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“The Antall government accomplished something that no one had ever done before”- Interview with Péter Antall

Péter Cseresnyés 2020.06.17.

The years of 1989-90 are among the most important periods in 20th century Hungary, marking the end of the former communist regime and the beginning of a parliamentary democracy based on a multi-party system. On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the regime change, we commemorate József Antall, who, as Hungary’s first democratically elected Prime Minister, led the country on the bumpy road to the birth of democracy up until his tragic death. For this reason, we asked his son Péter Antall, about, among other things, the taxi blockade, the regime change, the achievements of the Antall government, his father’s time as Prime Minister, and his illness.

Today, it is often emphasized that your father was born into politics, since your grandfather, József Antall Sr., despite his position in the Interior Ministry, was a registered member of the Independent Smallholders’ Party. In addition, he was responsible for arranging the care and hiding of many war refugees. To what extent did the “spirit” of your grandfather surround the family, the way of your father’s thinking, or his political vocation?

My grandfather indeed played a huge role in my father’s personal motivation. He was a founding member of the Independent Smallholders’ Party (FKGP), formed in 1931. Later, until the German invasion in 1944, he was head of department at the Ministry of Interior, and was entrusted to handle the case of the asylum seekers—of course with the knowledge and consent of Prime Minister Pál Teleki. He had a role in saving the lives of tens of thousands of Jewish refugees. Visiting Northern Transylvania, Szeklerland, and Transcarpathia with my grandfather following the Vienna Awards also had a huge impact on my father. But it is also important to mention the name of my great-grandfather, István Szűcs, who is rarely mentioned, although his personality and work also had a significant influence on my father’s character. As Albert Apponyi’s Secretary , he assisted in, for example, the creation of the Lex Apponyi, which stated that Hungarian should be taught in every school regardless of being public or not. Immediately before his retirement, he served as Deputy Secretary of State of Kunó Klebelsberg [famous for his education reform].

In my father’s life it was also a defining experience that he had to live through the horrors of World War II as a teenager, but the subsequent coalition government and its actions also left a deep mark on him.”

After all, even then, the task was enormous: the country had to be rebuilt. It is said that my father was preparing to become prime minister from the age of 16. Undeniably, there is truth in this, though perhaps it would be more accurate if we said a politician.

Your father was attending the center-right Hungarian Democratic Forum (Magyar Demokrata Fórum–MDF) party’s events since the beginning of 1988. The Opposition Roundtable was established on March 22, 1989, and the MDF also delegated him to the discussions. By this time, you were already 25 years old. How did you and your father see the course of transition at that time?

Indeed, I was able to follow the whole process of the transition as an adult, and since I was already working as a photojournalist at the time, it wasn’t just through my father that I had the opportunity to observe the events up close. My father was initially looking for opportunities in several directions, one such party was the Independent Smallholders’ Party. However, he realized that MDF alone had the mass support necessary to win an election. His first major appearance took place just over a year before the first free election, in March 1989, when he gave a speech at the MDF’s 1st National Congress.

Photo by Attila Lambert/Hungary Today

However, it wasn’t a great success. The participants found his address quite strange for its teacher/historian-like wording, which, moreover, was full of foreign policy explanations—half of it was perhaps not even understood by many in the audience. He became known countrywide only later, during the Round Table Talks, to which he was delegated by the party because he was recognized as having the relevant knowledge in administration and public law that would make him fit for the position.

Thinking back, at that time I couldn’t imagine that the State Party would just hand over its power.”

Their idea then was to let the so-called alternative organizations operate while retaining the actual political power. My father was quite skeptical about Gorbachev. He feared that he would be overthrown by the army and suffer a similar fate as Khrushchev. As a result, conservative communists would have gained ground and the reform processes come to a complete halt.

When did the family first feel that the communist regime could be changed?

Perhaps the first time we really felt that the communist regime could be changed was between the two rounds of the first free elections. I remember we were going home at dawn after the first ballot and my father was immensely upset. With only three and a half percent between the MDF and [its main rival, the liberal] SZDSZ (Szabad Demokraták Szövetsége), he worried how he would be able to form a stable government this way, as he was well aware that in such a terrible political and economic situation he would need a highly stable government. Then, in the second round, the MDF secured just over 41% of the votes. This way, with the Smallholder’s Party and the Christian Democrats (KDNP), they gained a total of 58% of the seats in the new parliament.

How did it feel to be the son of Hungary’s first freely elected Prime Minister?

Towards the end of ’89, my friends had already been asking me whether I was preparing for my father to become Prime Minister. Of course, I’ve always brushed away these comments by saying “let’s wait for the election.” Then, on April 8, 1990, on my father’s 58th birthday, we were able to celebrate the election victory. That night was intoxicating, both he and the family felt that all the hard work he had invested in for decades had finally paid off.

