Revolution in Hungary: A Country Still Strangled by Political Corruption
by Thomas Ország-Land (October 2012)
FROM REVOLUTION to revolution, I have watched Hungary evolve over the past half-century.
The more dramatic of the two revolutions took place in the autumn of 1956 – just 56 years ago this month (Oct) – when a beaten, starved and humiliated subject people of fewer than 10 million souls managed to stare down the brutal might of the Soviet Union. The more triumphant revolution may be unfolding now that Hungary’s divided democratic opposition forces are learning to collaborate against the vicious remnants of political corruption inherited from the Communist system.
Would the people who marched on parliament all those years ago one heady late-October evening have been prepared to risk everything for the petty power manipulations now being pursued inside that building in their name? Certainly not. Was the revolution worth the sacrifice? Probably, for those among us who have survived unhurt.
Hungary in 1956 was very different from the picture that has been handed down to us in all but the very latest history books. The country had experienced all the horror of the delayed first industrial revolution of the region, concentrated into a few brief years by the merciless pace of Soviet economic planning. Traditionally the breadbasket of Europe, Hungary was starving as a result of the Communists’ ruthless policy of forced agricultural collectivisation.
Hungary between Democracy & Authoritarianism
by Paul Lendvai, Trans. Keith Chester
Hurst, London, 2012, 256pp., Hardback,
ISBN: 978-1849041966, £25
Then the death of Stalin in 1953 ended the myth of the unchallengeable monopoly of power, unleashing murderous jealousy, confusion and sheer ineptitude at the top. Abrupt and self-contradictory changes were imposed from above, some for the better. Police despotism was somewhat curbed. A lot of prison camps were opened. There was something like open debate, giving a voice to such powerful forces of dissent as Paul Lendvai, now the doyen of European foreign correspondents and the author of a brilliant new analysis on the abuse of power in his homeland.
Hungarian society was confused, behaving like a mismanaged pressure cooker.
The revolution began on a radiantly beautiful evening on October 23. There were several simultaneous but spontaneous demonstrations against an evil and corrupt regime, some of them ending with blood on the streets. Perhaps the most important one took place at Kossuth Square in front of the Eclectic parliament building on the Danube embankment when a mass of patriots summoned Imre Nagy, the vacillating lifelong “reform” Communist leader.
“Comrades!” he addressed the crowd estimated at hundreds of thousands from a high balcony safely out of their reach. But his voice faltered amid their catcalls. “Fellow citizens!” he corrected himself, and Hungary’s independence was born for less than two glorious weeks.
I must have had a reporter’s compass that unfailingly navigated me into the centre of the action. I was with a group of students at Elte University in Budapest, but I was not one of them. I was a poet aged just 18, making a precarious living as a freelance journalist and occasional labourer. My purpose at the university was to court an older female student journalist, without the remotest chance of success.
Then three young men strode in wearing military fatigues and carrying short submachine guns with round magazines, slung across their chests. They resembled the ubiquitous heroic statues of the “fraternal” Soviet troops on their march across Europe during World War II.
The newcomers explained that they had been sent by the revolutionary chieftain József Dudás, who had just confiscated the presses of a state publishing company. But the warriors lacked the expertise to complete the first edition of their projected newspaper, The Hungarian Independent. Would some of us care to accompany them to help him out?
But the students whispered that Dudás had been a Nazi collaborator during the war. His emissaries looked like common criminals, they said. They did, and I had had my childhood experience of Nazi collaborators. Yet the opportunity was irresistible. I went. I was soon relieved when one of my new companions taught me on the way along the darkened palaces of Rákóczi Road how to handle his weapon and even allowed me to carry it for him.
The press centre occupied by Dudás and his army during the revolution has just been rebuilt into an elegant shopping complex. I was familiar with that building and its huge basement presses as I had done casual work there for several publications. It stood so close to the old National Theatre that journalists, actors and support staff often gazed at one another through the windows during idle moments.
I did get the first edition out – or rather it was done by “Uncle” Péter Sándor, the legendary compositor of the old days of hot-metal printing technology who had taught generations of journalists essential aspects of their business. He positioned me next to the layout bench (the “stone”) and allowed me to think that I was making all the decisions while he assembled the pages from the assorted editorial matter already set in lead. And he explained what he did and why.
