Budapest revisited

Originally published in German language in FALTER 51/10, december 2010

Hungary had once expelled him and condemns him again today. The journalist Paul Lendvai leads through the city of his youth

Portrait: Joseph Gepp, Budapest
Photos: Heribert Corn

How will the home of Professor Paul Lendvai probably look like, the habitat of this great commentator of old Eastern Europe?
You might imagine a solid wooden desk with a heavy brass lamp in the middle of the room. Expensive rugs are likely to hang on the walls, and of course running meters of books.

But in Lendvai’s flat in the 13th Budapest district “Neuleopoldstadt”, this insignia of wisdom of age is missing. The apartment is dignified, yes. Parquet floors, two modern paintings in antique frames, the window view displaying a snowy park directly on the Danube. But it lacks the exuberance of memories, as constituted else in the homes of elderly people, as well as the lack of status, the matured and the achieved. Just three months ago he had moved in, the 81-year-old Lendvai explained. The apartment had delighted him. Now his belongings are spread in Vienna and Budapest, and whatever he was currently searching for, was always in the other town, he jokes. Meanwhile his wife Zsóka, served black tea and apologized for the missing sugar shaker and so we must therefore operate from a bowl …

It is still a life of upheavals which Paul Lendvai leads. Three times he has already changed his place of residence, since he settled down after the turn of phases in the Hungarian capital. Five or six times a year, the couple comes to Budapest, most of their time it is still living in Vienna.

Lendvai at the desk of his apartment Photo: Heribert Corn

Budapest, Vienna’s twin, the founder temporal counterpart, the design competition, built in the same period and yet a touch more impressive. From the tram overhead line to the manhole covers everything abounds on adornments and embellishments in this city, even more than in Vienna. This is because Budapest has only been patched and repaired – no economic miracle in the West, like motorway arms drew away historic places and sacrificed palaces to the traffic flow. The Hungarian Communism, contrary to other Soviet bloc countries, has preserved the upper-middle-elegant look of the city rather than destroyed it. From 1st January it will be the backdrop for the big politics and the European leaders. Then Hungary will take over for six months the Presidency of the European Union from Belgium

A stable EU presidency.
The ruling coalition party Fidesz-KDNP (Hungarian Civic Union / Christian Democratic Party) led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán boasts that after fragile Belgium a stable government is now projecting of the EU.

This is undeniably true, since the last elections in April the right-wing populist conservative Fidesz has a two thirds majority.

Hungary’s problem is not the stability of its government, but the way it uses its stability. It changed with the majority ado since April the Constitution, limited the powers of the Constitutional Court, media freedom and the pension system. Paul Lendvai calls the thrust „Semi-Authoritarian“. Hungary has become „from the pacemaker to the flashpoint“ one can read in bold letters on the cover of his 15th now Book, „My playful country.“ In it he deals with the Fidesz government. But it does not like criticism. Not long after the book´s publication a state-affiliated newspaper will have revealed that Lendvai had served as a volunteer informant for the Communists in the 80´s. „Absurd and ridiculous accusations,“ states the long-standing ORF (Austrian Broadcasting Corporation) -presenter and correspondent for the Financial Times. He is trying to take the matter at ease: „It’s good for sale figures of my book and bad for my blood pressure.“

Foto: Heribert Corn

Closer than the Austrians think
Anyone who wants to understand the accusations, wants to understand this country that is bordered by Austria and yet seems so far away, should know the history of this man. For Paul Lendvai is a symbol of the centuries-old connection between the two states, separated by the Iron Curtain. He is the last person to appeal to the public to point out that Eastern Europe is geographically much closer to Vienna, as the Austrians mean. And that the inhabitants of the present-day Austria were forever part of that mixture, especially European nations, so many potential dangers were brought forth – what today seems like erased from the local memory.

Almost all know Lendvai´s face and his distinctive accent from television. Many read his lyrics that he writes for several newspapers. But few know that in his long life Lendvai had to learn the hard way of almost all vibrations in the troubled Central Europe in the 20th Century.
Here in Budapest, he barely got away, at a just outgrown child’s age, from the Hungarian Nazis, who persecuted him, because he is a Jew. Here the new communist regime detained him in prison, as the war was was hardly over. Here he fled, as Soviet tanks shot 1956 on the road outside his family home a way into the city centre, through vaulted cellars.

He is unable to enter the basement. Before the staircase someone has placed a locked grating, preventing entrance for strangers. Paul Lendvai – he appears tinier than on TV, his tread is a dragging, but determined – looks through the bars on to the spiral staircase, the post office boxes, into the back yard. He turns right around again. „It looks all very different than in former times,“ he says.

