BUDAPEST –Amid street protests that turned violent around the 50th anniversary of Hungary’s famous anti-Soviet uprising, one visual has struck Hungarian Jews: the growing ubiquity of the country’s centuries-old Arpad flag.
The red-and-white striped flag may best capture the aggressive mood of Hungarian politics today.
With roots tracing back more than 800 years to a medieval dynasty, the flag was expropriated by the notorious Hungarian Arrow Cross Party, whose Nazi-installed puppet regime in late 1944 began murdering thousands of Budapest Jews, many of whom were shot and dumped into the Danube River.
“Many Jews know it’s a historic flag, and if they’re going to bring 100 different flags from the Middle Ages, including the Arpad flag, no one’s going to be disturbed,” says Peter Feldmajer, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Hungary. “But if they only bring the Arpad flag, that symbolizes that they’re the inheritors of the Arrow Cross movement. It’s a symbol of murder and mass murder.”
There is a crucial difference: The Arrow Cross emblazoned its black or green emblem on the Arpad flag, while today’s demonstrators wave the red-and-white stripes free of any Arrow Cross insignia — if for no other reason, because the Arrow Cross logo is now illegal.
The Communist regime, which seized power in 1948-49, banned the Arrow Cross symbol and the flag itself. Four decades later, after communism collapsed, newly democratic Hungary banned the Arrow Cross emblem, plus other symbols of totalitarianism like the Nazi swastika and Communist red star. But the Arpad flag itself remains legal and is one of many official flags in the Hungarian Parliament.
Shorn of the Arrow Cross, it’s impossible to know exactly what the flag-wavers mean, or if they comprehend the crimes committed under the flag against fellow Hungarians six decades ago.
But for critics of the right wing, the flag-wavers “are a soft target, because how do you prove you’re not a fascist?” says Sebestyen Gorka, executive director of the Institute for Transitional Democracy and International Security, a conservative think tank in Budapest. “If you say eight centuries of history can be eradicated by 18 months of fascist distortion of symbols, you’re losing historic perspective.”
Which raises the question: What’s in a flag?
Similar controversies have dogged the swastika — a three-millennia-old symbol for good luck before it was embraced by the Nazis — while the Confederate flag in the United States represents the Old South to some, slavery to many others.
In a more direct parallel to Hungary, Croatia stirred anxiety in the early 1990s when freedom from the former Yugoslavia led to reintroduction of the ancient Croat red-and-white checkerboard flag. The Holocaust-era Ustashe movement had co-opted the flag, superimposed a “U,” then deported thousands of Serbs and Jews under it to the Jasenovac concentration camp.
Like defenders of the Arpad flag today, Croats argued that a relative blip in history, however bloody, should not irreparably stain a long-standing symbol of nationhood.
But the Arpad flag’s potential double-meaning doesn’t mean there will soon be anti-Semitic pogroms, one Jewish observer says — although some Jews noted a newspaper report that some protesters were headed for the famed Dohany Synagogue before police turned them away.
“It’s understandable that it’s very frightening for Jews, but I don’t think the people who use it are necessarily Arrow Cross supporters,” says Andras Kovacs, director of the Jewish Studies Project at Central European University in Budapest. “They see it as a symbol of a tendency they would like to display: the traditional Hungarian extreme right.”
Observers say that may also explain why Fidesz, the mainstream right-wing party, doesn’t distance itself from the Arpad flag-wavers.
Fidesz’s leader, former Prime Minister Viktor Orban, long has been accused of overtures to the far right, beginning with his ascent to the premiership in 1998. Later, he was accused of remaining silent as anti-Jewish incidents mounted.
Orban and Fidesz were voted out in 2002. But two far-right parties have since disintegrated, so Fidesz today leads a vast right wing, encompassing all stripes.
The movement has been buoyed by the audio-taped, obscenity-laced admission by current Socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany that he lied to voters “morning, evening and night” about the country’s economic health in order to get re-elected earlier this year.
Mass protests turned violent Sept. 18, as several hundred far-right extremists and soccer hooligans clashed with police for three nights.
Gyurcsany refuses to resign, while Orban is accused of inciting the masses.
Prior to local elections, Orban reportedly said a sweeping Fidesz victory — which happened Oct. 1– would legitimize an “assault against the government.” More recently, he has branded the Socialist-led government “illegitimate.”
With the Arpad flag now a regular fixture at Fidesz public events, interspersed with the traditional Hungarian tricolor of red, white and green bars, even some non-Jews — including a leading liberal politician — suggest a link.
For its part, Fidesz officials say the party’s Socialist and liberal foes are playing politics.
“Those critics who are making the Arpad flag an issue want to distract attention from the real questions that need to be addressed, such as why Hungary is in a moral and financial crisis after six years of Socialist-liberal rule, who caused it, and why can a prime minister who confessed that he lied for years and did nothing that could be called governing for four years still be in power,” Andras Cser-Palkovics, a Fidesz spokesman, wrote to JTA.
Cser-Palkovics declined to answer questions about whether the party encourages or discourages use of the flag, or if its silence on the issue effectively condones it.
In contrast, the Jewish community’s Feldmajer says the leader of the small, conservative Christian Democratic party assured him last week that he will bar members from waving the Arpad flag at future party gatherings.
Yet the issue remains relevant — for the sake of democracy, one analyst says.
“Those who wave Arpad flags see Fidesz as a much more credible party than the Socialists, which is seen as absolutely illegitimate, so Fidesz has a responsibility to make clear what is an acceptable right-wing agenda in a democratic society and what is not,” says Balazs Aron Kovacs, program officer for Freedom House in Budapest. “I hope Fidesz will speak out — sooner rather than later.”