Today I’m moving back in time, to 1992, when President Árpád Göncz was set to deliver a speech commemorating the anniversary of the outbreak of the 1956 revolution. He never delivered that speech because some of the people who gathered there simply didn’t allow him. This was the first public appearance after the change of regime of the Hungarian far right, some of whom a year later joined István Csurka’s anti-Semitic MIÉP (Magyar Igazság és Élet Pártja/Hungarian Party of Justice and Life).
For the last few days I have been reading, more or less simultaneously, two biographies of József Antall, Hungary’s prime minister between 1990 and 1993: Sándor Révész’s critical Antall József távolról (József Antall from afar) and József Debreczeni’s sympathetic A miniszterelnök. Révész is a liberal journalist. Debreczeni is today one of the deputy chairmen of the Demokratikus Koalicíó. During the period he is writing about, he was a member of the top leadership of Antall’s party, the Magyar Demokrata Fórum. Révész was able to watch Antall only from afar while Debreczeni was in constant contact with him. Debreczeni was and still is a great admirer of Antall, and in his book he paints a portrait of a man who as a private person was very different from his public persona. Thus, we get closer to Antall the person in the Debreczeni portrait while we have a much clearer view of him as a prime minister in Révész’s biography.
Debreczeni doesn’t spend much time on the aborted speech, which upset the Hungarian left, especially the politicians of the liberal SZDSZ (Szabad Democraták Szövetsége/Association of Free Democrats). In his interpretation, Göncz’s old comrades from 1956 turned against the president because he refused to sign a piece of legislation that demanded prosecution of offenses committed between December 21, 1944 and May 2, 1990 by high-level communists, with no statute of limitations. Göncz, who certainly had no love for the communists who had condemned him to life imprisonment, had his doubts about the bill’s constitutionality and therefore sent it on to the Constitutional Court for review. The court’s chief justice was László Sólyom, who cannot be accused of leftist sympathies. The court found the bill unconstitutional.
Debreczeni blames the liberal press for conjuring up conspiracy theories about the aborted speech. They stated, suggested, or supposed that the incident was organized and that in the final analysis the Antall government was responsible for what happened. In Debreczeni’s view, these people were not Nazis; they were disappointed 56ers who wanted justice. (pp. 308-309)
Révész devotes more space to the events of October 23, 1992 (pp. 174-176). From his summary of what happened prior to the incident, we learn that the organizations made up of former 56ers who attended the event were all followers of István Csurka, who had organized several demonstrations earlier demanding Göncz’s resignation. These were the organizations the Ministry of Interior consulted in connection with the celebrations. Many of these groups held separate celebrations ahead the official one where Péter Boross, later briefly prime minister, and Lajos Für, minister of defense, made speeches. People who had attended those demonstrations plus some skinheads came to the event where Göncz was supposed to speak, and they came in an organized fashion, under police protection. Together, Révész contends, they constituted the bulk of those who turned against Göncz. Boross even invited the border guards to attend, apparently “as part of their patriotic education.” According to Sándor Pintér, who was chief of police at the time, “as if on a signal … 800-1,000 people at once started to yell, boo, clap … it certainly seemed like a concerted action.”
According to the conservative interpretation, there were no more than 60-70 skinheads, but about 3,000-4,000 people turned against Göncz. The skinheads were perhaps extreme right-wingers, maybe even Nazis, but the rest were good middle-class citizens, heroes of the 56 revolution. The liberals see it differently. They lump all these groups together as part of the growing extreme right which soon found its voice in István Csurka’s MIÉP. These people were not only anti-Semitic; they were irredentist and thoroughly anti-democratic.
Debreczeni, who is no fan of Göncz, blames the president for accepting this liberal view of the events because it meant that he could also accept the communist interpretation of 1956 as a fascist uprising. Of course, this interpretation would be valid only if we accepted these organizations’ claim to their primacy in the revolution.
Why is all this important today? Rereading Révész’s book is a revelation. All those far-right political views I find repulsive today were already taking hold in Hungary in the early 1990s. And just like now, although not to such an extent, perhaps the majority of the government members aided and sympathized with these groups. Although Antall himself was committed to western democracy, most of his cabinet members were not. Lajos Für, who was close to the groups that wreaked havoc during Göncz’s speech, was later involved with Jobbik’s paramilitary Hungarian Guard. Péter Boross today is the honorary chairman of the Veritas Institute and is an apologist for the Horthy regime, including its racism. In September 1993, when Miklós Horthy was reburied in Kenderes, seven ministers of the Antall government were in attendance.
Today, a lot of people bemoan the fact that Hungary has no moderate right-of-center conservative party. It doesn’t because the country has mighty few democratically minded conservatives. In MDF the few moderates lost out to the likes of Csurka, Boross, and Für.
In the early 1990s, however, the far-right wing of MDF was not strong enough to impose its will on Hungarian political life. What it needed, and eventually got, was a leader like Viktor Orbán with the power and the determination to create an illiberal, xenophobic state.