Archive for the ‘Egon Krenz’ Tag

Roots of Liberal Democracy, Part Four: Liberation & Democratic Transition in Hungary, 1988-2004.   1 comment

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Goodbye János Kádár!

By the end of 1988, Mikhail Gorbachev had clearly abandoned the ‘Brezhnev doctrine’ in terms of which the Soviet Union undertook to resort to military force in critical situations in the ‘eastern bloc’ countries. In other words, he intimated that the events of 1956 in Hungary, 1968 in Czechoslovakia and 1981 in Poland, where an invasion was only prevented by the announcement of martial law, would not be repeated. Kádár, the one-time pioneer of reforms in the bloc, was deeply disturbed by Gorbachev’s aspirations, for they now made any depth of reform possible, whereas the ones enacted up to 1985 in Hungary were the maximum he was willing to concede. It was rumoured among the broad segment of reformers in the party rank-and-file, whose expectations were heightened by Glasnost and Perestroika, that Gorbachev’s statements were being censored in Hungary as well as in the more rigid socialist countries. In the final stage of Kádár’s reforms in Hungary, ‘multiple candidacy’ was introduced for future general elections, allowing ‘independent’, non-party candidates to stand, resulting in ten per cent of the new parliament being composed of such deputies in 1985. Any further step in the opening up of the public sphere would have provided a fundamental challenge to the régime’s power base.

Supported by a faceless crowd of yes-men of his own age in the upper echelons of the party hierarchy, Kádár stubbornly denied any allegation that Hungary was in crisis. When he could no longer maintain this facade, in July 1987 he dropped his long-standing Prime Minister György Lázár, replacing him with one of the several vigorous, relatively young figures who were biding their time in the lower echelons. Károly Grósz was the most characteristic representative of the new technocratic cadres which were in favour of going forward with economic reforms without changing the political system. The policy of transition to a mixed economy based on mixed forms of property (state, co-operative and private) was therefore carried forward with the elimination of subsidised prices; the return, after four decades, of a two-level banking system and the introduction of a new tax system, including progressive personal income tax. Grósz also continued the ‘openness’ policy towards the West by abolishing all travel restrictions, winning Gorbachev’s confidence in the process. The Soviet leader had no objection to getting rid of Kádár, who was aged, sick and tired in every sense of the word. As he outlived his days, the stage was set for a succession struggle.

Besides Grósz, the main contenders included Nyers, the architect of the 1968 economic reforms and Imre Pozsgay, whose commitment to reform extended to the political sphere, in favour of democratisation. He was supported by a sizeable reform wing within the party, as well as by a group of social scientists who prepared, under his protection, a scenario for a transition to pluralism in 1986, Turning Point and Reform. In addition, Pozsgay communicated with a segment of the opposition led by ‘populist’ intellectuals. An investigation within the party and the expulsion of four prominent reformist intellectuals from the party in the spring of 1988 were intended by the ‘old guard’ to deter the opposition within the party, but the measure missed its target. Then on 22 May 1988, Kádár’s long rule came to an abrupt end: the party conference elevated him to the entirely impotent post of Party Chairman, electing Grósz as Party Secretary in his place and completely reshuffling the Political Committee. By this time the different opposition groups that had been germinating for a considerable period in the ‘secondary public sphere’ stepped forward into the primary one and started to develop as political parties, presenting the public with analyses of past and present communism, diagnoses of Hungary’s predicament, and antidotes to it, which proved to be more credible than the versions prevented by officialdom.

From its inception in the late 1970s, the opposition that arose as a viable political alternative a decade later was distinguishable from the post-1968 dissidents both by their ideological orientation and their strategy. Instead of grafting pluralism and democracy onto Marxism, which the experience of 1956 had shown to be futile, they drew on the liberal-democratic and Christian national traditions, and instead of the similarly futile effort to represent these endeavours in the ‘primary’ public sphere, whose organs and institutions were dominated by the party, they created and maintained autonomous organisations. At the outset, these initiatives were confined to a few dozen individuals, maintaining contacts with a few hundred others among the intellectuals of research institutes, university departments, editorial offices and student circles. Through these, their views started to infiltrate into the pages of literary and social science journals of the ‘primary’ sphere that were testing the limits of free speech. From the mid-1980s on, some of them also developed contacts with reformers within the party. Of course, the authorities continued to possess detailed and up-to-date information about the activities of opposition and the groups linked with them. But given the developing dialogue with the West and its increasing dependence on western loans, the régime could not afford to show its iron fist. Whenever the opposition made itself visible by coming out on the streets for alternative commemorations of the 1848 and 1956 Revolutions, up to 1988 arrests, detentions and beatings invariably followed. Otherwise, the régime contented itself with occasional harassment: sporadic searches, the confiscation of illegal publications, the rejection of travel permits, censorship of writers and replacement of editorial boards.

Far from being homogeneous, from the outset, there were clear divisions within the opposition, reflecting the old urban-populist divide, although they maintained a co-operative dialogue until the eve of the transition process. The ‘populists’ identified national ‘questions of fate’ as their main commitment, such as the conditions of Hungarian minorities in the neighbouring countries, types of social delinquency, demographic problems, the conditions of the Churches, the loosening of communal ties and the effects of communism on the national consciousness. The neglect of these issues by the government, especially the first, led to the beginning of these ‘populist’ nationalist trends, also at the end of the 1970s. From 1983 Sándor Csoóri became a dominant figure among the ‘populists’, with polemical writings combining the above-mentioned themes with a critique of the morally detrimental effects of socialism. New social service periodicals succeeded in outmaneuvering censorship and discussing in a more objective manner an extensive range of sensitive themes, not just Stalinism and the 1956 Revolution, but also anti-Semitism, the condition of the Roma minority, poverty and the anomalies of the social security system. Both liberal Democrats and populists established links with Hungarian emigré organisations in the West, benefiting in the shape of scholarships from the New York-based Open Society Foundation launched by the Hungarian-American businessman George Soros in 1982, which also opened a registered office in Budapest five years later.

In the first half of the 1980s, the endeavour of anti-communist cooperation dominated the relationship of the two camps of the opposition, so different in outlook. A conference was held at Monor in 1985 in June 1985, whose speakers addressed and analysed the most soaring issues of the then generalised crisis. As the transformation of the system responsible for it came on to the agenda, and programmes started to be worked out, the ways of ‘urbanists’ and ‘populists’ parted. In June 1987 the programme of the democratic opposition was published, entitled ‘Social Contract’. They were uncompromising in claiming that the current political leadership was unsuitable to guide the process. Their document concluded that Kádár must go. This was too radical for the populists, who envisaged a more gradual transition, with an active role for reform communists within it. As a result, the democratic opposition was not invited to the meeting of the ‘populist’ camp which took place at Lakitelek, near Kecskemét, where the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) was founded. This was a recognised movement with the goal of transforming into a political party and was formed in the presence of Pozsgay and other reform Communists, on 27 September 1987.

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The Young ‘Liberal’ Democrat, Viktor Orbán, speaking at the re-interment of Imre Nagy in June 1989. These days, neither Liberal Democracy nor Nagy’s Social Democracy are any more fashionable for Orbán and his now ultra-Conservative party and government.

