Hungarians avoid discussing what "goulash communism" was. Meanwhile, the future of Hungarian democracy depends also on the answer to the question whether it is worth giving up freedom in the name of relative prosperity.

In Hungary, the year 1989 is not an obvious turning point. Yes, there was a historic breakthrough – inspired by the events in Poland, the authorities and the opposition agreed during the talks at the local round table to change the political system and conduct free elections. The symbolic separation from the past was then the solemn funeral – and posthumous rehabilitation – of Imre Nagy, prime minister of the 1956 revolutionary government, executed, buried anonymously, and cursed into oblivion by the communist authorities.

Reburial of Imre Nagy

On that day, 16 June 1989, a quarter of a million people said goodbye in Budapest to Nagy – on the Heroes’ Square, where a ceremonial farewell took place (then only the family and friends escorted the casket to the cemetery).

Hungary also contributed to the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, by letting pass thousands of East German citizens to the West in the summer of 1989 – thus aiding to the dynamism that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

However, the relatively mild nature of the regime in the decades preceding the change of the system, the evolutionary nature of changes and divergent assessments of the achievements of the last 30 years have meant that 1989 rarely is seen in Hungary as a breakthrough date – and it is far from unambiguous.

Tame dictatorship

Perhaps none of the dictatorships of the Eastern Bloc achieved such a level of social acceptance – or even popularity – as the regime of János Kádár, the first secretary of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party in 1956-88. Although Kádár began with a bloody crackdown on the leaders and participants of the autumn 1956 revolution, in the 1960s his power focused on raising living standards – leaving some freedoms in the private sphere, but expecting in return to resign from questioning the regime.

Nostalgia for this era is still visible today. In a 2017 study by the Závecz Research Institute, the largest group of respondents, i.e. 42 per cent, considered Kádár’s rule to be a period when Hungarians had lived best in the last 100 years. As much as 63 per cent of respondents answered positively over the age of 60.

There was no mass social mobilisation against the regime in Hungary. The memory of the 1956 revolution suppressed by the Soviet army discouraged this, and on the other hand, the relative prosperity of what was called “goulash communism”.

Admittedly, independent circles began to organise from the end of the 1970s and second circulation publications were created, but on a small scale. There were no strikes, and the largest demonstrations in the late 1980s were not directly aimed at socialist authorities, but concerned issues such as opposition to the construction of the Danube dam or persecution of the Hungarian minority by the Ceaușescu regime in neighbouring Romania.

The party gives up dogmas

In none of the Eastern Bloc countries did the reforming wing of the party gain such a position as in Hungary (perhaps with the exception of Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring). Economic problems – when the (relative) welfare state of Kádár was out of breath, including due to the oil crises of the 1970s, and when problems arose with debt service – they even prompted the party to open more to the West. Already in 1981, Hungary joined the International Monetary Fund.

The coming to power of Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union was another impulse for the reformers, who in May 1988 removed Kádár from the function of the first secretary.

Imre Pozsgay

Both party reformers and moderate democratic opposition sought an agreement with each other. At the congress of opposition intellectuals in 1987, which gave rise to the Hungarian Democratic Forum (later the winner of the first free elections), Imre Pozsgay – then a member of the Communist Party’s central committee, leader of its reform group and one of the later architects of the political transformation – was even invited to deliver a paper.

Already at the beginning of 1989, the party departed from one of its dogmas: the events of the autumn of 1956 ceased to be a “counter-revolution” threatening the gains of socialism overnight and became overnight a “popular uprising” against oligarchic power. This paved the way for round-table talks, which after a three-month deliberations (June-September 1989) ended in an agreement.

In October, a package of laws introducing the democratic system was adopted, and in the spring of 1990 free elections were held, which the opposition won.

A promise crossed out

From the beginning, the transformation from dictatorship to democracy caused heated discussions. The compromise and top-down regime change raised suspicions of an elite conspiracy. The first democratic government was accused of a slow pace of reforms and a lack of making the dictatorship accountable to its misdeeds, to which Prime Minister József Antall replied sarcastically: “You should have made a revolution!”

The discussion about the transformation of 1989 intensified in the middle of the first decade of the 21st century. In the ruthless fight against the ruling left in 2002-10, the national-conservative Fidesz increasingly questioned the post-transformation order. Viktor Orbán’s party sought to delegitimise the power of the post-communist Hungarian Socialist Party by pointing out its continuity with authoritarian progenitors.

In such slogans, Fidesz competed with the then growing right-wing Jobbik – an anti-establishment party that radically undermines the entire political order after 1989. The left, plunged by subsequent scandals, could no longer convincingly and reliably answer it. The 50th anniversary of the 1956 revolution became a demonstration of opposition to the socialist government and the 20th anniversary of the transformation went unnoticed.

This coincided with the growing economic problems of the country. Again struggling with debt, Hungary became the first European victim of the international financial crisis in 2008 – and the state almost went bankrupt. Thus, the main promise of transformation was cancelled, i.e. satisfying the consumer aspirations of society that were awakened after Kádár and announced after 1989 to reach the standard of living of neighbouring Austria, with which – since the time of the Habsburg monarchy – the Hungarians traditionally have compared.

Slogans about the unfinished transformation and the need for profound changes paved the way for Fidesz’s crushing victory in the 2010 election, which Orbán called the “revolution at the polls”. In a post-election declaration, he announced that “after 46 years of occupation and dictatorship, and the chaotic two transitional decades Hungary has regained the right and ability to self-determination.” Controversial changes in the country, which were introduced in subsequent years, Prime Minister Orbán justified the need to complete the transformation.

