The fall of the Berlin Wall is a cherished landmark in the peaceful revolution that dissolved the Soviet bloc and advanced democratic and free market institutions in Europe. But the wall did not collapse on its own. Germany’s powerfully symbolic moment took place largely on a foundation of rapid political changes already churning elsewhere in Eastern Europe, especially Poland and Hungary.
In June 1989, some months before the Berlin Wall was breached, the anticommunist opposition in Poland, led by the Solidarity trade union movement, achieved a decisive victory in Poland’s first partially free parliamentary elections since World War II. That summer also marked Hungary’s decisive opening to the West, thanks to an event with an innocent name but a serious purpose.
The “Pan-European Picnic” had been organized along the Austrian–Hungarian border to promote lifting the Iron Curtain. On August 19, hundreds of East German “tourists” fled Hungary, crossing the Austrian border to pursue freedom in West Germany. The picnic also celebrated the meeting of two peoples, Hungarians and Austrians, who had been separated from each other for many decades. The sponsor and main coordinator of this event was Imre Pozsgay, Hungary’s deputy prime minister and one of the chief architects of his nation’s peaceful transformation.
The Hoover Archives has now made Pozsgay’s personal papers available to scholars, even as the great East European revolutions of 1989–90 are being celebrated on their twentieth anniversary. Richard Sousa, director of the Hoover Library and Archives, welcomed the acquisition and paid tribute to its donor: “The Hoover Institution is known for its collections on governments in transition, particularly those in transition from communist rule to democracy. The Pozsgay papers are an added gem to our holdings. When the history of this period is completed, Mr. Pozsgay will be recognized as one of the era’s courageous leaders. We are truly honored to have these papers at Hoover.” The collection documents Pozsgay’s career and provides a wealth of information on political developments, beginning with the 1956 Hungarian revolution, which flickered for only a few weeks before it was crushed by Soviet tanks.
RAPIDLY RISING COMMUNIST OFFICIAL
Imre Pozsgay was born on November 26, 1933, in the village of Kóny in western Hungary. He spent his childhood and early school years in this rural environment, receiving a Roman Catholic and patriotic upbringing. He was only a child during the Second World War, when Hungary was allied to the Axis powers, but he remembered well the destruction war brought to his village. These memories formed the basis of his youthful leftist orientation. Between 1952 and 1957 he continued his higher education in Budapest at the Lenin Institute, becoming an enthusiastic and dedicated follower of the socialist system imposed on Hungary by Stalin. He became a member of the dominant Hungarian Workers’ Party. Pozsgay studied Russian and history to complete his academic credentials so he could teach history.
Pozsgay did not participate in the tragic uprising of 1956, which decades later he would invoke as a cry for freedom. Instead, only a few months after the revolution was put down, he took up a career in the newly reconstituted Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party (HSWP) led by János Kádár. Pozsgay rose through the ranks at a dizzying pace. By 1970 he was director of the Press Department of the HSWP’s Central Committee. Later he became editor of the Social Review, the party’s magazine. In 1975 he was appointed deputy minister of culture; in 1976 he became minister of culture.
As a member of the government he coordinated all cultural endeavors in the arts, publishing, schools, universities, scientific research, and international contacts. In his wide spectrum of responsibilities, Pozsgay had access to many sources of information. He knew all the important writers, poets, and artists and also had connections with groups of intellectuals critical of the authoritarian political system.
Beginning in the early 1980s, Pozsgay began to reflect on life under a communist regime. From his later admissions, it is clear how difficult it was to confront the ideals he had followed since his youth and to admit mistakes. He initially toyed with the idea of transforming socialism into an institution more in keeping with human nature. When he realized that this could not work, he tried a more radical approach, using his position and the respect he enjoyed in Hungarian society to atone for the mistakes, corruption, and crimes of the communist dictatorship. This led to bitter conflicts with György Aczél, the Politburo member overseeing ideological matters and, ultimately, with Kádár, the first secretary of the HSWP. Pozsgay was then removed from the government and exiled to the People’s Patriotic Front (PPF), an umbrella group of organizations and institutions allied with the HSWP. He found it hard to be politically sidetracked after six years in government. In 1982, he was elected general secretary of the People’s Patriotic Front.
