Hungary’s Gyula Horn: Sometimes Bad Guys Do Good

Most of Cato’s interns weren’t even born when the Berlin Wall existed.  Those of us who are a bit older remember the Evil Empire, including an East German state which shot down citizens seeking to escape communism’s not-so-loving embrace.

Many people contributed to the end of communism.  One was Hungarian Gyula Horn.  He began his career in Janos Kadar’s Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party, which took power atop the Soviet tanks which suppressed the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.

Horn was promoted over the years, but the once obedient apparatchik changed as Hungary changed.  In 1988 a restless communist party dumped Kadar.  The following June Imre Nagy, the great Hungarian patriot who led the fight for freedom against Moscow in 1956, was reburied.  The event split Hungary’s communist party as some officials attacked their predecessors as well as the Soviet Union. 

Soon plans were made for multi-party elections.  The communist party dissolved.  And this time the Red Army stayed in its barracks.

Particularly important was Budapest’s decision to tear down the Iron Curtain.  Reformers relaxed restrictions on travel by Hungarians the year before.  Then the communist government decided to tear down Hungary’s border fences. 

As I wrote in my latest article in American Spectator online:

In February Foreign Minister Horn traveled to Moscow to inform [Mikhail] Gorbachev of Budapest’s plans.   On June 27 Horn joined Austrian Foreign Minister Alois Mock to officially cut the barbed wire separating their countries.  In fact, a section of the old fence had to be restrung for the event, but the theater was worth the price of admission.  Horn later said that his objective was to create “an irreversible situation.” 

With the acquiescence of Hungarian border police East Germans began to cross into neighboring Austria.  In September Horn formally announced that the border was open.  East Germans also flooded into Prague, where another communist party was tottering, and filled the West German embassy, demanding asylum.  Suddenly the Iron Curtain was no more.  To control its population East Germany would have to build a wall with its communist neighbors, creating a much smaller national prison. 

Demonstrations mounted across that country and the East German leadership gave way, preferring to depose party boss Erich Honecker than shoot down protestors as he demanded.  On November 9 the Berlin Wall opened, never to again close.  The rest of the Evil Empire, including, most importantly, the Soviet Union, ended up in history’s trash can.

Horn even had a second act, being elected prime minister in 1994 when his Hungarian Socialist Party, which replaced the communist party, won the parliamentary election.  In office he mixed industrial privatization with budget austerity.  He explained that we are “putting an end to the patronizing role of the state.”  He lost his bid for reelection and soon left politics. 

In recent years Horn has been in ill health and made his last public appearance in 2007.  He died last month.     

Many people deserve credit for bringing the Evil Empire to an end.  Gyula Horn was one of the most important reformers of 1989.  May he rest in peace.