Reshaping memory policy

In addition to deep changes regarding state institutions, the media and electoral law, in 2010 the reshaping of the memory policy began. The right-wing narrative of the past has been solidified in official documents, monuments or curricula. Characters and events traditionally relevant to the identity of liberal or leftist circles have been either removed from the national canon or redefined.

Viktor Orbán in 1989

This also applies to the memory of transformation. The year 1989 became an uncomfortable date. On one hand, it was then that Fidesz – founded a year earlier as a youth organisation – entered politics, its activists took part in a round table, and 26-year-old Viktor Orbán made his famous speech at the second funeral of Nagy.

On the other hand, the communist reformers played a leading role in those changes, and the laws introducing the democratic system – although established at the round table with the opposition – were introduced in the autumn of 1989 by an old parliament, not from free elections.

And it was finally the last government of the Hungarian People’s Republic that opened the border to refugees from the GDR, which was symbolised by the photo of the then Foreign Minister Gyula Horn, who, together with his Austrian counterpart, cut the border fence.

One of Fidesz’s responses to this dilemma is the attempt to set a “timer for democracy” since 1990 when the first democratic elections took place. This is how it was expressed in the preamble to the constitution, adopted in 2011: “We date the restoration of our country’s self-determination (…) from the second day of May 1990, when the first freely elected organ of popular representation was formed. We shall consider this date to be the beginning of our country’s new democracy and constitutional order.” This is how Fidesz tries to escape the troublesome year 1989.

Nagy hits the square

The preamble also declared that the roots of the free Hungarian state date back to the 1956 revolution. However, the revolution itself and its symbol, Imre Nagy, are revised again by Fidesz. Right-wing historians and publicists argue that Nagy has no place in the pantheon of national heroes, for he held high positions during Stalinism and remained a committed communist until the end.

In this matter, interestingly, Orbán defends Nagy by repeating what he said at his funeral in 1989: that he was a communist, but at the time of trial, he stood on the side of the nation and paid the highest price for it.

Despite this, his monument in the capital – depicting Nagy standing on the bridge and looking melancholically at the majestic parliament – at the end of 2018 was moved to the small square by the Danube river, in the vicinity of the former headquarters of the communist Ministry of Interior, and then the Central Committee of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party.

The memorial to the victims of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1919 (which led to the establishment of a short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic) returned to the vacated place near the parliament, which stood there until 1945 and was removed after the occupation of Hungary by the Red Army.

During the 60th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution, which was celebrated three years ago, the character of Nagy virtually was omitted.

Slogans and dodges

On this year’s 30th anniversary of the Nagy funeral – events that gathered crowds on 1989 Heroes’ Square and millions in front of TV sets – the government organised a free “freedom concert”. In the spot advertising this event, a fragment of the young Orbán’s speech at the time was shown and Nagy was not mentioned even once.

Pan-European Picnic

The only event of 1989 that was celebrated after three decades of official commemoration was the so-called “Pan-European Picnic”, during which the GDR citizens staying in Hungary could get to the West. It is the foundation of close Hungarian-German relations. Chancellor Helmut Kohl once described Hungary’s actions as the first brick knocked out of the Berlin Wall.

This year’s celebration was attended by Angela Merkel, which allowed Orbán to speak directly with the Chancellor, with whom he has had tense relations for several years. The leaders of the last communist government, who after consultation with Gorbachev and secret talks with Kohl led to that breach in the Iron Curtain, were not invited to the celebration.

Critics point out to the Orbán government that he eagerly defends himself with anti-communist slogans in public debate, but avoids real settlement of the dictatorship. Fidesz is a party reluctant to lustration. This is due to, among others, the fact that the party founded by young anti-communists became a mass membership party and attracted many people with an unclear past.

Despite the exceptional restrictions on access to the security archives, as compared to other post-communist countries, the press from time to time reveals the compromising past of high government officials, Fidesz politicians and right-wing camp columnists. This subject is picked up by the opposition, although of course not the post-communist one. As many as eighteen times in the last few years, the party Lehet Más a Politika (Politics Can Be Different) submitted a draft lustration act, but the majority of Fidesz rejected it every time.

In discussions in parliament, the opposition often refers to Poland as a model for the settlement of communism and effective vetting and calls for the establishment of an institution resembling the Polish Institute of National Remembrance.

Related questions

The only question is: could the vetting and settlement of the “goulash communism” era – if it really took place – count on widespread public support today? It would require, after all, to deal with the moral compromises of the Kádár era, when millions of Hungarians renounced political freedom and “forgot” the 1956 revolution in exchange for raising their standard of living and the possibility of private fulfilment. Of which the cost was also de facto acceptance for the expanded surveillance apparatus, for the control of all state and social institutions by the party, and for the presence of Soviet troops in the country.

However, without discussing the nature of the regime that was actually overthrown in 1989, it is difficult to assess the transformation itself. And the answer to the question whether it is worth giving up freedom in the name of stability and relative prosperity will also depend on the future of Hungarian democracy.


This article is part of the #DemocraCE project. It was originally published in Tygodnik Powszechny.


*Disclaimer: This article was amended on 3.1.2020. The title was changed to take the original version into account (Prześniona transformacja) and several translation errors were fixed.

Andrzej Sadecki is a Researcher part of the FATIGUE programme at UCL. He works on the politics of memory in the Hungarian context with the focus on the commemoration of the treaty of Trianon

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