From Hate Speech to Hate Crimes: Hungary’s Roma Murders
Between 2008 and 2009, far-right extremists in Hungary killed six people from the Roma ethnic group (also known as Gypsies) and injured a number of others. That violence accompanied the rise of nationalist groups that regularly used hate speech positioning the Roma as foreigners and intruders.
But what else about the country’s history explains these crimes?
In a new article published in the journal Contemporary Justice Review, Professor Maria Subert (Hostos Community College) sought to understand the motivation behind the murders, as well as the context in which they occurred. How did “Hungarian historic and cultural legacies” support the murders, and how did the violence in turn reinforce that history?
Subert traced the animosity toward the Roma back to the 18th century and the concept of Volksgeist, which means “spirit of the people” or national character. In Hungary’s case, Subert argued, the country had long aligned the idea of nationhood with a specific “spiritual, racial, and ethnic community.” As a result, Volksgeist “became the foundational idea of a 20th-century extreme nationalist ideology” that grew fervently after the switch to free market capitalism in 1989. The new economic system also exacerbated the country’s poverty, Subert said.
In the early 21st century, Volksgeist took the form of extreme hate crimes committed by self-proclaimed nationalistic heroes. “The killers were ready to restore territorial order through a psychological scenario that transformed Roma villages into ‘unlawfully’ occupied territory,” Subert wrote. That restoration positioned the assailants as heroes “in their own eyes” and “in the eyes of many of their party-members and sympathizers.”
The takeaway, she concluded, pertains largely to education. “Hungarians need to educate themselves and others about the dangers of extreme nationalist rhetoric that activates a nation’s historic-cultural heritage while offering an idealized ‘heroic’ solution to real problems,” Subert wrote. But beyond that, Hungarians must reject politicians who campaign on hateful platforms, and move away from the pejorative way in which the Roma are depicted and discussed.