They wear black-vested uniforms and rally for the fatherland. Their red and white striped armbands remind many here of the fascist thugs who did the Nazis' dirty work in wartime Hungary.
Formed last year, the Hungarian Guard is the latest specimen of right-wing nationalism to make a comeback in Eastern Europe. Its appearance has alarmed the government, minority advocates and even a California congressman with Hungarian ties.
"People are very curious about us," said Gabor Vona, a former psychology student and rising star in Hungarian far-right politics. He founded the Hungarian Guard to defend what he describes as traditional values and his nation's cultural heritage.
Critics see a more malevolent agenda. Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany called the group "Hungary's shame" and asked judicial authorities to keep an eye on it. The chief prosecutor of Budapest, the capital, wants it shut down.
As the European Union expands eastward, hard-line nationalism is reviving old ghosts here in Hungary as well as in Bulgaria, Slovakia, Romania and other countries that were once part of the Soviet bloc and today aspire to be the New Europe.
The freedom that followed the collapse of communism, and then expanded with EU membership, has also unveiled a dark strain of anti-Semitism, prejudice and anti-immigrant sentiment that is being channeled by a new crop of small but noisy extremist groups. They are able to capitalize on disillusion among some segments of the population who feel bypassed by free-market reforms and globalization.
Far-right political parties recently set up paramilitary-style squads in Bulgaria and the Czech Republic. In Slovakia, a far-right party is part of the ruling coalition, although a paramilitary group called the Slovak Community was outlawed.
In Hungary, the Hungarian Guard, or Magyar Garda, swore in its first 50-odd members in a ceremony last summer outside the imposing Buda Castle near the Danube, historic seat of Hungarian royalty and home today to the presidential offices. A former defense minister attended the oath-taking and three priests blessed it.
By the end of the year, 600 others had signed up, and several thousand more had applied for membership, founder Vona said. Although members are fond of marching in formation and pledging to provide "physical and spiritual self-defense," Vona insists that they are not armed.
In Vona's view, Hungary never made the full transition from communism; he wants to get rid of Gyurcsany's Socialist government and return the country to an older time, with emphasis on pure Hungarian identity and Christian values.
"Christian identity and Hungarian identity are one," Vona, who turns 30 this year, said in an interview at his office in Budapest. He also heads a small right-wing political party, Jobbik, which has run unsuccessfully for parliament but does have representatives in municipal governments.
The right has been able to capitalize on discontent with the government after a scandal in which the prime minister admitting lying to the public about the economy, and violent protests in 2006 on the 50th anniversary of Hungary's unsuccessful attempt to break away from Soviet domination.
What many people here find particularly provocative are the Hungarian Guard's uniforms (black caps, vests, pants and boots), insignia and flags. All of it is reminiscent of the Arrow Cross, Hungary's World War II fascist militiamen who worked with the Nazis and were responsible for or assisted in the slaughter of tens of thousands of the Hungarian Jews who were killed.
Many Jews were shipped off to death camps; others were simply shot on the banks of the Danube and dumped into the river.
Vona says the red and white stripes and other emblems are from the medieval Arpad dynasty and weren't meant to evoke Nazism. But that explanation has convinced no one.
The specter of anti-Semitism is especially disturbing here in Budapest, home to the largest Jewish community in Eastern Europe and one that is thriving and undergoing something of a renaissance.
Anti-Semitism persists but has not been overtly violent in recent years, said Michael L. Miller, who teaches Jewish studies at Budapest's Central European University. He recalled being handed a leaflet a couple of years ago at a mainstream political rally that showed a big-nosed, kinky-haired man with a fistful of 100-euro bills, an unstated but not-so-subtle use of the Jew as the money-grubbing "outsider."
Some Hungarians fear the leap from rhetorical anti-Semitism to more dangerous action is a small one, especially with the rise of groups such as the Hungarian Guard that seem to receive at least tacit backing from more prominent rightist political factions.
Hungary's main right-wing political party, Fidesz, was slow to criticize the Hungarian Guard. Fidesz is the largest opposition party in parliament and could well win the next elections. Some analysts believe the party is quietly sustaining the guard as a way to hold on to voters.
"They are playing with fire," said Judit Lakner, a prominent Hungarian writer who edits a cultural magazine for Centropa, an institute that documents Jewish history in Central Europe.
Disaffected nationalism "is a menace throughout Europe," she added. "Those who feel they are being left behind are vulnerable to left- or right-wing manipulation. The rightist movement is every year stronger and stronger."
U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Burlingame), a Budapest-born Holocaust survivor who died Monday, introduced a bill in Congress to bar entry into the United States of any member of the Hungarian Guard, whose members he called "crazy fanatics."
Threat to Gypsies
The guard may pose an even greater threat to minorities such as the Gypsies, or Roma, who face fierce discrimination and hatred throughout Europe. Gypsies probably constitute about 6% of Hungary's population and are its poorest minority.
Involvement by Roma in robberies and assaults has further alienated other Hungarians and given extremists fodder for rallying support. Members of the Hungarian Guard led a rally last month portrayed as a protest against crime but seen as a largely anti-Gypsy demonstration.
"They are turning away from Jews as targets, to Gypsies," said Krisztian Szabados, director of Budapest's Political Capital Institute, a think tank. "That is how they can grow, and my fear is it could turn violent."
The guard is also exploiting other time-honored issues in Hungary, including its loss early in the 20th century of two-thirds of its territory, leaving hundreds of thousands of ethnic Hungarians inside the borders of other countries. This has been an emotional issue for generations of Hungarians.
It is not yet clear what impact the Hungarian Guard will have on national politics, and there is no indication it has attempted to join forces with paramilitary groups in neighboring countries.
But domestic and international condemnation has been fierce, and a Hungarian court is considering a petition to disband the guard.
"It was very frightening to see them, there, in their uniforms," recalled Ferenc Marczali, 25, a graduate student in English at one of Budapest's main universities. "At first I thought, 600 of them, it's not too many. Then I thought, 600 of them, that's a lot!
"I can't decide how afraid I have to be."