Interview with Gyula Thürmer, chairman of Munkáspárt (Hungarian communist party): “With Kádár gone, Soros arrived.”
Gyula Thürmer, having completed his studies and worked for the Communist Hungary’s diplomatic services in Moscow, was a close associate of János Kádár, dealing essentially with international relations. He then became an advisor to Károly Grósz, who succeeded Kádár at the head of the party in 1988. During the period of regime change, Thürmer was at the head of Magyar Szocialista Munkáspárt (MSzMP – the Hungarian Socialist Workers Party), the party that governed Hungary between 1956 and 1989. Presided over by Gyula Thürmer since 1989, the Magyar Szocialista Munkáspárt changed its name to Munkáspárt (Workers’ Party) in 1993 and then to Magyar Kommunista Munkáspárt from 2005. In 2013, following the ban on the use of references relating to the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, the party’s name changed once more to become Magyar Munkáspárt. The Munkáspárt secured substantial scores in the 1990s, peaking at 4% of votes casted, before suffering a split in 2006 and then disappearing in political oblivion (never earning more than 1% of the vote thereafter). Along a national communist political line, the Munkáspárt was the only left-wing party that supported the government’s position against migrant quotas during the October 2016. In this interview granted to TV Libertés and the Visegrád Post, Gyula Thürmer recalls this decisive period of Hungarian history and shares his thoughts on the current situation in Hungary and his support for some of Viktor Orbán’s policies.
Yann Caspar: Mr. Thürmer, if my information is correct, you met János Kádár for the last time in February 1989. At that time he was no longer in power, so Károly Grósz and Miklós Németh played a big role. You were then the senior advisor to Károly Grósz. Could you briefly report on this meeting and, perhaps more importantly, explain to us in what political context it took place?
Gyula Thürmer: We have to go back thirty years. All this happened at the end of the 1980s. In 1985, János Kádár (1912-1989), who was already an elderly politician, thought that a change was necessary and was looking for a successor. It is very difficult to find a successor in a system that is strongly linked to a single person, and Kádár did not succeed right away. Finally, in 1988 he decided to entrust this role to Prime Minister Károly Grósz. A party congress was held: Kádár gave up his functions and was appointed party chairman, and Károly Grósz was elected Secretary General. In this situation, it seemed that the power was being shared by two people: János Kádár was the President of the party, and Károly Grósz the General Secretary. It seemed possible to keep the ideas alive on which Kádár was hanging. János Kádár was clearly a supporter of socialism. He wanted a more modern, slightly different socialism than he had practiced up to that point. Everything that happened after that was a degradation of socialism. János Kádár was no longer a political actor. All the power was already in the hands of Secretary General Károly Grósz and Prime Minister Miklós Németh. It was from this moment that the dismantling of the system called socialism began.
While socialism had been a one-party system, it was necessary to quickly pass a law that would allow the creation of parties. While in socialism the economy was designed and managed by the Plan Office, it was necessary to enable businesses to be set up and market laws applied. While we had been on a bad footing with South Korea up to that point, we had to quickly recognize them and enter into relations both with this country and with Israel. While we had previously purchased only Soviet planes, we now had to buy American ones – without considering the cost or consequences of that decision. While the party had previously taken a leading role in the army, it was necessary to make the decision to remove the party from the army so that it no longer played a political role there. That’s what I call the dismantling of socialism.
That’s what the Hungarian leadership under Károly Grósz was heading towards. Personally, Károly Grósz may not have been convinced that this was the correct course, but, like all the other leaders, he was not strong enough to oppose it. He had to submit to the direction of events, and he was not the only one in the socialist world to do so. János Kádár, who was already a sick man, sensed that something was wrong. This meeting that you mentioned took place one evening. Kádár liked to come in the evening.
Yann Caspar: At the party headquarters?
Gyula Thürmer: Yes, at the headquarters of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party (MSzMP). I was consulting some files in the Secretariat of Károly Grósz when János Kádár suddenly arrived. I had a historical personality in front of me, and although we had worked together for a long time, it had been a relationship between an elderly man and a young employee.
