Tag Archives: Sándor Révész

Love at Christmas time in Hungary

Gusztáv Megyesi, whom Péter Esterházy described as the best Hungarian journalist of our time, wrote his usual weekly opinion piece in Népszabadság, which happened to appear on Christmas Eve. Normally, Megyesi’s pieces are very funny, but this time the topic was somber. He described a couple in their early thirties who had just purchased a 5 kg box of laundry detergent and a 2-liter container of fabric softener as presents for the woman’s mother. She asked the store to wrap them, adorned with golden ribbon. The store employee said to her: “Are you serious?” Yes, she was serious: everybody gets practical gifts because whatever they get, they need badly. They have three children, which they didn’t plan on, but fate surprised them with twins. The husband is a bricklayer and she is on family assistance with the little ones. There is very little money. Although on some family programs there was a lot of talk about the evils of the consumer society and that what really counts is love and thoughtfulness, unfortunately grandma wouldn’t be terribly pleased with a walnut painted silver for the Christmas tree. This laundry detergent she herself couldn’t afford is enough for a whole year. For her, it is either food or detergent. The other members of the family also got much needed articles, like socks and shirts from the MDF market where they sell cheap Chinese imports.

This article infuriated right-wingers. One early commenter called it “vomit on Christmas Day.” According to another, “it is outrageous that someone is unable to put aside what he does all year.” A third person considered the article nothing more than a “mockery of Jesus” because Megyesi talked about the “propagation of Hungarians” in connection with László Kövér’s infamous reference to women’s duty to produce grandchildren for his generation. In general, all right-wingers agreed that Megyesi was mocking not only Jesus and reproduction but also the struggling middle class. Another shining light of the right found the word mockery insufficient to describe Megyesi’s attitude. Instead, he talked about the “hatred of Jesus.” The most interesting comment came from “szalkai,” who would give Megyesi only a silver medal in the hate-speech category because the gold surely must go to Origo, which published an interview with Krisztián Ungváry, the historian, under the headline: “There was a Hungarian soldier who killed voluntarily.” He was referring to Ungváry’s latest book, Hungarian Occupying Forces in the Soviet Union, 1941-1944.

Today Megyesi, back to his usual funny self, decided to comment on the commenters. His latest piece is titled “Holiday drudgery” (Ünnepi robot). In historical times “robot” was work that had to be performed by the serfs for the landlords, but in a modern setting it means very hard, repetitive, boring work. Megyesi can’t understand what these commenters were doing on Christmas Eve when for hours on end they were commenting on his and on each other’s comments instead of devoting themselves to their families. One comment after the other appeared from early evening until midnight. “The government must know about this. When other Hungarians, among them even the unbelieving liberals, suddenly come to their senses and devote every minute to the family, these unfortunate souls spend the Holy Night reading Népszabadság articles…. While the real Christians are already at midnight mass, they still brood over the Hungarian-hating liberals who insult the family and dishonor Jesus and the devout Hungarian people. It’s almost as if many little Antal Rogáns were pounding on the keys.” Such diligence should be rewarded, and Megyesi hopes that the government will give them an extra Holy-Night bonus.

Those were the days

Those were the days

At the end of the piece Megyesi recalls an article of his that appeared at the beginning of the Advent season when he noted that in the nativity scene the government set up in front of the parliament building the Child was missing because after all he wasn’t born until the 25th. But then, he asked, what are the Magi, the angels, and the lambs doing there? After all, they couldn’t have known that a month later Jesus would be born. At that time “the commenters didn’t get involved with such complicated thoughts about the hatred of Christians, they simply called me a Jew.”

