Note from LeftEast editors: The following piece was first published on the Global Social Change Blog. We reprint it with permission.
Below please find an incriminated paragraph from Orbán’s rambling, recent speech, given before a couple hundred, predominantly middle-“class”, middle-aged fans at an open-air right-wing political festival in northern Romania.
The speech has been widely criticized, with reason. I do think, however, that the international criticism has missed three–in my reading, fundamental–aspects of Orbán’s identity positioning exercise. As a result of those omissions, the commentaries I have encountered are able to offer critiques that are, at best, somewhat inadequate to size up the monstrosity we are looking at. They also often speak from geopolitical positions that make them foreground / emphasize other aspects of Orbán’s rhetoric, features that may be more relevant through a west European or north American geopolitical lens than for the “central European” political culture in which Orbán operates. There is also a nagging mistranslation in all the references to the speech, something that needs to be fixed in order to be able to catch an important clue.
So, I present my own English translation, with some contextualizing comments. The source is the website of the Hungarian Prime Minister’s office. I insert the comments in bold print. If you find the translation bouncy, that is because I aim to preserve the inconsistencies, ungrammatical features, not to mention the flowery style 😉 etc. of the original.
‘There’s this ideological trick that needs to be talked about and paid attention to in such a multiethnic context (he is referring to Transylvania, a northern region of Romania, where the festival took place). The international left has a trick, an ideological trap: The claim that the peoples that live in Europe are, as such, of mixed species(sic . . . throughout the speech, Orbán used the term “faj” (species) to refer to what is commonly called “race.” This cannot be taken as a one-off misspeaking; he uses the same term the same way throughout this speech, altogether 4 FOUR times only in this paragraph–see the green markers. This is a truly significant clue as the substitution of “species” for “race” is a terminological marker of the explicitly nazi / fascist extreme-extreme right. Nazi dogma is referred to, in Magyar, as “fajelmélet” (‘species theory’) and this was the official terminology of the Arrow Cross, the fascist-white-supremacist vigilante group that came to power in Hungary on October 15, 1944, assaulting, raping, torturing and murdering staggering numbers of fellow citizens until Hungary was liberated in April 1945. I find it telling, and frustrating, that all international coverage and official condemnations have missed this reference). That is a historical and semantic trick because it confuses different things. For, there is that world where peoples arriving outside Europe (ungrammatical wording in the original) mix with European peoples. Well, that’s a mixed species world (“kevert fajú világ” — from earlier parts of the speech, it is clear that the “world” he talks about is a reference to western Europe, about which the speaker declared at an earlier point that it “ceased to be western,” for it ostensibly allows inflows of, and aims to integrate, people from outside Europe. NB, there is no mention of colonialism, the slave trade, resource expropriation, forced labor, etc. here; the entire history of the last 500 years of colonial capitalism is glanced over, ignored.) And then there are we, where [sic] intra-European peoples mix with one another [sic]: they move, get jobs and relocate (to be noted the shift in the narrative perspective expressed in the change of the personal pronoun from “we” to “they”–he distances himself from facts of migration even if central Europeans do it to western Europe). As a result, in the Carpathian Basin for instance, we are not of mixed species, we are simply a mixture of peoples that live in its (the reference to a single European “people” is so important for Orbán that he slips into a grammar mistake: “peoples . . . its”) European home. And when the stars are positioned luckily, and the wind direction is good, then these peoples also merge into a Hungarian-Pannonian sauce [sic] (I am not sure where that “sauce” metaphor comes from, I am not aware of it in Magyar), creating a new European culture of their own. That (it is unclear from the text what the “that” refers to here: the stars, the wind, the “merging” of “peoples”, the “sauce”, or the “new European culture”) is what we (it is undefined who the “we” is–but the implied emic reading is, clearly, that it is some version of “Europe” / Christianity / Hungarianness) have always fought for. We are willing to mix with one another but we refuse to become of mixed species; that is why we have fought at Nándorfehérvár (here Orbán is asking his audience to recall their school history texts about a historical event, the unsuccessful Ottoman Siege of Belgrade of 1456CE–using the historicizing place name Nándorfehérvár–a significant victory for Christian forces against the Ottoman army).
