It is once again a great pleasure to be taking part in a conference at the House of Terror Museum in Budapest. Taken out of context, that sentence might sound a little odd – what kind of person has a good time amid all the evidence of brutality and oppression? But those of us who have attended the conferences organised by Dr Schmidt at the Museum know that they are invariably exciting intellectual events as well as significant historical explorations. We all of us learn far more than we teach here.
And, of course, these conferences take place in the most beautiful metropolis in Central and Eastern Europe. As a resident of Prague I chose my words very carefully just now: Prague is a delightful city, but it is not a metropolis. One might distinguish the two cities as follows: Prague is chamber music, Budapest is operetta, Prague the finest beer, Budapest champagne. But I should stop there before I am overheard across the border.
I would also like to thank the Konrad Adenauer Foundation for making this occasion possible in conjunction with the House of Terror Museum. Adenauer was a giant of the Cold War and of European construction. His early entrenching of West Germany’s commitment to the West ensured that when Germany was united, it was united as a free democratic country allied to the democratic West and not as a dangerously neutralist floating island.
This conference is, of course, devoted to the role played by the first President Bush in ending the Cold War peacefully, in making clear in his famous “speech in the rain ”that Hungary was now indisputably part of the free world, and in helping to forge a new stable post Cold War order in Europe. And I shall be returning to that theme later in my remarks. But we cannot allow to go unmentioned the vital role played in the period 1989 to 1991 by Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Working with President Bush, he did more than any other European states man to shape the new united Europe. Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, I believe it is fair to say that Adenauer and Kohl were the two post-war German statesmen whose view of a united Germany in a united Europe in a united West finally and fortunately triumphed over other visions of a European peace. Helmut Schmidt was an important ally – a kind of a bridge between them – in this outcome. His misfortune was to become Chancellor at the wrong time. But Willy Brandt, for all his real achievements in assuaging fears of Germany in Central Europe, would have led us towards a messier, less democratic, and less stable outcome in Europe if his version of Ostpolitik had remained the main driver of German foreign policy.Chancellor Kohl has never been given the full credit for his statesmanship by either his own country or the rest of Europe (and I say that as a Euro-sceptic who believes the current euro crisis demonstrates that his long-term vision of a united Europe was seriously flawed). Still, his achievement was immense. The time has come to remedy our failure to do him proper justice.
HUNGARY’S FOUR MOMENTS
To turn directly to the particular position of Hungary in the Cold War, I want to suggest that there are four moments of great importance that determined the development of Hungary in significant ways – and also the development of the Cold War.
The first was the election result of November 1945. As Norman Stone points out in his book, The Atlantic and Its Enemies, this sealed Hungary’s fate as a communist satrapy precisely because it rejected communism. The electoral results – the Smallholders Party did extremely well, the urban liberals and radicals did badly – essentially meant that Hungary was never going to produce a left-wing government, let alone a pro-Soviet one, of its own accord, even if encouraged.
Hungary was in a painful middle position in the immediate post-war world. It did not have a formidable barrier to communisation on the scale of Poland’s Catholic Church – so formidable that it could never be crushed and so had to be accommodated. On the other hand it did not have a significant popular Left on the scale of the Czechoslovak Left. So there was no realistic prospect of its becoming a people’s democracy by consent. Stalin and his local representatives had no choice but to proceed by way of brutal repression. The Red Army insisted that communists be installed in the relevant Ministries. And by degrees – or salami tactics as they came to be called – the communists first took power and then destroyed their opponents. Cardinal Mindszenty was the most famous case of such repression. The Church had to be frightened out of open opposition even if it could not be extirpated entirely – that could wait. But the entire society was in a sense repressed by a regime that was literally imposed from outside. Memoirs such as György Faludy’s My Happy Days in Hell describe the process as people experienced it; Anne Applebaum is currently working on a book that will look at the phenomenon of Stalinist takeovers from a general standpoint – the Platonic ideal of a takeover, so to speak.
It did not take too long before Hungarians rose against this ice age (though it must have seemed long to those being repressed). Tibor Fischer’s book – Under the Frog – gives a brilliant picture of that time, which is astonishing to me since he was born and brought up only forty miles from my home town of Liverpool in England. But the repression needed more stability than it could provide. And the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 was, of course, Hungary’s second moment in the Cold War.
