Illustration by Maria Hodor

Research and Reflections on Far-Right Paramilitaries in Hungary in 2011

MANUEL MIREANU

Abstract

This is the story of my (non)-interaction with the Hungarian far-right paramilitary groups, during their ‘war’ against Roma people in countryside Hungary in 2011.[i] Some context first: I began researching the Hungarian far-right in 2009. I had mainly two reasons for doing this: on the one hand, I was interested in how people come together in groups that challenge the state’s monopoly on violence, and perform security tasks, such as defending villages, neighbourhoods and other public spaces; on the other hand, I wanted to use my research to understand and help curb down the rise of hyper-nationalism and neo-nazism in Hungary and elsewhere.

[i] I thank NóraUgron for many useful comments and suggestions on this text.

AnthroArt Podcast

Coming Soon

MANUEL MIREANU

Author

My favourite academic pastime is Security Studies, while my background is in International Relations. Currently, I am a fellow at the New Europe College in Bucharest. My doctoral journey led me to explore far right vigilante groups from Italy and Hungary. Some of my other projects include research on gentrification, the criminalisation of Roma people, as well as some historical musings on Romania’s 1918 – 9 pivotal period. I have also been an editor and author at ‘Cărămida’, the Cluj-based newspaper championing housing justice.

Maria Hodor

Illustrator

Maria Hodor is a 21-year-old artist and graphic designer currently living in Bucharest. Her passion for art started at the young age of 6 and has never stopped since. Her portfolio includes both group and solo exhibitions in Constanta and Bucharest. Maria explores the world through whimsical use of colour and playful motifs, reminiscing of nonsensical stories and fairy tales. Through the use of various mediums, both traditional and digital, she brings unique contrasting elements to her artworks, which are highly influenced by the surreal world of a child’s imagination.

Daniel Popa

Actor

Daniel decided to become an actor so that he could experience feelings and events that otherwise won’t fit in one’s lifetime. He collaborated with Bulandra Theatre and the Monday Theatre @ Green Hours and attended many national and international festivals. Since 2013 he plays in projects written, translated, or directed by himself and produced by his Doctor’s Studio Cultural Association which he also founded. Daniel doesn’t know if this is the way to approach new forms of artistic expression, what’s certain is that he distances himself from the old ones.

Prior to the events presented here, I had participated as observer in several far-right rallies, as well as in numerous so-called anti-fascist demonstrations. I had also gathered information on the history of the far-right in Hungary. I was keeping myself up to date with the actions and statements of some of these groups at that time, when indeed they were quite active. After 2006, Hungary witnessed a sharp rise in far-right activity, with the political party Jobbik getting in parliament, and the paramilitary group Magyar Gárda (‘the Hungarian Guard’) patrolling the streets of several towns.

Their practices at the time involved attacks on Jewish people and the LGBTQ+ community, hyper-nationalist and irredentist ideas regarding Greater Hungary and occasionally some remarks on immigrants. However, the main concern of the Hungarian far-right since the turn of the decade is the so-called ‘Gypsy criminality’.[1] This discourse is built around the idea that the Roma population is prone to commit (petty) crimes. It uses examples of various felonies committed by people of Roma ethnicity, in order to create panic and moral outrage.

A bit of theory: Jobbik and the paramilitary organisations that ran under its umbrella were using the trope of crimes committed by Roma people to address the demands for security coming from the non-Roma population. These groups were focusing on instances where people felt fed up with the perceived rise in Roma criminality, and at the same time saw the state as incapable or unwilling to do anything about it. People asked for security, and the paramilitaries were eager to provide it.

This security supply came with far-right flavours. The trope of the ‘Gypsy criminality’ was used as an umbrella term for a series of racist and ultra-nationalist ideas about Hungarian purity and honesty. The Roma people were considered ‘parasites’, ‘inferior’ and un-worthy to be called ‘Hungarians’.

Moreover, people’s demands for security were met with a readiness for extreme violence, which went hand in hand with far-right hatred and obtuseness. This far-right dimension explains why people chose to support paramilitary groups that armed themselves and went around challenging the authority of the state. In this vision, the discourse that blamed the Roma population for both petty and serious crimes in the countryside played the most important part. It was the keystone to the entire ideological edifice that brought together the security demands of the locals with the far-right groups’ desire to supply security and to act violently.

