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  • Writer's picture Kester Eddy

Gyula Horn: on “irreversible reforms”, meeting Putin, misrepresenting 1956 and the 'pufajkássok'

Updated: Jul 6, 2022

In their own words: former Hungarian prime minister Gyula Horn was born 90 years ago today, on July 5th, 1932, so it seemed an appropriate time to continue publishing his talk to the Hungarian International Press Association a little before Christmas, 2005

Photo: Gyula Horn, undated, but it looks as if this was taken in the 1990s, quite possibly when prime minister heading the Socialist-Free Democrat coalition government of 1994-1998.

Since today I was reminded it was 90 years since the birth of this most influential Hungarian politician, I thought it was about time I added to the record of what was likely to be his last appearance before the international press - a story which I began last summer (see posts on June 19, 2021 - Gyula Horn: "The Shears that Cut the Iron Curtain weren't Sharp Enough." - followed by two more on July 04, 2021 and July, 08 2021).

The text does ramble a bit in places, probably because of the interpreter trying to keep up. I've tried to keep the orginal translation, but it also contains some nuggets, not least his quotation from Vladimir Putin, which seems, well, tragically ironic today, and indeed his "irreversible reforms" - presumably he is in part referring to the utility privatisation, most of which have been, er, reversed, and by a supposedly right-wing Fidesz government to boot..

Gyula Horn: (Continuing, talking about preparations for the power change in Hungary in 1988-89, and the early years of democracy, beginning in 1990.)

But there was another thing that we started from, masses of people thought that democracy automatically brought prosperity right away, it would automatically bring it about.

Then, when we found 1.5 million jobs were lost, when living standards were decreasing, people were much worse off than in 1989, when people lost their feeling of security, when they were afraid of getting the sack, when they were afraid of seeing their children attacked in the streets. Well, that was a very difficult matter.

It's not enough to change a system, one also has to guarantee the functioning and for the possibility for people to lead a decent life. This doesn't apply just to Hungary.

Duncan Shiels: I just wanted … yes, János Kádár is unique. I wonder whether he simply couldn't change enough. I know he was in bad physical health I wonder .. [indistinct] You were obviously a younger man at the time, but I wonder whether you had to go against some very basic beliefs of your own in order to move with the times?

GyH: Miklós Németh and others of us had an enormous advantage. The fact is that we were the first party in the Warsaw Pact to establish ties with western European social democratic parties, and of course, we received harsh criticism for that from Moscow.

But the relations were not confined only to the SDP [of Germany], because we also had good cooperation with the [conservative] CDU and CSU.

Well, that was the time when we learned how democratic institutions were functioning. That was when we learned how to operate a market economy. I'm only saying this because there was no such thing as having to completely abandon our [indistinct – probably principles], but this whole transformation was a process, where we were advancing step by step.

What the Hungarian government [ie in 2005, the coalition led by Ferenc Gyurcsány] is doing just now I dare say is a kind of model, unprecedented in Europe. If we succeed in achieving the situation where Hungary's competitiveness is not disputed any more, I dare say that this country can compete with others, at least with other European countries, as to what we have learned in practice.

There were no such mental trends … [ indistinct ] mental pressure. Because we've been through all this. What should be done? That was the first question, and the second and how?

These were the three things that we had in mind, because this was the job that we had to do, and not to yearn for some lost past, for nostalgia.

Politics is a very tough thing. It does not tolerate missed opportunities, it does not tolerate any postponements, and people lose when they are not able to grasp the opportunities. This also applies to politics, but it's often not mistakes that cause the real problems, but inappropriate answer to the challenges that we are faced with.

If we succeed, I'm sorry, this is just my own opinion, is that we will [have achieved] competitiveness together with social justice.

This in itself is not something completely new, I believe that there were two countries able and willing to take such steps that was based on the realisation of the challenges ahead.

One such country was Germany, and the other, please don't consider this a nationalistic view, but the other was Hungary. The facts are tough things, but they prove it.

[German Chancellor Gerhard] Schröder's people succeeded in doing one thing, unprecedented in Europe. The essence of this was that social reforms were linked to economic programmes.

The biggest problem was not that politicians have not got to be blamed for putting people under pressure with reforms, but instead, politicians must be able to bring about innovations in the sense that these become irreversible.

I have to tell you that what has happened practically all over eastern Europe is something irreversible indeed. It cannot be turned back.

And this applies almost as much to Putin as it does to us.

I was part of a Socialist International delegation led by [former Swedish PM] Ingvar Carlsson that visited Putin in Moscow, and when we told Putin that we were from the Socialist International, his eyes opened wide and was very happy.

And when we told him what we wanted to do in terms of programmes, he said he had been a social democrat all his life. He said this!

If we can bring about moderate, but steady improvement in conditions, then Hungary will become a country of happy people.

Only one condition here: we will do this, but I don't know how. Hungary is being criticised very harshly, but I dare say we are on the right track.

And I can never forgive the opposition, including my former partner [presumably referring to Gábor Kuncze, leader of the Free Democrats, the SzDSz, junior coalition partner in 1990-94] for scalding the government in front of his national organisation because it should be a basic requirement to be ….[indistinct] but let's forget about this issue, it's internal politics.

Kester Eddy: Clarification, please. Did you say Kádár objected to the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia?

GyH: He objected to the intervention of the Warsaw Pact in Czechoslovakia in 1968. He tried everything possible. He also talked to the Czechoslovak leadership, but he finally failed.

Nick Thorpe: You said there were two qualities that you admire in a politician: One was to seize the opportunity, secondly that you should help in the development of the conditions for that. Was Imre Nagy a politician then, that you would admire? Did he have either or both those qualities?

GyH: Imre Nagy was a leftist politician indeed, and he also stuck to these ideas when he was confronted with serious reprisals [post 1956].

I was a member of a committee that was to review Hungary's international relations [in the 1980s] and there were many things that we did not know about before. We were reading about all the events that took place at that time, and it was at that time we learned about the circumstances how Imre Nagy had been executed, and it was on that basis that his rehabilitation took place.

Imre Nagy was a representative of the left wing in the revolutionary government, something that the opposition [ie Fidesz] is still not ready to acknowledge.

Of course, he could not [achieve anything] because there was not enough time to deal with economic and other issues because things developed at such a fast pace.

Nick Thorpe: Your own participation in opposition to the revolution, from December 56 to June 57, looking back on that today, with the benefit of hindsight, how do you feel about your actions?

GyH: In 1956 November no, on the 15 December, I became – upon request – part of a the corps of a police force whose task was, and it was written down, to restore public order and security. The situation was very similar to that at the end of WW2, but things were made more difficult that practically all the prisoners, all criminals, were released from jail.

In '45, most criminals remained in jail, but in '56, everyone was let out.

We rounded up a lot of real criminals, and I could tell a lot of stories about this. But for sure, what happened between October 23 to November 4, 1956, is not being written in Hungarian history books in an objective, normal way. I would have been very glad to assist historians in their undertaking to document this, but nobody even cared.

In 1956, it very often appears as a point of reference, at the same time, no real lessons have ever been concluded. And I can tell you that both the right-wing governments that have been in office since 1990 lived and worked in the spirit that those in power are in possession of the past.

It was on that basis that studies were released and positions were taken following very narrow-minded party interests and lines, although there are increasing voices now which are asking for a realistic assessment.

I went to the police unit from the Ministry of Finance, where I was working as an economist, and when things got calmer, I went back to the ministry. And it was from there that I was seconded to the Foreign Ministry. That's my short story.

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