Its importance rests on several pillars. It was the first major post-war demonstration of the failure of communism to garner popular support in an already occupied and disciplined satellite. The East German workers’ uprising had preceded it three years before. It was a modest propaganda victory for the West. But it took place too soon after 1945 for the rest of the world to respond with real sympathy. Its principal significance is that it provoked Bertolt Brecht into remarking that the people of East Germany had lost the confidence of the government – and that accordingly the government had decided to dissolve the people and elect a new one. That has the distinction of being the only joke by Brecht that is both truthful and funny.
Khrushchev’s secret speech also preceded the uprising by a few months. But that speech is the great alibi of the pro-communist and neutralist Left – it is their claim that their own side had begun to reform before being required to do so by others. But the fact that the speech was followed by the repression of 1956 demonstrated that military repression was a crucial element in the communist system – as some hardliners realised from the start. It could not be dispensed with unless the heirs of Stalin were prepared to see their proletarian empire go the way of Nineveh and Tyre. They were not.
The consequences of the failure of 1956 were, however, extraordinarily mixed – in the short term bad, in the long term more hopeful.
The first short term result was the realisation on all sides that the West would not risk a nuclear war with the USSR for the sake of nations behind the Iron Curtain. Whatever its vices, the Cold War was for the next quarter century, until Reagan in fact, a force for stability in world politics. Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic had to learn to live with their status as unwilling hostages under communist regimes. There would be no military solution for them. Other methods for “liberating” them would have to be discovered – and few people had the appetite for such apparent fantasies in the 1950s and 1960s.
Almost two decades later, this lacuna would be filled by Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik. This was an attempt to obtain improvement in the lives of people behind the Iron Curtain in return for giving a measure of respectability and legitimacy to their illegitimate governments. As such it had some humane achievements to its credit – and, with Helsinki, some diplomatic achievements too. But western politicians had to lie to themselves in order to lie to their peoples about Eastern and Central Europe. And social democrats in Europe came to believe many of their own lies. Thus, when Solidarity emerged in Poland, offering a real challenge to “really existing socialism”, its leaders such as Walesa were an embarrassment to western democrats (not all on the Left) and were initially shunned nervously. When liberation finally arrived in 1989 and 1991, Ostpolitik had very little to do with it. My own judgment – which others here may contest – is that in retrospect Ostpolitik was a historical dead end.
Another early consequence of 1956 was the disarray and discrediting of the western pro-communist Left. Attempts to deny the reality of Soviet brutality continue to be made in the West even today, but in 1956 this could not be done realistically. You had the Budapest correspondent of The Daily Worker resigning and joining the revolutionaries – that kind of thing. The old Western Left, disciplined and able to support Moscow even over such crimes as the Nazi–Soviet Pact, more or less shrank into its proletarian bolt-holes. It was soon replaced, however, by the so-called New Left which, after an interval, became an even more difficult problem for western governments. Its public stance was one of independence from Moscow and rejection of Soviet imperialism, but it generally found it easier to sympathise with the Eastern Bloc and with Third World socialists rather than with its own democratic governments. In due course it became the basis of America’s “anti-Vietnam” protests and Europe’s “peace movement”. Moscow controlled neither movement, but it exploited them more effectively than if they had been under its direction. These movements flourished independently until the collapse of communism undermined their raison d’être and credibility. Their subsequent mutation is outside the bounds of this discussion.
A more intangible effect of 1956 arises with the spread of its talented diaspora. Many thousands of gifted Hungarians left their country and settled as far afield as Australia, the United States, and across Western Europe. The contributions they made to their adopted countries were incalculably beneficial. Nowhere have I heard the kind of objections to Hungarian refugees that one regularly encounters in relation to other refugee and asylum-seeking groups. To some degree this is because everyone knew what the Hungarians had fled from; they received instinctive sympathy. But it also reflects the performance of the Hungarians in their adopted countries. They assimilated well and quickly, and were soon more than repaying their hosts.
Even though assimilated, however, they were eloquent voices critical of communism and the Soviet empire. The eminence many soon achieved in their fields of scholarship and enterprise added weight to their criticisms. And in the United States especially, they formed the influential “captive nations” lobby with other émigré groups, to press for a realistic foreign policy and, in time, to provide Reagan with intellectual heft.
