We begin our interview on the 25th anniversary, almost to the day, that the government of József Antall was formed, the first democratically elected Hungarian Government since 1947. As you mentioned in another article, you were the editor of the speech in which Antall presented his government’s programme on 22 May. Indeed, you were largely responsible for writing the first five pages, which set out the basic governing principles. People have probably asked you this before: how did you end up writing a Prime Minister’s speech?

GyK: The story began two years earlier, in 1988, when Antall and I were both members of the MDF (Hungarian Democratic Forum) Leadership Council. Every Sunday, some 25 of us would meet in the conference hall of the party’s first headquarters, a one-story temporary construction office in the heart of Budapest, on Ó Street. We carried on substantial discussions and disputes on political strategy and programmes for a future democratic government. Antall knew me through several family connections, but this was the first time we worked together regularly. He and I and a couple of others mediated the debates, which were disciplined though often passionate. The MDF Leadership Council included many outstanding persons, some of whom would later become well-known as ministers, or in other important roles: Tamás Szabó, Balázs Horváth and Géza Jeszenszky, as well as other friends who later became key members of the PM’s Office of Advisors, such as the writer Gábor Czakó and the physicist Csaba Ferencz.

It was a group of six selected from the Leadership Council, inculding Antall, that gathered at our house to write the party programme which was presented at the MDF National Congress in the spring of 1989.

In October 1989, when József Antall was elected president of MDF, by then Hungary’s largest opposition party, he asked me to play a larger role in foreign policy planning and diplomatic and media relations. I was already active in these areas, and was always invited to the MDF’s Executive Council meetings, but I had been spending much of my time in the previous years helping organise the movement to stop the construction of the Czechoslovak–Hungarian barrage system (Gabčíkovo-Nagymaros) on the Danube. From then on, however, I attended many of Antall’s confidential meetings, both as an advisor and as an interpreter (he spoke no English), and in the process we became highly attuned to each other’s way of thinking. As a member of Hungary’s marginalised opposition intelligentsia, from 1967 on I had built up friendly contacts with Western diplomats, writers and reporters. During the course of research trips, I became well acquainted with the Anglo-American world, and with the West in general. Apart from our strong personal sympathies, another reason I connected so well with the Prime Minister was that we both came from similar family backgrounds. Both of us belonged to that segment of the Hungarian middle class which was stalwartly anti-Nazi, which took roles in the reconstruction period of 1945–47, and was active in the re-born democratic parties during the 1956 Revolution. All these people were connected through a sprawling network of friendships, even during the decades of Communism.

There was another peculiar bond between Antall and me. Both of us used the potentials of a somewhat bigger than usual space of freedom in Kádár’s Hungary. He on account of his father, who helped save the lives of tens of thousands of people through his bravery and his genius for conspiracy, as Government Commissioner for refugee affairs in 1939–44, and received official decorations from Britain, Poland and Israel after 1945. As for myself, I enjoyed some degree of protection through the great popularity and international fame of my father-in-law, the writer and poet Gyula Illyés, and my uncle, the prominent novelist János Kodolányi. These forebears were seen as controversial by the regime, and censured for ideological oppisition, but they were also seen as historical figures with leanings to the Left. Later on, as I realised the ironies of my situation, I became further protected by virtue of the very meshes of diplomatic and press connections that I had personally developed. Antall and I were both under close surveillance, but were spared of the more brutal forms of harrassment. The Kádár regime hated scandals.

HR:How does a poet, with an artistic sensibility and almost esoteric writing style, come to terms with lending his writing abilities to a politician? How were you able to switch gears and adapt to the Prime Minister’s mindset and the historical situation?

GyK: For a writer, speechwriting and diplomacy are interesting opportunities and a great challenge – provided that they are in harmony with his convictions, and provided that he is willing to devote time and energy to such a consuming effort outside literature. That such activities might be considered morally unacceptable is an idea that can arise in a country with a Communist past, where for so many decades people had considered contacts with political power compromising. As a contrast, a great many well-known English and American intellectuals lent their writing skills to the war against the Nazis, but many also undertook public service in peacetime. And so did many of the French, as we know.