And finally another interesting story. This is about an interview conducted by Sándor Révész, which also appeared in Népszabadság on December 26. It was an interview with Mihály Dés, who until recently was better known in the Spanish-speaking world than in Hungary. Before he left Hungary in 1986 he worked as a freelance translator of authors like Jorge Luis Borge, Alejo Carpentier, Julio Cortázar, Garcia Márquez, and Vargas Llosa. In 1986 he settled in Barcelona where he became well known as a writer of short stories and editor of the most influential Spanish-language periodical, Lateral. He returned to Hungary, and his first novel ever–Baroque á la Pest (Pesti barokk), which appeared in 2013–became a bestseller. In any case, at the end of the interview there is a short passage which, as we will see, greatly bothered a far-right contributor to Magyar Hírlap. It goes like this: “Viktor Orbán is only a final product. This is what came out of the body of the nation after a painful digestive process. This dictator was not foisted upon us from the outside; he is the result of self-development. Hungarian society, especially the elite, is responsible for his appearance.”

The reaction was swift. Four days later Pál Dippolt, a writer who slowly moved further and further to the right until he now regularly contributes to the far-right newspaper Magyar Hírlap, wrote an essay titled “They hate.” I have no idea whether Dippolt is a good writer or not, but he certainly has a chip on his shoulder when he accuses his liberal colleagues of not considering him a writer because he doesn’t “belong to their filthy canon, can’t brag about [his] past full of knavery and [doesn’t] spew hatred all around.” Of course, Dippolt’s real problem is Dés’s less than complimentary description of Viktor Orbán as the final product of a painful digestive process. “These are vile, filthy, lying sentences. They insult and vilify everybody who doesn’t follow the unbelievably conceited muck-raking elite of Budapest. If it were a real dictatorship here, the bodies of Révész and Dés would be dangling on the lampposts of Andrássy, pardon, the Road of the People’s Republic. Their only decoration, as poison-dropping traitors, would be the Colombian necktie.” In case some of you, like me originally, have no idea what a Colombian necktie is, you should get acquainted with the term. After a man’s throat is cut, his tongue is pulled through the opening.

In the first story what struck me was the right-wing commenters’ refusal to face the facts of life. At Christmas to talk about poverty, hardship, and hunger shouldn’t be done. One should simply talk about love of one’s fellow man without being reminded of the darker sides of love. Just devote yourself to your closest family and forget about everything else. And if one does write something honest, as Megyesi did, he does something that is almost against the wishes of the Almighty. On the other hand, someone like Dippolt who “doesn’t spew hatred all around” in his Christian purity envisages bodies dangling on lampposts with their throats cut. He accuses his adversaries of hatred and, by the end of his article, points his finger at himself. Quite a feat.

October 23, 1992: The first signs of a growing Hungarian extreme right

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.”

Everything was prepared but the speech was not delivered

Everything was prepared but the speech was not delivered

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.

A compulsory course on the Holocaust at the Hungarian Catholic University

While the world is preoccupied with Greece and Viktor Orbán’s preparations to erect a fence along the Hungarian border with Serbia, I decided to focus today on the debate over Péter Pázmány Catholic University’s decision to introduce a compulsory course on the Holocaust. Until now there was only one compulsory course, “Introduction to the Catholic Faith,” which I understand, to put it mildly, is not taken seriously by the students. According to someone who is most likely a student at PPKE, as the university is known, “it is a joke,” a course in which everybody cheats.

President Szabolcs Szuromi and Ilan Mor at the press conference

President Szabolcs Szuromi and Ilan Mor at the press conference

On May 26 Szabolcs Szuromi, the president of PPKE, in the presence of Ilan Mor, Israeli ambassador to Hungary, held a press conference, which was disrupted by two “journalists” from Alfahír and Kurucinfo. The former is the semi-official internet site of Jobbik. Kurucinfo, the virulent anti-Semitic media outlet, needs no introduction. Both men fired all sorts of provocative questions at the president and the ambassador.

The reaction of the far right didn’t surprise anyone. They especially objected to the presence and role of Ambassador Mor and to the fact that two Israeli historians, Dina Porat and Raphael Vago, had been asked to prepare the syllabus for the course. Jobbegyenes (Straight Right) accused the Hungarian government of taking orders from the Israeli ambassador when it agreed to the removal of a sign referring to “the victims of Gaza” behind the Hungarian entrant at the Eurovision competition. Moreover, according to the author, it is not PPKE’s job to teach students about the Holocaust. They should have learned that in high school.

