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21 March 2018

Essays of a “Dangerous Man” – Thoughts on György Granasztói’s 80th Birthday

A question mark completes the title of György Granasztói’s article on the election of 2010 to make it 2010: What Happened? It signifies more than punctuation. Its author believes, as he explains early in the essay, that history sometimes proceeds in short revolutionary jumps to a new stage of politics as well as in slow evolutionary movements. These “short shifts and breaks” – I propose to call them “moments” – cram into their brief terms an accumulated mass of change that has been blocked by the social and political forces of an uncreative or turbulent past. For instability and tumult can retard or divert natural historical evolution as much as immobility or reaction.

György’s own life, between 1938 and 2016 – and since he asked me to call him by the Anglicised version of his Christian name, I do so here – was an equilibrium punctuated by at least five of such moments. The first was the German invasion of March 1944 that introduced the twin nightmares of Nazi and Communist totalitarianism and that devastated all classes of Hungarian society for decades to come. György was quietly proud of his links to two historic Hungarian families which as Gyula Kodolányi reminds us in his funeral address (HR, November 2016), “included the staunch anti- Nazi Minister of the Interior Ferenc Keresztes-Fischer, who was deported on 19 March 1944, to the concentration camp in Mauthausen by the occupying German forces”. He was no less proud of growing up among the artists and writers who composed his family and their friends and who ensured an easy and happy introduction into the worlds of culture, aspiration and achievement for him.

Viktor Orbán in his funeral address (HR, November 2016) – a tribute not from a Prime Minister but from a friend and “eternal student” – pictures him as always managing “to follow the true path with a kind of light-footed elegance”. All of György’s friends will recognise both the lightness and the fidelity in this portrait. But the social, political and intellectual lineages that helped shape him on these lines also ensured that in the repressive mediocrity of the Kádár years he would be diverted into those backwaters of academic research reserved for people who think too much.

Such men are dangerous”, as Shakespeare recognised, and indeed György found himself surrounded by like-minded colleagues (several writing later in these pages) who between them established an oasis of intellectual freedom inside the desiccated machinery of indoctrination. He devoted himself to historical research, specialising in the medieval life of the middle class and the peasantry, drawing on the French Annales school of historiography associated with Fernand Braudel, making frequent academic visits to French universities as the dictatorship softened at home, and attracting enough attention in Paris to be awarded the Légion d’honneur in the course of time and scholarship.

It is through French eyes, indeed, that György describes in this volume the second great “moment” in his experience of Hungary’s history, namely 1956. He examines what judgements the post-war French intelligentsia, divided as it was across Stalinists, social democrats, Christian socialists and liberals, made about Communist Hungary from the late forties through 1956 to the “moment” of 1989. He chooses the reporting and commentary of Esprit, a journal that began as a vehicle of Left Catholic thought but later embraced other tendencies, notably a secular left-liberalism, to chart the changes in French opinion. It is a shrewd choice of map and compass almost precisely because it is a disappointing one.

1956 does indeed compel Esprit to abandon its earlier naïve hesitations about the totalitarian nature of the Communist regime under both Rákosi and, later, Kádár. In this regard Esprit was typical of almost all French and Western opinion after the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian Revolution, the murder of Imre Nagy and the sponsored ascent of János Kádár. In this respect Esprit achieves clarity and intellectual firmness.

But there was in the entire Western intelligentsia, though perhaps more openly and yearningly expressed in its Parisian redoubt than in London, Bonn or New York, an unquenchable thirst for signs that a genuinely humanitarian “Socialism” had finally begun to emerge. Thus the realities of 1956 would be succeeded by the illusions of 1968, notably by “Socialism with a Human Face”, which in due course would be dispelled by the publication in Paris of Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, of which the memories would evaporate under the hot sun of “Gorbymania” less than a decade later in the penultimate crisis of the Soviet system. And as it became impossible even for Stalinists to deny that the Soviet system was not only a human and economic catastrophe but one that was visibly falling in upon itself, a final attempt to rescue Socialism – well, the socialist ideal at least – was made by the left-liberal forces in a Europe that was starting to be philosophically united in debate across the Iron Curtain even before the picnic.

And Esprit in György’s account was part of this new tendency.

As Kádár’s ideological dictatorship gradually decayed, the first response of its political opponents social democratic, liberal, conservative, nationalist, religious was to minimise their differences in the common interest of achieving a democratic political structure and institutions that would quite soon generate political parties expressing these various tendencies. Yet as that day approached, it became clear that one of the new political forces contending for power democratically would be the “modernising” wing of the Kádár regime itself. And it could hardly be denied such participation since, after all, its leaders were helping to bring about the promised new multi-party system.

