The end of the beginning: Reflections of a Hungarian by S.K.

Today, being the twentieth anniversary of the Berlin wall’s demise, what would be more timely than telling you about my own reflections on the anniversary? For Hungary and the Hungarians the whole thing started much earlier.

The first day I walked out to the Corso in Budapest, my first visit after many years of absence, at the river bank, almost immediately I came face to face with George Cohon walking there. I almost fainted. Mr. Cohon owned the franchise of MacDonalds hamburgers for Canada and he opened the first store in Budapest in the eighties. Obviously he was showing off capitalism on the Corso and he and it looked good.

This was in 1988. But there were other, more interesting developments. The whole country was rife with demonstrations. Nothing too heavy, mostly about Transylvania. This was the first time I have heard and soon enough learned the Szeklers Anthem (composed in 1921 by two Hungarian refugees from Transylvania).

In June 1989 Ronald Reagan gave his “tear down that wall” speech and in August a European Picnic was held alongside the Austrian-Hungarian border and, as you probably remember reading on this blog, earlier in September the East German “tourists” were let go for good. This was an intoxicating summer; the air was redolent of freedom. The whole country was heaving with a collective, extended sigh of unbelievable relief, after having held their breath for forty-five years.

Although there were a few dissonant voices, coming mostly from the communist hardliners, on the whole liberty was at hand.

The newspapers arrived here daily from Budapest to the city library, with a delay of 3-4 days, and I spent an hour every day there drinking up the news of the “revolution.”

There were “round table” negotiations, new parties were formed, all kinds of names and organizations were bandied about, and I had hardly any understanding of who was who. My impression was that the faceless party bureaucracy of the communists was rapidly caving in under the irresistible and universal pressure.

The whole country begun to behave like drunken sailors. People crossed over to Austria for the sake of a day’s shopping, the border posts could hardly deal with the traffic. The government removed the limit of currency transactions; those shopping trips drained the country’s foreign reserves in a few weeks.

The months of transformation was a veritable free-for-all; some organized referendums, other formed parties and others again were campaigning for the departure of the Soviet military.

Tovarishi koniets Comrades! It’s Over.

In the spring of 1990 an obscure historian, József Antall, was elected prime minister to head up a conservative coalition of other obscure historians and politicians. In comparison to the governments of the previous forty-five years almost anybody would have looked better. Even this motley crew of amateurs looked good for a while. But it was a short while. The economy almost immediately began to plummet, inflation started out climbing to the 25% level, rising fuel costs triggered a blockade of taxi drivers in the fall that paralyzed the country for days, and unemployment sky-rocketed to 14%. While all that was taking place inexorably, Mr. Antall’s government was occupied instead with the introduction of mandatory Catholic education in schools, smuggling back into position the long departed aristocracy and opening up the economy for the purposes of corruption for their friends, clients, and relatives. They reinvented nationalism too. They figured the country already had all that it needed except nationalism, so they unleashed a campaign for it.

Mr. Antall died after just three years of governing (this punishment was more than I wished for him), but his short term in power was enough to help the socialists come back like gangbusters.

Let me pause here for a moment to show you (as if you needed it shown), that at this time, the spring of 1994, all was ready for the national disaster that Hungary worked itself up (or rather down) to be. From Antall’s MDF party the anti-Semitic fringe already separated to form the “new” MIÉP party of illiterate small-time nazis. The economy was infiltrated by party apparatchiks, this time sent by the MDF, nevertheless in many cases former communists. The already deeply indebted country needed further loans just to pay the bills and the government of historians had no idea how to get out of the debt-spiral.

The country was rife with conspiracy theories. Many people were claiming, “sotto voce,” that Mr. Antall made a sinister deal, called the “Rosehill Accord,” with the powers that be (it was only implied and winked who that might be), to the effect that he would, in exchange for his position, protect the Soviet economic interests, help the former communists to acquire legitimate economic power, and guard the Jewish interests. Of course, not a word of that was true, but such rumors had a devastating effect on Antall’s credibility.

