Tucker Carlson in Budapest: A Flirtation with Fascism and an Affront to Memory

By Alex Sessa (@AlexSessa2)

Nearly eight decades after Hungary’s systematic destruction of its Jewish population, far-right spokespersons are perpetrating their own vicious assault against Holocaust memory.  In August of this year, conservative commentator Tucker Carlson hosted his cable talk show from Budapest for an entire week.  While there, he went so far to praise Hungary’s leader, Viktor Orbán – a right-wing populist who has accused George Soros of leading a conspiracy to ‘flood Christian Hungary with Muslims’ and who implies that gay men are paedophiles.[1]  In August 2021, The Washington Post noted the increasing authoritarianism of Orbán’s political party, Fidesz, which clinched total control Hungary’s three political branches: legislative, executive, and judicial.  In particular, The Post stated, Orbán has gained political strength through opposition to immigration – much of which has stemmed from turmoil in the Middle East.[2]       

Hungary’s flirtation with fascism – and its systematic mistreatment of minorities – is not new.  According to Deborah Cornelius, the end of the First World War marked the beginning of a period wherein ultra-patriotic societies blamed Bolsheviks and Jews for Hungary’s loss during the war.[3]  During the 1920s and 1930s, Hungary introduced legislature to limit Jewish influence within its society.  In 1920, Hungary enacted the Numerus Clausus law, which limited the number of Jews enrolled in universities to just six per cent.[4]  Yet, this was only a precursor to more restrictive legislature.  Between 1938 and 1941, Hungary passed three ‘Anti-Jewish laws’, which limited the number of Jewish workers in the workforce, prohibited marriage between Jews and non-Jews, and defined Jews as a separate race.[5]  Between 1939 and early 1944, Hungary’s involvement in the Second World War was limited. However, that changed in March 1944 when German forces invaded the country.  Within weeks of the invasion, Adolf Eichmann began ghettoizing Hungarian Jewry and preparing the Jewish people for deportation to Auschwitz.[6]  SS administrators made ‘special provisions’ at the camp, digging large pits and improving existing crematorium infrastructure, to facilitate receiving an additional 12,000 – 14,000 Hungarian Jews per day.[7]

Hungary’s violent and systematic destruction of its Jewish population should serve as a grim reminder of the dangers of antisemitism, xenophobia rhetoric, and the rise of authoritarianism.  However, for Mr Orbán, Holocaust memory appears to be of little concern as he perpetuates nationalist dogma that frames ‘others’ as societal scapegoats.  Equally unsettling is Tucker Carlson’s noticeable attraction to Orbán’s rhetoric.  In early 2018, Carlson praised Orbán for his stance on immigration.  Such policies are aligned with the commentator’s vitriolic rhetoric that migrants are a threat to a country’s ‘traditional national values’.[8]  During Mr Carlson’s 2021 trip to Budapest, he praised Hungarian culture, noting the country’s cleanliness and devotion to traditional values.  In particular, he went so far as to praise Hungarian architecture for its beauty – and its bullet holes.  ‘I wish I lived in a city full of bullet holes in the buildings, and you think to yourself “it could get really bad, because it’s been really bad.  There’s a lot at stake.”’[9] 

Carlson is right about one thing: things have been really bad in Hungary, particularly for the nation’s marginalised Jewish population.  That’s what I learned in 2018 when I interviewed Szusana Pajzs – a retired cardiologist – who recounted having lived out her entire life in Budapest as ‘a second-class citizen’ on account of her Jewish identity.  During our oral history interview, Dr Pajzs recounted how, at the age of fourteen, she last saw her father being beaten in front of her – he was later taken to a death camp where he was exterminated.[10]  During another interview, Agnes Rostás recalled being sent to live in a Jewish ghetto at age eleven, during which time her mother was rounded up for deportation.[11]