Zsolt Bayer’s reaction was also expected. In his opinion, there is just too much talk about the Holocaust. Practically every day there is a new book, a movie, or a theater performance. A few years ago he “thought that one couldn’t sink lower” when he read in Népszabadság that grandchildren of German war criminals, with the financial help of the European Union, had arrived in Budapest asking for forgiveness from elderly survivors. In Bayer’s opinion it was a perverse idea. The souls of these youngsters are “infected with guilt.” What is going on at PPKE is also a perversion. In fact, Bayer thinks PPKE’s decision was even worse than the grandchildren’s apology.

But there were critical remarks on the left as well. The most serious criticism came from Sándor Révész. He objected to the compulsory nature of the course and predicted that “within seconds” someone will suggest “a compulsory course on Trianon, on the communist dictatorship, on religious persecution,” and so on and so forth. In fact, Gábor Vona and Dóra Duró of Jobbik already sent a letter to the president of PPKE asking for the introduction of a course on the tragedy of Trianon.

Révész also found PPKE’s decision to introduce such a course problematic because it is a well-known fact that the Catholic Church still venerates Ottokár Prohászka (1858-1927), bishop of Székesfehérvár, who was a rabid anti-Semite and the ideological precursor of Hungarism, the Hungarian version of Nazism. Révész called attention to the fact that the Hungarian Catholic Church published a collection of Prohászka’s most savage anti-Semitic writings titled My anti-Semitism in 1942. “Is PPKE ready to reevaluate the opus of Ottokár Prohászka in connection with the Holocaust?” asked Révész.

There is criticism coming from historians as well. László Karsai, a historian who has written extensively on the Holocaust, finds it strange that two Israeli scholars were invited to prepare the syllabus when there are many Hungarians qualified to do the job. Moreover, Karsai finds the syllabus as well as the readings wanting. Some books on the reading list are of inferior quality. If he had children at PPKE, he wouldn’t advise them to take the course–not that they would have a choice. He added, however, that “it is an interesting experiment that might generate some lively discussions.”

Péter György, professor at ELTE, just announced that they themselves have been thinking about creating three one-semester courses that all students of the Faculty of Arts would have to take: the cultural history of racism, social theory, and the philosophy of science.  In the course on the cultural history of racism students would also study about the Holocaust. The members of the faculty realize, I think, that something went very wrong at the university since a large portion of the Jobbik leadership graduated from ELTE with a degree in history. Although they don’t want to meddle in the worldview of students, they believe that they should be able to fend off blind prejudice and racism. György admitted that “radicalism” is a very serious problem at ELTE and “the university has no other antidote than arming the students with the necessary knowledge.” He was very pleased when he heard about PPKE’s decision and he, unlike Révész, trusts the faculty of the university to face the past honestly.

It was Elek Tokfalvi, one of my favorite publicists, who was truly enthusiastic about the course. In his opinion, what happened in Hungary was unique in the history of the Holocaust because the Hungarian Jewish community’s destruction began after all the others’ had already ended. Therefore, studying the Hungarian Holocaust is warranted. Tokfalvi looks upon PPKE’s decision to introduce a course on the Holocaust as a “moral redemption” after decades of the undisturbed spread of anti-liberalism, anti-capitalism, ethnic superiority. “Therefore, it deserves praise.” In his opinion, other universities should follow PPKE’s example.” Perhaps it would also be beneficial to teach basic values that would “counterbalance the anti-Semitism of university graduates.” The same idea that Péter György is advocating.

One thing is certain. It s not enough to introduce a course on the Holocaust. As long as people like the economist Katalin Botos give lectures like the one available in part on YouTube, no change in attitudes can be expected.

It might also be a good idea if György Fodor, dean of the Divinity School, and others would take a more critical look at Ottokár Prohászka and the Catholic Church’s attitudes past and present concerning anti-Semitism and racism because, for the most part, the church leaders did very little, or nothing.

