József Antall twenty years later

I happened to be in Hungary on the day József Antall, Hungary’s first prime minister after the regime change, was buried. Just to give you a sense of how little I knew about Hungarian affairs in those days, I wasn’t even aware that Antall had died. I also had no idea how much he and his government were disliked, nay hated, in Hungary. Naturally I didn’t realize how difficult the transition was from the so-called socialist system to a market economy and what it meant to millions of Hungarians–high unemployment, very high inflation, spreading poverty, and, as I later learned, a fairly incompetent government.

Antall was right when he told the members of his cabinet that they had joined a kamikaze government. He realized, at least in the early days of his administration, that no government, regardless of how well prepared its members were, could remain popular under the circumstances. And since the members of the Antall government had absolutely no political and administrative experience, their performance was less than sterling.

Antall JozsefAlthough today, twenty years after Antall’s death, politicians from right to left praise Antall as a great statesman, in his day he was sharply criticized for being a man of the past.

Two important biographies of Antall have appeared since his death. The first, published in 1995, is by Sándor Révész, a liberal journalist and writer. The second was written by József Debreczeni, an MDF member of parliament during Antall’s tenure as prime minister. He is an admirer of Antall. From the two books two entirely József Antalls emerge. Révész’s Antall is a typical member of what in Hungarian is called the “keresztény úri osztály,” a social group that’s difficult to define precisely. Members of this group were normally Catholics, their ancestors came mostly from the lower gentry, and their fathers and grandfathers (having lost their land) served as government bureaucrats. Since their livehood depended on government, they were loyal to the Horthy regime. Indeed, that was the Antall family’s background as well. Debreczeni’s Antall is a man characterized by utter devotion to democratic principles and parliamentarism and devoid of any nostalgia for the Horthy regime, for which he was blamed by the left.

I remember watching the funeral of the prime minister on television among relatives who all hated Antall and his government. I was struck by the pomp and circumstance of the event and could hardly get over the uniforms and caps of the young men surrounding the coffin, which I must admit I found ridiculous. They had an unfortunate resemblance to costumes out of a Lehár or Kálmán operetta. Indeed, one could sense a conscious effort to return to the former “days of glory.”

Critics of Antall charged that he not only knew nothing about economics but that he wasn’t even interested in it. Fine points of the Hungarian parliamentarian tradition were more his thing. They pointed out that he was long winded and that during his speeches he often lost his train of thought. I was told that he was an arrogant and aloof man who couldn’t identify with the man on the street. That may be the case. I certainly didn’t have the opportunity to decide on my own. In fact, the first time I heard Antall speak at some length was yesterday when I listened to a speech of his from 1990 which was never delivered because MTV, then led by a close friend of Antall, refused to air it. He considered it to be a campaign speech and therefore inappropriate just before the municipal elections. MTV’s refusal to air the speech in turn began the so-called media war between the government and the mostly liberal media, which ended with the decimation of the staff of MTV and MR.

Here are my first impressions. I don’t think that Antall was as ignorant of economics as his critics maintained. In the first fifteen minutes of his speech he was able to explain quite cogently why Hungary was having economic difficulties. There was nothing wrong with his explanation. The second fifteen minutes, however, was something else. I came to the conclusion that, despite all the claims about Antall’s high sense of democracy, he had no clue about the true nature of democracy. Or, even if he knew it theoretically, he was unable to translate it into political practice. The second half of his speech was devoted to criticizing the opposition for behaving as an opposition. To his mind, instead of criticizing his government the opposition should help him along in his quest to get Hungary out of trouble.

Indeed, the country was in big trouble and Antall’s party, MDF (Magyar Demokrata Fórum), although it received the most votes, didn’t have an absolute majority to form a government on its own. Antall turned to József Torgyán’s Smallholders and the Christian Democrats; with these two parties came some people whose devotion to democracy could be seriously questioned. Given the enormous tasks facing the government, the best solution would have been a grand coalition between the two largest parties, MDF and SZDSZ (Szabad Demokraták Szövetsége), an idea that was bandied about in 1990. It would have made a lot of sense to share the burden and the unpopularity, which was bound to follow the change of regime. But Antall refused to contemplate such a coalition because he considered SZDSZ not a liberal but a center-left party.

Viktor Orbán has always paid lip service to the greatness of József Antall and has tried to intimate that he is the politician Antall himself wanted to be his successor. Indeed, there is at least one common feature shared by these two men. Antall as well as Orbán considered the opposition traitors because they were critical of their government’s policies. I found a short note in Beszélő from which I learned that József Antall at one of the yearly meetings of Hungarian ambassadors viewed criticism of his foreign policy, especially Hungary’s relations with the Soviet Union and the neighboring countries, as “treason.” From the article I also learned that Antall frequently used modal verbs. In this case he said: “I could even say it is treason.” Well, it seems that Antall had somewhat similar verbal tricks to the ones the present prime  minister of Hungary employs far too often.

