23 October 2014

1989, 25 years on: Hungary

A Hungarian flag with the communist coat of arms cut out - while they were actually removed after the 1956 Uprising, it remains a potent symbol of the events of 1989 (Guilherme Paula on Wikipedia)

Hungary, the second of the communist dominoes to fall, has definitely got one of the more interesting histories of any country in Europe. This landlocked former part of the Austrian Empire, its native population originated from the Urals and resulted in Hungarian being one of the three national languages in Europe in the Uralic family... so it doesn't sound like much else on the continent.

Of course, there is another reason of interest... because Hungary had already gotten rid of the communists before - for a short while.

The takeover

Hungary had been a member of the Axis powers during the war, participating in the war against the USSR and assisting in the Holocaust in a pretty large way. When the war started going badly, they began secret negotiations with the West, that eventually led to a German occupation... but eventually that was pushed aside by the Red Army.
The Soviets treated the Hungarians harshly - 600,000 were deported to the USSR and of those, two hundred thousand died in captivity. Just one of many crimes that the Soviet Union carried out over the years and one that should probably get more prominence.


The death of Stalin in 1953 and the later 'Secret Speech' of 1956 saw reform elements gaining influence in the governments of the soon to be created Warsaw Pact, including Hungary's prime minister, Imre Nagy, although he was removed from office in 1955. 
On 23 October, a large student demonstration that had started peacefully turned violent with the ÁVH (secret police) opening fire on the crowds... who then started to arm themselves. Hungarian soldiers sent to relieve them instead joined the crowd and the following morning the Soviet forces in Hungary, at the request of Working People's Party Secretary Ernő Gerő, began to intervene in the situation. An armed uprising, with all the associated things that involves (lynchings, citizens arming themselves etc.), was in full effect. By 28 October, the government had collapsed and Nagy became Prime Minister again.

Nagy announced constitutional changes and later that Hungary was going to leave the Warsaw Pact, to become neutral. The USSR decided against intervention on the 30th, but for various reasons that differ between sources, changed their mind the following day.

In November, a massive Soviet intervention in Hungary saw the new government removed from power pretty swiftly. Despite some strong public condemnation, the West could do little; there was a risk of things escalating into a global war and events in Suez had damaged the reputation of the NATO powers (if they could intervene in Egypt, why couldn't the Soviets intervene in Hungary?). About 50 million dollars (in today's money) was raised to support the refugees via appeals, including on US television.

Western European communist parties splintered badly over this; between those who supported the invasion and those who opposed it; much of their former power had gone not to return.

Nagy fled to the Yugoslav embassy (Yugoslavia having broken from the Soviet bloc), but despite a written assurance of safe passage from the new leadership, he was arrested on leaving, tried in secret and hanged. His trial and sentence weren't announced until they were done and he was buried in an unmarked grave... his hands and feet tied with barbed wire (he was dead! What did they think he was going to do?).  

Immediately after, the Hungarian water polo team played the Soviet one in a semi-final match at the Melbourne Olympics. An angry Hungary team won the contest 4-0 in what was dubbed the "Blood in the Water" match, with violent conduct from the outset and the tie being ended with a minute left to play after a crowd invasion that resulted from one of the Hungarians getting an eye gash after being punched. Hungary beat Yugoslavia 2-1 in the final and half their Olympic delegation defected to the West afterwards.

The intervening years 

After the initial violent retribution, János Kádár (a leader in the uprising who had switched sides when told that the old leadership would otherwise be restored, although it could be argued that he should have said no anyway) lifted many of the restrictions and while still authoritarian compared with the West, it was less so than the other COMECON countries.

There were some economic reforms and the country got relatively high living standards (for COMECON), but Hungary ended up with many of the same problems of its neighbours; high foreign debt, low-quality domestic goods and housing shortages, despite the widespread construction of Panelház, tower blocks of the sort that were widespread during this time on both sides of the Iron Curtain and are still numerous today; 17.5% of the population of Hungary lived in one in 2011. International tourism played a big role in Hungary's economy, both from the West and also from other Eastern bloc nations - in 1978, the US returned the Holy Crown of Hungary's former kings to the country, it having been held in Fort Knox since being recovered from the Nazis by US troops in Austria in 1945.