For Pajzs and Rostás – and many other Hungarian Jews – memory of Hungary’s past is a source of pain from which lessons must be drawn to ensure a more just future.  Yet, by praising Mr Orbán’s nationalistic policies, Tucker Carlson has ignored Hungary’s complicity in the Holocaust.  While Mr Carlson drew attention to bullet holes in buildings, a more pertinent gesture of remembrance might have been a discussion of The Shoes on the Danube Bank – a permanent memorial honouring Jews slaughtered by the fascistic Arrow Cross Party between December 1944 and January 1945.  An equally important gesture would have been to meet with Hungarian Holocaust survivors to discuss their experiences, particularly given their advanced age.  Yet, Carlson did none of this.  Instead, he used his platform to praise Orbán’s anti-immigration policies.  So too, he has committed an affront against memory itself.  As we face a future without Holocaust survivors, Mr Carlson’s praise of modern-day fascistic policies – and his total disregard for the minorities affected by these policies in the past and in the present – are a deeply disturbing trend.  The scholar Lawrence Langer has criticised George Santayana’s pithy assessment of history: ‘He who does not learn from the past is doomed to repeat it!’  Langer notes, ‘A major lesson we learn from history is how little we succeed in learning from it’.[12]  I cannot help but recall Szusana Pajsz’ ominous assessment of the social climate in Hungary: ‘Second Auschwitz…I think it is possible!’[13]


[1] Nick Cohen, ‘What is it about Viktor Orbán that attracts so many sychophants?’, The Guardian, Opinion, 7 August 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/aug/07/what-is-it-about-orban-that-attracts-so-many-rightwing-sycophants, accessed Saturday 16 October 2021 at 14.30 GMT.

[2] Philip Bump, ‘Hungary turned to authoritarian nationalism.  So Tucker Carlson went to Hungary.’, The Washington Post, Politics: Analysis, 3 August 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/08/03/hungary-turned-authoritarian-nationalism-so-tucker-carlson-went-hungary/, accessed Saturday 16 October 2021 at 15.15 GMT.

[3] Deborah S. Cornelius, Hungary in World War II: Caught in the Cauldron (Ashland, Ohio: Fordham University Press, 2011), 30.

[4] Ibid, 31.  See also John Chillag, ‘Memories of a Lost Youth’ IN (ed.) Wendy Whitworth, Survival: Holocaust Survivors Tell Their Story, Second Edition (Mansfield, UK: Quill Press, in association with The Holocaust Centre, 2004), 35.

[5] Randolph L. Braham, The Politics of Genocide: The Holocaust in Hungary, Vol. 1, Revised and Enlarged Edition (New York, NY: Rosenthal Institute of Holocaust Studies, The City University Social Studies Graduate Center, 1994), 127 – 128, 151 – 154.  See also Raphael Patai, The Jews of Hungary: History, Culture, Psychology (Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 1996), 548 – 549.  See also David Cesarani, Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews, 1932 – 1949 (London: Macmillan, 2016), 703.  See also Raphael Patai, The Jews of Hungary: History, Culture, Psychology (Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 1996), 548 – 549, 703. 

[6] Cornelius, Hungary in World War II: Caught in the Cauldron, 292 – 294.

[7] Patai, The Jews of Hungary: History, Culture, Psychology, 780 – 781.

[8] Philip Bump, ‘Hungary turned to authoritarian nationalism.  So Tucker Carlson went to Hungary.’, The Washington Post, Politics: Analysis, 3 August 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/08/03/hungary-turned-authoritarian-nationalism-so-tucker-carlson-went-hungary/, accessed Saturday 16 October 2021 at 15.15 GMT.

[9] Tucker Carlson, Tucker Carlson Tonight, The Fox News Channel, 9 August 2021, Television.  See also Charles Creitz, ‘Tucker Carlson: Hungarian architecture proves Americans don’t understand “how bad it can get”’, Fox News, 9 August 2021, https://www.foxnews.com/media/tucker-carlson-hungary-speech-architecture, accessed Tuesday 5 October 2021, 17.19 GMT.

[10] Szusana Pajzs, ‘Recollection of Jane Haining and the Scottish mission school’, oral history by Alex Sessa, translated by Aaron Stevens, Budapest, Hungary, 29 May 2018.

[11] Agnes Rostás, ‘Jane Haining and Life in Hungary During the Second World War’, oral history by Alex Sessa, translated by Reverend Aaron Stevens, 17 May 2019, Budapest, Hungary.  Both Agnes Rostás and Szusana Pajzs attended the Scottish Mission School in Budapest – a missionary enterprise run by the Church of Scotland, with the intention of converting Jewish pupils to Christianity.  

[12] Lawrence L. Langer, Using and Abusing the Holocaust (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006), 115.

[13] Ibid.

Image Credits:

Image 1: The Shoes on the Danube Bank, image made available through a Creative Commons License at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Shoes_Danube_Promenade_IMGP1297.jpg

Image 2: Memorial to the victims of the Hungarian Arrow Cross, author’s own photograph.

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