Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is a dispassionate and unerring provocateur. He uses deliberately despicable statements — on the death penalty, on migrants, on Roma on the European Union — to divide opinion at home and abroad. Generally, the ensuing controversy is intended, serving invariably to distract from other issues.
In a speech Saturday in Baile Tusnad, Romania, where Orban addresses a school program every summer, the prime minister's remarks were especially polarizing. He carped about "mixed-race" populations and the "flooding" of Europe with non-European migrants, and referred to the racist concept of "population exchange."
''There is a world in which European peoples are mixed together with those arriving from outside Europe,'' he said. ''Now, that is a mixed-race world.'' In the Carpathian Basin, however, people are not mixed-race, he said: ''We are simply a mixture of peoples living in our own European homeland. ... We are willing to mix with one another, but we do not want to become peoples of mixed-race.''
'Pure Nazi text'
The remarks triggered a political earthquake in Hungary. Zsuzsa Hegedus, a close friend of Orban's who was his special representative on social inclusion and modernization, has resigned. Jewish and the daughter of parents who survived the Holocaust, the sociologist Hegedus said the speech was a ''pure Nazi text'' and the discourse was one of clear ''racial hatred.'' She called it not only discriminatory, but ''completely unacceptable.''
Before Hegedus resigned, representatives of Jewish communities in Hungary had already protested Orban's choice of words. Hungarian Chief Rabbi Robert Frölich said there was "only one species on earth that walks on two legs, works, speaks and occasionally thinks: Homo sapiens — that is a single and indivisible race."
The International Auschwitz Committee also slammed Orban's statements, terming them "stupid and dangerous," and said they reminded Holocaust survivors "of the dark times of their own exclusion and persecution."
Likened to Goebbels
In a personal letter written to Orban on Tuesday, Hegedus wrote that she had no "other choice" but to resign and end her relationship with him "due to such a shameful position." She said that his speech went against all her "basic values." Later, she told the RTL Klub television channel that the speech was "worthy of Joseph Goebbels" and compared the speech to those given by Adolf Hitler. She said the Holocaust had come about because of such words.
Orban retaliated with his own letter. "You can't be serious about accusing me of racism after 20 years of working together," he wrote. "You can know that, according to my understanding, God created all people in his own image. Therefore, in the case of people like me, racism is excluded ab ovo."
Hegedus responded with an emotional letter in which she invoked her parents' survival of the Holocaust. She said that others had died because "too many people stayed silent" when hate first emerged, and that this had enabled the Nazi regime of terror.
Unprecedented public criticism
It is the first time in Orban's five terms as head of government that a close collaborator has stepped down in protest of his political remarks. Though Hegedus was not influential in his circle of power or in government, she was one of the few friends whom he trusted and whose word sometimes carried some weight with him.
Generally, there have been very few instances, even when Orban was in the opposition, of friends from his Fidesz party voicing criticism, let alone resigning. Tibor Navracsics, a former European commissioner and Hungary's current EU funds minister for EU funds, has distanced himself at times from Orban's polarizing statements. He is one of the few moderate Fidesz politicians who remains from the old guard of the 1990s. Jozsef Angyan resigned as state secretary at the Rural Development Ministry in 2013, after he accused Orban of promoting land speculators and mafia methods in agriculture. In 2015, the oligarch Lajos Simicska made headlines when he parted ways with his childhood friend Orban. He had been a key Fidesz funder and grey eminence.
Hegedus has resigned as Orban conspicuously drifts further to the right and publicly embraces racist ideologies. More and more former allies in Central and Eastern Europe are distancing themselves — on the one hand because of the general anti-democratic developments in Hungary, but also because of the country's Russia-friendly stance in view of the war in Ukraine.
Standing against racism
Within Hungary, there remain conservative intellectuals and academics who are committed to democratic values and the rule of law, and are thus increasingly dissatisfied with Orban and his party. However, a new conservative political force has yet to emerge from this corner.
Hegedus criticized the poor social and economic situation in Hungary in her interview with RTL Klub. She said it was "completely right" that the EU intended to withdraw funding as long as there were no improvements in the rule of law. She also raised the prospect of launching an initiative against racism.
"I want to cause a detonation," she said. "I have to do something to stop this."
This article was translated from German.