Hungarian politician and international banker, 1948-
On 11 September 1989, thousands of East Germans began pouring out of Hungary and across Austria, en route to new lives in West Germany. Opening the border was the latest in a series of bold moves that would define, and mark the end of, Hungary’s unique brand of “goulash communism.”
The man most responsible for that event, Miklos Nemeth, had become prime minister at age 40 in November 1988, six months after the doddering Communist Party chief Janos Kadar resigned amid a devastating debt crisis. Nemeth and other “radicals” (such as future prime minister Gyula Horn) were keen to take advantage of Mikhail Gorbachev’s loosening of the reins and accelerate Hungary’s gradual shift away from centralized political and economic control. After visiting Gorbachev to check that the Soviets would not crack down, the reformers began lifting border controls in May 1989.
That summer, many East Germans holidaying at Lake Balaton decided not to go home, and thousands more headed for Hungary. By 25 August, over the heads of the East German leadership, Nemeth had struck a deal with West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to welcome any East Germans already in Hungary. The move effectively tore down the Iron Curtain, threw the East German communist chiefs into terminal confusion, and helped galvanize Czechs and Slovaks to launch mass protests of their own a week after the Berlin Wall fell. (As they flew home after the meeting with Kohl, Nemeth recalled in a 1993 interview, one of his advisers mused that the day’s events could lead to redrawing the map of Europe – in five or 10 years.)
Hailing from a small village, Nemeth was little known outside Hungary before being named prime minister. He served only 18 months before sliding back into relative obscurity, taking a job as a vice president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. He made a final foray into politics after leaving the bank in 2000, campaigning for the leadership of the Socialist Party. He lost out to Peter Medgyessy, who had served in Nemeth’s cabinet as finance minister. The Socialists went on to win the 2002 elections and preside over Hungary’s EU entry.
Amid this year’s anniversary celebrations Nemeth has emerged again as an eminence grise of the Cold War’s end. At an event in September commemorating the Hungarian-German accord, former Prime Minister Viktor Orban of the nationalist-conservative Fidesz party – no friend to anyone on the left – praised Nemeth’s “chivalrousness and generosity,” noting in particular his refusal of Kohl’s 1989 offer of financial aid in exchange for opening the border. On 9 November, Nemeth and Lech Walesa toppled the first in a chain of giant dominoes marking the route of the vanished Berlin Wall as dozens of statesmen, many of whom likely didn’t recognize the former Hungarian PM, looked on.
But as Nemeth told the BBC recently, the approval he appreciated most came far from the spotlight of Budapest or Berlin. “After I had resigned as prime minister in 1990, I went back to my home village,” he said. “And my father clapped me on the back and said, ‘Son, well done, I’m still holding my head up high whenever I walk through the gates to my front door.’”
- TOL staff