I put myself at his disposal, in a military style: “At your orders, Comrade Kádár!” He asked me, “Could you ask Comrade Grósz to receive me?” This was really shocking because he was such a historic figure that he did not need to make any requests. Of course he was allowed in and they started talking. Then Grósz called me and said, “Come on, Comrade Kádár would like you to be there, too.” I noticed that Kádár was upset. I saw him crying twice in my life, and this was the second time. He felt that the regime was coming to an end. And he said, “I would have wanted to talk to the Chinese, they are building socialism in a different way than we did, but go talk with them, take the events in hand, or otherwise we are going to have problems.” That was the moment when he put an end to his presence . His condition then worsened and, as we know, he died the same year (in July 1989 – Ed).
Yann Caspar: Contrary to Kádár’s request, the Hungarian leaders did not establish contact with the Chinese but rather with the Americans. In a book published in 2009 (Az elsikkasztott ország [The Embezzled Country], Korona Press], you wrote that the center of regime change was the US embassy in Budapest, which was then as now located at Freedom Square. Could you talk about the role the Americans played in 1989?
Gyula Thürmer: You mentioned China. China was new territory for the then Hungarian leadership. It is important to know that since the 1960s, Hungary had been on bad footing with China, precisely because the Soviet Union was on bad footing with China. That is why no Hungarian politician traveled to China until the end of the 1970s. However, circumstances and the economy forced Hungary to seek contact with China. The majority of the Hungarian leadership saw China as a large market that would enable us to get rich, conduct trade, and thus solve all our problems. Kádár was the only one who understood that China had a different political structure and that a more modern version of socialism was possible. Unfortunately, this was removed from the agenda.
Now, the role of the Americans. Socialism would not have failed in Hungary. It would still be alive today, and we would continue to feel comfortable in it, if the West had not played a decisive role. Of course, in Hungary there were people who felt that what they received from socialism was not enough. They could have hundreds of thousands of forints, even one or two million, but they could not be billionaires. Those who wanted to be billionaires wanted regime change, as they thought the current regime was preventing them from getting richer. There were people who basically had a liberal mindset and thought that this socialist model was not good and did not fit anymore; they wanted to go in the direction of what had been successful in the West . . .
It is at this moment that we started talking about European cooperation and about being part of the common European house. Nobody talked about replacing socialism with capitalism. Everyone said that we were part of Europe; that the market economy, democracy, and freedom would come; and that trade would be possible. And people believed in it. Those who had not been able to travel to Austria or Germany every year now could now do so, and they were delighted – like a cat biting his own tail – that they could visit their families. Such was the general situation.
Thirty years after these events, of course everyone says that he participated in the regime change. But that’s not what happened. There was an opposition, circles of intellectuals, some of whom were more conservative and some more liberal. From among the first group came József Antall, who headed the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF). From the second group came the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ), and Fidesz also belonged to this tendency for a while. These people hated each other. They were like dogs and cats. They would never have talked to each other unless someone had helped them to initiate talks. This person was Mark Palmer, who was then the United States Ambassador to Hungary.
Yann Caspar: If I’m not mistaken, you let Mark Palmer know you would not switch to the other camp. You told him that during a meeting.
Gyula Thürmer: I was in a situation in which I had enough to sell. I had information that even the Americans might have needed. They have made attempts to make me. . . It would be an exaggeration to say that they wanted me to become a turncoat, but they wanted me to help them. Today I could be a rich man and be living somewhere in the United States. They might also have shot me – that was another option. Mark Palmer did not mention these things, but his staff gave me signals to that effect. I firmly refused. It would not have been right, and also contrary to my education. I did not go in that direction.
Mark Palmer still played a role. He brought together the power of the then Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party, the government, and the opposition. Through the Americans, Imre Pozsgay met for the first time with the opposition at the same table. Prime Minister Miklós Németh played tennis regularly with Mark Palmer. During the tennis games, they talked about . . .
Yann Caspar: Grósz traveled to Washington in April 1989.
Gyula Thürmer: Grósz was invited to Washington. I was then his adviser, and I warned him against going there. If the Hungarian Prime Minister – he was still Prime Minister – cannot enter through the front door, then he should not come in through the back door. But they did let him in through the back door and organized a long journey for him across the country; he visited his family and his aunt. That just did not make sense. They also forced him to say things that did not correspond to his thinking. When they asked him what socialism was, he said that it did not matter if state ownership was weaker, if the party did not have a leadership role, and so on. By saying that, he completely weakened his position here in Hungary. The US Embassy played the role of intermediary between the various actors.
