1989, the annus mirabilis, when the communist dominoes rapidly fell one after the other, may already be a generation away, but we, both witnesses and participants, should not let it be forgotten just what a historical watershed it was. It was the end of the Cold War and the threat of a nuclear holocaust. It was the end of the 20th century, which began amid great optimism with the idea of “progress”, but led instead to world wars, genocides and totalitarian dictatorships. 1989 also brought to an end the term “Eastern Europe” as a synonym for the communist bloc, a term we, the inhabitants, always thoroughly disliked. It seemed to be also the end of the Age of Newspeak, the end of the Age of Lies, when Evil was spectacularly defeated, and mankind was given another chance to make the world better. Nothing that has happened since 1989, or indeed, nothing that may come, could take away from those who participated in it the memory of 1989, that time of great hope, that moment of bliss.
The communist utopia which once fired the imagination of millions in search of a better life turned into a brutal dictatorship and caused enormous suffering, the violent death of tens of millions of innocent victims, before ending fully discredited. The only good thing that can be said about it is that its downfall did not claim more lives. Contrary to Marx’s predictions it was not the state that withered away but Marxist communism.
People living under communism hated it, revolted against it, but the Soviet superpower could not be overthrown from the inside, and after Hiroshima a war against it, which would have been inevitably fought with nuclear weapons, was unthinkable. How then did 1989 happen, what caused it, “whodunnit”?
By the 1980s Communism was losing the race with capitalism on every front. Prosperity proved to be the best “weapon” of the West in the Cold War. The citizens of the communist world no longer saw any chance that their standard of living would ever come near to that of their western neighbours. But it could have survived for further decades, most people in the West were happy with détente, forgetting their earlier fears of a Soviet attack. The more knowledgeable were relieved to hear that communist dictatorships had mellowed, and that life beyond the Iron Curtain was getting more bearable. Only people with imagination, who felt responsibility not only for their own future but also felt sympathy for those who could not enjoy Western freedom and prosperity, continued to think about how to eliminate finally the Soviet threat and how to advance the frontiers of democracy and the market economy. And British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was one of the leaders who brought the great change about. John O’Sullivan’s The President, the Pope and the Prime Minister is a worthy testament to that. When the British people and so many around the world mourn this leader who helped to make history, we who lived in the former Soviet captive nations have every reason to see her as one of our liberators.
The British Prime Minister, elected to high office in 1979, was a champion of political liberty, economic freedom and the free market, and as such, an inveterate opponent of Communism. She believed in people’s yearning for freedom, and counted upon that force in her attitude to the Soviet bloc. It is relatively well- known that she was the first Western leader who noticed that Gorbachev differed from all former Soviet leaders in being far less dogmatic, far more open to reason, and apparently not as convinced about the inevitable victory of Communism. The famous phrase, “I can do business with Mr Gorbachev”, was one of her comments after their first meeting in 1984. It was she who convinced President Reagan that it was worth making new initiatives towards the Soviet Union during the new, more confrontational phase of the Cold War, while the Soviets’ war in Afghanistan was still raging. And it was Mrs Thatcher who in 1984 decided to visit Hungary, then “the jolliest barrack in the communist bloc”, her first official visit to the world beyond the Iron Curtain.
Kádár, the communist boss of Hungary installed by the Soviets after the suppression of the 1956 Revolution and War for Freedom and the man personally responsible for the judicial murder of Imre Nagy, the Prime Minister of the Revolution, as well as many hundreds of freedom fighters, was clever enough to see that the survival of the regime required modest but steady improvements in the standard of living of the population. Stomachs, ever empty in the collectivised “kolkhoz” system of agriculture, should be filled. Thanks to the favourable soil and climate as well as the hard work of Hungarian farmers, privately run household plots produced more than enough food to feed the population, while agricultural exports earned much needed hard currency. Prime Minister Thatcher heard about that and sensed that the example of Hungary could catch on across the communist world, so she decided to have a look herself. She knew that the best way of weakening Communism was to loosen the ties between Moscow and its satellites and to undermine the communist system with the image of Western prosperity. Her visit to Budapest in February 1984, at the height of the missile crisis caused by the deployment of Soviet SS-20 and cruise missiles in Western Europe, caught the attention of the world press and gave a boost for reform-minded economists and politicians in Hungary. In Hungary an Anglophile attitude had long traditions going back to the Age of Reforms in the 1830s and 1840s, and to the sympathy shown by the British people towards the Hungarian War of Independence in 1848–49 and again towards the Revolution of 1956. Mrs Thatcher must have been aware of that and she certainly cherished the memory of 1956, the rising of the Hungarians against Communism.
