MIKLÓS NÉMETH, THE PREMIER OF PEACEFUL TRANSITION 1988–1990

The publication, in October 2014, of the volume of retrospective interviews with Miklós Németh1 by András Oplatka2 was met with considerable interest in Hungary, for a number of reasons. One that readily meets the eye consists of the unusual career of Miklós Németh, who in November 1988 unexpectedly, perhaps even to himself, emerged from near-obscurity to become Prime Minister of Hungary then in the throes of economic crisis and political transformation, to head a government of experts that would, in barely two years’ time, see through the unprecedented historical process culminating in the peaceful overthrow of the Communist regime.

Although Németh won a seat in Parliament in the first free general elections, the following spring he quit politics altogether and continued to work until 2000 as Vice President of the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) based in London. Upon the termination of his mandate at the EBRD, he briefly considered a return to politics with the mission of bringing order to the chaos reigning in the leadership of the Hungarian Socialist Party (Magyar Szocialista Párt, MSZP). Having wised up to the situation, however, he quickly discarded the idea and opted out of politics once again to retreat into privacy instead.

For more than two decades after his Premiership, he seldom appeared in public. Nor did he seem to mind the fact that the single greatest achievement of his tenure as head of the government – a feat of global politics, and quite possibly of universal history –, which had consisted in the arrangement allowing East Germans staying in Hungary to leave for the West, was during this time unscrupulously usurped by Gyula Horn for his own purposes and, certainly for a good while to come, for the benefit of the MSZP, his own party. Another conceivable, and more general, reason behind the lively reception of the volume may have to do with the essentially positive, if fading, memory of the period with Németh at the helm. In this regard, however, it might be worth pointing to the recurrent – indeed current – public mood, in which Németh’s unexpected surfacing has triggered the political fancy of many: could this publication signal his return to the political arena? Are we going to have someone capable of governing the country by finally assuming leadership of the hopelessly troubled left, or perhaps on behalf of more than just the Left?

Needless to say, this feeling of waiting for the miracle – a perennial Hungarian sentiment if there ever was one – has vanished in thin air rapidly, as is its wont. On the evidence of his life-long career, Miklós Németh is basically a technocrat by disposition, without any overriding political ambitions and, apparently, without a modicum of the thirst for popularity that is not only characteristic of, but to some extent even desirable for, any politician worth his salt. This goes to suggest that the volume we are dealing with should, in the first place, be approached not as a judgement on current politics, but rather as a resource of history, as a sort of storehouse of lessons learnt the hard way, allowing an instructive glimpse into the vicissitudes of the political transformation in Hungary.

This could be all the more useful for us since the events and motivations of the era of the democratic transition, along with its ultimate political balance of profit and loss as a process, have now sunk into the mythic fog of memory, not least owing to the proliferating political interests that keep churning out a great variety of conflicting narratives. Sustained by the ingrained Hungarian habit for pointing fingers, the popular routine of blaming the “primordial sins” of that obscure era for the current public discontent that is rooted in the contradictions marring the present, will one day undoubtedly yield to an inquisitive public memory more in tune with reality. When this happens, any and all record of eyewitness recollection will become invaluable. With twenty-five years behind us since the overthrow of the Communist regime, there have been material changes in the way we view where we started and how far we have come or, to put it differently, where we come from and where we are headed. In this regard, too, the collaboration of András Oplatka and Miklós Németh must be seen as a welcome enterprise.

The volume encompasses a period far greater than the scant year and a half of the democratic transition itself. To some degree, it also touches upon the broader historical context of that transition, from the beginnings to the present.3 For the dysfunctionality of the Communist system was already apparent at its inception, first in the Soviet Union of the NEP era, then, somewhat analogously, in Hungary in 1953, when Imre Nagy assumed his duties as Prime Minister under Soviet pressure, indeed obeying Soviet command. This automatically entailed the appearance of a generation of reform economists, of course within the confines of the status quo. In the next important phase, this team of professional reformists, now equipped with newcomers and new ideas, stepped into the arena with the mission of preparing the ground for the new economic mechanism of 1968. By then, well over a hundred professionals had been assigned the task of attempting the impossible: to restore functionality to the economy while continuing to rule out private property and political democracy. The subsequent failure of this new economic mechanism led to the indebtedness that shook the foundations of the Soviet empire and ultimately rendered the abandonment of the political system inevitable in 1989. Miklós Németh was born in 1948, the “year of the great turn”, so his life spans the entire period. At the time he recalls these events in the book, we are a quarter of a century past 1989–90, the second great turn often referred to as the annus mirabilis of Hungarian history.