Yann Caspar: However, one cannot say that the deepening of relations between Hungary and the United States began just a few months before the regime change. Hungary joined the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 1982. And by the way, Kádárism is thought of by many in the following way: Since Kádár understood the lessons of the events of 1956, from the mid-1960s onwards he implemented reforms towards a market economy. Let’s just take the example of Lajos Fehér’s new economic mechanism, which came into effect in 1968. So my question is: Don’t you think that 1989 is not really the most important date in the regime change? Don’t you think that 1989 is just an official date, but that the crucial decisions bringing Hungary closer to the West had already been made well before 1989?
Gyula Thürmer: You know, here in Central Europe, socialism arose in poor countries. It did not in France, Germany, or England. It was not what Marx had dreamed of – that socialism would triumph in the most developed capitalist countries – that happened. Socialism was born here, in poverty, in countries that had been crushed and mutilated by the Second World War. Of course, we very quickly tried to give a better life to the people. It worked on many levels, but not on many others.
That’s when the idea came that if the goal of socialism is to give a better life to the people, and if the West gives us credit, then in this case let’s borrow from the West. That’s where borrowing from the IMF, the World Bank, and so on started. The money was not swallowed up or stolen; today it is still in Hungary, in the houses and buildings that were built at the time. This money has been used, but we had to pay it back. As for the repayment, the Western banks started tightening the screws. When we weren’t able to make a repayment, it was necessary to make concessions in the social sphere, such as regarding the conditions for retirement by raising the retirement age . . .
Yann Caspar: Was all this requested after the change of 1989?
Gyula Thürmer: They mentioned this even before the regime change. Before, too. Two answers were possible: No or yes. We were going down the road of concessions.
János Kádár had one or two faults. The first was that he was not an economist; he did not see the consequences this could have. The second is that he believed the liberal economists who surrounded him. The latter made him believe that “it does not matter, Comrade Kádár; we borrow, we repay, no problem.” We started down this slope without being able to stop, nor did Kádár manage to stop it. He wanted to employ methods of the market economy in the interests of improving socialism, as Lenin had done in the 1920s, or as China is doing on a larger scale today, where certain methods of the market economy are applied while the country remains a people’s republic. In 1989, the change in the model was already considered by many to be insufficient. They wanted to change the system. It was no longer a question of correcting socialism, but of throwing it away and replacing it with another system. Take this computer. It’s as if I want to install a different type of software on it. The software of socialism was the planned economy, and that of capitalism was the market economy. That’s what got replaced.
Yann Caspar: Let’s talk a bit about the regime change. In Hungary, this change was not a process based on a popular uprising or revolt. We cannot speak of revolution, but perhaps of counter-revolution, you will tell us. It was a change brought about by a process of negotiations. However, the people had expectations. You mentioned Vienna, Austria, and those who traveled there. The population aspired to a standard of living similar to that of the West. I do not know if the people were wrong; that’s another question, but that’s what the people were waiting for. It has not happened since. We can even say that what happened in the 1990s was rather a huge step backwards. Take, for example, the fact that in 1996, the per capita income fell to its 1966 level. Following the regime change, Hungary lost one and a half million jobs. What happened? Were people mistaken about the essence of regime change? Or – and this is undoubtedly more interesting, and we will talk about it again – did those who took part in the regime change deceive people? What happened?
Gyula Thürmer: In Russia in 1917, the workers and peasants won. This also happened in 1945-48 in Hungary and in Eastern Europe. If we look at this from the Western point of view, it means the loss of a significant part of the world. The West had lost markets and resources. It is obvious that the West – the United States, Germany, France –worked to get this part of the world back someday. They made violent attempts in this direction in the 1950s, but it did not work out. Of course, in poor countries, people always want a better situation, It’s natural. Everyone would have liked to live like the Austrians – it was true in 1956, in 1989, and at other times. There are gatherings and moments where people address the drawbacks of a system, their problems, and their worries by taking to the streets to demonstrate. These moments can be used. In 1956, people were driven from outside: They did not only have to take to the streets to express their legitimate concerns, but had to go further and bring the regime down. 1956 led to barricades and bloody shootings. It is often denied that on May 1, 1957 more than 700,000 people gathered in Heroes’ Square in Budapest to show their commitment to socialism. These events, which have been described as a revolution and the struggle for freedom, are not as simple as that.
Yann Caspar: János Kádár never talked about Imre Nagy. You could never talk to him about it. You could not talk about Romania or Imre Nagy.
