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Hungary’s New Twist’: An Exchange

To the Editors:

Your recent issue of August 18 contained a remarkable piece by Istvan Deak on the recent past and present of my country. People living on the spot nearly always find a lot to disagree with when they read foreign accounts and analyses concerning their affairs. Professor Deak’s review is unusually accurate and I intend to use it as an introduction to present-day Hungary with American students who come to my university for taking regular courses on various aspects of Hungary and East Central Europe. Yet there are three important statements in the article where I feel that my (and probably many other people’s) strong disagreement should be recorded, and hopefully given publicity.

A large part of the Hungarian population was not categorically opposed to a revolutionary transformation of society”? At the free elections of 1945 the Communist Party received seventeen percent of the vote and at the already less free elections of 1947, with about one fifth of all eligible voters illegally disfranchised, only 22 percent of the vote. Even if one adds the Social Democratic and the radical peasant party voters we have less than a majority in 1945 and only a very slight one in 1947, but many of even these people were not “favorably inclined toward either the Communist-industrial or the populist-agrarian model of radical development,” as shown by contemporary writings and oral testimonies. That was recognized by Rákosi’s complaint that he had to build socialism in a country of fascists. At most a minority of Hungarians still cherished a faint hope until 1948 that the deplorable anti-democratic measures will have some welcome results.

Deak’s claim, that “the Stalinist era is not universally unpopular among Hungarians” is not only unwarranted but without any evidence even in the article. In addition to the murdered, tortured, imprisoned, beaten, and interned victims, who amounted to about one tenth of the population, practically everybody suffered from the intolerable living standards and from the atmosphere of fear, so forcefully expressed in Gyula Illyés’ classic poem One sentence on tyranny. Even those who benefitted from sudden upward mobility paid a terrible price, as it was shown by the films of Márta Mézáros, or P. Gábor’s Angi Vera, known by Western audiences.

I agree with the writer’s optimistic statement that Hungary is not entering a ruinous crisis but rather “a period of transition and national revival.” But isn’t it unfair to brand one of the major movements campaigning for this transformation, the Hungarian Democratic Forum (only referred to, but unnamed in the article) as ” ‘populist,’ which could also be translated as ‘nationalist’ “? According to one of its recent documents “The Hungarian Democratic Forum was formed in the autumn of 1987. At its meetings intellectuals and members of other social groups discuss specific, current problems concerning Hungary and Hungarian society, giving expression to their independent, personal opinions. Following the exchange of views, the participants usually agree on a collective standpoint and draw up a set of recommendations. These are then presented to the relevant Hungarian institutions and to the general public.” At its four crowded meetings in Budapest many shades of political opinion were expressed, some might be termed as passionately patriotic (perhaps stupidly so, though not attacking any other nation or group), but people who are called by themselves and by the Western media as members of the “democratic opposition” (some of them are of Jewish origin but as much Hungarian as the present writer whose ancestors were fighting under the banner of the Hungarian Kings already in the 1270s) were also prominent among the speakers. The organizers of these Forums want to keep the floor open to anyone and do not wish to exercise censorship over what is said. A good example for the attitudes of this movement can be found in its recent report on the plight of the Hungarian minority of Rumania, obtainable also from the Hungarian Human Rights Foundation, Post Office Box “J,” Gracie Station, New York, New York 10028. Anyone can see if it is really nationalistic and written in an “apocalyptic style.”

I hope, Sir, that in view of the recent attention shown by the American public in the events in and around my country you’ll find an opportunity to publish my remarks.

Géza Jeszenszky

Professor of History

Karl Marx University of Economics

Budapest, Hungary

To the Editors:

Were it not for the recent crisis of succession in Hungary’s top leadership, or for mounting tensions in all fields of life, Istvan Deak’s well-informed article would still be likely to have stirred quite some controversy within Hungary. After all, the Hungarians constitute a sensitive public, one in which no family could escape its own share of two devastating world wars, three revolutions, mass murder, and persecution. To say, as Deak does, that the young are no longer affected by this legacy just because they do not seem to be afraid of the police, is to tell only half of the truth. The other half is that the young have by now, been conditioned, for whatever that is worth, to co-exist with the awareness that each family has its own, unresolved hidden agendas in suspended animation. Were a teenager from the class of 1988 to drop a casual remark about his father having served a prison term, he would still not be asked the question so logical for his English, or American counterpart: “for what offense?” The appropriate question is: “under which regime?”

