The artists of Budapest’s New Theater bid farewell to their audience in proper style: their last collaboration was a stage adaptation of Thomas Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain. Given the change of directors, the play will only be seen four times during the month of February. More important, however, is how life inside and outside the theater met through this choice: in the play, Hans Castorp’s suspension in philosophical contemplation comes to an abrupt interruption by political violence, essentially the same kind of violence that has shattered the company’s creative life.
As of February 1, Budapest’s New Theater is under the directorship of the Hungarian far-right. And while the message of the theater’s artists may have been too subtle, the anti-fascist protesters gathered outside the theater on the same day spoke out in much clearer terms against the political gains of far-right extremism. As if any further proof were required that fascism is more than just a fictional element in Hungarian public discourse, neo-nazi paramilitary groups disturbed the event by their counter-protest.
The occasion for the clash between supporters for and against fascism (what a curious contest, one should add) was the appointment of György Dörner to the directorial position of Budapest’s New Theater. The job was awarded to the actor under controversial circumstances by Budapest’s mayor István Tarlós, against the recommendations of the expert panel recruited to evaluate the applications.
Dörner’s application discusses the actor’s claim for the theater in terms of a “just redivision of theaters” which, as he states, is just as much of a current issue as the just redivision of land. In the same document, he vows to limit the theater’s repertoire to Hungarian plays and to rename the theater “Hinterland” (or Home Front) Theater.
At the time of his appointment, Dörner also indicated that he would name István Csurka as the theater’s “intendant.” Originally a play-wright, Csurka is better known today as the main ideologist behind the ultra-nationalist and anti-semitic Hungarian Truth and Life Party – currently a fringe group in Hungarian politics. Dörner, whose political affiliations with far-right parties have been proven in many ways throughout the years, declares openly in the application that his ideas about theater derive from Csurka, whom he refers to as his “fatherly friend.”
Dörner’s selection as the director of the Budapest theater resulted in international outcry. As Markus Kupferblum wrote in a memorandum to be read in theaters all over Europe this week, his appointment “broke taboo.” Letters were pouring in from luminaries of the performing arts from all over Europe (see, for example, an open letter placed in the Guardian this month, or a letter by the European Theatre Convention from last October); a petition protesting the decision was circulated among the citizenry n Hungary. Many among the artists and the creative staff in New Theater have already made up their mind to leave the company. Hungarian play-wrights are refusing to co-operate with Dörner or grant rights to the institution now under his leadership.
In response to the protests, Tarlós overrode his own appointee on the most outstanding points of controversy - as such, the theater will remain to be known as New Theater and Csurka may not participate in the work of the institution in an official function – but the earliest he is willing to review his decision is a year from the start of the theater’s operations under the new director.
This seems to be the overall strategy of the Hungarian government in their attempts to appease international critics. Though Budapest’s mayor was willing to make token admissions of his disapproval of the political agenda of his appointee, he stood steadfast in his decision. Tarlós, who won the mayoral seat of Budapest on a Fidesz ticket, seems to enjoy the full support of Hungary’s government: ministerial-level officers or the prime minister at no point thought it necessary to question the appointment or to distance themselves from Tarlós’ decision.
In fact, the New Theater affair was only one among many other initiatives in the Hungarian government’s right-wing culture wars - which were far from limited to the performing arts.
Protests have taken place against the appointment before, and as such it was little surprise that one would also be held on February 1, the day on which György Dörner was to officially take over leadership of the institution. What was different this time around, however, is that groups with militaristic agendas, extreme even by the standards of the Hungarian far-right, registered their intention to counter-protest the demonstration. Previously, far-right party Jobbik and the various para-military organizations close to the party were also critical of Dörner’s appointment: in the past, Dörner has always been closer affiliated with Csurka’s Hungarian Truth and Life Party, their far-right rival.
This time, however, not long after MEASZ – the Magyar Ellenállók és Antifasiszták Szövetsége, the Hungarian Resistance Fighters’ and Antifascists’ Alliance - announced its intention to stage a final protest against the replacement of New Theater’s old director, several far-right organizations called on their members to stage a counter-protest. In the following words:
“The ‘tolerants,’ who are tolerant exclusively of themselves, naturally cannot accept that one small institution of cultural life, otherwise dominated by anti-Hungarians, does not wish to play to their tunes. Their almost total rule of the media; the talentless and hateful jewish wirtschaft imposed on our film making; the holocaust business and gypsy species-protection taking place, publicly funded, in our schools and on every channel; defaming and pumping our nation at an industrial scale are not enough for them. They are right, by the way, because … even a small drop of the truth might serve as a catalyst to the collpase of their satanist empire. Yes, the so-called anti-fascists have skin on their face and hoof [on their feet] to protest on February 1, just because the excellent Hungarian actor György Dörner ‘dares’ to direct a theater.