Bálint Hóman is rehabilitated

Among the best-known Hungarian historians of the twentieth century were “Hóman-Szekfű.” The two last names grew together, something like Ilf-Petrov or Gilbert and Sullivan. They were the authors of a monumental eight-volume history of Hungary, published between 1928 and 1941. The first three volumes were written by the renowned medievalist Bálint Hóman (1885-1951), the other four by Gyula Szekfű (1883-1955). The last volume contains a detailed index. Although Hóman-Szekfű is available online today, I’m still thrilled that I managed to buy a set in the late sixties in Budapest.

Both men studied history at the University of Budapest, at about the same time, and both eventually taught at the same university. But the two men had very different ideas about Hungary’s place in the world before 1918. Hóman was more of a “kuruc” who favored an independent Hungary, while Szekfű was more of a “labanc,” a supporter of the liberal Hungarian governments loyal to the constitutional structure that came into being in 1867. After World War I Szekfű’s sympathies lay with Great Britain and the United States while Hóman became increasingly pro-German.

Bálint Hóman might have been a good historian, but as a politician he failed miserably and eventually ended up serving a life sentence for his political beliefs. In 1930 he accepted the position of minister of education in the Gömbös and Darányi governments (1932-1938) and later in the Teleki, Bárdossy, and Kállay governments (1939-1942). After the declaration of war he stood by his strong belief that Hungary’s place was on Germany’s side and disapproved of the Hungarian government’s timid steps to make a separate peace with the Allies. Hóman remained a member of parliament even after October 15, 1944 and then, with Ferenc Szálasi and the Arrow Cross leaders, fled to the West. He was captured by the Americans in Germany and sent back to Hungary. In 1946 the people’s court sentenced him to life imprisonment. One of the charges against him was signing the declaration of war against the Soviet Union. He died in prison in 1951.

Ever since the regime change first Hóman’s son and after his death a collateral relative worked assiduously to annul the verdict of the people’s court, whose proceedings admittedly left a great deal to be desired by normal judicial standards. We don’t know all of the charges that the people’s court brought against him. But the court that considered his rehabilitation and that ultimately, on March 6th of this year, declared Hóman innocent seems to have concentrated only on his participation in the June 26, 1941 cabinet meeting that decided on war against the Soviet Union. That is, however, unlikely to have been the only charge originally brought against him. Otherwise, all of the members of Bárdossy’s cabinet should have ended up in jail. But of the nine people present at the cabinet meeting, which included Prime Minister László Bárdossy, it was only Bárdossy, Hóman, and Lajos Reményi-Schneller who were found guilty by the people’s courts. All of the others, with the exception of Ferenc Keresztes-Fischer who subsequently lived in emigration, died of natural causes in the 1950s and 1960s in Hungary. One of them, a chemist, actually became a full member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in 1946. And so we must assume that the guilty verdict rendered against Hóman in 1946 couldn’t have been based only on his being present at that crucial cabinet meeting.

Homan

Besides concentrating exclusively on his role as a cabinet member, the court in the retrial heard evidence from only one side of the political spectrum. The sole “historical expert” was Gábor Ujváry, a historian working for the Veritas Historical Research Institute. Ujváry’s expert opinion on the events of 1941-42 reflected the views of the right. Here are a few examples. Hungary’s declaration of war against the Soviet Union came after the bombing of Kassa/Košice, a city that belonged to Hungary at the time. To this day it remains a mystery which country’s planes dropped 29 bombs on the city. Ujváry seems to be pretty certain that they were Soviet planes, which had been sent to bomb the Slovak city of Presov/Eperjes but got lost and ended up 36 km. away. In the Kádár regime it was more or less accepted that they were German planes because the German military wanted to force the somewhat unwilling Hungarian government to enter the war on the German side. This version was based on the testimony of Colonel Ádám Krúdy, the commander in charge of the Košice airport, who reported to Bárdossy that the planes had yellow stripes painted on their wings and fuselages, which identified them as planes belonging to the Axis powers.

Ujváry also claimed that only a falsified version of the transcript of the actual cabinet meeting is available, and thus Hóman’s “intentions” cannot be ascertained. It is possible, the prosecutor suggested, that he was faced with a fait accompli. Moreover, he continued, basing his argument on the historian’s expert testimony, “in those days one had two bad choices: either Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union.”