The Alliance of Young Democrats (FIDESZ), established on 30 March 1988, originally as an alternative to the Communist Youth League, endeavoured to supersede the urbanist-populist divide and submitted a programme in which a mixed economy, human rights, political pluralism and national values were given equal emphasis. At the same time, it also identified itself as a radical liberal initiative, and for some time during the ‘Transition’, it remained the closest political ally of the former democratic opposition. The ‘urbanist’ counterpart of the MDF was the Network of Free Initiatives, launched on 1 May 1988 which then developed into the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ) on 13 November that same year, after their hope of integrating most or all of the democratic opposition became thwarted by the mushroom-like growth of quasi-political organisations, together with professional associations and trade unions in the intervening six months. Shortly afterwards, the ‘historical parties’ reformed themselves: the Independent Smallholder Party re-emerged on 18 November 1988, followed by the Social Democrats in January and the Christian Democrats in April 1989.

Meanwhile, in November 1988, Grósz had passed over the premiership to Miklós Németh who, contrary to expectations, became one of the engineers of transition. He drew reinforcement from the successful manoeuvring of Pozsgay, who arose as an emblematic figure of reform Communist policies by sharpening the divisions within the party through a number of publicly made statements from late 1988 onwards. Pozsgay had avoided getting involved on either side in the 1956 Uprising because he was based in a provincial town at the time. He was an intellectual by instinct and training, who had worked his way up through the system until he and his fellow reformers had been strong enough to vote Kádár, who had once referred to him as ‘impertinent’, out of power in May 1988. It was then that Pozsgay became a member of the Politburo and it was soon after that he, not Grosz, had emerged as the dominant figure in the party leadership. Most notably, his announcements had included breaking the taboo of 1956: the redefinition of the ‘counter-revolution’ was as a ‘popular uprising’, and the urging of the introduction of a multi-party system. This was ratified by the legislature on 11 January, and acknowledged by the party on February 11, 1989. Through a cabinet reshuffle in May 1989, the followers of Grósz were replaced in most posts by pragmatic reformers like Németh himself. This did much to undermine hard-liner positions in the party and to push it to disintegration. The founder of the party did not live to see it. In early May 1989, Kádár was relieved of his offices, and died on 6 July, the same day that Imre Nagy was officially rehabilitated.

Even before his total removal from power, it was already being openly said that the Kádár period had come to an end. What had come into existence under his aegis was now in ruins economically. The attempts of the régime at reform had won excessive, flattering judgements in the West, making it more suspect within the Eastern Bloc. But the end of the third decade of Kádár’s rule was overshadowed by the previously whispered, but later admitted, information that Hungary had accumulated a foreign debt of twenty billion dollars, most of it in a couple of years of recklessness. This was where the contradictory, limited national consensus had ended up, in a cul-de-sac of national bankruptcy; this was what the divergence of production of production and consumption, the maintenance of a tolerable standard of living, and the erroneous use of the loans received had amounted to. The heavy interest burden on these debts alone was to have its effects for decades, crippling many early attempts at renewal.

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By July 1989, Hungary had become a de facto multi-party democracy again. Although these parties, new or old, were not mass parties with large numbers of activists, they were able to show that Grósz was wrong to suggest, as he once did at the end of 1988, that the streets belong to us. There were few mass demonstrations during this period, but those that did take place were organised by the opposition and were effective in conveying clear messages. They included mass protests over Ceausescu’s treatment of the Hungarian minority in Transylvania, reminding the Communists of their neglect of nationalist issues, and against the proposed construction of the hydro-electric dam system on the Danube Bend, which called attention to the ecological spoliation of communism. On 15 March, the anniversary of the 1848 Revolution, there was a keen competition to dominate the commemorative events in which the opposition scored a sweeping triumph; its main message was that the hundred-and-forty years of demands for civil liberty and representative government was still on the national agenda.

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Above: The Danube Bend at Visegrád, where the river, hemmed in by the Börzöny and Pilis Hills, meanders beneath the castle at Visegrád. After the foundation of the Hungarian State, Visegrád was one of the first ecclesiastical centres, as well as being a royal estate and a county seat. After the Turkish Conquest in the sixteenth century. the ‘Hungarian Versailles’ was laid low and almost completely raised to the ground. In the 1980s the area was again brought to the forefront of public attention. Czechoslovakia and Hungary long ago planned the building of a dam, of which the main Slovak installation would be at Bős and the main Hungarian installation at Nagymaros, north of Visegrád, in close proximity to the Royal castle and palace. But in East Central Europe during the 1980s growing political dissatisfaction and civic opposition found an object of focus in this gigantic project. In this, ecological and environmental considerations played a major part, with national and international ramifications.  The Hungarian domestic opposition had two main areas of activity: the publication and distribution of pamphlets and the struggle against the Danube dam. In response to this, the new Hungarian government elected in 1990 stopped all construction work on its side of the river and started to restore the bank to its natural state. Later, the ‘Visegrád’ group of four neighbouring countries was formed at the palace.   

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The most dramatic of all the public demonstrations was the official re-burial of the remains of Imre Nagy and his fellow ‘martyrs’ on the anniversary of their execution, 16 June 1989, which amounted to a public confession that in its origins the régime was built on terror and injustice. Nagy’s body, along with the others executed in 1958 was found in the waste ground at the Újköztemető (cemetery), wrapped in tar paper. After its exhumation, Nagy’s coffin lay in state in Heroes’ Square before being formally reburied. Over three hundred thousand citizens paid their respects to the martyrs of 1956, together with the tributes of government ministers. The fact that only a year beforehand police had used force to disperse a group of a few hundred demonstrators commemorating the martyrdom illustrates the rapid erosion of the régime’s authority and the simultaneous occupation of the public space by the opposition by the middle of 1989.

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The Hole in the Curtain:

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At last Hungary had come to terms with its past. Its future was determined by a decision taken by the Central Committee of the HSWP, to put the rapidly developing multi-party system on an official basis. Pozsgay’s own position had often seemed closer to that of the opposition Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) than to that of his own party. In the midst of these preparations for a peaceful transition of power and democratic elections, Kádár’s successors surprised the world at large. The summer of the annus mirabilis continued with its internationally most immediately conspicuous achievement: the dismantling of the ‘iron curtain’, the barbed-wire fence on the Austrian frontier, a process which had begun in May. On 23 August, the Foreign Minister Gyula Horn spent a sleepless night worrying about the changes going on around him and the irritated reactions of Hungary’s Warsaw Pact allies to them. He had been telephoned by the East German Foreign Minister, determined to know what was happening to Hungary’s border with Austria. He had assured him that sections had been removed for repair and would shortly be replaced.

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Again at Pozsgay’s instigation, the border gates were opened to allow for a ‘pan-European picnic’ in the woods on the Austrian side, which several hundred East Germans (‘holidaying’ at Lake Balaton) were able to stream through (pictured above). Hungarian citizens already had the right to visa-free travel to the West, but thousands of disenchanted East Germans, hearing from compatriots of the ‘hole’ in the curtain, had been making their way into Hungary via Czechoslovakia to escape from their own unpopular hard-line régime. Hungary had signed a treaty with East Germany in 1968 pledging not to allow East Germans to leave for the West through its territory. Horn sounded out Moscow as for a reaction as to whether the Soviet leadership would object if Hungary abandoned this undertaking. This was an urgent practical problem for the Hungarians, as about twenty thousand citizens from the DDR were seeking refuge at the FRG Embassy in Budapest. The Soviets did not object, so Horn resolved to open the main border crossings on the roads to the West. He said later that…

… It was quite obvious to me that this would be the first step in a landslide-like series of events. 