In 1986 I saw this coming because as a young journalist on The Times of London I interviewed (courtesy of the British Foreign Office) a high-ranking Hungarian apparatchik who gave me a detailed road-map of how the reformist Communists would introduce democracy, split into two parties (one of which, the reformers’ party, would take the name Socialists), lose the first election, but win the second because the country was in such a mess that the first elected government was bound to fail. And, lo, all that he foretold came to pass. But as the reform Communists moved towards their rebirth (via a Caesarean section, one supposes) and democratic baptism, they complicated the calculations of all the other political factions both in Hungary and at Esprit. It became possible to envisage an alliance between them and the Left-Liberals in the democratic opposition – or, if not an actual alliance, then a coincidence of interests. And in the light of such possibilities, some thought, might that not be a better and more “progressive” move for the left-liberals to cooperate with the bright new social democrats rather than with some of the more “right-wing” elements who had been their democratic allies until now?

Those were not easy arguments to make in Hungary, of course, where the great majority of voters saw Communist reformers as opportunists who, following Romeo, had taken a sleeping draught to mimic their own death as an alternative to being executed (not physically of course, but electorally, I should make clear to avoid any deliberate misunderstanding). But there was an eager audience for them in the Western Left and, as György notes acidly, at Esprit where the Left- Opposition was well-represented and which began to discover all sorts of faults in the non-Left Opposition, notably anti- Semitism, that had hitherto escaped notice and, not incidentally, had not prevented the Hungarian liberals from cooperating with them. György tells this story delicately and subtly, but the process he describes is not a very pleasant one. Because Esprit was a journal not of the Left but of the Centre-Left at this stage in its evolution, it had a disproportionately influential impact on Western opinion.

Nor was Esprit alone. As the great Anglo-Hungarian economist, P. T. Bauer, was fond of saying: “In an age of mass communications, what matters is not the sound but the echo.” This absurd “analysis” that progressive forces, including former Communists, had a duty to unite against an anti-Semitic Right soon employed against the gentlemanly, moderate, and centre-right Antall government, became a mantra explaining Central Europe in much of the Western academic-media- complex. It seems to have influenced the policies and attitudes of Western governments and international institutions. Certainly the governments in some former Communist countries found that EU officials were less sympathetic to them over debt repayments than they had been to the governments that incurred the debts. “Lustration” policies to penalise former Communist ministers were firmly discouraged. And so on.

Another consequence was, György concluded, that the third great “moment” in modern Hungarian history, the 1989 change of regime, had not really occurred. Or, to be more precise, that 1989 had been only a half-revolution, and had left Hungary with a mixed regime that was half-democracy, half rule by nomenclatura. That was made official when the former Communists won the second election and formed a coalition with the Left-Liberals in 1994 which lost to the rising Fidesz movement in 1998 but was twice reinstalled in the 2002 and 2006 elections. That period ended in the fourth “moment” of the 2010 election that in György’s account completes the half-revolution of 1989 (and that should logically remove the question mark from the title of his article with which I began this introduction).

The thesis of his essay is that because 1989 had aborted a revolution (in the sense of regime change) rather than midwifed one, the period between 1989 and 2010 had been a cold civil war in which both sides had taken up entrenched positions against each other. There could be no compromise and therefore no debate and, paradoxically, no real politics since that presumes both debate and the possibility of compromise. Marked mainly by scandals and intransigence, it was therefore a singularly uncreative period on the surface. Yet political change never stops; it simply goes underground. If for no other reason, the electorate changes considerably over a 20-year period because some voters die and others are born onto the electoral register. In this case, however, the electorate changed more fundamentally than that – and the parties changed as a result. György describes the dying convulsions of the coalition, of its Left-Liberal components in particular, in historical and philosophical detail which I will not attempt to summarise here. But the end result was a new Hungarian political spectrum with Fidesz occupying a vast centre-ground of opinion, drawing on national, social and religious traditions, leaving two weak extremes on either side. As György characterised them: “an extreme left-wing party that demands democracy free of the nation and … an extreme right-wing party that would prefer to see politics transformed into the embodiment of a nation without democracy”.

In other words the 2010 moment was an electoral revolution that established a new political spectrum and promised to complete the regime change of 1989.

