CSOKAKO, Hungary (Reuters) - About 1,000 Hungarians attended the unveiling of a statue of controversial World War Two head of state Miklos Horthy on Saturday, in a sign that economic hardship is feeding radical nationalism.
Activists in paramilitary outfits flew the flags of the far-right Jobbik opposition party and various nationalist groups in the village of Csokako, 87 km (54 miles) west of Budapest, which has erected the statue.
Horthy ruled Hungary for 24 years and, as head of state in the early years of World War Two, entered an uneasy alliance with Nazi Germany.
In 1944 the Nazis occupied Hungary and about 437,000 Jews were deported over a period of 56 days, most to their deaths, according to Budapest’s Holocaust Memorial Centre. The total number of the Hungarian Jewish victims during the Holocaust exceeded half a million.
Gyorgy Furesz, the mayor of Csokako, said the statue was designed to foster a dialogue about Horthy.
“Unfortunately the country was torn between two insane dictators so he was left with bad and even worse options,” Furesz said before announcing that the square hosting Horthy’s statue would be renamed Greater Hungary Square in memory of the pre-war status quo.
“Hungary was humiliated in an unprecedented manner after World War One,” said Zoltan Kemenar, a 34-year-old engineer, dressed in the outfit of the nationalist 64 counties youth movement. “Horthy restored faith to this humiliated nation.”
Just two years after Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s election landslide, support for his conservative Fidesz is the lowest in over a decade, while Jobbik, the second-largest opposition party in parliament, is capitalizing on discontent.
Hungary is seeking an international loan to stabilize its indebted economy and heading into another recession after a steep downturn in 2009. Opinion polls show growing discontent with mainstream political groups after years of austerity.
The government says the debate about Horthy’s role in Hungarian history is an academic one in which it has no role.
“The prime minister has made it clear several times during his speeches in parliament that the government will protect all minorities and that no one has to be afraid in the country,” the government spokesman’s office said in an emailed response.
Slomo Koves, an orthodox rabbi in Budapest, said the government should be more forceful in implementing laws against hate speech and various forms of extremism.
“Obviously they cannot get involved in every city’s decision whether or not to put up a statue but on the general issue and motivating a healthy public discourse on the issue is their job in my view,” he said.
“If people are poor they are more open to extreme ideas.”
Reporting by Gergely Szakacs; editing by Andrew Roche