15: Almost Half a Century, or Half My Lifetime
<< 14: Death Bend || List of Hungary's Kings
Every day we all add a small brick or two to history's edifice. But he who builds any
one of its parts does not have the perspective to survey the totality of the whole. Still,
let us try to sketch the postwar period, almost fifty years now, as if from a greater
As the front rolled its bloody way across Hungary from east to west, behind it enormous
changes took place from the very beginning. In a certain sense one can rightly speak of a
revolution, although it was not a revolution pushed through by Hungarian society itself.
However, this by no means heralded the rapid and forcible introduction of the Soviet
system. At the beginning, there were still contradictory signals in this respect. When the
winter inferno, with its atrocities committed during and after the battles, had come to an
end, behind the front the Soviet military administration often gladly entrusted routine
tasks to members of the old public administration -those of them who had not fled to the
West-, as well as to the frequently radical new organizations that sprang up as the result
of local initiative. There were instances where veterans of 1919 proclaimed local
dictatorships of the proletariat; these were brought to heel. Ostensibly at least, real,
and not "people's", democracy lay in prospect for the region. This expectation
was reinforced by the quick arrival of the delegations of the wartime allies comprising
the Allied Supervisory Commission, which counted among its members British, American, and
Although the battles raged only in certain areas (in some places, large districts
remained untouched by the fighting), the destruction was nationwide. Forty percent of the
entire national wealth, or five times the wealth generated in 1939, the last year of
peace, was destroyed. Between 120,000 and 140,000 people lost their lives in the fighting,
and some 250,000 others never returned home. This last group mainly comprised prisoners of
war in Soviet captivity, and, to a much lesser extent in American, British, and French
captivity: these people either died, or chose to live elsewhere. More than half a million
suffered lasting captivity; the majority were released some two or three years after the
war, although some tens of thousands were set free only in the 1950s.
However, the affair of the "prisoners of war" taken off to the Soviet Union
cannot be closed so simply. Only some of those condemned to this fate were in fact
soldiers captured in battle or when hostilities ceased. Here, two things need to be taken
The first was the consequence of the strange story of the siege of Budapest. After the
large-scale tank battle which took place on the Hungarian Plain (the so-called Battle of
Debrecen), the Soviet commander, Marshal Malinovsky, wished to regroup his forces. But on
Stalin's instructions, he was obliged to capture the capital while still on the move. This
had a price: the siege of Budapest dragged on for months. The marshal, rightly fearing
Stalin's wrath, justified the amount of time needed by claiming that the Hungarian
component of the army defending the capital was much larger than was actually the case.
After the siege, the number of Hungarian servicemen who fell into Soviet hands was too
small to substantiate this claim, so the victors rounded up men from the streets to
supplement the genuine ex-defenders they held. Among these men were some who had never
been soldiers at all.
Secondly, many thousands of people, among them a good number of women, were deported to
the Soviet Union for forced labor known as "reparations" work. These people were
mainly from villages occupied by Hungary's ethnic Germans, the so-called Swabians, but
some also came from the northeastern regions, from both sides of the now-restored Trianon
border. What happened in these parts, where the population was largely Hungarian, really
amounted to ethnic cleansing.
It is difficult to establish accurately how many civilians lost their lives as a result
of the war. (Here we should repeat that at least 400,000 Hungarian Jews died in the
Budapest and considerable parts of several hundred other settlements were in ruins.
Across the Danube not a single bridge was intact. The gold reserves of the National Bank
of Hungary were now in the West, as was most of the railway rolling-stock, and a great
deal of machinery, equipment of various sorts, and much of the country's stock of farm
animals. These were evacuated before the battles, as were museum treasures and various
kinds of state and private property. After the fighting was over, long trains then took
dismantled small and large factories to the East, while from what remained of the food and
livestock of the country, priority was given to the units of the Soviet army still in
action and to the Soviet forces occupying the areas behind the frontlines. On the other
hand, Hungarians, if they survived, were apparently living better not long after the front
passed over them; at least they were consuming more calories than people in many other
parts of Europe.
