Friday, October 16, 2009
Hungary and the Great Myth of 1989
This article of mine appears in the First Post.
Twenty years ago this month, the downtrodden people of eastern Europe took to the streets and rose up against their communist oppressors. The corrupt tyrannical regimes, universally despised, were swept away by this unstoppable surge of 'people power'. Free elections were then held and everyone lived happily ever after.
So goes the standard Western version of the historic events of October and November 1989, brought to you faithfully by CNN and Fox News.
There's just one thing wrong with the narrative: it's a myth.
It wasn't the strength of public opposition that ended communist rule over eastern Europe - but the actions of leading communists themselves. And the country which played the pivotal role in the dramatic events of 1989 was Hungary.
It was Hungary's communist government which in early January 1989 permitted the establishment of non-communist parties and allowed freedom of assembly and association. It was Hungary's government which made the fateful decision to open to East Germans the country's border with Austria, triggering the exodus of thousands of East German holidaymakers to the West. ("It was quite obvious to me that this would be the first step in a landslide-like series of events," Hungarian Foreign Minister Gyula Horn said later).
Even before the demonstrations of the autumn, the Hungarian government had already negotiated with anti-communist groups over the country's transition to a non-communist system.
From 1956-88, Hungary had been led by a committed communist, Janos Kadar, 'The Good Comrade' of Roger Gough's 2006 biography. Kadar had warned that "those who joined us (the communist party) for selfish, personal reasons for a career or other motives will be asked to leave". But by the 1980s, the upper echelons of Hungary's ruling communist party was full of people who had little - if any- ideological commitment to the ideals of Marx and Lenin.
These self-styled 'reformers' ousted Kadar in May 1988, and after Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev told the UN Assembly in December that year that Soviet troops would withdraw from eastern Europe, the final decisive moves to destroy communism could be made.
In an interview with the BBC earlier this year, Imre Pozsgay, Hungary's Minister of State in 1989, admitted that he had been working from within the government in order to bring the system down. "I came to the conclusion that I could do more for my country from the inside, in a position of power than as a marginalised opposition figure."
The great irony is that in Hungary in the late 1980s, there was more support for communism among ordinary people than there was among the ruling communist elite.
Because the accounts we read in the West are nearly always from the hostile perspective of upper or middle-class émigrés or dissidents, the achievements of communism in eastern Europe have tended to be ignored.
For all its faults, communism provided job security, generous welfare provisions (Hungary's system of maternity leave, which provided working mothers with three years' paid leave of absence for each of her children was described as "unique even by international standards"), and good standards of education and health care. It also engendered a spirit of camaraderie that more individualistic, capitalist societies often lack.
Even those who did take to the streets in eastern Europe in 1989 to protest against their governments were not calling for the introduction of free-market capitalism - but for a less authoritarian form of socialism. "Back then we still did believe it would be possible to create another type of socialism. There were many things that disturbed us and made us angry, but nevertheless we had a good life in many ways," Andreas Blazejewski, a street protestor in East Germany said in the BBC documentary The Lost World of Communism.
Of course, the people of eastern Europe didn't get what they wanted: the positive aspects of life under communism were lost along with the negative. As their economies were "reformed" millions lost their jobs and, for many, living standards plummeted.
But for the Hungarian 'insiders' who played such a key role in destroying communism, it was a different story:
• Miklos Nemeth, Hungary's last communist Prime Minister, was appointed Vice-President of the London-based European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.
• Gyula Horn, Hungary's Foreign Minister in 1989, was lauded by the West as he put his country on the path to Nato and EU membership when elected Prime Minister in 1994
• Peter Medgyessy, deputy prime minister in charge of economic affairs, became chairman and chief executive officer of Magyar Paribas Bank (a part of the French banking group) before he, too, returned as Hungarian Prime Minister, in 2002.
• Laszlo Kovacs, an important figure at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 1986, became the Foreign Minister who negotiated Hungary's entry into Nato in the 1990s and is now a superannuated EU Commissioner in Brussels.
The 'reformers' claimed to be acting in the best interests of Hungary. The system had to change they said - the economy was stagnating and there had to be major 'restructuring'.
It all sounds very reasonable, but when you look at the lucrative careers Hungary's faux-communist elite pursued after 1989, it's hard not to be cynical about their motivation.