Agata Diduszko-Zyglewska: You are a teacher, a poet and a founder of a prodemocratic resistance NGO ”The Uncalled For”. Before you tell me about your activities, I would like to ask: what do you find the most dangerous as the ruling party strategies are concerned?
Júlia Lázár: One of the most painful phenomena is the restriction of the rights of the Constitutional Court, because this was the only body which could control the process of law-making. As Fidesz and Christian Democrats have the two-thirds of all votes in the Parliament, now they can achieve whatever they want. If tomorrow they decide that all people with long noses must be taken to prison, they will have it accepted in the Parliament. Before, the Constitutional Court could stop some changes in the law and the constitution like criminalizing homeless people or destroying the autonomy of universities. Now these tools have been taken away. The present students’ contracts are breaking the European Union regulations, but the Parliament is forcing many more amendments reintroducing laws which were previously rejected by the Constitutional Court. This is the crucial modus operandi of the authorities: removing or disarming the institutions which would normally control democratic procedures. And the society is silent.
Why do Hungarians approve of this antidemocratic direction?
61% of people went to vote. The ruling coalition’s success of getting two-thirds of the seats in the Parliament is (among other things) due to the fact that before the elections Orban managed to change the electoral rules and boundaries. As Budapest was perceived as a ”dangerous” city – the nest of the opposition – the ruling coalition started looking for new voters abroad. They encouraged Hungarians who lived across the border to get more active, and they facilitated the process of applying for a second citizenship in Hungary. Now if you live in Transylvania and one day you feel you’re Hungarian, you can immediately apply for citizenship – you are accepted right away and then you can vote. You don’t have to have an address in Hungary and you can vote by mail. At the same time ‘regular’ Hungarian citizens working abroad had to queue at embassies. Such tiny smart moves built up the prevalence of the two-thirds for the ruling coalition.
You told me that another efficient strategy of Fidesz is rewriting history.
In the moment of crisis, when about 40% of people are living in poverty and the economic dissatisfaction is growing, the populist slogans referring to the heroic past help to keep people’s minds away from the present. We are Hungarian, we are a big nation, let’s talk about our historic borders. Of course this attitude demands cleansing the history of the less heroic elements. A good example of this strategy is the memorial of the German occupation built now on the Square of Freedom in Budapest. Hungary is portrayed as the Archangel Gabriel attacked by the German eagle. This image of poor, innocent Hungary is an obvious attempt of whitewashing the Hungarian role in the Holocaust. Now it turns out that Hungary was suffering from German occupation and evil Germans took Jews to Auschwitz all by themselves. Unfortunately, it is simply not true as the Arrow Cross Party members and policemen actively contributed to the deaths of six hundred thousand people. Even Eichmann was stunned by their activity and speed.
Is there any social reaction?
For more than eighty days people have been demonstrating every day. Not many, about a hundred people each day between 4 and 7 p.m. were making a living chain. I was also there sometimes. We were singing around this monument, there were speakers every day and what was very moving, there was the so called living monument against the Archangel Gabriel, consisting of objects people brought to the place: photos, letters, candles, books. These things were placed in front of the future monument, and everyday new objects appeared. This demonstration had a permission to last till June 16th and it is prolonged again and again. For this reason or other the memorial is not yet finished.
[quote align=’right’]In the moment of crisis, when about 40% of people are living in poverty and the economic dissatisfaction is growing, the populist slogans referring to the heroic past help to keep people’s minds away from the present. [/quote]The monument not only whitewashes our history, but it’s also artistically weak as experts stated. There was even a conference organized in the Hungarian Academy of Science during which quite a lot of historians stated that history shouldn’t be treated like this. But the state founded a new historical institute called Veritas. Its director is appointed by the prime minister and it openly aims at shaping history according to the ruling party’s wishes. The institute started its activity in the year of the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust in Hungary, stating that police actions in 1941 were regular activities against foreigners.
In Poland during the last several years, thanks to some publications, we have been having a national discussion of Polish-Jewish relations during the time of the Holocaust. Did a similar process happen at some point in Hungary? And how did the media react to the controversial memorial?
The new media law restricts the possible reaction of media. According to this law, the governing party supervises the national public media and it extends to the social media. That’s why it’s very hard to reach the public. The main media have become the mouth of the ruling party.
After the Second World War and during the years of socialism, there was silence about the Holocaust. As some people returned and some didn’t, it was a very fresh wound, but of course what had happened was well known. So gradually the silence covered everything. As if it was tactful. People didn’t speak about it, books weren’t published, and it wasn’t the topic of an open discussion.
This led to a dangerous result. After 1989, when the system changed, the freedom of speech was very important for the new liberal party. That’s why they strongly opposed any laws sanctioning hate speech. And they were strong enough to block any other parties’ attempts to introduce such laws. So hate speech was not sanctioned at all in Hungary. Quite soon, in 1992, the first swastikas appeared in the public sphere. A party [MIÉP] started to speak about the Jewish question again and to make very nasty remarks. Antisemitism became visible in many different circles e. g. in the old Writers’ Association. That’s why the new one had to be created.