Reconstruction got off to a rapid and effective start. The land reform affected 650,000
landless or dwarf holder peasant families. Although the wages of workers fell to a
fraction of what they had been, the regeneration of industry was swift. In addition to
supplying the domestic market, an exchange of goods began with Soviet, Czechoslovak, and
Under the moderate supervision of the Soviet army of occupation, the local
self-government started up by the population in the countryside became ever more
efficient. Arbitrary retaliation for social and political grievances was rare; the guilty
were held to account by due process of law.
Wide, new avenues for the continuation of their studies opened up to the children of
peasants and workers. The spirit of the period was well expressed in the marching song
selected by the institution serving them, the National Federation of People's Colleges
Hey, bright breezes blow
Our flying banner,
Hey, this is writ upon it:
Long live Liberty!
Hey, breezes, bright breezes
Keep blowing, blowing -
By the morrow we'll turn
The entire world over.
This, then, was the age of the "bright breezes", whose pathos was
captivating even if the "turning over" did not bring off completely its
The revival of intellectual life was also rapid. The seriously-ill Béla Bartók did
not return from exile, but Zoltán Kodály became the distinguished and respected
organizer of the new, popular national culture. Albert Szent-Györgyi, the biochemist and
discoverer of Vitamin C, and the only Hungarian scientist who won the Nobel Prize while
still in Hungary, led the renewal of Hungarian scholarship. (Head-strong and active,
Kodály remained in Hungary, whereas, after a couple of years, Szent-Györgyi,
disenchanted, went abroad.)
In 1947, the Paris Peace Treaty did not amend the Trianon frontiers in Hungary's favor.
On the contrary: another three villages, south of Bratislava, were awarded to
Czechoslovakia, thus giving the Slovaks a bridgehend south of the Danube. (Forty-five
years later this would enable the Slovaks to divert the waters of the Danube to their own
territory, although this violated the Paris Peace Treaty.
Hungary's obligations for war reparations were extensive.
Eventually, beyond direct losses for its undeniable responsibility for the war
(Germany's wartime debts to Hungary were never repaid), Hungary had to discharge
obligations imposed in Paris, whose actual material value was uncertain if only because
the terms of trade, prices, and modes of accounting lost touch with the actual
expenditures both during and after the war: the basic law of value and the judgement of
the market-place did not check them.
The wildest inflation in the world history of money raged in Hungary from the spring of
1945 until the summer of 1946. The last pengö banknote issued bore the
denomination of 100 quadrillion. One unit of the new currency, the forint, was
equal to 400,000 quadrillion pengös. A significant part of the city garbage at
the time consisted of paper money that had been thrown away. The creation of the forint
in August 1946 was a financial masterstroke; it occurred without foreign loans and
essentially through the provision of goods. One of its flaws, however, was the fact that
fiscal reform also meant price reform: it displaced price ratios, it depreciated
agricultural prices and increased industrial prices. And although it did not, for example,
make rents and services cheap without reason, later this abridgement of the law of value
was to strike back extensively.
The restoration of the Trianon borders precipitated massive migrations of people. Many
resettled of their own accord in the motherland (in part through exchange of populations);
many were just bundled off (principally from Slovakia). At this time the Potsdam
resolutions of the "Big Four" ordered the mass deportation of Germans from
Hungary. Since returning Hungarians had a desperate need for places (houses and land),
this action exceeded prescribed levels in some areas. Through these means, Hungary became
relatively homogeneous ethnically, where -not counting the nearly half million, or 4 to 5
percent, Gypsy population- today there are altogether fewer than half a million German,
Slovak, South Slav, Romanian, Ruthenian, and other inhabitants of non-Hungarian ethnicity,
even if we supplement official census data with realistic estimates of those who, for
whatever reason, did not consider their father's ethnicity to be their own or simply did
not acknowledge it.
On the basis of the human suffering and tragedy of those resettling or those being
deported, the postwar climate of opinion, and then relations with Yugoslavia, which turned
into a worsening but temporary "cold war" in 1948, we could not in the first
decade after 1945 yet speak of reconciliation between the Hungarians and the national
minorities remaining within Hungary's borders. Moreover, discrimination also asserted
itself, mainly against the Southern Slavs and the Germans who remained in the country.
