The director of a new research institute on the history of the regime change in Hungary

Although I’m going to talk about a historical research institute today, this post is not really about history. Far from it. It is about politics. Dirty politics. About a government that wants to recast recent political events in the light of its own ideology. About the falsification of history, if you want.

What am I talking about? The Orbán government set up yet another research institute, this one under the direct control of the Office of the Prime Minister. Viktor Orbán himself chose its first director. The institute, with the cumbersome name Rendszerváltás Történetét Kutató Intézet és Archívum (Research Institute and Archives for the Study of the Regime Change), will have 20 associates and a budget of 360 million forints just for the next six months. According to some articles I read on the subject, there was only one application for the director’s position that was submitted according to specifications, that of Zoltán Bíró, a literary historian whose field of study is Endre Ady’s poetry.

Who is this man? Those who aren’t familiar with the cast of characters in the regime change or aren’t diligent readers of Magyar Hírlap or don’t watch Echo TV might never have heard his name. Zoltán Bíró likes to describe himself as “the first chairman of Magyar Demokrata Fórum (MDF).” Almost every article about him and his new institute describes him as such. Actually, the first chairman of MDF was József Antall, who was elected to the post in October 1989. Bíró was managing director of the party between March and October 1989.

He had another occasion to become well known in those years. In April 1988 he together with Mihály Bihari, later chief justice of the Constitutional Court, László Lengyel, economist and publicist, and Zoltán Király, a journalist, was expelled from MSZMP. The four told their sad tale in a book entitled Kizárt a párt (I was expelled from the party).

Bíró’s political views are of the far-right variety. He is also an expert on weaving elaborate conspiracy theories. He has a chip on his shoulder because after the appearance of József Antall he lost his bid for party leadership. He began circulating stories in which he intimated that perhaps József Antall “was sent by someone” and those someones might have been the communists who found in Antall a man with whom they could do business.

Contemporaries describe Bíró as a man who sowed the seeds of mistrust and later even hatred between the narodnik-populists (népi-nemzeti) and the urbanites, whom he liked to identify as Jewish intellectuals. According to Zoltán Ripp (Rendszerváltás Magyarországon, 1987-1990, 2006), Bíró accused them of disseminating false information about the gathering of men and women in Lakitelek, in the backyard of Sándor Lezsák, describing it as a meeting of anti-Semites. There were references to a New York Times article, but I couldn’t find it.

In any case, by 1991 Bíró left MDF and together with Imre Pozsgay, a high-level MSZMP politician, established the short-lived National Democratic Alliance. From the beginning it was clear that Bíró really didn’t want to dismantle the Hungarian communist party (MSZMP) but rather to forge an alliance between the “népi-nemzeti” members of MSZMP, like himself and Pozsgay, and the narodnik groups outside of the party that included such men as István Csurka, Sándor Lezsák, and Sándor Csoóri.

He remains a critic of the change of regime and the decision to work out the details of this new regime with all political forces, including the reform wing of MSZMP. Something went wrong, Bíró claims, and he thus rather forcefully rejects the whole period that resulted from that historic compromise.

Imre Pozsgay and Zoltán Bíró at the Convention of the National Democratic Allice, 1991 / MTI

Imre Pozsgay and Zoltán Bíró at the Convention of the National Democratic Alliance, 1991 / MTI

I suspect, therefore, that he and his colleagues in this new institute will reject the very idea of real regime change in 1990. He will most likely claim that the communists actually preserved their rule intact. I furthermore assume that this interpretation will meet with Viktor Orbán’s approval, since he often talked about the past twenty or so years as chaotic and ideologically confusing. The line between dictatorship and democracy was not clear. I’m sure he would like to have it in writing, the product of “serious” research by a “recognized” historical institute, that real regime change came only in 2010.

János Kenedi, a historian of this period and a member of the democratic opposition in the 1980s, summarized the task of the institute as “to show that Orbán’s view of the regime change is the correct one and that there was actually no regime change between 1987 and 1990.”

All that is bad enough, but according to Sándor Révész, Bíró is also no friend of western multi-party democracy. In his book entitled Saját utam (My own road), he makes that clear, expressing as well his hatred of liberals and liberalism. In 2009 in Magyar Hírlap he stated that Fidesz should even use “dictatorial instruments because one should honor and consider sacred the existence of the nation and not the doctrine of democracy and freedom.” So, concludes Révész, “the official history of the change of regime will be in the hands of someone who thinks that dictatorship is a suitable instrument in the service of the nation while democracy and freedom harms it.”

