Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Another View of the 1989 Picnic in Hungary that Led to the End of the Eastern Bloc

The LA Times just published a portion of a new book on 1989 that involves the so-called "Pan-European Picnic." You all may recall a bit of hullabaloo on this blog last month when the news item about the picnic first surfaced. Hungary was pinning a medal on the border guard who didn't shoot at the East Germans. The new book says the whole thing was organized and masterminded by Hungary's new, young Prime Minister, an economist (!) named Miklos Nemeth. Hungarians had the right to travel to the West as of 1988 (I had forgotten this), but they had agreed not to allow East Germans to go through. This was how they got the deal done. Nemeth wanted East Germans to go through, knowing that if this happened, it could bring down Honecker's regime and perhaps, with it, the whole Iron Curtain and give Hungary real freedom. Apparently he de-electrified the fence with much fanfare and even had the barbed wire stripped away - again with fanfare- but the East Germans didn't seem to pick up on the hint. So when a group of activitsts petitioned for permits for this picnic, he figured out how to use it. So the Hungarian border guard who got the medal was actually following the government's policies, even if the standing orders had not changed. Perhaps the heroism is that he didn't realize the scheme afoot but conscience prevented him from shooting. Now that we have a fuller retelling of the story - that Hungarians were crossing freely - the idiocy of shooting only the East Germans might be clearer.

I am always suspicious of medals awarded years after the fact. The purpose of such awards is usually to rewrite history. Were the present view of the action or person being awarded commensurate with the contemporaneous evaluation, the medal or accolades would have been awarded contemporaneously or soon thereafter. I am not surprised to hear, now, that Hungary would rather honor a lone bodyguard than a former communist leader. This is a reminder that while historians may actually be interested in the past, most politicians' interest in history is only insofar as it can inform and justify their own narratives of action. A fairy tale of a lone border guard changing history is clearly debunked. But we do not have the whole story either. We may never.

Of course, Nemeth doubtless did not believe the result would be his own ouster shortly thereafter. He tried, apparently, to return to Hungarian politics in 2000 but failed as a leader of the Socialists. He was with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development from 1990-2000.


Raised By Republicans said...

Yes, this does conflict with the whole "velvet revolution" narrative. Too much of a top down thing.

The European Journal story I referenced earlier this summer did mention the improved travel permits for Hungarians but didn't make a big deal about it.

By the way, I once met a Polish official with a precursor of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. It was an organization set up by the EU to funnel development money to Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia. It was notoriously corrupt and the guy I met was ousted as part of a generalized house cleaning.

The Law Talking Guy said...

It is worth remembering that the Velvet Revolution was in Czechoslovakia, not Hungary. Hungary did not have an overthrow of this kind.

This story also forgets to mention the impact of the Polish elections in 1989 in the thinking of Hungarian leaders.

The bottom line is that the story of liberation of Eastern Europe probably does involve not just the dissenters and the aggrieved citizenry in people power, but also the governments themselves aware of the lack of Soviet Support. Some, like Honecker's DDR and Ceaucescu's Romania, met decisive defeats. Others, like Czechoslovakia, had the real "velvet revolution." Hungary had a surprisingly peaceful internal transition. Some, like Poland, had more prolonged struggles dating back to Solidarity in 1979 and martial law in 1981, plus the continued nationalist inspiration of a Polish Pope. Yugoslavia had the worst result of all.

The Law Talking Guy said...

Corrupt European institution involved in Eastern Europe? I'm picking myself up off the floor in shock. No, maybe not.