However, while these migrations back and forth amounted to a quarter of a million
people at the most, the lines of our borders drawn in 1920 and re-affirmed in 1947 became
a final historical reality. At the same time, this also meant that several million
Hungarians, clinging to the centuries-old dwelling places of their ancestors, were also
obliged to live in the future as citizens of neighboring countries. We cite round figures
rather than exact data, for the percentage of error in statistics is large for both
historical and psychological reasons. There are colonies of ethnic Hungarians amounting to
at least 2.5 million in Romania, more than one million altogether in Czechoslovakia and
Yugoslavia, 200,000 in the former Soviet Union (the Ukraine), and 10,000 - 20,000 in
Austria. If we include the large numbers of those dispsersed throughout the world by waves
of emigration who still show some signs of linking themselves to us, then we must mention
the one million Hungarians scattered in North America and the tens of thousand of
Hungarians living in many countries of Europe and South America. Nearly a quarter of a
million Hungarian Jews have settled in Israel. According to the final total, if the number
of Hungarian inhabitants at home today is 10.3 million, or subtracting the other ethnic
groups, rather more than 9 million , then more than one-third of all Hungarians live
outside our present borders. Hungarians form the largest ethnic minority in Europe, or at
least they did before the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Hungary's political system altered radically between 1945 and 1949. The dozen or so
political parties reviving or coming into existence in 1945, which in the fall of 1945
already pitted their strength against each other in extensive democratic elections, though
the power relations appearing at this time were extremely fragile -were quickly reduced to
four. Of the two peasant parties and the two workers' parties remaining, the latter, the
Social Democratic Party and the Communist Party, merged in 1948, taking the name
"Hungarian Working People's Party", and continued working in this form. As in
the other East European countries which were later to group themselves into an alliance, a
people's democracy was established, which essentially wanted to traverse the
peaceful and ready-to-compromise path of the socialist revolution. The leading force in
this process was the single workers' party, while the other parties remaining in some
places but in name only, and/or those not affiliated with parties -in our case,
increasingly restricted and very formal- existed within the framework of a mass
organization, the People's Front.
Among the leaders of the Hungarian Communists, who had been extraordinarily active,
even aggressive, ever since 1944-45, those who returned home from Moscow -with all the
ideological and political-psychological baggage of the USSR- played a decisive role from
the beginning, especially Mátyás Rákosi. But in the first years the words of those who
had engaged in illegal activities at home in Hungary before and during the war were still
accorded some weight. From 1949 onwards (1949 was the "year of the turning
point"), Rákosi and his narrow circle forced out, one after another, their political
rivals -or those they considered as such. These "rivals" included ordinary Party
members, former Social Democrats, and those who emerged from among the
"home-grown" Communists. Many were sentenced to death or to long terms of
imprisonment in carefully managed show trials. Particularly "suspect" were the
veterans of 1919 and the Hungarian volunteers in the Spanish Civil War and, in general,
all those inclined to thinking and acting independently. Thus perished László Rajk, and
thus were imprisoned former Social Democrat György Marosán (Rákosi's deputy for a
time), Árpád Szakasits (head of state for a while), and the Communist János Kádár,
who had been one of the leaders of the "home-grown" Communists during the most
difficult years of the war, although in the first years all three had been loyal allies of
those who had returned from Moscow.
The radical and dogmatic social utopianism of Rákosi and his associates for absolute
power took on a Stalinist character, but had typically local traits as well. In the
beginning their political base was not negligible among workers, intellectuals, and the
agricultural proletariat. In a couple of years, however, this was destroyed by the forced
transformation, on the Soviet model, of the agricultural co-operatives, which had already
been organized spontaneously; by the one-sided and forced development of heavy industry
(actually, this was a revival of the wartime "Györ Program", and paralleling
it, the dilution that weakened the working class by including in it the peasants fleeing
the land); by the deterioration of the workers' situation at all levels; by compulsory
nationalization; by centralized, centrally-planned economic policies, by the fetishization
of the paternalistic state, by the intimidation of the small-scale producer and the middle
levels of society, and the growing appropriation of their property, however meager; by the
collection of material for secret personal dossiers; by discrimination against children
according to their origin in education; by much increased production norms and reduced
consumption levels which recalled the wartime emergency situation (directed labor,
rationing); by unlawful acts not solely restricted solely to major political show
trials-the list could go on and on.