Gyula Thürmer: He did not talk about it. Obviously, it was a very difficult subject for him, also on the human level. I think that Imre Nagy unnecessarily took on the role of martyrdom. As a minister, he was well aware that the Americans would not intervene, and if the Americans did not enter Hungary, that even the good Lord would be unable to prevent the Soviets from intervening. The Americans had promised it, but they did not come. Their troops were in Germany, but they did not come. Imre Nagy knew it. Because of his responsibility to the country, he should have withdrawn and said, “If someone can do it, let him take my place.” He did not do that. He ran away, declared himself Prime Minister, and played the martyr. János Kádár, who was aware of it, suffered a hard time because of it.
To get back to your question: The US and the West learned the lessons of 1956, . They had put people to sleep. It’s the same as a major surgical operation: You’re first anesthetized with a little camphor, and then you’re injected with an anesthetic; the nurse even sings you a song, and then they take a kidney from you to sell it. It’s pretty much what happened in Hungary, and the people were not told. In the spring of 1990, we voted and thought that we would have a new system that would preserve what was good in socialism and would include what is good in capitalism. There would still be bananas, we could continue to go to Vienna, you could have Nescafé or new cars, and so on. Of course, that’s not what happened. This anesthesia is still in effect. As soon as the people start waking up, they are given a new injection. When the Antall government fell in 1994 because it simply could not carry on in such a manner, Gyula Horn came to wink to the people and told them, “I’ll give you back a little bit of Kádár’s regime.” But in exchange, he sold the country, or what was left of it at that time.
Yann Caspar: They were the ones who privatized the most between 1994 and 1998 . . .
Gyula Thürmer: Yes, they are the ones who privatized the most: electricity, production, strategic sectors, everything. All this happened without the people really knowing it, through manipulation. That’s how they managed to avoid the barricades here. There were no bloody battles.
Yann Caspar: But still, the parties of regime change did not come from nothing. By the way, many people think that most of the political movements of the post-reunification period could already be felt in the early 1980s within the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party. What was János Kádár’s position on this point? In the last years of his reign, he defended National Communism. What does this mean?
Gyula Thürmer: If, in a country of ten million inhabitants, a party has 870,000 members . . .
Yann Caspar: But the leaders . . .
Gyula Thürmer: That means you can find everything in there. There are not so many Communists in this region, nor anywhere else in Hungary. There were therefore many different trends within the party, such as the Social Democrats, who allied with the Communists after the war. Rezső Nyers was the first to say, in March 1988, that Kádár was no longer needed and that they wanted to move forward by creating a “New March Front.” Then came the nationalists such as Pozsgay and Szűrös, and the pragmatists such as Miklós Németh. The latter were the most numerous. Then came the liberal intellectuals, who from the beginning tried to lead us to the West. Kádár’s mistake was not to have noticed this in time or, in any case, was not able to oppose it.
As for the parties, it is true that they were already in the process of being founded. We already knew Gábor Demszky before he became known. The tactics used at the time were the same then as ones being used today against the Fidesz government. They held out their cheeks, waiting for the establishment to strike them, hoping to receive a slap. I saw Gábor Demszky take to the streets on March 15, 1989, fighting the police until he was slapped. That would have happened all over the world, but here it was immediately photographed by Radio Free Europe and the BBC, and minutes later, via Vienna, the whole world knew that the government was attacking members of the opposition. It worked in this way, and you know, even if today’s Prime Minister has all my respect, you have to know that if George Soros had not discovered him and taught him this and that, then this small group of students would not even be . . .
Yann Caspar: When did you first hear about George Soros? At the beginning of the 1980s?
Gyula Thürmer: I heard of George Soros in many ways. He started to be active here in the 1980s. He came to Hungary and wanted to participate in cultural activities. In the old system, for as long as Kádár was alive, this was out of the question. Through our relations with the Soviets – as you mentioned, I worked at the Hungarian Embassy in Moscow – we knew that Soros’ mission was to advance the US and CIA targets for regime change. So we considered him our enemy. But the Hungarian liberals did not consider him an enemy. When Kádár left, Soros came. He bought the Hungarian intellectuals in five minutes and took them all with him. The saddest thing was that they were people who had grown up here and received their diplomas in Hungary.
Yann Caspar: You talk at length about Bálint Magyar in your book. Could you say something about it?
Gyula Thürmer: János Magyar, actually . . .
Yann Caspar: János Magyar, who used to eat many jam pancakes . . .
