These last, however – and let us not fool ourselves – are not great in number; the political and social lives of so many people were unaffected. The greater portion of society deals only occasionally and rather superficially with affairs over and above those affecting their daily lives. This is true even in West European countries, but this is especially so in contemporary Hungarian society; especially for those who were socialized, so successfully, by the longlasting Kádár era. To turn one’s back on public affairs and direct one’s attention towards the prime financial and consumer values was exactly the essence of the Kádár regime.
Forgetting the 1956 Revolution, disguising the illegitimacy of the regime, pacifying the rebellious Hungarians, and in this way, protecting the reign of the party, seemed to be the most surefire solution. While the standard of living was maintained, even at the cost of loans which burdened the future, the Kádár regime seemed not only stable, but to a great extent remained legitimate. Only when economic troubles settled in, and during the thickening period of the financial crunch, did this stable foundation start to deteriorate.
Values, however, survived deep down. Beliefs, viewpoints, and values change slower than the actual conditions of life. It was conceivable that at the darkest time of communist rule – even if only in the secluded world of the family –, the civil values of the past decades still lived vividly in many: the honour of the craftsman, the discipline of the civil servant, the posture of the intellectuals. Later, socialist industrialization, the reorganization of districts, individual politics which rewarded mediocrity, and the many decades of pseudo-scientific ideology bereft of any values, accomplished their tasks.
At the historic moment of the change of political regime, grave problems were evident in our society. This was most evident in the economy: the country’s outward debt, the large industrial and agricultural conglomerates, the bankruptcy of agricultural cooperatives, the export deficit as a result of the lack of international competitiveness, inflation, and hidden but rapidly increasing unemployment. The consciousness of society was however incoherent and contradictory in 1989–90; the expectations of a large part of society were far removed from reality. In such a situation in which values were absent, it was a miracle József Antall was able to lead his party to victory in the elections, and to form a functioning centre-right coalition.
Like all societies, ours is also complex, and consists of differing age groups with different value systems, with different backgrounds and future prospects. The political Hungarian middle class, with its values and sense of mutual support, grew extremely weak and diluted toward the end of the 1980s. While that segment of society which we sometimes refer to with sorrow, other times with bitterness, as Kádár’s people, grew and grew. This term is appropriate to many of our compatriots, especially to those who neither understand nor value the concept of patriotism. It fits the apolitical and atheistic. For them, József Antall was truly hard to follow. Initially, not because he spoke like a teacher or because he did not live with the popular gestures of the television age, but rather because what he spoke about did not resonate in Kádár’s people.
We must know and understand the circumstances of the values and decisions of Antall regarding the restructuring of the Hungarian State, Euro-Atlantic connections, the lack of a united nation as a result of the chopping up of borders, as issues which require knowledge and understanding. This, however, proved impossible for a wide layer of society.
This was not possible, because history did not make it possible. The success of the pacification policies of Kádár deprived a large segment of the population of the ability to glance past the veal cutlets on the Sunday table into a home, suddenly transformed into a stage on which political events of global importance were unfolding. We must, however, be understanding towards them. József Antall did not use Kádárite attributes on small men, while he felt the strong presence of Kádárite intellectuals, Kádárite businessman, and the Kádárite apparatus. As long as it seemed that the democrats were the major rivals, he was wary of the socialist party’s return: not because of their talents, but rather because of the size of the supporting layer, which had little self-esteem. Even though, as his critics and friends noted, he did not make political gestures toward this wide, non political, civil middle-class. We can see that his successors worked seriously with those layers of society, and how, despite their limited acquaintance and narrow horizons, their sheer numbers were able to decide elections.
They say that Antall did not adequately understand these layers of society. Although the fact is, that, before his political career, he lived and worked as a teacher and scholar, so he knew them well. Instead, I think, that he overestimated them, or more exactly, he had too high an opinion of the various classes of Hungarian society.
He was not alone in this. Those who had firsthand experience of the recovery after the Second World War, as well as the everyday heroes of the 1956 revolution, were able to believe in 1989, not out of naivety, but thanks to knowledge gained through experience that a major part of the nation can be swayed, because it is capable of and wants to change.
The emigrants of 1956 also carried with them the image of a heroic nation, and they waited for, and longed for, a repetition of the miracle. Those who lived here after 56 did not expect a miracle, but guarded within themselves, and with good reason, a picture of society that surpassed reality.
Since then, international surveys show that the Hungarian image and viewpoint are much more materialistic, selfish, and withdrawn than those of other nations. According to international surveys conducted after 2000, it is as if our homeland had slipped south, and south-west. Dependent to the last, we profit less from the opportunities created by membership in the European Union than everyone else. We are the only new member state, whose per capita income, on an international scale, was unable to close in on the European Union average after 2004.
We analyze the reasons and determining factors within the columns of this periodical. It appears that there is a connection between our current troubles and the social inheritance of the Kádár era, which we carry with us to this day. It is evident that, two decades on, we are still unable to rid ourselves of the financial, and, to a greater extent, the human deficit of that era. From reckoning without illusions, one string of tasks needs to be resolved for those who desire an improvement in the life of Hungarians in the third decade of the regime change. It follows, however, that we regard those with more respect, who – like József Antall at the head of his government – were able to undertake historical changes in a short period of time.