According to Marcel Proust, – perhaps this is the most exciting message of his work – there are extraordinary, magical moments of wonder in every lifetime, which interrupt the never-ending string of grey and painful seconds, and thereby give meaning to life. He was of course referring to private life – nothing else could come into consideration, since public life had no relevance for Proust. Or, as he held with his master Flaubert, history was unable to alter the course of one’s private life, either for better or for worse. We, of course, live one and a half thousand kilometres east of where they lived, and as a result, we have experienced or we have lived in the illusion to experience that history has its own exciting, magical, or we can state, uplifting moments.
I lived through two such moments. At least two, if my selection is very strict. The first of course was 23 October, 1956 at Bem Square, where, along with fellow students from my grammar school – since the Toldy was very close –, we arrived way before the beginning of the mass rally and where we were filmed by the news team; however, this documentary film was never to reach the theatres. It is difficult to put into words just what made manifest the magic of that afternoon and what was its explanation. The most important part of that fragile moment,
however, was the complete identification and the complete togetherness, and the feeling that all of uswho were there wanted the same thing: not only to eliminate, deny, and forget the past and recent past, but at the same time to bring about and bring to life something new, which of course resembled a historical picture. Those few hours were like when the I dissolves in the we, like a homecoming, a lasting suspension of the constant grinding and struggles of life, some kind of magical, but only momentarily possible awareness of wholeness.
The memory, the memory of this wonder, remained of decisive importance for me (and evidently for many others, as well) in the years to follow. Slowly, it started to become mythical because it was not repeatable, while at the same time like myths, it seemed to create a foundation for everything else. However, the mythical scale is different from that of human life. In those many years after the Revolution, we lived in a world, which, compared to a human life, seemed everlasting and unchangeable. For reference, the 150 years of Ottoman Turkish occupation of Central Hungary, between 1541 and 1686, appeared in our minds. The hope of regaining our freedom vanished into an unfathomable future.
The Empire, within which we lived even though we were at its borders, had already existed for decades; and we were aware that the life of empires, like that of Rome or the Byzantine Empire, was not measured in years or decades but in hundreds if not thousands of years.
Prague in 1968 – and then Gdansk and Warsaw in the beginning of the ‘80s – only deepened the conviction and reinforced the belief that nothing else could follow for us here, only – borrowing the title of Sigmund Freud’s book – the psychopathology of everyday life.
Although I knew József Antall – the future Prime Minister of democratic Hungary – as a young professor from my student years at Toldy, during all the long aftermath of the fallen Revolution we never met. So I was not aware at the time (which since then has become evident from the reports of informers and secret police agents quoted in the books of János M. Rainer), that there was at least one man in Hungary, Antall, who did not agree with the generally shared forecast, and who knew and believed that the regime of the Empire would soon collapse. Only in the second half of the ‘80s did most of us begin to feel that the system began to creak and crack in the economy, which of course did not in the least influence the effectiveness of the organs and networks of repression.
In September 1987, I was invited by the Mikes Kelemen Circle to the Netherlands, to the annually organized gathering of Hungarian intellectuals in exile in Western Europe.
Present among other exiles such prominent men of letters as Lóránt Czigány, László Péter and Mátyás Sárközi from London, Endre Karátson and Béla Faragó from Paris, while the most prominent writers intellectuals from Hungary were Péter Balassa, László Krasznahorkai, and Péter Vallai. The topic of discussion was mostly literature or history, but sometimes, in fact quite often we also talked about politics. I remember in the course of one discussion that the question of free elections came up, and I felt that at last it was a topic for discussion; however, I thought that we would not live to see the days of free elections, they were so distant. I was only reinforced in this belief by an issue of the Budapest underground paper Beszélo which I got from Balassa and in which the spokespeople of the group calling themselves “the Democratic opposition” formulated at length their political goals. Accordingly, the Communist Party would transfer a portion of its power to civil society; however, it would retain for itself a decisive part and only a certain number of representatives could be freely elected, the rest which represented a majority would continue to be elected and appointed by the Party. This plan was shocking and repulsive; however, I thought that if those who possessed greater insight in politics than I did saw the strength of power, then we could not even hope for change in the near future.
The Polish events as late as the summer of 1989 only seemed to reinforce this theory. The first partially free elections there took on this unorthodox format (some representatives were freely elected while the majority was appointed).
I remember another important experience from this period of the late 1980s, which was the re-reading of works of Gyula Szekfu, the leading historian of the inter-war period. In his major book Három nemzedék (Three Generations) I found a passage which said that a political system that is only based on hatred can not survive for long. It was a statement that generated hope if – as I immediately did – one applied it to our immediate situation, “the state of being invaded” (which was the favourite expression of Endre Karátson). Decades later, but this is another story, I attempted to find again this sentence in the Szekfu work; however, I was unable to locate it and the only explanation I can think of today is that this aphoristic conclusion was my own deduction at the time from the train of thought of the historian.