Photo: Heribert Corn

Here, in the old gray residential building in the Ulloi utca 53, in the ninth district of the city, of Franztown, Paul Lendvai was born on the 24th August 1929 as an only child. But the house belongs to an era in his life that no longer matters to him. In the mid-60s the communist government called the parents house back, because the widowed mother had followed the son to Austria. Today neon letters on the facade advertise for a solarium with a gym.

Photo: Heribert Corn


Migrants from within Greater Hungary

On the second floor, the family Lendvai resided, the father a lawyer from eastern Slovakia, the mother from Transylvania, both internal immigrants from Greater Hungary. Thick snowflakes swirl on Lendvai black cap as he steps on the road again. During the Hungarian uprising of 1956 the family spent their entire days in the basement, he narrates with his hands buried in his winter jacket. The toughest battles of the city raged in the Ulloi utca. Above the Soviet tanks were rattling, below crept the then 26-year-old Paul and his parents through interconnected underground passages out of the lethal zone.

The synagogue is located a few blocks away, which Lendvai as a child and his religious mother attended – the agnostic father, meanwhile, had been sitting in the cafe, Lendvai remembers. As a youngster he played on the forecourt of the temple. Nowadays one can only enter through a metal detector. The synagogue in Páva Utca now houses the Budapest Holocaust Museum. Monolithic gray wings enclosing the museum rooms, surrounding the house of prayer like fortress walls.

Until the ’40s, every fifth person in Budapest was Jewish. Half of them, about 100,000 people were murdered – in shortest time and with relentless orderliness. Hungary’s persecution of Jews started not until the late autumn 1944, when the Arrow Cross Party members, supported by the German Reich Hungarian National Socialists seized power. Paul Lendvai survived the following months in a plain gray block of flats close to his current apartment in Neuleopoldstadt.

Photo: Heribert Corn

It was one of 125 so-called ‘shelter houses’ as they were built in Budapest from neutral countries such as Switzerland, Sweden and the Vatican. 50 people vegetated in a two-bedroom apartment. Lendvai´s father Andor had a Swiss „protective pass“ and thus got hold of a residential permit. Whether the passport was genuine at all, the son does not know to this day. The accident – one at the right time presented slip, only a turn around the corner at the right moment – in any case decided over death or life of the family. „Carnival of death and hell“ Lendvai calls in one of his books the winter of 1944.

New Arrow Cross march
Today it sometimes seems as if the evil spirits of this hell carnival resurrects. Three years ago hundreds of extreme right-wingers launched under the office of the president in Buda Castle the Hungarian Guard. They marched in combat boots, wearing uniforms and waving flags of the old Arrow Cross. “It was as if Neo-Nazis in the year 2000 put an oath before the official residence of the German Federal President in Berlin,“ said the Hungarian director Laszlo Kornitzer. „Not one police officer in sight. The ceremony took two hours and then the Nazis would march off, undisturbed, for an unknown destination.”

The guard stands close to the right-wing Jobbik party, which became in April the third largest party in Parliament. Their more and more violent radical, often conspiratorial ideas penetrate into the discourse of the Hungarian midst. This is also due the policy of the major parties: the Socialists, the ruling party until Orbán’s came to power, for instance, are to be estranged and corrupt. Their mismanagement almost led to national bankruptcy, which was in 2008 only averted through an international emergency loan of 20 billion Euros. Meanwhile, Hungary fell back on budget, growth and labor market, far behind countries like Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia – that reform-minded team of former Eastern bloc countries, which had once „happiest barrack in the Soviet bloc“ always served as a model.

Now, the economic failure also shows increasingly in the political sphere. Failures in the choice of words detach from each other, always lowering the barriers in terms of democratic standards. The driving force in the eyes of many is the two thirds party Fidesz, which took over in April as Socialists shrunk immensely as a governing party.

„There is peace, freedom, unity“

The right-wing populists declare an election victory as „revolution”. They boycott the previous government, calling it „illegitimate“. A „system of national unity“ more recently equals state and party interests. And a framed banner with the phrase „There is peace, freedom and unity“ has recently become regulation in all offices.

There are also questionable economic reforms, such as private pension funds or the taxation of certain commercial sectors. In the short term they should conceal the enormous budget deficit, economists fear the long-term stability of the country. Therefore the U.S. rating agency Moody’s put to rate credit-worthiness of Hungary in early December on the same level as that of a country that is getting significantly more media attention because of its financial difficulties: Ireland.

