We arrived in Budapest in a snowstorm in February 1968, dragging a four metre sailing dinghy behind us, to the bemused greetings of my future Embassy colleagues. There was almost no traffic.
We (Elizabeth, my wife, and I) lived in a one bedroom flat on the ground floor of an old house at 3, Táncsics Mihály utca on the Vár. The small garden was on the walls of Buda, overlooking the Danube and a still battle scarred city. A mysterious large wooden packing case protected an unknown object from the winter cold, to be revealed in spring as an oleander tree in a large green ceramic pot.
A beautiful early nineteenth century rococo stove, alas beyond use, stood in one corner of the living room while in another its utilitarian grey tiled successor from the 1950s provided efficient heat. In the room nex tdoor, the former library, we ate at a massive Victorian oak dining table surrounded by tattered silk wall hangings and a large collection of books, almost all from the 1920s and 30s, in English, German, French and Hungarian.
Along with the furniture and books we inherited a maid and cook, Juliska. She was a tall, gaunt, dignified woman who at first intimidated us but who later we came to respect, admire and indeed to love. She lived at the front of the house, facing the street, with her mother. She was in her 60s. Her mother, cheerfully gaga and in her 90s, spent her days sweeping the courtyard – and sometimes also our visitors – until chased away by her half embarrassed, half laughing daughter.
Over time we learnt Juliska’s story. The house, of which we occupied the ground floor, had belonged to the Hatvany family, owners of a successful sugar refining company in Hatvan (hence the name they had assumed). As Jewish millionaires they had suffered persecution under both the wartime Arrow Cross regime and subsequently under the Communists. Leaving for America after the War they left the house to the care of their faithful maid and attempted to hand it over to the British Embassy, to provide some measure of protection.
Brought up to work on the domestic staff of the Hatvany country house in the semi- feudal conditions of rural pre-War Hungary, where loyalty to employer still trumped all, Juliska transferred this spirit of willing service to lucky successive generations of British diplomats occupying the flat. Nonetheless she was a woman of strong character and on occasion only too glad to speak her mind. Compelled by the Communist secret police to come to their offices and report on her employers she so dominated the sessions with complaints about how badly she and her mother had been treated over their old age pensions that she was finally told to go away and not come back. So she never did.
Her loyalty was ultimately rewarded. With the fall of Communism the Hatvanys were able to reclaim the flat, which they sold. In gratitude they gave the proceeds to Juliska, who then was able to fulfil her lifelong ambition – to buy and retire to a cottage by Lake Velence.
Our situation was far from unique. Other Western diplomats were in a similar position. Sometimes their maid had been the previous owner of the house they were renting from the government, living in the attic. Often they took pride in their employers, expecting them to maintain the social standards they themselves had maintained pre-War. Famously the maid to the British Air Attaché was constantly lending, or offering to lend, her employer her own silver table service for his dinner parties as she felt his was insufficiently prestigious.
We were of course privileged and lucky. But the longer we lived in Hungary the more it seemed to us that it was not just our domestic life but also the life of the whole country which was stuck in a sort of no man’s land between Communism and a deep seated devotion to the pre-War past. The country seemed like a tortoise with its head in its shell waiting (it knew not, could not know, for how many more years) for the tiresome political present to disappear. It seemed a sort of provisional living, with “if only” as the watchword.
As our circle of friends grew we half jokingly asked them if they knew anybody who actually believed in communism, or at least the superiority of the current system over that of the West. Perhaps we moved in the wrong circles, but nobody did.What we did see was much more complex and interesting – how people led their lives, what compromises they made, what values they adhered to, in a system they despised but felt powerless to change.
So far as I could see most people struggled to get by, to earn a living, without treading on or denouncing others. Many of those who were Party members seemed to keep it to themselves as a sort of guilty secret rather than proclaim it with pride. If asked (found out?) they usually explained that they did it for career reasons. Others made a point of telling us that they were not Party members, while assiduously feeding us the Party line on this or that current issue – and ending up tying themselves in knots over Kádár’s “real” views on the advisability of invading Czechoslovakia and on the advice he was alleged to be giving the Russians (this was in 1968, shortly after our arrival).
