János Kádár, Hungary’s Communist leader from 1956 to 1988, was born 100 years ago this weekend.
It is more than twenty years since he died; a whole generation has grown up without him. Nonetheless, with more than thirty years in power, he remains a dominant figure in modern Hungarian history. I write this from Budapest, where I am taking part in a conference on the man and his role, contributing a paper on his relationships with the West.
The main features of his career can be described quickly. The illegitimate son of a poorly educated part-Slovak peasant girl turned chambermaid, he grew up towards the bottom of the social heap in interwar Budapest: as much underclass as working class. It was the illegal Communist Party that gave him a sense of belonging and of purpose. In the postwar years of the Communist takeover and dictatorship, he was both persecutor and victim, a tough Minister of the Interior who was nonetheless imprisoned by his comrades for several years. In the Hungarian revolution of 1956, he hesitated tantalisingly, appearing for a while to accommodate and even endorse popular demands, before riding into Budapest in a Soviet tank to ‘restore order’.
There followed a period of reprisals, with the execution of some three hundred insurgents – in some cases involving huge personal betrayals on Kádár’s part. But by the early sixties he was offering a more conciliatory style of leadership, winning surprising acceptance, even some popularity in the process. Hungary later embarked on the most sustained attempt at economic reform in the Soviet bloc, while Kadar became a familiar and respected interlocutor with western leaders such as Helmut Schmidt, Margaret Thatcher and George Bush senior. Yet this transformation was not the end of the story; with foreign debt mounting, Kadar was ousted from power. As the system he had sustained unravelled, he had to face once more the crimes of his past.
What was his significance for Hungary, and for the wider world? To take the second of these questions first, he was one of the most durable figures in Cold War Europe, and on two occasions his role was pivotal. The first was in 1956, when his suppression of the revolution made him a figure of international obloquy. The second came at the end of the Cold War. Kádár’s Hungary was the testing ground of economic reform in the Soviet bloc, and its failure helped to unravel the whole system, notably in 1989 when Kádár’s successors allowed East Germans to travel to the West.
His impact on the democratic Hungary that has come after him has been signifcant. For one thing, the social compact that Kádár arrived at has succeeded in leaving behind a rather benign memory in the minds of many – though not all – Hungarians. Of course, nostalgia for the security of a protected economy is not unique to Hungary: think of Ostalgie. Nonetheless, the sense that Kádár managed to convey that Hungary was much better-placed than its neighbours has carried over into retrospective verdicts, including polls that have rated Kádár highly among Hungary’s historic leaders. As the historian and commentator Péter Tölgyessy put it, ‘The difference between our memories of state socialism and those of other peoples living in this region is enormous.’
Secondly, the material basis for Kádár’s strategy of conciliation weighed heavily on Hungarian public policy. His constant emphasis on welfare provision and the protection of living standards, even at the price of high international debt, carried over into the post-communist era. Over two decades, two major political blocs slugged it out in Hungary in a Kulturkampf, a battle over identity, while there was little willingness on either side to challenge an increasingly unsustainable economic and welfare arrangements. Action was only taken at times when the wolf was well and truly at the door, if not inside it.
Thirdly, Kádár’s system was one of co-option. This was very different from neighbouring ‘normalised’ Czechoslovakia: you got a much better class of philosophical boiler-stoker or window-cleaner in Dr Husák’s Prague. Kádár’s tent was kept pretty broad, with the result that there was much less in the way of a clear-cut opposition setting out a sharp moral alternative. The opposition was there, and it was brave – but it was relatively small. And by the 1980s it met a ruling party that, building on Kádár’s traditions but going beyond them, was willing to negotiate a transition of power. Elsewhere in the region the symbols of change included people tearing down the Berlin Walls: the Ceauçescus shot by firing squad; Václav Havel directing revolution in the streets of Prague from the Magic Lantern pub. In Hungary it was a round table.
A paradoxical effect of all this has been that the very gradualism of the transition has contributed to the subsequent political polarisation. The lack of a decisive break with the past, the carry-over of individuals and attitudes from the old regime to the new, contributed to the bitter edge, the war between post-communist and anti-communist factions that has characterised Hungarian politics. And that polarisation and lack of trust have added to the difficulties of reaching agreement to tackle Hungary’s economic problems. Hungary’s 2010 elections, with the decisive victory of Viktor Orbán’s right of centre Fidesz party, and the concomitant rejection of the ‘post-communist’ Hungarian Socialist Party, may signal a new phase – though during Orbán’s term of office the culture war has, if anything, intensified.
After all the theorising, Kádár’s is also a remarkable personal drama, characterised by abrupt and dramatic changes in fortune. This reserved, tenacious man was a master of quotidian politics – the carefully measured concession, the compromise resolution that would see him through to the next Central Committee meeting – but not wholly lacking in strategic sense. In 1956, roughly half-way through his adult life, he was confronted by an almost existential choice that shaped much of what became the Kádár era. And, at the end of his time the consequences of that choice came back to haunt him in a way that a writer of fiction would not dare to make up. 100 years after the story started, its fascination remains. ■
Roger Gough is the author of A Good Comrade: János Kádár, Communism and Hungary, published by I.B.Tauris in 2006 and described by Tibor Fischer in the Times Literary Supplement as ‘probably the best work to be published on Hungarian history in English since Macartney’s ‘October Fifteenth’ (1956).’
Image courtesy of MM(mm).