Gyula Thürmer: At that time, he still had that reputation. We met each other at Mihály Fazekas High School. He was a very intelligent and talented boy. We were in the same class in high school. His development is very interesting, and characteristic of Hungary. When the Cultural Revolution started in China in 1966-68, he was the first to go to the Chinese Embassy to receive his Little Red Book. This great Maoist then became a nationalist – for a long time, one of those who went to Transylvania and returned with national feelings – and then he joined the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ), associating with Demszky and János Kis . . .
Yann Caspar: And became Minister of Education in the Horn government.
Gyula Thürmer: Yes, he got the Ministry of Education. So, that’s part of the story of our little Central Europe . . .
Yann Caspar: Our readers will understand that, around 1968, somebody could be a Maoist before he became a nationalist for a short time, and later become a perfect liberal. In my opinion, János Magyar or Bálint Magyar demonstrate this very well, even in the eyes of Western readers.
Gyula Thürmer: Exactly.
Yann Caspar: We talked about the Horn government. Let us move on to your experience of pluralism after 1990. You have often described the creation of the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) in 1989 as treason and a scam. Since 1989, the Hungarian Socialist Party has ruled several times in alliance with a sternly liberal party, the Alliance of Free Democrats. They are the ones who have privatized the most; it’s a fact. What is also a fact is that the Alliance of Free Democrats has disappeared from Hungarian political life, but it has successors which are particularly animated by the capital’s liberals, who look towards the West and the globalist intellectuals. It certainly persists in other forms. The axis of the Hungarian Socialist Party and the Alliance of Free Democrats is still alive today in Hungary on the political chessboard. In my opinion, you were the first politician to understand that regime change would demand casualties. Many think that Viktor Orbán understood this a little later as well. By the way, it also seems that he practices politics by making use of the regime change’s serious mistakes. Maybe that’s why he has a lot of voter support today. In 2010, Viktor Orbán promised a second regime change, which he said would correct the mistakes of the first. What is your opinion on this point?
Gyula Thürmer: Listen, the term “regime change” is made up of two elements. This means that before 1989, there was a system, socialism, in which money was not the most important factor and the interests of society were in the foreground. Another one has come in place of this system, whose impulse is the struggle for capital and profit. That’s the regime change. Those who talk about regime change today do not want to return to the previous situation. That would mean a return to socialism, and nobody wants that except me. It is something else. In order for the change in 1989 not to be carried out by force, concessions had to be made, one of which was not to destroy the party. János Kádár was not hanged, and Gyula Horn was not imprisoned, but he became party leader and Prime Minister.
Yann Caspar: Rezső Nyers sat in Parliament until 2010 . . .
Gyula Thürmer: They went into the other system.
Yann Caspar: ” Revising” their past . . .
Gyula Thürmer: Yes. They have also been able to enter Parliament, and have obtained a little over 9%. They passed safely through to the other system. They were very smart. Take Gyurcsány [Prime Minister from 2004 to 2009-Ed.], for example, who started as Secretary of the Communist Youth League. They used that moment – when capitalism was already in place and the new laws enacted, – to make millions and millions.
In the transition to the new capitalist system, the Hungarian Socialist Party used the situation to seize a lot of money and capital. Those who are talking about a regime change today actually say that you should take these assets back from these people. Let’s ask Gyurcsány where his billions are coming from, and if we can, then let’s get them back. I do not think that it is possible to do so by legal means. It is not possible. There is no revolution in sight yet.
Viktor Orbán has understood that Hungary had to pay a very high price in order to pursue a secure capitalist path. After all, Hungarian agriculture has been handed over to the EU. If you enter a store in Hungary today, you notice that they sell German milk and other foreign products . . .
Yann Caspar: And they are worse than those sold in the West . . .
Gyula Thürmer: Yes, and on the other hand, Hungarian agriculture is collapsing. All at the very moment that demand for food in the East and in China is rising, and we could export various products to them, but we simply cannot do so anymore because these capabilities have been taken away from us. We have sold our markets, our banking system, our factories, and much more.
Orbán understood that this was not good. What you can take back, you have to take back, because this is part of Hungary’s capital. They felt strong enough to do it. Thus, some factories were nationalized, and companies that had previously been sold to foreigners have been bought back. And then Orbán told the banks and insurance companies that their surplus – which has been substantial over the last three decades – will now be subject to taxation, in order to give it to the people. He did not do this out of kindness to the people, but to keep them quiet and prevent street protests which would demand a real regime change. Through this method of state capitalism, Orbán has succeeded in stabilizing capitalism in Hungary.