Pozsgay soon realized the political advantages of his new position. He transformed the PPF from a puppet of the regime into a true political force. Kádár and Aczél realized that their solution to the “Pozsgay situation” had backfired when the PPF began proposing new and workable solutions to Hungary’s mounting social, economic, and political problems and supporting civic organizations and initiatives opposed to the ruling communists. In September 1987, in the village of Lakitelek, Pozsgay met with intellectuals and critics of the regime. That meeting gave birth to the Hungarian Democratic Forum, the country’s first independent party.
The People’s Patriotic Front also had given Pozsgay access to international forums and contacts, and he traveled extensively during the 1980s. In the fall of 1982, he was a guest of the U.S. government, traveling and learning about American institutions, political culture, and daily life. He also visited Britain, Italy, West Germany, Finland, Japan, India, China, Indochina, and the countries of the Soviet Union. In 1988, George H. W. Bush, the Republican candidate for president, on a tour of Eastern Europe, visited Pozsgay in his Patriotic Front office and asked the general secretary about Hungary’s political system and progress toward democracy.
In the spring of 1988, Pozsgay became a key player in Hungarian politics. As sentiments toward political pluralism gained strength, Pozsgay was brought into the HSWP Politburo, where he helped prepare for Kádár’s resignation and, by declaring publicly that “communism does not work,” helped reshape the HSWP into a social-democratic organization, which became the Hungarian Socialist Party. As minister of state (equivalent to deputy prime minister), Pozsgay joined reformers inside and outside the government in efforts to reach a national consensus and reform Hungary’s legal and institutional framework to make it compatible with Western standards of human rights and democratic self-governance. The “triangular table” talks—including the government, the opposition, and representatives of social organizations and trade unions—in the summer of 1989 made possible the transformation from a communist “people’s democracy” into a Western-style parliamentary democracy.
Pozsgay was also instrumental in dealing with the legacy of one of Hungary’s most traumatic events, the revolution of 1956. On January 28, 1989, he called the revolution “a people’s uprising against an oligarchic system of power which had humiliated the nation,” and thereby undermined the legitimacy and identity of the communist government. (That government was, after all, a direct result of the Soviet destruction of what the communists had dubbed a counterrevolution.)
That statement marked the end of the communist dictatorship and helped to moderate popular resentments that could have led to violent confrontations with the government. Symbolic justice and rehabilitation for the victims of post-1956 repressions were achieved by the ceremonial funeral of Imre Nagy, the leader of the revolution who had been executed by the communists in 1958. Pozsgay attended the funeral along with top government leaders and tens of thousands of citizens.
A WAVE OF BLOODLESS TRANSFORMATION
Pozsgay helped promote the idea of peaceful transformation beyond the Hungarian portion of the Soviet bloc, not only by promoting the Pan-European Picnic and the elimination of the Iron Curtain along the border with Austria—which opened a road to the West for thousands of East Germans—but by working on behalf of refugees from Nicolae Ceau¸sescu’s Romania. His numerous meetings during 1989 with foreign leaders—President George H. W. Bush, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl—worked toward peaceful change and reduced international tensions.
Although seen by many as the natural leader of the new, democratic Hungary, Pozsgay did not meet that expectation. As the Republic of Hungary replaced the People’s Republic of Hungary and the country began moving into a new world of international politics and global economics, Pozsgay narrowly lost a presidential bid in 1989 as a candidate of the Hungarian Socialist Party. Despite his undisputed accomplishments, which had helped bring about the changes, Pozsgay’s historic role was finished.
He recognized and accepted this. He turned to university teaching and sent his private papers to the Hoover Archives. Thanks to this rich archival legacy, Imre Pozsgay’s role will be studied, analyzed, and better understood by future historians.