Posted Thursday, August 2, 2001

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Thursday, August 2, 2001

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Miklos Vasarhelyi

Hungarian politician who survived imprisonment and persecution by the old regime, and was a force for change over more than three decades

Gabriel Partos

ON two notable occasions separated by more than 30 years, the Hungarian author and politician, Miklos Vasarhelyi, who has died at the age of 83, played an important part in attempts to transform Hungary from a one-party communist state into a multi-party democracy.

The first attempt - during the 1956 uprising, when Vasarhelyi was Prime Minister Imre Nagy's press secretary - proved stillborn. Vasarhelyi's punishment was a five-year prison sentence and continued persecution in the years after his release. The second occasion was crowned with success when, in 1989, the communist authorities finally accepted that there was no alternative to a peaceful transition to free elections.

By then Vasarhelyi was no longer acting - as he had done in 1956 - as a reform communist, but as a senior figure in the democratic opposition to the decaying regime. His reward was a seat in parliament, where he represented the liberal Free Democrats following the elections of 1990.

On both occasions, Vasarhelyi's role was more significant than his official positions might have indicated. In addition to being the government spokesman in 1956, he had also been for some years a trusted associate of Prime Minister Nagy - one of the younger generation of reform-minded communist intellectuals who were urging their avuncular leader to adopt increasingly liberal policies.

And in 1989 - by which time he was an elder statesman of what had been the dissident community - Vasarhelyi's contribution to the political changes was the outcome of patient work, often behind-the-scenes, which he had been carrying on for some time to unite different strands among the democratic opposition.

He was born in the port city of Fiume (now Rijeka in Croatia) in what was then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. He was educated at Rome university before taking a degree in law in the east Hungarian university town of Debrecen. At the age of 21, he joined the then illegal Communist party, and because of his political activities he spent two years during the second world war in a forced labour battalion, before joining the anti-Nazi resistance in the final year of the war.

With such impeccable communist credentials, Vasarhelyi moved quickly into several senior posts, working for the party daily, Szabad Nep, before becoming director of Hungarian Radio in 1950. This was during the period of terror that followed the trial of Laszlo Rajk, the former foreign minister [sic. Justice Minister], when communists had themselves become the victims of show trials.

Vasarhelyi lived in fear of arrest - though he did not dare tell his wife, in case that might be taken as evidence of his guilt at a subsequent trial. However, Vasarhelyi's fear turned into hope when, following Stalin's death in 1953, the moderate communist official Imre Nagy became prime minister. Vasarhelyi was appointed deputy head of the government's information office - but when Nagy was removed from office during a Stalinist backlash in 1955, Vasarhelyi and other reformers were dismissed along with him.

Their hopes for a more humane form of communism - less repressive, less servile to the Kremlin and more concerned with improving living standards - appeared to rise from the ashes of the Stalinist regime, which was overthrown by the uprising of October 1956.

Uprising victims
Communist secret police lynched by the revolutionaries, 1956 (David Irving: Uprising, Hodder & Stoughton, 1981)

The communist leadership, frightened by the uprising, summoned Nagy to his second premiership, seeing him as their only hope of clinging to power. But under the influence of his close associates, including Vasarhelyi, Nagy gradually adopted the goals of the students and workers who had overthrown the old dictatorship. Nagy formed a multi-party government; removed censorship; and declared Hungary's neutrality and its withdrawal from the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact.

When a Soviet army intervention on November 4 put an end to Hungary's brief experiment with revolutionary democracy, Vasarhelyi was among the senior communist officials who, along with their families, took up an offer of asylum at the Yugoslav embassy. After three weeks at the embassy, Vasarhelyi and the others left after the Soviet-backed government of Janos Kadar had guaranteed their safety. They were immediately kidnapped by Soviet troops and flown to Romania, where the families were interned.

Vasarhelyi was among the defendants at the secret trial in Budapest in June 1958 at which Nagy and several of his associates were sentenced to death for treason. Vasarhelyi, who accepted his guilt - for which in the 1990s his rightwing opponents often criticised him - was sentenced to five years' imprisonment, and was released under an amnesty in 1960.

It was not until 1972 that he managed to secure a job at the Hungarian Academy's Institute of Literary Studies. He concentrated on studying the history of the press. One of his books, The Lord and the Crown (1974), dealt with Lord Rothermere, who during the inter-war years championed Hungary's interests - and whose son was at one stage offered the vacant Hungarian throne.

A fellowship at Columbia University in 1983 led to a meeting and subsequent friendship with George Soros, the Hungarian-born financier and philanthropist. When Soros approached the Hungarian authorities with the offer of setting up a foundation to facilitate cultural exchanges, he insisted on Vasarhelyi becoming his personal representative in Hungary.

The foundation - which has since spread to the entire former communist world and beyond - played a key role in providing the brightest of Hungarian students and professionals with the opportunity to study or work at universities in the west. It thus helped open up Hungary to Western ideas. Viktor Orban, the current prime minister, was the recipient of a scholarship that took him to Oxford in the late 1980s.

The Soros Foundation was not the only way in which Vasarhelyi helped undermine communist rule. He was a leading figure in the democratic opposition that gradually began to assert itself as the 1980s wore on. He was a founding member of the Network of Free Initiatives - which later turned into the Free Democratic party - and of the Committee for Historical Justice, which set itself the task of rehabilitating the victims of the past.

The committee's finest mo ment came when the remains of Imre Nagy and his associates - who had been buried in a secret location after their execution - were finally given a public funeral on June 16 1989, on the 31st anniversary of their executions. Vasarhelyi had earlier managed to locate the unmarked mass grave after he had spent years befriending a retired prison guard.

His final years were dogged by ill health, caused by heart problems, and by attacks from rightwing, nationalist opponents who denounced his reform communist past and his more recent liberal, pro-western views.

But in spite of these polemics, Vasarhelyi, who is survived by his wife, Edit, and their son and two daughters, will have a place in the pantheon of Hungarians who struggled in different ways to bring democracy to Hungary in the second half of the 20th century.

UprisingMiklos Vasarhelyi, author and politician, born October 9 1917; died July 31 2001.

Related items on this website:

  Radical's Diary Thursday, August 2, 2001
  David Irving: Uprising (free downloaad)
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