The funeral of János Kádár (July 14, 1989)

I wrote about János Kádár and his legacy earlier this month in anticipation of the twentieth anniversary of his death on July 6, 1989. His funeral was not held until July 14 because George H. W. Bush was on an official visit to Budapest between July 11 and 13 and the trip, of course, had been arranged long before. The most recent (twenty-ninth) episode of MTV's series on the history of that fateful year– "Visszajátszás" (Playback)–dealt mostly with Kádár, his funeral, and of course the momentous trip to Hungary of the American president. The contemporary television footage of the viewing and the funeral cortege was fascinating. Kádár, of course, received a military funeral, but his coffin was placed in the headquarters of MSZMP. Kádár's physical and mental deterioration had been noticed long before his actual death. According to some of his closest associates, they first noticed that not all was well with "The Old One" after he turned sixty in 1972. And he died only seventeen years later. In the last couple of years his memory failed him, his mind wasn't always clear, he kept repeating himself, and he was often in the hospital. But no one in his entourage had the courage to tell him that it was time to go.

At last help came from Moscow. Gorbachev urged Kádár to retire, and and his biographers claim that he rarely dared to say no to the Soviets. He knew too much about the workings of the Kremlin. In his last incoherent speech before the central committee of the party (April 12, 1989) he said: "you can put any label on me you want but I know that when I was released…." His sentences were garbled, but it was clear that he was talking about the time he spent in Moscow before returning to Hungary to quell the revolution with Soviet help. In the beginning Kádár was hated by the great majority of Hungarians, but especially after 1963 when he announced that anyone who was not against the regime was with it, he became increasingly popular. Just as László Lengyel, the political scientist and author of many books, said in "Visszajátszás": "It was hard to imagine life without Kádár. I was entering first grade and he was already there, and he was still there when I was thirty-nine. My whole life was spent in the Kádár regime."

In this episode there was footage of people lining up before his coffin, some of them crying. One woman crossed herself as she went by the bier. People were interviewed on the street and they all praised him. These middle-aged people reflected on their youth. Although most felt that it was time for change, they were worried about an unknown future that would replace the familiar and basically secure past. Some who attended the funeral claimed that there were as many people at Kádár's funeral as at the reburial of Imre Nagy and his fellow victims. Although Kádár was in terrible shape (his biographer referenced the "living dead" when recounting his last few months), he was aware of the reburial of Nagy and his fellow victims. He asked, "Is it today … that … that man is buried?" He could never utter Nagy's name. Not even on his deathbed. But he was preoccupied with "that man." On May 10, two days after his retirement, he wrote a letter to the central committee in which he asked its members to "investigate his role." He considered himself to be a "scapegoat in the biblical sense." Apparently the Supreme Court was making its decision about the "rehabilitation" of Imre Nagy when a man entered the courtroom with a piece of paper that he handed to the judges. On it were written the words "Kádár is dead."

Kádár is still popular. All public opinion polls put him among the six most popular historical figures. Way ahead of Imre Nagy, by the way. Somewhere close to Saint Stephen and King Matthias. I don't know whether Kádár's personal popularity has grown of late, but the currency of his regime is on the rise. Together with the success of the extreme right goes a yearning for the good old days of János Kádár. When people behaved (and if they didn't they received just punishment), when people were nicer and kinder to each other, when money didn't matter as much, and when there was no unemployment. And one could continue the praise heaped on a regime that exists only in the memory of a generation. Reality was a great deal different.