This afternoon Géza Jeszenszky, Antall’s foreign minister, was a guest of György Bolgár on Klubrádió. Jeszenszky was not only a member of his cabinet but also the husband of Antall’s niece. Naturally, Jeszenszky thinks very highly of the former prime minister and, although he admitted that as a historian he shouldn’t ponder “what if” questions, of course he did. He announced that if Antall hadn’t gotten sick shortly after he became prime minister MDF wouldn’t have lost so massively in 1994. He is also certain that Gyula Horn would never have become prime minister of Hungary if Antall hadn’t died. It seems to me that Hungarian political life, as viewed from the plush office in the foreign ministry, was very different from what I encountered on the streets in 1993. The Antall government’s fate was already sealed in the second half of 1990. And the great electoral victory of MSZP was a foregone conclusion by the middle of December 1993.


  1. Sorry, OT: Charles Gati now says that the elections in 2014 “will be free, but not necessarily fair.” Fidesz won. Check-mate, suckers!

    Of course, the elections will not be free. The elections will be arranged so that they look free on paper, under a very restricted definition. The point is exactly that: the foreign observers will declare them free, end of story. “Of course, we can have a healthy discussion about the meaning of fairness that is natural” – will say the Fideszniks. But all will be happy, because the elections were “free”. I guess Fidesz also sold the story that it is better for the international community to have Fidesz as the rulers, after all they are a known entity and can “control Jobbik”, nobody wants a chaos, with many small parties unable to govern, brrr, who would want that, we need stability in these trying economic times.

    The elections cannot be regarded as “free” when the democracy is as managed as in Hungary. The built-in 7-8% advantage of Fidesz under the new system, all the new rules which make it practically impossible to enter the political game for new entrants (as a national network is needed from the very beginning when in the countryside it is impossible to build a network for moderate parties), the campaign financing (Fidesz has access to the stolen tens of billions), the media (controlled by Fidesz and its cronies), the courts which make sure that it takes 6 months to register a new party, if not longer, and so on ad nauseam.

    It is like saying that in 1986 the elections were free in Hungary, after all a voter was not forced to go to vote at all, he could stay at home (unlike in Albania) and there was a choice between Hazafias Népfront and MSZMP candidates, in some cases even outsiders could be candidates (like Tamás Bauer, TGM, László Rajk, jr., although they were not successful). Or there was freedom of speech in 1986, after all the legal right was enshrined in the constitution and authors could self-publish books if the wanted to do so (like Antal Végh), sure publishing was in state hands and they exercised editing rights, but there was no censorship, only reasonable editing.

  2. Otti :
    Sorry, OT: Charles Gati now says that the elections in 2014 “will be free, but not necessarily fair.” Fidesz won. Check-mate, suckers!

    OT I guess you are right.

    . Attila Mesterházy, leader of MSZP declared to the liberal Vienna daily Standard that he expects to win a 2/3 victory. Such leaders as Mesterházy make it sure, the opposition is going to loose the election.

  3. Antall also presided over the wholesale sell-off of Hungarian industry to foreign buyers for practically nothing. Fair enough to say that the majority of Hungarian industry was in a bad way, but his government got rid of firms which were world leaders in their field, like pharmaceuticals, electronics etc. If you look around Eastern Europe, not one of the other countries were as reckless in their privatisations as Hungary. In many cases the conditions under which swathes of plant, land and other assets went into foreign hands were a robbers’ charter, while all around us other countries thought through what they were doing and did not sell everything off for a song or with no attached conditions. Some say that Hungary is the most corrupt of Eastern Europe’s ex-Stalinist states, and that could be true. However, in Antall’s case I believe a large dose of serious incompetence and ideological zeal had something to do with the above too.

  4. JGrant: “not one of the other countries were as reckless in their privatisations as Hungary.”
    “Some say that Hungary is the most corrupt of Eastern Europe’s ex-Stalinist states, and that could be true.”

    In both claims I would not be so sure. In Hungary it was said that other approaches could not be applied because of the high external debt and the need for government revenue. The other countries have either kept it in state ownership (as Slovenia did) or distributed it among people creating a situation where the new “owners” could not influence much and firms acted in a so-called “banking socialism” (as in the Czech R). Corruption has been prevalent in nearly all post-Communist countries. But somehow it is too tempting to think of Hungary as entirely “special” although mostly it is not so different from the other countries. What is different is this resistance to looking around what other countries have done in similar circumstances and instead indulging in fabulations of either some earlier glory of Hungary that allegedly should have consequences for what type of life should fall into the Hungarians’ laps nowadays, or about some “unchangeable” characteristics of Hungarians that make any try a useless effort. To think of people in terms of “keresztény úri osztály” reflects the problem well. A person from such “osztaly” will most likely resent criticism from the “plebs”. Not the most promising approach when introducing “democracy”. It is the many idees fixes about the past, the attractiveness of aristocracy, the need for paternalism (because most people are dull and nothing can be done about it), and exceptionalism that create the biggest problems, not “exceptional” crooks.