Such a public is likely to be irritated by any simple, unambiguous statement on the past. Deak’s assertion that “the Stalinist era is not universally unpopular among Hungarians” is likely to touch sensitive nerve endings. Historians have long struggled with the ambiguous undertaking of trying to evaluate the “popularity” of totalitarian dictatorships. True, Stalinism, just as its right-wing predecessor, the Arrow-Cross of 1944 could corrupt hundreds of thousands into executing totalitarian power. Some, mostly among the intellectuals and prewar communists, were indeed driven to offer their loyalty to Stalinism, and its milder successors, in the hope of a better future, an improved, modern economy and more social justice. Others were no doubt nourishing memories of unrevenged injuries. Again others, the majority, were however led by that typically downgraded of all motives: an instinct for survival under whatever pressure and persecution. It takes just a few too many steps to disentangle “popularity” from such a set of motives. The problem is with the vocabulary: having been robbed from judging whether Stalinism ever had a popular constituency by Stalinism itself, we have to accept that certain elements of the current Western political language are not applicable to the East European experience. Which is not to deny that in Hungary, as elsewhere in the bloc, one cannot escape observing an unpredicted, and indeed remarkable hostility toward reformism, glasnost, or perestroika. So much so, that Deak’s overstatement about “a widespread enthusiasm for a free market economy” may be called to doubt. At its current stage, market-oriented reforms are easily mistaken (or taken) by many for inflation, factory closings, displacement, and impoverishment. And more than that: after decades of false starts, people East of the Elbe are getting tired of social experimentation, be it totalitarianism, right, or left, reformism a la Khrushchev, or a la Gorbachev. They too, have only one life to live. Even that, rightly pointed out by Deak, shortened by an ever falling life expectancy.

Deak’s emphasis on the “Jewishness” of Hungarian Stalinism is also somewhat overstated, especially as he sharply divorces the experience of the Jewish-Stalinist political establishment from those of the non-Jewish majority. True, Rákosi, the Hungarian Stalin was Jewish, and so were many other important leaders. True, there was a logic in Jewish overrepresentation in communism, stemming from the modern Jewish experience, frustrated assimilation, anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust. Revolutionary movements as a rule generate many of their activists from suppressed counter-elites, racial, ethnic, or religious minorities. And yet, few of basic statistics seem appropriate here. Out of the 100,000 Jewish survivors in Hungary, no more than about 30,000 were of an active cohort. Assuming, for the argument’s sake, the historical absurdity that each and every one of these Hungarian Jews was a staunch supporter of Stalinism, they could still have made up no more than 5 percent of the country’s immense bureaucracy and power apparatus. Such a small minority within the apparatus could have hardly had maintained the regime. No, the key to Stalinism in Hungary were neither the Jews, nor popular support. The key is dictatorship. And geopolitics.

Finally, about the most live, and therefore most controversial issue touched by Deak. Having left my home town of Budapest a few weeks ago, I can only too well portray the dismay of the group of writers who call themselves “populists,” for having earned the label “nationalists.” This recalls endless nights of tortured debates over the split between the “democratic” and “populist” opposition, more often than not ending without resolution, and in well-deserved resignation. I think it is only fair to add one dimension to Deak’s analysis. The country we are talking about is one whose history was, for the past seventy years, nothing but the history of failures, of the collapse of political institutions and regimes. Starting with the collapse of the conservative-liberal Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in 1914, the country witnessed two failed revolutions in quick succession in 1918 and 1919, then the overthrow of Admiral Horthy’s authoritarian regime by the Germans and the Hungarian Arrow-Cross, followed by an aborted, transient democratic experiment in 1945–1947, Stalinism, and a defeated uprising in 1956, and finally, the peaceful era of consumerist “goulash communism” that is now collapsing ungracefully into a depression.

In such a country, whose twentieth-century experience has been the incessant agony, and the progressive dissolution of a more sophisticated institutional framework of political life, it would be no small task to restore confidence in the viability of representative political institutions, even if the geopolitical and domestic status quo would allow for such a restoration. Until then however, political issues will remain to be addressed by the Communist party on the one hand, and by the intelligentsia, with its exclusive access to the media, on the other. And while that intelligentsia may play the game more colorfully, both of them, the party and the intelligentsia, will keep on suffering from a chronic lack of legitimation. In the absence of a clearly defined constituency, both will continue to claim legitimation arbitrarily, by speaking for the entire nation. Their legitimation is either all, or nothing. “Particularism,” to echo the pejorative phrase attached to the notion of speaking for anything less than “the nation” is, for the literati, nothing but unsophisticated, low standard-thinking. The fuel and the mandate both derive from “apocalyptic” visions, to use Deak’s expression. The more apocalyptic, the stronger the mandate. That is the nature of spiritualized, nonpolitical politics. Be they nationalist, or anything else.

