LAKE BALATON AND PRAGUE | Laszlo Takacs sweats over a bubbling fryer, deftly wielding his tongs to pull out another Frisbee-shaped langos. One swimsuit-clad customer after another requests Takacs’ deep-fried dough disks, especially the classic: slathered with sour cream, sprinkled with grated Trappist cheese, and drizzled with garlic sauce for good measure.
“Hungarians have always loved langos, and they always will,” Takacs says. “It’s a national specialty, like goulash.”
This was Hungary’s communist-era version of fast food – oily, cheap, tasty, and reliably belly-filling. Today it’s a relative rarity, overwhelmed by Western staples like pizza, hamburgers, hotdogs, even shwarma and Chinese food. Continue reading …
Ex-underground publisher and liberal politician, 1952–
“I was public enemy No. 1. And that’s why I became mayor,” Gabor Demszky said in a 2006 interview. “The connection is clear.”
Indeed, Demszky parlayed his unpopularity with Hungary’s Communist regime into one of the longest-lasting sinecures in European politics. He is now in his fifth term as chief executive of the country’s capital city – although whether he could win re-election in an increasingly fractious Hungary next year is unclear.
Demszky (center) at a conference of EU mayors
In his youth Demszky flirted with Maoism and critiqued the government from the extreme left, but he turned against communism and in his 20s balanced law and sociology studies with dissident activity, attracting regular police attention and getting suspended from the University of Budapest. (For a time he worked as a taxi driver.) Nevertheless, through the 1980s he tirelessly published banned books and magazines, did work fighting poverty in a country where the condition official did not exist, and forged ties with Polish anti-communists. He also helped found the Alliance of Free Democrats, a liberal party in which he is still a key figure.
His prominence in the now-legal opposition that emerged in 1989 won Demszky a seat in parliament in the free elections of March 1990, then the top job in Budapest city government that October. Remarkably for a politician who learned the ropes in those anything-goes early days, he still holds the job, winning re-election in 1994, 1998, 2002, and 2006.
But as Hungarian politics grew increasingly polarized into socialist and conservative-nationalist camps, the Free Democrats’ liberal stance has become less popular. The party barely squeaked into parliament in the 2002 and 2006 national elections, and Demszky himself was only narrowly re-elected mayor in the 2006 Budapest balloting, which closely followed revelations that his coalition partner, Socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany, had deliberately misled the public about the country’s financial state.
Amid the scandal, Demszky was criticized for municipal actions seemingly aimed at limiting the size of anti-government protests. Two years later the Free Democrats broke with the increasingly unpopular Socialists, after 14 years as somewhat unlikely partners. Demszky’s party suffered another setback in this summer’s European Parliament elections, losing the two seats it won in 2004 and doing poorly even in its stronghold of Budapest. These days the darling of post-communist Hungarian politics is a regular target of eggs, tomatoes, and invective hurled by nationalist demonstrators at the annual 15 March celebrations of the 1848 revolution.
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.’”
Since before the fall of communism, Sandor Koles has been at the forefront of building civil society in Central and Eastern Europe. A Budapest native, he founded the Hungarian Village Development Association in 1987 to help rural communities establish local institutions and organizations. In the months leading up to the regime change, he was working with fellow activists from both sides of the Iron Curtain on regional development issues.
In the liberalizing atmosphere of late 1989, Koles entered into a period of what he calls “action research,” moving to the town of Alsovadasz in northeastern Hungary to work with locals there and in the surrounding Cserehat region. It was basic bottom-up organizing. “We didn’t plan to make any revolution,” he recalls.
When the revolution came, in the tumultuous October and November weeks when Hungary’s Communist Party gave up monopoly power and East Germany’s almost inadvertently opened the Berlin Wall, Koles was in Alsovadasz, far from the street protests and urban intellectuals usually associated with the collapse of communism, observing the changes through the prism of village life. Continue reading …
Two pretty girls in their late teens walk arm in arm in front of a light-bulb factory in northern Budapest. Wearing red shirts and red berets, they hand out leaflets to workers coming to start the afternoon shift. Some ignore them and hurry past suspiciously, just as most Hungarians do when people try to hand them something in the street. Others stop to talk and take the flyer, which tells them how capitalism abuses workers and how the current economic crisis was caused by the wealthy but makes the poor suffer. A police officer stands across the street, watching another small group of young people, also dressed in red, handing out flyers at a bus stop. Continue reading …
Just two decades ago, in the spring of 1989, a reform-minded government in Hungary tore down the Iron Curtain and helped clear the way to the reunification of Europe.
Today, the banned, neo-Nazi paramilitary Hungarian Guard regularly terrifies isolated Roma settlements by staging provocative demonstrations. The same communities were recently exposed to nightly visits by hooded death squads that torched homes and fired on fleeing residents, causing seven deaths and many injuries. Continue reading …
By Boyko Vassilev, Lucie Kavanova, Anita Komuves, Wojciech Kosc, Sinziana Demian, and Pavol Szalai
As we look at how life has changed – or stayed the same – over the past 20 years, TOL correspondents in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia asked people in various professions to describe their working life today compared with conditions before 1989. This collection of interviews with history teachers is the second in the series that resulted. Continue reading …
By Boyko Vassilev, Lucie Kavanova, Anita Komuves, Wojciech Kosc, Sinziana Demian, and Pavol Szalai
As we look at how life has changed – or stayed the same – over the past 20 years, TOL correspondents in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia asked people in various professions to describe their working life today compared with conditions before 1989. This collection of interviews with artists is the first in the series that resulted.
Part 1: What does an artist, accustomed to using metaphor and subterfuge under communism, do when the lid comes off? Continue reading …