Hans-Dietrich Genscher

Gyula Horn’s reminiscences of his role in the 1956 Hungarian Revolution

I indicated in one of my comments to the discussion on Gyula Horn that I would touch on his controversial role after the failure of the Hungarian Uprising of  1956 when for five or six months he served in the militia that was set up to keep order.

But first I would like to call attention to an obituary written by the director of the House of Terror and a friend of Viktor Orbán, Mária Schmidt. It is a most positive assessment of of Gyula Horn’s career. Schmidt thinks that Horn was a great statesman and a patriot “who did what the homeland asked him to do.” Most of us are familiar with Mária Schmidt’s political views. She is a fierce anti-communist. If I wrote something that glowing about Horn I would be called a Bolshevik by some of the right-wing readers of this blog. I highly recommend that they read her words.

In addition to Horn’s autobiography I discovered in my library a book, Here we are, Europe!, that is “a portrait of Gyula Horn.” It was published in 1990 with an introduction by Hans-Dietrich Genscher. In it I found a Hungarian translation of a very long article by Georg Paul Hefty from the February 1990 issue of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which is as eulogistic as the obituary of Schmidt. I might also mention that  Hefty is a true conservative who to this day is a fierce supporter of Viktor Orbán.

Before I move on to Horn’s controversial role in 1956, I think I should say something about his family background. Horn’s father joined the Red Army in 1919 and spent four years in jail after the fall of the Hungarian Soviet Republic.  He got married shortly thereafter and sired one child after the other. As Horn says, one every three years.  Altogether Horn’s mother gave birth to eight boys, out of whom seven survived. The family lived in extreme poverty.

Throughout the interwar years Horn’s father was in and out of jail although he didn’t seem to have especially close relations with the illegal communist party. Perhaps he just had a big  mouth. After the German occupation of Hungary (March 19, 1944), he was taken prisoner and killed near Sopron. Horn’s oldest brother Géza lost his eyesight in one eye as a teenager because two policemen beat him so brutally, apparently for no good reason. As Horn remembers, the two policemen didn’t like “prolis,” an abbreviation of “proletarians” and a derogatory term. He himself was beaten badly by a traffic cop because, while carrying two or three boxes for delivery, he wasn’t crossing the street fast enough.

Géza Horn joined the illegal communist party early on. It was he who served as a kind of teacher to Gyula, supplying him with Marxist-Leninist literature. After the war, during the coalition period, the Hungarian Communist Party immediately began recruiting adherents and party workers and the Horn family, given their association with the party even before 1945, was much favored.

The mother was sent to party school while Géza and Gyula were sent to a quickie course that gave them a high school diploma in one year. Both of them were then sent to university in the Soviet Union. Gyula studied finance and received a “red diploma” for earning straight As.

After returning to Hungary he got a job at the ministry of finance. His job involved checking VAT payments, which meant a lot of traveling all over the country. He saw the misery the Rákosi regime had inflicted on the country and the Hungarian people. He also sensed the growing dissatisfaction of the populace. Even his oldest brother Géza, who was truly committed to the cause, kept saying “this is not what we were fighting for.”

On the day the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 broke out Horn happened to be in Szeged. He had a rather hard time getting back to Óbuda where his wife was in the late stages of pregnancy with their first child. A sidenote, just to give you an idea of the fluidity of the political situation during the revolution, one of Horn’s younger brothers joined the revolutionaries and eventually became one of those 200,000 refugees who fled and settled in the West.

Horn himself was a member of the National Guard created by the Imre Nagy government. He patrolled the streets with an ID in hand bearing the signature of General Béla Király. I read somewhere that Horn and some of his friends briefly contemplated leaving the country. They even had a truck ready for the journey.

On the other hand, Géza, though not totally satisfied with the Rákosi regime, kept worrying about the future of the socialist state. After the failure of the revolution he helped organize the new communist party, Kádár’s MSZMP.

The Hungarian militia / mult-kor.hu

 Hungarian militia men / mult-kor.hu

Once it was all over, on December 12, Horn and six of his colleagues in the ministry of finance–among them all those who had studied in the Soviet Union–were asked to join a new battalion that was set up by the Budapest Police Captaincy. They were supposed to guard the bridges across the Danube because there were rumors that the revolutionaries wanted to blow them up.

The next day a terrible tragedy befell the Horn family. Géza, by then a film director and always Gyula’s favorite brother, was bicycling to work when a truck purposely struck him and he was subsequently beaten to death. They never found the perpetrators.

After about a month of guarding bridges at night Horn’s team was given a new job. The police recreated the “R Group,” originally used after 1945 to check the growing lawlessness during the very hard times. Horn and his colleagues were sent to this group not so much to apprehend criminals as to act as guards at pubs, railroad stations, and other public places.

Eventually, however, they ended up in investigative work. It turned out that one of these investigations also included beating the suspects.  Horn and his best friend in this group tried to intervene, but they were accused of betraying the cause. Soon enough came an investigation of the case by a high-ranking police officer.  Horn allegedly told him that “we didn’t sign up for this kind of work.” The police officer promised an investigation, but as Horn laconically remarks, “it is not known what happened to the promise, but it is a fact that we were no longer ordered to take part in this type of work.” He was demobilized in July 1957.

