Hearing this, he stiffens, and his laughter disappears.
“Absolutely not! I have nothing at all to do with Madame Le Pen. Nothing.”
“Because Laurent Wauquiez warned me that she was a red line.”
“A friend of mine. I have a lot of friends in France, you know.”
He gestures as if listing them.
“Nicolas Sarkozy, of course. Jacques Chirac, who has always greeted me very warmly. And Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, a touchstone, whom I try to see whenever I’m in Paris.”
But I come back to Le Pen.
“Do you mean to suggest that if these French friends weren’t cautioning you, you would seek an alliance with Marine Le Pen?”
His response bursts forth without any hesitation.
“No. I would not ally with her even so.”
“Once again, why not?”
“Because she’s not in power.”
It is my turn to be startled.
“When political leaders are out of power, they can say and do anything they like. They can slip out of control. I don’t want to get mixed up with any of that.”
“So who, then? If you’re not the champion, and neither is Marine Le Pen, who’s left?”
He answers without missing a beat, as if he had pondered the question at length and long ago decided on his position.
“Matteo Salvini. He leads a large country. Europe can sanction a little country like Hungary. It wouldn’t dare go after a country like Italy, with 60 million people. Moreover, Italy has a powerful voice. It is standing firm against the migrants—manning the front line.”
He utters “front line” with a hint of grandiloquence, as if the tragedy of the migrants were a war of aggression against Hungary. I ask him if he is not sounding a bit like the anti-Semites who, after the war—the real one, the one that saw the near-extermination of Europe’s Jews—remained anti-Semites, while the Jews were nearly all dead or departed.
He cuts me off.
“You can’t talk like that. I have the best relations in the world with Israel.”
“Fine. But with Jews?”
“The same. Let me tell you something. There was a time in Hungary’s history when we didn’t have enough farm labor and had to bring in Czechs, Ruthenians, Roma, and so on. So that by the middle of the 19th century, the Magyars were becoming a minority. And do you know how we settled that? Through a grand alliance between Magyars and Jews, which together made up a little more than 50 percent of the population.”
Ira Forman: Viktor Orbán is exploiting anti-Semitism
He speaks of this alliance in the manner of a captain of industry describing a shift in the majority of the board of directors. And when I ask him about the source of the Magyar strain of anti-Semitism, which was, after all, one of Europe’s deadliest, he counters with this astonishing response.
Kun was a Lenin ally who, in 1918, founded the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic.
“Yes,” he insists. “Béla Kun. The Jews played a large role—an unfortunate fact, but a fact nonetheless—in his abortive attempt at a Communist revolution. And that is what undid the fine alliance in Budapest between the Jewish and Magyar people.”