If we want to indicate phases, we can say that most of what was built up in the first
four years after the war (and this was not little!) was destroyed in the next four years.
After Stalin's death and the dramatic Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Party, Imre Nagy,
another former exile in Moscow, returned from the periphery of the Hungarian Party to the
center of events (Nagy had been agriculture minister in 1944-45 and had distributed land
to the peasants). In 1953 Imre Nagy became prime minister, while Rákosi remained first
secretary of the Party. The next three years did not produce the effective political
corrections that had been promised; instead the time was squandered in internal party
struggles, in battles between factions. Although economic policy was now on a somewhat
sounder basis, and the rehabilitation of those sentenced illegally was begun -for some
after their deaths-, Rákosi and his supporters launched one counter-attack after another.
The 1956 revolution did not break out when the country and society had reached the
nadir, but when some improvement had already occurred; this was, however, feeble, fitful,
and indeed there was cause to fear that the process might reverse. The way the mass
demonstration of October 23 sought to pledge solidarity with the earlier outbreaks in
Poland was at the same time legitimate and inevitable, but the events, occurring amidst
manifestations of the incompetence and disintegration of the Party, the state, and the
armed forces which increased hourly, reached an uncontrollable stage and turning point.
Armed clashes erupted, and a thousand kinds of emotions, ambitions, and forces broke to
the surface -before the Soviet army intervened. However, while the Soviet forces brought
the Communists back to power, the narrow group of leaders compromised in the preceding
events was excluded, as were the reform Communists who had embraced the revolution, among
them Imre Nagy.
The leading post was now taken by János Kádár, although in what circumstances and
under what inducements and pressures it is impossible to know even now. In the name of the
Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party, which was formed to replace the now-disintegrated
Hungarian Working People's Party, Kádár announced a radical break with the past.
Militarily for a few days more, and politically for a longer time, he took measures of the
most forceful kind against those still resisting, in some places and cases not shrinking
even from mass terror and bloodbaths. As a result of this, too, 200,000 people fled to the
West across the border, which remained open for weeks.
In the days of the 1956 revolution some 3 thousand people fell victim to the
streetfighting and the armed reprisals. These numbered the fighters, demonstrators and
simply victims on both sides; they do not include the Soviet troops who fell. This last
figure is unknown, but it could have been around a thousand.
The Kádár period, which dated from the turn taking place in 1956-57, was deeply
contradictory and two-sided. Reprisals for 1956 lasted for years; the number of those
executed for political reasons -from the unfortunate Imre Nagy, who chose a martyr's fate,
to nameless minors- was around 500, and those who suffered imprisonment numbered several
thousands. At the same time the old-new Party made concessions. First of all, as a basis
for good spring work and for the harvest in the coming year, agricultural policy changed.
And after this, Hungarian agriculture, although heavily weighed down by low prices for
agricultural produce on the world market, by overproduction, by Western protectionism, by
the deteriorating terms of trade, and by heavy taxation, was for a long time a successful
example and practice area of "socialism as it existed"; it was instrumental in
keeping alive individual interests and the entrepreneurial spirit. Although force was used
time and again in establishing co-operatives, later on the large units thus created
deviated from the Soviet model. They attempted to integrate themselves with the small
(family) plots still in private hands, and especially with the very intensive production
carried on within the confines of the small, household, plots allocated to members of the
co-operative peasantry. But the cooperatives also linked in successfully with the work of
many branches of industry, in particular, by making things needed by large-scale state
industry and by producing articles for consumption by the population which earlier on were
Perhaps the economic consolidation appearing by the summer of 1957, and thus "too
fast", so to speak, was one reason (and the temporary revival of the retrograde and
dogmatic forces the other reason), for the fact that the transformation of industrial
policy also recommended by reform economists failed to materialize at this time. This
transformation again became the order of the day only a decade later, in 1968 (when,
however, the atmosphere prevailing after the occupation of Prague in August did not favour
even a cautious renewal).