Underneath the sometimes almost comic frim-framery of the political surface lay very obviously the traumas of 20th century Hungarian history – Trianon, the Second World War, the siege of Budapest in 1944–45, Soviet occupation, 1956. Almost everybody over a certain age had damaged lives, and often damaged psyches. The scars of 1956 were still raw – not just in the bullet-pockmarked buildings of Buda and Pest but also in the lives of many of our friends and acquaintances. Friends with three small children had been deported to the countryside as former landowners and class enemies of the revolution. They were imprisoned together in a small cottage for three years in the 1950s with little or no contact with the outside world.
Many who had been active in 1956 had by 1968 been released from prison but like our ex-landowner friends were still suffering, along with their families, from political and economic discrimination. The husband of one of our local employees had been released and ran a small garage. He serviced most of our Embassy cars, but in constant fear of re-incarceration he was extremely reluctant to talk to us. The two great writers of 1956, Déry and Illyés, also lived free but reclusively, with no overt engagement in public affairs. So to be invited to visit Illyés in Tihany, and to eat the escargots which he had cooked for us, was an unexpected honour. József Antall, also prominent in 1956, and later to be Hungary’s first post-communist leader, lived quietly as director of the Semmelweis National Medical Museum. So sensitive was his position that it was only when we were about to be posted home that our friends Géza and Edit Jeszenszky felt able to invite us to meet him.
After the trauma of war, mass Jewish deportation and death, Soviet occupation (including mass rape of Hungarian women by Soviet troops) and totalitarianism there was to be no period of truth telling between perpetuators and victims, between Hungarian and Hungarian, between Hungarians and Russians. Therefore there was no chance of accounting, repentance, reconciliation and renewal. Hungarians were, like others in the Soviet Empire, left to feel unrequited victims, individually and nationally – without the means of digging themselves out from the darkest pits of their own memories. I felt this clearly then, in the 1960s. And even now I am not sure how far the failure of post-Communist Hungarian public life to address these issues more fully is contributing to Hungary’s present woes. Sometimes, listening to Hungarian friends, it was the evils inflicted by the Treaty of Trianon after the First World War which upset them most, rather than what would seem to have been much more traumatic subsequent events. The loss of so much territory with predominantly Hungarian-speaking inhabitants was indeed unjust and quite indefensible in terms of the Wilsonian doctrine of self-determination applied so liberally elsewhere in East Europe. But Hungarian indignation then as now would perhaps be more readily shared by others if tempered by recognition of how Hungary’s own record of attempted Magyarisation under the Dual Monarchy had been perceived by the descendants of those they once ruled.
Another key issue was then, and indeed still is, the role and treatment of Hungarian citizens of Jewish blood. Of almost all the areas we discussed with our Hungarian friends this was the one which seemed the most difficult. To some, who otherwise we liked and respected, it seemed hard to accept those with Jewish blood as “real” fellow Hungarians. Our friends in the latter category in turn often implied that they felt excluded from sections of Hungarian society. In practice however the problem did not seem so stark. So many Hungarians, above all in Budapest, have some share of Jewish blood in their veins that borderlines were generally, thankfully, blurred. But underneath, the questions remained, and still remain. Was there reason and need to feel guilty for the mass killings of Hungarian Jews under the Arrow Cross regime, when all the time Hungarians themselves were the victims of a foreign invader? It is greatly to the credit of the current Foreign Minister, János Martonyi, that he faced up to these issues in his speech at the opening of the Wallenberg Memorial in Budapest recently (see Hungarian Review, March 2012).
By contrast the issue of the Roma minority now so prominent in Hungarian politics seemed hardly to exist then – or if it did very few people spoke about it. Then as now gypsy music was popular, while gypsy bands featured in most Budapest restaurants. If anything many of our friends, and some literature and films of the period, seemed close to conflating, and mourning, the joint destruction of traditional rural Hungarian village life and that of traditional gypsy culture under the dual impact of communist policy and creeping urbanisation.
But all was far from unrelenting gloom and pessimism. Life had improved. One journalist said to me (I take this from my diary at the time) – “It is as though we have come up from, say, 30 metres under water to 5 metres. To someone in those circumstances it is the same as coming up to the surface, at least to start with. So we do not complain.” Overt political opposition might be impossible. But much was still achievable. I fondly recall friends telling us about the letter writing campaign they had helped organise when the Erzsébet (Elizabeth) Bridge had at last been rebuilt. It had been named after the popular Empress Elizabeth, wife of Emperor Franz-Joseph. The government was casting round for another, more politically correct, name for it. Among the many ingenious arguments used was that Erzsébet was among the most common female names in Hungary, that by keeping the name the government would be honouring Hungarian womanhood, whereas in dropping it they would be insulting half the population. Anyway – the campaign worked!
