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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.


Czarny Kot said...

The standard Western version of events is what I was brought up on but after a couple of years here in Poland, i've learnt to see things in a much more nuanced light.

It has nothing to do with ideology, just basing opinion on what I hear from people who were around at the time.

The most virulently anti-Communists are often those too young to remember it who have grown up in the new free-market Poland where most problems are still blamed on the old system.

My mother-in-law often despairs of the new Poland and claims that her life was better in the old days. My family-in-law weren't priviliged party members. My father-in-law had all doors to career development closed to him when he decided to have his daughter, my wife, christened. They remember the good and the bad.

"Before we had money but the shops were empty. Now the shops are full of things we can't afford."

As Mr. Clark points out, the Communists were part of the transformation, not victims of it. In the case of Poland the Communists were an integral part of the Round Table which led to a peaceful transition.

ed said...

I'm certainly with you on your perspectives. I agree that there has been a continuous media onslaught on the very term of 'communism' itself via a flawed attachment of state capitalist regimes with 'communism', along with, as you pointed out, underplaying the 'camaraderie' that managed to survive despite the state capitalist subversion of the communist ethos.

Perhaps this survived with the aid of the state capitalists too - since the people were not really allowed to take on the capitalist ethos unto themselves as it was reserved for the state;)

Whenever people say 'communism' fell in 1989, i always flinch as they are speaking of the fall of a system that had been subverted from the start.

Thanks for the article. Most informative.

comrade ed;)

Iulian said...

Parts of your commentary are true for Hungary's larger socialist bloc neighbour, Romania.

Just as you said, the main thing people wanted to change was the oppressive nature of the political regime, not the economic system. Here in Romania, this was even more the case given the existence of a dictatorial figure and an extreme cult of personality.

As Czarny points out, there is a similar ongoing process here in Romania of blaming most problems on the old system. Likewise, people grown-up during the 1990s are the most virulent, thanks to a narrative repeated over an over again by “professional” anti-Communists.

Thank you very much for such a different and refreshing analysis than the typical Western media with its “reformists” vs. conservatives (neo-communists) stereotype.

john said...

It is interesting how Soros is lobbying and positioning the Roma for greater representation/influence in Hungry.
Ever heard of the Frankfurt School and Karl Popper?

He also he something to do with the police in Hungry I don’t know what that’s about though.

Neil Clark said...

Czarny Kot 'the most virulenty anti-communists are often those too young to remember it'- quite- as Iulian says- the brainwashing of the younger generation since 1989 has been intense.
The media narrative in the west on communism/post-communism is largely written by people who have never spent any length of time in eastern europe. And those that do go venture there, seldom leave the capitals. They don't see the reality of life in eastern europe today and how for most people daily life is much more difficult than twenty years ago.
Yet that still doesn't stop them from sounding off about how things have 'improved' since 1989.

ed- many thanks. the onslaught against communism and indeed any other alternatives to neoliberalism has only intensified since the global economic crisis. The question that Seumas Milne once asked is- why- if it is so obvious that communism was so terrible, do people spend do much time attacking it? They i.e. the global financial elite and their political emissaries- are terrified that people will realise that there are credible and workable alternatives to the present system.
Iulian-thanks. you make some very good points. I wonder how long they'll keep trying to blame communism for the post-1989 problems.