Political speechwriting is a type of public writing; and in free societies, including Hungary before the Second World War, it was and is considered a specialised domain of professional writing. Speechwriting also requires a penchant for drama, because not only does one have to formulate ideas, it is important to adjust them to a public occasion and to a particular persona – that is, make it fit the Prime Minister’s personal speaking style. Above all, however, one must have full confidence in the politician for whom one is writing, and the relationship must be one of mutual trust. As I have made clear, both of these conditions were met. In 1988, I was 46, Antall was 56 years old; I felt that while I had been lucky to know many outstanding persons, both from Hungary and throughout the world, Antall was truly exceptional. A political genius like him emerges once in a generation, it seemed to me.

HR: How did it come about that the Prime Minister asked you to participate in the writing of his programme statement? To what extent does the programme speech include Antall’s own ideas and those of the party’s governing bodies and experts?

GyK: From October 1989 on we would work together with Antall on several political statements reflecting the thinking of the Forum’s leadership or his own ideas. After the victorious parliamentary election of early April, when he became the winning party’s candidate for Prime Minister, I got more and more involved in the political planning process, as well as Antall’s discussions with the party’s leading figures and foreign visitors, diplomats and the press. The Antall texts then, already before his inauguration as Prime Minister,  naturally grew out of this cooperation, out of many hours of conversation and meetings, and they naturally included original ideas particularly dear to him. Fruits of this were speeches that he read at the unveiling of the Holocaust Monument at the Dohány Street Synagogue in Budapest, and at an anniversary celebration of Count István Széchenyi, the great 19th century statesman and founder of the Academy of Sciences.

There was then an evolving body of current ideas from which one selected themes and motifs. For example, when writing the government programme speech in May, we inserted passages that I had originally written for him for a Council of Europe meeting in Budapest the previous week, but which he didn’t end up using on that occasion.

Indeed, writing speeches for Antall was not always a gratifying job, because, as an extremely independent person with a keen feel for specific situations, he would often set the prepared text aside – at such times, he would have plenty of relevant new insights, but the speeches could also often run overtime. But the truly pivotal speeches, like this programme statement, and his speech in October 1991 at the North Atlantic Council in Brussels, he would deliver unchanged. Later, of course, several other people also wrote speeches for him; and in the case of those speeches, too, he would modify the text, in writing, or on the spur of the moment.

HR: To what extent was the programme statement itself Antall’s work? How did your working process develop?

GyK: We wrote the statement on the weekend before he presented the government programme on 22 May. We worked in Antall’s temporary office in the Parliament building, over the South Gate, from morning until late at night, during a heat wave, with no air conditioning, the blazing sun pouring in through the open windows. I’ve just gone over those files, and one can see from them how the drafts progressed, and the suggestions submitted by others. There are no written submissions by Antall, because on such occasions he rarely wrote anything down. Except for a few basic ideas sometimes, which he sketched in huge and relaxed letters on a big sheet of paper. Usually we just sat down and planned the content.

We agreed on a structure and the basic messages, and I noted down some of his key characteristic phrases. And then I was typing the whole thing on a typewriter, on and on, for two days straight, while he worked in the other room. I do not remember a secretary being with us during that weekend. We were too pent up, though also inspired and elated in some grand sense to ask an assistant to bear with us.

With respect to the first five pages, which set out the fundamental concepts of the government programme, I received text from Béla Kádár, the future Minister of External Economic Relations, a broad-minded, multilingual economist with a strong commitment to the values of a centre right national liberalism. I also received notes from György O’sváth, who later became Antall’s personal advisor; a German citizen and fellow-student of Chancellor Kohl’s, he was then a high- ranking EU official in Brussels. Pál Tar, another childhood friend, a banker in Paris who had been working successfully on Antall’s and MDF’s French political connections, also dropped in a few times to discuss the evolving text with us.

The foreign policy section was written, with my collaboration, by my friend Géza Jeszenszky, who would become Foreign Minister. From these submissions, I would select passages and rewrite them to fit the Prime Minister’s style, and expand upon the ideas. As soon as I finished one section, Antall read it, and then we discussed it, and deleted or added whatever was needed. From what I have said, it must be obvious that he was very particular about the phrasing.

