This man manages to create controversy every time he opens his mouth. He usually says the wrong thing at the wrong time. It is hard to decide whether it is what he says that irritates people or how he says it. Probably a large portion of the "what" garnished with the "how."
Historians usually get mighty upset when politicians (although I know Sólyom doesn't consider himself to be a politician) use history for their own purposes. And usually with scant knowledge. It is also irritating when non-professionals who dabble in history say stupid things on topics ranging from Mohács to 1848 or 1918 or 1956. And they do. An amateur historian, who later became the court "historian" of the Fidesz government, expounded on the Hungarian curse of political division that was responsible for Mohács and the subsequent 150 years of Turkish occupation of large parts of the country. Another favorite theme is that the Habsburgs purposely wanted the Hungarian parts of their empire to suffer under the Turks; they deserved punishment. The fact is that Western Europe couldn't defeat the mighty armies of the Ottoman Empire. And how often one hears that perhaps a pro-Turkish orientation would have "saved" Hungary from the Habsburgs. Where would Hungary be today if that had happened? Where the the Balkan countries are. Then there are those who are champions of Ferenc Rákóczi and the paradise the country would have become if he had won over Vienna. And the drumbeat goes on.
If a politician, however rarely, accurately describes historical facts, as Ferenc Gyurcsány did on March 15, 2007, the "patriots" call him a liar because he challenged historical myths that are so close to their hearts. I'm thinking here of revolution on the streets as opposed to legitimate and peaceful change voted by members of the Diet in Pozsony (Bratislava). Gyurcsány in his speech at the Opera House outlined the sequence of events that showed that the "revolution" in Pest was not in fact a revolution in the proper sense of the word. But to destroy romantic notions is almost a sacrilege in a nationalistic society. Sometime politicians distort history to justify their own political ideas. A good example is Viktor Orbán's speech in Vienna sometime between 1998 and 2002 about 1956 when he announced, to the horror of historians of the period, that 1956 was a "bourgeois" revolution. If his government is called the "bourgeois government" (polgári kormány) and he is the man who continues the traditions of 1956, then October 23 must have been a bourgeois revolution. I guess this is how his mind worked. I who happened to be trained as a historian and was an eyewitness to and a participant in the events was flabbergasted. October 23 as a bourgeois revolution? It is most likely that a western type of multi-party democratic system would have resulted if the revolution had succeeded, but that in its initial impulses the revolution had nothing to do with these aims is indisputable. Absolutely nothing! Those whose writings inspired the revolution didn't want to overthrow the socialist regime. They wanted to reform it. Socialism with a human face, as twelve years later the Czechs called it.
What did Sólyom say about 1956 that infuriated historians so much? On the surface their remarks seem to be nitpicking. I believe that what they objected to most was the impression that President Sólyom, a legal scholar, has such, how shall I say, primitive notions about history. Earlier he claimed that historians ought to write "the real history" of the revolution. It was at that time that András Gerő, an outspoken historian of the Habsburg period, called him a stupid man. After all, said Gerő, a legal scholar should know best that just as there can be multiple interpretations of the law, so there can be multiple interpretations of history. There is no such thing as the "real" history of anything. Surely, in his own head he must have a definite interpretation of 1956, but that is not necessarily the "real" one. Unfortunately, this time Sólyom again returned to his favorite theme: there is only one real history of 1956. Without mentioning the name of his predecessor, Árpád Göncz, the first president of the Third Republic who was sentenced to life after 1956, he was in effect criticizing Göncz who happened to say once that "there are as many histories of 1956 as participants." Of course, Göncz meant that each person who was an eyewitness to the events has different memories. I know people who were afraid of antisemitic pogroms while others, even Jews, noticed nothing of the sort. There were supporters of the Rákosi regime who surely were afraid of what would happen to them. Perhaps they would be killed. University students and intellectuals kept repeating that those who committed crimes should be brought to trial. At the same time a mob lynched several people in front of the party headquarters. In this sense Göncz was certainly right.
Sólyom's other hobby horse is the condemnation of the Kádár regime in its entirety. He doesn't seem to distinguish between the early period that followed the failed revolution and the later one that, although a one-party system, was not a harsh dictatorship. Sólyom thinks that one cannot be on the side of the revolution and at the same time admit that Kádár from about 1963 on tried to get the best deal for Hungary under the circumstances. I think that one cannot just wipe off the face of the earth a regime that existed over 30 years. It lives, if nowhere else, in the Hungarian psyche. In Sólyom's too, whether he likes it or not. He was only fourteen years old in 1956. His socialization took place during the Kádár regime. He made a career for himself during this period. He married the daughter of a high communist official and reaped the benefits of this marriage.
As for his relationship with Imre Nagy himself. He came to praise Nagy, but he kept saying degrading things about communists. There is nothing wrong with being anti-communist, but it's a bit tasteless to harangue communists in the context of remembering Imre Nagy. After all, Imre Nagy had a thoroughly communist background. He joined the underground communist party upon returning from a Russian prison camp after World War I. In the early thirties, escaping jail in Hungary, he went to the Soviet Union and survived Stalin's regime and the elimination of most of his Hungarian comrades. He returned to Hungary with Mátyás Rákosi in the wake of the Soviet troops, and I could continue. No wonder that some people, among them Mária Vásárhelyi, found the speech objectionable. Moreover, Sólyom again brought up Gyula Horn's role after the revolution and tried to justify his decision not to give him a decoration. Again, tasteless, especially since Horn is most likely suffering from Alzheimer's and cannot answer the president, who is always so sure that he is right. Perhaps it is this very irritating characteristic that makes people dislike this man so intensely. Because I doubt that too many people, either on the left or the right, are truly fond of him.