Whoever is against Fidesz, is against the whole country – is now often heard in Hungary. Fidesz wants to be the true heir of the freedom fighters in 1956, who rebelled against the Russian-Communist foreign domination and were cruelly beaten. The real turning point, the grand narrative of the party ideologues, have not even been 1989 – it was hijacked by the socialists and in April 2010 actually been drawn. In this edifice, of course, it fits well, that one like Paul Lendvai should be in fact a spy for the communist regime.

Thereby Lendvai was a victim of Stalinist purges himself. It was a winter night in 1952 when two policemen stuck him in a Russian-built car and drove off with him. This was followed by three years of imprisonment, interrogation and occupational ban.

Before, Paul Lendvai had become a journalist – and a convinced communist. He wrote propaganda articles for which he is now ashamed of, he writes in his autobiography. In a „journalistic world of illusion“ that he had endorsed in, he says, in a „dialectical bent reality.“ Lendvai complained on behalf of the state ideology on the international cionism, or Tito’s Yugoslavia, which had averted from Stalin. Finally the Hungarian henchmen of the Red Tsar fetched him too.

The prison, in which they brought him, still exists today. It stands on the other side of the Danube, in the Fö Utca in Buda. It is a massive, clichéd repelling building.

Photo: Heribert Corn

The iron-fitted gate is the same today as it was then, Lendvai says. Through the window slot of his cell in the political section, he heard the kids play in the park.

Photo: Heribert Corn


The food was practically unfit for human consumption, cooked roots and dry bread. Within the same building three years after Paul Lendvai was released from prison, the leader of the Hungarian uprising of 1956, Imre Nagy was sentenced to death and executed.
From an „amalgam“, a diffuse mixture of half-truths and rumors, the regime had used against him at that time, says Paul Lendvai. An amalgam, the same like the present government is using against him. For example, the newspaper Heti Válasz close to Fidesz refers in their campaign to Lendvai, as he in the ’80s, bargained for filming permits for the ORF with the Hungarian authorities. „Derive nonsense, the fact that I was informant,“ Lendvai says. „Anyone who has ever worked as a journalist in a dictatorship knows how every little thing here is matter for negotiation. How one has to appease and constantly reassure the authorities.“

For other Hungarian professionals – for example, the political scientists Pelinka Sándor or the economist Anton Richter of the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies – the Causa fits for other cases in which Hungary’s government acted similarly with critics. In the case Lendvai, says Richter, it is only outcropping to foreigners, because Lendvai was very active abroad. Fidesz politician appease when responding to the Causa: The record originates from a „free media“ and have nothing to do with party interests.

„The political culture of Hungary is a hate culture,“ said writer Gyorgy Dalos. Paul Lendvai termed the condition of the nation in his new book, the „cold civil war“. Since the large demonstrations against the government in 2006 and the close bankruptcy in 2008, the Hungarian society seems out of balance. The readiness to fanaticism is greater. This may strike some journalists who „should not always cast the country in a negative light,“ as one Fidesz politician implements in a background briefing. This applies to platforms on the Internet, were right-wing hate speeches reach many Hungarians. It can also refer to opposition politicians and dissidents.

Especially after the end of the Hungarian EU presidency in mid-2011 it is recommend to pay attention to developments in the country, says Paul Lendvai. Because then no one else will watch anymore. At this point, the way is cleared for even more controversial measurements, for example, against criminal proceedings against opposition politicians.

Warsaw, Prague, Vienna, Budapest

It was the 12th January 1957, a year after the uprising. Paul Lendvai, then 27 years and editor of the Communist evening paper, his first foreign trip of his life is to be due. It leads him to Warsaw, then he should return with stops in Prague and Vienna to Budapest. He has the yellowed ticket of the Hungarian airline Malev to this day. Lendvai traveled as planned to Warsaw and then he flew to Prague and Vienna.
On 4 February 1957, he leaves the building at Schwechat airport and starts a new life.

Monday night, before the editorial deadline the Fidesz parliamentary majority decided on a controversial new media law. It provides for the resolution among autonomous editorial in public broadcasting. A powerful media control authority in newspapers is also guided by a Fidesz-confidant for nine years, which means for two terms. As for the EU Presidency in the first half of 2011, Hungary plans a focus on energy independence from Russia, a co-ordination development in the Danube region and new approaches in the Roma issue, such as essence in the census

About the person
Paul Lendvai, 81, is a journalist with profound knowledge of Eastern Europe. In 1944 he was deported by the Nazis and imprisoned in 1953 by the Communists, when in 1957 fleeing to Austria. Here he was in 1982 Austrian Broadcasting Corporation-Eastern Europe-chief and correspondent for the „Financial Times“. Today he writes for the „Standard“ hosts the „European Studio“ and publishes the „European Review“. Author of numerous books, for example concerning Hungary, Austria, Yugoslavia and anti-semitism.

Article in German

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