Kádár himself lived a modest lifestyle; unlike other Communist leaders.


Kádár retired in 1988; the economy was failing - and so was his health. He would die on 6 July 1989. Károly Grósz succeeded him as General Secretary and Prime Minister at his recommendation, but it became that his 'moderate' reforms were not widely supported even within his own party; he was replaced as PM in November by Miklós Németh, who in December made his views clear that moving to a market economy was the only way to avoid social catastrophe. Wages were falling in real terms and foreign debt was becoming a big issue.

(It is important to remember when dealing with the former Soviet bloc that the real power holder was the First or General Secretary; the President and/or Prime Minister was frequently, but by no means always a different person and had little real power)

In March, the Central Committee admitted to itself that they were going to have to go multi-party and after big demonstrations on 15 March (the day Hungary marks the 1848 Revolution, a failed attempt at independence from Austria), began meeting with a 'Round Table' of opposition groups. These largely behind the scenes negotiations would carry on for much of the year.

As well as the new PM, another leader was working behind the scenes to bring down communism - Imre Pozsgay, who worked his way up to the Central Committee. He managed to persuade (or he so he claims) the leadership not to launch a coup in April.

On 2 May 1989, Imre Pozsgay got the Hungarian Army to begin to remove the border fence with Austria; this was the first chink in the Iron Curtain. Moscow did nothing about it (and nor would they), even when the Hungarians actively encouraged holidaying East Germans to cross into Austria and thus to West Germany; including via a Peace Picnic in August where several hundred crossed over with no attempt by the army to stop them. The Austria-Hungary border was a much simpler affair to dismantle than the one between the two Germanies, which was among other things heavily mined.

In June, the Politburo admitted Nagy had been executed illegally after a show trial. He and two other victims were dug up and reburied in the same plot, but this time it was a proper grave with a memorial.

A deal was reached on the Round Table Talks in September; the opposition split over the issue of the presidency, with the moderates implicitly accepting Pozsgay as president and the radicals being against.

16-20 October saw an epic and historic session of parliament; as the Hungarian legislature voted after the agreement to completely change the system; ensuring direct presidential elections, multi-party parliamentary ones, guarantees of rights and a separation of powers. On the 23rd, the Presidential Council dissolved itself. That same month, the Communist Party became the Hungarian Socialist Party... but a majority of its MPs didn't join and Imre Pozsgay didn't become president. The Communists were pretty much done.

Free elections followed in May 1990 - the centre right Hungarian Democratic Forum won, with the former communists ending up fourth. The former ended up as leaders of a centre-right coalition.

The same year, Hungary withdrew from participation in Warsaw Pact exercise and Soviet forces left in 1991, the same year the Pact ceased to exist.

Hungary today

The Socialist Party, now very different from its predecessors, would return to power from 2002-2010 as leader of a coalition and later a minority government; it would do badly in the 2014 European Elections (only getting 10% of the vote), with the result being the resignation of its entire presidium.

Hungary joined the EU in 2004; it is also part of the Schengen Agreement, so where before there was an electric fence with Austria, there are now not even regular border checks - Hungary also has this situation with Slovakia and Slovenia, but not yet with Croatia, Romania and of course Ukraine.

However, there have been problems in recent years. The country suffered heavily in the 2008 crash; there was a lot of borrowing that left it vulnerable. It eventually needed IMF and European Central Bank bailouts to avoid a collapse.

Then in 2010, Viktor Orban, Prime Minister from 1998-2002 (and also involved in the Round Table talks), returned to power, with his coalition Fidesz gaining a two-thirds majority; enough to impose a new constitution on Hungary. The nationalist conservative government (who were David Cameron's only allies in opposing Jean-Claude Juncker getting the EU Commission job) put in a new Fundamental Law that has been heavily criticised for reducing checks and balances, trying to impose a Christian ideology on a country not hugely religious and limiting the freedom of the press. 

Orban is one of Europe's more dangerous leaders; there is also a strong far-right party in the country that doesn't like Roma or Jews very much.

Hungary, the second of the countries to escape communism, could end up going to fascism again if it is not careful.

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