Who were those communists in Hungary?

Reading Lia’s comments on "Why do Hungarian émigrés bet on the wrong horse?" I realized that it might be a good idea to talk a bit about the "communist heritage." Already in the 1970s I came to the conclusion that there were very few ideologically committed communists in Hungary. Virtually no one believed in the great socialist paradise and the even greater paradise of communism. But at the same time the regime looked absolutely solid and permanent. Who would have thought that the mighty Soviet Union would collapse one day, especially in our lifetimes? Nobody. So most people made peace with the regime. Most of the political prisoners got out of jail and sooner or later managed to find their place in the matrix of society. Writers began to write again, scientists sooner or later occupied their rightful place in the scientific community. University students who were kicked out of the universities a few years later received their degrees and eventually got decent jobs. This was the case whether they became party members of not. Most of them did not. A good example for a post 1956 career is that of József Antall who was certainly involved in politics as a young high school teacher in 1956. For a while his career suffered, but eventually became the director of the Museum of Medical History, travelled abroad and published articles on the history of medicine.

Of course, there were certain professions where one couldn’t succeed without party membership: the military, the police force, the legal establishment (prosecutors, judges), higher officials in the ministries, the diplomatic corps, just to mention a few. Then there were those souls who followed their own secular version of Pascal’s wager: they figured that party membership couldn’t hurt and in the hope of career advancement they signed up. By the change of regime the party had 800,000 members. In the party of the working class the percentage of blue-collar workers kept decreasing. By 1960 the blue-collar workers in the party was 47.1% while they represented 83% of the country as a whole. In the same year the white-collar employees’ percentage in the society as a whole was 17%, in the party 35.4%. By 1974 the workers’ percentage had shrunk to 28.9%.

The professionals and intellectuals had more to gain from party membership than did blue-collar workers, so a higher percentage of them belonged to the party. As a result, the picking was slim for József Antall, who swore that no former party member could ever serve in his government. It became obvious to Viktor Orbán that he couldn’t possibly follow in Antall’s footsteps; his cabinet was full of former party members. Indeed, István Stumpf who became head of the prime minister’s office taught Marxism-Leninism at the law school, as Lia mentioned, and was of course a party member. (Although he "modestly" neglects to mention this fact in the Hungarian Who’s Who (Ki kicsoda?))

Then there were those who perhaps were not party members but who, for one reason or another, were considered useful to the regime. Ferenc Mádl’s case is an interesting one: he received permission to study in Strasbourg between 1961 and 1963. That is, before the change of policy toward the "enemies" of the regime. Another example is the current president of the republic, László Sólyom. He married well: his wife was the daughter of the almighty party secretary of Baranya County. A year later he received a scholarship to Eastern Germany. Not as good as Strasbourg but more than most people could achieve in those days.

By the 1970s and 1980s foreign visits of scholars became quite frequent, but the people who were beneficiaries of these trips certainly didn’t run around saying nasty things about Comrade Kádár.

And now we come to Viktor Orbán. Orbán made his name at the reburial of Imre Nagy. People praised his speech because he, in his youthful daredevil phase, openly called for Soviet troop withdrawal. Admitting that it was a brave, if perhaps rash, speech, I was outraged by his pronouncement that the real victims of communism were they, the young people. Viktor Orbán was born in 1963, the year when Kádár announced that "those who are not against us are with us!" It was the time of real political thaw. In economic terms, living standards were improving, even if modestly. In the villages there were new houses, and apartment buildings sprang up everywhere (not exactly the kind I would want to see built, but better than nothing).

Orbán’s family started from nothing. His father was a truck driver, his mother a teacher’s assistant. Both of them eventually received university degrees. His father became the top man at a quarry (which later he managed to privatize under questionable circumstances). And, yes, he was the quarry’s party secretary. Orbán himself according to his teachers and classmates was an enthusiastic Pioneer and lower-level secretary in the KISZ (Kommunisták Ifjúsági Szövetsége). The situation was the same with János Kövér. Perhaps even more so. His grandfather was an old communist and a member of Red Army of the Hungarian Soviet Republic. Yet these two people talk about the communists as if they and their families had absolutely nothing to do with either the party or the Kádár regime. As for Orbán’s brief stint in Oxford, he received a scholarship from the Soros Foundation which was very much in the hands of people who later were the founding fathers of the SZDSZ. Orbán today hates the SZDSZ more than he hates the communists. Soros’s money was wasted, I’m afraid.

Sometime in the middle of the 1980s, way before there was any talk of the possibility of an independent, democratic Hungary, Kövér gave a speech at a youth camp. He announced that "whether we like it or not, the political leaders of this country will come from among us." Indeed, I’m convinced that these people would have been the new generation of party and government leaders of Hungary even without the change of regime.

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I also like to raise the following issue with Hungarian emigres when they complain about the Hungarian government/society/etc being full of ‘old commies’…I remind them that Jozsef Antall had the same opportunity to do what the Czechs and I believe the East Germans did after reunification: they denied former Communist functionaries from ever serving the state again, did they not? So, in fact, we have have dear, right-of-center, late Jozsef Antall to thank for the current pickle Hungary is in leadership-wise… While it does bother me that former Communists who made millions from the blood, sweat and tears of others during Communism are now capitalists doing the same thing — my feeling is, unfortunately, Hungary had a window of opportunity to cleanse its highest ranks of Communists at the time of the regime change and failed to do so. No more whining aloud!


I meant to say: No more whining ALLOWED! Sorry!


Unfortunately, the tenor of contemporary Hungarian political debate depends a lot on loud whining…