Communism

What happened on June 16, 1989? Another falsification of history?

Time flies. It was twenty-five years ago today that the remains of Imre Nagy, Miklós Gimes, Géza Losonczy, Pál Maléter, and József Szilágyi were reburied. On Heroes’ Square a large crowd gathered to listen to speeches. Six coffins were displayed. The sixth, empty one symbolized those people who were killed (or executed) during and after the revolution.

Negotiations over and preparations for the reburial were conducted by the Történelmi Igazságtétel Bizottság (TIB), whose members had spent years in jail after 1956 because of their participation in the revolution. (One member was Imre Mécs, who in the last two months has been demonstrating against the erection of the memorial that commemorates the occupation of the country by the German army.) Although the relatives and the majority of TIB wanted to have private reburials, eventually a large public event was organized with the approval of the opposition parties. Originally, only well-known participants in the revolution were supposed to speak: Béla Király, Sándor Rácz, Miklós Vásárhelyi, Imre Mécs, and Tibor Zimányi.

How did the young Viktor Orbán, one of the leaders of a youth organization, end up being included in this group of illustrious revolutionary veterans? István Csurka, the writer and one of the leaders of Magyar Demokrata Fórum (MD), suggested in a radio interview that “representatives of young Hungary should be included.” It was decided that a leader of Fidesz should deliver a speech right after the veterans of the revolution. So, in a way, Viktor Orbán must thank the late István Csurka, subsequently the founder and leader of the anti-Semitic Magyar Igazság és Élet Pártja (MIÉP), for an auspicious beginning to a very successful political career.

In the last few years Mária Schmidt has become Fidesz’s history ideologue, entrusted with crafting an interpretation of the past that suits Viktor Orbán’s political agenda. I wrote at length about her efforts at rehabilitating the Horthy regime, but in the last few weeks, most likely in anticipation of the 25th anniversary of Viktor Orbán’s most famous speech, she also embarked on rewriting the history of 1989-1990. Schmidt in her speech in Washington practically attributed the whole regime change to Viktor Orbán. He was the only person who dared to openly demand the departure of the Soviet troops.

The young Viktor Orbán, June 15, 1989

The young Viktor Orbán, June 16, 1989

Yes, it was a brave speech but not because Orbán demanded the withdrawal of Soviet troops. In fact, only about half an hour earlier Sándor Rácz, chairman of the workers’ council in 1956, in a very harsh anti-communist speech demanded the troops’ departure. What was new and significant was that Orbán was the only speaker to call attention to the incongruity of party and government officials standing by the coffins of those who were killed by the same regime that they represented.

The speech was different from the others in another sense. It was not a eulogy but the kind of speech that is normally delivered at a political rally. The significance of the speech didn’t lie in its anti-communist rhetoric. The others were equally anti-communist. But as Zoltán Ripp, a historian of the period, pointed out, his speech “was a denial of national reconciliation and not only considering the past.” The message was that the Magyar Szocialista Munkáspárt (MSZMP) is and always will be the enemy. Therefore we should not be surprised that shortly after the 2010 election he seriously contemplated banning MSZP as the legal successor to MSZMP.

While Imre Mécs wanted the members of the audience to hold hands, Orbán wanted to wipe out the past and all its actors who, in his opinion, were guilty, regardless of what they did or did not do during their lifetimes. I think that this speech explains a lot both about Orbán’s character and his rather undifferentiated worldview. I always complain about his lack of differentiation with regard to the Stalinist period, the early Kádár era, or the years of the 1980s. For him, judging from this speech, it was all the same. And, let’s not forget, Imre Nagy and the rest of the bodies in those coffins had been members of the communist elite. Later Orbán unequivocally stated that “Imre Nagy is not our hero.”  I’m certain that he was not his hero on June 16, 1989 either, but he had to give an oration at the funeral of the man after all. So, he carefully but obviously made a distinction between the communist Imre Nagy and the one “who could identify with the will of the nation and who could set aside the holy communist taboos, that is with the unconditional service of the Russian empire and the dictatorship of the party… We learned from their fate that democracy and communism are irreconcilable.”

Viktor Orbán was not present at the 25th anniversary ceremony, attended by the presidents of Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Poland. Instead, he delivered a speech at a meeting of the European People’s Party held in Portugal. Earlier, however, he gave an interview to Bild, on the basis of which the journalist came to the conclusion that it was Viktor Orbán who “knocked the first stone out of the wall.” So, President Reagan ordered Gorbachev “to tear down that wall” and Viktor Orbán grabbed a hammer. This is how historical myths are created.

In the same interview Orbán said that “the struggle against the communists nowhere lasted as long as in Hungary…. I have to admit that our opponents were talented when it came to hanging onto power … They were good fighters. It took me twenty years to defeat them.” According to him, that fight lasted until 2011 when Hungary had a new constitution. So, it seems, Viktor Orbán hasn’t changed as much as most people claim. His attitude toward his opponents has not changed in the last twenty-five years.

Mária Schmidt’s interpretation of the end of communism stands in sharp contrast to Viktor Orbán’s. According to the former, it was Viktor Orbán who first talked about free elections and the withdrawal of the Soviet troops and, since the armed forces didn’t break up the meeting, it was clear to everybody that “we buried communism on that day.” On the other hand, according to Orbán’s interview in Bild, communism ended only in 2011. Complicated, isn’t it?

Mária Schmidt was also in charge of the celebration to commemorate Viktor Orbán’s historical role on June 16, 1989. She declared that it is supposed to be “a day of rejoicing,” and so the organizers invited two rock bands from the 1960s and 1970s–Omega, a Hungarian group, and the Scorpions, a German group–to give a free “Concert of Freedom.” The granddaughter of Imre Nagy, the wife of Pál Maléter, and the daughter of József Szilágyi protested. To them June 16 is a day of mourning because it was on that day in 1958 that the people who were reburied in 1989 were originally killed. To make a day of joy out of it is sacrilegious.

June 16, 1989 was, of course, more than a day of remembering and paying homage to the dead. It was a political event of national importance. It was part of a process that ended in the collapse of the Soviet empire. But Mária Schmidt distorts history when she tries convince us that it was Viktor Orbán’s speech that ended communism in Hungary and forced the Soviet troop withdrawal. And Viktor Orbán’s idea that communism in Hungary ended only in 2011 is outright ridiculous. Another falsification of history has begun.