After 1956 and after 1968, in other words for more than thirty years and twenty years
respectively, Hungarian economic policy entered a period of reform characterized by
interruptions and regressions. This policy had to resuscitate the development which had
disintegrated in the years following 1949, and which should have moved the country from
the ranks of economically underdeveloped states to the ranks of the economically
moderately developed. The Hungarian economy has displayed some of the latter's
characteristics for some time, but still lags behind it overall. In the foreign press, the
experiments and solutions grouped together under the name of the "Hungarian
model" were presented as "avant-garde", in relation to the Eastern
bloc as a whole. But the performance of the Hungarian economy lagged behind the needs of
society; and on top of this the financing of the modest results was achieved largely on
the basis of foreign money, on loans freely given by the West which, instead of being used
for productive investment purposes, were used to fund consumption. All this has resulted
in a heavy burden for the new generation.
The key phrase of these decades was "national consensus". This was helped
along by the notion that "he who is not against us is with us". (This slogan was
a modification of the well-known Biblical formula.) The phrase, first used by János
Kádár at the end of 1961, expressed the idea that politics did not always want to force
its way into everything. Also, it acknowledged that the domain of private life was
extensive; that individual choice with regard to place of residence and place of
employment within Hungary was to be respected; that for practical purposes, people were
free to leave the country; that the principle of the monopoly of Marxism (an illusion
anyway) had given way to the principle of the hegemony of Marxism coupled with
constructive ideological dialogue; that religious life was not a dying anachronism; that
Hungarians could and did live in peace with the counrtry's national minorities; that, in
the course of their travels, citizens could form an accurate picture of East and West
alike; and that, through returning home frequently, Hungarians who had emigrated could get
to know at first hand the situation inside the country.
Because of the internal structure of the Soviet bloc, and because of the Realpolitik
considerations applied by the West, the Hungarian revolution of 1956 was bound to fail.
However, in a way it was victorious: its influence proved discernible not only in
developments in Hungary in the next decades, but also helped to weaken the communist
Sociological investigations tell us that up to the end of the 1980s a smaller and a
larger minority of Hungarian society, representing 0.5 percent and 10 percent
respectively, advanced more rapidly than the average, and were perceptibly better off
materially. These two levels were very heterogeneous within themselves. There were among
them the owners of private workshops, lawyers, athletes, some physicians and rural
small-scale producers. (However, the members of the political and power elite were seldom
found among them, and never among the higher, 0.5 percent, group.) It often happens that
today's wealth is somehow old in origin. Someone who once had wealth, or who received a
material start from home, can usually achieve success more easily, although there are also
"self-made men" on quite a scale. These two levels expanded from year to year.
At the opposite pole, however, about two million people -20 percent- were living below
the threshold of real poverty at this time. These included the usual Lumpenproletariat
-and a large number of alcoholics. Among them poverty was continually reproduced: their
children could seldom break out of it. But also significant was the new poverty among this
20 percent that had its origins in the social and economic anomalies of the time. Although
the right to an old age pension extended to everyone, many pensions were below the level
necessary even for subsistence, and while pensions were sometimes adequate when they were
first drawn, they were gradually eroded by inflation, with which they failed to keep pace.
Frequent divorces, the break up of families, and the need to establish a household over
and over again led to the impoverishment of many. (This was somewhat paradoxical: that the
acquisition of property should have led to impoverishment.) And in the parts of the
country that were marginally situated and economically underdeveloped -chiefly in the
vicinity of the national borders- entire villages and micro-regions lived in poverty. Many
people from these parts took jobs in towns that served as centers, and commuted, rather
like internal guest workers. The mode of living of these people could maintain poverty
even when eamings were reasonable (on account of their increased expenses); in general,
the families left behind at home lived a hard life.
