Editor’s Note: In recent weeks, Jay Nordlinger sat down with János Horváth, a distinguished Hungarian: a fighter against the Nazis, and a prisoner of them; a fighter against the Communists, and a prisoner of them; a leader of the 1956 revolution; an economist and free-marketeer; an exile in the United States for more than 40 years; now the oldest member of the Hungarian parliament, as he was the youngest after World War II. This series began yesterday, here.
As I mentioned, Horváth was born in 1921 — a few years after World War I ended, a good 18 years before the next world war began. What did his dad do? “He was a farmer, a small farmer. We lived about 100 kilometers south of the capital.” Was there enough to eat? “Oh, yes — we were hardworking farmers. Farmers are good people.”
There was the Depression to cope with, of course: “Yes. The Depression originated in the United States. We were affected, like everyone else, but we came through, where I lived.”
I say to Horváth, “I’m guessing you were an intellectual kid, a bookish kid?” He answers, “They used to tell me later on that I always had hundreds of questions — questions for my mother, questions for the neighbor, questions for whoever it was. I always had questions, I was always curious.
“Above all, I wanted to see the world. When I was a little boy — four or five years old — I wanted to be the bell-ringer, because up in the tower you could see the world. The highest point in the world, for me, at that time, was the tower of the church.
“A few years later, I had another dream job: I wanted to be the railroad engineer, taking the train to other places. Then I wanted to be the butcher, who would feed hungry people.
“When I was eleven or twelve years old, I thought, ‘I’m going to be a librarian. There’s no more holy place than the library.’ Oh, the books, all the books! I could read, read, read. I was amazed to be able to touch the books, to open them. Frankly, I would still like to be a librarian, at 92 years old, but I’ve never made it. I have lived my life in books and libraries, though.
“And, of course, my Ph.D. at Columbia was a library adventure.”
“Who were your teachers at Columbia?” “Well, a very important teacher was Bill Vickrey, who won the Nobel prize. Then there was Arthur F. Burns [the famous Eisenhower and Nixon adviser, and chairman of the Federal Reserve]. There was also Peter Kenen, very liberal [not in the Hayekian sense].”
“Have you always been a classical liberal, a free-marketeer?” “Yes. The Austrian school is probably what I’m closest to.” “I imagine you know Václav Klaus [the former president of the Czech Republic and a free-market economist].” “Oh, yes — I respect his concepts.”
War came to Hungary in late 1940. As Horváth puts it, “Hungary was trapped into entering the war, on Hitler’s side.” Horváth fought in the independence movement. He was arrested in late 1944. He was sentenced to death, but, hours before the appointed time, in January 1945, he escaped — thanks to the chaos enveloping the capital city, Budapest.
After the war, there was democracy, true democracy, even under Soviet occupation. There were free elections in November 1945 — those are the elections in which young Horváth (age 24) was elected to parliament.
The Soviets did not like the free choices made by Hungarians, of course — and they attempted to shut the country down. “Step by step, they liquidated independent politics,” as Horváth puts it. “The Soviet military gave our government to the Communist party.” Horváth and other democrats were arrested and imprisoned.
He spent four years in prison. Was he tortured? “Yes.” There was hard labor too. This time, no escape was possible.