In the last few months, I have spent a few hours every day reading newspaper articles that appeared during the 1988-1990 period in order to gain a better understanding of the political developments of that time. In addition, I rarely miss Sándor Szénási’s excellent “Freedom, comrades,” a weekly interview series broadcast on Fridays on Klub Rádió. Lately, I also discovered a podcast series on Index called “Kibeszélő” (Going public), which just published a revealing interview with Zsuzsanna Szelényi, one of the two women in Fidesz’s 22-member parliamentary delegation, about how the party, already by 1991, had become a closed organization completely dominated by László Kövér and Viktor Orbán.
As background for my examination of the period, I badly needed to refresh my memory by reading or rather rereading a basic textbook, and therefore I turned to Zoltán Ripp’s monumental Rendszerváltás Magyarországon 1987-1990 (Political transition in Hungary; 2006). I also profited from reading a book I hadn’t encountered before, a series of interviews by Sándor Szilágyi titled A Hétfői Szabadegyetem és a III/III (Free university on Mondays and the secret service). I reread Sándor Révész’s Antall József távolról, 1932-1993 (József Antall from afar; 1994) and went back to Kata Beke’s 1993 book Jézusmária, győztünk! (Good God, we won!).
This long list shouldn’t frighten anyone off because I have no intention of analyzing the material I found in these books. Instead, I would like to call attention to a few lines that I found especially telling.
The first is Kádár’s reaction to the early signs of oppositional groups to the regime. At the July 1, 1986 meeting of the Politburo he compared the situation to the conditions before the 1956 “counterrevolution.” The party was aware of the two epicenters of the opposition forces, the “national radicals” and the “democratic opposition.” With some simplification, the first group was made up of writers described as “népiesek” (populists), who were preoccupied with national issues. The second group was composed of intellectuals who were called the “urbanites,” whose interests were more universal and liberal. Kádár correctly identified the “nationalist” group, although not so radical as the democratic opposition, as much more dangerous because “it can count on the widest societal support” (Ripp, pp. 43-44). Looking at the present political situation, Kádár’s assessment was spot on.
As for the radical nationalist group, let me quote Dénes Csengey, whose early death elevated him to one of the great heroes of the Hungarian right. He expressed the early MDF’s concern about the dangers of western modernization, which might create a different subordination of the nation (Ripp, p. 310). Thus, there is nothing new about Viktor Orbán’s insistence on sovereignty; it was already part and parcel of the ideology of the late twentieth-century Hungarian right, whose members gathered in the tent of Sándor Lezsák, a minor Hungarian poet of the “populist” literary tradition, in September 1987 to form Magyar Demokrata Fórum (MDF).
Today, this fear of globalization, the stress on national values and the dangers of foreign influences in general are still hallmarks of the deep-seated right-wing worldview, which dates back to the 1930s. György Dalos, a Hungarian writer who nowadays lives in Berlin, found the populist writers despicable because in the late 1930s and early 40s most of them turned to the extreme right, praising Hitler and Nazism, while after 1956 they managed to form a good working relationship with the Kádár regime (Szilágyi, pp. 71-72). In fact, during 1989-1990 the MDF leaders were quite ready to form a coalition with the reform wing of the Hungarian communist party.
Some populist writers questioned the wisdom and viability of introducing democracy to Hungary. Csurka, already in 1989, expressed his doubts about the advisability of “slavishly adopting western democracy” after 40 years of a one-party political system just because “some journalists claim that it is the best political system in the world” (Révész, p. 130).
Kata Beke, a high school teacher and author, who for a few months served as political undersecretary in the ministry of education and culture in the Antall government, wrote these lines in 1993: “The Hungarian nation can’t be usurped. Because it belongs to all of us. This is our natural state…. One doesn’t have a tricolor on one’s lapel every day because it makes the act meaningless. Those who see a conflict between being a Hungarian and a European or between the national and the universal are wrong.” She, of course, had MDF in mind. She also had a few words to say about those “youthful heroes of 1956 who became octogenarians full of hate” and who behave as if “the plebeian revolution was fought by playboys from Buda and not by workers and university students, the majority of whom came from peasant and working-class families.” She had contempt for those who “arrogantly call our martyrs — Imre Nagy, Pál Maléter, and the others — reform communists” (Beke, pp. 119-120).
Finally, let me quote a few lines from the last chapter of Révész’s biography of Antall. “József Antall wanted and knew how to lead, but what he wanted to lead didn’t exist. It doesn’t exist. Neither the nation, nor the class, neither the fight nor the party…. No liberal party can exist with an illiberal membership. The MDF that Antall constructed in his head didn’t exist” (Révész, p. 215). What existed and still exists is what Révész called the Lakitelek MDF, a collection of far-right nationalistic writers and politicians whose chief enemy wasn’t communism. Rather, what they most resisted was liberalism and western modernization. It was that group that Viktor Orbán led to victory after he decided that democracy and freedom had less appeal to Hungarians than good old-fashioned nationalism and political extremism.