unification of Germany

Another strange Orbán speech at the 25th anniversary of the Pan-European Picnic

Another day, another speech. Earlier I briefly mentioned that the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Pan-European Picnic has been one of the important topics in the German press lately. The interest is understandable. It was the very beginning of the German unification process.

During the summer of 1989 Otto von Habsburg, who at the time was a member of the European Parliament, gave a lecture in Debrecen extolling the benefits of a Europe without borders. A couple of MDF activists came up with the idea of organizing a picnic right at the border between Austria and Hungary, symbolizing the artificial nature of borders. The organizers convinced Otto von Habsburg and Imre Pozsgay, a member of the Németh government and high-ranking party functionary, to attend the gathering to be held on August 19.

It turned out to be more than a simple picnic. Some East Germans who happened to be in Hungary heard about the event and decided to crash it in more than one way. They ran to the gate between Austria and Hungary and broke through. The Hungarian border guards were instructed to let them go. In fact, some children who were left behind were taken by Hungarian border guards across the border to join their parents. What followed we all know. On September 11 the Hungarian government opened the borders for all East Germans who were camping out in Hungary waiting for an opportunity to leave.

Hungarian border guards open the gate to freedom

Hungarian border guards open the gate to freedom

Yesterday Germans, Hungarians, Austrians, and some of the few hundred people who broke through the gate gathered to remember that  momentous day. Naturally, Viktor Orbán was also present. But instead of giving a formal speech he had a fairly lengthy “conversation” with Philip Rákay, a long time Fidesz activist and nowadays the superintendent of MTV, the state television station.

It was a strange conversation in which Orbán combined praise of the Hungarian nation with an explanation of his use of the word “liberal.” His speech back in July does need some explanation, especially since a couple of days ago he received some harsh words from the German Foreign Ministry. Undersecretary Michael Roth indicated that in the opinion of the German government “Hungary is going in the wrong direction.” According to Roth, Germany is grateful to the Hungarians for their courage in standing up for freedom in 1989, but today Germany must ask about the state of freedom in Hungary. “The developments taking place in Hungary raise concern,” he said, because “they affect our common European foundation.” This admonition came not from The Washington Post or The New York Times but from the government of the strongest and most influential country in the European Union.

This morning Péter Szijjártó responded by calling Roth’s “allegations” so general as to be meaningless, and he declared that no one should worry about the state of democracy in Hungary. Hungarians demand “respect” because they are freedom-loving people. “We are not the ones who threaten democracy.” Orbán at the commemoration ceremony also stressed the freedom-loving nature of Hungarians, adding that they are also chivalrous and magnanimous. Magnanimous because they did not take the money offered to them by Germany in exchange for the Hungarian courage and generosity shown in allowing thousands of Germans to cross over to Austria.

Soon enough, however, Orbán left history behind and began talking about matters that were in one way or another connected to his infamous speech. For example, he pointed out that Hungary cannot copy the Chinese, Russian, Japanese, or South Korean models because “we are Hungarians who come from a fundamentally Christian culture, motivated by freedom and [therefore] we must build a different economic and political system.” I have the feeling that this reassurance will not be enough for the politicians of the Trans-Atlantic alliance.

As for his description of the events of 1989, “the year of miracles,” it focused on Fidesz’s and his own role, with the usual emphasis on forcing the Russians to withdraw and getting rid of the communists. The Fidesz youngsters decided to be as radical as possible while there was such a revolutionary mood. It is almost as if Viktor Orbán and his youth organization were the only players in the drama of the regime change. Most of those present don’t remember the minute details of those months and don’t realize that Viktor Orbán and his friend László Kövér were only minor characters who until the last minute were not even admitted as negotiating partners in the Round Table Discussions. They don’t remember that the Russian troop withdrawals were negotiated by the Németh government, the “communists” who figured so large in Orbán’s discussion yesterday at the celebration.

According to Népszabadság the word “communist” was the most frequent one to leave his lips. Orbán’s critics keep repeating that they don’t understand where Orbán finds his communists because according to practically all independent observers there are mighty few of them, and they certainly cannot be found in public life. These critics, however, are most likely not familiar with the works of Gyula Tellér, who is convinced that the power structure that developed in 1954-55 is still with us. At the top were the hard-core Rákosists and the communists around Imre Nagy. These two power groups fought for supremacy. Under them were the middle classes and the petite bourgeoisie. This structure, according to Tellér, has remained surprisingly stable over more than fifty years.

Since Orbán is an attentive student of Tellér, according to whom these two top communist groups still exist, he continues to talk about communists in a country where the communist party is practically nonexistent. The real enemy, however, is not this group of ineffectual self-proclaimed communists; it is the opposition, whom Orbán views as communists who hide beneath the mask of Western-style socialism and liberalism. These covert communists must be obliterated, destroyed. The fight cannot end.

In fact, that fight has been intensified since 2010 when there was a revolution thanks to the electoral victory that produced a two-thirds majority in parliament.  Orbán recalled that József Antall sarcastically said to his critics who complained that his government did not stamp out the whole communist hierarchy, “Tetszettek volna forradalmat csinálni,” a very difficult phrase to translate because “You should have staged a revolution” doesn’t do it justice. Well, Orbán continued, in 2010 “tetszettünk forradalmat csinálni”  (We did stage a revolution). The fight against the “communists” will continue.

And the fight will continue on another front as well. János Lázár in his speech today told the Hungarians that they “are only half way into the reorganization of the Hungarian state.” Yes, they created new civil and criminal codes and a new administrative structure. What is still missing is a “new state structure.” I’m afraid that means a move toward a presidential system, with Viktor Orbán as president with far-reaching powers.

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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.”