Brian Hanrahan: Hungary's role in the 1989 revolutions

Roundup: Talking About History

... Imre Pozsgay was a leading reformer in Hungary's Communist Party. He had fought his way up to the top of the party, and in 1989 was one of the handful of people who controlled it.

He used his position to open up the Iron Curtain which separated Hungary from Austria. He also helped persuade the Communist Party to give up power voluntarily rather than be forced out as happened elsewhere.

But were Hungarians grateful for the man who had brought free travel and free elections? Not a bit. His campaign to become president was spurned, and these days he has abandoned politics to teach political history. Surely he would have some regrets?

Instead, when I met him in his modest house on the outskirts of Budapest I got a very surprising answer. He told me that back in 1989 he had been less interested in reforming communism that destroying it.

"For a long time," he said, "I believed in communism. But from the early '80s I realised it was unreformable - and the only thing to do was to change that system."
Mr Pozsgay says he thought carefully about whether to resign from the Communist Party and then decided against it. "I came to the conclusion that I could do more for my country from the inside, in a position of power than as a marginalised opposition figure," he said.

So in 1989, according to Mr Pozsgay's account, one of the leading figures in Hungary's Communist Party was actively working to bring it down.

His twin concerns were hardliners in the Hungarian Communist Party and the danger of angering the Soviet Union.

Hungary still had raw memories of the way Russian tanks had put down the revolution of 1956, but Mr Pozsgay gambled that with Mikhail Gorbachev now in the Kremlin, the Soviet Union was unlikely to intervene this time.

Instead, he says, the danger came from closer to home. In April 1989 he learnt there were plans by some communist leaders to declare martial law and take control of the country.

But by now the Hungarian government was in the hands of the communist reformers, and they moved swiftly to isolate the party politburo....

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