that is why we have stopped the Turk (here he uses the common slip in Hungarian historical consciousness referring to the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire as “Turks” or “Turkey”; also notice the usage “the Turk” as opposed to “Turks”, . . . something that sounds like a literal borrowing from Austrian German where the extreme right refers to Turkish-born residents, or people “of immigration background” from Turkey as “der Türke”–Orbán’s first state visit after the Tusványos speech was to the Austrian capital, so possibly this is a gesture at the Austrian extreme right as well as Austria’s right-wing–albeit clearly less extreme than Orbán–Chancellor Nehammer) at Vienna (here Orbán refers to the Battle of Vienna of 1529CE, an event where Christian armies prevented the Ottoman Empire from being able to occupy Vienna), and that is why the French (should be “the Franks” or “the Frankish army” . . . as it is patently absurd to refer to the eighth century inhabitants of today’s France as “the French”–about that, see Eugen Weber’s standard history text Peasants into Frenchmen, not to mention the entire scholarship on nationalism emerging in the context of capitalism, gaining momentum in the 19th century) stopped the Arabs (again an ahistorical reference to the eight-century Muslim armies raised in al-Andalus as “the Arabs,” echoing the way in which the extreme right speaks in Europe) at Poitiers (this refers to the Battle of Tours, sometimes also called, confusingly, the Battle of Poitiers, of 732CE defeating the invading forces of the Umayyad Califate, laying the foundations of the Carolingian Empire, known as a rallying point for the west European far right today–not to be mistaken for the Battle of Poitiers of 1356CE, part of the Hundred Years War.)
Today’s situation is that the Islamic civilization (note that he insists on a singular “Islamic civilization”, resulting in a denial of multiplicity to this extremely complex phenomenon), constantly on the move toward Europe (he ignores the longue-durée presence of Islam in Europe, e.g., on the Balkans, in the European part of Turkey, in the Crimea, using a mixed metaphor, referring to a “civilization” that has agency, putatively, to be “on the move”), has realized (Orbán, clearly, personifies what he has just defined as a “civilization”, i.e., an inanimate object, only a few seconds ago) that the route through Hungary is not passable–precisely because of the Nándorfehérvár traditions–to dispatch (again a “civilization” is personified, to the point of having a quasi-military character) its people [sic] to Europe. (To be noted is how Orbán reproduces that feature of anti-refugee, anti-human-rights and anti-migration rhetoric in Europe which ignores the fact of the wars in western Asia and north Africa and the role of many European states–Hungary very much included–in perpetuating the genocides of those wars.) Hence they (presumably, the followers of “Islamic civilization”–i.e., we have now shifted to vilifying refugees as well as labor migrants) have re-played Poitiers, coming in not from the east but the south. From there they occupy [and] flood the West and all that will leave a very important task–perhaps not for us but for our children. We must defend ourselves not only from the southern but also from the eastern [direction] and the time will come when we will need to accept the arriving Christians, and we must insert them into our life. Such things have happened before and those whom we do not wish to accept, Schengen or not, will have to be stopped at our western borders. But that is not a task for today, not the challenge of our lives today. Our job is only to prepare our children to be able to do that. As László Kövér (President of the Hungarian Parliament, a founding member of Orbán’s party and his long time friend) said in an interview: We must be vigilant to make sure that good times should not raise weak people lest the weak people bring bad times on the heads of our people.”