Let’s not let [this happen], let’s show these zionist scums that the country is our homeland and not their lease-site. …”
This announcement was issued collectively by a number of organizations. Betyársereg (a group whose self-professed aim is to “resurrect the genetics of the Hungarian fighter,” and whose leader Zsolt Tyirityán made remarks in August about “pulling the trigger on a rifle, for example at the sight of a skin color of any shade [other than white]”) was one of them. The New Hungarian Guard, Sixty-Four Counties Youth Movement, the Hungarian National Front and the Somló Guardshield Alliance (Somló Védpajzs Szövetség) was also among the official signatories.
It is likely that several other groups brought sympathizers to the counter-demonstration. For example, members of the For a Better Future Civic Guards were seen at the protest, and though Jobbik did not officially join the mobilization, the party’s legal personnel were seen at the demonstration’s site. Balázs Lenhardt, a Jobbik member of the Hungarian parliament, and László Toroczkai, president of the Sixty-Four Counties Youth Movement and regional representative of Jobbik, were among the counter-protesters.
If the protest outside of the theater had not been targeted by such a wide-reaching alliance of far-right paramilitary organizations, it would hardly have warranted international attention: only several hundreds gathered to protest Dörner’s appointment, as well as fascism in all of its manifestations. Vilmos Hanti, president of MEASZ urged those present not to allow the far-right to spread further in the country. For this goal, every democrat and anti-fascist must come together, he told the demonstrators. Fruzsina Magyar, another speaker at the rally quoted in translation by the AP told the audience that “[w]e have to unite against this extremist, murderous ideology. To oppose it is not a political issue, but a moral one.”
The counter-protesters of these sentiments numbered approximately two to three-hundred protesters; according to their spokesperson, they had arrived on buses from all over the country. As only a month ago at the protest outside of the Opera House – which is only a block away from New Theater’s building – yet again the police failed to separate the two protesting groups. It is impossible that they did not anticipate a confrontation: that both the anti-fascist league and members of far-right paramilitaries would hold a protest has been known for a week.
As a result, a group of about fifty far-right protesters were able to position themselves in the middle of the crowd, close to the stage. Their yelling and hassling made it difficult to proceed with the plans of the demonstration. Announcements were made from the stage asking the counter-protesters to leave, to no avail. “Nazis, go home!” chanted the crowd. “Dirty Jews! Traitors!” yelled the counter-protesters in response.
It was at this point that police in riot gear entered the crowd to separate the two groups of protesters. According to eye-witnesses, the counter-protesters clashed with the police; several from the far-right groups were brought down on the ground by the police, two or perhaps three individuals were taken into custody.
At the conclusion of the program, the participants of the anti-fascist demonstration left in close formation, guarded on both sides by the police, to join another demonstration under way on Kossuth Square, where the István Bibó Society for Public Life held its remembrance of the declaration of the second republic of Hungary. The group was followed by the counter-protesters, who continued their disruption throughout the second protest, though this time without incidents or arrests.
You can watch a video of the protest outside of New Theater here:
At around 0:30 in the clip, the counter-protesters are trying to push through the line of police separating them from the anti-fascist protesters. Between o:43 and 1:00, the speaker is interrupted by the counter-protesters, who are chanting “hazaárulók” (traitors). At 1:00, the demonstrators chant “nácik haza” (nazis go home); and the announcement is made to the police that their aid is requested against the counter-protesters at 1:08. At 1:40 you can hear one of the protesters yell “rohadt zsidók” (damn jews), followed by more ”nácik haza” (nazis go home) from the protesters. Be sure to watch all the way to the end, where you can see the Guards and hear their battle cry: “Adjon az isten” (God give us) – “szebb jövőt” (a better future).
Related: I recently posted information about news of a recent court decision, which makes it possible for the Hungarian Guard to continue existing in this manner in spite of being officially banned.