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Above: (left) Demonstrators in Budapest keep up the momentum; (right and below) East Germans, holidaying in Hungary, cross the border and head West, to the fury of their government, and to their own freedom.

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On 10 September, despite strenuous objections from the East German government, Hungary’s border with Austria was opened to the East German refugees. Within three days, thirteen thousand East Germans, mostly young couples with children, had fled west. This was the biggest exodus across the ‘iron curtain’ since the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, and it was only the beginning. Eschewing its erstwhile role as ‘gendarme’, still expected of it within the Eastern camp, Hungary decided to let the refugees go West without exit visas, thereby playing the role of catalyst in the disintegration of the whole Soviet bloc. Over the next few months the international situation was transformed. Liberalisation in Hungary had led directly to the collapse of the Húsak régime in Prague and the breaching of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. Writing in 1990, the historian István Lázár commented:

Naturally, all this can, or should, be seen in connection with the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union, even if in history questions of cause and effect are not entirely settled. However the question of what went before and what happened afterwards is constantly debated in history. Hungary, desperate and euphoric at the same time, turning away from the road followed for almost a half century and hardly able to see the path of the future … took  state, national and political risks with some of its decisions in 1989 in a context of a rather uncertain international situation which was not moving towards stability. This is how we arrived at the 1990s. 

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Queues on the road to Sopron and the border, with cardboard Trabants and boxes.

Tradition and Transition:

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Simultaneously, the scenario worked out by the opposition and Németh’s pragmatists to facilitate an orderly transition was launched. Between June and September 1989, representatives of the HSWP, the Opposition ‘Round Table’ (established in March by eight organisations) and the ‘third side’ (the Patriotic Popular Front and the trade unions) discussed the central issues of the transition process at national meetings. By the time President Bush visited Budapest in July (11-13), Hungary had effectively ceased to be a Communist country or a Soviet satellite state. I have written elsewhere on this site about this first ever visit by a US President, its importance and its outcomes. John Simpson, the BBC’s correspondent was standing on the balcony of a flat overlooking Kossúth Square where the President was due to make a speech. The owner of the flat was an Anglophile in his mid-forties from a wealthy background. There were English touches on the walls: mementoes of visits by at least two generations of the family. From his balcony they looked down on the enthusiastic crowds that were starting to gather:

“These little Communists of ours are acting like real politicians”, he said; “they’re giving people what they want, instead of what they ought to want. The trouble is, they can never give us so much that we can forget that they are Communists”. …

… He was right about the fundamental unpopularity of the Party. I went to see Imre Pozsgay a few days later and asked him whether he and his colleagues would really be the beneficiaries of the changes they were introducing.

“Who can say? Naturally I hope so. That’s why we’re doing these things. But to be honest with you, there’s nothing else we can do. Even if others win the elections, there’s no serious alternative to doing what we have done”.

On 18 September, an agreement was signed which emphasised a mutual commitment to the creation of the legal and political conditions under which a multi-party democracy could be established and the rule of law upheld. In addition, it put forward plans for surmounting the ongoing economic crisis. It required the amending of the communist constitution of 1949, the establishment of a constitutional court and the re-regulation of the order of national elections, legislation on the operation and finances of political parties and the amendment of the penal code. The two ‘liberal’ parties, the SZDSZ and FIDESZ refused to sign the agreement because it stipulated the election of a head of state before the elections, which they thought would benefit the only obvious candidate and most popular reform-politician, Imre Pozsgay. They also hoped to drive a wedge between the reform Communists and the MDF by insisting on a referendum on the issue, the result of which went in their favour. It was a sure sign of what was to come the following spring.

On 6 October, Gorbachev began a two-day visit to East Germany to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the German Democratic Republic (DDR). The government there, led for almost half of its life by the now seventy-four-year-old Erich Honecker, remained perhaps the most repressive régime in Eastern Europe. Only four days earlier, it had sealed its border with Czechoslovakia to prevent its people from voting with their feet and flooding to the West through Hungary. When Gorbachev suggested that a more permanent solution might be for the DDR to introduce a version of perestroika to satisfy people’s material needs and demands, Honecker refused to listen. He pointed out that on his last visit to Moscow, he had been shocked by the empty shops. How dare Gorbachev tell the leader of what many believed was the most prosperous country in the socialist world how he should run his economy! But Gorbachev persisted, telling a large rally that East Germany should introduce Soviet-style reforms, adding that the country’s policies should, however, be determined “not in Moscow, but in Berlin”. Two days after he left, Honecker was ousted within the DDR’s Politburo and replaced by Egon Krenz, who represented himself as the East German Gorbachev.

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The crowds outside the Parliament welcoming the proclamation of the institution of a Liberal Democratic Constitution for the new ‘Republic of Hungary’, October 1989.

Meanwhile, meeting in Budapest, the Fourteenth Congress of the HSWP also proved to be its last. It officially abandoned Leninism. On the 7th, the vast majority of its deputies voted in favour of creating a new Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), which defined its aims in terms akin to those of Western European socialist parties. Out of seven hundred thousand Communist Party members, only fifty thousand transferred their membership to the new Socialist Party, before the first free elections of March 1990. Shortly after the dissolution of the HSWP, the party’s paramilitary organisation, the Workers’ Guard was also disbanded. In another ‘gesture’ to the memory of 1956, reparation payments were authorized by Parliament to those imprisoned after the Uprising. On the anniversary of Uprising, 23 October, Acting President Mátyás Szűrös proclaimed the new “Republic of Hungary” on the thirty-third anniversary of the Revolution. The “People’s Republic” created forty years earlier, had ceased to exist.

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Parliament had changed eighty per cent of the 1949 constitution in the interim one that replaced it. It defined the peaceful transition to a market economy and the rule of law as the goal of the state. Its fundamental principles were defined as ‘civil democracy’ and ‘democratic socialism’. It guaranteed civil and human rights, declared the establishment of a multi-party system, not only eliminating the clause referring to the leading role of the Marxist-Leninist party of the working class but also outlawed the exercise of power by any single party. It was the first time that a ruling Communist Party anywhere had rejected its ideological faith and authorised a shift to liberal democracy and capitalism. Shortly after the promulgation and proclamation of the new constitution both inside and outside parliament (see the picture below), the red star was removed from the top of the building, demonstrating the end of the system of state socialism.

Yet now the full vulnerability of the economy was already being revealed, and the necessary decrease in consumption had to be forced on a society which was expecting a contrary shift. The past, both the pre-1949 and the post-1958 periods, began to be viewed with nostalgia, as ‘old-new’ ideas resurfaced alongside ‘brand-new’ ones. On the political scene, in both parliamentary and extra-parliamentary spheres, a faltering democracy continued to develop amidst struggles of bitter and frequently depressing content and form. In the meantime, both Eastern and Western visitors to Hungary at the beginning of the 1990s found the country more affluent and resourceful than did its own citizens, who saw it being forced into worrying straits. Eastern visitors were influenced by their own, often more miserable position, while Westerners found things better than their out-dated stereotypes of life behind the iron curtain would have led them to expect. This was Hungary’s paradox: almost every outside observer values the apparent dynamism of the country greatly, but unless they became inhabitants themselves, as some of us did, did they begin to see the burdens of ‘the changes’ born by ‘ordinary’ Hungarians and understood their caution and pessimism.