The Hungarian countryside, especially east of Budapest, was economically precarious, lacked proper state infrastructure, such as police forces, and had also, over the years, witnessed racist acts against Roma people. As such, the far-right groups could activate there more freely than in the big towns. During 2008 and 2009, there were over 40 attacks on Roma people in the Hungarian countryside. These attacks claimed six lives.[2]

The counter protest of Hejőszalonta

I will now recount two episodes that illustrate the rise of militaristic far-right forces in Hungary in the spring of 2011. First, in the village of Hejőszalonta, Jobbik and the New Hungarian Guard initiated a campaign against ‘[Roma] terror’, after an alleged murder of a local woman by a Roma man. The campaign polarized the small village, literally turning neighbours against each one another, as the Roma community found itself targeted and harassed on a daily basis by the other locals. This all peaked with a so-called ‘commemorative march’ organized by the two above-mentioned groups, in which several hundred people walked through the village in a procession, carrying torches and ultra-nationalist symbols, and shouting anti-Roma racist slogans. This march was countered by a protest organized in the same village by several Roma organizations, human rights and antifascist groups.[3] This was a powerful display of organized resistance to the far-right renewal in Hungary.

I travelled in Hejőszalonta along with these groups to participate in the counter-protest. At the entrance to the village, the police were filtering the access to the two protest sites. They asked the driver of our car to which ‘side’ we were going to – the Jobbik side, or ‘the other one’. The counter protest was rather small, especially when compared to the large cortege of the far-right supporters. This cortege was parading around the village, while our small counter protest was confined to a street that ran crosswise to the route of Jobbik’s march. Therefore, the only moment of contact – visual and sound-wise – was when the procession passed in front of us. This point was heavily policed and fenced off with metal barricades, in order to prevent any physical contact. The Jobbik supporters had lit torches, Hungarian flags, as well as a variety of far-right symbols, such as the Árpád flag, which was illegal in Hungary. They were constantly hurling racist insults at us, the counter protesters.

My group had banners that were saying ‘nazi-free Hungary’, and a few of us were convinced that the verbal violence coming from ‘the other side’ needed a ‘proper’ (meaning violent) response. However, the mayor of the village urged everybody to ‘keep civil’ and refrain from any ‘provocation’. During the entire time that it took the Jobbik cortege to pass in front of us, the counter protesters, encouraged by the mayor, sang the Hungarian anthem. This was a gesture meant to show that ‘we are all Hungarians’, despite the racist invectives coming from the Jobbik side.

After this encounter I started to feel uneasy about calling the Jobbik supporters ‘nazis’. During the Hungarian anthem, some of us did shout ‘nazis go home!’ and the reply we got was ‘you are the nazis!’ As easy as it may have been for them to reverse the insult and throw it back at us, it was in perfect tune with their political imaginary. For Jobbik and its supporters, our counter protest seemed to legitimise the murder, which was allegedly committed by a Roma man. Moreover, they saw their own action as a ‘commemorative march’, rather than a protest.

The sight of a big cortege, parading in the village in the night, with torches and flags and shouting obscenities at us was, of course, as unpleasant and frightening as it can get. However, I felt that in that particular situation calling these people ‘nazis’ was not the best possible counter-attack. A political strategy against the far-right needed a deeper understanding of this phenomenon. It also needed a richer political imagination and vocabulary, one that would articulate a coherent critiquethat could effectively undermine the general perception that Jobbik was doing anybody a favour.

The Easter days of Gyöngyöspata

Now, the second episode: the height of paramilitary activity directed against the Roma population was reached later that month, in the small village of Gyöngyöspata (2500 people), 50 kilometres east of Budapest. Prior to the events I will tell, in February of that year, the far-right news channel Barikád TV had aired an investigative video report set on raising an alarm signal about the everyday ‘Gypsy terror’ among the residents of Gyöngyöspata.[4] The video had announced a ‘civil war’ between Roma and non-Roma people. It had been focused mostly on a group of elderly non-Roma women, who were complaining about the behaviour of some Roma teenagers. From these complaints, the report evoked an entire atmosphere of panic and terror in the village.