The escape route from the paralysis of apocalyptic imagery is paved with a growing appreciation of the institutional dimensions of political action. Whether the peoples of Eastern Europe will, in the forseeable future, be allowed, or able to find their way to that road, remains to be seen. Once found, it will still be a long way to go before any therapy will cure these societies from long-accumulated hidden agendas, from that very special, acute condition in which paranoia is hardly distinguishable from its cause: fear. If, however, there is such a road, then, at the end of that road we shall perhaps see less apocalyptic imagery, and more down-to-earth thinking. At the end of that road we shall perhaps see less poets, writers, and philosophers in the political arena. And while the literati will perhaps find their way back to the world of letters, people will perhaps find their way to the world of institutions in which they can entrust a measure of confidence. The conclusion of that long, and exhausting therapy may perhaps bring a long desired psychological relief to the peoples of Eastern Europe, for whom, in a sense, the Second World War has still not ended.

Mária M. Kovács

Institute of History of the Hungarian

Academy of Sciences

Budapest, Hungary

East European Program

The Woodrow Wilson International Center

for Scholars

Washington, DC

Istvan Deak replies:

I am grateful to Géza Jeszenszky and Mária M. Kovács, both of Hungary, for their thoughtful comments, especially because they are from “there,” which I am not, having left the country of my birth forty years ago. In challenging some of my statements, they have touched upon the basic dilemma of émigré academics, a harrowing and never fully resolved one: Are we, as we claim, detached and observing Western scholars, or are our heart and soul still in the old country, today more than ever when so much is changing there? When in Hungary, I clutch my US passport; how, then, can I pass judgment on people who lived through the Stalinist ordeal, the exhilaration and bloody battles of 1956, the optimism of the late 1960s, and the disillusionment of the 1980s? For me, Hungary is a marvelously inexpensive and hospitable place, while those at home must make ends meet on a monthly equivalent of $150. Nor can I rid myself of the memory of my last personal involvement in the life of the mother country: the brief non-totalitarian interlude between 1945 and 1948, when everything seemed possible, and Hungary appeared to be on the way to a more dignified existence.

But what were we actually hoping for at that time? Was it liberal democracy? I still feel that Charles Gati is entirely correct in writing that, after World War II, “a slight majority of the electorate was favorably inclined toward either the Communist-industrial or the populist agrarian model of radical development.” True, the November 1945 parliamentary elections gave the Communists only 17 percent of the vote, but this does not mean that many or perhaps an absolute majority did not favor a radical restructuring of the country’s government, economy, and society. The postwar European political parties, born out of the resistance movements, generally advocated radical innovation, and the Hungarian anti-fascist parties were no exception. Socialism in one form or another was on the agenda of most anti-Nazi resistance movements, whether in France, Germany, Italy, Greece, Poland, or Hungary. The resistance and the anti-fascist parties emerging immediately after World War II stood to the left of the prewar regimes, which they held responsible for their country’s wartime tragedy. The commitment of the resistance movements to parliamentary democracy was often obscure, couched in generalities, and sometimes even nonexistent. Most non-Communist Hungarian political leaders dreamed of socialism “with a human face,” but of socialism nonetheless, involving the nationalization of great enterprises and banks and, of course, the expropriation of the landowners.

In fact, the most radical group in Hungary in 1945 was not made up of members of the Communist party who, on Stalin’s orders, courted former Horthy generals, reassured the capitalists, paraded as champions of parliamentarianism, upheld “national values,” co-opted “little Nazis” into their ranks, and spread subtle or not-so-subtle anti-Semitism by prominently displaying Jewish-sounding names of hoarders and black-marketeers in their papers. The Communist slogan, “We shall not give anything back,” was directed not against the former landowners, who would not have dared to come back from the West in any case, but against the Jewish shopkeepers and homeowners who, having survived Auschwitz, were so bold as to lay claim to their stolen property. The result was a number of Communist-inspired minor pogroms in the Hungarian countryside in 1945 and 1946.

The genuine left, we felt at that time, was to be found in the youth wings of the non-Communist parties: the Social Democrats, the Peasant party, and the so-called Peasant Association, which was close to the Smallholders’ party. To be sure, an absolute majority of the electorate cast its vote in November 1945 for the Smallholders, the most moderate party available. Many did so because there were no rightist parties on the scene and others because of their fear of communism and of the Red Army, but even among Smallholders’ party supporters there were many who wanted to see sweeping social and economic change and total dismantling of the discredited old regime. All the greater the disappointment when, in 1947–1948, the non-Communist coalition parties and their leaders were bought off, terrorized into submission, driven into exile, or wiped out.