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Above: The famous MDF (Hungarian Democratic Forum) poster from the 1990 Election Campaign: Comrades Go Home!

On 2 November, as Minister of State, Imre Pozsgay met President Bush in Washington to discuss Hungary’s transition to democracy, a week before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The following January, Hungary announced its withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact, at the same time as Czechoslovakia and Poland, at a meeting of Foreign Ministers in Budapest, with effect from 1 July. In February, the United States signed an agreement providing for a Peace Corps Program in Hungary, to begin the following September. In March, the Soviet Union reached an agreement to remove all Soviet troops from Hungary by July 1991, two-thirds of them by the end of 1991. John Simpson’s friend in Budapest had promised his father that he would not drink the bottle of Bell’s Scotch Whisky he had placed in the cupboard in 1947 until the day the Soviet troops left Budapest. That day was now approaching. When the final round of elections took place on 8 April 1990, the reform Communists won only eight per cent of the seats, and Pozsgay and his colleagues were out of office. A centre-right government came to power, led by the MDF. They had won 164 out of the 386 seats. Looking back from later in 1990, John Simpson commented:

As in 1918, Hungary had emerged from and empire and found itself on its own; though this time, unlike the violence and destruction which followed the abortive Communist republic of Béla Kun in 1919, the transition was peaceable and relaxed. Hungary’s economy and environment had been horribly damaged by thirty-three years of Marxism-Leninism; but now, at least, it had shown the way to the rest of Central and Eastern Europe. There are dozens of men and women … who had a part in encouraging the revolutions (which followed) … But the stout figure of Imre Pozgay, who now stays at home and cooks for his family while he tries to work out what to do next, is one of the more important of them.

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Rather than bringing stability and calm, however, the 1990s in Hungary were a time of intensive movement across the political spectrum from right to left and back again, with a minority persisting on both extremes and an undercurrent of the old ‘populist-urbanist’ divide surfacing from time to time to emphasise patriotism over cosmopolitanism. Of the sixty-five parties formed in 1988-89, only twelve could run a national list at the elections of March-April 1990, and the four per cent ‘threshold’ required to make it into parliament eliminated half of them. Of the six parties that surpassed this, the highest-scoring MDF invited the Smallholders and the Christian Democrats to form a centre-right coalition. József Antall, a historian and museum curator who had become President of the MDF the previous year, became Hungary’s first prime minister in the new democratic era. Pledging itself to uphold Christian and national values besides democracy and the market economy, the coalition enjoyed a comfortable sixty per cent majority. The opposition consisted of the two liberal parties, the SZDSZ, which came second in the elections, and FIDESZ. The Socialists struggled hard to emerge from the isolation the past had thrown them into. Based on a ‘pact’ between Antall and the SZDSZ leadership, the prominent writer, translator and victim of the 1956 reprisals, Árpád Göncz, was elected by parliament as its Speaker and the President of the Republic. Over the next four years, he made periodic use of his limited powers to act as a counterweight to governmental power. He was re-elected in 1995.

As a result of the first free elections after the fall of state socialism, there was a comprehensive change in the highest echelons of the political élite: ninety-five per cent of the MPs were new in that position. Nearly as dramatic was the change in their social and cultural backgrounds. The first setback for the coalition government came in the municipal elections of the autumn of 1990. In the larger settlements, the two liberal parties scored much better than the government parties. The prominent SZDSZ politician, Gábor Demszky became Mayor of Budapest and was subsequently re-elected four times, becoming the most successful politician in post-1989 Hungary.  Following a protracted illness in late 1993, József Antall died. His funeral, in December 1993, was attended by world leaders including US Vice President Albert Gore. He was replaced by Peter Boross, his Minister of the Interior. With Antall’s untimely death, the MDF lost a politician whose stature was unparalleled among its inexperienced ranks.

It was not only a shift in political sympathies among a considerable proportion of voters that started well before the parliamentary elections of 1994, the outcome of which astounded many people from more than one point of view. A recasting of roles and ideological commitments accompanied a realignment of partnerships among the parties from roughly halfway through the electoral cycle. The MDF had first emerged as a grassroots democratic movement and had advocated a ‘third way’ between capitalism and communism. It had also been open towards ‘democratic socialism’. In government, it had adjusted itself to the personality of Antall, a ‘conservative liberal’, and had had to work hard to purge itself of its radical nationalist right-wing, which seceded in 1993 as the Party of Hungarian Justice and Life (MIÉP) led by the writer István Csurka. After its 1990 electoral victory, the MDF had indulged in militantly anti-communist rhetoric. This contrasted with the trajectory of the SZDSZ, which had initially tried to undermine the MDF’s credibility with allegations of collaboration with the former communists. Following the ‘media war’ which broke out between the two major parties, while the SZDSZ refused to abandon its core liberal values of upholding human rights, civil liberties and multi-culturalism, it re-evaluated its policies towards the left. This enabled the MSZP to re-emerge from the shadows and paved the way for the Democratic Charter, an initiative by intellectuals from both parties to counter the tide of radical nationalism that was threatening to engulf Hungarian political life.

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Viktor Orbán in the mid-1990s, looking Right.

In these circumstances, the earlier affinity and sometimes close collaboration between the SZDSZ and FIDESZ began to unravel as the inherent differences between them became ever more obvious. Of FIDESZ’s initial platform – anti-communism, youth culture and political liberalism – only the first was entirely preserved, while the second was quickly abandoned and the third was increasingly modified by an emphasis on Christian values, conservative traditions and strong central government. By 1994, FIDESZ had thus redefined itself as a party of the centre-right, with the ambition to become the dominant and integrative force of that segment of the political spectrum. This process was cemented in the public eye by the addition of the title Hungarian Civic Party (MPP) to its name. In 1999, it resigned from the ‘Liberal International’ and joined the ‘European People’s Party’, the conservative-Christian Democrat alliance in the EU. But in 1994, there was a general recovery in the fortunes of European socialists and social democrats, and the pledges of the MSZP to the values of social democracy looked credible enough to earn it widespread respectability in Europe and admission to the ‘Socialist International’. Its pragmatism and its emphasis on modernisation and technological development won it a landslide victory in an election which showed that the country was tired of ideological strife and disappointed with the lack of progress in the economic transition. Although the Socialists won over fifty per cent of the seats in parliament, the SZDSZ accepted the offer of Gyula Horn, MSZP chairman, to join a coalition. The other four parties of the previous parliament constituted the opposition. The Socialist-Liberal coalition government faced urgent economic tasks.

