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Between Authoritarian Selflegitimation and Democratic Opposition. The Variety of Hungarian Reactions to the Rise of Solidarity and Polish Crisis of 1980-81

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This paper analyses various trends in the Hungarian perception of and reactions to the rise of Solidarity and the Polish crisis of 1980-81. It aims to paint a nuanced picture of the time between the relative legitimacy of the Kádárist dictatorship and the more open challenges it started to face in its last decade by analysing three spheres: the official, the dissident, and the rather restricted intersection between the two. It aims to show, first, how the Hungarian authorities reacted to the Polish crisis and what was at stake for them. The paper also highlights how the image of Polish developments was rather effectively manipulated by the Hungarian press and how narrow the limits of official tolerance were. At the same time, Polish developments served as a major inspiration for Hungarian dissidents who, using primarily Polish examples, reformulated themselves as the democratic opposition around this time. The Polish crisis was the moment of greatest activity and outreach for this milieu until the gradual extension of pluralism in the Hungary of the late 1980s.

I. Connections in the Bloc

This paper analyses various trends in the Hungarian perception of and reactions to the rise of Solidarity and the Polish crisis of 1980-81.1 In the sixteen months between the legal recognition of Solidarity in August 1980 and the declaration of martial law in December 1981, Polish developments were among the major concerns of various Hungarian actors ranging from Hungarian communist leaders through politically minded intellectuals all the way to groups of dissidents.2 Studying Hungarian reactions to this last major crisis in Soviet-ruled Eastern Europe before 1989 can thereby provide us with a better grasp of authoritarian self-legitimation, the rather narrow spectrum between official and dissident positions, and the formation of the Hungarian democratic opposition.3 In analysing these three spheres (the official, the dissident and the one intersecting the other two) on the basis of Hungarian reactions to Polish developments in 1980-81, my aim is to paint a nuanced picture of the times between the ‘relative legitimacy’ the consolidated Kádárist dictatorship enjoyed in the 1960s and 1970s and the more open challenges it started to face in its last decade.4 I argue in particular that the activities of the Hungarian democratic opposition not only received a great impetus from Polish developments but in fact reached their all-time peak during these months – until the last years of the dictatorship when pluralism was officially acknowledged and was gradually allowed to expand.5

Before turning to the developments of 1980-81, I want to devote some words to the historical background, focusing on the curious history of Hungarian-Polish relations. The histories of the two countries in modern times were at odds with each other in major ways: Hungary experienced its moment of grandeur under the Dual Monarchy at the time Poland was still partitioned in the late 19th century, then Poland emerged at the end of the First World War just at the time when (as part of the collapse of the Habsburg Empire) Hungary was greatly diminished. Poland was one of the prime victims of the Second World War when Hungary pursued an alliance with Nazi Germany. Examples of such basic divergence could be extended further. Hungarian-Polish relations have nevertheless been quite exceptionally good. Goodwill between the two peoples found different manifestations starting from close connections between the respective national movements in the 19th century (including significant Polish participation in the ultimately unsuccessful Hungarian war of independence of 1848-1849, one of whose most venerated actors in the Hungarian historical memory was Józef Bem), the notable level of Hungarian help provided to Polish refugees during the Second World War, and marked Polish identification with the Hungarian cause in 1956 – a revolution that in fact started with a sympathy march for the changes then underway in Poland on 23 October 1956.6

Moreover, there was a widespread tendency in the Eastern bloc to closely observe developments in other countries because there was a rather general understanding that the direction they took could matter at home too. Hopes for liberalization (or perhaps more accurately relaxation of control) could be encouraged by developments that took place in other Eastern bloc countries. Similarly, the strengthening of repressive measures in one place could be perceived by those hoping for liberalization as heralding the threat of similar developments all over the bloc. Such developments ultimately depended on two major factors: the political course of the Soviet Union and the uses local communists made of their space to manoeuvre. The latter, it ought to be added, was never clearly defined. Local communist leaders first had to manoeuvre to find out how much they were allowed to do so. This was practically the only way to estimate the limits of Soviet tolerance. Soviet military intervention ensued in poorly defined contexts where, ironically, every move had to be historically-ideologically justified and the past often drastically rewritten or even falsified to suit the needs of the present. To take just one Polish-Hungarian example, the comparison between the fates of Władysław Gomułka and Imre Nagy can be instructive in this regard. Whereas Gomułka became the leader of communist Poland in 1956 and remained in power until 1970, Nagy was executed for his role in 1956 and subsequent unwillingness to compromise himself in June 1958 – in spite of the fact that prior to 1956 their roles and status were quite similar. Moreover, Imre Nagy was executed by János Kádár, whose role was not very different from Nagy’s in the days of the Hungarian Revolution – at least until early November 1956.

