Hungary Insight

Orban, Europe and race: when propaganda becomes dangerous

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Budapest, Hungary – May you live in interesting times, as the proverb goes.

With the Russian invasion of Ukraine now going on for over six months, Europe facing record-breaking heatwaves, on top of global health, cost-of-living and energy crises, no wonder we often decide to rely on ready-made solutions or believe in easy explanations to alleviate the burden.

Leaders, too, may resort to rhetorical manoeuvring to shift public debate away from uncomfortable topics and bury embarrassing truths under a mass of chatter to distract the masses.

At the helm of a country on the edge of an economic crisis, worsened by high inflation, a low currency, growing rural poverty and a new record-high level of diplomatic isolation, Viktor Orban fits the profile to the T.

In his latest high-profile speech at a festival in Romania’s Baile Tusnad last month, Orban attempted to bring his rhetoric and political platform to new levels of controversy, with a discourse which has been likened to “Nazi” propaganda by one of his own long-standing advisors.

“We [Hungarians] are not a mixed race and we do not want to become a mixed race,” the Hungarian Premier said, warning against the mixing of Europeans with non-Europeans and relying on the sort of debunked racial rhetoric used throughout the 20th century by regimes we’re all too familiar with.

Orban frequently mentions the “great replacement” conspiracy theory, which claims that there is a plot to mix – and progressively replace – the white populations of the US and Western Europe through immigration. A point he also emphasized during his latest speech, claiming it was “an ideological trick of the globalist left to say that European population is already a mixed race.”

As Kafkadesk contributor Abel Bede recently argued, Orban didn’t actually say anything new in this speech, simply repeating claims he had said before with greater boldness, confidence, or even arrogance.

But there are several reasons why this speech shouldn’t be ignored.

Chiefly among them is the fact that it was made in Romania, a country with a sizeable Hungarian ethnic minority and a frequent target of the Hungarian government’s irredentist claims and transnational electioneering. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, therefore, that Romanian officials were among the first to condemn Orban’s rhetoric, along with Jewish associations and representatives.

Outcry among diplomatic and civil society circles nevertheless quickly grew, while even some Orban allies abroad – including the US – were evidently confused and unsure how to react. The Hungarian government later attempted to defuse the controversy in a tactical rhetorical retreat, but for many the harm was already done.

The speech – which also addressed topics from the war in Ukraine to rule-of-law disputes with the EU – could maybe not have come at a better time for Orban, allowing him to shift the debate away from the very tangible problems facing Hungary at the moment.

Tactical or not, the use of the “R word” is neither trivial nor inconsequential. Whether Hungarians are not sure what their Prime Minister meant or simply chose to ignore it, another red line has been crossed.

By Mark Szabo

An international relations and European politics student at Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic, Márk grew up in a bi-cultural Slovak-Hungarian family, stoking his interest in Central European politics and cross-national relations. A former intern at the Bratislava-based Globsec Institute, Márk aims for a career in diplomacy.