As far as the 1989 parties are concerned, regime change has actually helped two large groups to climb into the saddle. There has always been both a liberal and a conservative tendency. In the conservative camp was the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF), from which came the first Prime Minister, József Antall. In the liberal camp was the Alliance of Free Democrats and also Fidesz, which was still part of it at the time. The conservatives also included the Christian Democrats (KDNP) and the Smallholders (FKgP). The Socialists didn’t belonged to any camp, and thus formed a third one. But in 1994, the Antall government fell. It was clear that if things carried on, we could have rolled back the regime change – it was still possible then. That’s why Gyula Horn reappeared. The Hungarian Socialist Party was then not only allowed to be represented in Parliament, but was allowed to govern. To do this, they had to pay the price that we still pay today: they allied themselves with the liberals.
Yann Caspar: Right, the Bokros package [in reference to measures taken by Lajos Bokros, who was Minister of Economic Affairs from 1995 until 1996-Ed.],
Gyula Thürmer: There was a symbiosis between the Socialist Party and the Alliance of Free Democrats. Symbiosis means that something attaches itself to a body and sucks out all its energy. The Alliance of Free Democrats has always been smaller than the Socialists, and this liberal body, by attaching itself to the Socialist Party’s body, has gradually sucked out everything that could still be called the Left. That’s how the conservative and liberal camps came into being.
Yann Caspar: It’s also what happened in 2002 between the Socialist Party and the Alliance of Free Democrats . . .
Gyula Thürmer: Yes, with the difference that the conservatives’ camp was united, because Fidesz had swallowed up all its partners. The Socialist Party had also swallowed up all the liberal or Left-wing entities – except us, of course. But problems were coming, and since the leaders of the Socialist government – Medgyessy [Prime Minister from 2002 to 2004-Ed.] and Gyurcsány – failed to master their tasks, they started to break up.
Over the last ten years, parties have been created that represent the liberals’ nuances, be it a generational nuance like Momentum or an environmental one like the Greens (LMP). They all come from the same circle. Things are now very likely going in a direction in which someone will make them disappear in order to unite them under the same banner.
Yann Caspar: What did you think and feel, and how did you react, when Viktor Orbán delivered his speech in 1989?
Gyula Thürmer: When this speech was delivered in 1989, I was working alongside the Secretary General of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party, and Viktor Orbán’s intention was clearly to bring down socialism. He wanted to bring down the socialism in which I had grown up, which my father had built, and which I thought was a good society. It is therefore natural that I did not support his ideas. It is another issue to note that twenty years later, he initiated another policy in Hungary and began to think more clearly than his liberal predecessors, and therefore we say that his policy now has something rational. We will not join him, but if he does something good for the people, he must be supported. The Viktor Orbán of 1989 is unacceptable for us, but we can support the Orbán of 2010 and thereafter on many points.
Yann Caspar: Which points exactly?
Gyula Thürmer: If they give the people something – raise wages, lower housing costs – then we say it’s good. Who would not approve of that? But let me add that this is not as much as it should be. If we were in power, we would give more. We would support Fidesz on a number of foreign policy issues. For us, it is essential that Hungary has good relations with Russia. History tells us that if we are at war with Russia, we are the least able to persevere lose and then die . If we go to war for foreign interests, the consequences will also be bad for us. We would support Hungary’s policy of openness to the East. We have to have relations with China, Laos, and Vietnam. And, from a certain point of view, we are pioneers in this area. The Hungarian President is now coming back from Laos, while I was there six or seven years ago, when no Hungarian had ever been there before. We hope that this will also take place with North Korea, where I have already been, and where no Hungarian politician has yet set foot.
Yann Caspar: Have you been there recently?
Gyula Thürmer: The last time was last year.
Yann Caspar: And from this point of view – Orbán opening to the East and Kádár opening a little to the West – couldn’t we say that the foreign policies of these two leaders are similar?
Gyula Thürmer: Hungary is in the middle of Europe. Throughout its millennial history, it has always been encircled by two great empires: be it the Byzantine and Holy Roman empires, Russia and the German Reich, or the Soviet Union and NATO. Hungary has had to maintain its position between the two. Today, it is the European Union and NATO on one side, and on the other, Russia and its allies. I think that the only wise policy for Hungary is to actually chose a e side, because we think that’s it’s good for us, but we also have to share some values with the other side and build bridges. This is what Gyula Andrássy did in the nineteenth century and Gábor Bethlen in the Middle Ages. This is what Kádár did, and now the Orbán government is doing the same thing in its own way.
