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Thursday, November 28, 2013

Scheissausländer Forever

A British paper has recently carried an article (no link, not on my blog, sorry) that badmouths EU Commissioner László Andor and uses the expression "the Hungarian" as a xenophobic / EU-phobic slur to demean him. That brought back two memories for me.

I was on fieldwork for my dissertation (later: book) in Austria in 1989. At that time, the mainstream (!) newspapers there were full of stories of blunders, mistakes, faux-pas, etc., made by immigrants; part ridicule, part disdain, the usual soft fascism of the everyday. Say, somebody entered the Autobahn through an exit and drove against traffic for 2 km, stories of this kind. My point: The recurrent label of the perpetrator was: "Der Türke." This struck me as odd since, during my months in Vienna, I hardly interacted with an Austrian-Austrian: On the "street level," it appeared, everybody was a foreigner, except for one very distinguished looking gentleman who hissed "Scheissausländer" (a Viennese contribution to All-German culture, translating approximately as 'shit foreigner') at me when my backpack touched his elbow inside the hyper-romantic Tram 1 as it passed in front of Freud's favorite café.

Then came the 1989 Christmas shopping season. On November 7, 1989, the last time the day of the Russian revolution was a state holiday in Hungary, a huge proportion of Hungary's population was spending their hard-earned hard currencies in Austria, giving an unprecedented boost to the lower-third segment of the commercial world of Vienna. The star commodity at the time was a then-still-Yugoslavian-made deep freezer called Gorenje. (BTW, Gorenje freezers were also sold in Hungary, only at higher prices. Since purchases in Austria entitled Hungarians to the VAT refund while Hungary, for its part, implemented a breathtakingly stupid duty-free system for consumer imports, it was cheaper to squeeze the entire family in the family car, drive to Vienna, struggle through the lines, spend your last two years' hard-currency savings on a trivial household item, attach the newly bought freezer box on top of the family car, and drive back to Hungary than buying the same freezer in a store 5 minutes from your house in Hungary. Because of the size of the crowds and the sclerotic processing on the border, the bottleneck went from the Austro-Hungarian border to Vienna Airport--cca. 70 km.)

A large part of this commerce concentrated on one particular street, called Mariahilferstraße--re-baptized in the Viennese press, with a typically Austrian, winking-gemütlich lie, as Magyar-hilferstraße (i.e., the 'street that helps Hungarians'). Several stores had large, xeroxed signs, saying, in Hungarian:

"Magyar! Ne lopj!" ("Hungarian! Don't steal!")

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

4 comments:

  1. A member of my family commented on Laszlo Andor's intervention into the immigration 'debate' in the UK, remarking upon the amusing implications of a Hungarian making suggestions regarding racism and xenophobia. I don't think this was anti-Hungarian racism, but it does indicate that Hungarians have an increasingly problematic reputation for bigotry, which I know from personal experience is a massive problem in Hungarian society. I would add that this shouldn't affect the ability of an individual to comment on this subject.

    Whilst the UK obviously hasn't been perfect when it comes to racism, to put it mildly, it should be acknowledged that by, say, the end of the 1990s, the situation for minorities in the UK had hugely improved, and that, given relatively high levels of migration, in some ways the British population's open-mindedness towards recent migrants has been exemplary.

    It sadly appears that Hungary is disproportionately laden with stinking racists. What you've written here regarding Austria is valid, but from my experience, the UK has not been anti-Hungarian, ever... though there is increasing concern about racist Hungarians and their attitude towards people of colour when they visit other countries.

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    Replies
    1. Dear Mr R (I would actually appreciate if people were to give their names, as I do, but can't help it anyway),

      thank you for your comment. If you follow this link to an earlier post of mine ("Society Going Down the Drain"), you'll see how critical I am of the racist and overall extremist tendencies in Hungary.

      In contrast to you, however, I do insist that we see these phenomena in a coolly and even-handedly comparative perspective. As for the explicitly racist rhetoric on part of the British government with respect to "Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants," of course it is not "anti-Hungarian", but nobody actually claimed that it was. The fact that Commissioner Andor was repeatedly referred to as "the Hungarian" in the British media, however, is quite clear evidence that there is a systematic, (at least quasi-racist) prejudice vis-a-vis east Europeans in British (and other west European ) parlance, and that this unsavory phenomenon has been given new life in the context of the 'eastern' Enlargements of the European Union.. I have written extensively about this elsewhere, specifically, here, here, here and here. This is a very clear example of coloniality, a cognitive feature of global colonialism that has been extended and generalized in a global discourse of relative hierarchies of "national worth." To the extent that this phenomenon appears in Hungary with a vengeance, an observation with which I sadly agree, it is the task of thinking and educated people to try to understand the mechanisms that produce it while also fighting it

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  2. Jozsef, thank you for your reply and the links which I'll look at closely. I apologise for not using my full name - this is really because I work in Hungary for a private company, and whilst it isn't too hard to find out my opinions, I don't normally want every comment to be directly attributable with a simple, extremely powerful Google search. Possibly this also reflects that as a foreigner, I hold views which are immediately categorised as 'magyar-ellenes' by many.

    The problem with the current 'debate' in the UK is that there is a racist dimension to Bulgaria and Romania in relation to the Roma, but there isn't a definite racial typology to Romanians and Bulgarians (and Hungarians) in general. With the racism towards black or Asian people in the past, there was a definite typology, stereotyping and caricaturing which occurred. Unless I missed something, this hasn't been applied to the (largely white) migrants from eastern Europe. Possibly some jokes about eating carp? And Prince Philip's reference to pot-bellies?

    I don't want to make light of this though, as this debate in the UK has been awful, and especially disappointing from Labour. See here for one take on it. Overall, I'm not convinced that Hungarians are being systematically singled out for racial 'typology' at the current time, and focusing on these aspects may not be as productive as looking at some of the economics underlying this. Undoubtably, the coverage of the Sun is stirring up anti-migrant sentiment, yet it is being done in a way which normally avoids outright racism and profiling. But underlying this is an increasing awareness, perhaps, that the UK's role and significance is challenged in a world where power is shifting, that people would like, not only to retreat from the EU, but to retreat from the world.

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  3. Carl, first of all, sorry about the late publication of your comment--I missed it somehow when it was new. I apologize.

    As for Hungarians being singled out--I really don't think they have been, that wasn't my point. The point is the systematic belittling with which _east Europeans_ are treated almost everywhere in Europe (except in some circles in Berlin, maybe).

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cover page of the book

cover page of the book
image used for the cover design by Anannya Dasgupta