Hungary was already well on its way to its reputation as the most comfortable prison camp in the Soviet bloc. Travel was beginning to ease, although restrictions on taking hard currency with you had not. This led to the joke about “Kádár’s revenge” – the situation in which those who had left after 1956 and were living in the West had to bear the full cost of supporting visiting relatives from Hungary. Hungarian camp sites had also become a favourite reunion place, often for weeks on end, for German families from East and West Germany divided by the Wall.
Hungarians had a good reputation abroad. Memories of their courage in 1956, tinged sometimes by guilt that we in the West had done (be enunable to do?) so little to help, were still fresh. Hungarian writers who had played a prominent part in it were, if not necessarily widely read, widely respected – notably Illyés and Déry. Hungarian film makers were well known to Western cinema goers. Hungarian emigrants, both pre- and post-War, had done well in Britain.
George Mikes, whose affectionately witty How To Be An Alien was based on his experiences as a refugee in Britain, was widely known and quoted. In widely different spheres Arthur Koestler (politics, philosophy and womanising) and Egon Rónay (gastronomy) were also famous. The economists Thomas Balogh (later Lord Balogh) and Nicholas Kaldor were so highly influential in advising on the economic policies of the Wilson government that it was often said that Britain was run by the Hungarians. The joke is ancient and over time has been applied to different ethnic groups – but in 1960s Britain it ran: Question: “Who goes into a revolving door after you and comes out in front of you?” Answer: “A Hungarian”.
So there was plenty of scope for active diplomacy, and we made the most of it. There were of course barriers. We were still objects of malevolent interest to the secret police. Reputedly each Western diplomat had half an agent assigned to him. Friends and acquaintances were often asked to report on us, and no doubt lingering fear put some off. But the overwhelming feeling seemed to be one of real pleasure that (in those days young) British diplomats were taking an active interest in them, combined with a cheerful willingness to take any consequences of further acquaintance. The hunger for any sort of Western contact was overwhelming, the opportunities for gentle subversion huge.
Economics was one key area. Our arrival in February 1968 coincided exactly with the start of what was called The New Economic Mechanism, the first of its kind in the Soviet bloc, designed to loosen the stranglehold of centralised planning and promote greater independence for individual state and cooperative enterprises. The launch was accompanied by often witty tutorial films made by Hungary’s talented animated film makers. It sought to convince citizens that good economic housekeeping was their concern as well as that of the state; that they must take more responsibility for their own economic wellbeing – while of course doing nothing to undermine the leading role of the Communist Party.
Ultimately it ran into the sands like all partial reform attempts in the Soviet era. But at the time it aroused considerable interest in Western capitals and my main task at the mission was to report on it. It also encouraged a plethora of bilateral visits and initiatives. The chief was an annual Anglo-Hungarian Economic Round Table, in which the relevant great and good in both countries wined and dined together and made speeches about how we must cooperate more closely.
Perhaps the highlight of all this was a visit from Anthony Wedgewood Benn, at the time UK Minister of Technology. Insisting that wives should also be present (staff at that time were, secretaries apart, almost exclusively male), he assembled the Embassy staff. Taking off his jacket, loosening his red tie and sitting on a table, he lectured us on the ever increasing pace of technological change. Unless we all, as individuals, career diplomats and whole nations, kept up with it all we were all, communist or capitalist, doomed to the scrapheap of economic failure.
Having practised on us he then went on to deliver a rather longer version of the same speech, lavishly illustrated with graphs showing the inevitably exponential growth of technological innovation over the next fifty years (in very much the same shape as graphs nowadays show the runaway growth of greenhouse gas emissions) to a crowded and admiring audience of Hungarian scientists, economists and Party officials. They lapped up his message. Perhaps if Marxism could no longer provide all the answers then non-political technological breakthroughs could. This must of course be achieved largely by cooperation with more advanced Western countries. We subsequently spent a lot of time trying to seek out and establish joint projects, and even found a few – though I think with no great success. In the meantime, Wedgewood Benn had moved on to other enthusiasms.