The collection of interviews comes after an earlier work, monographic in its focus, thoroughly documented, and exquisitely written, in which Oplatka describes the circumstances of the opening of Hungary’s border to the West relying on the arsenal of the historian and the investigative journalist, and in which Miklós Németh of course already serves as the protagonist.4 In this work, Oplatka marshals sufficiently conclusive evidence to leave no doubt about the decisive role of the then Prime Minister in Hungary’s transition – a role by and large glossed over in Hungarian and international (particularly German) media reports of the previous two decades, but an entirely obvious one nonetheless, by any reckoning.

Taking a glance at the global context underpinning the reform movements that transpired within the block of the Warsaw Pact in 1989–90, we perceive four key actors: in one camp, the Soviet Union in the grip of a system-wide crisis, the beleaguered political elites of the single-party states still standing in East Central Europe, and their muscling internal opposition; and, in the other camp, the Western powers, in particular the leading countries of a rapidly integrating Europe, the United States and NATO.

The first signs of the possible dilution of the bipolar world order were given with Gorbachev’s rise to power. Sensing the dysfunctionalities of the political system, the Soviet Secretary General embarked on a series of reforms which, by declaring a program of “acceleration”, at first contributed to the deepening of the crisis, and then, by embracing and enforcing the policy of glasnost, ultimately led to the rapid dissolution of the empire and its entire political framework, owing to the sheer hostility of the very notion of democratic openness to the system from within which it was proclaimed. Apparently, Gorbachev failed to reckon with the fact, duly observed by Tocqueville while witnessing the death throes of the ancien régime, that long-standing despotic systems enter their end game as soon as they begin to adopt reforms aimed at modernisation. On the other hand, the strategy chosen by the Soviet reformers was to play an instrumental role in enabling the collapse of an immense political empire, including in its European peripheries, to take place without bloodshed. However, what may be termed a “mistake of scale”, propitious as it may have turned out to be, had deeper roots in history. The decades of the Cold War had brought the advanced regions of the West lasting peace based on mutual deterrence, as well as economic prosperity and inner cohesion in part as a reaction to a clear-cut enemy image. For this precise reason, despite its periodically launched ideological offensives and counter- offensives, what the “free world” really aimed at was not so much the overthrow of the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union and the global order instated by it (as Ronald Reagan would have it by means of his influential if ephemeral strategy) as a balance of power by maintaining pressure through the arms race while chipping away at the Soviet system. This probably goes a long way to explain why, until the turn ushered in by 1989, no theory of social science contemplating the future of dichotomy of the two systems that ruled the world had been able to predict, much less interpret, the implosion of the Soviet empire and the political system sustaining it. Nor had this radical change been foreshadowed by the political instincts of those who had remained in power to the last minute, either in the East or in the West. When the unexpected inner transformation took off in response to the predicament in which the Soviet empire and its political system had found themselves by the mid-1980s, first in the Soviet Union itself, then in Poland and Hungary, the West for quite some time continued to strive to preserving stability, rather than to abolish the bipolar world order by any means, as its main strategic ambition. As a consequence, the masters of the executive institutions serving this bipolar world order, now faced with the process of closure that had gathered speed from the second half of the 1980s, were forced to adopt ongoing, and increasingly frequent, amendments to their strategies and long-term goals.