Importantly, in the late 1970s both Hungary and Poland could make claims to be in the vanguard of developing their communist regimes in posttotalitarian directions.7 As opposed to the Stalinist type of rule that characterized East Germany and Bulgaria, and the renewal of hardline rule in Czechoslovakia and Romania in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, Poland and Hungary could appear relatively moderate.8 Poland was least impacted by the orthodox features of Stalinism to begin with. Polish communists orchestrated no show trials and did not collectivize agriculture. Moreover, Poland had a strong Church and a relatively free cultural life.

Starting in the late 1950s and early 1960s, communist Hungary under János Kádár was also keen to distinguish itself from its former incarnation under Mátyás Rákosi. This renovation never amounted to structural-institutional changes aside from the always contested and never consistently applied economic reform measures.9 As Melinda Kalmár’s monograph suggests, this new attitude first emerged in the period of reprisals: it emerged simultaneously with the heavy-handed reinstitution of the dictatorship, and not afterwards. Thus, restoration and renovation were in fact part of one and the same process.10 As János Rainer has argued, Kádárism should be viewed as a post-totalitarian regime pursuing a pragmatic revision of its actual governing methods rather than an explicit reformist orientation.11 Nevertheless, the Kádárist leadership was explicitly committed to putting the practices of the ‘wild years’ behind them. It is of some significance that Kádár was personally involved in those years both as a perpetrator and as a victim. He could thus draw on sufficient personal experience to appreciate the advantages of creating a less arbitrary and more reliable rule.

II. The Official Hungarian Stance

I would still claim that the judgment of the Hungarian leadership about Solidarity was in no sense fundamentally more liberal than those of communist leaders in other countries. Nevertheless, there were important tactical differences that deserve to be highlighted. The Czechoslovak, Bulgarian, and East German leaders considered the Polish agreements of August and September 1980 as grave mistakes on the part of the Polish communists. In consequence, they instantly demanded the ‘restoration of order’ and declared their countries ready to offer ‘fraternal’ (i.e. military) help.

The Hungarian leadership, on the other hand, at first maintained that the Polish leadership was competent enough to solve its own problems and should be trusted with the resolution of the crisis. János Kádár expressed his faith in the viability of political methods and saw the use of the military solution as justified only in the case of ‘extreme peril to the system’. He even considered the strikes by workers and their initial grievances to be justified. In short, while they were concerned to some extent, what was taking place in Poland did not seem to overly impress the Hungarian communist leader at first.

Perhaps the two factors that distinguished him most from other Eastern bloc leaders was the confidence he based on having ‘resolved’ a much graver crisis in 1956, as he understood it, and his sense of the widespread acceptance of his restored-renovated regime. Moreover, while Polish developments were troubling to some extent, Hungarian leaders could continue using one of their major legitimizing arguments about the ‘relative successes’ of the ‘Hungarian model’. They could even contrast their achievements with the ongoing failures of Poland. Thus, the Polish crises in some sense even helped them reassert the propagandistic notion of a different, stable, efficient and legitimate socialist regime.

With the prolongation of the Polish crisis, however, the attitude of the Hungarian leadership turned harsher. The Central Committee even sent a letter to the Polish leadership in September 1981 expressing its shock at the atmosphere created by ‘unrestrained anti-Communist and anti-Soviet demagoguery’.12 This hardline letter demanded ‘open and consistent action’ and called on the Polish leadership to account for their failure to stop ‘activities aimed at liquidating the socialist order’.13

Ultimately, Kádár was relieved at the declaration and swift implementation of martial law in December 1981 and proved eager to help the Polish leadership ‘in these decisive moments requiring firm action’.14 He was in direct contact with General Wojciech Witold Jaruzelski from the first day of martial law and was most willing to share his insights on how best to consolidate. At the same time, he drew an important conclusion from the 13th of December 1981: if Poland was ‘allowed to occupy itself ’, i.e. could avoid direct Soviet occupation, then the space for manoeuvre that leaders of the Eastern bloc possessed must have increased.

This meant to him in concrete terms that Hungary could press for acceptance into the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to gain Western credits; these deals were concluded in 1982. In other words, the essentially loyalist Hungarian foreign policy line could increasingly be supplemented by steps its leadership perceived to be in its own interests and those of its country, but not necessarily in line with Soviet orthodoxy or concrete Soviet recommendations. As it would turn out, Western credits contributed to the maintenance of acceptable living standards in communist Hungary throughout the 1980s, but at the cost of deeper indebtedness. In short, the level of Hungarian indebtedness might to some extent be considered an unintended and clearly ironic consequence of the declaration of martial law in Poland.

III. Official Voices

The originally less intolerant Hungarian attitude towards the Polish crisis was reflected in the Hungarian press as well. Its unfolding was depicted in a more complex manner than in the press of other state socialist regimes – even though the central ambiguities were clearly in line with the demands of a centralized state. The initial official approach to reporting on Polish developments was that campaign-like propaganda must be avoided. The Hungarian authorities believed that the most efficient way to proceed would be not to highlight the Polish issue much at all. Even though not ruling out some vulgar abusive and language directed at Solidarity, this implied a relatively reserved tone and occasionally allowed for differentiated content. In all likelihood, this approach to Polish developments proved more credible than the employment of hardline communist phraseology would have done.