The second favoured area of contact, and subversion, was culture. There was a formal gatekeeper in the shape of the amusingly entitled Institute of Cultural Relations, through which almost all contacts were meant to pass. The UK desk was manned by an overtly amiable, quietly obstructive former Hungarian air force fighter pilot. Any big event was meant to be authorised under the Anglo- HungarianCulturalExchangeProgramme,andafewactuallywere–suchas a British Film Festival. Similarly teacher and student exchanges went through the Institute. But on the whole it was more of an irritant than a real obstructive force.
It was stimulating to work with our extremely able and active British Council cultural attaché, Richard Auty. Richard and his French wife Anne were on excellent terms with most of Hungary’s leading writers, poets and artists. Their house on Úri utca in the Vár became a regular meeting point. Through them we met Miklós Mészöly, István Vas, Gábor Devecseri, Arnold Gross, Tamás Fekete, Imre Szász, Lilla Kunvári, Antal Lukács, László Országh, László Passuth, Magda Szabó, György Szabó, Géza Tóth, Aladár Urbán, Piroska Szántó, Miklós Wesselényi, Tibor Vilt and Erzsébeth Schaar and other regulars. Inevitably the editors of the New Hungarian Quarterly, the official face of Hungarian cultural diplomacy, Iván Boldizsár and Miklós Vajda were also there.
A historian myself by education, and encouraged by our friend László Péter, an émigré Hungarian historian at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES) in London, I took particular pleasure in cultivating Hungarian historians. The Historical Institute, then under the joint control of Professors György Ránki and Iván Berend, proved a willing partner.
I felt a small part of history (or at least of historiography) in helping arrange the first post-War visit to Hungary of Aylmer Macartney. He was the best known and most distinguished British historian of Hungarian history but until then had been banned as too “right wing” and too sympathetic to the Horthy regime. Another politically difficult visit by a British historian in which I was involved was that of Professor Seton-Watson, whose father had (very unhelpfully from the Hungarian perspective) been influential in British policy making towards East Europe in and after the First World War, and whose own books were fiercely critical of Soviet Communism.
Encouraged by our friend Mari Kuttna, film critic of The Lady magazine and herself a great publicist for Hungarian film making, we also became engrossed in the world of films. Miklós Jancsó was at the height of his fame; Reds and Whites and The Round-Up with their complex political ambiguity and choreographies were enthralling (and often puzzling) sophisticated Western audiences.
Other directors were pushing at the boundaries of political acceptability in ways Hungarian audiences could relate to more easily. Ferenc Kósa’s Tízezer nap (Ten Thousand Days), Sándor Sára’s Fel-feldobott kő (The Thrown-Up Stone) and Zoltán Fábri’s Húsz óra (Twenty Hours) presented a memorable triad of films depicting the brutal process of Communist rural collectivisation and its aftermath. András Kovács’s Falak (Walls) almost directly asked what were the political limits (where were the walls?) of freedom to cultural expression in a communist society. Other talented directors covered more personal aspects of Hungarian life, such as István Szabó’s Szerelmesfilm (Lovefilm) depicting the love affair between an émigrée from 1956 and a boy who had stayed behind. Hungarian animated film fromt he Pannonia Studios was justifiably world famous.
So much of this has gone – and this is Hungary’s loss, and that of the wider world. Photography and film have always been art forms in which Hungarians have excelled. Between the two World Wars André Kertész, Robert Capa and others largely inventedphoto-journalism. Other Hungarians contributed enormously toHollywood (Adolph Zukor) and British (Alexander Korda) film making. Under communism film was Hungary’s most important and influential cultural export. For all its faults, the communist regime at least financed and tolerated a flourishing film industry. This mattered, not just to overseas audiences but also as a mirror reflecting Hungarian society to itself. Shooting scenes from the latest British or American epic of the Titanic disaster on Hungarian soil is no substitute for a thriving national film culture.
For light relief as well as high achievement there was nothing to beat the Budapest hothouse world of art and sculpture. Husband and wife artists often had almost public rivalries. Tibor Vilt was more successful than his wife Erzsébet Schaar (both sculptors) because, she alleged, he had better Party connections and received more public commissions. So she sculpted out their stormy relationship in her works, and took pleasure in opening a museum dedicated exclusively to her work in her flat in Székesfehérvár (still precariously open when we visited in 1992 but since I think closed). She also encased Elizabeth’s slim young legs in plaster of Paris for exhibition in the Fine Arts Museum on Heroes’ Square. Sadly they are no longer on display. Among the rising younger generation László Gyémánt and László Lakner sparred competitively to be the best known.
