After years of running dire warnings about the dangers of populism with titles like “The Lure of Populism Weakens the Republic,” the New York Times finally decided it was time to the hear the other side. Last week, the paper of record ran an op-ed titled “The Case for Populism” by Maria Schmidt, a historian and former advisor to the far-right government of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban.
Schmidt briefly surveys the history of the Eastern European country from the end of World War II to the present day. A work of pure propaganda, the piece tells the story of an oppressed nation that could only be restored through the firm hand of a strong, visionary leader.
This sort of fascist myth-making is her specialty. Dubbed Orban’s “court historian” by the regime’s critics, Schmidt is skilled at weaving ahistorical narratives that buttress the prime minister’s nationalist project.
In addition to many glaring omissions, one can find several examples of Orwellian Doublespeak in Schmidt’s column. Thanks to Orban’s admittedly “illiberal” policies, she argues, “true majoritarian democracy and popular representation is returning to Hungary.”
But since Orban first took power in 2010, he has taken a chainsaw to the country’s democratic institutions. In addition to rewriting the constitution, his Fidesz party has used gerrymandering and other forms of political maneuvering to weaken all the opposition, effectively creating a one-party state.
Orban’s clique holds a virtual monopoly over the Hungarian press and his administration has launched attacks on academia as well. Schmidt plays a major part in these efforts to achieve ideological control. A few years back, she took over Figyelo, a formerly respectable business magazine, and turned into a government mouthpiece.
In 2018, the magazine took aim at the regime’s favorite Jewish bogeyman when it published a list of 200 Soros “mercenaries” and later that year, its cover featured the leader of a Hungarian Jewish group surrounded by banknotes.
This sort of thinly veiled antisemitism is entirely consistent with Schmidt’s entire output as a historian, which is why Jews in Hungary and internationally were particularly alarmed when the Orban government tapped her to head the House of Fates, the country’s Holocaust memorial.
Schmidt’s Times op-ed is rife with dogwhistles, like when she speaks of saving “Western (Christian) civilization” and extols the virtues of Orban’s “non-liberal society” based on “community, Christianity and solidarity.” This is a common theme in Schmidt’s writing, in which conservatism and Christianity embody the authentic Hungarian identity, while liberalism and Communism are alien and “Jewish.”
In her column, she writes: “[I]n Hungary some of the successors of the old Communist regime managed to retain significant influence over the nation’s economic and cultural institutions.”
Though it might not be apparent to the Times’ editors or readers, she’s talking about the Jews.
As Michael Shafir, a scholar of post-war antisemitism in Eastern Europe, points out, Schmidt’s writings reflect the traditional antisemitic view that Soviet communism is inextricably linked with the Jews.
In a 1998 collection of articles titled In the Devil’s Cauldron of Dictatorships, Schmidt asserts that all the left and center working-class parties in the post-war period were “entirely in Jewish hands.” Schmidt makes a point to highlight the Jewish origins of certain Communist leaders as well as the judges who tried Hungarian Nazi collaborators, including Laszlo Bardossy, whom Schmidt has worked to rehabilitate.
In the post-Communist era, she writes, “the comrades of Jewish origin managed to get themselves into important positions in the new democracy,” in which they “received important, well paid jobs, uniforms, ranks, fabulous careers.”
Schmidt is an exemplar of the “double genocide” school of Holocaust revisionism popular in Eastern European countries that had formerly been under Soviet rule.
Holocaust scholar Dovid Katz describes its modus operandi:
Deflate Nazi crimes; inflate Soviet crimes; make their “equality” into a new sacrosanct principle for naive Westerners who like the sound of “equality”; redefine “genocide” by law to include just about any Soviet crime; find ways to turn local killers into heroes (usually as supposed “anti-Soviet” patriots); fault victims and survivors, especially those who lived to join the anti-Nazi resistance
The House of Terror in Budapest is this tactic made manifest in physical form. Founded by Schmidt with government support during Orban’s first term as prime minister, the museum equates the Soviets and the Nazis, magnifying the atrocities of the former while minimizing those of the latter.
Almost all of the twenty horrific displays at the museum focus on the impact of Communism, while there is just a single room devoted to the Hungarian Holocaust under the quisling regime of Dome Sztojay, which claimed the lives of more than a half a million Jews—and this room exists only to invite the comparison.
The museum has an exhibit titled “Changing Clothes.” It’s a locker room with a rotating display at its center showing the uniform of the fascist Arrow Cross Party on one side and that of the Communist secret police on the other.