Photo by Attila Lambert/Hungary Today

His inaugural speech was too rotund for me. Of course, he was always like that, and on top of that, he was also a historian.

I have always said that he was presenting ideas of the 21st century using 19th century rhetoric. However, as Prime Minister, he could not be cheerful. He felt the country was in a position without a reason to smile.”

And he wasn’t even aware of many things back then. It was interesting that during the day I photographed my father while he was signing the Visegrad Declaration, and then I met him for dinner in the evening. I rarely saw him privately during that time.

Did you know from the beginning that it would not be easy to make a change of regime? Did your father feel his historical responsibility and the heavy burden from the beginning?

Absolutely, it depressed him to a great extent, too. Even before forming the government, he had been arriving home late at night. Later as Prime Minister, he was holding government meetings far into the night. There was always something to do, some problem, difficulty, or just an internal war in the MDF, where several of the founders worked against my father, led by Sándor Lezsák.

What do you consider the three most important accomplishments of the Antall government?

The first and most important thing was that during his leadership, the Soviet troops permanently withdrew from Hungary.

The other important step was the establishment of the Atlantic connection, namely the extremely favorable relationship with the United States, which resulted in Hungary’s NATO accession. Finally, creating the foundations for the European Union accession. In fact, I could name the whole foreign policy of the Antall government, as Hungary has a lot of diplomatic relations that my father started to build.”

For example, in addition to the already mentioned alliances, ​​the Visegrad Cooperation, the idea of Central European cooperation. By the way, he had established relationships in the West from the beginning that could be built on later. I remember at the time of the taxi blockade when he was already seriously ill and was in the hospital, I went to visit. He said he had just hung up the phone.

He agreed with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl that Hungary would receive coal supplies, as the coal plants had shut down in those days. For him all it took was a phone call.”

He told us many times at home how important building personal connections are in international politics. When he was in Japan, he was staying in the same hotel as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, so he sent her a business card to indicate that he would be happy to talk to her. The Prime Minister was absolutely open to this, so they sat down in the lobby of the hotel in the evening to talk about how my father saw the Yugoslav Wars.

How have you and your family been affected by the often unfounded criticisms and attacks against your father, frequently an inherent part of political battles?

He himself found it difficult to stand it, as he was formerly a popular teacher and later a museum manager. He was beloved by many. He wasn’t really an orator type, but rather preferred to keep a small private circle. He could be very entertaining and funny, he had a great sense of humor —though unfortunately he couldn’t show it off much during his time as Prime Minister—in fact, he could be very personal, and the one he was criticizing had a hard time bearing it. His humor was often personal, so when he “applied” it to me, I didn’t like it either (laughs).

Photo by Attila Lambert/Hungary Today

Working in the press, I could see how hostile they were to him and often even to me. At this time, if a journalist had not criticized him vigorously enough, it was immediately assumed he made a deal with the government. I was also attacked.

When did you find out your father was seriously ill? How did the family react to this?

He was already telling us as early as April 1990 that he felt something strange in his left armpit. We, of course, immediately advised him to go and see a doctor. But then he had to deal with the difficulties of forming a government and various urgent tasks, so he never went. By fall, he was already in severe pain, and when he was visiting President George H. W. Bush in the U.S, he was unable to even stand at attention during the anthem. After the taxi blockade in the fall of 1990, he called me directly into his hospital room, and there I found out. He said if he was treated, he had three years, if he wasn’t, he might have only three months left.

Then he told me to organize my future life with this in mind. What came after was a nightmare. After that,

in his personal life, he only dared to plan for two or three months ahead, but at the same time he always said that he was a free man and, as a terminally ill patient, he did not have to go into any unprincipled bargains.

And so, fully aware of his deadly illness, he still worked day and night.

How did it feel to watch as your father was struggling with cancer while he was also trying to create the democratic institutional and political system in Hungary?

In 1992, I was given the opportunity in Egypt to produce several guidebooks and a photo album. While working abroad, I visited home every few months. It was shocking to see how rapidly my father’s condition deteriorated towards the end. The most striking was his extremely fast weight loss. In the meantime, however, he always said when I met him that he felt somewhat lucky for simply not having the time to deal with his own health problems and grieve over it.

When his treatment started, we were all feeling hopeful. Even my father. Around that time, he often said that he gives himself 50% chance for survival. I remember then, my mother and I were home when the doctor called and told us that he had rapid-onset leukemia and only had weeks left. My father, of course, asked us to keep the news a secret. My mother had to attend protocol events and I had to go out trying to hide it so nobody could notice this on us. It was unspeakably difficult.

What did your father think: that he did what he could do, or was he concentrating on how much he still had to do?

Perhaps more of the latter.