All this of course was not unlike the art scene in London, Paris or any other capital city. The difference was that we were privileged spectators, drawn into the fray by its participants, eager like almost all other sections of Hungarian society to reach out from isolation, to be understood better – and to be appreciated more. Political jokes abounded. It was said that the lady who was holding out what might or might not have been an olive branch to the gallant Soviet liberators which towered above the city was in fact picked from some pre-War commission in Kisfaludy Stróbl’s sculptor’s yard, and was really holding a fish. It was accordingly, not unfoundedly, nicknamed The Fishwife. Such commissions for public sculpture largely depended on who you knew in the Party.
We also, particularly Elizabeth, made friends with Hungarian singers and musicians. Elizabeth arranged to exchange language lessons with Judit Halász, then starting on her career as Hungary’s favourite singer for children – and they have remained friends ever since. She also tutored János Bródy – and through him we followed the rise of the Illés Group, who became Hungary’s top pop band but were officially disgraced when they were touring the UK and said at a press conference that there was no press freedom in Hungary.
Two other memories stand out. First, that of George Steiner addressing the assembled ranks of Hungarian writers and poets at the Hungarian PEN Club and telling them that the Marxist approach to literary criticism was inadequate (did they really need convincing?). He gave as his key example if I recall rightly the famous passage in Andrew Marvell’s Poem to His Coy Mistress:
Let us roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball:
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life.
This was not, he explained, the Marxist dialectic in action, but rather a psychological and sexual physiological passage which needed much wider explanation. Again, it seems hard to believe that his sophisticated audience needed to be told this. But he obviously enjoyed the demolition work – and they probably did too.
My second memory is of the aged Robert Graves, long white hair flowing behind him, debarking from the Danube steamer, walking briskly in the hot sunshine up the steep slopes of Szentendre’s cobbled streets followed by his tall, slim and beautiful “muse” of a secretary and short elderly wife in slacks. Behind him, struggling hard to keep up, came a horde of panting besuited Hungarian cultural officials. This was the great man’s one visit to Hungary under the bilateral cultural exchang eprogramme – though not the only one he ever made. He was a favourite of Hungarian readers, notably for his books on Jesus and the Emperor Claudius (I, Claudius and Claudius the God).
I felt then, and still feel today, incredibly lucky to have been posted to Hungary in the 1960s. Diplomats have in many ways privileged lives, and often do little to deserve them (I was always struck by how many of us seemed to lack interest in the culture and language of the country in which they were serving – though perhaps this has since changed for the better?). We were fortunate that there was a very obvious role for us, and that we had good language teachers to help us. The Cold War had its upsides. It provided the main framework for foreign policy. British and other Western governments had a real interest in what was going on in Eastern Europe.
Our reports home were read. Resources, modest but real, were made available for formal exchanges, whether for economic or cultural cooperation (environmental concerns were still completely off the radar screen). Whether posted in Budapest, Prague or Warsaw, Western diplomats felt they were centre stage internationally. Whatever the faults of our own political systems, it would have taken the blinkers of a Philby not to see that “the West” was in almost every way superior to the Soviet system in the freedom and prosperity it provided to its citizens. Hungarians of course needed no convincing of this.
So in many ways our task was easy. This was not just in opening up contact with the West, but also with our larger flats and entertainment allowances, enabling us to bring together Hungarians from different walks of life who would otherwise in the straightened circumstances of the times often not have met – and thus in some very small ways helping strengthen links in civil society. I hope I am not being pretentious in saying this – and only do so because this is what many of our Hungarian friends told us.
So naturally when at last Communism fell in Hungary we, along with millions of others, rejoiced. We saw the country, newly liberated, eagerly embracing all that we in the West had been offering. It was a great joy to see friends of my time there, notably Géza Jeszenszky and Gyula Kodolányi, then unknown intellectuals at the margins, emerge as key figures in the first non-communist government. And later I was struck to see my old acquaintance George Schöpflin, for most of his adult life a Londoner embedded in the British journalistic and academic world, emerge as a Fidesz member of the European Parliament (MEP) and prominent defender, in the columns of this journal and elsewhere, of Viktor Orbán’s policies.
The tortoise, to invoke the image I used earlier, has indeed now long been out of hibernation. What once seemed a dream, full integration into Europe, membership of the EU and NATO, has become a reality. But all too obviously this is not enough. May its path become smoother, its weather patterns warmer, in future years.