Starting roughly in 1988, the most pressing question in terms of the direction and prospects a possible system overhaul could take consisted of whether the Brezhnev doctrine was to be regarded as still valid or as having lost its validity, specifically in the context of Gorbachev’s rise within the Soviet leadership. Indeed, there were many signs of a shift in Soviet policy toward allowing more elbow room for the internal politics of the socialist countries, and a more consistent application of the principle of reciprocity. However, Soviet documents disclosed since then have made it quite certain that, at least until well into 1989, Gorbachev himself envisioned this leniency rather as some sort of Finlandisation, accomplished not by a return to the democratic model but by modernising the Stalinist concept. The issue of abandoning the Brezhnev doctrine in the internal documents of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) had first surfaced in early 1988, to be confirmed by a hint Gorbachev made in a statement on the occasion of his visit to Belgrade in March, and then finally to be thematised publicly at the CPSU’s party congress in June. In hindsight, it seems obvious that this historic strategic shift had been forced by the utter economic failure of the Soviet Union and its imperial system which, apart from precipitating social and political crisis, had paralysed key military capacities intended to maintain and enforce imperial policy. In this regard, the stakes were especially high, since they implied not only doubts cast on the viability of the Soviet political doctrine, but the possible need to relinquish European territories acquired barely forty years previously.5 Thus the consistently prudent conduct of the West, which had been observing these processes patiently, seems sufficiently justified not only by the general lack of preparedness, but also in view of the exceptionally dramatic hardship posed by these dilemmas to Soviet policy makers in the span of a few years.

By definition, the key point of reference for all actors in this drama was supplied by the internal processes of the Soviet Union, with their attendant questions of how long all of this could go on without reverting to the old ways. It was in light of such considerations that the strategic goals of people desiring change in the two reform countries (Hungary and Poland) became increasingly emboldened, ultimately to the point of openly embracing the Western model of free market economy, rule of law and parliamentary democracy. In other words, the players had to tread the untrodden path of an increasingly lopsided playing field to find a safe passage, a delicate political balance between confrontation and cooperation. In hindsight, it is indeed safe to say that they succeeded in this effort. But how did it all happen? The collaboration between András Oplatka and Miklós Németh has yielded a volume that gives us invaluable clues to understand this process.

The book takes as its starting point Németh’s appointment as Prime Minister on 29 November 1988, following preparations commenced back in July. It was then that party secretary and then Prime Minister Károly Grósz reached the decision to unbundle the two functions. In those days – albeit for not much longer – the General Secretary of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party (MSZP) still dominated the domestic political scene in Hungary. Grósz, who had been serving as President of the Council of Ministers since 26 June 1987, inherited the leadership of the party from János Kádár on 22 May 1988, in a move widely regarded as the inception of the political transformation in Hungary. Grósz was a reform Communist to the bone, who believed that the basic socialist structures could still be preserved and rendered viable through adopting comprehensive reforms riding Gorbachev’s political tailwind, although strictly within the confines of perestroika and without giving up the leading role of the state party.

Realising that Kádár’s way had turned out to be a dead-end street, he accepted the need to broaden the legitimacy of political power and to modernise the mechanisms of the economy by allowing more leeway to market interests. After a while, he even conceded the need for a multiparty system, provided that the MSZMP could keep its ascendancy, possibly in the fold of a reorganised popular front. The picture unfolding from Miklós Németh’s recollections is of a Grósz who, at the time of handing over his Prime Minister’s seat, probably still entertained a vision of the state party succeeding in stabilising the political system for the long haul by devising and administering a series of reforms on its own, while entrusting the management of the increasingly embattled economy and the government to those who have the know-how to do it without having considerable political clout – in short, to people readily dispensable or replaceable in case of need. He believed that “the economy […] can still be restored, pending a viable concept”.6 Following briefs collected from various party forums, Grósz’s man of choice to accomplish this task was Miklós Németh, then forty years of age, who had been secretary of the party’s Central Committee responsible for economic policy, and had been appointed to succeed Ferenc Havasi at the same session of the Central Committee which elected Grósz Prime Minister.

Explaining his decision, Grósz cited the current political situation which, in his words, demanded for the seat of the Prime Minister a man well-versed in economics and “holding up well under pressure”. He also referred to his own personal choice of concentrating on party affairs, in view of “the great new strides we are going to take in building socialism”.7 While undoubtedly in line with Grósz’s political worldview at the time, the rationale behind the decision had more than likely something to do with certain tactical considerations, as pointed out to Németh by László Keller, the Eastern European president of the World Jewish Congress, who tried to dissuade him from accepting the offer. Németh recalls Keller as having said to him that “this was all a game to use me and sacrifice me as a young man, that this would inevitably lead to my downfall, and that Grósz was only looking for a scapegoat”.8

