led an attempted breakout to try to reach German lines. But only a few hundred troops made it — and the Soviet forces killed tens of thousands of German and Hungarian soldiers.
February 11 would have no particular significance over the subsequent decades of Soviet-imposed Communist rule. But after the last Soviet troops left Hungary in 1991, the anniversary acquired a new resonance. This particularly owed to the jockeying for power in the years after the Soviets left Hungary — and the new far-right movements that took form. A neo-Nazi named István Győrkös restarted the Arrow Cross Party and founded a neo-Nazi paramilitary group called Magyar Nemzeti Arcvonal (Hungarian National Front). Győrkös — today in prison — declared himself “Vezető” or “leader,” a title similar to “Führer” or “Il Duce.” In 1997, he plucked February 11 out of the history books as a day of Nazi mourning, naming it the “Day of Honor.”
Since then, it has become a tradition for the most extreme European neo-Nazi groups to congregate in Budapest to commemorate the German forces, whom they call “the heroic defenders of Europe.” The groups that gather each year are from the fringes of the European extreme right — including some with links to right-wing terrorist networks. But in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, the tradition they are celebrating is becoming increasingly mainstream.
It is not surprising that the far right would want to recover such an anniversary. After all, political movements often construct rituals and traditions as a way to add legitimacy to their existence and provide a seeming logic to their claims. “Inventing traditions,” wrote Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, “is essentially a process of formalization and ritualization, characterized by reference to the past, if only by imposing repetition.” By this, he meant that the simple construction, formalization, and repetition of rituals commonly believed to be rooted in the past is enough to invent a new tradition.
Hobsbawm and his collaborators said this with particular reference to the construction of the British monarchy, the creation of Scottish Highland culture, and in building British authority in colonial India. But the same is true of all nations and imagined communities. Hungary is no exception in this sense. But the “Day of Honor” each February is a particular kind of invented tradition, for it glorifies the authoritarian Hungary of World War II, responsible for the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people, most of whom were Jews, Roma, or political dissidents.
Since coming to power in 2010, Fidesz, the far-right party headed by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, has increasingly chosen to promote the narrative that the Axis forces were, indeed, the “heroic defenders of Europe.” Government-controlled public media and government-aligned private outlets have each embraced the view that the Nazi-allied Hungarian troops that fought to defend Hitler’s vision of Europe were heroic defenders of the nation. This has helped to turn a radical fringe ideology into the mainstream. This year, government-controlled media outlets presented the “Day of Honor” event as a “peaceful commemoration disrupted by antifascists” and some even interviewed the main organizer without asking critical questions. The progressive mayor of Budapest, Gergely Karácsony, decided to boycott Hír TV, a pro-government TV channel, until they issue a formal apology for their whitewashing of a neo-Nazi event.
Allies From on High (and Abroad)
Right-wing extremist gatherings had become common in Hungary well before Orbán’s Fidesz government began its own propaganda efforts. During the late 2000s, as public disillusionment with the neoliberal policies of Socialist premier Ferenc Gyurcsány grew, a thuggish, violent extreme-right street movement arose out of anti-austerity protests against his government. Anti-Roma and anti-Jewish sentiment and violence still proliferate in Hungary: the rebranded successors to banned right-wing paramilitary group Magyar Gárda (Hungarian Guard) and the Mi Hazánk Mozgalom (Our Homeland Movement) regularly march through Roma neighborhoods, waving flags resembling that of the Nazi-era Arrow Cross Party.
But these extremist circles also receive legitimation from on high. Prime Minister Orbán is well-known for spreading antisemitic conspiracy theories about George Soros as well as anti-migrant conspiracy theories including “the great replacement.” Perhaps the most tragic example of this explosion of ethnic hatred was the organized killing of several Roma families in 2008 and 2009 by a gang whose ranks included a former military intelligence officer.
In the past two decades, the “Day of Honor” has become one of the most symbolically significant annual neo-Nazi events in Europe. February 11, 2020 was the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Siege of Budapest, and thus had special significance for the extreme right. The Budapest police initially attempted to ban the neo-Nazi rally from taking place. But the organizers appealed, and a court overturned the ban. Hence the Budapest police ended up protecting the neo-Nazis as they openly displayed white supremacist symbols. Officers put up barriers around the demonstration and dispatched hundreds of riot police to push back the antifascist protesters.
The Nazis gathered at a small park called Városmajor, a site of a particularly bloody confrontation among Hungarian, German, and Soviet soldiers back in 1945. This is a symbolically potent and particularly abhorrent choice of location because it is also the killing field where Hungarian Arrow Cross death squads massacred the inhabitants of a nearby Jewish home for the elderly on January 12, 1945 — led by the Catholic priest “Pater” Kun.
Chief Rabbi Péter Kardos told the center-left paper Népszava that he snuck into the closed-off park to view the Nazi demonstrators. “I wanted to see them,” he told the reporters. It was at Városmajor Park that Kardos — then age eight — discovered the body of his grandmother, killed by Hungarian fascists. The day then continued with a rock concert featuring white nationalist bands from across Europe, such as Flak from Germany, Green Arrows from Italy, and Fehér Vihar, or “White Storm,” from Hungary.