Hungarian press propaganda preferred to highlight the unruliness, poverty and laziness of the Poles as well as the (supposedly) resulting financial burden on Hungary. This triggering of ‘welfare chauvinism’ seems to have proven rather successful at influencing public opinion. According to opinion polls, the image of Poles worsened in Hungary as the combined result of the Polish crisis and related local propaganda: while Poles were highly popular in the 1970s (in fact, they were among the most popular people in the world when tested on politically rather neutral questions such as ‘whom would you like to marry?’ and ‘whom would you like to have as your neighbour?’), this overwhelming sympathy had disappeared by the 1980s. While explicit antipathy for the cause of Solidarity was not exceptional in Hungary either, and the worsening stereotypes of Poles were certainly politically embedded, the great majority of those Hungarians who were impacted by Hungarian propaganda did not in all likelihood explicitly think of it in terms of pro-communist mobilization of opinion. In other words, I would argue that Hungarians did not like Poles less in the 1980s than previously because of their knowledge about and negative assessment of the cause of Solidarity, but rather because they had hardly any concrete information on Solidarity and simultaneously were the recipients of anti-Polish messages.

The techniques of this manipulation can best be studied through the pages of Népszabadság, the Hungarian party daily. The first reports Népszabadság printed on the Polish crisis presented the Polish leadership as self-critical: it was supposedly making earnest attempts to regain the people’s trust. At the same time, Népszabadság labeled strikes ‘work stoppages’ (munkabeszüntetések), which it repeatedly denounced as ‘unfruitful’. Curiously, strikes were practically always depicted as problems only of the recent past: they were constantly reported to have just ended. Life in Poland during the early months of the legal existence of Solidarity was thus continuously depicted as ‘returning to normal’, though it was occasionally admitted (clearly euphemistically, again) that the ‘work rhythm’ was ‘not adequate’.15 The word Solidarity was mentioned on 4 October 1980 for the first time but the organization was referred to from the beginning as ‘the so-called Solidarity’. Nevertheless, Népszabadság journalists seemed eager to point out that party members also belonged to it. Articles even claimed that Solidarity existed to ‘strengthen the socialist order’ and was dedicated to the ‘improvement of work discipline’. Reality was thus supposed to ‘contrast sharply’ with Western ‘anti-Polish propaganda’.16

In the fall of 1980, Népszabadság devoted attention almost exclusively to the Polish party, its congresses, resolutions and announcements. In short, what top leaders said was reported instead of what was going on in the country. At the same time, the sources of the crisis were still identified as excessive investment, underestimation of the importance of agriculture, and the exaggerated ‘propaganda of success’.17 Thus, the blame was chiefly put on the shoulders of the Polish communists. The recommendation of the Hungarian party daily was that Poland should introduce complex economic reforms. In other words, Népszabadság maintained that Polish problems could be solved by adopting something akin to the Hungarian way of reform: making economic changes without granting political concessions.

Soon, however, the tone changed significantly. Népszabadság now claimed that Solidarity was under threat and ‘a clear-cut dividing line needed to be drawn’ between supporters and enemies of socialism.18 From this moment on, Solidarity was depicted as the organizer of irresponsible strikes in the present: it was thus made clear that there was an ongoing problem in Poland. Significantly, the Hungarian party daily now also began translating Russian-language articles on Poland. The first of these appeared on 25 November 1980. The contents of these translated articles were markedly different from the usual veiled reports and ambivalent assessments written by Hungarian journalists. The translated Russian articles tended to claim that Solidarity was political in character and insisted that dual power could not be maintained. This change of rhetoric on Poland in late 1980 took place precisely at the time the Hungarian communist party adopted its first resolution on the opposition in Hungary. Foreign policy and internal policy seem to have been closely interrelated indeed.

The scheme used to explain the conflict hardly changed throughout the months of 1981. Népszabadság now kept on reporting that Solidarity was manipulated by anti-socialist forces, was becoming increasingly political, and was on its way to becoming a full-blown counter-revolutionary organization. By the spring of 1981, the paper even argued that Solidarity was solely responsible for the Polish economic situation. The exact amounts of losses (always in the range of millions) supposedly caused by Solidarity actions were repeatedly quoted. In sum, while the reports on Poland published in 1980 were confident in tone and thematically centred on what was formerly done wrongly but now corrected by the party, the focus in 1981 was on the actions of Solidarity and how things were worsening.

On 9 June 1981, the Hungarian Political Committee asked the press to report ‘with more urgency on Polish developments’.19 As a consequence, in September 1981, Solidarity was reported to be using ‘political and physical terror’.20 Népszabadság sounded positively hardline by this point in time: it claimed that ‘every means available could be used at this last moment to confront the counter-revolution’, whose ‘tactics and offensive propaganda’ were originally planned by ‘Western spies’ such as Adam Michnik and Jacek Kuroń.21 Solidarity was even reported to be ready to arm its members. It supposedly went so far as to declare military confrontation unavoidable.

