It was one hundred years ago today that János Kádár (originally János József Csermanek) was born as the illegitimate child of Borbála Csermanek, a chambermaid in the fashionable seaside resort of Fiume, today Rijeka. He died at the age of 77 on July 6, 1989, the same day the Hungarian Supreme Court announced the rehabilitation of Imre Nagy and his closest collaborators during the 1956 revolution. His burial was attended by tens of thousands of Hungarians, whose grief seemed genuine.
A few days later Imre Nagy, the victim of Kádár, was reburied. It is estimated that Kádár’s funeral was just as well attended as those of the martyrs of 1956.
Yes, János Kádár was popular, and his popularity has only grown since his death. By 2010 two-thirds of Hungary’s adult population considered the Kádár era the golden age of the twentieth century. The majority of Hungarians who lived under the rule of János Kádár remember those years as an era when they were left alone to build their lives (however modest), when there was relatively little difference between rich and poor, and when they didn’t have to worry about what will happen to their jobs the next day.
Of course, many of the better educated people wanted to have more than relative material well being. They yearned for democracy in which they would have unlimited possibilities for self-fulfillment, including freedom of speech and travel. But let’s face it, they were in the minority. The vast majority would have been quite happy to live in the Kádár regime as long as their standard of living kept going up.
Politicians like to rewrite history, especially recent political events, and the Orbán government’s favorite pastime is talking about the last eight years in a way that makes them barely recognizable. Only recently we heard that Hungary was in worse shape in 2010 than Greece is today.
The rewriting of the “eight years” when Fidesz was in opposition is understandable, but a wholesale rewriting of history is also under way. The history of the entire twentieth century is being rewritten and those who have more than an average knowledge of history are watching what’s going on with growing trepidation. At the moment the Horthy regime is being rehabilitated, along with Hungary’s role in the Holocaust. The post-1945 period is viewed as one gelatinous mass.
We are talking abut 45 years of varied history yet everything is described as a communist dictatorship, pure and simple. Even within the Kádár regime it is customary to distinguish between the period of retribution for 1956 and the later period of consolidation after 1963. But according to the official Fidesz interpretation of history, the whole period between 1945 and 1989 is “a criminal period.” Consequently, anyone who played a substantial part in the maintenance of that regime is a criminal and should be punished, including the current Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) as a successor to Kádár’s MSZMP.
The Institute of Political History organized a two-day conference on Kádár’s heritage this weekend. The speakers included Iván Szelényi (currently teaching at Yale University); György Földes, the director of the Institute; Ignác Romsics, professor of history at ELTE; Zoltán Ripp, researcher at the Institute; M. János Rainer of the 56-Institute; and István Feitl, deputy director of the Institute. These scholars tried to place Kádár in a historical context and to come to grips with his heritage.
On the first day most of the speakers talked about Kádár’s successful period, especially the era between 1963 and the early 1970s. By the mid-1970s and especially by the 1980s János Kádár became inflexible and increasingly conservative. He fiercely resisted any attempt to loosen the economic shackles of the planned economy, so by that time only foreign loans could maintain the steady rise in living standards that was essential to keeping up the Hungarian gulash communism.
While sociologists and historians are trying to find Kádár’s place in history, Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Demokratikus Koalíció categorically rejects the view that the relative mildness of the Kádár regime was János Kádár’s doing. According Péter Niedermüller, deputy chairman of DK, it was the result of 1956. Kádár knew how far he could go. So, the debate continues.
Meanwhile, the real communists unveiled János Kádár’s bust in the cemetery next to Kádár’s grave. The unveiling was done by the writer György Moldova, a devotee of Kádár. Moldova called the former general secretary of MSZMP “a proletarian saint.” He added that “this country is not worthy of the memory of János Kádár” because it abandoned the regime Kádár built.
One thing is sure: the Kádár era left an undeniable imprint on Hungarian society. How often we read about “the people of Kádár” (Kádár népe). It is a disparaging way of describing people who are not ready to stand up for their own rights, who follow the leaders blindly, who want to have the state care for them. In brief, they behave like sheep.
Just as Miklós Horthy’s twenty-five years left a strong imprint on the Hungarian psyche so did Kádár’s thirty-three. Fidesz’s effort to find the guilty ones who propped up the Kádár regime is a waste of time. Kádár is in the very fabric of Hungarian society even today.