Dispatch

The Bumbling Bigots of Budapest

A would-be white nationalist conference in Hungary ends with confusion, chicken paprikash, and not much else.

ATTILA KISBENEDEK / AFP
ATTILA KISBENEDEK / AFP

BUDAPEST, Hungary — "I can tell who is Danish immediately," said a young Danish racist in a small Budapest pub last week. "Even just on the street, from the way they walk and interact with people, I can tell." If the Dane was looking for compatriots, they may have been in short supply, but sympathetic ears and judging eyes were not, for once. The table where he quaffed his lager was full of other young men passionate about the future of white people in Europe and around the world.

Minutes later, dozens of police stormed the basement bar, blocking the exits and demanding that the assembled white men provide identification. More police lined the sidewalk outside, next to large armored trucks. Other Hungarian police officers filled the room and demanded passports from anyone who they believed to be a white nationalist.

This isn’t how it was supposed to go. Before the drinking session was broken up by the police, it had been an informal get-together ahead of the Future of Europe Congress, a two-day long conference for white nationalists that was supposed to include a roster of provocative speakers and sightseeing activities. The conference aimed to bring together people around the white world to discuss how to defend their heritage against the perceived threats of multiculturalism, liberalism, and globalization.

Identitarianism began in France in the 2000s, fueled in part by anti-Muslim immigration sentiment. The movement has grown significantly since, particularly in Scandinavia and other parts of Europe. The Future of Europe Congress was organized by Richard Spencer, the director of the Montana-based National Policy Institute (NPI), a self-described "independent think-tank and publishing firm dedicated to the heritage, identity and future of European people in the United States and around the world."

Spencer’s Caucasian caper had originally been slated to start Oct. 3 but was delayed for a variety of reasons, not least of which was strongman Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Orbán, Europe’s right-wing superstar these days and a staunch nationalist in his own right, seemed like he should have been a gracious host. He wasn’t. Three days before the planned start of the conference, the prime minister announced that he would use "all legal means" to prevent it. His minister of interior, Sándor Pintér, followed up with an announcement the next day that the government would stop European Congress speakers "well-known for spreading racist views" from entering Hungary.

Would-be speakers, including Russian nationalist and Putin government adviser Aleksandr Dugin, influential Austrian Identitarian author Markus Willinger, and French anti-Islam activist Philippe Vardon were all informed they’d be arrested if they tried to attend. They stayed home. Publishing scion and NPI co-founder William Regnery flew to Budapest anyway, only to be sent back to London a day later.

If Orbán wanted to show the world he was getting in touch with his anti-fascist, anti-ethnic nationalist side, the pub raid backfired. Indeed, by shutting down the conference before it could even begin and declaring an academic from Montana a threat to national security, he did a good job of the opposite. Ending the gathering engendered sympathy for Spencer’s arrest among even some neutral and liberal Hungarian activists, and made headlines around the world with the dramatic reaction to what would have otherwise likely remained an obscure non-event.

The Budapest police may have been expecting aggressive skinheads at the pub, in which case they were likely disappointed: Attendees sported well-coiffed hair, suits, and mild demeanors. Still, the cops questioned everyone they suspected was a white nationalist there for the conference. Various attendees were taken back to their lodgings to produce identification and then returned, assumedly under a Hungarian law requiring "all visitors to carry their passports."

Spencer, the well-educated and well-spoken poobah at the evening’s center, was at a loss, scanning through his phone and wondering aloud what to do. Dressed in a black overcoat with double-buckle dress shoes and a Mitt Romney-like haircut, Spencer speaks in a voice inflected with the patrician tones of a former Beltway journalist who has written for mainstream publications such as the American Conservative. At first, he urged his pub night compatriots to leave, then, realizing the police were likely after him, he identified himself as the leader of NPI. It worked and he was taken away. The police left soon after.

Spencer had evaded border authorities by flying to Austria and then entering Hungary by train. But his luck had just run out in a big way. "I was locked in a van with four officers. At no point was I told why I was being apprehended, and I was not officially arrested or charged; I was simply held against my will," Spencer wrote me in an e-mail days later from a minimum security Hungarian jail. "I found out later that the uniformed officers did not know the details of their capture of me," he added.

The Hungarians said he’d been arrested for failing to produce a government ID, but he said that in detention he was informed that Orbán considered him a national security threat. "I was expelled for thinking thoughts that Viktor Orbán disagrees with not for leaving my passport at my hotel," Spencer tweeted on Oct. 7.

The pub night crackdown came from a Hungarian government that wants to repair some of its Western credentials. But the prime minister himself may be closer to Spencer than he’s comfortable admitting: In July, Orbán expressed the belief that membership in the European Union didn’t prevent the possibility of building "an illiberal new state based on national foundations." Hungary is also a country where a sizeable minority, including many supporters of radical nationalist, anti-immigration, and anti-multiculturalism party Jobbik, which took 21 percent of the vote in last April’s parliamentary election, share similar views to the so-called Identitarians.