But their influence goes beyond that. Every Hungarian in the West, however he might wish to avoid politics, was a silent witness to the barbarity of the Soviet system. Simply by being present at a dinner party, he prevented certain lies being told and certain excuses being made. Other people were reminded by his raised eyebrows that the Soviets had broken solemn promises, that they had murdered diplomatic envoys, that they had imposed new rulers whose trustworthiness was rooted in the fact that they had previously been tortured and knew what defiance would cost.
A good example of this quiet influence occurs in the play An Englishman Abroad by Alan Bennett. Mr Bennett is about as good a specimen of the decent well-meaning English middle-class liberal as you will find. His play re-works the real-life story of the Australian actress Coral Browne who visited Moscow playing Shakespeare, met the exiled communist Guy Burgess, was charmed by him, and returned to London with a list of instructions on what to buy in the up-market shops he had frequented before he defected. Harrods, Fortnums, Selfridges, and so on. They all take his orders and all agree to send the goods onto Moscow. She calls finally at Sulkas in Bond Street.
When she orders a man’s silk dressing gown, the shop assistant asks to whom, to which regular client, it is to be sent.
She replies: “To Mr Burgess.”
“Mr Guy Burgess?” asks the shop assistant. “Mr Burgess the traitor?”
This question provokes Coral Browne to an outburst attacking English nationalism, English hypocrisy, English snobbery, English … well, anything and everything English.
“That may very well be true, Madam”, replies the shop assistant. “But we in this shop are not English. We are Hungarian.”
And that, as she admits, silenced and shamed her. For it was not long after 1956. That little scene is not fictional; it occurred. And it was one of many such scenes in the years following. We will never know their full influence. But they helped keep the West aware of the continuing imprisonment of whole nations only a stone’s throw from its own neon existence. Hungary’s third moment is difficult to establish with precision; really it consists of several moments in the new course of “goulash communism” that began six years after the crushing of the 1956 uprising. One could cite the 8th Communist Party congress in 1962 or the adoption of the “new economic mechanism” in 1966 as turning points. But perhaps the best way to describe the mature phase of the Kádár regime is that it decided to corrupt Hungarians instead of oppressing them. It allowed farmers to have private plots of land; it gave greater freedom to travel; it permitted some limited publication of samizdat; it loosened the restraints that communism imposed on both the mind and the body. But it did not remove them. And it gave these freedoms in return for abstinence from politics – and, more insidiously, in return for making one’s peace with the regime a purely private peace. It did not allow the cultural exchange and debate that flowered in Poland under the aegis of the Church (though not confined to Church members). It was a diversion from civil society rather than a preparation for it.
I would in fact compare goulash communism inside with Ostpolitik from outside. Both extended some humane freedoms to ordinary people in return for conceding a degree of legitimacy to the regimes. In both, however, the freedom was on the regime’s terms and was less freedom than a narrow license of a very limited kind. The essential fraudulence here was revealed in 1984 when Mrs Thatcher, visiting Hungary, was shown a housing estate and told proudly that the people living there were allowed to buy their own homes. It was a restoration of private property. She at once asked: are these new owners allowed to sell the properties to others if they wished? She was told that, no, they were obliged to sell them back to the state at a fixed price when they moved. (There could be no real market price, after all, in the absence of a housing market.)
Nonetheless, this limited freedom led inexorably to demands for genuine freedom – Hungary’s fourth moment – but when it arrived many Hungarians had become used to the kind of limited freedom that meant depending on the state for essentials and being given pocket money for treats. The fourth moment was the Pan-European picnic on the Hungarian–Austrian border on 19 August 1989 – two months after George Bush’s speech in the rain on Kossuth Square. The events of 1989 are among the most extraordinary in human history – a peaceful rolling revolution across a continent. Hungary’s start of dismantling the border surveillance barriers in May 1989; reform Communist Foreign Minister Gyula Horn cutting not the ribbon but the barbed wire ceremoniously in July; the picnic itself organised by the opposition Hungarian Democratic Forum and sponsored by a Habsburg and the leading reform communist Imre Pozsgay and finally the growing flood of East German refugees, 70,000 by the end, whose departure doomed East Germany, the Berlin Wall, the Czechoslovak regime, the remnants of communist rule in Poland and here, and within two years the entire apparatus of Soviet power. There is a secret history of these developments that we do not yet know, but that hints at some initial KGB involvement in a plan to replace hardliners with reform communists. But popular feeling, the historical process itself, the momentum change and hope, the role of Pope John Paul II himself, took over from the planners and created a new Europe and a new world.
