Retro: 1989

A change of pace. A friend of mine from Hungary called my attention to a priceless historical source. MTI (Magyar Távirati Iroda), the official Hungarian news agency, made available online all its news items for 1989, the year of regime change. Its title is "Rendszerváltás és az MTI." Anyone interested can find it here: What a gold mine this will be for future historians. As someone who with great difficulty and and at great expense (admittedly underwritten by grant money) tried to collect news items from 1919-1921 I can really appreciate how technology has freed the modern historian from the tedium of ferreting out sources and focused his/her task on analysis. I can sit here at my desk thousands of miles away and click on a date and, behold, all the news published by MTI is right in front of me. By the way, MTI also made available its coverage of 1956.

One can even find photos (MTI apparently has an extensive photo collection), and they are also instructive. On January 1, 1989, we can see a picture from Debrecen's famous Nagytemplom (the Great Church of the Hungarian Reformed Church): refugees from Romania are receiving food packages from the Netherlands. A few days later there is a picture from Austria: some people are leaving a store. Caption: "Many Hungarians are buying in Austria items difficult or impossible to find in Hungary." There is a photo for every day and if we look at February 14 there is a picture of a meeting between the leaders of SZOT (Szakszervezetek Országos Tanácsa = National Council of Trade Unions) and some of the leaders of MDF. Oh, those were the days when Sándor Csoóri, Lajos Für, and István Csurka were leading members of MDF. Today all three belong to the far right.

Let's see what was considered to be the most important news of the day on February 14, 1989. The lead story was that the minister of defense, as usual in the socialist countries a military man, and the chief of staff left for Moscow for a meeting with their Warsaw Pact counterparts. Well, those Moscow pilgrimages were short-lived. It was announced that two additional furnaces at the Diósgyőr Ironworks were shut down. The news item made it clear that all unprofitable factories will eventually be closed. At the same time, it was announced that in another part of Hungary, in Szolnok, more public works will be available for the unemployed. News from the world of communism and that of capitalism are mixed in the news. There's an article about Cuban sugar that constitutes 80% of its total exports and another piece about potential South Korean investments in Hungary–hotels and perhaps a factory to build Korean cars in Hungary. As we know, nothing came of either. The introduction of capitalism is "heralded" by the publication of a marketing-advertising dictionary.

The most puzzling item for me was the following: "Autó-sorszámok, 1989 február 14, kedd." It took me a little while to figure out what this was. Eventually I came to the conclusion that this is a list of cars their eager new owners had been waiting for for years that just now became available. The list of cars is pathetic in light of the cars on Hungarian roads today: Trabants, Wartburgs, Skodas, Ladas, Polski Fiat, Dacia, Yugo, Volga limousine and two western cars: a Volkswagen Golf and an Opel. One of each. All told 54 cars became available on February 14, 1989. Here is a sample, the first few cars on list:

Trabant Limousin Hycomat Budapest 1200
Trabant Combi Hycomat Budapest 152
Trabant Limousin Speciál Budapest 17416
     Debrecen 14776
     Győr 13637

For anyone interested I highly recommend this as a glimpse into a world that no longer exists.

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1989 … What a memorable year .. when the world was pretty chaotic