This is not the place to chronicle the important but ambivalent role Grósz played in the process of transition;9 suffice it to briefly recall a few events emblematic of the mood in 1988. On 12 June, at the national meeting of Workers’ Militia commanders, Grósz avowed to deploy “administrative measures” if necessary against the opposition, which still went by the name of “the alternatives”, and he did just that, on 15 March. Throughout the year, 1956 was still being regarded as a counter-revolution, and its leader, Imre Nagy, a criminal; although, truth be told, at the end of July, on his visit to New York, Grósz gave permission to his family “to lay [Nagy and his companions] to final rest in decent circumstances should they so desire”. The legal prerequisites were yet to be drawn up, but the spring of 1988 saw the emergence of the Network of Free Initiatives, the predecessor of the liberal Alliance of Free Democrats (the SZDSZ party), and of Fidesz (Young Democrats–Hungarian Civic Alliance). The Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) had started organising and developed into a full-fledged political movement by early September, and the Yurt Theatre was hosting one political debate after another. And, for a short while, Grósz was still able to stifle the intra- partisan turmoil caused by the emergence of the MSZMP’s first “reform circle” by branding the initiative as “divergence politics”.

It is to be stressed that, as far as the state party and its head were concerned, the entire political process was basically motivated by the catastrophic and desperate condition of the economy which they saw only too clearly themselves. It was this huge burden, including the spiralling national debt and plummeting performance figures, which they sought to shed, even at the cost of deep political reform party cadres used to refer to as “the political paradigm shift” – which they now recognised as an inevitable precondition for ridding themselves of that baggage. However, the party stopped short of pursuing the idea to its logical consequences, or – which is essentially the same thing – deemed those consequences somehow avoidable by some unlikely dint of a fate.10 Then, roughly from the beginning of 1989, the initiative began to slip away from the state party at unprecedented speed, to the benefit of the new actors in the political arena, the various parties and movements that formed in rapid succession, with the Hungarian Democratic Forum fighting at the forefront up until the referendum in which Hungarians were to return four resounding Yes answers.

What was the contribution of Miklós Németh’s two governments to all of this? Németh himself, citing confidential and friendly consultations regarding the offer of the Prime Minister’s seat, including with György Jenei, subsequently his chief advisor, provides an account of his strategic plans as follows: “Of course I was aware of the immense difficulty and abysmal state of the economy I would have to cope with. […] It was clear to me that a genuine social market economy was a very remote possibility at best, and that we needed new laws to get there, but I already had the idea for a programme that would accomplish this. […] As for politics, on the advice of my friend György Jenei, I had read the Bad Godesberg Programme of the German social democrats, which had the effect of an epiphany for me.”11 These words attest to a man about to assume his duties as Prime Minister who is open to the possibility of more radical political change, yet one essentially thinking in terms of tasks of economic policy. His enthusiastic reception of the Bad Godesberg Programme implies at least a theoretical willingness to contend with a civic social order further down the line, although such a vision was clearly beyond any real-world development conceivable in the last months of 1988, and certainly surpassed by far any scenario that the party state ever imagined possible, even in the distant future.

The political statements Németh made in public throughout his tenure as Prime Minister are characterised by the kind of prudence and circumspection which never for a moment fails to reckon with the possibility of detrimental developments in internal affairs and global policy. More specifically, Németh consistently kept his focus on the pragmatic assessment of manoeuvring space as permitted by current Soviet developments, and on sizing up any threats felt to be posed by the conservative circles of the domestic state party, including the likelihood of a coup attempt. Viewing his approach from another angle, we might say he set great store by playing it safe as a rule of thumb, although he was not averse to shouldering risks in critical situations if he deemed this was what the nation’s interest demanded. A convincing case in point for this latter attitude was his bold yet well thought-out move to solve the predicament of East German refugees by unfreezing Hungary’s borders, which helped open new perspectives in the international arena by accelerating the cause of German unification.