It was extremely important that I felt the gravity of the occasion just as keenly as did the Prime Minister. I had to write in a style that was appropriately elevated, yet not sentimental. We wanted to present political concepts and events in a simple, direct and authentic manner. Given our history of collaboration, as well as my three years’ experience of working in the emerging opposition, this came easily to me. I felt that this was a tremendous historic event, and that the country had chosen the right Prime Minister for the challenge of a new democracy.

The rest of the speech, more than two thirds of it, was based on the work of a different team. They were working concurrently with us but at a different location nearby, led by two men who were later also to become the Prime Minister’s Advisors: Csaba Ferencz and the psychologist Dr György Kiss. Their effort, a detailed programme broken down for the various portfolios, became what was called the Programme of National Renewal. It was a compilation and a summary of the material produced by the Forum’s staff of experts. Antall and I selected parts of their text and inserted them into his speech.

HR: Could you quote some of the key passages and ideas that went into the Prime Minister’s programme speech?

GyK: In the introductory section I elaborated a structure of four principles that O’sváth proposed: the new Antall government wants to be the government of freedom, the government of the people, the government of economic turnaround, and a European government. The latter became specified as the government of democracy, pluralism and openness. Next, the speech set out as qualities of the coming governance ”the avoidance of extremes, tolerance, and the circumspect but committed pursuit of progress”. These qualities were of course central to Antall’s political character, but also traditional virtues he saw as pillars of the Hungarian nation’s will for moral rebirth. Further on you can read that the guarantee of a national renewal is ”the internally renewed and liberated creative person” – this was my own phrase, a thought I regarded especially important, which emphasised the spiritual aspect of the whole peaceful revolution that had taken place in recent years. At another place, which was also my own suggestion, the PM’s programme speech talks about the elimination of double talk – such an essential trait of the outgoing system of forty years, and so alien from Antall, myself, and the whole language of regime change.

HR: This all sounds very elevated. But how did the address treat the enormous tasks of the economic and social transformation – and its probable human and social costs, the darker side?

GyK: The speech was very sober and realistic wherever it touched on such details. Antall did not make empty promises then or on any other occasion. He thought that freedom and democracy and the regaining of national self-determination are our cardinal rewards, and the rest will depend on talent, perseverance and the international constellation. Major elements of the economic revolution are sketched out at length in the speech later on. In the introductory section Antall notes that the reform will be not merely a matter of new rules and regulations, but more essentially also the changing of deep-seated instincts and ossified structures. The economic heritage is also a spiritual and moral heritage, Antall says, and that is the real problem. Therefore the restoration of faith and self-confidence in the nation is required. Because of such realities, and the human cost, Antall opts for a graduated transition toward a social market economy, whose model was created during the German post-war reconstruction steered by Adenauer and Erhard – the reconciliation of efficiency and social justice, as Béla Kádár also emphasised it in a passage he contributed to the speech. The speech also discussed at length the terrible health figures of the Hungarian population, another anomaly of the Communist heritage, which will add to the human difficulties of the transition.

As Antall famously said in an interview to Die Welt in early June: ”The Communists discarded Marx and kept the Capital for thenselves.” Although he felt bitter about privatisation between 1988–90, and the all but emptied reserves of the National Bank, Antall always appreciated the fair conduct of Miklós Németh in handing over the reins.

HR: In view of that whole heritage, how does the programme speech talk about the Communists and their reformed new party?

GyK: On the one hand, the speech is a tough and eloquent condemnation, in his personal style of reserve, of the outgoing system and a judicious analysis of its heritage. On the other hand, he states that the National Assembly should be a ”workshop” of the regime change with the cooperation of all six parties, including the Hungarian Socialist Party. And in the inaugural address he delivered largely without a written text after the swearing in of the Government a day later on 23 May, he gives a long appreciation of the caretaker Socialist government of Miklós Németh, its work of one and a half year. He says, amid big applause, that ”they worked together with us, though on the other side of the barricade, for a real future democracy. I want them to be aware that we do not only regard them as the last representatives of a disappearing system, but we also want to greet them as the forerunners of a new one”.

