In memoriam: Árpád Göncz (1922-2015)

Árpád Göncz (1922-2015) served for ten years as the first president of post-communist Hungary. He was liked and respected by 70-80% of the population even though Hungarian society was as politically divided then as it is now. What was his secret? The answer most likely is that he didn’t act like a politician. He remained the same unassuming fatherly figure everybody called Uncle Árpi.

This apolitical image, however, contrasts sharply with Göncz’s recurring encounters with politics. At age of 22, right after he finished law school, he was called up to serve in the Hungarian army, which he promptly deserted and instead joined a group of anti-fascist fighters. As soon as the war was over, he became involved in politics. He joined the Smallholders’ Party where he filled several important positions despite his young age. When the brief democratic interlude was over, Göncz found himself in something of an internal exile: he made his living as a factory worker. In 1952 he began his studies at the Agricultural School at Gödöllő, which he couldn’t complete because by that time he was sentenced to life imprisonment for his involvement in the 1956 Revolution.

In 1963 he was one of the many political prisoners who received amnesty, and thereupon a new phase of his life began. He became a free-lance translator of such famous writers as William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, J. R. R. Tolkien, John Updike, and William Styron. In addition, he published novels and plays of his own. By 1983 his literary corpus was significant enough that he received the prestigious Attila József Prize.

Given Göncz’s life-long fascination with politics, it is not surprising that in the late 80s he was among those few Hungarians who were actively working for a change of regime. His choice of SZDSZ, a liberal party, was somewhat surprising given his past association with the Smallholders. This is what today’s right-wing critics simply cannot understand.

Let’s skip the complicated story of how Göncz became president and move straight to his election. On August 3, 1990, the Hungarian government unanimously elected him to become the first president of the Third Republic. In his acceptance speech perhaps the most remarkable sentences were the following: “If I want to serve anyone, I will serve those who have no servants, the defenseless ones who neither in the world of the gendarmerie nor in the world of the more equals among the equal ones [i.e., the Horthy regime or the communist era], ever received a good word from anyone, those who are uncompetitive in a competitive world, those who have no means of defending themselves.”


Since yesterday when we learned about his death some wonderful obituaries appeared by people who knew and loved the man. I especially liked the writings of László Lengyel and Sándor Révész. For Lengyel Göncz represented “the human face of Hungary.” Someone who “was first a man and only then a Hungarian.” For Lengyel, Göncz “is our better selves.” Someone who might have made mistakes but “always stood on the right side.” He is “the opposite of today’s inhuman, callous Hungary which is in the middle of burying freedom and solidarity.”

But he was hated by the Hungarian right. It is enough to read some of the opinion pieces in the right-wing papers at the time to realize the intensity of that hatred. But the interesting thing is that all the filth that was thrown on the “liberal” president didn’t have any effect on his popularity among ordinary people. Even MDF and later Fidesz voters overwhelmingly (over 70%) approved of Árpád Göncz, the man and the politician.

The source of the conflict between the Antall government and Árpád Göncz was their different interpretation of the powers of the presidency. The case involved the appointment of heads of public radio and television by the government without any consultation with the opposition. The conflict got to the point that, at least according to the liberal interpretation of the affair, Péter Boross, minister of the interior, hired skinheads to prevent Göncz from making his speech on the anniversary of the 56 Revolution. “Fascist, government cheering crowds booed the president and, in the opinion of Fidesz, solidarity is a must among democratic politicians. We understand the difficult situation in which members of the government found themselves: they had to choose between their followers, dressed in Nazi garb, and the president of the country. And you didn’t choose the president.” This is what Viktor Orbán had to say in parliament at the time about this affair.

Sándor Révész quotes an old radio interview with Árpád Göncz in which he said: “Hungary at the present moment is not so much a besieged fortress, as so many people see it. It is rather a house whose windows should be opened to let in fresh air. Because here in the last forty years and even before, for a long time a lot of intellectual junk and unpleasant smell gathered. Xenophobia, racism belong to the junk that we swept under the rug, and when there is a draft or we pick up the rug suddenly all that dust escapes and covers the whole room.”

At the end of his acceptance speech in 1990 he alluded to the fact that he is “not afraid of polemics,” and he warned the politicians that he was not going to run away from political disputes. Later in 1999 in an interview he said: “Perhaps you thought that because I often smile everybody can do anything with me. It is terrible that in Hungarian political culture people often equate smiling with political idiocy…. Many people thought that I was the raisin in the coffee cake, but then they realized when they bit into it that this raisin is actually a pebble.”

Tonight thousands and thousands of people stood in line on Kossuth tér in front of the parliament building to bring flowers in remembrance of the man they were proud to have as their first president.

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October 7, 2015 7:28 pm

Árpád Göncz seemed like a fundamentally decent Hungarian. Perhaps it was too late in his life for him to have been able to offer any reflective thoughts on the immigration issue that even now still conflicts Hungary.