Another perfect appointment of Viktor Orbán. Another blow for historiographical integrity.


  1. Unless I mistake him with someone with the same name, I seem to remember him as a high official in the Ministry of Culture in the last decade of Kadar era and one who was instrumental enforcing the communist regime’s cultural policies.
    I’ve read some of his writing in Kapu, or 2000 around those times and remember him as a truly disgusting opportunist.

  2. Sandor :

    Unless I mistake him with someone with the same name, I seem to remember him as a high official in the Ministry of Culture in the last decade of Kadar era and one who was instrumental enforcing the communist regime’s cultural policies.
    I’ve read some of his writing in Kapu, or 2000 around those times and remember him as a truly disgusting opportunist.

    Yes, Sándor, this is your man.

  3. Only partly OT: Have another look at the discussion of Enikő Győri’s FT article. (I’ve just posted this):

    Financial Times Gets a Sample of the Turul Troll Mentality in Fidesz’s Hungary

    Plaudits to @Plebsz for the noble if naive efforts to engage the likes of @Newsreader in reasoned debate.

    This FT exchange is giving international readers a fair and sobering sample of the level of discourse that emanates from the government and its apologists: official ones like Enikő Győri, semi-diplomatically, and anonymous, self-appointed trolls like @Newsreader, more crudely: conspiracy theories, personal attacks, aggression, defensiveness, spin, hype, FUD — but only smoke and obfuscation when it comes to anything concrete or objective: not the slightest hint of good-faith engagement.

    And this is also the mentality that dominates the media in Hungary, which are almost completely government-controlled.

    Thank goodness for ATV and Klubradio — though alas their reach is limited, partly by budget and bandwidth, but partly also because much of the Hungarian populace is now held in thrall by the media-control of the government, and its daily whipping up of the basest and pettiest of jingoistic sentiments in order to cover up not only its relentlessly escalating crimes against both the livelihoods and the rights of its citizens (of which the tobacco scandal I described is just a typical example), but also the unabating deterioration of Hungary’s economy, and of Hungarians’ standard of living. Fidesz/KDNP (with neo-nazi Jobbik opportunistically fostered in the background as a faux foil) is now both a cult and a mafia.

    This is why the people of Hungary desperately need both the monitoring of the EU and, perhaps even more urgently, the sustained scrutiny of the international press (even, as I suggested, a focussed Radio/TV Free Europe, with finances to match the government monopoly on the rest of the Hungarian media). Perhaps only that can penetrate the brainwashing that Fidesz is accomplishing through the legislative power with which it has been daily abusing its constitution re-writing supermajority (based on a majority of 53% of the Hungarian votes — which is the point that @Plebsz was trying to make, politely, to @Newsreader, who had questioned the authority of the Tavares EU vote for being based on “only” a 53% majority of EU votes…).

    Let this FT exchange be only the beginning of international press coverage of Fidesz’s plundering of Hungary.

  4. Thank you for the link, Stevan Harnad, but what absolute drivel: both the article and the spotted apologists in the blog. Makes one sick that adults could engage in such blatant lying.
    I wonder: do they show their writings to their children?

  5. The scary thing is I actually believe that they believe their own fantasies. No one has to pay these guys to troll. FT is an annoying sitar to use.

  6. The comments to Győri’s article are priceless. I have never seen so many negative reactions to one of the Hungarian government officials in an English-language publication.

  7. OT Another negative side effect of this “new” Nemzeti Dohanybolt (NDB) is that they are allowed to sell alcohol after 22.00pm. Normal shops are penalized when they swell alcohol after 22.00pm (some are even closed down), the NDB can stay open 24/7 and apparently do some good business as result of this, and neighbors cannot sleep.

    Some majors want to act against this, but unfortunately, they need to wait till September.

  8. So let’s see…they created these tobacco shops to decrease the amount of smoking in the society….check….and that’s why they now allow the sale of liquor 24/7…in case it will deflect the smoking habit.

    I get it!

  9. This Financial Times article is interesting, as are the comments. But I can’t help wondering whether there has been any research on:
    1) Who is writing these articles? Sorry to be cynical, but I highly doubt whether Gyori Eniko or any other member of Fidesz created this. Same with Ferenc Kumin’s blog. The style is so highly mannered and constructed, it’s clearly the work of a PR agency – probably a British one.
    2) How much is the Hungarian taxpayer paying for these PR pieces?

