It was exactly a year ago that I wrote my first blog. The topic was Hungarian agriculture; I described an interview with the minister of agriculture, József Gráf. Since then I have been pretty diligent. Altogether I wrote 331 pieces, and 33,143 people have visited the blog. I know traffic is modest, but nonetheless I’m pleased, especially since the beginnings were rocky. It takes time before the internet audience notices the new kid on the block.
I decided to start Hungarian Spectrum because I was dissatisfied with political information available in English about Hungary. Admittedly, there are some English-language internet papers, but I don’t know any English-language blog devoted to an analysis of daily political events. Most of the time Google Alerts call my attention to some Hungarian recipe. Or to some girl who was an exchange student and tells the world about her experiences in Hungary. These, of course, are important and have their own audiences, but I thought that there were also people who would like to follow Hungarian politics but either didn’t speak the language or just wanted to hear another voice.
I was always interested in politics, I guess, and if the Soviets hadn’t decided to impose their system on Hungary after World War II, I might have ended up as a politician. It seemed to be running in the family. Both my parents were very active after the war in the Smallholders’ Party, a moderate conservative party that won an absolute majority in the first free elections in 1946. My father, an engineer turned businessman, had progressive ideas about the future of Hungarian agriculture where independent small farmers could pool their resources to share modern equipment. My mother was the representative of her party in the multi-party Association of Democratic Women where, I remember, she had daily problems with the delegate of the Hungarian Communist Party. At one point the party wanted my mother to run for parliament, but by that time it was obvious that the communists were going to win the election regardless of how people voted. So she declined. However, years later, after my mother’s death, I found the party’s pin tucked away in one of the drawers. Obviously, it was important for her to keep it when the best thing was to forget about such involvement.
My political interests propelled me to participate in the events of 1956. By that time I was a university student in Budapest and because I happened to live in the dormitory that was situated in downtown Budapest, right across from the Hotel Astoria, I witnessed fierce fighting from close quarters. Sometimes too close for comfort. However, as soon as possible I left the dormitory and offered my services to the Budapest Revolutionary Committee established by students and young instructors at the Faculty of Arts. After the Russians returned I worked on an underground paper. It was a very modest paper–typed, stenciled, and distributed at street corners. The work was not exactly without risk, especially when, by the beginning of December, many of those involved in putting out underground papers had been an arrested. It was just a question of time. We wrote some of the articles, but many of them came from an unknown source through a young fellow we hardly knew. One day he told me that he had heard rumors that behind the paper were people from Imre Nagy’s closest circle. By that time Imre Nagy had been arrested. It was at that point I decided to leave Hungary. It was only after 1990 that I found out that the man behind those articles was Miklós Gimes, one of the three men sentenced to death and executed on June 16, 1958.
Thus writing about politics is not entirely new to me, but circumstances didn’t really allow me to pursue this course. My academic interest always lay with history although the road to finding my real calling was long and arduous. I guess that one reason for not contemplating majoring in history was that the times were not conducive to budding historians. The greatest falsification of history was going on. In addition, I had, for four solid years, the world’s most boring history teacher. However, in September-October 1956 I had a brief encounter with history that was a real discovery. Without going into the dull bureaucratic details of my university career it was in September of 1956 that my status changed: university authorities allowed me to drop one of my majors and concentrate on Hungarian literature and linguistics. For some unknown reason Hungarian history became part of the new major. I was suddenly plunged into a course in post-1790 Hungarian history. That was especially funny since my main interest at that point was Old Hungarian literature, way before 1790. The lecturer was a young assistant professor, György Szabad. He was fantastic. Never in my life had I heard such engaging history. He could transport us to a princely estate around 1790. All the details of running of the estate, including the purchase of cows straight from Switzerland that were giving more milk than the Hungarian breeds. Or how he could make us imagine by looking out the window what Pest had been like in those days. It was a new world.
Like so many heroes, the sheen disappeared. First in his book, At the Crossroad of Revolution and Compromise, he distanced himself from the notion of compromise. After the change of regime, he became involved in politics and was the MDP speaker of the house. By now Szabad is no longer a moderate but has moved quite far to the right.
I have been quite amazed at the political transformation of some people. Formerly very important party cadres like Imre Pozsgay or Mátyás Szűrös today are enthusiastic followers of a right-wing Fidesz. This party bears no resemblance to the original Young Democrats who marched out of parliament when György Szabad called for a few minutes of silence in remembrance of Trianon. (Just to set things straight I consider both Szabad’s and Fidesz’s behavior in this case reprehensible.) Ordinary party secretaries who were reporting on people in the Kádár regime now teach religion in the local school. People who worked for the secret police are nowadays the most vehement enemies of the old regime. They scream and holler and go to court. One such person is Katalin Kondor, former head of the Hungarian Radio, who most likely was an informer, but who managed to convince the court that the documents historians claimed were genuine were simply not enough to prove her service to the secret police. Or just lately, János Martonyi, formerly Orbán’s foreign minister, “cleared his name” in court because the documents his accusers presented, although genuine, were not enough for the judge.
Of course, we change our minds over a lifetime. It would be strange if we didn’t. At one point I believed in the domino theory advocated by American policy makers until I came to the conclusion that, despite my anti-communist bias, it was a fallacious theory. But I don’t believe in total transformations. I can’t trust those people. Something is wrong. Unfortunately, they are abundant, especially in countries whose history is volatile. People are afraid: the new regime might take its revenge on those who are too close to the former regime. They could be kicked out of their job or worse. In the last few months one sees a somewhat similar movement. A lot of people believe that sooner later Viktor Orbán will win the elections. And then there will be a real “clean up” (tisztogatás). So the movement away from the current government by well-known “intellectuals” has already began. Perhaps the best example is László Kéri, formerly one of the most vocal critics of Orbán. He has changed his tune. He said that the government “national security office” was spying on Orbán and that’s the only reason that the contents of his speech leaked out. Well, that came in handy for Orbán who said that for years he has been watched by the Hungarian equivalent of the CIA-FBI. Someone is watching him, reporting on him all the time. He must live with this. I’m very disappointed in Kéri, but he doesn’t stand alone.