A COUNTRY STILL STRANGLED BY
Hungary between Democracy &
by Paul Lendvai, Trans.
Hurst, London, 2012, 256pp., Hardback,
ISBN: 978-1849041966, Ł25
Reviewed by THOMAS LAND, in Budapest
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
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
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
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
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
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
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. Ledndvai’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
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
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.