Antall was always aware that as the first Prime Minister of the new democracy he was creating its models of behaviour – and this statement reflects the spirit of magnanimity that he always tried to bequeath on the future.


HR: You’ve mentioned a few familiar names from the Antall team. How was József Antall able to assemble a government team of individuals committed to a national and democratic ideology, who also possessed the necessary expertise – after 40 years of often harsh Communist rule, when so many entering politics did so out of opportunism? In addition, the Communist political style provided no preparation whatsoever for successfully waging politics in the Western style.

GyK: József Antall carried around a personal encyclopaedia in his head, containing the name, training, skills, character and family background of several thousand Hungarian intellectuals and professionals. Among these, several hundred were personal acquaintances. Antall was a very social individual, and he was as passionately interested in what makes people tick as any novelist. And he read every book and publication that these people wrote which he considered important. It seems that Antall, this apparently comfortably off medical historian and museum director, obviously no friend of the system, was compiling this virtual database over the years as preparation for a time he was sure would come, when Communist rule would topple. And that is what happened.

Many of the reform Communists, having re-named themselves the Hungarian Socialist Party, who came in a humiliating sixth place in the elections, were maliciously confident that the MDF coalition’s governing team would be a ragtag bunch. In fact, Antall was able to gather an excellent team composed of people who were mostly unknown or considered second-rate. Here, too, the arrogance of even the best-quality Communist elite such as the Hungarians were, became clearly evident, as they were unable to recognise the governing capacity of the best of the intelligentsia.

In building up his government, Antall relied upon the very best of those several hundred professionals who, during the years after 1970 when the Kádár regime embraced détente in the interest of technology transfer, were able to spend extended time in the West on research grants, guest professorships and fellowships. Most of these professionals were of middle-class origin, alienated from the Communist system, yet generally less inclined to engage in organised, open opposition than the regime’s critics on the Left, the samizdat oppisition of the 1980s. This group did not consider any of the classic leftist principles as a viable political doctrine. Instead, they embraced the broad, democratic, centrist spectrum of the reform movements of the 1930s, and advocated a renewal of traditions for the modern world and the creation of a social market economy.

1988 already saw the enormous spontaneous growth of the local chapters of MDF, attracting a great number of well-trained professionals. Yet only a few of the reform Communists recognised the membership of MDF as the vanguard of a new, democratic political elite. Among those who did, the most notable was the leading reformist Imre Pozsgay, who was on friendly terms with many of the Forum’s leaders, and who didn’t exlude an eventual political alliance. The same was true for the similarly committed reformist Miklós Németh, who as Prime Minister in 1988–1990, with Pozsgay, opened the Hungarian border to East German refugees going west in August–September 1989. Many of Pozsgay’s team of experts, which Pozsgay had built up over the course of a decade, would join the new political elite within MDF.

In contrast, the majority of the reform Communists believed that their own cadre of economists and social scientists would lead the change of regime in Hungary to the extent of creating their own opposition, so to speak. Ultimately, after the elections of 1990, Pozsgay and Németh, the two personalities who played the “bridge” roles in this historic era, became alienated from the Hungarian Socialist Party, and were increasingly marginalised. In contrast, beginning in 1988, the left-liberal Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ) took MDF’s potential much more seriously. SZDSZ also considered itself to be capable of governing – to the extent that some of their leaders began a campaign to undermine MDF with false accusations in the Western media.

In May 1990, Antall chose as his ministers such persons as Béla Kádár, who had taught for many years in South America and was well-acquainted with the history and problems of economic transformation. And Péter Ákos Bod, Béla Kádár’s former colleague in the Communist-era Planning Office, who had taught in the US. And the legal scholar Ferenc Mádl, who for 20 years had been Hungary’s foremost expert on European Union law and institutions. Antall chose Ernő Pungor, an outstanding professor from the Budapest Polytechnics, to take charge of technical infrastructure development. As Foreign Minister, Antall named Géza Jeszenszky, a former history student of his, who moreover was married to Antall’s niece Edit. As Ambassadors in Washington (Pál Tar), Paris (János Szávai), Brussels (György Granasztói), Warsaw (Ákos Engelmayer), Prague (György Varga) and Rome (László Szörényi), Antall chose men who had earlier spent years working in those cities and built social and academic contacts there. As another example: our Ambassador in Ankara was István Vásáry, a noted expert in Turkish studies, who came from a family historically affiliated with the Smallholders’ Party of 1945.

