I told [Prime Minister] Németh, ... Miklós, What are you waiting for? Let's go for an election!
The Quiet Diplomat: In his own words, Tádé Alföldy speaks about 1989, the key players and the tensions raised as Hungary shuffled awayfrom one-party rule and towards democracy
Photo: Tádé Alföldy ponders a question from Lilla Paor in this screen shot from a YouTube video, probably about a decade ago when General Manager of Gundel.
See (Hungarian only): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WXCZbqDEvcs
Late one warm evening in May, 2012, I found myself in Budapest's Gundel Restaurant to interview the manager, a man by the name of Tádé Alföldy. This venerable eatery had been going through some hard times (not helped by the global financial crisis of 2008-09) and, as the word on the street intimated, Mr Alföldy was successfully re=establishing the good name of the restaurant with some hard work and solid, motivational management techniques. It seemed a good idea for a story. But during the hour-long interview, I discovered that this restaurateur had, in his former life, been a career diplomat in the Hungarian foreign service, and not any diplomat at that. Towards the end of his career, the quietly spoken Alföldy had been desk officer for the United Kingdom from 1985 to 1989, when he was promoted to Head of Department 5 in the ministry. The innocuously designated Department 5 was in fact responsible for a group including the United States, Canada, UK, Germany, Benelux, United Nations, Nato and what was then termed the European Economic Community. I don't know if my eyes popped open or not, but suddenly the renaissance of palacsinta and goose liver in Gundel took a back seat in my mind: those had been tumultuous years in Hungary's history, and diplomatic posts in Hungary didn't come more important than head of Department 5, at Bem rakpart 47. Was Mr Alföldy willing to talk of those days, and on record? Not only was he, but happily so. There follows a word-for-word transcript for what he said – with minimal editing for linguistic slips – published for the first time. Tádé Alföldy: It was the number one department actually. It was the time when the [East] Germans were released [across the border]. Anyhow, at that Party conference, in October, 1989, the old party [Socialist Workers' Party, ie Communist Party] was abolished, and a new party was born. Everybody made up his or her mind. I think a lot of people knew that a new time would come when politics, diplomacy, civil service would not be just one group of people, with inter-changes within the group. No, there was going to be strict distinction between politicians, civil servants, diplomats and policy-making persons, and I decided to stay in the civil service as a diplomat. It was the time when I could have decided differently. Kester Eddy: So you must have worked with Gyula Horn? What did you find good about Horn, and what, shall we say, less good? TA:I have a very clear view about Horn. He was one of those politicians in Hungary with really great talent, and one who really contributed to Hungary's changes. He was always a communist until, say, until '88-89. Then, he realised there were changes. He was not a man who blew with the wind, but he was certainly the man to first adjust the sails into the right direction. This brought him to the front very soon, deservedly, because, at this conference, for example, he was leading the show, in a positive direction. It was not an easy situation. For example, just before the vote on establishing a new party, and abolishing the old one, we were standing there with Mr Németh, then prime minister, and [Foreign Ministry] state secretary László Kovács, who was also a close associate of Horn. I told Németh, he was a good friend of mine, Miklós, what are we waiting for? Parliament is in favour of changes. The party's mechanism has disintegrated, we cannot stop anything now. The cabinet is in your hands, you can control it. What are you waiting for? Let's go for an election as fast as we can! He said: “No. We must be careful. A few minutes ago, I convened a meeting of the cabinet – it was in the Novotel – in one of the apartments. “I asked the cabinet members, if we abolish this party, and establish a new one, who, of the ministers, would join the new party. And only four, including myself [raised their hands], and the Defence Minister or the Interior Minister were not in the group.” He [Németh] continued: “We must be careful. My main goal is to take this country to free elections, and I don't mind what it may cost for myself personally, or the party, or whatever party, this is my job now, and I think we have to do this carefully, but we cannot rush it.” TA: Horn was one of the four who raised his hand. [Imre]Pozsgay was the third one. I can't remember who the fourth was. The German [refugee] release [in September, 1989]. It was not an easy decision [but] it was obvious that Hungary would not send the East Germans back. It was also clear that we could not keep the growing number of Germans in the country, we could not have half a million strong German community in Hungary! That was impossible. But, first of all, we didn't know what [Soviet chief Mihail] Gorbachov's final say on this issue would be. There was a Warsaw Pact meeting in Bucharest at that time, where [Romanian Communist chief Nicolae] Ceausecu and [East German Communist leader Erich] Honecker approached Gorbachov and proposed to him to give 'brotherly' assistance to Hungary. This was the Czech '68 type of assistance [ie military intervention]. But Gorbachov turned this down. We didn't know how far Gorbachov was going in this [direction]. I think he didn't know either. Also, we had 20-25% of trade with East Germany. The Hungarian tourist industry was dependent on the German connections, so this was also an economic issue. I must tell you we had not received any assurance from the west, neither from Germany, the UK or the US, that in case of problems, they would try to do something. And we had had the '56 experience, when nobody did anything for Hungary. Mr Németh said this is a serious issue: a Hungarian prime minister has already been hanged for this type of thing. KE: He said that to you? TA: He said that, yes.
When the German release was finally decided, Horn then stole the show from Németh. In normal countries, and it was also agreed, at least tacitly, this was the understanding, that it should be announced by the prime minister, because, if hanging comes, the PM would be he first to be hanged But Horn went back to the ministry, and journalists were always waiting for him, and he gave the news that the Germans would be released at 5 o'clock or whatever. And, of course, he stole the name of the German saviour – he released the Germans! It was not against the will of the prime minister, of course, he could not have done this without the permission of the prime minister. KE: I heard a story that he [Németh] somehow got in touch with Gorbachov via an intermediary, and was given the assurance of no intervention? TA: No, nobody received any assurance, nobody. Of course, Nemeth and Horn were all in touch, as one team, on different occasions with Gorbachov, personally, through the embassies, through the ministers who visited each other. Never was any assurance received. Nor later either. I remember, I was deputy minister of foreign affairs in the [1990 democratic] Antall government. KE: Under Géza Jeszenszky?
TA: Yes, he was the minister. I remember that we were working for the abolition of Warsaw Pact and Comecon. All that we received from the west was a warning to be cautious. That was all. Everybody was happy in the end, [but] nobody was too brave to support the process full-heartedly, and with meaningful promises. Anyhow, Horn was a man who was pushing for this. Then, of course, the time came, difficult times, for example. [In 1989] he was always hesitating between roads. Of course, it's natural, because, especially in important situations, the consequences could be tremendous. I remember in '89 December, he asked me to look into the budget proposal for the next year. They had discussed it in government, and he collected information and opinions as to what stand he could take. I looked into it, and I went back to him. I said, Gyula, it looks a lot better than it used to be in past years, [but] you should change this and this [for a more prudent budget]. “You are stupid!” he said, “If we change this, we'll lose the elections.” I said, Gyula, you will lose the election anyway … but, if you keep this, as it is, you will also lose the moral basis for saying something different after the elections, and you will still have time to come back. I said let it go, [and] start building for the future. KE: And he said? TA: He listened to me, and the budget remained more or less as it was. Then, of course, they lost the elections, but, he stayed with the party [and rebuilt it], unlike Németh, who negotiated himself a good mission with the EBRD in London.