What were the tasks the government came up against? Well, the main challenge given to Németh by his politically deluded appointer consisted in “putting the economy in order”. Technically speaking, this amounted to balancing the budget on the one hand, and to injecting dynamism into a stagnant economy on the other. The first presented major difficulties in terms of handling the already gigantic national debt, which kept spiralling upwards in the absence of any appreciable economic performance, while the second made it impossible to achieve any meaningful result by addressing the problem by means of economic policy alone. This required a return to a fully democratic political and social system as an essential condition for which no substitute existed – as had already been clear to Németh and his narrower circle, although considerations of foreign policy and the still (if barely) surviving party rule prevented them from saying this out loud. Items simultaneously tabled on the domestic and increasingly complex foreign political agenda included such vexed issues as the case of the Bős (Gabčíkovo)–Nagymaros Dam or the problem of refugees, first from Transylvania, then from East Germany. The icing on the cake was the pending withdrawal of Soviet troops, discussed with the total exclusion of the public, and the question – to which all of three political leaders, namely Károly Grósz, Miklós Németh, and Ferenc Kárpáti were privy – of withdrawing the Soviet nuclear warheads of significant striking power that had been stationed in the Bakony Hills since the early 1970s.12 Oddly, this last and most egregious memento of the Soviet occupation of Hungary – part and parcel of the Cold War, but completely hushed up until the first free elections – was never thematised by the political discourse of the transition, and perhaps for the better. That said, the fortuitous discovery of this dramatic fact provided Németh with a personal political motivation that would fuel his actions for a long time to come. Of course, the other major field where the government faced daunting tasks was that of legislating for the paradigm shift, and then for the transformation of the political system across the board. This dual legislative task spanned two distinct phases of the Németh government’s tenure, identified by Kálmán Kulcsár in the title given to one of his chapters as being “From reform government to the government of transition”. Finally, it goes without saying that the rest of all administrative tasks incumbent upon the government appeared in the context of the crucial issues outlined above.

Let us now recall some of the key figures of the government, as they appear in the volume of interviews with Németh. We might as well begin with Ferenc Kárpáti, inherited as the second and last Minister of Defence from Grósz’s cabinet, whom Németh has called (in private, but not in the book itself) an “old-guard Bolshevik”. In any event, he was the one to win over for the unconditional support of the new government strategy of peaceful transition.13 Owing to Németh’s notable success in these efforts, which has been recognised by other sources as well, Kárpáti henceforth proved to be a reliable political partner in assessing and averting internal threats from the armed forces. Gyula Horn, a very different personality on all other counts, had ascended in party politics from quarters quite similar to Kárpáti’s own. He was able to find rapport with Németh if this was compatible with his short-term interests, and went his own way if his own personal ambitions dictated otherwise. Ferenc Glatz, whom Németh invited to head the Ministry of Culture when he formed his cabinet in April 1989, turned out to be an important and respected as set in all affairs of the government beyond his own area of expertise. The Minister of Justice Kálmán Kulcsár, having been appointed by Grósz to the task of tailoring the justice system to the envisioned “paradigm shift”, ushered in his own programme aimed at devising the constitutional framework for the rule of law, pointing far beyond the scope of his original job description. In fact, his entire career and scholarly background had predestined him for accepting and fulfilling this far-reaching mandate. István Horváth, the Minister of the Interior, earned Németh’s trust by having been Imre Pozsgay’s comrade-in-arms, and carried the portfolio until he was forced to resign over the Dunagate surveillance scandal. The first Németh cabinet did not have a sufficiently qualified member to oversee the economy and finance. From the perspective of the Prime Minister at least, the second cabinet found a reassuring solution by appointing László Békesi as Minister of Finance and Ernő Kemenes to head the Planning Office, the latter position bolstered by State Secretary György Surányi.

Although Miklós Németh was hardly well-versed in the art of power at the time he assumed his duties as Prime Minister, from the outset he apparently went out of his way to claim discretionary rights to shape political decisions. This ambition was tantamount to eradicating dependence on the state party, which he managed to accomplish by the spring of 1989. By then – some time after the Malta Summit – the MSZMP had renounced the right to appoint government ministers in its own discretion, to the effect that the composition of the cabinet thereafter no longer formed the jurisdiction of the party but of the Prime Minister himself. Not only did this change not leave the government’s strategy unaffected, but indeed marked a milestone in the evolution of executive power, from being a mere reformist government to becoming the prime mover of democratic transition itself. What this meant, both conceptually and admittedly, was that the government had marched out of party politics, not so much in order to clinch victory at the anticipated free elections as to yield the helm to a government to be appointed by a legitimate, democratically elected Parliament in the future. As for the true nature of that pending transition, along with its desirable political-institutional achievements and time frame, the protagonists of politics in Hungary, mainly the expert government and now in part the Parliament as well, were in no position, almost one year before the first free elections would actually come to pass, to envisage a scenario common to each of them, or indeed one that would be fully borne out by the events to come. The general outlines of the scenario that did get implemented during the National Roundtable Discussions between June and September were dictated by the opposition that had assumed the leading role, and were legitimised on the other side by Imre Pozsgay, who stepped into the arena in the colours of the MSZMP, but set his sights far beyond the confines of his own party interests, and who ultimately thwarted the hopes and expectations of many by being sidelined later on in the process. The experts delegated by the government relayed to the Parliament the result achieved in the negotiations, in particular the cardinal acts recommended for a peaceful transition, and proceeded to do an acceptable job by adopting the organisational measures required for holding free elections.