Stalinism lies on the Hungarian national conscience like a horrifying nightmare. It is denounced today as something akin to the rule of the Chinese “Gang of Four,” but it was much more than that, just as was the Maoist terror in China. Indeed, what we must ask ourselves is why so many took part in its excesses, voluntarily, not out of fear. The solemn university professors singing political chastushki, those phony Russian-style folk songs, in the streets, and the great writers and poets who composed “Odes to Stalin” and “Odes to Rákosi” did not always act under compulsion; more often than not they were volunteers. Gyula Illyés’s One Sentence on Tyranny long lay in his desk drawer and could be published only during the Revolution of 1956, but this great Hungarian populist poet and writer also wrote and published a number of less inspiring manifestoes, while Stalin was alive. And, yes, even today the Stalinist era is not universally unpopular among Hungarians. We have no way of knowing how many people think back to those times with some degree of affection, but it is inconceivable that their numbers would be insignificant. Or how about the thousands upon thousands of former political policemen, the underground Communists of the Horthy period who became ministers or chief judges under Rákosi, the humble workers turned factory directors, the streetcar conductors made army generals, the laborers whose sons and daughters were sent to the university?

And then there are also those—and I have heard them speak their mind on my recent visits to Hungary—for whom the Rákosi era meant law and order, an absence of crime and of unruly demonstrations, tough courts, no abortion, no pornography, no visible homosexuality, and, most importantly, some degree of equality. If they were poor, so was everyone else, unlike today, when some are visibly rich and others visibly poor. One has to concede to the Communists that, in Stalin’s time, they were even more skilled than the old aristocracy had been in hiding their privileges and wealth from the eyes of the public, concealing their special shops, special hospitals, special schools, special villas, and special summer resorts behind barbed wire and armed guards.

I agree with Mária M. Kovács that some of my remarks are slightly overstated, but the same could be said of hers, which is a small wonder in view of the fact that we are all hitting about in the dark. And if our current Western political language is not applicable to the East European experience then what language are we to use? In any case, she is most capable of using Western political language, for which she deserves praise. But she may have misunderstood some of my statements. I did not claim that 30,000 Jews, the “active cohort,” were staunch supporters of Stalin. On the contrary, I tried to point out that the majority of Jews had nothing to do with Stalinists, and that many were victims. It is only that the great majority of the top Stalinist leadership were Jews: the Politburo members, the police generals, the cultural dictators, a group numbering a few hundred altogether. There are sundry historical reasons for this phenomenon, as I tried to point out in my article. Ironically, these leaders would be outraged to know that they figure in Mária M. Kovács’s “active cohort” of 30,000, for none of them ever publicly acknowledged his Jewish origins. They hid it even from their families and themselves. But it was common knowledge, of course, in the country. In fact, the Jewishness of this small group still immensely complicates Gentile–Jewish relations in Hungary as well as the problem of self-identification among Hungarian Jews.

Finally, the populist issue. The “Hungarian Democratic Forum” mentioned by Géza Jeszenszky does indeed include many people besides the traditional populists. It has recently emerged as a second party in Hungary, in fact if not in name. Theirs is a brave enterprise, and I wish them much success. But I also hope that the populists will not remain its dominant element, as they seem to be at the moment. If the true democratic forces have failed in Hungary over the last seventy years, so have the populists, who have never developed a comprehensive political program, remaining content to harp on such special concerns as the role of the peasantry in the nation’s moral regeneration or the evil influence of the alien city culture. They were, and some of them still are, forlorn seekers of the “Third Road’ “—neither East nor West, neither capitalist nor Communist. Yet there has never been a Third Road. And while focusing on their “national” concerns, most populists, although certainly not all of them, have succeeded in making compromises with whatever regime has been in power, and the list of these regimes is as varied as it is long. Truly, what Hungary needs is fewer literati making apocalyptic statements and more sound politicians. It seems that the first steps have recently been taken in that direction, with dozens of political and cultural organizations springing up spontaneously to discuss every conceivable issue, from the need for the Communist party to withdraw from public life to the necessity for Hungary to move closer to a soon-to-be integrated Western Europe. Perhaps Mária M. Kovács is a bit too pessimistic when she writes that the day of sound politics is still very far away. It must be very exciting again to be a young Hungarian.

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