October 7, 2015 7:40 pm

I am proud to be Hungarian, when Gonczes are my fellow citizens.

Pam Jackson
Pam Jackson
October 8, 2015 11:35 pm

The West may not have even heard if his death yet. Has that even occurred to you? I do not live in an area with a large Hungarian population, and if I didn’t have a few friends from Hungary I don’t believe I would have heard or been made aware of it either, don’t be so quick to judge.

October 7, 2015 8:46 pm

The late Mr. Goncz see some to me to be that inestimable ‘man for all Magyar seasons’. A man of great integrity. Perhaps with his death more ‘ablaks’ will open as Hungary moves on to who knows where. Personally, I would have liked to have met him and have a chat.

October 7, 2015 9:05 pm

Why are people singing Goncz’s praises? Shouldn’t he, with his stature of 10 years as President, have spoken up about the criminality of the present government?

If Goncz didn’t raise his voice, how could anyone else?

Shame on all this knee-jerk praising.

What Hungary lacks above all else is people–correction: A Person–of true grit.

October 8, 2015 3:44 am

While i understand the frustration, maybe that was too much for his stage of life and his health. I think this is a time to respect everything he has already given, without demanding why he didn’t give more. This is why we are “singing his praises”…

October 8, 2015 6:49 am

“Az, ami most van, az már nem volt az ő jelenkora. Az ő csöndje mondta el ékesszólóan, hogy 1989 szelleme elhallgatott. És vele együtt 1956-é és 1945-é és 1918-é és 1848-é. A demokratikus lázadások és a demokratikus gondolatok korszaka véget ért. Itt immár mások harcolnak másért.”

October 8, 2015 12:22 pm

Dear Petofi: Sorry but in this you are not correct. It is the job of the president to be presidential and that cannot include criticizing or remarking in any way on those currently in government. That is the job – loud and clear please – of the opposition and ultimately of the people.

I greatly respect this rule that is also followed by US presidents. They do not criticize their predecessors, thereby reinforcing their own stature and saying to the people that the way is now forward, the future starts here. Ya gotta love that.

While we are at it Mr. Napolitano recently retired as president of Italy. He was a communist in his day but he had a most dignified and distinguished career as a president above the day-to-day fray of Italian politics and part of his load was dealing with Mr. Berlusconi.

Finally, let us remember that it was Fidesz, led by the little ex-KISZ functionary, who really brought the political discourse in Hungary into the dirt with his baying claims of “traitor” against the then prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsany. Shame on VO and shame on his all-too-willing mimickers like LK

So thank you Árpád Göncz for a job well done!

October 9, 2015 6:27 pm


Absolute rubbish.
Such nonsense to compare American and Hungarian practices: so American Presidents don’t criticize replacements, huh? Nice, mentally-damaged comparison.

Which President has done what Orban has done: for short, destroy the judiciary; rewrite the constitution; deconstruct the checks and balances of a Democracy; steal pension money; distribute contracts according to closeness to the leader’s party????

Gimme a break.
Any President who would’ve tried to change the Supreme Court; or tried to buy up the major news outlets; or stolen pension money…etc. etc….would’ve been turfed out. But before, all living past Presidents would’ve been all over him, and rounding up support country-wide to derail him and wean him from all power.


What mental midgetry on this blog!

October 8, 2015 3:05 am

Dear @petofi

I understand your frustration and anger. But now for a moment, … please … relax.
We all should think at last one beautiful thought. Blue skyes, a little bird, somthing else.

October 8, 2015 6:46 am

It is worth reading TGM’s obituary too in HVG This part is so much true:

“…Mint a gyászolók mindig, benne magunkat siratjuk.

A történelem nem ért véget, de Göncz Árpád halála arra késztet bennünket, hogy megálljunk egy pillanatra. S kimondjuk, hogy kár érte. Kár, hogy meghalt Árpád, kár, hogy meghalt a 89-es demokrácia. Árpád csak most, a polgári demokrácia már régen.

Szerettük őt, s nehéz bevallani, hogy szerettük azt, ami jóvátehetetlenül elmúlt, s ami azt ígérte, hogy nemcsak szabadság lesz itt és jólét, hanem lesz ebben az új életben nagyság és szépség. Nem lett se szabadság, se jólét, se nagyság, se szépség. A magyar plebejusok szabad Magyarországából nem lett semmi. A vereség teljes…”

October 8, 2015 8:03 am

Talking to my dad yesterday, he expressed very much the same. So much opportunity was presented in 89, so much what Hungarians hoped and wished for, and it is so sad to see where Hungary is right now [politically].

October 8, 2015 7:47 am

Re’ Shame on all this knee-jerk praising.’