Beyond these inevitable tasks, incidentally performed to rather high professional standards, the Németh cabinet, and notably the Prime Minister himself, earned undying merit by solving the predicament of East German refugees during the same period. By so doing, Németh and his team made a meaningful contribution to precipitating international processes which, among other results, shortened the wait for the historic turn ultimately brought about by the free elections. The Németh cabinet successfully negotiated the timetable for the withdrawal of Russian troops as well. These developments culminated in the government’s signing – now in the presence of opposition leaders – the treaty on Russian withdrawal in Moscow on 10 March 1990, barely two weeks after the first round of the elections. In the midst of these historic political changes and the general climate of high hopes, national finance hit a devastating all-time low, and it was obviously up to the government (while still in power) to handle the crisis. There was – there could have been – no alternative to resorting to an IMF loan. Németh signed off on it, and enforced the rather harsh conditions stipulated for disbursement. Certainly not a decision to be taken lightly in view of the heavy burden inflicted on his successors, this move was nevertheless inevitable in the interest of maintaining fiscal stability at the all-important moment of overhauling a country’s political system by peaceful means.

The last phase of the government of transition also encompassed the withdrawal of Russian nuclear weapons from Hungary. Although this had been urged by Grósz’s cabinet as well, it ultimately came down to a unilateral Soviet decision applicable to all states of the Warsaw Pact, which clearly signalled a new era throughout the region despite the fact that public opinion in Hungary had been kept in the dark about it all along.14 Typically of the now bygone state of affairs, the keys to the completely dismantled and deserted military objects were not delivered to the Hungarian authorities until 28 March 1990, between the two rounds of the elections.15 In an ironic twist of fate, for decades the Hungarian public had been unaware of being the target of a potential nuclear attack, and now of the passing of this threat to boot. In fact, most popular chronologies of the transition fail to mention the relevant facts to this day.

In his inaugural speech before Parliament, Prime Minister József Antall made it a point to pay tribute to the performance of Németh’s government (an extensive quote will follow at the end of this essay). By contrast, much of the political right, blindfolded by their newly found partisan allegiances, viewed his tenure as the last stronghold of the Communist regime, while the left, having recovered from a crushing defeat in the first elections, in 1994 lay claim to the achievements of the transitional government by pretending to the privilege to all expertise. In vain did Németh and several of his colleagues protest the epithet of “reform Communist”, arguing and demonstrating the fact that they had long turned their backs on Communism, and, in fact, that many of them, including Németh himself,16 had never been part of that camp to begin with. In the event, they all had to realise how difficult it was to expect subtle distinctions of judgement from general public opinion. Indeed, Hungarian society has never distinguished itself by an acute judgement of reality, and this is a trait that the quarter century elapsed since the democratic turn has given us no cause to be especially optimistic about. It is not all that difficult to discover behind all of this the perennial problem of Hungarian history, which consists in the ceaseless struggle and need to choose between the East and the West. From the point of view of society, this has boiled down to alternately affirming or failing to instate a civic political and social order grounded in the middle class, or – as it happened after the Second World War – the all-out assault on, and ultimately successful demolition of, the same. In the European politics of the late 20th century, similar doubts took shape in the form of a structure dominated by popular parties on the left and on the right, in the company of liberal parties, muscling greens, and extreme right-wing formations running on a platform of responding to symptoms of global crisis and the ill- treated problems of mass society, which tend to question fundamental values and even pose a threat to the balance of whatever political system may be in place. It was in full awareness of these circumstances that József Antall sought to fashion from the MDF his own centre-right party, building on such precedents in Hungarian spiritual, political and partisan traditions as he may have found useful for the purpose. Even though he succeeded in earning credit and rallying support for this formation among Europe’s family of people’s and conservative parties, and even in the United States, in hindsight it is easy to see that this enterprise proved no more than a noble and wonderful utopia, akin to the liberal dream of executing a Bad-Godesbergian turn with credibility. It was this latter fact that Miklós Németh had to face in 2000 – and in the book he depicts a very telling picture of this confrontation in reporting on his final break with the party –, when, in the midst of internal strife within the MSZMP, he was beset by various offers, including a nomination for Prime Minister.