At the same time, Antall was well aware of the importance of a well-trained civil service. Thus, from the rank of deputy state secretary down, he retained or appointed outstanding young officials and diplomats who had become prominent during the last decade of the Kádár era, and who pledged their loyalty to the new government. And indeed, most of these individuals went on to prove their professional and political mettle. Antall believed in the human being’s capacity to change, and that a demonstration of trust from his part might become a unique opportunity for talented professionals to reinvent themselves within the new democratic system. To ensure that the new system would function professionally over the long term, Antall also planned for a new Civil Service law. Of course, some in the new governing elite of 1990 proved inadequate – political responsibility in a democratic setting requires abilities that were unknown to generations of Hungarians before.


HR: Despite the strong credentials and effective work of the government, it became clear that a segment of the new parliamentary opposition, and even more, forces outside of Parliament, were firmly convinced that the Antall government would be short-lived. And some of them did everything they could to prove themselves right. Just recall the so-called taxi blockade, in October 1990, whose direct organisers, according to the report by the subsequent parliamentary investigation, included about 50 recently fired members of the former State Security Police.

GyK: It might be that an attempted coup is the right word for the taxi blockade, more exactly the general strike that it called for. At the very least, this was an unconstitutional action that resorted to extra-parliamentary means to topple the democratically elected government; its real leaders probably remained in the background. In the end, the five-day blockade that had brought the country to a standstill was swept aside by the crowds of pro-government demonstrators, and by the ministers’ firm but calm behaviour in negotiating with the leaders of the “strike”.

The Antall government never again faced another threat of this magnitude; neither could it be toppled through parliamentary means. Nor were the protracted attempts by former Communist agents who had infiltrated the governing parties successful in breaking up the parliamentary factions and the government coalition itself. In the end, of all of the Central European countries undergoing regime change, Hungary was the only one whose first democratic government managed to stay in power for its full four-year term: until the summer of 1994. After Antall’s death in December 1993, it was again MDF which named the next Prime Minister, former Interior Minister Péter Boross, who essentially continued the same course in both personnel and policy matters. The Antall–Boross governments, moreover, governed according to well-defined principles; they were able to implement a large portion of their programmes, and successfully established frameworks for the rule of law and a market economy in just four years. They also carried out major reforms in the areas of education and culture. Also, let’s not forget that as early as 1990 they passed a new law on local government that ensured a large degree of local autonomy. Overall, these governments re-established the conditions necessary for civil society to flourish.

HR: Behind all this, however, the question remains: how did the leadership of the Hungarian Socialist Party view the regime change? What part did it play in this transformation, and how did it view its own role?

GyK: Let me answer this question with an anecdote. During the 1980s, my friend John O’Sullivan served as advisor and speechwriter to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Later, he became editor-in-chief of the US-based National Review, and now also lends us his rare talent as Associate Editor at Hungarian Review. Recently, John told me a story from 1986, when he met a Hungarian Communist leader in London. At that meeting, the Hungarian politician told John the following in strict confidence: the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party (that is, the Communists) would soon transform itself into a Social Democratic party, which would introduce a market economy and make constitutional preparations for transitioning to a multiparty democracy. The Party would lose the first free elections, but then the first freely elected government, unable to cope with the country’s debt burden and the difficulties of transformation, would fall. At this point, they – that is, the reform-Communists-turned-Social Democrats – would return to government.

Taking a superficial look at how events transpired, we might say that the scenario described above did indeed come to pass in Hungary between 1987 and 1994. Moreover, the reform Communists – with their families and friends, that is, the nomenklatura – achieved their return to power as the primary beneficiaries of the privatisation of the nation’s assets which began in 1988. Indeed, to this day their group remains dominant among the leadership of multinational companies in Hungary.