As part of a separately organized event, neo-Nazis then undertook a “memorial hike” through the forests of the Buda hills, replicating the path that SS and Hungarian soldiers took seventy-five years ago as they attempted to reach the German lines. Event organizers insist that this is not a neo-Nazi commemoration — only a politically neutral “sporting event” commemorating the area’s history.
Such a claim is more than a little precarious — the logo of the hike features an iron cross and its motto is “glory to the heroes.” Many participants wear either SS or World War II Hungarian military uniforms. The supposedly apolitical hike is also a draw for many participants from Germany and Austria, where open displays of Nazi commemoration and dress are much less tolerated than in nationalist Hungary. Among the German participants were members of the neo-Nazi party “Der Dritte Weg” (The Third Path). Journalist Gábor Tenczer, who participated in the hike undercover, reports that one participant openly displayed the swastika flag as soon as the participants left the city and entered the woods.
An investigation by the independent Hungarian investigative website Atlatszo found that Hazajáró Honismereti és Turista Egylet, the association that organized the hike, received public money — 900,000 HUF (€2,680) from the Hungarian Ministry of Human Resources. Two of the hike’s organizers own a media company that has produced documentaries for Hungary’s public broadcaster — including one glorifying Hungary’s role in World War II.
To describe the “Day of Honor” as simply a far-right rally is a gross understatement. It takes place in a country run by a right-wing, increasingly authoritarian government and in a Europe in which white nationalist ideas are steadily creeping into the mainstream. The “Day of Honor” is not only a gathering of people who openly advocate the views of Nazism and its Hungarian version — called “Hungarism” — but it includes some of the most violently dangerous hate groups in Europe. No wonder that the organizer of the first “Day of Honor,” István Győrkös, is currently in jail for murdering a police officer.
In 2019 there were flags belonging to Combat 18, an international Nazi group that was recently banned in Germany for its ties to the killing of Walter Lübcke, a Christian-Democratic politician. There were also demonstrators from Die Rechte (The Right), a German neo-Nazi party, some of whose members were arrested in 2015 after the police found swastika flags, explosives, and firearms in their homes. Perhaps the most dangerous of the regular “Day of Honor” demonstrators are members of the Nordic Resistance Movement, a violent neo-Nazi group operating in Sweden, Finland, Norway, Iceland, and Denmark. Members of the NRM have been found responsible for the racially motivated killing of at least three people, as well as bomb attacks against refugee shelters and a left-wing bookstore in Sweden.
The seventy-fifth anniversary of February 11 was a key date in Hungarian memory politics. What was predicted to be a significant neo-Nazi rally, however, provided an important focus for antifascist resistance as well. Groups from across Hungary and Europe congregated to demonstrate their opposition to the outspoken propagation of Nazi ideology — outnumbering the neo-Nazis for the first time since 1997.
While the most visible elements of the counterprotest were anarchists, communists, and other members of the radical left, there were also liberals waving EU flags. Members of the Roma community, persecuted by the Nazis and the Arrow Cross Party during World War II, also showed up in significant numbers.
“We must demonstrate a moral courage that is strong enough to stand up to the neofascist threat,” said the Roma civil rights activist and politician, Aladár Horváth, in a speech addressed to counterprotesters. This year, the resisters carried a banner reading “Your Deviance Is Disgusting” — subverting an anti-queer slogan used by far-right protesters to antagonize Pride marchers.
For years, right-wing authoritarianism has risen virtually unchecked in Hungary. The European Union has done little to curb Orbán’s embrace of violent white supremacy, and genuine grassroots resistance within Hungary has been unable to organize and maintain itself. The open display of ethnic and racial hatred by the far right will not stop anytime soon, but the resistance to it is also likely to continue.
We have seen signs of this already. Just one week after the 2020 Day of Honor, the Mi Hazánk Mozgalom (Our Homeland Movement) — which splintered from the Jobbik party due to this latter’s shift to the center — held torch rallies in Miskolc and Sály to demonstrate against what they call “gypsy crime.” Yet they were outnumbered by mostly Roma counterprotesters. On March 1 the far right is planning a torch rally in Budapest to celebrate the centenary of the coup that cemented Horthy’s long reign in Hungary. Antifascists are yet again mobilizing in protest. And already last week leftists and democrats marked the one-hundredth anniversary of the savage murder of socialist journalists Béla Bacsó and Béla Somogyi by thugs loyal to Horthy.
The antifascist resistance demonstrated on February 11, 2020 hinted at a turning of the tide for the long-troubled opposition. The new center-left mayor of Budapest, Gergely Karácsony, has been strategizing with leftist groups in order to resist and build alternatives to the Fidesz administration. Two recently elected municipal leaders, both of them women, have been the first politicians within Hungary to speak out against the flagrant misogyny of the Orbán regime’s “family” policy. Beyond that, it is telling that groups ranging from the radical left to mainstream liberals had the confidence to demonstrate against the neo-Nazis — and showed the capacity to work together. A new left resistance may be brewing in Hungary.