Star-Crossed Hungarian Beer

You surely know that one cannot simply draw or display a swastika (or, indeed, a handful of other Nazi-associated symbols) these days within Germany or Austria – the police will soon want to discuss the criminal offense you have just perpetrated. Others of Germany’s neighbors have enacted similar legislation. In fact, in legislation during the early nineties Hungary added to that list of forbidden Nazi-symbols the Arrow Cross, a similar-looking symbol which represented the fascist Arrow Cross Party (Nyilaskeresztes Párt) which took over Hungary late in World War II, with the help of the Germans, and was responsible for the greater part of victims sent from Hungary to the Nazi annihilation camps.

Gregor Martin Papucsek, Budapest correspondent for the Czech business-news site, in his recent piece “Totalitarian Beer,” notes the curious exception to this ban, and it’s the one I show here: the red five-pointed star. That is still OK, even as we all know that it stands for Soviet Communism in general, and perhaps the Red Army in particular. God knows the Hungarians suffered for decades under the Soviet yoke, starting from 1944 when that Red Army first invaded from the East the territory of Nazi Germany’s firm ally, and thus were not inclined to moderate the destruction they caused, nor the reparations they exacted – nor the damage and casualties they inflicted during the ultra-violent 1956 Hungarian Uprising.

Wait, though: Others use the Red Star, too, including the giant Dutch brewer Heineken. They were apparently quick enough to seize the commercial opportunities opening up in Eastern Europe during those early nineties to grab a large foothold in Hungary, and in fact Heineken is still a major player in that market, selling a handful of local brands as well as importing beers from the outside. Papucsek’s piece even speaks of what has been known colloquially as the lex Heineken (Latin: Heineken Law), leaving the Red Star alone for the Dutch firm’s convenience.

Not any more, though, not as of a law the Hungarian parliament passed on Monday which added the Red Star to the prohibited list. So what happened?

According to Papucsek, Heineken overplayed their hand – in Romania. Romania?! Yes, but specifically in Székely-land, part of what is known in English as Transylvania, what amounts to mostly Hungarian ethnic land which just happens to belong to Romania (via various accidents of history we cannot go into here). For yet another beer liked to use the Red Star in its insignia, and that was the Transylvanian brand Igazi Csíki Sör (name translates to “True Beer from Csík,” which is one of the counties there). Last year Heineken filed suit in a Romanian court to forbid that brewer from using the Red Star in its insignia.

Given the strange way things work in this part of the world, when the Transylvanians need legal/political help they are more inclined to turn to Budapest – i.e. their fellow Hungarians – than to Bucharest. What’s more – and as we see here – Budapest politicians are generally inclined to respond.

How will Heineken react? Will Heineken react? I rather doubt it.

UPDATE: A piece from the leading Dutch business newspaper, Het Financiële Dagblad (behind paywall) reports towards late June that the European Commission, having looked into this matter of the Red Star, sees no reason to stop Hungary from banning it if the government there so desires. For the Hungarians suffered SO much under the Communists, you understand! (They did, but this is not at all about that; read the main blogpost.)

As for Heineken, they are still counting on contacts at the top political level to help resolve this situation in such a way that they can continue to use the graphic which, as they point out, has been their logo from the very beginning.

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