Yann Caspar: As I mentioned earlier, Kádár did not really talk about Romania. The Romanian events of 1989 are very different from those that occurred in Hungary during the same year. I have two questions: You were a diplomat, you traveled a lot in this region and in the Soviet Union, and I believe also in the West, in the 1980s. How different was Hungary compared to Poland or Romania? Hungary was nicknamed “the happiest place in the socialist camp.” Moreover, what is happening at present with our Romanian neighbors is undoubtedly still more closely related to the change of 1989. What is your opinion on these points, and why did Kádár not want to talk about Romania?
Gyula Thürmer: That’s a lot of questions at once. What were the differences in Hungary’s case? In our country, regime change took place through disputes, negotiations, and agreements within one to three months. The elections of 1990 then officially formalized this, and the next day, capitalism was here in Hungary. The same thing happened to the Czechs, where things are always as soft as velvet. The Poles were also quite fast, but this was because Jaruzelski’s attempt to defend socialism failed.
In countries where socialism was not introduced in the same way as here, where it was not Soviet tanks that brought it but where the people had more or less fought for socialism, that is not the case. Take Yugoslavia. Why was it necessary to break up Yugoslavia, plunge it into a bloody war, and send Milošević to The Hague? Because this country fought for its independence. It fought against the Germans. Here, socialism, freedom, and independence were linked. Yugoslav socialism was different. There was no state property, but community property. Much was different there, and therefore this social order could not be destroyed so quickly.
With the Romanians, the situation was also different. In hindsight, Ceauşescu may well be hated, and very few people liked him even at that time, but he understood that if we owed anything to the West, the West would blackmail us. Romania had repaid its debts to the West, even though it cost the country dearly. That’s why Ceauşescu had to be executed. János Kádár was not executed, nor was anyone else here. This is an essential difference. Of course, Cuba and Vietnam were also different, because in those places socialism was also associated with freedom and independence.
Romania is one of the results of the Treaty of Trianon’s consequences. I think people on the Left can also quietly say that Trianon is a peace treaty. I myself was at the Grand Trianon, and although I did not burst into tears, I stopped for a moment, and it’s still painful for me that there is no commemorative plaque which reminds us that the fate of the Hungarian people, and of the Hungarian nation, was sealed there in an unjust and dishonest way through the great powers’ violence. Unfortunately, during the Second World War, the Hungarian leaders such as Miklós Horthy did not understand what the Romanians understood then and did not withdraw from the war, or certainly not in time, which resulted in Trianon being ratified. Everything remained as in the 1920s.
Kádár and his people, who were convinced internationalist, thought that socialism would provide a solution to this. When the question is not to whether to be Hungarian, French, German, or Romanian, but rather worker or capitalist, then these differences – although they do not disappear – are blurred. There were times when they faded away. Still, it did not really succeed, especially when the Romanian leadership made the mistake of breaking with the 1950s practice of solving domestic problems by fomenting anti-Hungarian feelings. Under Ceauşescu, it was really . . .
Yann Caspar: National Communism had an ethnical dimension.
Gyula Thürmer: Exactly.
Yann Caspar: But Kádár, too, was in favor of National Communism, so what’s the difference? What was the definition?
Gyula Thürmer: Kádár did not really use that expression. He advocated national characteristics. If Hitler had not used the term National Socialism, then we could use it comfortably, but since he did, we can’t be National Socialists. But we would like to build socialism within a national context. Kádár advocated that because – how can I say this ? In the 1950s, when we went to the tailor’s shop and were asked what clothing we wanted, we said we wanted clothes like those we had seen in the Soviet Union. Everyone was getting clothes and was building a society like the one they had seen in the Soviet Union. Then we realized that there were Hungarian clothes, traditional Hungarian clothes, that the people liked more, because they found them to be more comfortable. So let’s do that. Kádár was committed to this path. The Romanians were even more so, but they went too far. Kádár did not go that far. Of course, the Chinese were the ones who went the furthest and declared that the path taken by the Soviet Union was not the right one.
