CSOKAKO, Hungary – They came in droves — war veterans and far-right politicians, Hussars on horseback and guardsmen in camouflage. About 1,000 people gathered in this village over the weekend to unveil a bronze bust of Admiral Miklos Horthy, Hungary's ruler between 1920 and 1944.
Most Hungarians view Horthy as an authoritarian who dragged Hungary into a disastrous alliance with Adolf Hitler and was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews in the Holocaust.
But as Hungary struggles to fend off recession and nationalist sentiment rises, there is a growing movement to recast Horthy as a patriotic hero who stood up to the Soviet Union and only reluctantly threw in his lot with Hitler. And critics say the populist government of Viktor Orban is doing little to stop the cult that has sprung up around the wartime leader.
The Horthy era began with Hungary trying to recover from the trauma of losing much of its territory after defeat in World War I. It ended with Hungary's troops fighting on Hitler's side in World War II. Admirers see in Horthy a leader who tried to find space for Hungary to maneuver between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, and cracked down on domestic fascists and communists alike.
"We want to clarify Horthy's role in history. He was a conservative, patriotic Christian politician," said Gyorgy Furesz, the mayor of Csokako. "Horthy's message to us is that even in the most impossible situations we have to persevere for the interests of the nation and the country."
Braving the intense summer heat in his father's military uniform, Ferenc Danko, a 71-year-old former technician, said that those who blamed Horthy for what happened in Hungary during World War II were "blind and malicious."
"Horthy didn't have a bad side," said Danko, who has lived in Australia since 1976 and timed his visit to Hungary to coincide with the statue ceremony. The Horthy bust, he said, was a sign that "the nation has awakened."
Orban's government has largely steered clear of the far-right's attempts to rehabilitate Horthy. But its attitude toward the Horthy era seems more sympathetic than that of governments past, and it has allowed emblems like the Csokako statue to proliferate.
"Hungary has been going through a deep economic crisis for several years and instead of changing its economic policies, the government has turned to symbolic politics," said sociologist Antal Bohm. "The style, tone and authoritarian tendencies of the 1920s and 1930s have reappeared in Hungary and this compensates for the lack of economic success."
Orban led his conservative Fidesz party to a landslide victory in 2010 and gained a two-thirds parliamentary majority.
Populist and "unorthodox" economic measures have increased investors' uncertainty about Hungary and left its currency, the forint, exposed to the whims of markets. Unemployment has been stubbornly stuck near 11 percent and the economy is expected to dip back into a recession this year.
Orban still enjoys an unassailable legislative majority that has allowed him to centralize power and gain greater influence over the judiciary, the media, churches, schools and the central bank. But recent polls show decade-low support for Fidesz, which faces a steady challenge from the far-right Jobbik, the second-largest opposition group.
That has led Fidesz to ramp up its own nationalist rhetoric.
"This is clearly about the votes," said Bohm, the sociologist. "Fidesz is looking to secure right-wing votes for the next elections."
Parliamentary Speaker Laszlo Kover, a close ally of Orban, last month helped arrange the reburial in Romania of Jozsef Nyiro, a Transylvanian author and politician who supported the fascist regime of Ferenc Szalasi's Arrow Cross party, which briefly governed Hungary with Hitler's backing after Horthy's removal.
Last week, Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel told The Associated Press that he is "repudiating" a Hungarian government award he received in 2004 over the Nyiro ceremony.
The 83-year-old Holocaust survivor, whose parents were sent to their deaths at concentration camps by wartime Hungarian officials, said it was "outrageous" that Kover attended the ceremony and wrote him a letter rejecting the award bestowed by Hungary's president.
Nyiro, along with two other writers identified with Hungary's far-right, has been included in the list of authors recommended under a new national study plan.
"By lifting the thoughts which reigned during the darkest period in Hungarian history into culture, public education, public speech and public thought, they are at the same time reviving the ideas which caused the greatest national tragedy," said Attila Mesterhazy, president of the Socialist Party, the largest opposition group.
Hungary's Holocaust Remembrance Day was inaugurated by the first Orban government in 2001, and the current administration has cracked down on far-right uniformed groups such as the Hungarian Guard. The government has also repudiated the recent desecration of a Jewish cemetery and vandalism against Jewish memorials in Budapest.
But recent events have caused alarm well beyond Hungary's borders. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum calls the government's apparent support for rehabilitating fascist leaders "alarming."
"The Hungarian government's rehabilitation of fascist ideologues and leaders from World War II is of great concern to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum," said a statement from museum director Sara J. Bloomfield. "It is both a grave insult to the memory of those who perished under the Horthy and Szalasi regimes and a deeply troubling sign for Jews and other minorities in Hungary."
Horthy's first public statue, a full-body wood carving, was unveiled in May in the western village of Kereki. It stood for just a few hours before it was smeared with red paint in the middle of the night by Peter Daniel, a lawyer and activist.
While his act was condemned even by some of his ideological allies, Daniel said he had no regrets.
"I believe that with the erection of this statue they have gravely injured and humiliated the memory of the Jewish martyrs sent to their deaths by Horthy," Daniel said. "The Orban government is flirting very wittingly with the Horthy cult and is making very deliberate gestures to the far-right."