Prof Balogh’s piece noted Mr. Goncz was a literary translator besides a politician in a very tough business. I’d think he had the experience of perhaps translating these sentences of Hemingway into Magyar:

‘I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen’.

It’s apparent in looking at the departed that the ‘people’ had a connection to him and paid attention. Theme: there’s potential in Hungary.

And regarding Mr. Hemingway he probably says more in one sentence than all the takeaways of speeches by the loquacious right.

October 8, 2015 8:05 am

I share your appreciation of Hemingway’s writing.

October 8, 2015 11:22 am

Re: ‘I share your appreciation of Hemingway’s writing’

That’s great People say how can a guy who apparently wrote so ‘simple’ be so great. In the 3 declarative sentences above he makes one ‘listen’ to not only the words but to their deep meaning as one reads them. Brevity and clarity for him is packed with literary power. For EH,obfuscation is anathema.

When i saw his comment it apepared to me to give some insight on the current Magyar nation. They think they are ‘listening’ but I’m afraid not’very ‘carefully’.

Curious if any Magyar authors have expounded in the media on the influence perhaps of ‘Papa’ on their writing!

October 8, 2015 8:01 am

For those who would like to pay their respect, a book of condolences is set up in memory of the late politician from October 8 until 11 October 11, between 10:00am and 6:00pm at the Parliament’s XII. entrance.

October 8, 2015 9:32 am
OT: Amnesty Internation released a statement today: “As EU ministers gather in Luxembourg today for high-level meetings to discuss the crisis, Amnesty International is calling on the EU to hold Hungary to account for its human rights failures and to protect people on the move by creating safer, legal routes before winter hits.” “The Hungarian government has invested more than 1OO million euros on razor-wire fencing and border controls to keep refugees and migrants out, triple the amount it spends yearly on receiving asylum seekers, Amnesty International revealed” According to Reuters, Merkel at a closed-door meeting with lawmakers of the centre-right European People’s Party made some comments regarding the response of Hungarian, Czech, Slovak and some Baltic leaders to Europe’s refugee crisis. “We eastern Europeans — I’m counting myself as an eastern European — we have seen that isolation doesn’t help,” “The refugees won’t be stopped if we just build fences … and I’ve lived behind a fence for long enough.” “Those who can consider themselves lucky that they have lived to see the end of the Cold War now think that one can completely stay out of certain developments of globalization. It just strikes me as somehow very weird,”… Read more »
October 8, 2015 2:12 pm
Re: ‘“When someone says: ‘This is not my Europe, I won’t accept Muslims’ … I have to say, this is not negotiable,” Politico quoted her as saying. “Who are we to defend Christians around the world if we say we won’t accept a Muslim or a mosque in our country? That won’t do.” And you know the same situation is now occurring here in the States. Just take a look at some Republicans. Some just don’t like what they see when it comes to the ‘demography’ horizon. It seems the US is spooked as well. And thus a great challenge to the democratic tradition which is perhaps seeing its greatest pressure since the ‘War’. If anything it looks as if democratic societies are getting a wake up call when it comes to the concept of pluralism which may or may not be existing in their immediate world. Perhaps as all this moves on VO’s apparent shift to ‘illiberal’ democracy as a rejection of certain Western democratic values may not protect the nation but exacerbate the lack of its flexibility in meeting the country’s issues. Really VO in his mind seems to ignore why people are always ‘getting tickets’ to the… Read more »
October 8, 2015 2:43 pm

Dear readers, I have a bad news for you.

According to the well-informed Heti Válasz the election of Pope Francis was the result of a liberal conspiracy within the Catholic Church. We should not mince words: this is a liberal coup d’état.

The liberals are now everywhere. We must double, why, quadruple our efforts to remain vigilant against liberals. They are worse than the communists.

October 8, 2015 4:29 pm

“According to the well-informed Heti Válasz” LOL

Heti Valasz belongs to one of Hungary’s richest man, Orban’s good friend Zsolt Nyerges. Nyerges is coincidentally the winner of most Hungarian tenders (usually financed by the EU) via Kozgep. (Anyone familiar with the Hungarian tender problems would know about Kozgep.) Nyerges also one of the beneficiaries of Fidesz’s “land mutyi”. Not to worry Heti Valasz also benefited from EU money as they proudly acclaim on their page.

Can you please also list the where Heti Valasz received their information from? Also, can you insert the original quote from the resource that claims “the election of Pope Francis was the result of a liberal conspiracy within the Catholic Church”?

October 9, 2015 9:09 pm

Do not praise a man until after his death.
By not speaking out, Goncz is not worthy of praise.
In fact, Goncz reminds me of Solzhenitsyn who, in his dotage, returned to Moscow to kiss the hand of Putin.

At least, those who supported Solzhenitsyn could claim that he was senile.

Was Goncz senile from 2012 until his death this year?