Gyula Juhász, a respected historian who wrote during the Kádár period, had a different take on the cabinet meeting. In his book on the foreign policy of the Teleki government, he noted that Bárdossy had indeed falsified the transcript in order to minimize his own responsibility and that he left out those parts that contained comments that were against the declaration of war. Juhász nonetheless claims to have known that Ferenc Keresztes-Fischer spoke several times against the proposal and that he was supported by József Varga and Dániel Bánffy, while Bálint Hóman, Lajos Reményi-Schneller, and Károly Bartha “enthusiastically supported” the declaration of war.

The events that led to Hungary’s decision to join the war on the side of Germany against the Soviet Union remain murky, and determining culpability in such circumstances is always a difficult proposition. I therefore think that calling just one expert witness from the Veritas Institute was unacceptable. The court should have gotten another historian with a possibly different interpretation of the events. I also found it odd that the prosecutor spoke as if he were the lawyer for the defense. Overturning the verdict of one questionable trial by means of another is no remedy.

By now everybody assumes that Hóman will also be reinstated as a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. However, László Lovász, the well-known mathematician and currently president of the Academy, said in a recent interview that if a group of academicians brings the question to the floor and if there is a vote, “the Academy must distance itself from the ideas promulgated by Hóman.” Historian Mária M. Kovács goes even further. She quotes from the Academy’s ethical codex, which states that the Academy demands from its members “the utmost respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Given Hóman’s rabid anti-Semitism, his eligibility is questionable, she argues. After all, he had a hand in the formulation of the first anti-Jewish law, which he himself sponsored in the parliament. When one of his fellow ministers, Andor Lázár, minister of justice, expressed his disapproval of the proposed law, Hóman called for his resignation. A month before the German occupation he demanded the deportation of all Hungarians of Jewish origin. In brief, she contends, he is not qualified to be a member of the Academy.

Sándor Révész of Népszabadság, a day after the court had rehabilitated Hóman, wrote that his proponents on the government side want to restore Hóman’s honor by this decision, but that can be done only with “the restoration of the honor of Nazi Germany, Hitler, the leaders of the Arrow Cross and mass murderers.” Right now there certainly seems to be an attempt to forget about Hóman’s real sins.

What went wrong in 1990?

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.

Source: www.piarist.hu

József Antall with István Jelenits, Piarist theologian and writer / Source: www.piarist.hu

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.

József Antall twenty years later

I happened to be in Hungary on the day József Antall, Hungary’s first prime minister after the regime change, was buried. Just to give you a sense of how little I knew about Hungarian affairs in those days, I wasn’t even aware that Antall had died. I also had no idea how much he and his government were disliked, nay hated, in Hungary. Naturally I didn’t realize how difficult the transition was from the so-called socialist system to a market economy and what it meant to millions of Hungarians–high unemployment, very high inflation, spreading poverty, and, as I later learned, a fairly incompetent government.

Antall was right when he told the members of his cabinet that they had joined a kamikaze government. He realized, at least in the early days of his administration, that no government, regardless of how well prepared its members were, could remain popular under the circumstances. And since the members of the Antall government had absolutely no political and administrative experience, their performance was less than sterling.

Antall JozsefAlthough today, twenty years after Antall’s death, politicians from right to left praise Antall as a great statesman, in his day he was sharply criticized for being a man of the past.

Two important biographies of Antall have appeared since his death. The first, published in 1995, is by Sándor Révész, a liberal journalist and writer. The second was written by József Debreczeni, an MDF member of parliament during Antall’s tenure as prime minister. He is an admirer of Antall. From the two books two entirely József Antalls emerge. Révész’s Antall is a typical member of what in Hungarian is called the “keresztény úri osztály,” a social group that’s difficult to define precisely. Members of this group were normally Catholics, their ancestors came mostly from the lower gentry, and their fathers and grandfathers (having lost their land) served as government bureaucrats. Since their livehood depended on government, they were loyal to the Horthy regime. Indeed, that was the Antall family’s background as well. Debreczeni’s Antall is a man characterized by utter devotion to democratic principles and parliamentarism and devoid of any nostalgia for the Horthy regime, for which he was blamed by the left.