In the 1990 publication he told the reporter, Sára Pogány, whose interviews make up the bulk of the slim volume, that “we never used force against anyone.” When Pogány asked him whether he had any appetite for revenge, Horn categorically denied it. One can believe him or not. Mária Schmidt rightly points out that during the Kádár regime it was in his best interest to exaggerate his role in 1956-57 while after 1989 it was in his best interest to belittle it. But, as she notes, we don’t have historical evidence one way or the other. It is possible that Gyula Horn wasn’t important enough to leave behind much of a footprint. So, for the time being we will have to be satisfied with what he himself told us.

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Gyula Horn and the opening of Austro-Hungarian border, September 10, 1989

When I am either unfamiliar with a topic or have only bits and pieces of information that don’t make a coherent whole, I like to follow up. Since I didn’t remember all the details of the Hungarian decision to allow the East German tourists who refused to return to the German Democratic Republic to cross into Austria, I decided that I would reread Gyula Horn’s autobiography, Cölöpök (Piles).

It took me a little while to find the appropriate pages because the book has no table of contents. There are some chapter numbers but no chapter titles. Moreover, Horn jumps from topic to topic, and not necessarily in chronological order. Once I found it, however, the passage turned out to be full of interesting details.

Let’s start with the crucial question of whether the Soviet Union gave the Hungarians permission to allow the thousands of East Germans to cross into Austria. No, there was no permission. The Soviets were “informed on the day that the Hungarians opened the border for the East Germans to cross.” That was on September 10, 1989.

Gyula Horn in 1990 / parlament.hu

Gyula Horn in 1990 / parlament.hu

According to Horn, the Hungarian foreign ministry suspected that the Soviets already knew about the Hungarian decision, either directly through their intelligence forces in Hungary or from the leadership of the GDR. Because the East German party and government leaders had been informed by the Hungarians of their decision on August 29. The East Germans insisted that Hungary fulfill its obligation of a 1969 treaty between Hungary and East Germany by which Hungary was supposed to force East German citizens to return to their homeland. It was this treaty that the Hungarians were going to suspend. Why suspend instead of abrogate? Because in the latter case Hungary would have been obliged to wait three months before they would have been free to let the Germans go. And the number of East Germans in Hungary had already swelled to the thousands by then.

The East German side insisted on a meeting with Miklós Németh, the prime minister, and Gyula Horn. The Germans were still hoping that the Hungarians could be cajoled, blackmailed, persuaded, take your pick, to return the East German citizens who were staying in the West German embassy, in student hostels, in camping facilities. But when the two politicians got to Berlin, the hosts were told about the suspension of the 1969 treaty.

If Gorbachev had wanted to prevent the escapade of the Germans across the Austro-Hungarian border he had more than a week to send word to the Hungarians warning them against such a step. But although Horn gives a very detailed account, there is not a word about any visit from the Soviet ambassador to the Foreign Ministry.

The relationship between Horn and Eduard Shevardnadze was cordial, and in the previous year or two the Soviets usually took the Hungarian more liberal side against the noisiest hard-liners–Romania, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia. When, shortly after the momentous event, Horn met Shevardnadze in New York, the Soviet foreign minister expressed his agreement with the Hungarian solution. In fact, he asked Horn to estimate the number of dissatisfied East Germans who would gladly leave and was duly impressed with Horn’s answer that the number might be one or two million.

Horn admits that there was some fear that Gorbachev might be pressured by others in the government and party to intervene. After all, the existence of an East Germany within the Soviet bloc might be considered of paramount interest to Moscow. Horn adds that he never feared military intervention because he knew that Gorbachev was not in favor of any kind of military action. But he did consider possible economic or political action, although elsewhere in the book Horn mentions that by that time the Soviet Union was in such dire economic straits that they were unable to fulfill their delivery obligations to Hungary.

Horn outlines the different ideas the Hungarians entertained over time, but he claims they never contemplated sending the East Germans back home.  When there were only a few hundred escapees, they offered them refugee status in Hungary which they categorically refused. Then the German and the Hungarian governments came up with a plan that  in the middle of the night in great secret a large German plane would land in Budapest and the East Germans would be smuggled onto the plane. But soon enough that idea was abandoned because the East Germans continued to arrive in greater and greater numbers, not so much from East Germany as from Yugoslavia where they had spent their holidays. Once they got to Hungary, they refused to continue northward. Something had to be done.

It was at this point that Németh and Horn secretly visited Bonn and talked to Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher. They outlined the difficulties and promised that a solution would be found. A few days later when the decision was made to open the border, Horn phoned Genscher and asked him to send his undersecretary to Budapest immediately to begin serious negotiations about the details of the border opening. Genscher kept repeating that “this is fantastic, we never in our wildest dreams imagined such a brave and humane step.” The undersecretary arrived overnight and was told about the details of the operation. The reach of the East German intelligence services worried Horn, and he asked the Germans not to send cipher telegrams. Only handwritten notes by courier.

It was around 6 p.m. on September 10 that Horn gave an interview on MTV in which announced the government’s decision to open the border between Austria and Hungary. In his book he added: “Naturally I did not know at that time that with this step we began the road toward the unification of the two states and with it a new chapter in the history of Europe.”