On the other hand, Hungarian society at this time became, in the middle, highly
homogeneous. This surprised even those who from the beginning proclaimed that
"socialist development" would wash away earlier differences in classes and
social groups. Up until the end of the 1980s there were very few purely worker, peasant
(agricultural worker), intellectual, or other families. Most families were of mixed
composition. If not within the immediate family (parents and children), then in the
extended family there could be found members working in the various different sectors of
the economy, and occupying different rungs on the social ladder. This was a development of
primary importance because if opportunities, eamings, and other advantages and
disadvantages were dissimilar in industry and agriculture, in Budapest and in the
provinces, in the village and the town, in manual and intellectual occupations, then the
consequences of all these were more or less equalized in composite families. And this
decreased internal tensions and increased social cohesion.
It should be noted that this relatively static picture of Hungarian society applied up
until the end of the 1980s, when in many respects it lost its validity. It was the product
of almost fifty years, or at least, of more than three decades; in the thousand years in
the life of the country and the nation, this period is not a trifling one.
To say what will happen now would be to go beyond the scope of this type of work. Here
the history of tomorrow will depend on what happens at the present time: continuous
happenings cannot be analysed as history.
János Kádár died in the physical sense in the summer of 1989, only weeks after his
death in the political sense, when he was divested of his remaining powers. Within a
couple of months people were akeady talking about the Kádár period, in writing also, and
this within his own country. What had come into existence under his aegis was in ruin
-politically and economically. A period of almost a third of a century now came to an end,
a period which had begun in the shadow of the suppression of the 1956 revolution and which
had, after a time, eamed Hungary the somewhat ironic description as "the happiest
barrack in the camp". With the approach of the end of the 1980s, Hungary, with its
comparatively bold efforts at reform, had perhaps achieved in the West a reputation which
was rather exaggerated, although it was more suspect among the comrades in the East. And
the end of this period was overshadowed by, among other things, a 20 billion dollar
external debt -not a small price for the relative advantages.
Kádár's successors surprised the world with their preparations for democratic changes
and a peaceful hand-over of power. Refusing to perform any longer the role of gendarme in
the bloc, they allowed several hundred East German citizens to cross to the West via
Hungary's border with Austria. (This was preceded by the taking in of Romanian citizens,
for the most part ethnic Hungarians, who had fled to Hungary, as well as the recognizing
of their refugee status.) Later the Hungarian government dismantled the barbed-wire fence
along the border with Austria. These steps hastened the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the
re-unification of Germany, and the complete disappearance of the East German state. Even
weeks earlier, all this would have been unimaginable.
Naturally, all these things must be seen in connection with the appearance on the scene
of Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union. Hungary, euphoric and at the same time
disbelieving, could scarcely see the way ahead, thanks to which the Soviet troops
stationed on its territory since 1945 were withdrawn.
At the same time the almost forgotten rules of parliamentary democracy had to be
relearned, not to mention survival of the economic depression and the creation of a new
economic order. While the difficulties do not exactly facilitate effective tactics in the
short term, a whole host of strategic issues have to be decided. And all this while the
vulnerability of the economy looms, and, amidst expectations to the contrary, while people
have to contend with falls in consumption and living standards.
But let us look a little closer. The elections at the beginning of 1990 brought six
parties into Parliament. Of these, two were groupings which had, in the preceding years or
months, formed into parties from the various opposition movements: the
national-Christian-conservative Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF), and the long-illegal,
urban-liberal League of Free Democrats (SZDSZ), which had earlier been associated with samisdat
publications. Instead of the formation by these two parties of a grand coalition, which
many would have liked, a small coalition was put together comprising the MDF, the
Smallholders' Party, and the Christian Democrats. Thus the parliamentary opposition
consisted of three parties: the SZDSZ; the League of Young Democrats (Fidesz), formerly
the "little brother" of the SZDSZ but which quickly emerged from this role; and
the Hungarian Socialist Party, which came into existence from the reformist, social
democratic, wing of the old state party, the Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party (MSZMP).
(The seventh grouping in Parliament, the not insignificant and growing number of
independent MPs, should also be mentioned here.
But the coalition government, headed by József Antall, the chairman of the MDF, only
secured a simple majority in Parliament. In order to achieve the two-thirds majority it
needed for the passage of a number of crucial laws, it was forced to conclude an agreement
-a complicated and fragile pact- with the SZDSZ. As part of this, Árpád Göncz, of the
SZDSZ, became President of the Republic. The pact was a temporary compromise, and has not
served as a lasting political reconciliation of views.