Importantly, even as such hardline rhetoric was adopted, the Polish army was still reported to be ready to defend the country’s basic interests. In other words, the military solution, but not military intervention in Poland, was thus justified in advance. Upon the declaration of martial law, the Hungarian party daily was happy to declare that ‘order’ and ‘discipline’ were being restored. It presented Poland as a sovereign country on the path to socialist regeneration.

From the Polish story as told by the Hungarian party daily Népszabadság a number of conclusions can be drawn. First, Népszabadság originally adopted a comparatively soft tone and critical assessment of the communist authorities that largely corresponded to the Kádárist political convictions of the party. Several Népszabadság articles reiterated that what Poland really needed was to apply the Hungarian method of reforms: some economic reforms without any serious political concessions in the vein of Kádárism would supposedly solve the temporary crisis. Moreover, Népszabadság did not propagate a demagogic anti-Solidarity line until late 1980. While critical of Polish policy, neither did the Hungarian party daily make strongly worded demands for action until as late as the summer of 1981.22 The Polish crisis was thus essentially used to claim how important the combination of restoration and reform were, the combination that was arguably at the heart of the Kádárist consolidation and its perceived success.

Nevertheless, the tone of the major printed Hungarian communist organ became abusive in 1981. Once again in accordance with party prescriptions, it started to demand the declaration of martial law in the second half of 1981 which it (admittedly somewhat curiously) presented as a way of preserving Polish sovereignty. This interpretation fit into the self-interested Hungarian communist beliefs in the increase of the room for manoeuvre. I would thus argue that the paper took a fundamentally authoritarian but relatively differentiated stance. In important ways, Népszabadság reflected the paradox at the heart of consolidated Kádárism, a survivable dictatorship in the age of popular sovereignty. Kádárists tried to take a twisted road to arrive at less disastrous results.

IV. Testing the Limits of Tolerance

Just as the official stances presented here may have been relatively differentiated in comparison with the positions taken in other communist-ruled countries, there were various attempts that to test the rather narrow limits of tolerance within the controlled public sphere. Contrary to official views and expectations, certain intellectuals were keen on evoking the notion of Hungarian-Polish friendship, and various historical and cultural affinities in particular. The regime was not able to completely eliminate the grey zone where ideas could be semi-openly negotiated, but it made certain to levy fines on people for public utterances of this kind.

Tiszatáj, a literary journal published in Szeged, printed 66 pages titled Cracovian Panorama in its June 1981 issue.23 The focus was on unknown but important details about Cracow potentially relevant for the Hungarian readership. As Csaba G. Kiss formulated it later, the prime ambition was to ‘provide a few insights and increase interest in exploring more’ of this ‘city, perhaps next to Vienna, the coziest for Hungarians’.24 While the similarities between Polish and Hungarian history were recurrently emphasized and some references were made to the ‘friendship of a thousand years’ as well, the content of the issue could hardly be seen as overtly political. The problem the authorities had was with allusions at the wrong time.

The fact that the Cracovian Panorama was published in the summer of 1981 was partly due to an accident in publishing schedules. The chief editors of Hungarian journals were explicitly called on to decrease the quantity of Poland- related publications on 20 May 1981. As Dezső Tóth, the apparatchik who announced this decision to them, expressed it, this did not ‘mean banning Polish issues but it is desirable to water it down compared to the usual even when the theme is historical. It is not considered desirable at all to have more of any nature on Poland because this would have political significance.’25

In reaction to being questioned about the June issue, László Vörös, the chief editor of Tiszatáj between 1975 and 1986, claimed that their plan for the year 1981 was made much earlier than this announcement. Namely, it was already prepared in December 1980. Vörös also clarified that the plan was properly presented to the assessors of journals, who accepted it on 25 March 1981. Moreover, he insisted that their June issue was already in the printing house by 20 May – the day more elaborate discussion on any Polish themes was declared unwanted from high up in the political hierarchy. Vörös defended the publication not only by claiming that ‘the instruction only concerned future policy’ but also by arguing, rather cleverly, that ‘this [issue] creates the impression that the party is honest when claiming that in spite of all worries it trusts that the situation of socialist Poland is stable.’26 Still, the journal and its editor received financial penalties for their ‘misbehaviour’.

Another alternative (one might say semi-dissident) Hungarian journal, Mozgó Világ went further. Mozgó Világ established a section devoted to Central Europe in 1981 and attempted to subvert the official desire to downplay Polish issues in a much more direct way than Tiszatáj’s editors.27 It wanted to publish travel reports on contemporary Poland and had the issue prepared and even printed, but then it was quickly withdrawn from circulation. Being able to read impressions of contemporary Poland was judged as a source of potentially serious harm for the Hungarian reader.