On 23 May 1990, after the members of the first freely elected Hungarian government had taken the oath before the Parliament, Antall was still able to articulate the views of a hopeful and conservative Hungarian people’s party in his inaugural address as Prime Minister. In this unprecedented moment, he thought it important not only to admonish the ruling party and the opposition of their shared responsibility, but also to address the members of the departing cabinet that had seen through the democratic transition, as follows:

Last but not least, allow me to express my gratitude to the outgoing government. I would in particular like to stress the fact that we have known each other as political opponents since the Roundtable Discussions, and among those present today are those who worked with us, albeit on the other side of the barricade, to bring about genuine democracy in this country. And I want them to know that we wish to hail them not simply as the last bastions of a surpassed political system, but also as the trailblazers of a new political system [emphasis mine – G. A. E.]. We make no secret, and we never will, of our commitment to the other side of the political spectrum, but we laud them for having done their best within the confines of the existing political machinery to make this happen, and we duly recognise their role in the final outcome, achieved peacefully, without bloodshed. [We now pay tribute ] to all representatives of a fading or fallen rule in all times of history, who undertook the noble task of paving the way for a transition, who closed a chapter to hand over their power in honour and dignity. We owe them this recognition, if only as a fundamental rule of European parliamentarism.17

Translation by Péter Balikó Lengyel

1 For the purposes of this essay, I will refer to Németh as Premier or Prime Minister to denote his function in common parlance today, even though, strictly speaking, his official title in his day was “President of the Council of Ministers”, in accordance with the logic of the single-party state.

2 András Oplatka: Németh Miklós: „Mert ez az ország érdeke” [Since this is in the interest of the country] (Budapest: Helikon, 2014).


3 The story and historical context of the political transformation in Hungary has been addressed by a great number of scholarly studies, influential memoirs, reference works shedding light on the process from multiple angles, and now several major monographs of comprehensive scale. Here, suffice it to mention the most significant overviews of the subject: Kálmán Kulcsár: Két világ között. Rendszerváltás Magyarországon 1988–1990 [Between two worlds. Regime change in Hungary, 1988–1990] (Budapest: Akadémiai, 1994) – an early and sadly underrated recollection and comprehensive interpretation of several essential features of the transition that is outstanding for its firm theoretical grasp and the exceptional wealth of information presented in it; Rudolf Tőkés: A kialkudott forradalom. Gazdasági reform, társadalmi átalakulás és politikai hatalomutódlás 1957–1990. (Budapest: Kossuth, 1998) – important for its approach informed by Anglo-Saxon political science traditions and historicist approach, using a broad scoop of resources, originally published as The Negotiated Revolution by Oxford University Press in 1996; Zoltán Ripp: Rendszerváltás Magyarországon 1987–1990 [Regime change in Hungary, 1987–1990] (Budapest: Napvilág, 2006) – widely regarded as the essential reference guide to the Hungarian transition; and Melinda Kalmár: Történelmi galaxisok vonzásában. Magyarország és a szovjetrendszer 1945–1990 [Under the attraction of historical galaxies. Hungary and the Soviet regime, 1945–1990] (Budapest: Osiris, 2014) – a monumental work without peer in Hungarian literature, especially notable for its emphasis on the international context and well-considered theoretical modelling.

4 András Oplatka: Egy döntés története. Magyar határnyitás – 1989. szeptember 11. nulla óra. [The story of a decision. Opening Hungary’s borders, 11 September 1989, 0 hour] (Budapest: Helikon, in collaboration with Századvég, 2008).

