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Hungary’s last communist prime minister tells (almost) all

October 23rd is a special date in the history of the Hungarian people for not just one, but two reasons. It marks both the beginning of the 1956 uprising against the Soviet Union, as well as the day in 1989 when the new Hungarian Republic was declared.

To mark the 30th anniversary of the Hungarian Republic, Miklós Németh, Hungary’s last communist prime minister, who was key to the success of 1989’s regime change, has spoken about his personal struggles and how difficult it was to stand up to hardline communists.

Family vs. Communism

Given his personal and family background, it is somewhat surprising that Mr Németh ended up becoming a senior communist party official. Born in a staunchly Catholic and agrarian community in 1948, the former prime minister was raised in a modest family where seven people shared four beds. As a child, he had to work in agriculture with his siblings, planting beans on hot summer days.

“That’s when I promised myself [that] I will break the glass ceiling,” he told Hungarian TV station RTL Klub in an exclusive interview, noting that becoming a priest was his first idea.

“My father was a very good farmer,” he said. “Until András Németh [his father] signs up, nobody on Széchenyi Street will ever sign up,” he added, referring to collectivisation. His father was eventually forced to sign up after local communists threatened him multiple times.

After Hungary introduced what was known as the New Economic Mechanism in 1962, aimed at reducing the role of central planning in the country’s economy, he, as a student of the then Karl Marx Economic University of Budapest, was fortunate enough to study classical and liberal economic studies. “There was one condition, though: to criticise theses from the Marxist point of view,” he said.

His years at the university had a great impact on him. Speaking to RTL Klub, he mentioned a small gathering with Kálmán Szabó, the university’s then-rector where a few other students were also present. “You see what’s coming [looser economic policies]. The party needs people just like you,” the rector told his students.

Mr Németh joined the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party in 1977. His mother warned him not to tell his father. “I beg you. He will beat you like a drum.” When Németh’s father did eventually found out, he refused to talk to his son for six months.

Hoping for something new

In 1986, by which stage he was already a high-ranking government official responsible for economic policy, Mr Németh was keen to meet Mikhail Gorbachev, the USSR’s newly appointed leader.

Hopeful about the kind of future that the new leadership in the USSR could bring, he recalls that Mr Gorbachev’s first words were: “How the hell can a small country like Hungary produce food for 15-18 million people?”

Other Hungarian communists were less impressed with the Soviet leader.

“This man is the gravedigger of socialism,” said János Kádár, Hungary’s longtime communist leader, foreseeing the tensions of the coming years between reform-minded communists and hardliners.

How to frame the 1956 revolution was one of the most heated debates amongst Hungarian communists during the second half of the 1980s. While Mr Kádár and his hardline followers continued to insist it was a “counter-revolution”, moderates like Mr Németh wanted to revisit the past. He recalls that Kádár would call time on Politburo meetings to avoid any discussion of 1956.

Miklós Németh with other reformists in 1988. Photo: Népszava/MTI Archívum

After Kádár’s death in 1988, Károly Grósz, another hardliner, became both the head of the communist party and the country’s prime minister. However, he decided to focus solely on party leadership and named Mr Németh prime minister. “Just don’t let yourself get executed,” his father told him on hearing of his appointment.

Mr Németh soon began trying to convince Grósz that the party had to change direction, making their relationship tense.

He recalls that his prime ministerial office had been wiretapped. “If you knew how many times we walked round and round the park [in front of the government building],” he said, laughing about the ways in which he avoided conversations being overheard.

By mid-1989 developing international political events had led Mr Grósz to suggest the declaration of a “state of economic emergency.” Mr Németh had a rather different view.

“I knew that if this happened, Hungary would become insolvent and the Hungarian central bank would go bankrupt immediately.”

But such an emergency was exactly what the hardliners wanted in order to clampdown on reform.

Németh even recalled a private letter in which he was told that pro-Grósz hardliners were preparing to sabotage a gas pipeline in northeast Hungary in order to declare a state of emergency. The coup attempt eventually never happened, as Németh had made it clear that the security forces would intervene on the side of the reformers.

Fortunately, regime change in Hungary took place without any violence or bloodshed. Although debate continues as to his exact role and his legacy, Mr Németh has become known as “the prime minister of the peaceful transition,” which led to the declaration of the Hungarian Republic on October 23, 1989.

RTL Klub’s full interview with Miklós Németh is available here (in Hungarian). Main photo: RTL Klub Hungary.