Hungary, 1989: Turning round on the Bridge
Updated: Mar 15
British-Hungarian writer-poet George Szirtes continues his memoirs of living with the end of the Communist regime (continued from part I, published on January 18).
Photo: George Szirtes and Clarrisa, with friend and great short story writer, Iván Mándy, Fészek Klub, Budapest VII, in 1989.
15th March is an important national day in Hungary. It is the anniversary of the outbreak of the 1848 revolution [against Habsburg rule]. The statue of the revolutionary poet, Sándor Petőfi, whose poem, recited on the steps of the newly built National Museum, triggered the revolution, stands in 15 March Square. Was 1848 a national or international revolution?
Petőfi had supported both versions but nationalism was a dangerous force in Hungary. When a friend, Gabi, tried to lay flowers at his statue in 1988 she had been turned back. Haraszti himself had been arrested. March generally is a dangerous month. In an act of considerable generosity, the Hungarian Writers Union had awarded me and my wife Clarissa a week, from 5-12 March, at Szigliget, the writers retreat by Lake Balaton. A few days before we left for Szigliget, another writer warned us that we’d be returning just before 15 March, that there might be violence and that we should stock up with food for a couple of weeks. We failed to do so. Szigliget, which is still used by writers, is a small Esterházy palace in a beautiful position. We were given pride of place in the largest room with a wonderful ceramic stove and a wide balcony facing the lake. I wrote, Clarissa drew and painted, we walked and played table tennis with other writers. There was no trouble at Szigliget, only, one night, the sound of a cannon warning of a thunderstorm.
We did however meet the future president of the country. He was wearing a blue tracksuit and sitting on a bench below our balcony. We started to talk. Árpád Göncz was a mild mannered, sweet-faced, avuncular man of about sixty who was chiefly a translator of English literature – of Tolkien and Hemingway for example. It transpired that he had been sentenced to death in 1956, but that his sentence was commuted to six years in prison where one of his tasks was to translate English-language newspapers that nobody else was supposed to read.
Having been a lawyer he was forbidden [to practice] law on his release and became an expert on agriculture. We had no idea of his political past in the Smallholders Party and in the resistance to the Arrow Cross. We decided to keep in touch. Once back in Budapest, I joined the demonstration that started at the Petőfi statue on 15 March. The Party itself didn’t want a demonstration at all but, late in the day, decided to give in and organise a rival, official march. The one I went to was the unofficial one, which turned out much the larger. It was a nervous affair at first, then the crowd began to roll along the embankment and started to cross the Chain Bridge to the Buda side of the city where speeches would be held. There were flags with the centre cut out, as in 1956. There was chanting, but no violence. The march had been forbidden but no one policed it or tried to stop it.
Who were these people, I asked myself? Am I one of them? That was a very complicated question. I didn’t know the answer to it, so I turned round half way across the bridge. The momentum was now impossible to stop. Uncle Pista was worried. We were visiting him. This is very dangerous, he said. What if a strong man in Moscow kicks out Gorbachev, thumps his fist down on the table, and declares: Enough! Tamás who was sitting with us, shrugged and smiled. The table breaks, he said. After the change of system Tamás was to find work with Amway, short for ‘The American Way’, selling products to customers in their homes, on the Tupperware model. The volume on volume of Marx and Engels on the shelf back at the flat that they shared ended like this. Later he deserted his wife, my second cousin, and vanished somewhere abroad.
The events that followed took on the appearance of a stampede. Considering the course of events elsewhere – in Czechoslovakia, in Germany, in Poland and in Romania – the stampede begins to look like a leisurely amble, but then and there it felt headless. The state, at least the government, was falling apart brick by brick. Our host, dissident Miklós Haraszti, had returned on a visit in March. We entertained him in his own flat. Now he was one of the leading figures in a new political party. What kind of party, I asked? A liberal party, he answered. Do you mean like the British Liberal Party, I probed? Yes, he answered. (The party he meant was the SzDSz, the Alliance of Free Democrats, the party of ex-underground intellectuals).
He went back to the US returning in June. By that time there had been an open fair, trestle tables and all, for the new political parties, in the Népliget. We went along with my cousin Mihály, a well-known television producer and presenter. There were 51 parties by then. Mihály joined the SzDSz, was later selected as an MP, then was libelled and hounded out by the right. Was it in April or May that Hungarian TV made a two-part interview with Alexander Dubček, a non-person in Czechoslovakia? It led to a diplomatic row. But who cared? Nothing was going to happen. The table was already broken.
[Dubček was leader of the 1968 reforms dubbed the 'Prague Spring', which ultimately crushed by the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in August of that year. He was, of course, afterwards designated to be a 'non-person' by the regime - Ed]
Hadn’t a member of the government let slip the term ‘revolution’ about 1956 in Hungary? It was officially a counter-revolution. TV ran a series of interviews with the surviving figures of 1956. It was just one camera and talking heads. It was spellbinding. On 16 June, the anniversary of the execution of Imre Nagy in 1958, 250,000 or so gathered in Heroes Square for a service honouring the fallen and executed heroes of 1956. I was there. The main speech – a very statesmanlike speech - was made by Árpád Göncz, who was being referred to in affectionate terms as Uncle Árpi, by ever more people, but the last speech – an inflammatory oration demanding the Russians get out of Hungary right now -was by the leader of a student group, Viktor Orbán. On the 27 June – we had moved flats by then since Haraszti was home – Hungary and Austria together cut the wire fence that constituted the iron curtain. East Germany haemorrhaged. Budapest was full of East Germans in hopeful transit. Politically it was game-set-and-match. Uncle Pista’s metaphorical table was broken as was the whole apparatus of state. Everything was broken and glittering. It was the end of one party rule in Hungary and quite possibly elsewhere too.
I have often thought back to the moment on the bridge. A friend warned us that life in Hungary would not be a seamless road to happiness. Maybe that was why I turned round. The crowd on the bridge were not all demanding the same thing.
The underground opposition too was falling apart. Two famous and outstanding poets who had been friends for decades, stopped speaking to each other. Skeletons and demons were creeping out of cupboards or were being deposited in them. The right took on a new-old shape and formed itself into parties. Industries began to collapse, jobless figures to mount, emigration began. This was over the next few years but the divisions began almost as soon as victory was won. Disappointment and disaffection were on the horizon. Much of this was bound to happen but it might have been addressed and moderated. Árpád Göncz was elected and was a moderating and popular president for ten years. He held the country together even as it was breaking apart. Viktor Orbán’s hour – the hour of his first administration - was to arrive in the last two years of Göncz’s presidency.
Everything was there in germ in 1989. We could sense it but were unable to name it. The year was too heady. Clarissa and I left just after the great firework display on 20th August with its triple significance: as the commemoration of the founding of the Hungarian state, the celebration of St Stephen, the King of that time, and the date assigned to the founding of the post-war Socialist republic. We watched the display from the balcony of a doctor friend in the Buda hills. It was spectacular, and, at that distance, perfectly silent.