I remember watching the funeral of the prime minister on television among relatives who all hated Antall and his government. I was struck by the pomp and circumstance of the event and could hardly get over the uniforms and caps of the young men surrounding the coffin, which I must admit I found ridiculous. They had an unfortunate resemblance to costumes out of a Lehár or Kálmán operetta. Indeed, one could sense a conscious effort to return to the former “days of glory.”

Critics of Antall charged that he not only knew nothing about economics but that he wasn’t even interested in it. Fine points of the Hungarian parliamentarian tradition were more his thing. They pointed out that he was long winded and that during his speeches he often lost his train of thought. I was told that he was an arrogant and aloof man who couldn’t identify with the man on the street. That may be the case. I certainly didn’t have the opportunity to decide on my own. In fact, the first time I heard Antall speak at some length was yesterday when I listened to a speech of his from 1990 which was never delivered because MTV, then led by a close friend of Antall, refused to air it. He considered it to be a campaign speech and therefore inappropriate just before the municipal elections. MTV’s refusal to air the speech in turn began the so-called media war between the government and the mostly liberal media, which ended with the decimation of the staff of MTV and MR.

Here are my first impressions. I don’t think that Antall was as ignorant of economics as his critics maintained. In the first fifteen minutes of his speech he was able to explain quite cogently why Hungary was having economic difficulties. There was nothing wrong with his explanation. The second fifteen minutes, however, was something else. I came to the conclusion that, despite all the claims about Antall’s high sense of democracy, he had no clue about the true nature of democracy. Or, even if he knew it theoretically, he was unable to translate it into political practice. The second half of his speech was devoted to criticizing the opposition for behaving as an opposition. To his mind, instead of criticizing his government the opposition should help him along in his quest to get Hungary out of trouble.

Indeed, the country was in big trouble and Antall’s party, MDF (Magyar Demokrata Fórum), although it received the most votes, didn’t have an absolute majority to form a government on its own. Antall turned to József Torgyán’s Smallholders and the Christian Democrats; with these two parties came some people whose devotion to democracy could be seriously questioned. Given the enormous tasks facing the government, the best solution would have been a grand coalition between the two largest parties, MDF and SZDSZ (Szabad Demokraták Szövetsége), an idea that was bandied about in 1990. It would have made a lot of sense to share the burden and the unpopularity, which was bound to follow the change of regime. But Antall refused to contemplate such a coalition because he considered SZDSZ not a liberal but a center-left party.

Viktor Orbán has always paid lip service to the greatness of József Antall and has tried to intimate that he is the politician Antall himself wanted to be his successor. Indeed, there is at least one common feature shared by these two men. Antall as well as Orbán considered the opposition traitors because they were critical of their government’s policies. I found a short note in Beszélő from which I learned that József Antall at one of the yearly meetings of Hungarian ambassadors viewed criticism of his foreign policy, especially Hungary’s relations with the Soviet Union and the neighboring countries, as “treason.” From the article I also learned that Antall frequently used modal verbs. In this case he said: “I could even say it is treason.” Well, it seems that Antall had somewhat similar verbal tricks to the ones the present prime  minister of Hungary employs far too often.

This afternoon Géza Jeszenszky, Antall’s foreign minister, was a guest of György Bolgár on Klubrádió. Jeszenszky was not only a member of his cabinet but also the husband of Antall’s niece. Naturally, Jeszenszky thinks very highly of the former prime minister and, although he admitted that as a historian he shouldn’t ponder “what if” questions, of course he did. He announced that if Antall hadn’t gotten sick shortly after he became prime minister MDF wouldn’t have lost so massively in 1994. He is also certain that Gyula Horn would never have become prime minister of Hungary if Antall hadn’t died. It seems to me that Hungarian political life, as viewed from the plush office in the foreign ministry, was very different from what I encountered on the streets in 1993. The Antall government’s fate was already sealed in the second half of 1990. And the great electoral victory of MSZP was a foregone conclusion by the middle of December 1993.