Sándor Révész

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.