The description of the room includes an out-of-context quote from Communist leader Matyas Rakosi implying that former members of the Arrow Cross were being welcomed into the party. The significance of this is illuminated by Schmidt’s earlier academic writings.
In Devil’s Cauldron, she wrote that the leaders of the Communist regime were drawn from the ranks of the “persecuted,” by which she meant the Jews, and she puts the phrase in quotes, implying their persecution by Hungarians was up for debate. Rakosi is among those she singles out as being of Jewish descent (though he repudiated his faith).
Schmidt concludes that Hungary’s antisemites weren’t entirely unjustified in their antipathy: “After twenty-five years of scaremongering in the right-wing press, a Jewish-communist world conspiracy seemed to materialize.”
But at its height, the Hungarian Communist Party had 800,000 members, which means that even if all 144,000 remaining Jews had been Communists, they still would have been no more than a small minority. And as the Jewish Telegraphic Agency notes, Jews were purged almost entirely from the leadership in the early 1960s. Rakosi had been forced out in 1956.
The House of Terror also features a room called “Double Occupation” that underscores Hungary’s victimization in succession by the Nazis and Communists. Like the uniform display, it is a two-sided exhibit, with a black side representing the Nazis and a red one for the Communists—a ham-fisted visual effect showing that they are “two sides of the same coin.”
The major project of Schmidt’s career has been to emphasize the continuity between Orban’s government and the regime of anti-communist Regent Miklos Horthy, so naturally the exhibit whitewashes his collaboration with the Nazis as well as his complicity, “reluctant” or otherwise, in the Hungarian Holocaust.
According to the description of the exhibit, Hungary in the 1930s was caught in the middle of “an increasingly aggressive Nazi regime in Germany as well as a menacing and powerful Soviet Union.”
It makes no mention of Horthy’s decision to cast his lot in with Nazi Germany in an effort to recover territory lost in World War I. Instead, his actions are framed as a hard choice. “Hungary made desperate attempts to maintain its fragile independence and democracy, and maneuvered to prevent the worst: Nazi occupation.”
In this narrative, the main victim of the Nazi occupation is the Hungarian nation. The half a million Jews murdered are just the collateral damage of an “assault western civilization’s value structure.” This distorted view of history was symbolized by a 2014 memorial the Orban government commissioned depicting the Archangel Gabriel, representing Christian Hungary, being attacked by the Nazi eagle.
Schmidt and her ilk hope to exculpate the Horthy government by shifting blame exclusively to the Arrow Cross, but the persecution of Jews was underway in Hungary before the occupation. As part of their military alliance, Horthy had agreed to send Hitler “Jewish workers,” i.e. slave labor, to aid in war production.
The regent had also deported 16,000 so-called alien Jews who were all killed in the bloody Kamianets-Podilskyi massacre in 1941. Further, Sztojay and the members of his government who oversaw the mass deportation of Jews to the extermination camps were all Horthy appointees.
Horthy’s self-serving memoirs, which Schmidt and others take at face value, present him as a leader merely trying to do what was best for his country in an impossible situation, but he was clearly willing to sacrifice Jews for the “greater good.”
Since the 1990s, Schmidt has been pushing for the judicial rehabilitation of Prime Minister Bardossy, who she paints as an innocent victim of the “Communist-dominated” People’s Courts. Bardossy, who took office in 1941, was the architect of Hungary’s military alliance with Germany and also collaborated with the Arrow Cross. He was responsible for not only the deportation of “alien” Jews but also a set of Nuremberg-style laws that mandated antisemitic discrimination.
The decision of the New York Times to publish an antisemitic toady for an authoritarian rightwing government presents a question worth pondering: Why is this “case for populism” the one that deserves to be heard?
It’s possible that there’s a commercial motive, which is to say they’re hoping to gin up a little controversy—to get folks talking and clicking—but that doesn’t preclude a centrist ideological aim.
“Populism” is a bogeyman among liberal media elites who are fundamentally disdainful and afraid of the rabble. No distinction is made between its right and left forms. To them, the populism of Donald Trump is the same as that of Bernie Sanders—both “Weaken the Republic.”
In this regard, the New York Times has a certain kinship with Maria Schmidt, who flattens Nazis and Communists to the morally equivalent category of “totalitarian.”
By choosing Schmidt as the standard-bearer for populism, the Times is selectively defining what populism is. Her op-ed is an exhibit in the paper’s own House of Terror.