  10. They will soon realise, however, that the liquor business could be much profitable if there would be no competition. thus after thi first step introduced now, liquor sale will be restricted also and only the tobacco shops will be able to sell. there is certainly a reason for that as well: the government has to defend the health of Hungarian people, and alcohol is as dangerous as the tobacco. If I would be a tobacco shop owner, I would also lobbying for coffee, chips and not so healthy beverages monoply as well. Why not then install some slot machines too in the shops? Ultimately, they could be official resellers of school books, certainly with a parents only entry basis.

  11. Stevan Harnad :

    A well-written comment, Stevan, but you do make one mistake in describing “Ring 3,” where you talk about “owners of about 40,000 tobacco shops (Trafiks).” Can’t really blame you that much – basically the whole Hungarian press, not to mention politicians, made this mistake too. But still: the fact tha there were some forty thousand tobacco points of sale does not mean that there were 40,000 dedicated tobacco shops or trafiks. In fact, most of these points of sale were groceries, with the majority being small family-run “independent” shops that also sold food and other non-food items such as detergents, cosmetics etc. Apart from being a scandalous affair, the whole “National Tobacco Shop” issue is disastrous because it is driving thousands or tens of thousands of family-run stores out of business – as without the revenue they used to enjoy from tobacco sales, their little grocery shops will not be able to stay afloat. Tobacco was but one of the product categories they used to carry, but it was a vital category. The revenue generated by bread/milk/cold-cuts and the like will probably be insufficient for them to survive. This might even mean that some settlements will be left without any grocery stores The “National Tobacco Shops” are killing them by depriving them of their tobacco revenues, but won’t take their place as they only sell tobacco (and booze and coffee and – oddly enough – ice cream). With a guaranteed 10% mark-up on cigarettes, they likely wouldn’t bother with bakery or dairy products, even if they were entitled to do so.

  12. What an excellent use of money for a company battling constantly high deficits and which cannot afford to pay their doctors more.

    The issue I struggle with is whether Orban is really ideological: a “neo-communist” (term used very loosely) dressed up in populist, conservative clothing, or he has no ideology but power? At first, the blog entry suggests to me at least there is an ideological core to Orban. I am just not sure. He believes I suppose in perpetuating his own power and wealth, and is looking for an ideological justification for this. As for Biro, it is people like him that make the best case for lustration laws. How terribly sad and pathetic.

  13. Actually I don’t see any contradiction here.

    After all, there was the “Ahnenerbe” too, to establish the clear ideological and ancestral lineage, without “disturbing” informations hanging loose here and there, and it worked then.

    The Infallible Leader on the right path, you see.

    Only a few days back they announced the beginning of another program with similar origin – then and there it was called the “Lebensborn”, now and here we ‘only’ will save the Nation – with centrally programmed increase of multiplication…

    Before you think, I joking, just take a look at such title like “for the foundation of conscious nationalist thinking” (Kerényi) and his job, spreading the ‘right’ kind of “culture”. If you look a bit more, you too will find some more parallels, I promise.

  14. Eva S. Balogh :
    A historical footnote to the regime change in Hungary. There is an excellent site (Open Society Archivum) which contains a wealth of documents on the period. It is a great research tool.

    I know even the mention of “Open Society” probably sends the Dear Shepherd into hysterical convulsions of rage but from a practical point of view one can only wonder what the “Research Institute and Archives for the Study of the Regime Change” can add to the work and analysis already carried out at the OSA?

    And if the Fidesz automats (aka the Nemzeti Dohany Bolt) are going to be my only supply of beer, then I am going to do without.

  15. Bowen :
    1) Who is writing these articles? Sorry to be cynical, but I highly doubt whether Gyori Eniko or any other member of Fidesz created this. Same with Ferenc Kumin’s blog. The style is so highly mannered and constructed, it’s clearly the work of a PR agency – probably a British one.
    2) How much is the Hungarian taxpayer paying for these PR pieces?

    I suspect your guess in (1) is correct. Nick Cohen had a piece on this over a year ago:

    Sadly I agree with his conclusion, that London is one of the global centres of talent in the black arts of spin. We’ve even imported the Australian Macchiavelli Lynton Crosby – inventor of “dogwhistle politics” – currently working for our government, after his triumphant (and notorious, if like me you were there) stint with John Howard c. 2001.

    Re (2), I would love it if someone in Hungary somehow managed to find out how many of the Hungarians’ hard-earned Fts Orbán is spending on this PR campaign.

    All entirely justified and necessary, I’m sure, in the life-and-death struggle against the “Hungary-haters”…

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