By BosNewsLife News Center in Budapest with additional reporting by BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY (BosNewsLife)– Hungarians on Friday, June 21, were mourning former Hungarian Socialist Prime Minister Gyula Horn, known for his role in the collapse of Communism in Europe and the reunification of Germany, who died in hospital at age 80 following a long illness.
Horn was Hungary’s prime minister between 1994 and 1998. Earlier he served as foreign minister in Hungary’s last Communist government when his country opened its border in 1989 to East Germans who wanted to leave their country.
It is generally accepted that Horn, as minister, played a part in that. Developing a more independent foreign policy, Hungary had stopped asking East Germans for a visa to get to third countries enabling thousands to flee to the West.
In his memoirs, Horn himself recalls a meeting together with his prime minister in 1989, Miklós Németh attended by German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher to discuss the East German refugees in Hungary.
“Both of them were gripped by emotion when I said: I don’t know how we will resolve their issue, but we certainly won’t extradite them (back to East Germany).”
HEADING FOR AUSTRIA
Through Hungary, the East Germans headed for Austria, where they could move on to West Germany.
Ahead of those historic moments, a young BosNewsLife reporter saw how the chain-smoking Gyula Horn and his Austrian counterpart Alois Mock symbolically cut through part of the Iron Curtain on June 27, 1989, that had separated their nations for decades.
“The only significance of that was that we could further test the tolerance” of the Soviets who occupied Hungary said Miklós Németh Hungary’s prime minister at the time.
It worked. The first East German refugees crossed into Austria from Hungary on August 19, 1989, during a civic gathering on the border that came to be known as the Pan-European Picnic.
A BosNewsLife reporter watched when several hundred East Germans ran through a the gates of a briefly opened border crossing between celebrating Austrians and Hungarians, some of them riding horses. In the turmoil the reporter accompanied an East German child amid concerns it could be crushed by horses or an enthusiastic crowd.
MANY MORE FOLLOW
Tens of thousands followed on September 10, 1989, when Horn announced on the evening news that Hungary would officially open its border the following day. The Berlin Wall came down two months later.
Fifteen years after the fall of Communism in Hungary, Horn went back to where he’d symbolically cut holes in the barbed wire.
Horn thanked Austrian Minister Mock for his support: “We rely on each other and I want our European dream to come true: that one can not only be born in Europe, and die in Europe but live in Europe,” he said, at the time.
In 1994 he became prime minister, following his renamed Hungarian Socialist Party’s sweeping victory in elections. He began calling himself a European left-wing politician, and pursued a transition to a market economy and prepared Hungary for full entry into the NATO military alliance in 1999 and the European Union in 2004.
He also oversaw a major fiscal austerity program to avoid an economic meltdown.
His role as government leader was a far cry from his upbringings. Born on July 5, 1932, into a poor, working-class family in Budapest, Horn started working as a fifth grader to make ends meet, according to his official biography. His father was killed in 1944 by the Gestapo, the secret police of the Nazis, Hungary’s allies during World War Two.
Yet, Horn himself wasn’t without controversy. In 1954, he had joined forces of the Communist party that put down the Hungarian Revolution against Soviet occupation. Moscow sent troops and tanks into Budapest, and the bid for independence failed.
Horn later downplayed his actions in the Communist paramilitary brigade, but it came to haunt him for years.
In 2007, then Hungarian President László Sólyom declined to grant him an award on the occasion of his 75th birthday, citing his lack of remorse over role as member of the “pufajkas”, an armed unit in 1956-57 which helped in the bloody crushing of the uprising against Soviet rule.
Asked about his role in 1956, Horn reportedly said: “So what?”
FINANCE MINISTRY OFFICIAL
Horn started his career in the Finance Ministry before joining the Foreign Ministry in 1959, rising through the ranks after diplomatic postings in Eastern Europe.
Despite questions over his Communist past, Horn’s perceived role in ending the division of eastern and western Europe into two Cold War blocs after World War Two was awarded internationally.
He received the prestigious International Charlemagne Prize and the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany among other honors in recognition of ending Communism.
Horn would later credit Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow with a “historically tolerant” role in the developments.
The veteran politician acknowledged that he began to question Communism’s future only later in life when he saw the material and social conditions the West had to offer and started his conversion to a “Social Democrat”.
FIRST FREE ELECTIONS
With Moscow’s tacit support, Hungary legalized opposition parties and negotiated free elections in 1990.
In his later years, Horn’s illness kept him out of public view, and he did not even attend the party organized by the Socialists for his 80th birthday. He was praised there as an central figure of the momentous era which saw the fall of communism.
Attila Mesterházy, chairman of the opposition Socialists who are the main opposition to Hungary’s ruling conservative Fidesz, paid this week tribute to his fellow-party member Horn. “The modern Hungarian left has lost its most defining leader, Hungary has lost one of its most successful Prime Ministers, and Europe has lost one of the most lasting figures in the transition from communism,” he wrote on his website.
The current government of staunchly anti-Communist Viktor Orbán said in a statement that it had expressed condolences to Horn’s family.
Germany went further. Horn “cut open the Iron Curtain that had been dividing Europe for 40 years,” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in a statement. “When he a short time later announced that thousands of citizens of the former East Germany would be allowed to leave Hungary for the West, he ensured his place in the history books.”
The funeral of the late leader was scheduled in Budapest for July 8, the government said.
(BosNewsLife’s NEWS WATCH is a regular look at key general news developments from especially, but not limited to, (former) Communist countries and other autocratic states impacting the Church and/or other compassionate professionals).
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