Those were the days when the descent into economic purgatory began. The population, of course, discovered the “survival strategy” as a substitute for jobs. Many vestiges of the pseudo-welfare state of the socialist past were still functioning. Therefore, a lot of people who had lost any chance of ever getting back into employment chose early retirement, disability retirement, welfare with black market activity, et cetera. They cannot be blamed. This process resulted in the present state of affairs when slightly more than three million working people keep the country of ten million going.

The twenty years of “freedom” brought about membership in NATO and the EU. These were the epitome of Hungarian aspirations: belonging to the West. These accomplishments went far beyond the goals of 1956. Yet, popular majority opinion is that the accession to the EU was a net loss to the country and instead of receiving riches from them, Hungarians are subjugated to overlords akin to the Soviet occupiers.

Nationalism is also reeling from the unsympathetic reception the demands for autonomy received on behalf of the Hungarians in neighbouring countries.

Anybody listening to the most popular ideas about Hungary’s last twenty years will hear that the whole thing was no more than a ruse. The communists and Jews converted their power, the people are suffering and the system didn't change in 1989, or any other time, but only the façade. In many respects I am tempted to agree, but for different reasons.

The reforms that István Bibó demanded already in the 1930s, and without which a modern state is impossible in Hungary, were resisted by all. Hungary is still wallowing in its nineteenth century state of organization. Over three thousand different governments at local, municipal, county, district, city and national levels are “working” their sinister magic of incompetence and corruption.

The issue of nationalism that was supposed to be put to rest by the European Union and its effect of removing borders was resuscitated by the belligerent Right, because without it their raison d’être would be largely lost.

Indeed the fruits of the revolution of ’89 are few and far between. Yet there are those few for which the revolutionaries of 1956 were prepared to kill and even to die.

All Hungarians are free to travel anywhere on earth and they are taking advantage copiously, vacationing in countries from Tunis to Florida, at least the few who can afford it.

The press is free. Yes, it is often lousy and often says the stupidest things, but it is free to say them.

Association is also free. Yes, even the most unsavoury people are free to create the most disgusting organizations and promote them with abandon. People are flocking to their events.

There are free elections. This is probably the greatest value accomplished so far, even if the electorate often refuses to participate.

All the above liberal institutions were the most fervent desire of Hungarians ever since the revolution of 1848 and they never came close to any of them, not even by an inch, until 1989. Now, within a mere twenty years the institutions of democracy are functioning well, despite all the attacks and detractions against them. So, looking back to the history and accomplishments of these twenty years, I think it was a success of a small, sour, unloved kind that would deserve more appreciation from its beneficiaries, if only they were not so busy hating and complaining about it.

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“So, looking back to the history and accomplishments of these twenty years, I think it was a success of a small, sour, unloved kind that would deserve more appreciation from its beneficiaries, if only they were not so busy hating and complaining about it.” The expectations of the system change and the market were always too high. In early summer 1989, I was a UK youth representative at a gathering of European youth organized under the auspices of the Council of Europe in Denmark. This was the first time representatives from Poland and Hungary had been able to join the western Europeans at these gatherings. As I’d grown up in the Yorkshire coalfield under Margaret Thatcher, I was naturally pretty sceptical of how much benefit either country would get from the transition to the free market. And this was the basis of much debate with one of my Hungarian colleagues, who believed that the real downsides of the market were simply “Communist propaganda”. His view of what the west was only considered one side of the market – the positive one; he hadn’t considered the reality was a greyer one. In contrast to that I would say that the opportunity… Read more »

Mark: “As I’d grown up in the Yorkshire coalfield”
Mark, I am as pleased as Punch to learn that you are from Yorkshire.
You see, I am a great admirer of your fellow landsman, Sam Small the Flying Yorkshireman. I hope you personally also keep the cult of this remarkable gent, just like I do myself.