The next day, I recruited for Dudás a proper staff from a satirical journal that I knew well. They were professionals glad for an opportunity to express in print, some for the first time in their lives, the truth as they perceived it. I also contributed to the paper what became my most-translated poem still occasionally recited at celebrations commemorating the revolution. Here is the poem, in an English translation by Watson Kirkconnel:
INSTEAD OF A TOMBSTONE
He shyly closed the lids of darkened eyes,
a small red flower blossomed on his breast.
A smile still lingered on his mouth’s surprise
as if at home he slept and loved his rest...
The little hero in the filth is laid
(around him fall his bread-loaves in the mud)
just as but now he paced the barricade –
in vain let fall his bomb, and shed his blood...
He shyly closed the lids of darkened eyes,
a small red flower blossomed on his breast.
Beside his corpse a steaming gutter lies.
The world sings victory, but signs a jest.
Work with my older colleagues in an atmosphere of editorial freedom and mutual encouragement was very close to my idea of being in heaven. Much closer than I thought.
Decades later, I met the surviving commander of a detachment of the hated and hunted Communist state security service AVH, which had been sent on a suicide mission to assault Dudás’ headquarters. They surreptitiously occupied the empty theatre but could not find windows convenient for an attack on a part of our building devoted to a military purpose. So they watched us at work in the editorial office, trained their awesome heavy weaponry on us and opened the windows to escape injury from falling glass.
Their musty room filled with cigarette smoke and the nauseating stench of fear was suddenly invaded by the balmy autumn air of the evening. They wanted to live. Somebody giggled, “Come off it fellows, they too are Hungarians.” And they commandeered the No. 6 tram for a free ride to the indoor swimming baths of St. Margaret’s Island to cool their troubled heads.
Dudás was in his 40s, at the height of his power, a direct and dignified man with a strong stare and enormous charisma. We never discussed politics beyond the purpose of the newspaper at the service of the revolution.
I took to him instantly despite the rumours of his collaborator past. He must have liked me, for he rewarded my efforts by reluctantly giving me a handgun, probably taken from some traffic police officer, for self-defence. Later, I posed with it for hours in front of my mother’s Venetian mirror.
There was serious fighting outside the editorial office, around the university and elsewhere. The national army took the side of the revolution. No looting took place and no racist outrages. But there were sporadic revenge attacks on the AVH. Nagy declared Hungary’s independence from the Warsaw Pact, promised multiparty democracy and, to the world’s surprised delight, negotiated an armistice with the Soviets.
There were tears of joy and more catcalls as the Soviet tanks rumbled out of the big population centres. But they regrouped to crush what was left of us in a savage and relentless operation launched in the miserable, foggy dawn of November 4.
Resistance was mounted by perhaps 10,000 untrained rebels, many of them teenagers, some younger. The Hungarian army watched the slaughter idly from its barracks. The official toll was 2,700 civilian lives and 19,000 wounded. The Soviet military presence was prolonged until the implosion of Communism nearly a quarter century ago, leaving János Kádár, Nagy’s erstwhile comrade-in-arms, in nominal control.
Dudás was hanged by the Communists after the revolution, together with 228 others including Nagy. Some of the victims were even younger than me at the time.
Árpád Göncz, the author and translator, shared the condemned cells with Dudás, but he was reprieved at the last minute eventually to serve as Hungary’s first democratically elected president. He remembers Dudás as an uncomplicated Transylvanian patriot who hated Communism and Fascism with equal passion.
The death sentence was actually pronounced on 22,000 patriots. Several tens of thousands were also imprisoned and their innocent spouses and children subjected to decades of social, economic, and psychological hardships. Some 210,000 Hungarians fled the country, most of them young and educated, of whom only some 40,000 eventually returned.
Kádár was probably the most complex character of this story. He became the longest-serving leader of the communist world, leaving a persistent shadow that still darkens the political landscape of his country. He made his most memorable speech at the end of his life, after 32 years in power, when he acknowledged his nagging remorse over the judicial murders perpetrated at the start of his rule.
Always a compromiser, Kadar was an abandoned and ill-educated child of a poor single-parent family from an outlying province. His background is reminiscent of those of many politicians and entrepreneurs who have now grabbed power in Hungary’s post-Communist government, commerce and industry.
Today, nominally democratic Hungary is a full member of the European Union (EU) as well as the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. But the country’s shamelessly success-oriented political and economic elite, mostly hand-picked in the dying days of the Soviet administration, still derives its power and money from connections forged within KISZ, the defunct Communist youth movement.
