A childhood during the Horthy era and the socialization process he went through in his early years played a major role in Gyula Horn’s life and political career. Due to his heritage, he had to learn very early on that struggle and hard work meant not simply development but survival itself.
Some of his peers looked down on his communication skills, although he managed to establish a rather successful strategy to achieve his goals. His own life experience played a major role in this as he filtered and conveyed what he had to say through it. The Head of State made a handwritten copy of all the speeches that he received typed up for him. This ritual did not serve the purpose of memorizing the speeches; it was more for him to embrace the texts and to strip them from all pathos.
He really liked public forums. He most enjoyed talking to and debating with the audience that gave him an opportunity to get closer to his electors. He never ran away from journalists either: he did not request press conferences with pre-screened questions. He always answered the journalists’ questions to the best of his knowledge and allowed his audience to interject during his speeches. In his opinion, communication was politics as it affects lives and can even influence whole societies. That is why he considered it important that people who are affected should take part in this process too. This perspective was one of the reasons he stood out among his fellow politicians and which enabled him to build a social base for himself. Starting from the world of COMECON, through the soft Kádár era, he arrived at the concept of building capitalism.
On the Hungarian political scene, he basically single-mindedly came to the realization that the political processes that commenced on the home front at the time were not Hungary’s own: he viewed the change of regime, the urgent need for political and social change as European and not Hungarian phenomena. He was able to pick up the pace of this process and to see both its advantages and disadvantages.
To understand all his political achievements, we have to ask the following question: why Gyula Horn? As there were other talented and exceptional politicians in his generation, he did not necessarily have to become Head of State – the most successful one after the change of regime to be precise. In regards to the change of regime, one of Horn’s possibly most important realisations was that in the forthcoming era it would be impossible for the individual to hide behind the politician in front of the public. He was among the first to realise the importance of target group politics, and through his books he created a communicational network, which allowed him to control the way he connected to his readers. But he kept his books and the world of politics separate: through his books he created a new, shaping kind of politician whose aim was to achieve the most with his community.
Horn’s politics was characterized by patriotism and socialist attitude. The fate of his country was of paramount importance to him; as important as the operation and structure of the Hungarian society.
He was criticized a lot for serving the Soviet system before the change of regime but all his public speeches and actions showed that he looked at the Soviet system as a framework which gave him and his peers an opportunity to break out of the circumstances that they would not have been able to during the previous era. He knew that the system provided social mobility to a certain class; this required adaptation. Later on, he also sensed that this framework could not be maintained and also felt an enormous need for the system’s transformation. To him, realising social transformation and modernization equalled with the ambition that it should give everyone something that is going to make things better.
His career was characterized by adaptation and a constant search for direction. He always pushed boundaries only to the extent to find out where the public’s opinion stood and he searched for the position that could be represented and was worth it in accordance. A good example to this strategy was coming up with the idea of Hungary joining NATO. Although he knew it was necessary, he toned his standpoint down when he saw that the society had not been ready for this step. His way of thinking was exceptional, therefore many referred to him as a ‘cunning fox.’ He was able to see more alternatives than others and with the help of his strategic know-how he could turn this ability into a tool that would serve aspects he considered important.
In politics, he had no true partners or real challengers. But community meant a lot to him: during his term he constantly strived for the Hungarian Socialist Party to be able to operate as a true community which he tried to create through debate. Debate or making standpoints clash constantly helped him keep his party in the centre, the same way he himself tried to remain in the same position. That is the reason why he managed to “embed” himself into his political context so much that no one could pose a threat to his position. He disapproved of hollow wars: confrontation was only the last straw. He was not driven by prestige, he therefore always politely backed out of potential confrontation. The imprisonment-freedom dichotomy deeply affected his personality: for him, freedom meant equal chances and that is how he viewed the border opening as well, which topic has been elaborated on in various ways since. He fulfilled an important and major role in the Németh government, the last government of the pre-change of regime era. Although the border opening officially was not his decision, he played a part in the decision-making process and all the work behind. At an international level, he became the symbol of the border opening and the fall of the iron curtain. He did not ask for this role but he served it well and he fought for the values of his country and Europe as part of the Eastern European regime-changing elite using the position’s validating powers to serve noble causes.
Discipline and self-discipline were vital for him to be able to function well in his job, as these two create order. Under his leadership being late was unacceptable and he managed to maintain his authority throughout his term as Prime Minister. This was one of the reasons why electors could accept him as their true leader. They felt that Horn was a good and strong leader but also one of them that was not impossible to talk to.