This transitional period of the late eighties, the grey zone, then came to an abrupt end. Demonstrations followed one another suddenly; however, it was as if awkward fear had not entirely disappeared. I can still see the picture of how we marched down on the pavement of wide Alkotmány (Constitution) Street to Parliament – this was the protest rally against the Gabcikovo-Nagymaros dam, with a multitude of people taking part. I was already close to Kossuth Lajos Square, when suddenly Péter Esterházy and Mihály Kornis appeared, running beside the wall on the sidewalk on the left side. Later Esterházy said, and if I remember correctly, he also wrote that the 25 October volley of gunfire in 1956 by the State Protection Authority (ÁVH) took place exactly there where we were heading, in front of the Ministry of Agriculture. (Since then we have learnt that their fears were not totally unfounded. Some hardliners in the higher echelons of communist power did clamour for the repeat of that brutal retaliation – but were fortunately voted down.) However, as the monumental mass demonstrations followed each other, the strongest paralyzing agent of the last forty years began to wear off – fear. On this beautiful summer day, the day of reburial, suddenly but not unexpectedly, the scale was tipped. Deliberately or accidentally fear gave room to something new, hope.
There were a lot of us on Heroes’ Square (Hosök tere) that day, on 16 June, 1989 – the crowd was then estimated at four hundred thousand. The preparations were unusual. The reburial of the executed martyrs of the 1956 Revolution was organized by the Historical Justice Committee (TIB). They planned speeches and the placing of wreaths. A compromise was in the making, because bizarrely, the rulers also wished to take part in the reburial of those persons whom they had executed. Since then, much talk has appeared in the press as to what exactly happened behind the scenes during the preparations. Much more important, in my opinion, is everything that happened in the forefront. All of us who were present felt that a turnaround could take place, or perhaps, was taking place already, because the foundation on which the Kádár regime had stood for thirty three years (this number is unusual because of its associations) of oppression, apparently unswaying, now suddenly disappeared with one fell swoop.
I also had a personal angle on the background debates preceding the event. At that time the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) still operated out of the Budai Vigadó building, in a quite chaotic manner. That is where, as a member of the foreign relations branch, a few days prior to 16 June, I heard the formidable István Csurka take to account the members of the presidium: how could they accept, while he was abroad, that during the ceremonies not one single MDF leader would be speaking, whereas the MDF represented the only opposition organization that was able to mobilize large crowds. Moreover, as it was also stated, the new Party would supply the voluntary organizers – Sándor Lezsák, in charge of the party grassroots regulars, guaranteed two thousand men for the mission.
At that time Antall was not even a member of the Presidium of MDF, he was to be elected President only as late as October. However, he was active and he initiated two organizations: the Hungarian branch of the Paris Human Rights League, and the Hungarian branch of the European Movement (Mouvement Européen). He had a dual goal with these organizations as I view it in retrospect. On the one hand, he wished to surround himself with the people that would help him in his future work, while on the other hand, he strove to place the evolving Party (that he had still not steered) in the traditional (Conservative-Christian Democratic, Liberal, Socialist) categories of West European parties, the party structure of the European Community. The League was formed in April inside the large meeting room of the Medical History Museum, of which Antall was Director, with the participation of three Parisian Hungarians, Paul Tar, Thomas Philippovich, and Peter Kende, who were officers of the mother organizations, and with the poet Sándor Csoóri, a charismatic figure of the MDF as Vice President. Characteristically for the times, in a modest room a group of mostly obscure people gathered on that occasion – who were all to come into greater prominence during the following years. The future President of Hungary, Árpád Göncz and Miklós Vásárhelyi, already the Budapest Head of the Soros Foundation, became the other Vice-Presidents. The Treasurer was future Minister of the Interior Péter Boross, while I became Secretary-General. Antall remained in the background; he took a position only on the Board of Directors, along with the novelist Miklós Mészöly, poet and Americanist Gyula Kodolányi, his wife, art historian Mária Illyés, political scientist Rudolf Joó, and engineer Imre Mécs, a prominent ‘56-er, and others.
The League of course also laid a wreath at the reburial ceremony of 16 June. The decision was made that I along with Thomas Philippovich would place the wreath at the foot of the virtual bier at Heroes’ Square. On the previous day, we had to confer at the TIB headquarters. We were shown all kinds of newly emerging lists, once secret documents connected to the terror after the Revolution of 1956 ; the names of those who were executed, and would be read out during the ceremony, and other documents as well, like the list of names of those that were sentenced to death during the court proceedings. My breath suddenly stopped, as I looked at this list of names; I saw the name of Péter Czájlik, my grammar school classmate, born in 1940, so there could be no mistake, he was still alive, but his sentence was reduced from death to life in prison. He was one of the members of the Széna Square squad. This was logical as I later found out, since he lived on Ezredes Street. Czájlik was noted for the fact that he got scarlet fever in the third grade which at that time meant quarantine and later came with unforgiving disinfection. We collected books and toys for him in class. We did not loan these to him but gave them to him permanently since all infected objects were destroyed when the quarantine ended. I had not seen him since third grade and he remained a small boy with glasses in my mind. I cannot comprehend how Czájlik became an armed revolutionary at sixteen.