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, aged 49 years, is an ultra-Conservative populist enjoying the tacit support of the Hungarian far-Right. He hails from a disadvantaged family of semi-skilled workers that prospered under the Communist regime and acquired spectacular wealth afterwards during his two stints at the helm of power. His second period of rule was secured by a landslide election victory in April 2010 following a sustained campaign of violent street demonstrators.
Orbán’s Fidesz party triumphed at the polls without actually revealing its legislative programme. Its campaign exploited the frustration and insecurities fed by the world recession in an electorate totally unprepared for the boom/bust cycles of Western capitalism. This was the opportunity seized by Hungary’s neo-Nazis to emerge from the fringes of politics as the nastiest and best organized of their ilk within the 27 EU member countries.
But Orbán’s popularity is waning. His administration could face defeat in the 2014 elections if the fractured democratic opposition manages to form a single platform. Lendvai and many other observers sympathetic to Hungary fear that, in that event, the Fidesz administration may still hang on to power by forming a coalition with the far-Right. Lendvai’s new book is essential reading for anyone concerned with the struggle of the post-Communist world to free itself of the persistent stranglehold of political corruption.
Lendvai has been based in neighbouring Vienna since the 1956 revolution. I worked with him for some years when he served as the Central Europe correspondent of The Financial Times newspaper of London where I sometimes prepared his copy for publication. Now aged 81 and the editor-in-chief of the Austrian journal Europäische Rundschau, Lendvai is often quoted and consulted by the English and German language press and academia.
He is loathed by Orbán, a man made astonishingly vulnerable by his own political success. Orbán has built an administrative establishment totally subject to his personal control. He has reduced the legislature to a rubber-stamp facility. Even the office of the state president is deployed in the interest of Orbán rather than the people.
In just over two years, his parliament has effectively disabled the essential checks and balances of democratic control. The centrepiece of the reform is a new constitution passed without cross-party accord and already modified six times. It shirks Hungary’s enduring culpability for the Holocaust and trivializes its significance by equating that crime against all humanity with the subsequent Soviet occupation of this region.
The constitution also drops the word “Republic” from the official name of this country, leaving the door open for Orbán to crown himself king. Seriously.
A long series of new laws and decrees exposes the press to prohibitive fines potentially issued at will by a committee of political appointees, emasculates the judiciary by replacing many independent-minded judges by party hacks, and redraws the constituency boundaries to favour Fidesz. The administration has also challenged or undermined the independence and effectiveness of such essential institutions as the central bank and the office of the parliamentary ombudsman.
Orbán’s extra-parliamentary power extends through cliental networks embracing the mass communication media, big business, industry, agriculture, diaspora organizations, art and education funding, regional administration and of course the civil service. The roots of this informal maze of dependence reach back to the twilight world of the deeply corrupt Communist administration.
Its dominant participants were once among the brightest Communist cadres endowed with the funds, skills and connections to secure for themselves the choice pieces from the disintegrating state structure. Today, they are the Hungarian oligarchs.
To survive, any autocratic, populist regime must focus the hostility of its exploited electorate on real or imagined enemies abroad. Orbán has thus declared a national “freedom struggle,” in the idealized spirit of the 1956 revolution, against such safe targets as the EU, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and of course the foreign correspondents.
All this has frightened away the country’s foreign investors. The three principal global credit rating agencies have responded by downgrading Hungary’s public debt to junk status. The state is now exposed to the mercies of the short-term commercial money markets to service its relentlessly mounting debt burden from loans carrying wildly unsustainable interest rates in the region of 10%.
Cheaper money may or may not be forthcoming from the IMF, which does not want to see Hungary go bankrupt for fear of fresh riots possibly fanned by the volatile neo-Nazis. But the far-Right alone could never muster political control.
Lendvai despairs, but I do not. The tyrants of the modern world tend to survive for any significant length of time only when protected by mighty domestic industrial infrastructures or by foreign interests. Orbán enjoys no such support. He is in charge of a weak European economy surrounded by neighbours committed to fundamental integration with the mature Western democracies.
The Hungarian prime minister is a lonely, frail man driven and plagued by a fatal attraction to power. His command structure is based on the unquestioning obedience of professional managers prepared to serve any cause or master. When Orbán inevitably succumbs to the intolerable, dual pressure exerted by the democratic opposition and the paranoia generated by his own style of administration, his painfully constructed edifice of control must collapse with him.
THOMAS ORSZÁG-LAND is a poet and award-winning foreign correspondent. His next book will be The Survivors: Holocaust Poetry for Our Time (Smokestack/England, 2014).
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