Mikhail Gorbachev

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.”


Whom should Viktor Orbán fear? Not his former self but the rebellious students

I’m sure many of you are familiar with Attila Ara-Kovács’s name because I’ve written about him several times on this blog, but if anyone needs a refresher course here’s a brief description of his career from Cluj/Kolozsvár to Budapest where he joined the democratic opposition. In the late 1980s the democratic opposition worked side by side with Fidesz, then a youth organization, so Ara-Kovács had plenty of opportunity to get to know the young Viktor Orbán.

Ara-Kovács, who nowadays has a column (Diplomatic Notes) in the weekly Magyar Narancs, was inspired a couple of days ago to include a piece on domestic issues in his column: he decided to share the impression the democratic opposition gained of the young Viktor Orbán in those days.

Ara-Kovács discovered on YouTube a composed young woman, Réka Kinga Papp, who for two and a half minutes severely criticizes Hungary’s prime minister. She actually calls him a “mad dictator” who will be swept away by the wrath of the people. But she still gives him credit for the constructive role he played in the late eighties. Especially his famous speech at the reburial of Imre Nagy and his fellow martyrs that launched his spectacular political career. So did another new youthful opponent of the Orbán regime, Máté Ábrahám, who also expressed his admiration for the young Orbán. This young man said something to the effect that today’s Orbán would surely be afraid to meet his young self. These students suppose that in those days Orbán, Kövér, Deutsch, Áder, and the others were pure as the driven snow. They became corrupt only because politics and power corrupted them.

It is time to tell the truth, says Ara-Kovács, because it is essential that these youngsters don’t labor under false impressions of Fidesz’s role in the regime change. According to Ara-Kovács, Réka Kinga Papp’s young Orbán never existed. She talked about the “innovative, happy, well meaning will” that Orbán allegedly added to “the big Hungarian collective.” Ara-Kovács categorically denies that Orbán added anything of the sort. On the contrary, he decided to establish a second liberal party by which he divided “the camp of the most authentic opponents” of the Kádár regime.

Viktor Orbán broke his wordOn the reburial of Imre Nagy and other martyrs of 1956 / July 16, 1989

Viktor Orbán broke his word
at the reburial of Imre Nagy and other martyrs of 1956 / JuneLászló Kövér 16, 1989

As for Orbán’s famous speech in which he demanded the withdrawal of the Soviet troops, Ara-Kovács provides some background information. The so-called round table of the opposition made the decision not to mention this demand. First, because they knew that negotiations were already underway and second, because they didn’t want to trap Mikhail Gorbachev in “an impossible” situation. In addition, they didn’t want to provide additional ammunition to the hardliners in the Soviet bloc: the East Germans, the Czechoslovaks, and the Romanians. One must keep in mind that Václav Havel at this point was still in jail. Viktor Orbán and László Kövér, representing Fidesz, accepted this joint decision only for Orbán to break his word the next day. The impression created by that speech was that only Fidesz and Viktor Orbán were radical enough to dare to strive for complete independence while the others were political opportunists. “For him even the revolutionary moment of 1989 was no more than a question of power politics.

This was Viktor Orbán’s first betrayal that was  followed by many more. He betrayed his ally, SZDSZ, and three years later betrayed his own supporters when “he changed Fidesz from a radical liberal party into a party adopting an extreme nationalistic ideology.” No, says Ara-Kovács, these young university and high school students are not at all like the young Orbán, Kövér, Deutsch, Áder, and the others. “Viktor Orbán is not afraid of a meeting with his former self but he is afraid of you. And it is important for you to know that.”

Almost simultaneously with the appearance of Ara-Kovács’s article another news item caught my attention. It is an interview with László Kövér that will appear in tomorrow’s print edition of Heti Válasz. A short description of it is already available on the Internet. According to Kövér, there is no resemblance between today’s “rebels” and their former selves. Ever since the early 1980s they purposefully prepared themselves to accept a political role in the future. “We knew that belonging to the eight percent of the population who received an opportunity to become part of the elite by attending university entailed responsibility. It never occurred to us to leave this country although then there was a dictatorship in Hungary.”

Well, let’s dissect these sentences. Kövér talks about the early 1980s. In the early 1980s no one but no one had the slightest inkling that the days of the Soviet Union were numbered. That its empire would crumble by the end of the decade. Most of us didn’t even know it in 1987 or early 1988. So, if Kövér and Orbán were preparing themselves for political roles they were getting ready to join the socialist political elite of the Kádár regime. It cannot be interpreted in any other way. If that is the case, it is no wonder that they didn’t want to leave the country despite its being a dictatorship. No, they would have been an integral part of that dictatorship. Perhaps those who would actually steer the ship of that one-party regime. Everything Orbán, Kövér, Áder, and some of the others from the original crew are doing right now supports this hypothesis.