It was a captivating, breath stopping moment, when at Heroes’ Square, they read the names of those executed. I thought to myself that he too, the same age as I and virtually a child in 1956 could also be on that list. The same way that Peter Mansfeld was on that list. We left early in the morning that day with Anikó, the sun was shining beautifully, and after successfully parking the car somewhere in the City Park, we walked to the Square where the crowd was slowly beginning to assemble. The ever increasing crowd was calm, quiet, and dignified; I believe that all of us who were there felt that this signified a tremendous, unbeatable power. The most moving event was the reading of the list of victims, a real mourning work as Paul Ricoeur would say. The placing of the wreath, however, brought back memories of the never ending and extremely comical, boring old newsreels, if the new cast did not prevail. But prevail it did, the old, and the customary; the president of the Parliament, the president of the Cabinet, and the president of the Patriotic Home Front were only a few of the many. Brand new organizations, establishments, representatives of little or totally unknown committees stole the star role. The elite of the Kádár government no longer dominated the scene, the scale was tipped, and one could feel that the new guard was now the stronger. The Party members, at least for those three-four hours, melted into the new majority. The fear finally ended, and the thirty years’ spell of ingrained and depressing paralysis was over at last.
The speeches were rhetorical in nature. This is when I usually switch off, and I only follow the rhythm of the oration that is made up of prefabricated elements. This was the case then as well. The final speech suddenly woke me up. A bearded young man spoke of a sixth coffin in which the Hungarian youth rests, that youth whose life was broken in two by the defeat of the Revolution. There truly were six coffins on the porch of the gallery; we placed our wreaths in front of these: five contained the remains of Imre Nagy and his co-workers while the sixth one was empty and represented the fate of the Hungarian youth. The speaker told of evident facts; however, they were the type of evident facts that had never been publicly uttered until then. He spoke about the fact that the MSzMP – the Communist party – was responsible for the dire situation of Hungary, that if they gave us our basic constitutional rights, this would not be an act of generosity, but only providing the minimum, and that finally, deep rooted changes have to occur. The young bearded man was Viktor Orbán, a leader of the Association of Young Democrats. Since April 2010, the Prime Minister of Hungary, after a first term in 1998–2002.
I remember acutely the day in 1958, when the official Communist Party newspaper Népszabadság reported in a brief communiqué that the court trial of Imre Nagy and other leaders of the 1956 revolutionary government, a trial which up until then we did not know even existed, had come to an end and the defendants were found guilty. They were all sentenced to death and the sentence had already been carried out. I had just graduated and one of our classmates, Péter Incze, did not attend the banquet: his sister came in his place and informed us that he had been arrested two days earlier. I was overtaken by helpless rage as I read the news article.
Next came the college entrance exam. The previous night my father sat down with me and very seriously asked me that if the topic of public life came up – we knew that F., the KISZsecretary (communist youth organisation) would also be present as a member of the acceptance board and that he possessed a militia weapon – I should try to avoid the answer.
What could I have said at home? It was not a habit of my father to directly hand out advice like this. Anyway, I promised that I would keep quiet. F., by the way, was to take a position in the Socialist Horn-government in 1994, five years after the symbolic burial of the martyrs – he was not unpleasant with me.
Now on 16 June, 1989 I could finally, openly say that which I could only say between the walls of my own home. And the Party leaders, unbelievable as it sounds, said almost the same thing. The atmosphere was peaceful, the hope infinite. I felt again the same as on 23 October, the melting of the I and the we.
At that time I was, of course, already familiar with Sigmund Freud’s Mass Psychology, in which, using fine logic, he derives the dangers of this type of melting, which can only take place, according to him, if momentarily for the sake of the we the I suspends the thought process, gives up its critical spirit and totally gives itself to the feelings of the crowd, their movements, and their goals. He uses the army and the church as examples where this type of selfdissolution is perfect. Is this what happened to us on that exceptional afternoon? Selfsacrifice?
In contrast to the free spirit as Nietzsche states, the triumph of the fixed spirit? Maybe not. It occurs to me that neither one nor the other lived through the historical moments of 1956 or 1989. Irony which on other occasions helps us to live by bringing this painfully split world to a common level, on those occasions is suspended for one moment (a historical moment), and we triumphantly live the feeling of wholeness.
The most fortunate thing in my life is to have lived through two such historical moments.