"In many ways Orbán basically agrees with us," said Kevin DeAnna, formerly head of a U.S. group called Youth for Western Civilization, who became a kind of leader of the assembled white nationalists in Budapest following Spencer’s arrest. "But if you’re on the far right you try to find someone even further right and point and say ‘hey, look at them.’"

Many of the attendees were shaken by the arrests. "As an American it shook me up, to be honest," said a would-be conference attendee from Texas would only identify himself as Rocky. "In America we have the idea the police protect us. For free speech, for ideas that maybe don’t need … protection, but ideas that aren’t popular." Rocky noted how at NPI’s conference last year in Washington, D.C., the police protected NPI’s speakers from angry protestors outside.

This time, about 100 protesters rallied against the conference from Budapest’s Szabadsag Square, some 15 miles from the bar. The anti-racist activists didn’t know the meet-up location. But if the protesters didn’t know how to find the Clock Café Restaurant and Pub, how did the police?

Likely by signing up a dummy registrant to the event so they received the private e-mails, said DeAnna, Spencer’s longtime friend. It looked like oversights like that were going to sink the whole affair, but DeAnna and speaker Jared Taylor (who had once helped fund the work of DeAnna’s now-defunct white nationalist student group Youth for Western Civilization), managed to keep a semblance of the conference afloat.

"I just sort of showed up at the last minute, and thought why not come? Most of these people are my friends anyway," DeAnna explained of his decision to attend the conference. He said he bought a plane ticket just before the conference was banned. "I never got a hotel room or even reserved a spot at the conference. I knew Richard from way back when and figured I could just show up and stay in hostels and such. Plus I had never seen Hungary."

After DeAnna learned of Spencer’s arrest Oct. 3 at the pub he and Taylor did their best to take charge. Taylor booked a restaurant reservation for the conference attendees for the evening of Oct. 4. DeAnna agreed to play host.

Meeting a crowd of reporters at a pre-arranged secret location in a murky entrance of the Budapest Metro on the evening of Oct. 4, DeAnna showed up in frayed jeans, running shoes, and a tie. As he shepherded confused journalists and attendees to the now-rescheduled conference dinner, he scanned his surroundings like Jason Bourne searching for plainclothes officers who might be tailing him.

Inside the restaurant, long wooden tables were piled high with plates of chicken paprikash on noodles; traditional Hungarian crafts hung on the walls. Around 70 attendees, young and the old, sat and conversed, some holding glasses of wine. A group of students affiliated with the Nationalist Student Association (NSV) in Belgium wore, red, white, and black sashes, while professorial types talked about Europe and white identity among themselves. Other attendees included a 20-year-old Hungarian man who wished Dugin had been able to attend, a British blogger who was passionate about discussing "biopolitics," and others to the left and the right united by an idea of shared Caucasian heritage. It was mainly a time to make friends and comfortably talk over ideas that would receive stares (at the very least) in most public venues.  

After a dessert of chocolate mousse and various tortes, two speakers stood in front of the room and addressed the crowd. Taylor, the editor of a supposed academic journal that publishes, among other tirades, essays on eugenics, spoke first. "Only our race could have built this continent with this civilization, and only our race will carry that civilization forward in any way that is meaningful," he told the crowd, who rose in a standing ovation. A lone non-white attendee from Japan, working on a Ph.D. dissertation about European nationalism, looked on curiously.

Tomislav Sunic, a former Croatian diplomat and American citizen with links to the white nationalist movement in the United States, spoke next, offering his own manifesto against the dangers of diversity. "That’s why I am suspicious and highly-critical of any form of multiculturalism, whatever you want to call it," Sunic said, eyes darting with bristly energy as if looking for a challenger while he talked about the violent breakup of the former multiethnic Yugoslavia. "Be it intra-European or inter-European, inter-ethnic, or even if it excludes and includes non-Europeans."

After dinner and speeches, the crowd dispersed, back into the Budapest night. In the end, Taylor remarked, the whole Budapest experience had become less of a conference and more of just a fun dinner. Indeed, the planned "book fair" had been transformed into a meager pile of six of Taylor’s books. But attendees agreed that the chicken paprikash was tasty.

As for Spencer, who spent the weekend going back-and-forth between Hungarian detention facilities and immigration offices, his big reward at the end of his much-vaunted conference was a one-way ticket back to Montana. "I will be deported from Hungary and banned from Schengen countries for three years," Spencer wrote to me in an e-mail, noting he may file an appeal with the EU Human Rights Commission.

Despite the negative experience, he said he found support in unexpected places, even behind bars where a warden told him he also believed "thought should be free." It was at least one vote of confidence for the conference that almost didn’t happen. But Spencer said he’s learned a lot and he won’t give up. "In a way, I’m glad that everything happened as it did, including my arrest," Spencer wrote on Oct. 8. "It was an opportunity to demonstrate our resolve."

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