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.