In Memoriam Imre Pozsgay (1933-2016)

Wednesday, April 13, 2016
Imre Pozsgay with President George H. W. Bush, Washington, 1989

An article about the “Pozsgay affair” in the daily Népszava, August 8, 1997
An article about the “Pozsgay affair” in the daily Népszava, August 8, 1997
Imre Pozsgay with President George H. W. Bush, Washington, 1989
Imre Pozsgay with President George H. W. Bush, Washington, 1989

One of Hoover Archives’ richest collections on the transition from authoritarian socialism to democracy in Eastern Europe is that of the Hungarian communist politician Imre Pozsgay.  Housed in 116 boxes of memoranda, reports, speeches, writings, notes, photographs, and sound and film recordings, the Pozsgay archives are essential resources for historians researching the final years of Communist Hungary and the peaceful revolution of 1988−90 that brought about democratic change.

Pozsgay’s death on March 25 of this year went almost unnoticed outside Hungary, mostly because of his relative obscurity during the last two decades.  As the minister of culture (1976−80), minister of education (1980−82), minister of state (1988−90), and parliament member (1983−94), he was the only ranking member of the Communist Party to play an active role in the political events of the great time of regime change, 1988−90.  He stunned the communist establishment by declaring publicly that “communism does not work” and that the 1956 Hungarian revolution was truly a “popular uprising.” He also took part in the reburial of Imre Nagy, the leader of the revolution murdered by the Soviets.  Pozsgay’s role in the so-called round table talks with the opposition and his cosponsorship, along with Otto von Habsburg, of the Pan-European Picnic of August 19, 1989, during which hundreds of East Germans visiting Hungary were able to cross the previously impassable Iron Curtain into Austria, made him the most popular Hungarian politician of 1989, presenting him with a good chance of becoming the first president of post-communist Hungary.  The postponement of the election and his failed efforts to set up an alternative left-leaning “third way” party, however, earned him the hostility of both the Left and the Right. In his later years, he continued his teaching career, became increasingly conservative, and drew closer to the Fidesz Party, advising its leader, Victor Orban, during the drafting of the new constitution.

When Pozsgay’s 1995 decision to transfer his papers to Hoover became known, a veritable media storm generated by his political enemies broke out in Hungary.  Driven mostly by left-leaning liberals, former communists, or members of families that belonged to the pre-1989 establishment, all of whom were fearful that Pozsgay was exporting state secrets, that would be potentially embarrassing to the new and the old elites.  A series of articles in all the major newspapers of Hungary appeared, with journalists clamoring to interview Hoover staff.  Imre Pozsgay reacted by visiting Hoover in November 1997 to give a lecture for his American friends on Hungary’s transition to democracy and closing his papers indefinitely, a restriction that lasted for more than a decade.  During that time the collection was processed and organized by the Hoover Archives, with the controversies dissipating as the political climate in Hungary changed.  In 2009 Imre Pozsgay asked the Hoover Archives to reopen his papers to researchers.  Since that time the collection has been accessed by both American and Hungarian scholars.

The Hoover Archives also holds the Mátyás Szürös papers, a smaller collection but complementary to the Pozsgay Papers. During 1989−90, Sürös was the speaker of the National Assembly and the provisional president of Hungary.   He is remembered for making the solemn proclamation in October 1989 that Hungary had removed the “People’s” from its official name and was now simply the Republic of Hungary.  The Szürös Papers have been open since 2013.

Maciej Siekierski

siekierski [at] stanford.edu