Hungary twenty years ago: The rise of Viktor Orbán

Twenty years ago often seems like yesterday, but technologically it was light years away. When around that time I wanted to follow Hungarian events more closely I had to purchase a short-wave receiver and get a fellow to string a four-hundred-foot-long wire from the roof to a tree that enabled me to listen, more or less, to the official Hungarian Radio's short-wave news program Szülőföldünk, "Our Fatherland." First came half an hour of news in Hungarian and then half an hour in English. Very often the reception was terrible and the news not very enlightening. The English version was difficult to understand because while other East European countries hired native speakers, in Hungary the announcers were Hungarians who only thought they knew the language. In brief, in those days I wasn't exactly up on things.  So it's not at all surprising that it was some years later that I first read the text of Viktor Orbán's 1989 speech.

Today, of course, one can read it in several places on the Internet and can listen to it on YouTube. Not long ago I saw an interview with Tamás Deutsch who claimed that both he and Viktor Orbán became famous overnight. Orbán after his speech at the reburial of Imre Nagy and his fellow martyrs on June 16, 1989, and he after his well publicized arrest in Prague during one of the demonstrations against the regime. Some people remember differently. They claim that, although Orbán's speech was well received, his name didn't become an instant household word.

Originally the organizers didn't plan to include a representative of Fidesz, an anticommunist youth organization, among the speakers. The speakers were all people who had something to do with the 1956 revolution: Miklós Vásárhelyi, Imre Nagy's press secretary who spent years in jail; Imre Mécs, then a student who was originally condemned to death but got "only life" on appeal; Tibor Zimányi who was first arrested in 1949 and sent to Recsk, a notorious internment camp with a low expected survival rate; and Béla Király, head of the National Guard during the 1956 revolution who was supposed to speak in the name of those 200,000 people who left the country after the failed revolution.

How did Viktor Orbán end up in this company? Well, the Fidesz guys were not shy and demanded a role. The older generation was disinclined, but István Csurka (who in those days wasn't yet the notorious leader of the antisemitic MIÉP but one of the important leaders of MDF) insisted on giving Fidesz the opportunity to choose someone who would speak in the name of Hungary's youth. The beginnings were not auspicious. The night before the reburial the radical student leaders of Fidesz organized a demonstration in front of the Soviet Embassy with slogans like "Your visa has expired!" and "Russians go home!" (actually "Ruszkik haza!" as the crowd demanded in '56). The two men mostly responsible for orchestrating the reburial, Miklós Vásárhelyi and András B. Hegedűs, were furious, not without reason. Working with the moderates in the Communist party and the Kádár government, they felt responsible for a peaceful ceremony, and understandably they didn't want to infuriate the Soviets either. They called the Fidesz student leaders "radical Leninists." Just as László Kéri called Orbán a "Bolshevik" during a discussion after a lecture he gave to the students who later formed Fidesz.  Outsiders obviously noticed a radical streak in him and his friends. For instance, the Fidesz leadership was dead set against allowing Prime Minister Miklós Németh and Imre Pozsgay to stand in the honor guard next to the coffins because, after all, these people were "the hangmen" responsible for the death of the victims.

In the end, the remains of five of those executed in the wake of 1956 were gathered from unmarked graves, placed in coffins, and reburied in marked graves. In addition, a sixth empty coffin was displayed to commemorate the youths who died in the fighting or were later condemned to death. Apparently, that was also done on the urging of Csurka, to whom the burial of "only communists" was distasteful.

The Fidesz leadership had heated debates about the reburial. For instance, some didn't think they should participate because, after all, they "wanted to have multi-party democracy, so what were they doing at the burial of communists?" Orbán sought a rebuttal to the naysayers, and eventually László Kövér came up with the idea that the sixth empty coffin should be treated as a symbol of what their generation had lost and the bleak future that awaited them.

When I first read Orbán's speech my reaction was visceral. I hated it. Mostly because of this sixth empty coffin and Fidesz's expropriation of it. Yes, I know everybody praised the speech then and now because the young Orbán (chosen by the leadership of Fidesz to deliver the speech mostly written by Kövér) dared to tell the Russians to go home. That didn't strike me as especially brave. By that time the Soviet Union was a toothless lion, Gorbachev had pretty well made it clear that the Soviet Union no longer wanted to keep the empire going because they simply couldn't afford it. Moreover, negotiations were ongoing about Soviet troop withdrawals and quite a few units had already left. I barely paid attention to these demands; what infuriated me was this coffin business. Orbán was born in 1963, Deutsch in 1966, Fodor in 1962–and they're complaining about their lives being ruined forever? They suffered the most? What about those who were ruined after 1948 when they lost all the modest wealth they managed to accumulate after decades of hard work? Their little stores, their livelihood? What about those people who never had the opportunity to live in a democracy? What about those who were too old to reap the benefits of the new era? How could Orbán (or Kövér) dare to say that "the Hungarian Socialist Worker's Party deprived us, today's youth, of our future in 1956"? Or how could he say that "in that sixth coffin lies not only a murdered youth but our next twenty or God only knows how many years." I thought it was shameless then, and I still think so.

As we know, the future for Orbán and his friends was bright and prosperous. And this future had its start during the Kádár regime. There were winners and losers under Communist rule; interestingly enough, it was the children of the winners who complained most bitterly in 1989 and claimed that their future lay in that coffin. It is enough to read the first pages of Orbán's biography (Debreczeni József, Orbán Viktor, 2002) to understand that the Orbán family was one of the beneficiaries of the regime. Starting from nowhere, eventually both of his parents managed to get college degrees. And their children went to the best schools and became university graduates. Considering that Orbán's grandfather, one of eight children, left home for Budapest on foot because he didn't even have enough money to take the train, it's striking how much the Orbán family profited under the Communists. When I first read it I found Orbán's 1989 speech disingenuous and, quite frankly, stomach turning. And more recent events haven't given me any reason to change my mind.

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donald richie

This is really quite pathetic. Orban made a speech, it was a good one. He called for the Russians to go home, and yes Communism did destroy the lives of those alive in 1948 more effectively than it did those born in the the 1960s. But it also damaged the country right up until it ended and does so to this day given Hungary and Hungarians’ inability (especially on the right) to drive the debate. Its a shame to criticise everything just because Viktor Orban said it, he may once have been right.

Gábor László
J Simon

I agree with Gábor László. Orbán’s speech was excellent, brave and corageous. He paid proper hommage to the 1956 revolution.
Read it again and it still sounds great.
J. Simon