In George Orwell’s bleakly prophetic novel, 1984, Oceania’s totalitarian regime strives to mobilise popular support by holding up the figure of Emmanuel Goldstein as a mortal threat to the state and its citizens:
He was the primal traitor…all treacheries, acts of sabotage, heresies, deviations, sprang directly out of his teaching. Somewhere or other he was still alive and hatching his conspiracies: perhaps somewhere beyond the sea, under the protection of his foreign paymasters…He was the commander of a vast shadowy army, an underground network of conspirators dedicated to the overthrow of the State.
Unlike Goldstein, George Soros has never been a close associate of Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, or of the ruling Fidesz party – although he was a generous benefactor to many prominent figures in Fidesz, including Orbán, in the early years of Hungary’s transition from communism. However, like Goldstein, Soros is conveniently identifiable as Jewish. And, like Goldstein, he can be portrayed as the personification of various – largely fictive – threats to the state. As unscrupulous propagandists have always known, it is far easier to persuade people to hate or fear an individual or a specific group, identifiable by reference to such factors as religion, ethnicity or social origin, rather than an abstract set of ideas such as Bolshevism or liberalism.
In 1984, the enmity directed towards Goldstein was intitutionalised. It took the form, in part, of a daily televised broadcast of Two Minutes Hate that always cast Goldstein as the “principal figure”. Over the past few weeks in Hungary the enmity manifested by the government towards George Soros has also been institutionalised. However, unlike in Oceania, in which Big Brother and the Party acted with comparative decorum and restraint, the hate campaign against Soros in Fidesz-ruled Hungary has not been limited to two minutes of undisguised loathing each day.
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The first phase of a country-wide poster campaign against Soros was sponsored by Fidelitas, the youth wing of Fidesz. It made use, knowingly or otherwise, of a vicious anti-Semitic trope much favoured by Germany’s National Socialists in the 1930s. The poster portrayed Soros as a puppeteer with, somewhat implausibly, the leader of Hungary’s opposition Socialist Party or MSZP, László Botka, as his hapless marionette.
In a fresh set of posters, funded by the government, a photo of a grinning Soros has been displayed next to the caption: “[d]on’t let Soros have the last laugh!” In smaller letters the posters state that “99% reject illegal immigration”. The implication of the posters is clear; Soros is cast as a malign, powerful and manipulative (Jewish) figure who is actively supporting mass “illegal immigration” into Europe, with potentially disastrous consequences for the continent, including Hungary.
Fake news and libels
There are several problems with these posters that, for reasons that remain unclear, are being abruptly removed by the authorities at the time of writing. First, in referring to “illegal immigration”, the posters deliberately blur the important distinction between economic migrants and refugees fleeing persecution. These are separate phenomena that have entirely different ethical, as well as legal, implications.
Second, the figure of 99%, referred to in the posters, is grossly misleading. It reflects the level of support for the government’s position amongst those Hungarian voters who took part in a referendum, held in October last year, on an EU proposal to resettle a modest number of asylum seekers in Hungary. Despite a lavishly-funded government propaganda campaign, in the run-up to the plebiscite, only 43.9% of the electorate bothered to vote, rendering the referendum both legally invalid, under Hungarian law, and politically embarrassing for the Fidesz government.
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Third – and crucially – the poisonous Fidesz-led attacks on Soros, comprising government-funded advertisements broadcast on public radio as well as the poster campaign, inevitably evokes disquieting historical memories, particularly in Eastern Europe. Much of the region has a long and painful history of anti-Semitism that reached a bloody climax in World War Two. It has been estimated that 450,000 Hungarian Jews perished in the Holocaust. At the very least, Fidesz’s anti-Soros campaign, which has been as distasteful as it has been deceitful, risks worsening anti-Semitic sentiment in Hungary.
Despite bland and frankly implausible government assurances that the crude and relentless attacks on Soros have nothing to do with his Jewish roots, the campaign invokes a number of classic anti-Semitic tropes. The advertisements, repeated at regular intervals on popular public radio stations such as Petőfi Rádió, accused Soros of wielding vast influence and of deliberately seeking to undermine Europe’s nation states by advocating large-scale immigration.
It scarcely needs stating that there is not a scintilla of evidence to support the government’s contention that Soros is motivated by a malicious desire to subvert ‘European values’ or to threaten the sovereignty or cultural integrity of nation states such as Hungary. In fact, Soros’s views on the refugee crisis facing Europe are well known; they are explicitly founded on liberal, cosmopolitan principles. These include a belief in the humanitarian necessity of relieving the distress of refugees, confidence in the capacity of Europe’s citizens to live in harmony with people from other cultural, religious or linguistic backgrounds and a conviction that Europe’s demographic and economic problems could be significantly alleviated by admitting just three hundred thousand refugees per year.
Enemies of the nation
The libels hark back to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, one of the most outrageous yet durable examples of anti-Semitic propaganda. The Soros campaign also evokes ideas – virtually indistinguishable from those found in the Protocols – that have been articulated by an influential Hungarian author, Cécile Tormay, in An Outlaw’s Diary, first published in the aftermath of World War One. A mediocre writer but a tireless peddler of anti-Semitic myths and fantasies, Tormay accused Jews of fomenting strife and anarchy around the world in accordance with a secret masterplan for global domination.
The Hungarian government’s attacks on Soros are grounded in Prime Minister Orbán’s increasingly desperate strategy of identifying and, if necessary, inventing ‘enemies’ of the nation. Like the relentless campaign against Goldstein in Orwell’s Oceania, which was both a means of bolstering support for the Party from the masses and of distracting them from the unpalatable realities of their daily lives, Orbán and Fidesz badly need Soros. Without him or, more accurately, without the image of Soros that has been painstakingly fabricated by Orbán and his political allies, the Hungarian electorate might focus, instead, on the multiple and manifest failures of the Fidesz government.
The administration presided over by Prime Minister Orbán, since 2010, has triumphantly succeeded in eroding democracy and the rule of law, as noted by Jan-Werner Müller, Matthijs Bogaards and numerous other scholars. However, Orbán has failed to significantly improve living standards, to tackle rampant corruption, to halt worrying levels of emigration by mostly young and highly educated Hungarians who represent a massive loss to the economy, or to tackle the increasingly serious problems besetting health care and education. For Orbán, the anti-Soros campaign is simply a means of shoring up his domestic political support and of maximising his party’s prospects of success in general elections to be held in 2018.