REAGAN AND BUSH
When we come to the end of the Cold War, we come also to the relationship between Presidents Reagan and Bush. They were, of course, partners in foreign policy over Reagan’s eight years. They lunched weekly in the White House to discuss all political but mainly foreign affairs. Reagan gave Bush responsibility for handling major crises; for instance, he was placed in charge of the small committee handling the Grenada crisis. There does not seem to have been any major dispute between them over that period – not the kind of thing over which vice-presidents agonise and threaten to resign. That was mainly because Bush took seriously the fact that he was the President’s first deputy.
He was Vice-President, after all, precisely because at the 1980 Republican Convention Reagan had rejected the attempt of those backing ex-President Gerry Ford as his running mate to get a guarantee that this would produce a “co-presidency” in which Ford would run foreign policy. Reagan’s rejection of this was firm, immediate, even brutal. He marched down to the Convention at 10.00 pm at night and, against all precedent, announced that he would nominate Bush to be his running mate. He did so to prevent any likelihood that the Ford people might generate an unstoppable momentum for the co-presidency idea overnight. It was an act of determination and leadership – and in retrospect it told us a great deal about what a Reagan presidency would be like. George Bush is very unlikely to have forgotten it. He shaped his behaviour as Vice-President accordingly. Of course, he also wanted Reagan’s backing in the campaign against Jack Kemp and others to succeed him. And that too dictated going along with his boss.
When the actual transfer of authority arrived, however, a very different mood took over. Bush himself never said a bad word against Reagan; he is a gentleman through and through. He would have thought such behaviour shameful. (Reagan likewise never publicly criticised Bush.) But stories emerged about Barbara Bush’s resentment that the Reagans had never invited them to a private dinner upstairs at the White House. There was a house-cleaning of Reaganite radicals in the new administration. Many Reaganites compared the transition to an unfriendly corporate takeover. And the word was put about by senior aides to the President that the “adults” had now taken over the conduct of policy, especially foreign policy. In particular they criticised Reagan for an overly “soft” policy on Gorbachev, the Soviet Union, and nuclear issues. The earliest signs of a Bush foreign policy were that it would be more suspicious towards Gorbachev, tougher on arms control, and more sceptical of massive spontaneous change than Reagan had been.
Those differences reflected a difference in the personalities of the two men. Reagan was a much more visionary and “moral” President than even his admirers realised at the time: Bush was a far more pragmatic President whose attitude to foreign policy was a so-called “realist” one – wedded to realpolitik at least analytically. Bush almost certainly did not expect 1989 to develop as dramatically and as historically as it did. Nor did Reagan – but Reagan’s philosophy had more room in it for such possibilities than Bush’s cool analytical judgement.
Yet Bush’s skills were better suited to managing the developing crisis than Reagan’s inspired leaps of faith. And as 1989 developed, he responded to the moment and he allowed his initial caution to be transformed, but never abandoned, by others – by a lady who held an umbrella for him in the torrential rain in Kossuth Square, by Helmut Kohl among statesmen who persuaded him to be more welcoming to German Unity. At times he was overly cautious – the Chicken Kiev speech comes to mind; but he was never reckless or provocative. And he kept Gorbachev on board the train of historical liberation.
One might say that 1989 was provoked and prepared by Reagan like a kind of magician, but managed intelligently by Bush as a kind of diplomat. Maybe God deserves some of the credit for ensuring that the two Presidents were elected in the right order and at the right times.
Maybe Hungary too, with its national spirit of serious frivolity, deserves credit for its role in helping to end the Cold War not only peacefully but even in a spirit of celebration. To misquote T. S. Eliot:
This is the way a world ends, This is the way a world ends, This is the way a world ends, Not with a Bang but a Picnic!