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.”
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.
“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.
Did he manage to stay out of trouble, so to speak, until the Hungarian Revolution of 1956? “Yes. I had to report every Sunday noon to the local police station and see the political officer. I had to say, ‘Here I am,’ and I had to tell him what I had been doing in the previous week. After a while, they kind of let it go, but they kept an eye on us.”
In the revolution, Horváth once more took a leading part. I ask him a question I have long been curious about: “Did we Americans behave badly in 1956? Did we encourage the Hungarians to rise up and then fail to help them? Did we let them be crushed?”
No, says Horváth — you hear that, but the answer is emphatically no. “In 1956, the Hungarians rebelled because we were fed up with Communism. The United States, at that time, was not ready to face the Soviet military. The United States would have had no chance. Could the U.S. have been more skillful in diplomacy? Most probably, but that is another issue.”
He also wants to say something about Yalta. In fact, he says it at the top of his voice, emotional. “Everyone says that Yalta was a sellout. No! Just the opposite! Yalta guaranteed that eventually the Soviet Union would fall apart. The Soviet Union would be with us today if not for Truman and all the American presidents thereafter. Every year, they declared Captive Nations Week. The legitimacy of Soviet domination was never granted. America was consistent and ethical throughout.
“It is unfortunate that Americans blame themselves for things they are not guilty of. About some things, America should do some soul-searching, but not these particular things.”
After the Hungarian Revolution, Horváth made his way to Austria. “On foot?” I ask. “Yes, through the woods, and also some train,” he says. He knocked on the door of the U.S. ambassador in Vienna.
His immediate concern was to correct Soviet propaganda, which held that Soviet forces had been necessary to put down “counterrevolution.” “I insisted that we had engaged in a revolution — an uprising of the people. The counterrevolution was the military oppression. It was the Soviets, not we, who were the counterrevolutionaries. The Western press had picked up the Soviet version of the whole thing, which was tremendously irritating to people of my kind.”
I say to Horváth, “I’m going to ask you an unfair question — a very unfair question, even a dumb question: Which was worse, Nazism or Communism?” He says one word: “Same.” Then he says, “We could discuss this question for a long time, and analyze it from different angles. But, when all is said and done, both Nazism and Communism are tyranny. Murder. Murderous people decide to murder others, just because those others see the world differently.”
Later, he reflects on his imprisonment by the Nazis, those weeks of interrogation. “I survived this cruelty, but many people did not: the beatings, the torture.” He continues, “More people died under Communism than under the Nazis, but the Nazis acted with such heavy cruelty” (and here his voice is very heavy, pained). “Think of the Jewish population of Europe.”
I say, “Throughout your trials under the Nazis and Communists and so on, did you keep your faith in God?” “Yes.” “You believe in God?” “Yes.” “You’re a religious man?” “Yes.” “You’re a Christian?” “I’m a Christian.”
We will continue with Part III tomorrow.