In the early to mid-nineties, Western corporations and investors came to Hungary hoping, in the long run, for a strong revival from the Hungarian economy. They procrastinated over possible investment, however, due to the threat of uncontrolled inflation. In an economy which was rapidly polarising society, with increasing unemployment and poverty while the rich got visibly richer, Hungarian citizens were already gloomy when they looked around themselves. According to the journalist Paul Lendvai, between 1988 and 1993 GDP fell by twenty per cent, twelve per cent alone in 1991; in 1990-91 real wages fell by twelve per cent, while inflation was thirty-five per cent in 1991, twenty-three per cent in 1992 and only sank below twenty per cent in 1993. Unemployment had risen sharply as thousands of firms were liquidated and half a million jobs disappeared. If they contemplated, beyond the borders, a crisis-ridden Eastern Europe beset by nationality problems and compelled to starve before the much-promised economic upturn, they were gloomier still. As Lázár commented:

Looking at the recent changes, perhaps ungratefully, this is how we stand in East Central Europe in the middle of Carpathian Basin, before the 1100th anniversary of the Hungarian Conquest, which, in five years time, will be followed by the opening of the third millennium…

In spite of the differences in their fundamental values, socialist and liberal, the MSZP and SZDSZ had similar policies on a number of pressing transitional tasks, such as Hungary’s Euro-Atlantic integration and monetarist reform, providing a wide scope for collaboration between them. In both of these priorities, they were successful, but none of these did much to assuage the resentment many voters felt towards the post-1989 politicians in general. In addition, many SZDSZ supporters were puzzled by the party’s reconciliation with the Socialists which they felt had robbed the party of its original liberal character. In the light of this, it is perhaps unsurprising that the SZDSZ followed the other great party of the 1990 régime change, the MDF, into relative obscurity following the 1998 general election. The remodelled FIDESZ-MPP attracted growing support during the second part of the election cycle, capitalising on mistakes made by the Socialists. While the latter maintained much of their popularity, FIDESZ-MPP won the election narrowly on the platform of a ‘civic Hungary’ in which the post-communist heritage would be forever buried while the state would accept greater responsibility in supporting the growth of a broad middle-class following Christian-nationalist values.

To obtain a secure parliamentary majority, the FIDESZ chairman and new PM, Viktor Orbán, formed a coalition with the MDF and the Independent Smallholder Party (FKGP). While the historic FKGP had a respectable place in the liberal democratic endeavour in post-1945 Hungary, its reincarnation was an anti-élitist, populist force, notorious throughout the 1990s for its stormy internal relations. In addition, although not part of the government, the radical-nationalist MIÉP – anti-communist, anti-capitalist, anti-liberal, anti-globalist and anti-Semitic, frequently lent its support to the first Orbán government. On the other extreme of the political palette, the radical remnant of the HSWP, the Workers’ Party, openly cherished the heritage of the Kádár era and remained a part of the extra-parliamentary opposition throughout the post-1989 period. Whereas a fairly constant proportion of the electorate has supported a traditional conservative-liberal line with national and Christian commitments, in whichever of the pirouetting parties it appeared at any given election, the values and endeavours of the Socialists also continued to break through until recent elections. On the other hand, those associated with the Liberals fell to a level equal to the radical Right, a picture not very different from some Western European countries.

With regard to European integration, all significant political forces except MIÉP were in favour of it. Although the Council of Europe responded to the Hungarian application as early as November 1990, and Hungary became an associate member in December 1991, the ensuing process was considerably longer than optimistically hoped for. Alongside the Czech Republic, Estonia, Poland and Slovenia, Hungary gained full membership of the European Union on 1 May 2004. By this time, public opinion in the West was increasingly sceptical about both the broadening and deepening of the EU. I have written extensively about Hungary’s more rapid progression into NATO membership elsewhere on this site, but its involvement in peacekeeping in former Yugoslavia, from 1994-1999, undoubtedly aided its process of accession to the EU. In an atmosphere of growing anxiety for global safety, neither the requirements concerning border security nor other developments caused a further postponement.

(to be continued…)

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Moments of Régime Change, Budapest (2009): Volt Produkció.

Posted January 2, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in anti-Communist, anti-Semitism, Austerity, Austria-Hungary, Balkan Crises, Brussels, Castles, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, Co-operativism, Communism, Compromise, Conservative Party, democracy, Discourse Analysis, Education, Egalitarianism, Empire, Europe, European Economic Community, European Union, German Reunification, Germany, Gorbachev, History, Humanism, Humanitarianism, Humanities, Hungarian History, Hungary, Immigration, Integration, Iraq, liberal democracy, liberalism, Marxism, Migration, monetarism, Mythology, Narrative, nationalism, Nationality, NATO, Population, populism, Poverty, privatization, Proletariat, Racism, Reconciliation, Refugees, Respectability, Revolution, Serbia, Statehood, Uncategorized, Yugoslavia

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This Tremendous Week in European History, 9-15 November, 1989   Leave a comment

The Fall of the Wall in Berlin

By the Ninth of November the forty-year-old German Democratic Republic (DDR) was on the verge of total disintegration. Egon Krenz, who had replaced Erich Honecker as its leader just a month previously, had finally decided to bow to the inevitable when, on that day, his government announced that, effective the next day, exit visas would be granted automatically to all citizens wishing to visit the west. For some time afterwards, no one knew who gave the order for this announcement to be made. It was given in a most extraordinary way at the end of a press conference given by Günter Schabowski, the general secretary of the Communist Party (SED) in East Berlin and a member of Krenz’s Politburo and the Central Committee’s secretary for the media. He had a reputation as a straightforward, honest man.  He wasn’t scared to go onto the streets after the fall of Honecker to argue for the unpopular policies of the SED with ordinary people, just as Gorbachev had done in Moscow. Shortly before 7 p.m. on 9 November he gave a press conference to announce the latest decisions of the Council of Ministers. Much of it dealt with the new philosophy of the Party. It was now accepted, he said, that the DDR was a pluralist society. There were also some details about the forthcoming Party conference.

Schabowski came to the end of these announcements and there was an awkward pause during which the three hundred journalists sitting there became restless. He whispered something to the person sitting next to him, and shuffled his papers. The man next to him leaned over and a piece of paper appeared in Schabowski’s hand.  He read from it slowly and hesitantly:

This will be interesting for you: today the decision was taken to make it possible for all citizens to leave the country through the official border crossing points. All citizens of the DDR can now be issued with visas for the purposes of travel or visiting relatives in the West. This order is to take effect at once.

Everyone started talking at once. A correspondent from DDR radio stood up and asked for more details. Schabowski had used the expression unverzüglich (at once, immediately); when precisely did that mean? It just means straightaway, he replied. Schabowski admitted later, after he had left office in December, that he had had the piece of paper all along, but had somehow misplaced it among the rest of his sheaf, and that it was only when he tidied this at the end that he found the note, which was one of the decisions reached by the politburo that afternoon, typed up, which he had intended to read first, but ended up reading after Any Other Business. There was therefore no miracle or magic involved in its mysterious delivery, just a slight cock-up on his part! The decision had been made by the full politburo that afternoon, in response to the anger building up in East German society over the inequitous rules governing permission to visit the West. Schabowski stated that they had wanted to make it clear, in plain language, that if people wanted to visit the West, they could. Full stop. There would need to be some kind of transitional visa system, because most people did not have passports, but they were trying to introduce a western-style passport control. However, the decision to make this immediately effective, in order to end the perceived inequities of the way the current system operated, also effectively meant the end of the Wall. Schabowski stated that no one at the meeting had seemed to realise this:

No one realised. No one said anything like that. No one really thought about the result. We knew we had to take this step. As to its leading to the end of the DDR, none of us expected that at all. And I have to say that none of the opposition groups in the country expected it either. We hoped, quite simply, that this measure would create a better DDR, more open human rights and so on. We thought the wall was stable, I must say.