5 Cf. Csaba Békés: “Vissza Európába. A magyarországi rendszerváltás nemzetközi háttere, 1988–1990” [Back to Europe. The international background of the regime change in Hungary], in: András Bozóki (ed.): A rendszerváltás forgatókönyve. Kerekasztal-tárgyalások 1989-ben. Vol. 7. Alkotmányos forradalom. Tanulmányok. [The scenario of the regime change. Roundtable talks in 1989. Vol. 7. A constitutional revolution. Studies] (Budapest: Új Mandátum, 2000), 792–825. In an apt phrase, the author terms the strategy of territorial sacrifice to save the imperial centre as the “Brest-Litovsk Syndrome”, identifying it as a manifestation of the long-term and still valid mechanism of Russian policy, in which any territorial compromise is construed as a mere temporary concession.

6 As he stated in conversation with Kálmán Kulcsár on 3 June 1988, when he offered him the portfolio of Justice. Quoted in: Kulcsár: Két világ között. Ibidem (Note 2), 97.

7 Oplatka: Németh Miklós. Ibidem (note 3), 15–16.

8 Ibidem, 23.

9 Németh identifies Grósz’s chief “historic” achievement in having replaced Kádár, who by then “had been standing the way of much needed reforms for years, putting the brakes on change without grasping the situation or comprehending his own position in it. This replacement – which some termed a coup – was orchestrated by Károly Grósz. He was the only person capable of this feat, and this is a merit he is not to be denied, whatever else he did otherwise.” Ibidem, 144.

10 Let us take two examples for the resilience of the “concept” that allowed ample manoeuvring space. At the 10–11 February session of the Central Committee, Miklós Németh, apparently intent on persuading people to rally behind the cause, referred to the transition in Spain as the model to emulate. “I am convinced that this leadership of ours – of the government and the Party, I might add – will write its name in the annals of history if it succeeds in steering the ship of state from this unipolar single-party rule or, if you will, from the Stalinist model, to a democratic multiparty model, and do it without inciting anarchy, frenzy and national tragedy.” (Minutes of 1989, vol. I, 165.) As late as on 23 June 1989, at the session of the Central Committee, the same Németh (presumably toeing the line of the majority standpoint for obvious tactical reasons) said the following: “The reason why we want to change the model is because the MSZMP cannot and will not advocate or assist in any transformation of the system itself beyond proclaiming a programme of democratic socialism. We need to change the model to avoid having to transform the system.” Quoted in: Anna S. Kosztricz – János Lakos – Karola Vágyi Németh – László Sóós – György T. Varga (eds.): A Magyar Szocialista Munkáspárt Központi Bizottságának 1989. évi jegyzőkönyvei. 2. köt. [Minutes of meetings of the Central Committee of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party, 1989, vol. 2] (Budapest: Hungarian National Archives, 1993), 1119.

11 Oplatka: Németh Miklós. Ibidem (note 3), 18.

12 On the warheads cf. Oplatka: Németh Miklós. Ibidem (note 3), 41; Oplatka: Egy döntés története. Ibidem (note 4), 59–64; and, in more depth of detail, Ferenc Kárpáti: Puskalövés nélkül…. [Without firing a shot…] (Duna International: 2013), 78–89.

13 At the meeting of the Warsaw Pact, held in Prague on 15–16 July 1988, Gorbachev called for radical disarmament and the revamping of the military doctrine on a strictly defence basis (an ambition that fell on deaf ears except on the part of the delegates from Hungary and Poland). At the conference of defence ministers paving the way for this meeting, Kárpáti and his Soviet colleague Dmitry Yazov had still argued for maintaining assault capacities. Cf. Ripp: Rendszerváltozás. Ibidem (note 3), 153–154.

14 On the evidence of Soviet Prime Minister Ryzhkov’s letter to Miklós Németh, the withdrawal of the warheads was completed by 26 November 1989 – on the day the Hungarian population was feverishly occupied by the referendum that returned Yes votes on all four questions posed.

15 Kárpáti: Puskalövés nélkül. Ibidem (note 12), 86.

16 Németh addresses this issue several times in the book, including the following statement: “We were not reform Communists, firstly because we had known for years that ‘socialism as it existed in reality’ was beyond any reform, and secondly because in the spring of 1989 we found ourselves in the position to feel strong enough to publicly declare this fact. This is precisely what I did in my speech of May 1989.” Oplatka: Németh Miklós. Ibidem (note 3), 261–262.

17 József Antall: Modell és valóság II [Model and reality II] (Budapest, Athenaeum, no date of publication given), 74–75.

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