In the beginning of the following month, a far-right group called Szebb Jövőért (‘a better future’) announced that it would send patrols in the village in order to help the locals defend themselves against the ‘terror’.[5] The local non-Roma population welcomed these initiatives, and some people even joined their ranks. Soon, other far-right organizations joined in the village vigilante patrols, including the Betyarsereg (the ‘Outlaw’s Army’) and the Véderő (‘Defence’) groups. The locals formed their own gangs, acting against the same perceived threat. The paramilitaries, who were dressed in black and displaying ultra-nationalist symbols, were patrolling the Roma neighbourhood of the village. The Roma people were being shouted at, insulted and harassed with stones, whips and dogs. All this was happening in the absence of any police force.

Under the cautionary message that the ‘[Roma] terror’ will create a ‘civil war’ between Hungarians and Roma in Hungary, on the 6th of March 2011, Jobbik and its supporters held a rally in the village. This was meant to raise the alarm of ‘[Roma] terror’, and at the same time to be a display of force. Filled with nationalist and racist declarations from participants, the demonstration gathered over 2000 people. One report estimates that approximately half of these were local residents.[6]

After the rally, far-right patrols were active in the village for two more weeks, without any reaction from the authorities. Then, the leader of the Véderő group, Tamás Eszes, bought a piece of land in the village, and with support from the locals, began organizing a ‘training camp’. This was announced in early April as a three-day event, in which participants would learn different strategies of self-defence that could be used against ‘internal and external enemies’. The organizers also declared their intention to compensate for the lack of military and physical training among Hungarian youth. The camp was organized by strict military hierarchical principles. It was to take place in the village, on Eszes’ property, on April the 22nd (the Catholic Easter weekend).[7]

The events that followed seem to be taken from a thriller movie. Panic and indignation soon burst out in the Roma community. The news quickly broke out, and the human rights watchdogs alarmed the authorities and sparked a national scandal regarding the paramilitaries.

On the night of April the 21st, the Red Cross embarked many Roma women and children on a bus (allegedly with their consent) and drove them to an unknown location, supposedly for their own protection (according to some accounts, this was a ‘planned Easter holiday’[8]). On the next morning, the village was flooded by national police forces, which arrived there for the first time since the incidents had begun a few weeks earlier. The police arrested the organizers, and the camp was cancelled. The ‘commander’ himself, Eszes, dressed in camouflage military uniform and boots and wearing a red beret, was detained by the police. Later that day, Sándor Pintér, the Hungarian minister of Interior, also arrived on the spot, in an attempt to calm the situation.

In the afternoon of that same day, groups of human rights activists and social workers arrived in the village, to show solidarity with the Roma community and to bring them food and aid.[9]

I travelled with my political affinity group to Gyöngyöspata in the evening of the 22nd of April. When we arrived, the village was in a state of tension. There were police cars everywhere, while the authorities were checking the documents of everyone who was entering the village. We were directed to the area where the Roma people were living, and where the group of human rights activists were already settled.

After a short walk through the village in the night, I realised that many of the people who came for the Véderő camp were still in the village. I saw many people wearing clothes with nationalist symbols. They were mostly hanging around a few houses in the ‘Hungarian neighbourhood’, and I took this as a sign that the local people were hosting (and hiding) them. There was little or no interaction between these people and the human rights activists. However, the atmosphere of that Easter night was extremely tense. The village was swarming with people that came from elsewhere. Both the campers and the activists were out on the streets until late hours.

I slept in the house of one of the Roma people. The man was alone in the house, since his wife and two daughters had fled the day before, with the rest of the women and children, on the Red Cross bus. He was living in a squalid house, and I remember having to pass through a hole in a wall to get in his backyard. There was not much more than a bed and a carpet in the room where I and my friends slept. He told us that the situation in the village had become unbearable. His children were constantly being harassed for being Roma. His house got attacked several times with bottles and stones during the night. To my surprise, he insisted that we sleep with the TV on, as he usually did, for fear that he would be attacked in the night.

The next day we spent time with the local Roma people. We did some basic things together, such as cleaning the creek that ran behind their houses or cooking the food that we brought from the city. At that time, we thought that these activities could be our modest contribution to these people’s lives: by being there, expressing solidarity, gathering national and international support, standing with them against the patrols and showing that they were not alone against the paramilitaries.