In its way, then, the sudden announcement was a kind of miracle, because without the immediate opening of the crossing points, the impact of the breaching of the wall would have been less. That night, crowds began to gather at eight crossing points in Berlin. The first news that people could pass freely and immediately to the West had been broadcast on the East German television news bulletin at 7.30 p.m. The pictures of Schabowski’s celebrated news conference had been broadcast, but there was little explanation.  The TV station’s switchboard had been jammed by callers trying to find out more, but all the director of news could do was to repeat Scabowski’s announcement at regular intervals throughout the evening. Soon it was also being broadcast on West German TV and people in East Berlin were continually switching between the two. As more and more arrived at the checkpoints, curious to see what was really happening at the wall itself, they were still skeptical and suspicious; after all, nearly two hundred people had been shot trying to cross the wall that had divided the city for twenty-eight years.

The border guards on duty that night had never seen such crowds and were uncertain what to do. They called their headquarters but received no clear instructions. At first they insisted that everyone must have a valid visa stamped in their identity cards and that this could only be obtained from their local police station, before they could depart the following day. People demanded the right to cross that night; why did they have to wait for visas? However, at the less crowded checkpoints, by 9.30 p.m., some couples had been allowed through without a visa on the condition that they returned through the same check-point that night. At first a few more wary couples and individuals passed through, but soon the trickle became a flood of people moving towards the check-points. The guards were letting people through very slowly, checking their identity cards. A big crowd built up and from time to time there was chanting.  But as the numbers grew, the situation was in danger of erupting into disorder, especially when guards began pouring out of buildings by the dozen. However, rather than charging the crowd, they removed the concrete obstacles in the road and opened the gates. allowing the bottle-neck to surge through, surging forward, ten abreast.  As thousands poured into West Berlin, through the Berlin Wall, for a taste of freedom, the Western Berliners came out onto the streets on their side of the wall to welcome and cheer the Easterners. They offered cups of coffee, glasses of champagne, flowers and West German Marks. Families, long divided by the wall, were reunited, and complete strangers hugged each other as well. At Checkpoint Charlie one elderly woman came through the gate in slippers and night-clothes, with a coat over the top, explaining that her daughter had telephoned to tell her that she could come to West Berlin to see them.

As the crowds gathered at the Wall, where it started to bulge out in semi-circle to take in the area round the Brandenburg Gate, two young men in their early twenties vaulted over the low railings and stood beside it. One made a stirrup of his hands and launched the other upwards. Fingers scrabbled until he found a purchase. He got to his knees, then stood, the raised his arms over his head, fists clenched. The crowd roared. A new Germany and a new Europe, for good or ill, was being born.

Hundreds of people began standing, sitting, squatting, dancing on top of the Wall, and went on celebrating all night. Over the next days, using hammers, chisels and any other tools and makeshift implements that came to hand, people began to chip away at the ugly concrete barrier that snaked through the city. People power triumphed, and over the next year, bit by bit, the symbol of the cold war was almost totally demolished.

 

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Pictures of the breaching of the Wall were carried live on satellite television and seen around the world. Everywhere people were moved to tears by the emotional scenes unfolding in Berlin. However, in the White House, when the reporters and TV crews were permitted into the Oval Office to record President Bush’s reaction, he told them that, though very pleased, he was not an emotional kinda guy. He didn’t want to dance on the wall, as he feared that might provoke resistance to Gorbachev in Moscow. He was right. In private, Gorbachev was far from enthusiastic over the tumbling down of the wall. Gerasimov described the event as a positive and important fact in line with socialist development in the Soviet Union. But historic realities were coming home to roost, as the dust from the fall of the wall settled. The prospect of German reunification, and of Germany once more becoming an economic and political giant at the heart of Europe, filled the Soviet President with anxiety. Moscow did not want to lose East Germany as a strategic ally by watching it being integrated into Western Europe.

Americans were disappointed by Bush’s apparent lack of enthusiasm, since every president since Kennedy had called for the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. Polls showed that ninety per cent of the US public thought it was exciting and encouraging to see it actually happening. Critics accused Bush of failing to rise to the occasion and Richard Gephardt, the House leader, commented: Even as the walls of the modern Jericho come tumbling down, we have a president who is inadequate to the moment. Privately, however, Bush showed greater enthusiasm to his aides, telling them that if the Soviets are going to let the Communists fall in East Germany, they’ve got to be really serious – more serious than I realised. But Gorbachev wrote to Bush and the other Western leaders emphasizing the Soviet Union’s vital interests in the future of Germany, and that events needed to be handled carefully and slowly to prevent events from spinning out of control. As President Bush told his staff when he read this, the guy’s really upset! 

The Stasi, the much-hated secret police force was disbanded. Krenz was replaced as premier by Communist reformer Hans Modrow, and the Volkskammer, or parliament, renounced the leading role of the Communist Party, beginning to expose the corruption and brutality of the Honecker regime. East Germany seemed to be moving steadily towards reunification, but the Soviets continued to oppose this for several more months.

Sources:

John Simpson (1990), Dispatches from the Barricades: An Eye-Witness Account of the Revolutions that Shook the World, 1989-90. London: Hutchinson.

Jeremy Isaacs & Taylor Downing (1998), Cold War. London: Transworld Publishers

These Tremendous Weeks in History: 6-19 October 1989, 1944: Midnight in Moscow and Berlin.   Leave a comment

These Tremendous Weeks in History: 6-19 October 1989

 

For most of the period of the Trabant Trek, which continued until the East Germans closed their border with Czechoslovakia on 3 October, the German Democratic Republic’s leader, Erich Honecker, was seriously ill, following his collapse at the Warsaw Pact summit in Bucharest. He was seventy-four, and had led East Germany’s government for eighteen years. He played little part in decision-making as his government swung from ferocity to weakness and back again. Everyone knew that the fortieth anniversary of the founding of the state, on 7 October, would be a critical moment.

 In the run-up to the event, Leipzig saw big demonstrations. These were not spontaneous or anti-communist, but had been taking place for a number of years. Every Monday there were peace services in the Protestant churches there every Monday, the city being one of the foremost centres of the Lutheran Reformation in Germany. After these services the congregation would go in procession to the pedestrian precinct in the old town carrying candles. What was different now was that human rights organisations and radical groups joined in. Again, however, many of these groups and radicals still saw themselves as democratic socialists within the German Marxist Social Democratic tradition, but increasingly in opposition to the hard-line government in Berlin.

The GDR had been one of the few countries to congratulate the leadership of Deng Xiaoping after it had mowed down and crushed the demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in May. There seemed to be a real possibility that the growing demonstrations in Leipzig might be dealt with in a similar way. The nerve of the government was under great strain. There were signs of growing discontent everywhere. People were no longer as scared of the authorities as they had been. As the tension mounted, the Interior Ministry’s record of threats received in different parts of the country showed a remarkable increase over normal times:

Anonymous telephone call to the regional office of the SED in Marienberg, 09.35, 4.10.89: “Your place is going to be blown sky high, you miserable rabble.”

