“The Socialists might as well nominate Caligula’s horse for a seat in Parliament. It would still be elected,” a fellow passenger told me as we traveled by train from Vienna to Budapest shortly before the first round of the Hungarian parliamentary elections on May 8. We were at the border station between Austria and Hungary, where only a few years before soldiers carrying submachine guns would surround every train; stony-faced border guards would order you to stand up, to make sure that you were not somehow hiding a spy or a dissident, and passport control was a lengthy and carefully designed ritual of intimidation. A woman’s voice on the loudspeaker would welcome “our dear guests to the Hungarian People’s Republic.” Some years before the Communist collapse, Ihad sensed that the system was breaking down when a border guard sauntered over to the open train window to ask for a cigarette. Today there are no armed guards near the train, and a single policeman stamps your passport with scarcely a glance at the document or its owner. Watching him, I could not help wondering whether, following the electoral victory of the Socialist Party—a party largely made up of former Communists—he would not again become more vigilant.
The success in May of the MSZP, or Hungarian Socialist Party, would have been thought impossible only a few years ago, yet the Hungarian world is often turned upside down. During the last eighty years or so the country lost two major wars. It changed from a constitutional monarchy to a democratic republic in the fall of 1918 and then became, successively, a Bolshevik republic of councils in the spring of 1919; a counterrevolutionary, semi-constitutional kingdom without a king under Regent Admiral Miklós Horthy that autumn; a National Socialist terror regime in the autumn of 1944; a democratic republic in 1945; a Stalinist terror regime under Mátyás Rákosi in 1948; a somewhat less oppressive Communist system under Imre Nagy in 1953; a revolutionary democracy at the end of October 1956; a renewed Communist tyranny under János Kádár in November of the same year; a more relaxed and liberal Communist regime under the same man in the 1960s; an only formally Communist state in the second half of the 1980s; and a parliamentary republic in 1990. It is also worth recalling that Hungary lost two thirds of its territory to Romania, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Austria in the Treaty of the Trianon imposed by the Entente Powers in 1920, and was occupied in 1944, first by the German and then by the Soviet army.
Throughout this history Hungarians have often been affected by outside forces far stronger than themselves. The democratic republic under President Count Mihály Károlyi could not resist the concerted attack of the Yugoslav, Czechoslovak, and Romanian military forces, all of which had the support of the Entente Powers, and on March 21, 1919, Károlyi ceded power to a coalition of Bolsheviks and left-wing socialists. Béla Kun, the leader of …
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