Kádár was flattered by the international attention the two-day visit brought for him, and the Hungarian public were tickled to see the famous “Iron Lady”, the daughter of a grocer, tasting Hungarian fruit and buying Hungarian hot paprika at the Grand Market Hall, the large and beautiful art nouveau version of Covent Garden. The visit helped her to understand what so many journalists and Sovietologists failed to see, “that human beings in communist countries were not in fact communists at all but retained a thirst for liberty”. Her strong convictions and confidence in her ideas appealed to the Hungarian leadership, which was already trying to link the economy of Hungary more tightly to the West, the Common Market. She proved to be right, more economic and commercial ties to the communist regimes led to reforms there and to the eventual downfall of “the system”.
The close connection and friendship between the British Prime Minister and President Reagan is well known. My feeling is that in international issues the influence of the former was the stronger. Of course the American leader did not need much pushing in how to deal with the Soviet Union. His “Star Wars” scheme, relying upon the technological superiority of the United States, compelled the new and relatively young Soviet leader to introduce internal reforms in order to bolster the rigid system, in the hope that it was possible to rise to the American challenge. But at the July 1988 meeting of the Warsaw Pact Political Consultative Committee in the Polish capital, Foreign Minister Shevardnadze had to admit the USSR was beaten: “The West beat us in all important fields; we are unable to bear the burden of the continual arms race. The Soviet economy is facing crisis and other socialist states have serious problems as well. Halting the arms race has absolute priority, we must use every occasion to reach agreements.” The Soviet Union came to the realisation that its empire was no longer affordable, so the Brezhnev doctrine, the commitment to intervene if a satellite went too far from the line dictated by Moscow, was renounced by Gorbachev.
Documentary evidence has recently emerged to show that most Western leaders did not really welcome the unexpected rise of the strong opposition movements in Poland and in Hungary with their demand for a return to democracy and independence. They were worried about the unforeseeable consequences if the bipolar world ended. Western Europe – unlike Germany and Russia – had traditionally underrated the importance of Central Europe. People in Britain, France or Italy did not mind very much if it came under the pacifying control of any great power – whether it was the Ottoman Empire, Hitler or Stalin. The new American President, George Bush, too, was cautious and – fearing Gorbachev’s downfall – was not so eager to see the end of the Warsaw Pact. On his visit to Poland and then to Hungary in July 1989, the leaders of the Hungarian opposition he met did not particularly impress him. “These are not the guys to run the place”, he was alleged to have said. József Antall was not among those leaders, not yet the Chairman of the Hungarian Democratic Forum, the party just emerging as the potential winner of a free election.
In the second half of 1989 everything changed. Prompted by the “Pan-European Picnic” in Hungary, which allowed tens of thousands of East German “tourists” to cross into Austria, the Berlin Wall fell. That triggered the Czechs to begin their “Velvet Revolution”, and finally the people of Romania, Transylvanian Hungarians and Romanians hand-in-hand for the first time together, rose against Ceauşescu’s particularly harsh and brutal dictatorship. Bulgaria and then Albania had gradual transformations, while in Yugoslavia a war was to break out between the Serb communists and the non-Serb non-communists. In sum: the Iron Curtain did not collapse; it was pulled down and torn to pieces by the people, to the consternation and somewhat reluctant applause of Western Europe. The Poles and the Hungarians made the greatest contribution to the West’s victory in the Cold War, without a shot being fired.
Prime Minister Thatcher was much more than a sympathetic observer of all those dramatic events. Throughout 1989 her speeches showed how closely she followed events in Central Europe and how well she assessed their significance. After the highly influential leader of the Hungarian reform communists, Imre Pozsgay announced – in opposition to the majority of his own party – that 1956 was a national uprising and not a counter-revolution, Mrs Thatcher said at the “Britain Salutes Hungary” reception on 25 April at the Barbican:
There are several reasons why I want to support Hungary very much and to come here this evening to demonstrate it. First, I think Hungary, by virtue of her history and particularly her post-war history … clearly likes freedom and she clearly is blazing a trail in Eastern Europe for freedom. When I went there and had a fascinating visit in 1984, I did not know what to expect. First I found a Parliament building which was then not exactly used for a Parliament but I hope it will be.
… Second, when I went around, as I usually do, among the people I went into a massive market, a real market where people brought all of their things to exchange and I thought immediately there are people here who know what the market is.
