In the village hall of Ketegyhaza, an insignificant settlement deep in the Great Hungarian Plain, the audience stirred, nodded gently, and the expression of hatred on the faces of men and women began to yield. The thaw was short-lived. The officer, suddenly realising which side of the law he was supposed to represent, regained his composure and added hastily: 'I do not mean the Gypsies, of course.' A few seconds later he and his colleagues were running for their lives.
The good people of Ketegyhaza were not there to hear homilies about peaceful co-existence with their neighbours. The previous day they had carried out the first pogrom in Hungary since the war, and had gone to meet the police in order to get the perpetrators out of jail. After an altercation involving melons and pitchforks, a truckload of villagers had driven to two Gypsy houses and thrown petrol bombs through the windows. Several Gypsies, accused by the locals of aggressive and criminal behaviour, were injured and their horses burnt alive in the stables.
In a country where the customary form of revenge is poisoning the neighbour's dog or dumping a barrow-load of manure in front of his gate, the events of Ketegyhaza soon became a national sensation. None the less, after the incident, the Hungarian ministry of the interior found no racial motivation for the attack. And when, the same week, two Gypsies were shot dead by a farm guard, for stealing pears, only a few dozen miles from Budapest, the authorities treated that as a routine matter as well.
Ethnic hatred does not exist in Hungary, government spokesmen claim; this is Central Europe . . . not the Balkans. Despite their assertions, two years after the collapse of the communist system racism has grown into a force capable of driving thousands of people into the streets, and thoughts that went out of fashion about 1945 are once again poisoning the minds of millions. In the art nouveau cafes of Budapest the talk is of ancestry, ethnicity, spiritual values and - among those inclined towards deeper thoughts - the fate of Magyardom. The nation is declining and, as the greatest living Hungarian playwright argues in a pamphlet, there are genetic reasons for this. 'We must acknowledge,' says Istvan Csurka, 'that we have been co-existing far too long with disadvantaged strata and groups . . . to whom the laws of natural selection do not apply.' Mr Csurka, who has temporarily abandoned writing plays to concentrate on his political crusade, is not some fringe lunatic ranting in the wilderness. He is a member of parliament and deputy president of the governing Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF), the organisation held up by its sister parties in the West (including the Tories) as a model of moderation in the turbulent waters of east European politics.
And his litany against the inferior groups surrounding the Magyar nation does not end with the Gypsies, who constitute roughly 4 per cent of Hungary's population. His pamphlet, published in the party's journal Magyar Forum, is sprinkled with references to the 'hegemony of Jews' in Hungary and their responsibility for all the crimes and misdemeanours of past communist regimes, and accuses the Hungarian president, Arpad Goncz, a member of the opposition Alliance of Free Democrats, of 'taking orders from his connections in Paris, New York and Tel Aviv'. His crusade now threatens to split the ruling party and may lead to the collapse of the conservative government. But Mr Csurka, and his ideological soul-mates, are unrepentantly travelling the length and breadth of the country, preaching the revived gospel. Their demonstration in Budapest, ostensibly against 'liberal' - for which, read Jewish - control of the national media, has been impressive, though it was vastly outnumbered by a rival demonstration by about 70,000 people against Mr Csurka's brand of 'patriotism'. Never the less, Mr Csurka has a popularity rating of 20 per cent, and holds the sword of Damocles over the government. His avowed aim - to seize control of the media and purge them of liberal elements - has so far failed. On Thursday, the governing coalition and the main opposition parties reached an agreement on jointly nominating the heads of national television and radio.
But as the government faces growing hostility from Hungarians fed up with their plummeting living standards - one in nine out of work, an inflation rate in excess of 20 per cent - the ranks of those within the MDF who will be tempted to take extreme measures to save their seats in elections due in 1994, are certain to grow.
Dark clouds are also gathering over the Hungarian minorities in neighbouring countries: 400,000 in former Yugoslavia, nearly two million in increasingly xenophobic Romania and 600,000 in a Slovakia which, in the rush for independent nationhood, seems ready to trample on any aliens within its borders.
Such a climate of fear and resentment provides fertile soil for demagogues. Should the electoral process fail to deliver the right result, the government could always invoke a national emergency to override the constitution.
An emergency requires an enemy, and Mr Csurka has found two of them at one stroke: the Gypsies and the Jews, of whom some 80,000 remain after the extermination of nearly 600,000 in the Holocaust. The trick has worked before.
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