Anonymous telephone  call to Lichtenberg railway station, 23.50, 4.10.89: “Here’s a birthday present for Erich Honeker: bombs have been planted at Lichtenberg and Schönefeld stations. It’s going to be a lot of fun. They’re set to go off at two o’ clock.”

Anonymous telephone call  to the Volkpolizei satation at Coswig, 10.00, 5.10.89: “You arse-lickers, you ought to know that your place is going to be blown up today.”

Anonymous telephone call to the central warehouse in Dresden, 10.30, 5.10.89: Three ejector-seats available, deadline 11.15.”

Anonymous letter received by the Ostseezeitung newspaper in Rostock, 6.10.89: “40th anniversary of the GDR… On 6 October, 16.00, attacks on the Ostseezeitung and the Dierkow market. We want freedom. Death to Honecker. We mean it!”

Anonymous telephone call to the regional office  of the Staatssicherheit in Freiburg, 11.57, 6.10.89: “Write this down: We’re going to blast the presidential platform in Berlin tomorrow. Message ends.”

Nothing happened, of course. But the guest of honour at the celebrations on 7 October exploded a device of his own. The day before, Mikhail Gorbachev had arrived for his two-day visit to celebrate the anniversary and let it be known that he had warned Honecker that Soviet troops would not be available for use against demonstrators in the GDR. Speculation was already growing that he was encouraging the younger and more liberal members of the Politbutro to overthrow Honecker, and it grew still further when he said,Life punishes those who hold back. In East Berlin, Gorbachev suggested to Honecker that the way to stop public protest engulfing his government was to introduce a German form of perestroika. Honecker wouldn’t listen: during his last visit to Moscow he had been disgusted by the bare shelves in the shops. How dare Gorbachev tell him how to organise the most prosperous economy in the socialist world! Gorbachev was undaunted, and told a large rally that East Germany should introduce Soviet-style reforms, adding that East German policy must be decided not in Moscow, but in Berlin. Honecker, standing next to him, glared.

Gorbachev’s visit galvanised protests against the deeply unpopular regime. For a torchlight procession down the Unter den Linden in East Berlin (pictured left), a crowd of thousands of hand-picked party activists was assembled to cheer Gorbachev. To everyone’s surprise, they broke into chants of Gorby, Gorby, save us. In an extraordinary turnabout, the leader of the Soviet Union was now being hailed by Eastern Europeans as their saviour from their own government’s tyranny. There were also more spontaneous demonstrations that evening in Dresden, Magdeburg, Leipzig, Plauen, Karl Marx-Stadt, Potsdam and Amstadt. TheStasi (Secret Police) broke these up with great brutality. Gorbachev told his aides he was disgusted by Honecker’s inept handling of the crisis and that the leadership can’t stay in control. Back in Moscow, the Soviet leader ordered his general staff to ensure that their soldiers in East Germany stayed in their barracks and did not get embroiled in the chaos that was soon certain to overwhelm the country.

It was on the day after Gorbachev left, 8 October, in Leipzig, that the great test came. Early that morning, the Stasi went from factory to factory and office to office, warning people that they shouldn’t take part in the big demonstration which was planned for that afternoon. Schools closed early, as did many of the shops. The centre of the city was abnormally quiet all day. No trains came into the main railway station, which had been put to another use: it became the headquarters of a large military force. The opposition leaders later discovered that Honecker had ordered the Stasi to open fire on the demonstrators if there was no alternative way of stopping them. The Tiananmen option, which he had praised in June, was to be available in Leipzig. Several thousand troops were deployed, with units taking up positions on every street corner, and tanks and armoured personnel carriers were drawn up at all the main intersections. Marksmen were positioned on all the rooftops near the station, some equipped with machine guns. The army had arranged trailers and trucks to carry the wounded to selected barns and sheds on farms outside the city. Everything was ready for a bloodbath. However, wary of repeating that of Tiananmen Square, the local party leaders would not support Honecker’s orders. If they had agreed, and the troops had opened fire on the seventy thousand protesters marching through the streets, the show of overwhelming strength could have stopped the demonstrations and saved the political life of Erich Honecker just as in China it saved that of Deng Xiaoping. More probably, it would have resulted in Honecker’s downfall even more rapidly, just as it did later that year in Romania.

The gamble was too great to take. Honecker and Egon Krenz, as the Politburo member responsible for security, had created this formidable military build-up.
Egon Krenz later claimed the credit for having deterred Honecker from giving the order to open fire, but he was himself fighting for political acceptance in the aftermath of Honecker’s fall, and his evidence is not to be taken at face value. After his expulsion from the PDS, the Party for Democratic Socialism which replaced the communist SED, Krenz became a wealthy man by selling his story to the right-wing tabloid Bild in West Germany for more than a million Deutschmark. The reliable evidence shows that it was the army leadership and perhaps even the Stasi in Leipzig who lacked the will to carry out Honecker’s orders. It was therefore easier to convince the political hierarchy who were part of the chain of command that it would be disastrous to shoot down the demonstrators. Almost certainly, the real credit should be given to the SED Party elite in Leipzig itself. There is also some evidence that the Soviet leadership got wind of the possibility that a massacre was being planned and warned against it.

More than seventy thousand people, perhaps as many as a hundred thousand, gathered outside the churches the centre of Leipzig, and as they marched from St Nicholas Church to the main square, the soldiers watched them go. The marksmen peered down from the rooftops, the trucks and makeshift ambulances remained where they had been parked and the barns outside the city remained empty. The opposition had faced down the threat. It became clear that whatever the Stasi might do with clubs and tear gas, demonstrators no longer ran the risk of being shot dead. The decision split the SED leadership, sparking off a battle within the Politburo. Nine days later, on 18 October, Erich Honecker resigned as Party leader and was replaced by Egon Krenz, who, as the youngest member of the Politburo, began purging five out of its eighteen members. Krenz tried to rally the Party and the people around a new slogan, Change and Renewal, Krenz presented himself as the East German Gorbachev. Hundreds of demonstrators were released from prison.

Krenz’s new slogan seemed empty to those who were now demanding sweeping reforms. The more conciliatory Krenz appeared to be, the greater was the call for radical change. In a matter of a few months in the late summer and early autumn of 1989, before the closing of the borders, nearly two hundred thousand people had crossed into the West via Hungary, half of them illegally. It was these Trabant Trekkers, combined with the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in the historic towns and cities of East Germany, who brought to an end the forty years of the Communist state there. With it, the Brezhnev Doctrine also came to an end. Gennadi Gerasimov, the foreign ministry spokesman, shrugged his soldiers, commenting on the events in the GDR by saying simply, it’s their business.  He added, famously:

You know the Frank Sinatra song, “My Way”? Hungary and Poland are doing it their way. We now have the Sinatra Doctrine.  

The phrase stuck, and became popular in the West.

To be continued…

Sources:

Jeremy Isaacs & Taylor Downing (1998), Cold War. London: Bantam Press (Transworld Publishers)

John Simpson (1990), Despatches from the Barricades: An Eye-Witness Account of the Revolutions that Shook the World, 1989-90. London: Hutchinson.

 

A Postcard from Miklós Radnóti’s Death March – At nine kilometers: the pall of burning…

12 October 2014 at 13:52

2.

At nine kilometers: the pall of burning
hayrick, homestead, farm.
At the field’s edge: the peasants, silent, smoking
pipes against the fear of harm.
Here: a lake ruffled only by the step
of a tiny shepherdess,
where a white cloud is what the ruffled sheep
drink in their lowliness.