… I thought there is the basis here of a market economy. I was practically mobbed and I must tell you, everyone knew my name. I was so sorry they did not all have a vote … And then of course here I have always been whenever Sir George Solti has been doing Bartók, I have been here and isn’t it fantastic? I did not really fully appreciate the marvels of that particular music, but Sir George Solti was a pupil of Bartók and together they do absolute wonders.
Now this is the really important point. I started off by saying Hungary is a country of destiny and from that time since I went we have tried to do everything we could to increase the links between Hungary and the West and to make certain that we have, between the European Community and Hungary a trading agreement, which was a practical way of increasing the links, and it was not easy to get, but we got it, and Britain led the way.
But now, I know particularly, Mr Gorbachev having been here recently, he is in fact following a trail which he has some faith can be followed and come to fruition because I think that he has seen the way in which Hungary is going, he has recognised that compulsion of central command and controlled economy will produce neither dignity nor prosperity nor the kind of country to which the Soviet Union could live up to.
It is easier to get the political liberty than it is to emulate the economic liberty and responsibility that must in fact follow. … You have always got to be able to have a vision to take you through the difficult times and to keep your eye on that distant star and that vision and some examples to point to which give hope. Hungary is such an example. She will go ahead and lead the way and we shall support her as much as we possibly can because she, as a small country, has untold courage. … We are going on to a new period of history and Hungary’s success will be very important for us all.1
The British Government and their diplomatic representatives in Hungary supported the efforts of the growing opposition for change. Ambassador John Birch and his staff proved strong and lasting friends of us, the spokesmen of the newly emerging opposition parties. A Know-How Fund was set up to facilitate the transition. When the Berlin Wall fell the jubilant Prime Minister acknowledged the role of Poland and Hungary in the unexpectedly rapid changes. She invited the last (reformist) communist Prime Minister, Miklós Németh, to London and on 13 December said at their luncheon:
None of us will forget that Hungary was right at the forefront of change in Eastern Europe. The first to undertake economic reforms. The first to allow freedom of travel to the West. The first to tear down its border fences. And we particularly honour you, Prime Minister, for the brave decision to allow East Germans to cross into the West – despite all the pressures put on you in a contrary sense. By doing that, you opened the way to much more far-reaching developments in East Germany itself. Indeed one could say that your decision led ineluctably to the opening of the Berlin wall and all that has since flowed from that historic change. We all – and no-one more than the people of East Germany – have cause to be grateful for that, and for Hungary’s part in creating this new world. We know too that Hungary’s search for reform is not without cost and you are encountering very real economic difficulties. Your own readiness to take the hard decisions which are required is evidence of your political courage and steadfastness, and we hope you will receive the support you deserve.
Britain will certainly do its best to help. As you know we took a lead in securing much more favourable trading arrangements for Hungary with the European Community. We hope this will lead to even closer contacts and relations in the future. We have established a know-how fund to help provide the necessary skills to enable you to carry out a far reaching transformation of your economy […]
Prime Minister, Hungary will soon hold the first entirely free elections in Eastern Europe for over forty years. That will be a step of historic importance and I am glad that once again it is Hungary which is out in front. Every new step towards greater democracy will make it harder for anyone to turn the clock back anywhere in Eastern Europe.
We owe Hungary much, Prime Minister, we owe you much, –for bringing closer the prospect of a Europe without hostility, without fear and without artificial divisions: – for bringing closer the time when we can once again feel that Hungary and other Eastern European countries can play their rightful part in the larger democratic Europe. We honour you for all that you have achieved. And we honour all your countrymen.
By the beginning of 1990 all Western governments were awaiting the results of the first democratic elections in Central Europe since 1945 with keen interest. Hungary was the first to hold such elections. Foreign visitors – journalists as well as politicians – visited Hungary in flocks. The most likely (but far from certain) winner, the Democratic Forum and its new leader elected in October 1989, József Antall, were showered with invitations to Western capitals. In January Antall and myself were invited to the Prayer Breakfast in Washington, where in a week’s span we met the President, the Secretary of State, a large number of Members of Congress, heads of various NGOs and think tanks. In mid-February the British Prime Minister sent a message that she, too, was eager to see Antall.
At that time, in the middle of the election campaign, and also short of money, even a short trip to London seemed difficult to accomplish. Then a Hungarian living in Vienna, the scion of one of the most distinguished Hungarian families, Ádám Batthyány and his friend, István Bethlen, related to the Prime Minister of the 1920s, managed to rent a special small aircraft, which flew from Austria to Budapest to pick up the four of us led by Antall and off we went to London. From the airport we were driven immediately to Downing Street 10. Mrs Thatcher welcomed us as the hopeful leaders of a new, democratic Hungary. She was more certain than us that the Centre-Right, conservative-leaning Democratic Forum would win the elections, and shared with us some of her ideas how we should proceed after. She advised moderation in the political process, in style and language, an avoidance of revenge against the discredited representatives of the old order, but determination and speed in the economic transition and in privatisation. She saw sound finances, incentives to work hard, property as the guarantee of responsibility. The afternoon meeting lasted close to an hour; having served in government I appreciate the time given us today even more. Upon leaving Downing Street we immediately drove back to our plane to return to Budapest.
