“It’s an absolutely classic strategy. If you create a fear of the outside, you will unite those who support you. And you will make those who are not naturally your supporters afraid to stand against you.”
“The sealing up of nation-states is a very retrogressive move. It’s almost kind of perverse in a period when travel and movement is so much faster, easier, and more natural to make connections with people in other places.”
– George Szirtes, Hungarian-born British poet
George Szirtes left Hungary in 1956 at the age of 8. He says his parents originally wanted to go to Australia where they had relatives who had settled there in 1948, but that his mother’s poor health prevented them.
Raised a Lutheran in Transylvania, Szirtes’ mother was the only member of her family to survive the Holocaust. His father served in a forced-labor brigade attached to the Hungarian army in Belorussia, from which he managed to escape.
Commenting on his parents’ decision to avail themselves of the opportunity to leave Hungary in 1956 with their eight-year-old son, the poet observes that “they had a proper home in Hungary but were never quite secure”. He considers his family to have been “political migrants” rather than “refugees” in 1956.
Despite being Hungarian by birth, Szirtes primarily identifies himself as being British. However, as an adult he sought to return somewhat to his Hungarian roots. Participating in the 1989 marches and demonstrations he said he turned back after crossing the Chain Bridge thinking “I’m not Hungarian. I can’t quite do this”.
“Somethings belong to the Hungarian experience and the Hungarian language but I wasn’t part of the bundle. I had spent most of my life here (in Great Britain),” says the poet.
Szirtes calls “a great shame”, “mean spirited” and “dangerous” the “attitude, rhetoric and language” used by the government of Viktor Orbán against “mostly helpless people” in that he believes Hungarians are more generous than this.
“The rhetorical drive coming from the government was utterly shameful. I didn’t expert to hear such xenophobic drivel coming from the government but cannot say I was surprised”.
An outspoken critic of the government, Szirtes says its anti-migrant rhetoric is a “natural outcome” of the “takeover of cultural institutions that has been going on” in Hungary under Fidesz since 2010 — a time of a “serious cultural regress” in his opinion.
“I kind of think of it as a return to the 1930s, in fact a rehabilitation of figures from the 1930s. More than a rehabilitation, a celebration,” says Szirtes, referring to the rehabilitation of Second World War writers whose work was strongly anti-semitic.
“I think (the government of Hungary) is not only less generous but more dangerous and hostile to its own people,” says Szirtes, who sees the government’s attempt to exploit Hungarians’ historically grounded fear of being invaded as “political opportunism”.
“It’s an absolutely classic strategy. If you create a fear of the outside, you will unite those who support you. And you will make those who are not your supporters afraid to stand against you.”
On “Christian Europe” being under threat
On whether the predominantly Muslim immigrants pose a threat to “European Christendom” he answers in the negative. “I don’t see people here burning down churches.” Nor does he believe it will ever happen.
And he does not believe the term “Christian Europe” is especially meaningful.
“One has an idea of a human Europe which is informed by Christianity, classical civilization, Judaism and kinds of other forces coming from the outside. We couldn’t imagine a lot of science and mathematics without the Islamic world. So there’s an idea of Europe at stake, but it’s not the idea of Europe they are suggesting it is.”
Szirtes observes that the EU is “under tremendous tension and great pressure” and it’s a bad time to hold a referendum. He says he would be “very sorry” if Britain were to leave the EU.
“The sealing up of nation-states is a very retrogressive move. It’s almost kind of perverse in a period when travel and movement is so much faster, easier and more natural to make connections with people in other places.”
Szirtes says that while the refugee problem is “very difficult” there are “more humane approaches” to solving it, adding that “one has to have some sort of idea of what the EU exists for apart from ease of commerce or leveling of a legal playing field”.
“There are pressures in all nations towards the reaffirmation of national unity, or what they perceive of national unity” says the poet, observing that the British Conservative Party is worried about the defection of conservative voters to anti-EU parties. He says the relationship of the Conservative Party to the main anti-EU party is not dissimilar to the relationship between Fidesz and Jobbik. “In political terms they have to present an oppositional face to each” but ideologically they are not dissimilar.
The role of responsible government
Szirtes believes xenophobic, nationalistic instincts exist in every country, but that “one of the obligations of a decent government is not to exacerbate those feelings and to try to allay fears when the fears seem unreasonable”.
He says Orbán’s comment about Hungary not asking other European countries to take its gypsies “was a monstrous thing to say”.
“Hungarians are just as capable of behaving well as anybody else. This is part of nationalist nonsense. If you treat your people as though they were a special breed of humanity (they’ll act accordingly). They’re human beings. If you treat them as human being they’ll behave like human beings. Sure, they have specific problems, they have specific histories, fears, and you have to address them. But the role of government leadership is to encourage that which favors the humane because it has contributed to a better world for most people”.
On the Hungarian government’s claim to “represent the Hungarian people” and its tendency to brand those who disagree with it “traitors”, Szirtes says it is a “low tactic” for any government to claim that “we are the people”.
“They are not the people, they are representatives of the people. . . . I would be suspicious of any government that claimed to be the voice of the people, thereby excluding anybody who agrees with us as disagreeing with the people. . . . All it is is making a distinction between those in a position to govern and those for whom they are governing. They are not the same. They are never, ever the same. And if you claim they are the same, you are heading for a rather extremist form of government . . . which, I think, in effect, is what is happening” in Hungary.