This year we celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the birth of Hungarian democracy after fifty years of Soviet domination. To mark the occasion a number of books, articles, and reminiscences will be published. Several interviews with people politically active in those days have already appeared.
These new studies and memoirs will complement books that have already been published dealing with the two or three years preceding the opening of parliament on May 2, 1990. Of course, there are at least two narratives of the same story, but I consider Zoltán Ripp’s Rendszerváltás Magyarországon, 1987-1990 (Budapest, 2006) a book that will have a significant impact on the public assessment of these events for a long time to come. Ripp, as a good historian should, tried to give a balanced view, yet it was obvious that his sympathies lay with those people who later formed the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ). I’m unaware of a comparable work written from the point of view of the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF), although I just read that Imre Kónya, who later became minister of the interior in the Boross government (December 13, 1993-July 14, 1994), is in the process of writing his reminiscences of the period. Of course, the memoirs of a politician, however valuable, cannot be compared to a scholarly work with thousands of footnotes.
Two biographies of József Antall, the first prime minister of the post-communist era, appeared earlier. The first, Antall József távolról (József Antall from Afar), was written by Sándor Révész, a journalist at Népszabadság. It was published in 1996, three years after Antall’s death, not enough time for a balanced assessment. In 2006 József Debreczeni came out with A miniszterelnök (The Prime Minister), which suffers from Debreczeni’s undisguised admiration for Antall.
To understand the political situation twenty-five years ago it is important to recall the results of the elections of 1990 which took place on March 25 and April 8. Considering that it was the first free election after so many years, voter turnout was relatively low: 65%. MDF received 24.7%, SZDSZ 21.4%, the Smallholders 11.7%, MSZP 10.9%, Fidesz 8.9%, and the Christian Democrats 6.4%. MDF couldn’t form a government alone. Eventually, Antall opted for a coalition of MDF, the Smallholders, and the Christian Democrats. The opposition, all from the left of center, were the liberal SZDSZ (93 seats) and Fidesz (21 seats) in addition to MSZP (33 seats). A “grand coalition” of MDF and SZDSZ was out of the question for Antall and other important MDF leaders.
Although it is fashionable on the right to blame SZDSZ for the very sharp divide between the two political groupings, it was not a one-way street. A hatred of SZDSZ was widely shared in MDF political circles. The above-mentioned Imre Kónya published a short article in Magyar Nemzet a few days ago in which he recalls a conversation with Antall during the coalition negotiations. The future prime minister told Kónya that he didn’t want to govern with the liberals because “once they establish themselves in some of the ministries not even God Almighty will be able to get rid of them.” Yet, given the Hungarian constitutional set-up, Antall was forced to come to an arrangement with SZDSZ to ensure the relative stability of his government.
Today some critics, even former members of MDF like Károly Herényi, think that Antall made a huge mistake when he decided to form a coalition of three parties, all from the right. The problems facing the country were so great and the road ahead so difficult that a “grand coalition” would have been the only sensible move. Such an arrangement would have spread the responsibility for the very unpopular measures that lay ahead. And common governing may have blunted the sharp differences between the two groups.
Ever since 2010 there have been signs of a softening of the opposition’s very negative opinion of József Antall. Those who criticized him for years now think much more highly of the former prime minister. This is not surprising after five years of Viktor Orbán. Most people stress the fact that, despite all his faults, he was a steadfast supporter of parliamentary democracy, which is more than one can say about the current holder of the office.
And yet, although MDF could certainly have made a worse choice, Antall’s background and his immersion in Hungarian history didn’t prepare him to lead a new Hungary. This may sound odd coming from a historian, but let me explain what I mean. Normally, one would think that being well versed in history ought to be an asset for a politician. Yes, but not when the history of the country offers no viable models for a democratic future. Moreover, Antall by upbringing brought along the thinking of the “keresztény úriosztály” who were the main supporters of the Horthy regime. What do we mean by “keresztény úriosztály”? Another difficult term to translate. It was a group of upper middle class people, often of gentry background. The majority were Catholics, and many of them were either civil servants or were employed by the municipalities. József Antall, Sr. belonged to this class and held high civil service positions during the Horthy era. József, Jr. naturally attended a Catholic school, the famous Piarist gymnasium in Budapest. Throughout his youth he was steeped in that culture.
With this background came a heightened nationalist fervor, which was an important ingredient of post-Trianon Hungary. Imre Kónya in an interview recently explained that what made him an opponent of the Kádár regime was not only the lack of democracy and freedom but also the want of nationalism. Although he sympathized with the fierce anti-communism of SZDSZ, it was the MDF leaders’ nationalism that induced him to join the party. After all, Antall was the one who announced that in spirit he wants to be the prime minister of 15 million Hungarians, which raised quite a few eyebrows. This nationalism has been the hallmark of the Hungarian right ever since. Unfortunately, in today’s world this nationalism can lead only to isolation and conflict.
The other day I talked about RMDSZ, the Hungarian ethnic political party in Romania. I mentioned its former chairman, Béla Markó, who just yesterday published a remarkable opinion piece in Népszabadság. He was talking about May 9, Europe-Day. He concluded his piece with these words: “Today we celebrate that day [May 9] as Europe Day, when the idea of European cooperation proved to be more important than the delusions of nation states because in a common Europe nations can breathe more freely than they can being locked up in their own hubris. I don’t know whether this will happen or not. But it should happen this way.” An indictment of both Hungarian and Romanian nationalism.