Having won the elections with the Thatcherite slogan “Freedom and Property” (Szabadság és Tulajdon), that also echoed the words of our 19th century liberals, Antall as Prime Minister met his British counterpart on 29 August in Helsinki at the European Democrat Union (EDU) conference of conservative party leaders. Mrs Thatcher thought it was “no surprise to us when conservative parties won elections in Hungary and East Germany. The people of those countries have learned not to take freedom for granted”. Soon after she paid an official visit to Hungary. I met her and Mr Denis Thatcher at Budapest Airport on 18 September. At the official dinner Antall quoted Shakespeare’s famous lines from Julius Caesar:
There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
It was exactly how we felt in the first weeks of the freely elected Hungarian government. The talks centred upon the tasks and the difficulties our government faced following decades of communism. Mrs Thatcher promised investment and other practical help to Hungary. She quoted the great 19th century statesman Count István Széchenyi: “the Germans write a lot, the French speak a lot, but the English do a lot”. She was rightly proud of the British financial support given to the Pető Institute for handicapped children. She gave strong support to Hungary’s wish to join the European Community (“in which each country can preserve its traditions and its nationhood”) as its full member as soon as possible and agreed that in the Association Agreement already under preparation there should be a reference that the Community shared the view that the aim was Hungary’s accession. Unfortunately other members of the Twelve were not ready yet to go as far in the Treaty eventually signed on 16 December 1991. Hungary, together with seven other formerly communist countries, became a member of the European Union only in May 2004. The long engagement period took away some of the bliss of that marriage, nevertheless that had capped at last the process of our return to our European roots and alignment.
Her unconcealed criticism of the bureaucratic tendencies of the European Community was not shared by many in her Conservative Party, and in November 1990 they thought that their electoral future would be better served by a new leader. Her party wavered, and that compelled Mrs Thatcher to resign. I can say that Antall and I were not happy at the news, as she was such a staunch friend of Hungary and Central Europe, and we shared her vision of a future Europe. Not long before her visit to Hungary, on 1 September in a TV interview with David Frost she said: “Things are changing right accross Eastern Europe. You have got your Poland, your Hungary, your Czechoslovakia all now having reasserted their sovereignty. They do not want just to let it go. They have reasserted it. Yes, they want, I believe, to come into Europe and I believe we must make provision for them to come in when they have got their economies right but they want to come in proud of being Hungarian, proud of their Czechoslovak history, proud of being Polish – they do not want to come in to lose what they have so recently regained.” That has remained the view of many of us in Hungary.
For almost two more decades Baroness Thatcher remained a keen observer of both home and world affairs. She continued to take a strong interest in Central Europe. During the war in Yugoslavia, when the world just watched the horrors, she called for international military action to stop the brutalities. In September 1991, visiting Japan, she literally bumped into Antall who was on an official visit there. The two had a long conversation on Yugoslavia finding a remarkable identity of views in the assessment of the situation. Antall thought that Thatcher would be the right person to lead and guide the international community in dealing with the conflict. When in 1992 the former British leader was given a peerage Prime Minister Antall sent her a warm congratulatory letter. The sympathy was mutual, as reflected in the memoirs of Lady Thatcher: “In József Antall, the Hungarian Prime Minister, the country was in the safe hands of a genuine Conservative. I had met Mr Antall on several previous occasions and he and I shared very much the same political approach. […] Mr Antall had the skills and was quickly developing the authority to give Hungary the leadership and continuity it needed.”2
When Antall died on 12 December 1993 Lady Thatcher came to Hungary expressing her condolences personally. She paid a visit to the headquarters of the Hungarian Democratic Forum at Bem Square, where I had the honour to receive her. She recalled her meetings with Antall in the warmest words. I still remember her face as she bowed her head in front of the portrait of Hungary’s late Prime Minister. Margaret Thatcher did a great service to her nation and truly belongs to the ages, not least for what she had done for the liberation of Hungary and of the whole area of Central Europe. We, who knew her, will always cherish her memory and bow our head in our mourning.
2 The Downing Street Years. London, 1993. p. 809.