Cservenka, October 6, 1944

From “Razglednicas”


Notes: 

Razglendica 

means “picture postcard” in Serbian; in the original Hungarian, it is in plural, Razglenicák. I posted the first verse of the poem, written in the mountains, on 30 August, the date on which it was written, before the march began. There are two more verses, written in the last week of October, shortly before Radnóti was shot and buried by the roadside, and is the last of the ten poems which were found in his address book in the pocket of his raincoat twenty months later, when his body was exhumed.

Cservenka was the place where the Nazis slaughtered about a thousand Jewish servicemen.   

To be continued…


Source:

Zsuzsanna Ozsváth & Frederick Turner (2014), Foamy Sky: The Major Poems of Miklós Radnoti: A Bilingual Edition. Budapest: Corvina Books. (corvinakiado.hu)

 

This Week in Hungarian History: Signing the Armistice in Moscow and the Nazi Coup in Budapest: 11-17 October 1944.

12 October 2014 at 11:37

Just before 8 p.m. on 11 October 1944, the Hungarian Peace Delegation in Moscow signed an armistice with the Soviet Foreign Minister in the Kremlin. Earlier that day, in fact much earlier, at 3 a.m., they had had their sixth conference with the Soviets. On that day, Russian forces were still just over a hundred km from Budapest. Molotov told Szent-Iványi that he was well aware of the of the fact that the Germans were willing to carry out a massacre and that they had to prevent this. He understood that the preliminary conditions of an armistice with Hungary had been accepted and asked if it would be possible to discuss the final armistice, and to sign it. Szent-Iványi agreed that his delegation had full powers to do so, which had been put into a radiogram that they had received from Budapest. Major Nemes was on his way to Moscow, via Körösmező, with the letter confirming this. Although he felt that they already had the Regent’s authorisation to sign, Molotov disagreed, saying that the letter they had brought with them only empowered them to negotiate. He wanted a radiogram from the Regent clearly giving them authority to sign.

Up to that point, the negotiations had been held in French, but Molotov suddenly asked Szent-Iványi if he wished to continue in English. The latter agreed, and Molotov declared the conference suspended for about ten minutes, going into an adjoining room. While he was passing through the door, the delegates caught a glimpse of the people in the other room. One of them, Faragho, later insisted that he had seen Churchill and Eden there.  Géza Teleki reported overhearing a conversation between Dekanozov and Eden from the same room. Molotov returned to them when the ten minutes were up, declaring that they would continue the negotiations later that morning, and that Hungary would then be out of the war. They returned to their dacha at 4.50 a.m., but had no sleep on that memorable day. They worked all morning and afternoon, composing and sending notes to the Allied Powers, as well as more radiograms to Budapest. After a short meal at about 5 p.m., they left the dacha in General Kuznietov’s car, just before 7 p.m.

At about 7.15 p.m. Molotov opened the seventh conference, telling the three Hungarian delegates that the Soviets and their Allies were willing to accept their conditions, and that the necessary formalities could be carried out immediately. They also agreed to accept a short delay in the advance of the Red Army to allow for the Hungarian Army to make its withdrawal towards Budapest. Szent-Iványi said that they had already sent a radiogram to Budapest asking for information about the Hungarian and German forces, especially how much time would be needed for the Hungarian forces to reach Budapest. He hoped the reply would reach them in the morning. General Faragho said that there was no need to delay the Red Army’s advance for more than one or two days. On the other hand, he felt it likely that the Germans would attack the retreating troops as soon as they knew of the official armistice. After all, he pointed out, they had already deported over four hundred thousand Jews to Germany and would have deported the Budapest Jewry had it not been for the Army’s intervention, he said. That was why the Gendarmerie was still in the capital. He thought that, with the exception of two ministers, Reményi-Schneller and Jurcsek, the Hungarian Government would support the armistice. Effective power, he claimed, was in the hands of the Regent and the Prime Minister in any case. The delegates believed that the troops would remain loyal to the Regent.

As the conference ended, a table was prepared for signing the documents. At this point, Molotov approached Szent-Iványi and said, My congratulations, Mr Minister. This is the first time since 1526 that Hungary has won a great war. Szent-Iványi felt pleased that their delaying tactics had made possible the indirect intervention of Churchill and Eden in the negotiations, which had ultimately accelerated the whole process by stopping the Allied aerial bombing of Hungary while the Hungarian forces made their retreat to the capital. Just before 8 p.m. on 11 October, the three delegates signed the Armistice Treaty in the Kremlin.

That should have meant the end of the war for Hungary. However, the three had no rest that night as radiograms arrived from Budapest reporting that Regent Horthy was refusing to leave the capital to join his retreating forces, as had been previously agreed. This not only put their mission in great jeopardy, but also the success of The Third Attempt  to leave the Axis Alliance. A further blow came when they were informed by Major Nemes the next day that General Bakay, the Commander of Royal Forces in and around the capital, had been kidnapped by the Germans on 8 October. Szilárd Bakay, commander of the First Budapest Army Corps, was a key figure in the armistice preparations, and Horthy’s absolute confidant. He had arrived at the General Headquarters in the Duna Palace at dawn on 8 October, where he was kidnapped together with documents containing the defence plans for the capital following the armistice. So it appears that the German High Command had known about the Armistice negotiations in Moscow long before they were concluded. On 12 October, while still in General Kuznietov’s office, the Peace Delegation also received the following radiogram from the Regent:

Regent’s son captured this morning by Arrow-Cross and Germans. Building  in which he had stayed destroyed by gunfire: we have no further news. City surrounded by strong forces of Reichswehr. We have received German utitmatum.

This was the third and final, death-blow to the Third Attempt, according to Szent-Iványi, who doubted that they now had any chance of success:

Budapest was virtually in the hands of the Germans and we could expect that the Regent would fall into the hands of the Germans shortly. I was very upset. “If only the Regent had left Budapest and gone to the Second Army – the situation would now be different”  I was thinking.

Horthy and his family left Hungary on 17 October in a special train, escorted by German troops, bound for Germany. Discussing the new situation with the Russians, Szent-Iványi declared that even the Regent’s disappearance should not stop their cooperation since, on 5 October, the Regent had appointed General Lajos Veress Dálkoni, the Commander of the Second Army, as Homo Regius, to rule in his place, as deputy, should he himself be killed or imprisoned. Unfortunately, Veress had also been arrested in Transylvania, since the courier he sent the Regent’s letter back with, after signing his acceptance of the appointment, was a German agent. Before leaving Budapest, the Germans forced Horthy to sign over his authority to Szalási as President Minister of Hungary, to lead pro-Nazi Arrow Cross Government. This conferred legitimacy on the newly appointed fascist regime. The Soviets, especially Kuznietov, were obviously quite happy about the new situation. With the Regent and Veress both out of the picture, the Red Army could now advance on Budapest without pausing for the Hungarian Army to retreat. At this point Stalin intervened, insisting that the Delegation should fly to the front to meet General Miklós, who had already left his army to ask their instructions at the HQ of General Petrov.

To be continued…

Source:

Domokos Szent-Iványi (2013), The Hungarian Independence Movement. Budapest: Hungarian Review Books

 

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