I conclude, this part of Orbán’s speech–which outlines his identity politics–has three defining features
- It suffuses official political rhetoric in Hungary with a fear of miscegenation. This is new. In that sense Orbán’s is not promoting, strictly speaking, a rhetoric of replacement; it is more a rhetoric of what Mary Douglas called purity and danger. This might be a small and pedantic-looking distinction, but it is important if we are to understand the character of the phenomenon. This is particularly relevant to scholars working in the burgeoning field of creolization and European “White” resistance thereto, and related subjects. This horror of “cultural” “creolization” / “miscegenation” resonates in Hungary so strongly that even a statement designed to condemn Orbán’s speech for its obvious racism, put out by the Presidium of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, yields to Orbán in saying that, and I quote, “cultural mixing might have a fertilizing effect (sic) assisting social development (sic) but it can also be a source of significant tensions (sic).” (Emphasis added.) (“A kulturális keveredés hathat megtermékenyítőleg, segítve a társadalmi fejlődést, de jelentős feszültségek forrása is lehet.” Az én kiemelésem.)
- Orbán’s speech uses a set of oblique, even technical, historical references. I suspect the historical objects to which those references point are not readily available to a majority of his audience. In other words, Orbán talks “over the heads” of most of his fans–while instilling in them a national historical consciousness of past “grandeur.” That the referents of those historical allusions are hazy, at best, for his listeners is not a problem from a rhetorical point of view: For its intended effects to work it is enough for the fans to realize that the the events he mentions are something to be “proud” of. That emotive content, clearly, shines through the text. His references foreground him as an aficionado of historical events, especially past “victories” from a European / Christian / “White” narrative position–vaguely reminiscent of a small town history teacher talking to his students, a benign conservative grandpa, not unlike many of his followers. It also follows that, more broadly, those histories have never gone away, no matter how long ago they may have taken place and no matter how different their social contexts may have been. Those events of the past that have stayed with “us,” Orbán insists. I would argue they not only “stayed” in a passive sense; those murky historical references to putative “European” / “Christian” / “White” grandeur are actually key, active factors that help create Orbán’s “us.” That, in this process, he manages to invoke the eight-century Frankish victory over the Umayyad Empire–an event that took place more than 150 years before the Magyar tribes even arrived in the Carpathian Basin as steppe nomad fighters, whose offspring would only take up, grudgingly, Christianity another 100 years later, in the year 1000CE–is, apparently, not a problem for Hungarian nationalist historical consciousness. Such are the workings of what I have recently defined as the compelling “dirty white” (for an explanation of what I mean by “dirty white” vs “Eurowhite” self- and other-racialization and the resulting compulsions, check here) anxiety and insistence on being seen and accepted (first and foremost by “dirty white” subjects), of “worth” equal to Eurowhite subjects, that nobody in Hungarian historiography, nor anyone more broadly, in the overall historicist conversation in Hungarian nationalist consciousness, has thematized that discrepancy. That the Frankish victory over the Umayyad army is “our” (i.e., “Hungarian”? or “Hungarian-Pannonian?” or “central European?”) victory–even though neither did it take place in Hungary / the Carpathian Basin / “central Europe” nor has it involved anyone that could be designated as “Hungarian” or from the Carpathian Basin, etc.–goes without saying in Hungary. Here we see the workings of a leading “dirty white” subject, twisting history to accommodate the project of “proving” the “European” / Christian / Eurowhite credentials of a politicized “dirty white” position, something he occupies / articulates. That, clearly, is a centerpiece of his identity project.
- Orbán does all that reviving, ever so brazenly and unapologetically, a term from the Arrow Cross party from the period of immediately preceding and during World War II. The Arrow Cross committed unspeakable atrocities of genocide during the war and their leader was tried, and hanged, for war crimes afterwards. It is that intellectual, emotional and moral tradition that Orbán is invoking, without openly endorsing it by name. That linguistic shift is a crucial component to his message.
Mainstream western media reports and area expert commentaries have, predictably, missed all three of those features. In many ways Orbán’s speech was more telling, and considerably “worse”, than what western media reports have noticed / reported. Sometimes it helps to take the context into consideration.
József Böröcz is Professor of Sociology at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. To find out more about his scholarship, consult: http://rutgers.academia.edu/jborocz .