It is worth remarking that, even though these were not directly caused by their Poland-related tests of the limits of official tolerance, both Tiszatáj and Mozgó Világ had sanctions placed against them in the 1980s. The editorial board of Mozgó Világ was forced to resign and was replaced in 1983; Tiszatáj was temporarily banned in 1986. While some would emphasize that the mere existence of alternative intellectual journals of the kind testifies to the fact there was a sphere – a kind of tolerated third zone – between the first sphere, the authorized one, and the second one, the unauthorized free public sphere, I consider it to be an equally significant fact that this in-between sphere was also closely supervised and would come under repeated attacks even in the mid-1980s.28

The most important background of the initiatives on Polish themes in 1980-1981 was the impressive quantitative increase in studies on the history of Polish literature, on literary parallels and connections and, more generally, on Polish historical themes in Hungary, that characterized the 1970s.29 Among those who tested the limits of tolerance in 1980-81, the small but highly active and visible group of Hungarian scholars of Polish literature played an important role. They tried to serve as mediators at a time when any more serious public discussion of Polish developments was officially declared unwanted and the Hungarian authorities were intent on denying even basic information. In sum, the narrow limits of official tolerance were strictly enforced. Thus, a more open and serious assessment of the situation became nearly impossible, excluding the rather informal though increasingly well-organized circles of dissidents. The months of the Polish crisis proved to be a crucial moment for them.

V. The Solidarity Crisis and the Emergence of the Hungarian Democratic Opposition

The central agenda of the Hungarian democratic opposition in the 1980s was to exercise their rights conspicuously. More concretely, the few hundred active members of the opposition were dedicated to the freedom of organization, the freedom of speech and the freedom to publish.30 All three had Polish antecedents. Not only did Polish opposition innovations constitute potential models for Hungarians to emulate, but the opposition in Hungary also gained major incentives from the rise of Solidarity and developed more stable structures precisely during the Polish crisis of 1980-81. As Róza Hodosán, a committed dissident, wrote in her memoir, ‘we began to discuss that there could be a peaceful and democratic turn in Eastern Europe for the very first time. The example of Solidarity was our greatest hope. One and a half years of our lives passed while paying close attention to developments there and being concerned about them.’31

The Komitet Obrony Robotników (Workers’ Defense Committee), a new organization for Polish intellectual opposition that aimed to provide concrete help to oppressed workers, was founded in 1976. Hungarian dissidents established contacts with them soon afterwards. By the time the Solidarity crisis erupted in 1980, some of the most prominent Hungarian dissidents, such as János Kis or György Bence, had already had their passports confiscated. Others, including a number of young intellectuals, were therefore the ones to take up contacts in Poland.32

They imported the ramka technique from Poland, the know-how that enabled them to produce many more samizdat copies and distribute them in Hungary.33 The period from 1976 to 1980 was the era of typewritten samizdat in Hungary. The year 1981 brought massive quantitative improvements: the number of copies jumped from tens or hundreds to thousands. Beside rather short-lived initiatives such as András Lányi’s Kisúgó and Magyar Figyelő edited by Iván Bába, the two main pillars of Hungarian underground publishing in the 1980s were the journal Beszélő and Gábor Demszky’s AB Kiadó, which produced titles including the journal Hírmondó. Beszélő and Hírmondó were both launched during the Polish crisis.34 It should come as no surprise that Máshonnan Beszélő, a samizdat journal dedicated to publishing translations, devoted its second issue entirely to Polish authors. Moreover, Péter Kende’s Magyar Füzetek, widely recognized as the most important Hungarian tamizdat, published in Paris, dedicated its seventh volume in late 1980 to what it called the Polish landslide (A lengyel földindulás).

1980-81 was also the the year when the Flying University (called Hétfői Szabadegyetem, the Monday University) proved most popular in Budapest. Polish developments evidently gave it much additional popularity; around 100 to 150 people regularly attended its lectures and seminars during the months Solidarity was allowed to function legally, while in other years the figure was typically around 25 to 35. There were many individual lectures that directly dealt with Polish matters. Such lectures were given by a host of speakers such as Gábor Demszky, András Hegedűs, Pál Juhász, György Krassó, András Lányi and Miklós Szabó, several of whom also visited Poland during the period in question.

In his book on the subject, the main organizer of the Monday University, Sándor Szilágyi, repeatedly highlights the negative impact the Polish putsch of December 1981 had on the attractiveness of and opportunities for opposition activities in Hungary.35 Szilágyi also claims that while he was aware of the existence of the underground university system in Poland, he knew little about it and in no sense intended to copy it. On the other hand, Mária M. Kovács, his fellow organizer, explicitly wanted to bring in recognized intellectuals and create a political forum for the wider community of intellectuals ‘in accordance with the Polish tradition’.36 In short, while Kovács consciously aimed at establishing something new in Hungary that already existed in Poland, Szilágyi was rather unconsciously involved in largely reproducing Polish oppositional patterns. Polish influences could work in various ways even in such a concrete case as the establishment of the Monday University.