Some would say that this scenario, as set forth in 1986, is the dominant narrative of the Hungarian regime change. This narrative was believed by many to be the reality – not just by those who devised it, but also by many who were disappointed in the regime change, who were the losers in the transition. However, every historical event has multiple stories, multiple narratives, which sometimes exist in parallel, sometimes intersect, and sometimes run in opposite directions.

There is another narrative: ours, that of the big bloc of voters who elected the first post-Communist government, and who in 1998 would again return the parties of the centre right to power. And again, a third time in 2010 and a fourth time in 2014, when Fidesz and the Christian Democrats together won two-thirds majorities. This electoral series demonstrates that between 1990 and 1994, Antall and the majority of the Hungarian parliament created a new, modern political centre, which has strong roots in the Hungarian mentality and tradition.

In other words, the regime change did not merely consist of creating a market economy and a multiparty system – under the leadership of reform Communists, no less. On the contrary: MDF and its allies, as well as the leaders of the other opposition parties, all knew that the real force behind the system change was not the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party’s attempts at reform, but rather the ethos which emerged during the great renewal movements of modern Hungarian history: the Revolutions of 1848 and 1956, and the fervour to rebuild a new democracy during the 1945–47 period. An intuition of the imminent collapse of the Soviet system resurrected this ethos once more with the rise of the Polish Solidarity movement: the knowledge that we might again have some space to create our own, national policy. The pragmatic strategists did not count on the creative energies that burst forth during and after the fortunately protracted transition between 1987 and 1990; nor did they expect so many politically talented persons to emerge among those who opposed the Communist party-state.

Asset ownership and party structure are indeed key issues in any society. But only politicians who were raised on Marxist doctrine can believe that they are the whole picture. The idea that wealth, power and capital determine everything is a truly Marxist concept, which many people in post-Communist countries continue to believe to this day. It is the simplest possible political doctrine; its advantage is that you don’t have to think too hard about it. The other mistake in the reform Communists’ narrative described above is also the perpetual weakness of all political strategists who are obsessed with rationalism: one-dimensional thought. In reality, though, people must realise, again and again, that politics is a part of life, taking place in a context that is as complicated as life and human society are. The forces of politics are neither linear nor rational, strictly speaking. In reality, there are always multiple latent forces at work; their dynamics and the outcome of their clashes are impossible to predict. Again and again, the super-strategists, PR gurus and conspiracy theorists run up against this fact. Reality has many levels; free will comes into play; and there are always unexpected turns, crises and perspectives.

We can safely say that between 1988 and 1990, a peaceful revolution led by the forces of self-liberation took place in Hungary. By 1994, this had become an unassailable fact.


HR: Nearly everyone agrees that József Antall was a highly charismatic personality. You worked closely with him for more than five years, beginning in mid-1988. How would you describe him?

GyK: To start off as an unknown quantity, and then rise to the top position, especially in an extraordinary historical situation, is possible only if you possess genuine leadership qualities. And you must convince others of these qualities: first within your own circle, then in your party, and then among an ever-widening segment of the electorate. Antall was a highly appealing, witty and courageous man of outstanding intelligence. Time and again I saw him completely win over strangers of substance after 30 minutes or an hour of discussion. Yet he also paid attention to undistinguished, ordinary people. He was curious, a good listener – and a fascinating conversationalist. He could be acerbic, and then produced wonderful adages on human behaviour.

One characteristic anecdote: in January 1990, French President François Mitterrand visited Budapest, and listened to many official political opinions on the political transformation. Before leaving for the airport to return home, he organised an informal meeting at the French Ambassador’s residence in Csaba Street, by the fireplace. He spent an hour speaking with József Antall, in the company of János Szávai and György Granasztói. When Mitterrand landed in Paris that night, he was met by Defence Minister Joxe. To his question, ”What happened in Budapest?” Mitterrand replied: “I met with József Antall, the next Prime Minister of Hungary.” I later heard this story from Joxe himself, in Paris. In politics, personal impressions certainly do count. The story also confirms my own personal experience of Antall – Mitterrand was a major authority, a seasoned pro in world politics.