Although he showed no interest in financial assets, his economy degree helped him a lot to be able to identify with everyday problems of the people. In the centre of his political actions had always been the question: how do you build capitalism in a way that is good for everyone? This willingness to give made it hard for him to carry out his duties as Head of State. His former Head of the Prime Minister’s Office, Dr. Elemér Kiss once said about Horn: “Throughout his term, inside him there was a constant battle between the Head of State and the socialist politician. He always wanted to give to the people because he felt an ethical obligation to do so. But as Head of State he got confronted with this idea. You cannot always give. When he had to, he suppressed the socialist politician. It was hard for him to do so but that is what the country needed.” Even though this ambiguity was a cause for constant clash in Horn’s life, during his term he still tried to fulfil the socialist democratic principles he believed in. One of his major socio-political decisions was to provide free public transport to the over 65s, which measure has been embraced by each government since. Although back in those days no one could foresee the direction capitalism was moving towards in Hungary or in other countries that expressed solidarity towards us, thus the great economic expectations from him and everyone in general. He genuinely believed in Hungary’s future, and it caused him extreme disappointment to see that the universal values that he fought for could not take root in our country.
He had a special relationship with democracy as an institution. Ferenc Baja, a former minister to and a close colleague of the former Prime Minister said:
“To him, community was everything. He did not believe in institutional politics as much but he knew that there was a need for institutions too. For him base democracy was that really mattered: he was searching for compromise in the community’s interest. Although he did not like prestige institutions, he fully respected representative democracy and he adhered to its rules to the full. He did not attempt to be crafty with the law; he approached it with respect but despised creative lawmaking.” Throughout his career, Gyula Horn remained a sensible politician driven by community interests fighting for social justice and a democracy based on the European pattern.
Gyula Horn’s international heritage
Although the Euro-Atlantic commitment only gained utmost importance in his career in the mid-1980s, establishing stronger relations with the Western socialist democratic parties became a vital issue for him back in the 1970s. As he once said in an interview: “I did not write an article on social democracy and cooperation with the party in 1974 because they made me to. No one did. I wrote it because I could see it all in context; because through our contacts we managed to get an insight into how Germany and other developed countries worked, in other words, what the market economy, democracy and multi-party systems were like in practice. Therefore we – I – could gain practical experience. We were God's children.” As Árpád Pünkösti mentions it in his book,
Horn was an advocate for opening towards the West even in the Hungarian Socialist Party’s ‘White House’
as he realised early on that the fast pace of modernization made it obligatory for Hungary to form good diplomatic and foreign economic connections with the Western world.
At the end of the 20th century Gyula Horn became a defining figure in European politics and gained international recognition for leading the country out of the post-communist regime and fighting to strengthen democracy.
In the 1990she received several awards and medals as gratitude for the border opening policy and the humanitarian approach towards East German and Romanian-Hungarian migrants. Horn, who was attacked a lot internally for the roles he played before the change of regime and for his political technocracy,
was considered one of the most prominent democratic Hungarian politicians in the West as the Central Eastern European region had a lot to thank him for in regards to European integration.
Although Hungary recently seems to have been gaining a distance from politics following European values and advocating Europeanness that defined our politicians’ world view at the time of the change of regime, it is still worth looking back at those times with hope. We sincerely believe that the work and legacy of Gyula Horn and his government cannot disappear without a trace in Hungarian politics because all the basic democratic and social democratic values that were embraced by our society during that time still play an important role in political discourse.
Gyula Horn as the key figure of Hungarian left wing politics
Even though, it is essential that we give way to critical discourse when it comes to Horn’s political career, we do have to highlight the values and achievements that he integrated into Hungarian democracy. It is worth taking a look not only at the change of regime but at the evolution of the Hungarian Socialist Party and its leader, Gyula Horn from the Hungarian left-wing youth’s perspective. That is exactly why it is vital to settle those controversies that have been hanging over his persona since the 1990s. To be able to create a political force that conveys the values of social democracy and left-wing politics, first we need to face the major errors the previous system made. We have to talk about these issues as well as all the positive achievements carried out by the socialist party of a post-socialist state in a chaotic system similar to those in the 1980s’ and 1990s’ Hungary.
His commitment to democracy after the change of regime, his belief in equal opportunities, reducing the gap and the representation of the “small people”, i.e. the everyday working people, are attributes that today’s left-wing politicians can build on.
We need platforms that are able to assist our more experienced politicians and the younger generation that show an interest in political and social issues in starting a discourse. The numerous social and political crises taking place across Europe at present are good reasons for a dialogue to start between left-wingers and liberals who may be able to take steps to drive Hungary onto a truly social democratic path. The present divided left wing that is unable to see eye to eye, in its present form, cannot fight populism, the disillusioned electors and the effects of inciting hatred in society in its present form.
We have to recognize the mutual values and basics which can be conveyed authentically by a unified left-wing platform in order to stop processes going on in present day Hungary that are leading to poverty, downward mobility and the suppression of rights. The legacy of Gyula Horn, Árpád Göncz and their peers can help us in this battle.