After the declaration of martial law in Poland, the harassment of the Hungarian opposition grew worse. Faced with seeming regime solidification across Eastern Europe, Hungarian dissidents were forced to debate their prospects. In the spring of 1982, János Kis, perhaps the leading opposition thinker in Hungary, articulated his conviction that the democratic opposition had already proved that a rights-based movement was possible even under a communist regime. This movement, he argued, had to be deliberate about being different, and more than internally reformist. It also had to be consciously self-limiting to avoid direct confrontations from which it could not emerge victorious. In other words, the new opposition should avoid reproducing the patterns that led to the defeat of the Hungarian revolution of 1956 and the eventual failure of the reformist Prague Spring.37

It was the Polish example that showed Kis that there was a practicable third way. He thus concluded, in line with the oppositional strategies developed by Polish thinkers such as Adam Michnik, that the task ahead was to develop a coherent political platform that combined the goals of oppositional realism and societal democratization.38 Kis went on to state that the chances for a negotiated turn were best in Hungary because the Hungarian leaders were not as incompetent and inert as their Polish counterparts. At the same time, he emphasised that no regime consolidation could be expected in Poland either since the Polish crisis was economic in character and the political preconditions for sufficient reform measures were lacking. Kis thus correctly predicted that martial law might be the beginning of the end for the communist party state in Poland.

In conclusion, Polish developments arguably happened right on time for Hungarian dissident intellectuals. In spite of the continued self-assuredness of the Kádár regime – based, on the one hand, on its successful restoration and consolidation after 1956 and, on the other, on its relative legitimacy grounded on its moderate but tangible successes in the 1960s and 1970s – its best years were already behind it. However, the dissidents opposed to its dictatorial practices did not yet accept market liberalization as the way forward. Several of the leading opposition thinkers, such as János Kis, had already passed through their Marxist as well as Marxist revisionist phases by 1980-81 and were looking for ways to challenge the communist regime and establish more democratic alternatives to it.

The Hungarian situation of 1980-81 was thus characterized by the confluence of two factors – rather effective manipulation and successful authoritarian self-legitimation, and the emergence of the democratic opposition. At this historic moment, Polish developments provided an opportunity to pursue the former. They could even be used to increase the space for manoeuvre of the Hungarian regime within the Soviet bloc. On the other hand, these same developments served as a major inspiration for dissidents who, using Polish examples, reformulated themselves as the democratic opposition. The Polish crisis was also the moment of greatest hope and activity in this milieu. The irony is that the 1980s were to prove that the self-assuredness of the regime was as poorly justified as the emerging opposition’s hopes for societal democratization – but that is another story only evoked here to reveal the specificity of the historic moment described above.


Ferenc Laczó, Friedrich Schiller University. Born in 1982. Received his PhD from the Department of History at the Central European University, in Budapest, with a dissertation: Between Assimilation and Catastrophe. Hungarian Jewish Intellectual Discourses in the Shadow of Nazism. Currently works as a research associate responsible for the research project Intellectual Horizons at the Imre Kertész Kolleg, located at the Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena.



1 The following English-language accounts written before 1989 were particularly useful for me: T. Garton Ash, The Polish Revoluton: Solidarity (London: Jonathan Cape, 1983); J.J. Lipski, KOR; A History of the Workers’ Defense Committee 1976-1981 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985); S.W. Requaim (ed.), Solidarity and Poland: Impacts East and West (Washington D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1988); A. Bromke, Eastern Europe in the Aftermath of Solidarity (Boulder: East European Monographs, 1985); J. Staniszkis, Poland’s Self-Limiting Revolution (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984); A. Touraine et al., Solidarity. The Analysis of a Social Movement: Poland 1980-1981 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983); I have also consulted the following works published after the end of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe: D. Ost, Solidarity and the Politics of Anti-Politics: Opposition and Reform in Poland since 1968 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990); J. Leftwich Curry and L. Fajfer (eds.), Poland’s Permanent Revolution: People vs. Elites, 1956 to the Present (Washington D.C.: American University Press, 1996); J. Kubik, The Power of Symbols against the Symbols of Power: the Rise of Solidarity and the Fall of State Socialism in Poland (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994); R. Zuzowski, Political Dissent and Opposition in Poland: The Workers’ Defense Committee ‘KOR’ (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1992). On Solidarity and the Soviet Union in Hungarian, there is now: M. Mitrovits, A remény hónapjai... A lengyel szolidaritás és a szovjet politika (1980–1981) (Budapest: Napvilag, 2010).

2 The history of transfer and role of transnational networks in 1989 is studied in P. Kenney, ‘Oppositional Networks and Transnational Diffusion in the Revolutions of 1989’, in: G.-R. Horn and P. Kenney (eds), Transnational Moments of Change: Europe 1945, 1968, 1989 (Landham: Rowham and Littlefield, 2004). The Polish crisis of 1980-81 and Hungarian materials are sadly missing from this otherwise highly stimulating volume.

3 The standard work on the Hungarian democratic opposition is E. Csizmadia, A magyar demokratikus ellenzék, 1968-1988 (Budapest: T-Twins, 1995). As is already suggested in his title, Csizmadia uses a different time frame than this article: he puts the beginning of the democratic opposition earlier but without providing a clear definition why he believes that the democratic opposition already emerged in 1968.