But that was not the background of the conflict between Romania and Hungary. The background of this conflict was that the Kádár regime had not been able to improve the fate of the one and a half million Hungarians living in Transylvania. It could not get back Transylvania, and could do absolutely nothing. That’s why these problems were passed over in silence. This led to a strengthening of the nationalist atmosphere. In Hungary, with Pozsgay, Szűrös, and the Hungarian Democratic Forum, the awakening of the nationalist milieu started – which, as we unfortunately had to discover, did not yield much in the way of results.
The new ruling elite that came to power after 1989 also failed to get Transylvania back. Just as its predecessors, it could not improve the lives of the Hungarians living there. They missed out on great opportunities to do such a move – for example, the war in the Balkans, the entry of Romania into the EU and NATO, regime changes. The Hungarian elite could easily have asked for something in exchange for supporting Romania’s membership. But that’s not what happened, and now politics is different.
Yann Caspar: Hungary is no longer part of the Eastern bloc, but of the European Union. It joined the EU in 2004 and NATO in 1999, almost twenty years ago. What is your opinion on this? What happened? And what is coming next?
Gyula Thürmer: First we joined NATO, which did not accept us right away. In Hungary, the regime change took place in 1989, but we were only accepted into NATO nine years later. Two things happened beforehand. First, they gave nine years for the Hungarian political elite to purge all those who had anything to do with the Soviet Union. It was necessary to replace the officer corps, dismiss the generals, recruit new men, and train new officers, and only then could joining be acceptable. By the way, Hungary did not need this. So since there was no Soviet Union anymore, why do it? But in Yugoslavia they failed to settle the regime change without war, and it was no coincidence that Hungary joined NATO in the spring of 1999, because military action was to begin two weeks later.
Yann Caspar: You met Milošević . . .
Gyula Thürmer: Yes, it was on April 6, if I remember correctly. I went there in the middle of the war. I met Milošević. Despite everything that was going on, we managed to achieve a positive result. With a large map on the wall, Milošević pulled the curtain aside and said: “You see, NATO and Hungary want to use ground forces to invade Yugoslavia, and many Serb soldiers will die in Vojvodina and around, as well as many Hungarian soldiers.” Of course, it is not for this reason that NATO did not deploy ground forces, but that also played a role.
And I am proud of one thing. After meeting Milošević, I went to Wojwodina. The bridges had been bombed and a big rally took place on the only bridge that was still standing. Several tens of thousands of people were there. I gave a speech in Serbian and Hungarian, declaring that not everyone in Hungary wanted the war. I think that this has become an important element in Serbo-Hungarian relations. People then knew that we did not want to wage a war against them – nor today, as a matter of course.
Yann Caspar: What is your opinion of the European Union?
Gyula Thürmer: Our accession to the EU was also an inevitable step, NATO being the military and the EU being the political and economic pillars of the system that exists today in Hungary. A system moving towards a market economy and bourgeois democracy cannot exist without these external pillars. The question is the price that must be paid for it. I think Hungary paid a pretty high price for it – not during the negotiations, but before, since Hungarian agriculture had been destroyed even before its accession to the EU. They also destroyed or bought the Hungarian automobile industry, such as the Ikarus company, as well as the Hungarian manufacturing industry before accession. Most of the laws had already been brought up to EU standards prior to our accession. We started to live as if we were already an EU member.
Viktor Orbán recognizes all of this today. The West has bought our markets, and we have already given them a lot. Since then, a lot of time has passed, and Eastern European capitalism, including Hungarian capitalism, has become stronger, and this is a point we disagree about. The Hungarian leadership does not want to leave the EU. It wants to stay in and get more. There is a Hungarian rhyme which says that “the one who does not march straight away does not get a cake in the evening.” Orbán and his party want to get this cake, even though they do not march with the others or even march in a different direction in some areas.
Hungary has already lost eight billion euros because of the trade embargo against Russia. Why the hell do we need this embargo? All the more so as Russia has not been affected by it, given that it continues to be supplied with food – not by the Hungarians, but by others. There are many negative aspects. In the end, we are faced with the fact that the EU is not only exerting economic pressure on Hungary, but also wants us to live like them. But we d don’t want to. I really like Paris, Berlin, and the Western European cities, but life, culture, and traditions are different there. Let us live the way we want to. But they do not want that. Democracy can also be understood differently. Here the story is different, and we understand the rules of the game differently. I think that one should protect the independence of nations, their culture and their identity. The EU should not go in the direction of a supranational organization, but rather that of an alliance between nations.
Translated from Hungarian by the Visegrád Post.