Not long after the parliamentary elections, the country voted in local government
elections also. This time the MDF did not do so well. In the towns, Budapest included, it
was the two liberal parties -the SZDSZ and Fidesz- who came out on top, while in many
villages it was the old leaders, standing as independent candidates, who were elected to
the mayoral posts. The centralizing ambitions of the national government are interfering
with the spheres of activity and rights of the local authorities. And it is not
inconceivable that, in time, the local authorities will be impinging on the rights of the
But the first years of the 1990s have brought some successes: the country has preserved
its solvency; the balance of trade is in the black, reserves of hard currency have
increased; the country has attracted foreign capital in amounts significant by the
standards of the region as a whole (although modest by Western standards); inflation is on
the way down; for our Eastern neighbours the forint, which is already
semi-convertible, has become a currency much in demand; a significant amount of the
country's trade (perhaps too much) has been re-directed from the East to West; and a
number of steps have been taken towards European integration. On the debit side, there is
an enormous budget deficit caused by excessive state expenditure and insufficient state
income; unemployment is rising from half a million towards the one million mark; there is
a big and continuing fall in industrial production; Hungarian agriculture, the success
story of the recent past, has fallen on hard times; privatization is slow and only
semi-successful; and the gap between the rich and those living below the subsistence level
(both groups have increased in number) has widened appreciably.
The fact that all this has not led to a social explosion is partly due to the fact that
other countries of the former bloc are struggling with difficulties even greater than
those in Hungary, and partly because of the well-known flexibility of Hungarian society.
In the present situation, pensioners and the rural poor, groupings with only modest
ability to protect their interests, are especially hard hit. And the political
consequences are destructive. The new democracy is suffering, citizens are passive, often
turning away from all the parties and neglecting to vote. Extremist groups are growing in
strength. On the left there is a great nostalgia for the past, and the Kádár era, when
"there was a better system" and when "everyone was able to work", is
being re-assessed in a favourable light. On the right, the movements and tendencies of the
interwar period have emerged anew, in old and new -for example, skinhead- versions.
In the meantime the domestic difficulties of the entire area are becoming more serious.
Nationalism is increasing everywhere in the region, not just in Eastern Europe, but in
Austria and Germany also: witness the disintegration of, and civil war in, the former
Yugoslavia, and the breaking up of Czechoslovakia. And the Western world reacts
incompetently, belatedly, and feebly; it seems to be merely watching the events in Europe
following the end of the Soviet Union.
For Hungary it is an especial trauma that, in the course of the new changes in Europe,
not only has the Yalta Agreement lost its validity, but new question-marks have come to
surround the entire peace settlement put into effect after the First World War.
Czecholslovakia and Yugoslavia, both created by this settlement, have broken up, and
Romania regards its national boundary as unalterable only in the west, not to the
northeast, where Bessarabia (Moldova) is situated. Seeing all this, Hungary, herself
dissatisfied with the settlement, needs to show self-discipline, which may not always be
Nevertheless, despite all the difficulties and the not-negligible hysteria in the area,
Hungary is the region's most stable country: and this is something of an achievement in
With regard to the demographic situation, the weak birthrate and high death-rate are
contributing to the negative population growth, although another factor is the exodus of
"economic migrants" going to the West. These are, for the most part, qualified
experts or skilled workers. (To some extent, the fall in population is offset by
Hungarians resettling in Hungary from other countries.) In the meantime, the influx of
Southern Slavs and other refugees from the war zones is a great burden, while being an
inescapable moral responsibility. The case of the economic refugees in the country has to
be judged differently.
Finally, visitors to Hungary in the early 1990s -whether from the East or West- perhaps
see the country as being in a better shape than do its own citizens. And this is the
Hungarian paradox of today: the foreign observer has a more favourable impression of the
country and its situation than do those living here. Who is right, and who will be right?
So here we are in East-Central Europe, perhaps a little ungratefully after the recent
changes. The 1100th anniversary of the original Hungarian Conquest is but a few years
away, and just a few years after that the second millenium of Hungary's existence as a
state will begin, reckoned from the coronation of St Stephen in AD 1000.
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