More than a decade later, I feel less convinced that our presence there, as human rights and antifascist activists, actually made a difference.

The Hungarian government soon issued an order that banned the usage of un-authorized military uniforms in public. However, on April the 25th the Court relieved all accused and closed the case. After his release, Eszes announced he would run for mayor in Gyöngyöspata. On the 26th of April, the remaining patrols resumed their harassment of the local Roma population.[10] This resulted in a violent clash between the patrols and the Roma, with four people being hospitalized.[11] One of these was a 14-year old boy who I met in Gyöngyöspata, one of the few kids that did not make it on the Red Cross trip. We played ball together and shared cigarettes. We were all angered to see him with a bruised face, just a few days after we saw him last time safe and sound in the village. The clash was captured by a surveillance camera, and made public by the national police.[12]

Over the summer, the government organized ‘working camps’ in the village, intended to ‘integrate’ unemployed people in the labour force. Welfare benefits were made dependent upon participating in these working camps, and the Roma population was explicitly targeted.[13] In the meantime, even if the conflict had de-escalated, some groups still patrolled for a while through the Roma neighbourhood of the village.[14]As a response to this situation, the Roma people of Hungary initiated a resistance movement. In 2012, in Miskolc, they organised a large protest against the far-right paramilitaries.[15]

Conclusions

Over the following years, we clashed several times with the Hungarian far right. Occasionally, we had some minor victories, too. However, the biggest blow to these groups was given after 2014 by the Orbán government itself, when it stole most of the far right’s ideas and made Jobbik look like centrists.

Did the presence of our group of non-Roma antifascists help in any way in these two episodes of racist violence against Roma people? It’s hard to say. I do believe, however, that, in theory, actions and practices directed against the far-right could use more involvement in targeted communities, more concrete displays of solidarity and more long term interactions. As sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists etc, we have the institutional resources to document, report and systematise knowledge about far-right groups. Yet we also have the responsibility to use this knowledge in order to weave strategies of sustainable resistance against the rise of extremism. My research on the Hungarian paramilitaries was a feeble (and perhaps, failed) attempt to go beyond gathering knowledge, towards antifascist resistance.

 

[1] In Hungarian, ‘Cigánybűnözés’. To this day, the far-right news channel Kuruc.info has a regularly updated section dedicated to this ‘concept’.Magda Matache has shown how the ‘racecraft of ‘g*psy criminality’ is a pretext for anti-Roma racism in Romania as well. See https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2020/10/5/it-is-time-reparations-are-paid-for-roma-slavery

[2]https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/eur27/001/2010/en/. See also the film ‘Just the Wind’ (‘Csak a szél’) (2012), inspired by these crimes.

[3]https://index.hu/belfold/2011/04/02/civilek_es_romak_a_jobbik_ellen_hejoszalontan/. Also, a video report from the Roma NGO Romédia Foundation, with English subtitles, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VMvIvtwgm6w

[4]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zc-YJww4huM

[5]https://hvg.hu/itthon/20110317_szebb_jovo_gyongyospata_elhagytak

[6]http://pdc.ceu.hu/archive/00006555/01/Ecopolis_Gyongyospata2012.pdf, page 16

[7]https://gyongyospatasolidarity.wordpress.com/2011/04/23/attack-of-the-guardist-clones/

[8]http://www.foxnews.com/world/2011/04/22/roma-hungary-leave-town-escape-vigilantes/

[9]https://gyongyospatasolidarity.wordpress.com/2011/04/22/easter-in-gyongyospata/

[10]http://gyongyospatasolidarity.wordpress.com/2011/04/26/via-hirszerzo-tension-burst-out-in-gyongyospata-mass-fight-and-full-blockade-of-the-town/

[11]http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-13206261

[12]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8SEBngkiC4M

[13]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EUnaw-z64t0

[14] For some details of the aftermath of the Gyöngyöspata events, see http://pdc.ceu.hu/archive/00006555/01/Ecopolis_Gyongyospata2012.pdf, pp. 37 – 41

[15]Some accounts of Roma resistance practices can be read here https://cps.ceu.edu/sites/cps.ceu.edu/files/cps-book-facing-the-far-right-2014.pdf

Scroll to Top