  5. Antall should be credited for the smooth transition to parliamentary democracy in Hungary. He closed ineffective and rusty industrial concerns like Diósgyőr and Ózd. Now Hungary`s industrial production is double that of the US. Also, while the US is consistently in the red in its current accounts, Hungary has shown a `pozitivum` for years. In fact, 830 million euros last year. Something you would never read in Hungarian Spectrum.

  6. “Hungary’s industrial production is double that of the US”???? Sorry but why waste time with this nonsense?

  7. He probably means “growth in industrial production,” a very important distinction that got left out. And, statistically speaking, a pretty meaningless category to look at, given the starting points of the two countries.

  8. Joe, you may not know that in Ózd still to this day there exists the Max Aicher Steel Works, and even in Diósgyőr, there was production way after Antall’s death. Having said that, the famous original state-owned smelters were not closed down as much as they duly went bankrupt after the fall of socialism (actually problems started significantly before 1990), regardless of what Antall’s intentions might have been.

    In fact he and his successors poured altogether tens of billion of HUF into these companies, probably it would have been worth it to purchase a new family house for every single employee who worked in these companies. Now most of the work is gone (though some parts survived like MA), but the people still live in those desolate towns.

    Moreover, as others pointed out what does it mean that Hungarian industrial production is supposedly grows two times faster than that of the US? I can tell you in Mozambiqe the growth rate is even better, but surely you would not want to live there. Hungary obviously would have to grow obviously faster (and consistently at that) than the Western world if it ever wanted to catch up, but this is not happening (to the contrary we are lagging ever more behind even compared to our Visegrad peers, although our peers are now Romania and Bulgaria).

    The current account balance is good in Hungary for one single reason: lack of foreign direct investments. Nobody wants to or dares to invest in Hungary, so we do not import new production machinery. Investments as of the GDP have consistently been the worst in CEE and one of the worst in the entire EU for years, which means that we will lag behind other CEE countries for years to come. The government debt is dangerously growing, since the start of this year by further HUF 2,000 bn and one could continue. The economic policy of this government has probably been the worst in the last 25 years. Period.

  9. It is truly incredible to be in Hungary in December 2013, 20 years after Antall’s death, comtemplating the winding, folded back upon itself road that has now lead to an unlikely point where the country could conceivably start over and get it right. At least as right as anything called a nation governed by a democratically elected body of representatives can get. Everyone in Hungary has now seen how the business of democracy really works and Hungarians are presently standing in a very weird and unique position of clarity thanks to the stark contrasts in the performances of their own governments since 1989 and the way western Europe and the USA have responded to events in Budapest. Lots of water has flowed down the Danube and everybody here has taken a big swig. Opinions do vary on the quality, but not as much as they used to and nowadays most people will tell you the taste was bitterest between Antall’s death and 2010 when Fidesz won a landslide election. Such a landslide in fact and such a sharp break from the past that it honestly resembled a revolution in the way that a regime was thrown out and a new government installed. Fortunately, it happened in voting booths rather than in the streets between armed adversaries.

    During his short tenure from May 1990 until December 1993, Antall certainly realized that something had gone terribly and badly off the rails and who would know better than he, sitting among a newly elected parliament, familiar with everyone there the way the local undertaker knows his still breathing clientele and wondering which of them would bury him.

    “What do you expect?” he said. “You chose not to make a revolution this time.”

    In 1989, Hungarians were afraid of the Russians and the communists and they were quite sure from experience that they would get no help if the Soviets decided to go down shooting. They wanted peace at any cost and they paid mightily for it. Antall died and the stress of his 3 years in office was probably not the only cause of his terminal cancer. Twenty years later, we could finally be seeing a miraculous resurrection of his reputation unfairly tarnished and a chance to start again.

  10. whobuthoover, I would like to argue some of your points. In my opinion, the Hungarian people didn’t rise in a revolutionary fashion against the Hungarian communist regime because they were afraid of the Russians. They didn’t turn against the socialist regime because they didn’t think that the one they lived in was that oppressive and unbearable, especially in comparison to some of the other countries in the Soviet bloc.

    What Antall said and what you tried to translate is very difficult to reproduce in English. But in my reading Antall wasn’t complaining about the lack of an armed uprising. He simply told to the those in his party who were clamoring for retribution that what they demanded was misplaced in a country where the whole population wanted to have a peaceful transition. What he meant: ” You noisy ones, keep your horses. There was no revolution here and you cannot turn against people with whom we made a deal for a peaceful transition.

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