[quote align=’right’]One problem that we have to deal with is that people are frightened because all these things add up to a pretty terrifying reality. The second problem is efficient communication. [/quote]Most Jewish people who survived in Hungary have assimilated and become invisible, but still they continued to be here. And again, the older ones started being afraid of going out or just watching the news showing the ultraright party members in black clothes and black boots saying: we want order. The problem is that the antisemitic attitude of the ultrarights was not alarming for other citizens as they covered it by other activities. They pretended to be responsible citizens, who want to make law and order in the country. As such, the ultraright agrees with the ruling party. Half a year ago an ultraright M.P proposed to create a list of Jewish MPs in the Hungarian Parliament.
How did society react to this proposal?
The intelligentsia tried to introduce some kind of public discussion, but according to the statistics we now have about four million of poor people, and they are very vulnerable to extremist opinions. They desperately want to know who’s responsible for their growing poverty. The ruling party is happy when somebody finds a scapegoat. So we have about seven hundred thousand rightists now.
What was the direct reason that made you act?
The reason was the law concerning education introduced in 2011. It was so revolting that I couldn’t be a teacher anymore and take part in it. According to this law, policemen appeared in schools instead of psychologists, and according to another law, the kids could be judged in courts from the age of 12. I resigned from teaching, but I started to participate in the demonstrations. After my first speech, other teachers were crying and sharing with me their feeling of loneliness. I wanted to do something about it. I wanted to check at least how many colleagues of one hundred and sixty thousand teachers think in a similar way about what’s going on with the education. I wanted to test how many people we can rely on, and I started the Facebook group, and it was joined not only by teachers, but also by actors, intellectuals and others who wanted to get information, to have contact and do something against silence and ignorance. In two weeks, this secret group grew to five thousand people.
Is it still secret? Can we write about it?
Since then we have organized lots of things and The Uncalled For have changed into a network. We have a website now, we have an open page on Facebook and we have groups that work on different issues. We have organized publications, demonstrations. However, now the group members are very depressed with the results of April elections. We are thinking how to unite forces with other civil groups.
We are a part of the Human Platform, which is a civil group that tries to unite other civil groups. They received money from the Norwegian Fund. Unfortunately, after the re-election, the Norwegian Fund was attacked by the Hungarian government. It’s ridiculous also because 90% of these funds are distributed by the state. The nongovernmental organizations have been given only 10 % of the money in a completely transparent way. But as NGOs are not welcome, the state accused them of leftist attitudes, which is not true in case of many of them. It’s pretty well-balanced depending on their main area of interest.
What are the future plans of The Uncalled For? What are your main problems? How can the international community help you?
One problem that we have to deal with is that people are frightened because all these things add up to a pretty terrifying reality. The second problem is efficient communication. It is really difficult to protest if you have no structure and no media. Of course there are some social media. The opposition has some newspapers, one TV channel, one radio, but all these reach maximum half a million people, the same people. And what about the rest? Some of them are leaving the country, majority of them are very poor, and they are not interested in politics, the truth of the Holocaust and things like that. They want to have their daily meal or timber to heat their houses. They have no tools to understand what’s going on and they are a very easy target for government propaganda. We have to reach them and help them understand the situation.
Janos Kornai, a professor at Central European University, recently made a speech at a conference entitled ”The Threatening Danger”. He described the situation in Hungary as a dangerous change from democracy to autocracy, which occurred during just a few years. Then, referring to the annexation of the Crimean peninsula, he stressed the fragility of European democracy. Kornai is warning that a new axis is being formed, exactly as it happened before the Second World War. As an international democratic community, we have to unite and oppose this process before it’s too late.
Since its re-election, the Hungarian government launched a campaign attacking the credibility of Hungarian NGOs and is striving to gain controlling power over their funding distributed independently from the government. We believe that a dynamic and independent civil society plays a fundamental role in a democratic society, as it is one of the key checks and balances to the governing power. As demonstrated by Putin’s Russia, the harassment of the civil sector could easily lead to the criminalization of NGOs and could effectively hinder their work. We stand in solidarity with the Hungarian NGOs and call on the Hungarian and all other governments to refrain from harassing the civil society!
Júlia Lázár  has published three volumes of poetry, Fingerprints , Unknown [200l], Still  and numerous translations of prose and poetry from English. Authors she has translated include Sylvia Plath, E.M. Forster, George Orwell, Salman Rushdie, Janet Malcolm, Susan Sontag, Toni Morrison, W.B. Yeats, Louis McNeice, Robert Graves, Carol Rumens, Ted Hughes, Walt Whitman and H.D. She has been teaching English language, literature, literary translation and creative writing for 28 years at different secondary schools in Hungary. She is the member of the Belletrist Association Society and also the Association of Hungarian Literary Translators. With László Lator, Péter Rácz, Gábor Schein and István Vörös she is a board member of the Hungarian Translators House Foundation.
Photo by Voros Anna