The two-thirds majority attained by Fidesz enabled the new government to ratify this regime change constitutionally, and the 2014 re-election of the government did so electorally. No democratic election should ever be taken for granted, but it seems likely at present that Fidesz will win a similar victory and thus another (and surely final?) constitutional endorsement. The fact that these changes were carried through against intense opposition and criticism at home and abroad testifies both to their fundamental significance but also to their acceptance by the general public. If they had been the programme of a minority, they would surely have been defeated. They were indeed resisted, but they prevailed.

And that leads us to “moment” number five. Though there is still resistance to Hungary’s political and national orientation, it now arises more from international organisations and foreign governments than from domestic opponents and voters. It is largely focused on Hungary’s reluctance to accept significant numbers of migrants from the Middle East and the Maghreb and its opposition to the European Union’s plan to distribute such refugees throughout Europe via a system of compulsory quotas. Almost as controversial as the policy, however, is the Prime Minister’s justification for it: namely, that Hungary is reasonably entitled to protect its national character as a European and Christian society against the impact of mass immigration. Such arguments run counter to the prevailing bias of the EU’s central organisations that the European future should be one rooted in post-nationalism, multiculturalism and official secularism.

Ah”, we hear György saying with a faint hint of reproof at this point: “That’s true, of course, but there is a great deal more to it than that.” And in his final essay for Hungarian Review on “The Two Europes” he traces the attitudes and policies of both sides in the migration debate to the way in which geography has shaped social organisations and ideas in Central Europe quite differently from those in the coastal regions of Europe:


[F]rom classical antiquity on, there have been major differences between societies based on long-distance commerce and communication via water- ways and navigation, and rural-type inland societies practicing short- distance overland trade. The latter are characterised by an administration dependent on political centres and resources controlled by them … [and] regions of waterside countries saw the birth of liberal movements, while more inland countries were characterised by different kinds of formations, resulting in polities or states.


György goes on to develop this “rather simplistic summary” in rich and informative detail that I shall not compress awkwardly here. Suffice it to say that this distinction originating in geography goes on to foster the emergence of two kinds of people and societies, individualistic and communal, with attitudes and philosophies to match which inevitably creates tensions, clashes and disputes such as the differences over the migrant crisis or Brexit. It was impossible for an English ear not to pick up strong echoes of David Goodhart’s recent distinction (which has stimulated debate throughout the Anglosphere) between the two types of people – “Anywheres” and “Somewheres”, the globally mobile and the locally rooted – who largely coincide with each side in the British debate over Brexit.

Could other crises, such as the migrant, lead to other breaches of equal or greater importance? After all, György’s essay is entitled The two Europes matching the two different kinds of Europeans. And since even the mobile Europe has deep roots. He rules out the possibility that either Europe could win a final victory over the other. He raises the question, therefore, of “whether the crisis will deepen enough so that the conflict between the ideals of a globalised world and those of national sovereignty lead to the emergence of two Europes instead of the present dual one in an ever-deepening political conflict of interests”. At that point he laid aside his pen.

Like the eternal teacher he was, he left us with … an unresolved future whose possibilities we now understand far more clearly than before.

We can tell many things about György from the essays published in this volume and discussed here. He was a scholar of depth, a historian with a mind that constantly nagged him with new questions, a Francophone and lover of French culture, a Hungarian patriot who lived through times when patriotism was an accusation, an elegant stylist in several languages, including my own, an intellectual who sought to rescue the intellectual class from its treasons and eccentricities, and an impresario of ideas and cultural expression. Hungarian Review and the Danube Institute are testimony to his energy, foresight and taste. György was also a man of power – a diplomat and a senior advisor to two prime ministers – who could say “No” as well as “Yes” to supplicants and requests he thought unwise or impractical. He had wit, charm, a sense of humour that could be both sophisticated and earthy, and a large surplus of jokes and bonhomie that he was happy to share with friends, allies, and even enemies whom he hoped to recruit to his causes. But there was a steel core of firmness and principle in him that the bonhomie concealed but did not weaken. I can testify personally that he could be annoyingly obstinate when he was convinced he was right but he was never hostile or petty or unforgiving. If he knocked you down in a struggle, he would help you to your feet and congratulate you on your boxing technique. For, among other reasons, he had recently discovered a Cabernet Franc from a small vineyard in Villány that he wanted you to try. At least that is how all of my few disputes with him ended.

György loved life, and I think life loved him back. He seemed the most contented of men. As we all know, however, the most passionate love affairs come to an end. And then we go home.


* Introducion to the Hungarian edition of György Granasztói’s essays, Szabados Szabadság, to be published by Magyar Szemle, for the 80th birthday.

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