4 On the ‘relative legitimacy’ of Kadarism, see J.M. Rainer, ‘Posztsztalinizmus es kadarizmus – Torteneti diskurzusok’ in Ibid., Bevezetés a kádárizmusba (Budapest: 1956-os Intezet, 2011), p. 146.

5 On the immedaite pre-history of 1989 in Hungary, see Z. Ripp, Rendszerváltás Magyarországon, 1987-1990 (Budapest: Napvilag, 2006). Tellingly, in the pages of this historical study, the regime change begins in 1987. R.L. Tőkes, Hungary’s Negotiated Revolution: Economic Reform, Social Chance and Political Succession, 1957-1990 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). A. Bozoki (ed.), The Roundtable Talks of 1989: The Genesis of Hungarian Democracy. Analysis and Documents (Budapest: CEU Press, 2002); I. Romsics, From Dictatorship to Democracy. The Birth of the Third Hungarian Republic, 1988-2001 (Boulder, Col.: East European Monographs, 2008).

6 On the Second World War and the Polish refugees, see E. Szenyan (ed.), Menekült-rapszódia: Lengyelek Magyarországon, 1939-1945 (Budapest: Szephalom Műhely, 2000). On Polish-Hungarian connections under communism, see J. Tischler, ‘Hogy megcsendüljön minden gyáva fül’: Lengyel-magyar közelmúlt (Pecs: Jelenkor, 2003).

7 See the discussion in J.C. Goldfarb, Beyond Glasnost: The Post-Totalitarian Mind (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991).

8 For the concept of national Stalinism and its application to Romania, see V. Tismăneanu, Stalinism for All Seasons: A Political History of Romanian Communism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).

9 On Janos Kadar, see R. Gough, A Good Comrade. János Kádár, Communism and Hungary (London: I.B. Tauris, 2006). On Hungarian economic reform and its controversial (though rather widespread) identification with Kadarism, see J. Rainer, ‘Kadar Janos, a reformer’, in ibid., Bevezetés. On economic reform, see J. Kornai, The Socialist System. Political Economy of Communism (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1992). See I. Pető, ‘Valtozasok a valtozatlansagert. A gazdasagi rendszer atalakulasa a Kadar-korszakban’, in: A. Racz, Ki volt Kádár? Harag és részlehajlás nélkül Kádár-életútról (Budapest: Rubicon – Aquila, 2001). See also I.T. Berend, Central and Eastern Europe, 1944-1993: Detour from the Periphery to the Periphery (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

10 M. Kalmar, Ennivaló és hozomány. A kora kádárizmus ideológiája (Budapest: Magvető, 1998).

11 See J.M. Rainer, ‘Posztsztalinizmus es kadarizmus – Torteneti diskurzusok’, in: ibid., Bevezetés, p. 144. Rainer also talks of special Kadarist modes of interaction (based on informality, silences and role playing) and specific ‘social sentiments’ (közérzet) characterizing society. Rainer has also clarified that there was no coherent Kadarist platform and Hungary under Kadar never established qualitatively different structures.

12 Tischler, ‘Hogy’, p. 223.

13 Ibid., p. 223.

14 Ibid., p. 208.

15 On the linguistic universe of the 1970s in Hungary and the peculiar construction of normality that was an eminent part of it, see T. Kuczi and A. Becskehazi, Valóság ’70(Budapest: Scientia Humana, 1992).

16 Népszabadság, 16 Oct 1980.

17 Népszabadság, 5 Oct 1980.

18 Népszabadság, 20 Nov 1980.

19 Tischler, ‘Hogy’, p. 229.

20 Népszabadság, 11 Sept 1981.

21 Népszabadság, 19 Sept 1981.

22 Interestingly, the three stages of the conflict identified by David Ost, among others, could thus be reconstructed even on the basis of Népszabadság (even if radically different meanings were assigned to these here). The three stages of David Ost are: first, ‘struggle for societal democratization within the existing political environment’ between August and December 1980. Second, Solidarity beginning to press ‘for a political solution requiring a transformation of the state’. Third, the abandonment of the resistance to ‘politics’ and openly demanding a new political accord after August 1981. Ost, Solidarity, p. 78.

23 Tiszatáj got the award For Polish Culture for its Polish issue published in 1976. In the late 1970s, the journal already received criticism for gradually developing into a forum for népi (populist) writers, which was against the népfront (popular front) principle, and also because articles with ‘nationalist tendencies’ appeared in it. See G. Gyuris, A Tiszatáj fél évszázada (Szeged: Somogyi-konyvtar, 1997), pp. 125-6. Tiszatáj published 90 articles on Poland in two decades. In 1980 almost all issues featured something of Polish interest. In the issue of November 1980, Istvan Kovacs published an article on the Polish uprising of 1830 where he discussed the values inherent to ‘hopeless uprisings’. Several additional articles also dealt with the Polish tradition of resistance and the violent acts committed against Poles throughout history. See A. Szesztay, ‘Lengyel tematika a Tiszatajban 1966- 1986’, in: C. Gy. Kiss and K. Sutarski (eds.), Lengyel nyár, magyar ősz (Budapest: Orszagos Lengyel Kisebbsegi Onkormanyzat, 1997), pp. 124-6.