Among major political leaders, Antall was held in particular regard and esteem by George Bush, Boris Yeltsin, Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl, Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy, Manfred Wörner, Ruud Lubbers, Lech Walesa, Krzysztof Skubiszewski and Hanna Suchocka. Others who heeded Antall’s opinion included Václav Havel, Alois Mock, Zbygniew Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger, to name just a few.

These were not isolated or biased attitudes; Antall garnered similar respect and affection in a very wide range of his acquaintances. I have seen leaders, both powerful and ineffective, who were not particularly popular. But Antall was. To be sure, he knew how to say no; he could be unyielding; he had inveterate enemies. About the latter, he would say that they just reinforced the correctness of his actions and beliefs.

HR: Which of his personal characteristics would you emphasise, which were evident in his policies?

GyK: I would emphasise his ability to take a broad view; his empathy; his imagination, which provided him with many extraordinary ideas; and his sense of humour, including at his own expense. His knowledge as a historian gave him a great practical advantage in solving problems, for instance in parliamentary tactics. Although his opponents, particularly the opposition media, sought to depict him as a ”dour historian”, he used history as a practical tool; I don’t think a prime minister of any country in this Central European region, with its stormy history, can afford not to know history – he might be a politician, but not a statesman. And Antall was a statesman. He was familiar with centuries of Hungary’s history and mentality; he was also knowledgeable about European history and Western thought, as well as, for example, the history of Israel and the many facets of the Islamic world. He had an inner drive to acquire an encyclopaedic knowledge of history and culture.

Fate gave him a valuable gift in his father, a politician, who in many ways was his master. The family apartment, located in the heart of Budapest above the Kárpátia restaurant, was an informal locus of political activity in 1945–47 and in 1956. Antall personally knew many of the era’s great politicians, primarily the leaders of the Smallholders’ Party: Prime Minister Ferenc Nagy, parliamentary president Béla Varga, Smallholders’ Party leader Béla Kovács, and diplomat Domokos Szent-Iványi, the leader of the Hungarian Independence Movement (1943–1945), who knew the United States better than any of them. Antall was only 12 years old in 1944, when his father began including him in clandestine rescue activities on behalf of Jewish, Polish and other victims of Nazism, and fugitive officers of the Allied nations.

Later, during the decades of Communist rule (and this seems almost unbelievable today, when everyone lives for the present moment), Antall consciously furthered his political education and read every important book, such as the memoirs of the major statesmen. In 1991, the Fidesz (Young Democrats) party – the then Liberal opposition group most aggressive in Parliament debates – invited him to speak at its political academy. Antall chose to highlight excerpts from The Statesman, a classic work by the interwar philosopher Gyula Korniss, and he cited the qualities which a young politician must acquire while preparing psychologically and intellectually for a successful career.

HR: During the years of Communism, how much did József Antall know about the West?

GyK: The Kádár regime, wich was opening up gradually in the 1970s allowed Antall, as the director of the Semmelweis Library and Museum of Medical History, to travel to the West for conferences and research trips. As a result, Antall became acquainted, for instance, with Rita Süssmuth, the future President of the German Parliament. These trips, and his intensive contacts with émigré friends Pál Tar and György O’sváth, kept Antall informed about events in the West and global politics, and expanded his informal network of contacts. During 1988, he met with the leaders of Austria’s ÖVP; in June 1989, in Brussels, he met Otto Habsburg, Leo Tindemans and Egon Klepsch. In October, he met Chancellor Kohl at the CSU Congress in Munich. With all of them, Antall was able to “click” immediately, because their political language came naturally to him. With respect to the importance of language: if you read the conceptual part of the Prime Minister’s programme statement, those first five pages, you will notice that it contains not a single phrase that could have been uttered by a Communist politician. That was no accident, though Antall and I never had to discuss it, because I never used such phrases in any of my work, and he knew it. The language we used came naturally to us, yet it was also a conscious choice. You could say that this Prime Minister’s programme statement was, among other things, a Declaration of Independence for language, for straight public speech.

Note. All four speeches mentioned in this interview were published in full length: József Antall, Prime Minister of Hungary: Selected Speeches and Interviews (1989–1993). Antall József Foundation, Budapest, 2008

To be continued

Translation by Katica Avvakumovits and the author

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