The life and legacy of independent Hungary’s first president is as tragically complex, as any historical novel of the past century. As the American writer E.L. Doctorow once said, “The devastating history of 20th century Europe is housed in the being of Árpád Göncz.”
Born and raised in Budapest in the turbulent interwar years, the young lawyer Árpád Göncz joined the resistance against the Nazis in World War II and was shot in the leg by SS fire. After the war, he joined the agrarian Independent Smallholders’ Party, which won the relatively free elections of 1945.
After a Soviet-backed communist coup two years later, Göncz left politics and took on work as a locksmith and factory worker to sustain himself and his family. He enrolled again at the university to study agronomy, but was never allowed to earn his degree.
During the 1956 revolution, he was a member of the Hungarian Peasant Alliance and took an active part negotiating with diplomats who were sympathetic to the cause of the Revolution. He smuggled out various political documents by the Revolution’s leaders to the West, a role for which he would be punished by the regime afterwards.
After the Soviet tanks crushed the uprising on November 1956, Göncz was dragged out of his apartment in the middle of the night and arrested for treason. For months he was interrogated, and was finally tried in the same show trials as István Bibó, the last remaining cabinet minister of the Revolution.
At the trials, “young people willingly and proudly explained their own role [in the revolution], because they truly believed that what they did was right. We never denied anything. The only thing you had to pay attention to is not to incriminate others,” Göncz once said. Everyone, including himself, expected the death penalty, but the judges sentenced the freedom fighters to life imprisonment. “The best minds of Hungary were in prison,” he remembered.
Like Lajos Kossuth, Hungary’s governor-president of the 1848 revolution, Göncz taught himself English in jail. His wife, Susan, gave him an English grammar book to practice, and soon he became good enough to translate literary works. “Since I learned English in prison—well, I had to invent something similar to English—I have what you would call a real Hungarian prison accent.” Years later, when he had the opportunity to visit the United States and practice his English, people thought his accent was Portuguese.
After six grueling years in prison, he received amnesty and was released in 1963. To make a living, he started working as a freelance writer and a translator. It was with these jobs that he was able to put his four children through university.
Göncz became the Hungarian voice of some of the world’s most renowned English and American writers—although relatively unknown to Hungary at the time. He translated hundreds of works, including those of Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, J.R.R. Tolkien, John Updike, and Edgar Allan Poe. He also wrote numerous works of fiction and drama of his own, becoming a Havel-like figure in the Hungarian dissident scene.
Literature, in a way became an intellectual escape route and safe haven for many dissidents across Eastern Europe during the Soviet era. And Göncz’s work represents it. “Because he was outside of the system, Árpád became for the people of Hungary a figure of immense integrity and a truth-teller, in much the way that writers and poets and musicians in Czechoslovakia were perceived,’’ Doctorow once remarked.
Göncz had always been “political” but he was far from a career politician. He looked at politics as a kind of public service, much like Madison or Jefferson did. Above all, he was a liberal humanist—which is what made him popular among the general public. In the eighties he joined the Network of Free Initiatives, which was rooted in the illegal opposition to the communist leader János Kádár.
In 1988 he helped found the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ), and later became a speaker in the first democratically elected Hungarian Parliament. On August 3, 1990 Göncz was elected President of the Republic with a resounding 95 percent of the votes. No President since Göncz has been able to garner such a strong parliamentary mandate.
As President of Hungary, he played an active role as an effective institutional check on the newly elected conservative government of József Antall. During his tenure, Göncz received much criticism from the right for being biased in highly visible domestic stand-offs. But despite recurring conflicts and the constant institutional tug-of-war between presidency and the government, he managed to keep his relatively wide popularity throughout most of his decade-long tenure.
During his presidency, he visited the United States many times. He forged, in U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s words, “a truly deep and warm friendship between the Hungarian and American peoples.” He liked and respected America, and in return, America liked and respected him.
On his first trip to the U.S in 1990, the dissolution of the Soviet Union was far from being a political reality, the Baltics were still under the Soviet rule, and the Red Army was still present in Hungary. Nevertheless, during his meeting with President Bush in the oval office, he managed to impress the American president with his intellect and his ideas on a variety of economic and foreign policy issues. When Bush asked for his advice on how to handle the Soviet Union, Göncz replied that “half-reform is no reform” and suggested that the U.S. should “look ahead two or three steps and not always search for stability in the present realities.” At the meeting, Göncz also asked the U.S. president to help keep Gorbachev to the agreed upon timetable of the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary—an essential component of the country’s independence.
“I want to see all troops out of everywhere, they are not wanted. All Soviet troops should go out of Hungary as soon as possible.” Bush replied and reassured Göncz that the issue would be on the agenda of the upcoming U.S.-Soviet summit.
The next time Göncz met Bush, the Soviet troops were well on their way out. On June 19, 1991, after more than 45 years of occupation, the last Soviet tank left Hungary.
Göncz worked together with some of the greatest personalities of the time, such as Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa, presiding over Hungary’s accession into NATO. When he was asked to become a member of Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation’s international advisory board, he readily agreed.
He was respected in the U.S. as well as throughout the West. But most importantly, he was respected in his own country. Despite all the political conflicts inevitable in a young democracy, he remained a humble man with approval rates higher than all other political players in Hungarian modern history.
He will be remembered as an approachable, cultured, good humored, and sensitive person who stood up against both Nazism and Communism and who did his best to express the fragile unity of a free nation, one smile at a time.