24 Phrases taken from ‘Introduction’ in Kiss, Lengyel, pp. 13-14.

25 Letter of Dezső Toth to Laszlo Voros, chief editor of Tiszatáj, written on the 8 June 1981. Quoted in Gyuris Tiszatáj, pp. 127-128. Quotation marks in the original.

26 Laszlo Voros’s Letter to Dezső Toth, Deputy Minister at the Ministry of Culture. Quoted in Gyuris, Tiszatáj, pp. 128-9. The letter was written on 11 June 1981.

27 G. Nemeth, A Mozgó Világ története 1971-1983 (Budapest: Palatinus, 2002).

28 On cultural politics under Kadar, see, among other works, S. Revesz, Aczél és korunk (Budapest: Sik Kiado, 1997) and E. Standeisky, Gúzsba kötve. A kulturális elit és a hatalom (Budapest: 1956-os Intezet, 2005). On late Kadarism as a ‘discursive dictatorship’, see E. Csizmadia, Diskurzus és diktatúra. A magyar értelmiség vitái Nyugat- Európáról késő Kádár-rendszerben (Budapest: Szazadveg Kiado, 2001).

29 See the details in C. Gy. Kiss (ed.). Magyar-lengyel kulturális kapcsolatok 1948-1978 (Budapest: Tankonyvkiado, 1980). See also L. Hopp and C. Gy. Kiss, ‘A magyarorszagi polonisztika 1971-1980’, Helikon 1 (1985).

30 On Samizdat, see G.H. Skilling, Samizdat and an Independent Society in Central and Eastern Europe (London: The Macmillan Press Ltd., 1989). See also E. Rissmann (ed.), Szamizdat: Alternatív kultúrák Kelet- és Közép-Europában (Budapest: Stencil Kiado - Europai Kulturalis Alapitvany, 2004).

31 R. Hodosan, Szamizdat történetek (Budapest: Noran, 2004), p. 68.

32 See B. Bogdańska-Szadai (ed.), A magyar kapcsolat (Budapest: Magyarorszagi Bem Jozsef Lengyel Kulturalis Egyesulet, 2010).

33 Miklos Haraszti called the ramka technique ‘freedom of the press itself’. See M. Haraszti, ‘Civil kurazsitol civil forradalomig: a magyar szamizdat ket evtizede’, Magyar Lettre Internationale 38, p. 57. Hodosan wrote the following about ramka: ‘“Ramka” is a special knife and it was our biggest treasure. (“Ramka is a Polish word, which has no Hungarian equivalent and we just employed it to prove that the Poles taught us the technique of how to produce samizdat).’ Hodosan, Szamizdat, p. 142.

34 A good place to start exploring Hírmondó is G. Demszky (ed.), Szamizdat ’81-89: válogatás a Hírmondó című folyóiratból (Budapest: AB - Beszelő, 1990). For the Samizdat issues of Beszelő, see F. Havas (ed.), Beszélő összkiadás 1981-1989, Volume I to III (Budapest: AB - Beszelő, 1992).

35 S. Szilagyi (ed.), A Hétfői Szabadegyetem és a III/III: Interjúk, dokumentumok. (Budapest: Uj Mandatum, 1999).

36 See the interview Szilagyi, A Hétfői Szabadegyetem , pp. 51-58.

37 J. Kis, ‘Gondolatok a kozeljovőről’ in Beszélő 3. On dissident political thought in the region, see B.J. Falk, The Dilemmas of Dissidence in East-Central Europe (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2003). On the rise of human rights discourse in the 1970s, see S. Moyn, The Last Utopia. Human Rights in History (Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard, 2010).

38 In the 1990s, Kis wrote: ‘In 1976, I got hold of his [Michnik’s] essay New Evolutionism, which drastically changed my views on the possibilities of political action. The difficulties he was facing were the same as mine – and of so many others in our region. But he also found a solution too. […] He justified the political significance of new evolutionism not only by claiming that behaving according to it was morally superior to false realism (collaborating with the regime in order to make it livable) and false fundamentalism (‘our demands have to be the destruction of the system and national independence, here and now’) but also by showing that it was also based on rational calculation.’ Janos Kis, ‘Utoszo’, in: A. Michnik, Gondban a bóhoc. Esszék és tanulmányok (Bratislava: Kalligram, 1996), p. 372 and p. 376. On the perspectives of Michnik, see Adam Michnik, ‘Notes from the Revolution’, in: A. Michnik, Letters from Freedom. Post-Cold War Realities and Perspectives (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998). On Kis specifically, see pp. 144-6.


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