I think he was aware that during his time as Prime Minister, he had laid the foundations of democracy in the country. But he always planned ahead and reviewed what tasks still awaited him.

I remember in his calendar, for example, there was a note of a meeting with President Clinton early the next year. But he couldn’t go there anymore—he didn’t live long enough.

Can you refute or confirm the famous claim that József Antall appointed Viktor Orbán as his political heir on his deathbed?

The story is more complicated than that. They had definitely talked to each other, over the phone, to the best of my knowledge. My father praised Viktor Orbán [the leader of the then still liberal youth party, Fidesz] and acknowledged his outstanding talent, which is why he helped him in international relations. An important point is that Orbán did not stand by the SZDSZ during the taxi blockade.

Photo by Attila Lambert/Hungary Today

When, for example, we were at home with my family hearing about what this young MP was saying again in the parliament, he always said that he was an opposition politician, so it was tolerable. In my opinion, the main reason behind his forgiving attitude was that Orbán reminded him that if the 1956 revolution was successful—my father was 24 years old at the time—he would have had a similar political career. This may have been one of the foundations of his sympathy. By the way, he was sympathetic not only towards Orbán, but also towards several other opposition politicians—primarily with whom he participated in the roundtable talks. However, he did not like the SZDSZ politicians. But of course, the feeling was mutual.

Still, the two parties established a pact.

When my father said that the SZDSZ had entered into the agreement, I was terribly surprised, as it primarily favored MDF. Only this way it was possible for the party to form a stable government. According to the constitutional system at the time, among other things, the adoption of the budget was tied to a two-thirds majority, to which, of course, the opposition does not usually give its consent. In this case, however, the country would have become unmanageable.

The Socialists, for example, rightly expected the Antall government to fail in six months.”

Interestingly, if we calculate, the events of the taxi blockade were exactly half a year after the 1990 spring election. It also shows that this was not really a spontaneous action, but an anti-state coup attempt. And its main political goal was to bring the SZDSZ to power, by forcing the Antall government to take them in.

There are many famous political quotes linked to your father. Which do you think best describes his way of thinking?

“We knew what to do and we did what we could.” My father had to make politics in such a way so the Russians had no excuse to stay here. They didn’t want to leave. Furthermore, I myself consider the situation absurd that Gábor Péter [head of the infamous communist state police, the ÁVH] and his associates were not convicted. The so-called ’blood judges’ were not held accountable either. Unfortunately, in that political climate, this could not be done. My father was a realist politician, for him gaining the country’s independence back was the top priority.

The price of a democratic, peaceful transition was that the political nomenclature of the previous system could continue to live in the economy.”

I think it was a realistic price, although it bothered me as well a lot.

From the perspective of 30 years, how do you evaluate the process of the political change? How successful was it, what could or should have been done better?

In hindsight, it’s easy to be smart, but we have to realize that the Antall government accomplished something that no one had ever done before: it steered the country from a nearly 100% state ownership system to privatization. It did all this while the whole economy laid in ruins, while a significant portion of people, especially in the early days, felt almost nothing of this pile of rubbish.

However, my father saw this perfectly: he also labeled themselves as the ’kamikaze government.’”

Many attacked the Antall government for allegedly being a scientific and historical government. There was truth in it, but only the communists had assets skilled in politics and then we were also in the middle of a transition. Obviously, it was not possible to continue with the same people, but the bureaucracy had to be taken over, as it is not possible to run a country without skilled officials.

What do you think—Does the political culture that your father represented still exist today?

I don’t think that mentality is completely lost. In addition, my father still has admirers today, even among the current members of the government. Examples include Minister of the Prime Minister’s Office Gergely Gulyás, but also the Prime Minister.

Today, 30 years after the regime change, you operate a knowledge center named after your father, József Antall. What does this mean to you?

As absurd as it may sound, through many years of hard work, I managed to regain the name, Antall. So it means a lot to me to be able to run this institution. When I worked at the Justice Ministry in Ibolya Dávid’s office in the autumn of 2001, we came up with the idea in the office of Deputy Secretary of State Zoltán Márky that the German party foundation model should be adopted in Hungary, and if it works, the MDF party foundation should be named after József Antall, and the next political generation could be raised from there. I mentioned the German Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung as an example, as I thought it could be localized here. My father had a similar initiative, the Lajos Batthyány Foundation. In 2005, I vowed to outsource the Antall name from the late MDF because it was clear by then that the party’s leadership at that time didn’t want to use it in the best way. That’s when I started organizing a completely independent institute.

The Knowledge Centre was built on the basic idea of ​​talent management. We built it on students who want to take part in an internship where they can do meaningful work. In addition, next to my father, I learned how important it is to build international relations, so the Knowledge Centre also set this as an important task. I always tell my colleagues that the name Antall is a blank check, you have to look at it like that.