REMEMBERING JÓZSEF ANTALL, A MAN FOR OUR TIME

Two notable anniversaries occurred in April, namely the twenty-second anniversary of the beginning of the work of the first democratic government since 1948, and the 80th anniversary of the birth of József Antall.

The following story reveals much about the nature of József Antall. On 16 December 1991, the Prime Minister travelled to Brussels with his delegation for the signing of the European Union agreement for Hungary. My son happened to also be on board and told me the story later. During the flight the passengers were informed that due to a severe snowstorm in Budapest it looked as though the plane would have to divert to Vienna for landing. My son was curled up in his seat a little apart from the delegation, when all of a sudden the Prime Minister appeared and asked him where he lived in the city and how he would get home. Antall was making sure everyone could find cars back to Budapest. As it turned out the snowstorm was not severe enough to prevent landing, and the delegation arrived safely in Budapest.

One of the exceptional features of József Antall’s complex personality was his sensitivity which would manifest itself at unexpected moments as on the aeroplane. After an extremely tiring day in Brussels, Antall could not have been expected to worry about how everyone would get home from Vienna. He would often take the time after an important event, however, to personally thank the driver, secretary or cook for their services. Looking back on the political life of the past twenty years though, it strikes me that this kind of sensitivity was more of a liability for a politician than an asset.

Among the myriad of issues facing the first Hungarian Prime Minister after the change of system were the stabilization and reorganization of the economy and institutional frameworks, both domestic and external, while at the same time attempting to build a parliamentary democracy and a patriotic nation. Antall also had to cope with the politics of the region including, of course, the welfare of Hungarians living beyond the borders of Hungary, not to mention the inherited challenges of reforming social policy, culture, and education. Also on the to-do list were swathes of new legislation to pass, an excessive number of laws requiring a two-thirds majority to amend, and new political party structures.

The essence of Hungary’s problems meanwhile was the immense damage done to the human capital of the country in general and politics and public life in particular by recent history. The trauma of the war left indelible marks on the population as did the suppressed tragedy of millions of lives lived under the age of terror and dictatorship, through 1956, the illegitimate glory of the Kádár system and the Aczél era with its restrictions on free thought.

“Heroes”such as those described in the book Homo sovieticus written by one of the most famous Soviet defectors Alexander Zinoviev seemed to permeate the country. There were more than eight hundred thousand registered communist party members just before the system collapsed. This was a world in which the prevailing philosophy was “what is yours is mine, but what is mine is none of your business”. A world in which people dreaded having individual responsibility. A world in which the whims of power were carried out unscrupulously. Perhaps this goes some way to explain why alcoholism became a national sport, and why a mentality developed in which it was considered a virtue to say that “for a little money you only get a little football”. The most important product of the so-called system was the creation of the “socialist man”, the successor to the homo sovieticus. He was a being bereft of all ideals or morals. He was nourished, supplied, supported and more or less cared for by the dictatorship, but confined within it as in a pen.

This figure was not, of course, a genetically degenerate Hungarian, but rather he embodied a widespread way of thinking which as it turned out was quickly discarded by many after the fall of the system. Many others though hung on. For Antall, this lingering mentality was perhaps his greatest adversary.

One of the most commonly heard components of the Antall myth is that he consciously prepared himself for politics due to a desire held since childhood to be a politician. In reality, though, circumstances dictated that this would not happen. In my humble opinion, his talent and suitability for the job are proven by the fact that he simply was not aware of what he had got himself into. In the case of someone of the stature of Antall, such secrets of a political career give rise to speculation.

When József Antall appears in public discourse today it is typically either in commentaries by frustrated and bitter contemporaries or in analyses in which comparisons are made between Antall’s tenure and the current political situation.

At the time of the changes, the sight of the ever-widening cracks and divisions and the reckless desire to widen these as far as possible, regardless of the consequences, was the determining factor. This is how Antall got immersed in politics. He was fascinated by politics and knew a lot about it, even if he had no direct experience of it. The new political era, after all, only started when Antall started. He had a rare level of insight into human nature and maintained an encyclopaedic store of information in his memory of prominent figures in public life. Everything was new. To successfully adapt required exceptional determination, sensitivity, and emotional awareness, qualities his Hungarian conservative middle class moral and cultural tradition and background equipped him with. He had to employ all of his political talents to anticipate, deal with, and in some cases counteract what his existing acquaintances as well as new faces on the political scene were up to, both allies and rivals. The government of József Antall belongs to the past, it is history, for many an inheritance. Even if one can examine what remains from that era, looking for political parallels from this period does not really make sense. Much that is written about that time is rather superficial. On the other hand, memories of Antall’s character and personality traits remain strong to this day.

It is often said of public figures of high standing that they possess both exceptional sensitivity as well as a heightened sense of irony. These are essential for self- knowledge and a keen understanding of social conditions and problems. Antall also had an aversion to both ostentation and the constant glare of the spotlight. For him, Conservatism was a moral choice in the face of the value-destructive tendencies of “homo sovieticus”. Thus a connection lives on with Antall and that period as many people today remain opposed to the same attitudes that Antall stood against, attitudes from the supposedly gone and forgotten Kádár period.

Translation by Iringó Klement

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