Tuesday, October 27, 2009

An interesting man

The BBC has an interesting profile of Miklós Németh (as his name appears in Western speech: in native Hungarian, the names would be reversed).

The 1989 revolution has its unforgettable images, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall, and its famous figures - Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel and Mikhail Gorbachev.

But the man who made a crucial first breach in the Iron Curtain which divided Cold War Europe has received far less attention in the West.

He is Miklos Nemeth, an economist who became Hungarian prime minister in November 1988 and proceeded to tear up the rule book for leaders of communist bloc countries.

His assault on the Iron Curtain began, strangely enough, as he considered his country's budget for 1989.

He spotted a mysteriously large sum listed under interior ministry spending. When he was told it was in fact for renewing the barbed wire on the border between Hungary in the Cold War "East", and Austria in the "West", he "erased it immediately", he recalls.

Nervous colleagues warned him of the possible consequences. Memory of brutal Soviet intervention in Hungary in 1956 was still strong.

But Nemeth wanted to test the promises of a new era made by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

He visited Gorbachev in March 1989 and informed him of his government's decision in principle to start dismantling the border.

"I did not ask for permission", he says.

Nonetheless, as the barbed wire began to come down and border controls were gradually reduced, he half expected an angry phone call from Moscow, and was relieved when it did not come.

. . .

Nemeth was to incur [Erich] Honecker's lasting wrath when he decided to "cross the Rubicon", and open up the border fully in September.

This allowed thousands of East Germans, who had massed in Hungary after hearing of looser border controls, to leave for the West without exit visas, via Hungary's border with Austria.

But first Nemeth made a secret deal with the West German government, giving them time to prepare to accept the influx.

In return, a grateful West German chancellor Helmut Kohl helped Hungary service its large debt to Western banks.

This definitive opening of the Iron Curtain greatly undermined the authority of the East German regime.

Honecker lost power soon afterwards, and within weeks the Berlin Wall had fallen. "None of us, including Kohl, forecast the domino effect," Nemeth says.

. . .

[Nemeth] went on to play his part in building the new Europe as vice-president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. But nothing could match the drama and personal satisfaction of the role he played in Europe's year of revolutionary drama 20 years ago.

"I did not do the impossible, I just did all that was possible at the time," he says now. And the approval he enjoyed most was not from the top political leaders he met, but from much closer to home.

"After I had resigned as prime minister in 1990," he recalls, "I went back to my home village. And my father clapped me on the back, and said 'Son, well done, I'm still holding my head up high whenever I walk through the gates to my front door.'"

There's more at the link.

I was an intensely interested observer of the events of 1989 in Eastern Europe (not least because they signalled the end of active Communist interference in Southern Africa, which helped greatly in the search for peace and justice in that part of the world). I recall hearing Mr. Németh's name at the time, but never realized the seminal, pivotal role he played in bringing down the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall.

Thank God that such men lived!



Rick T said...

There is a man who DESERVES the Peace Prize

Christina RN LMT said...

My cousin Anke escaped into West Germany via a "vacation" to Hungary and a side trip to Austria. She left everything behind to seek true freedom.

Thanks to Mr. Németh, she found it!

Anonymous said...

One person can change the world. Isn't it wonderful when that person uses their "power" for good and not for evil. Very inspiring.