Gábor Demszky, 10. 12. 1987, Budapest, Hungary


Location Budapest, Hungary
Date 10. 12. 1987
Length 09:07

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Jacques Rupnik: What problems have you personally had with the police because of your activities as an underground publisher?

Gábor Demszky: I am an underground publisher, which means that I publish those books which can’t be published officially. Since '81 I am working in that field, and it means every year I publish 10, 15, 20 books. I had a lot of problems, mainly at the beginning, when we started this, '81, '82, '83, I was even sentenced to 6 months suspended jail because of that. But many times there were whole searches in my flat, searches in my flat, manuscripts, the books were taken away, I was punished for fine, last time in this summer I was punished for fine. And that means that one part of my activity have to be underground, have to be, have be hidden, so much as it is possible.

What sort of things do you write about, that the government doesn't like particularly?

There a many different fields, so there are certain authors who can't publish officially be. because simply of their names. We publish them. Some classics there are among them, for instance George Orwell, Orwell I published first in Hungary, Animal Farm in Hungarian language, and also the 1984, the Homage to Catalonia, his novel about the Spanish Civil War, and Arthur Koestler is another one, another example. But George Konrad, Hungarian writers, many of them who can't publish officially. And the subjects are different, many historical subjects, for instance 56 or the 68 even Czechoslovakia, or news, or essays about the Solidarnosc, these are particular subjects for the (unclear).  But there are many others, it is very hard to, to say all of them.

Why does the party go to such lengths to trouble you, to harass you, you are a very small group after all. What are they afraid of?

I think that this party doesn't control all of the (unclear) of the society, it doesn't control many things, the economy, private life of the people. But it has a monopoly, monopoly for informations, monopoly for the culture, and now I think the regime is getting accustomed to a new situation when not all the cultural life is controlled. A little part, not a lot, not completely, but it was a very slow and for us very difficult process, it was a very hard time.

We, we hear in the west about the intellectuals, writers, opposing the regime.  And of course in 1956 the whole working class opposed the regime, many workers did. Are there groups now that we don't hear about, that oppose the regime and why, why aren't they felt as a political force?

In ’56 the situation was very easy in a sense, the nation was one unity, the people workers, the peasants, the intellectuals, they were all poor in a sense, they impoverished in the last decade before '56, they spoke the same language, they have known what they, what they want, they wanted to get rid of the, that Stalinist leaders and that political system which caused all of these troubles to them.       But this kind of unity disappeared, mostly in the since the end of the 60's and in the 70's, because the reform split it and isolated the different social groups and this kind of unity doesn't exist more.

What particular group is very weakened as a result of the reforms; can you describe… (unclear)

Yes, to our skilled workers who, on whom this, who this process has burdened, these people who have three or more children, they do not live in the cities they live in outside Budapest and outside industrial centers, they have to travel every week and their wage is very low. So many times they have an, an old farm at home, the woman is working at home, with the children, the man is employed in the, in an industrial farm, it is a typical Hungarian family. And these people are isolated from each other in that sense that they live in different world and they do not have any kind of political representation, or they do not have any political pressure group which can represent their interest.

How does the party control society, now, in Hungary?

So it, the main job of the party is now to control itself, not the society. And they do not succeed too much, there are a lot of tangents in the party, within the party, different groups you can see within the party and also some kind of open criticism in the party meetings which did not exist before, which, which is quite new.

What are the, what are these, can you describe these main groups, who are they?

In the level, in the Politbureau level, it is very simple to say, because there are groups. Otherwise I do not think that there are the same groups in the, in the lowest level. In the party (overtalking)

What are these groups, what sort of, what do they believe in, why are they fighting with each other, what... (overtalking)

To describe it was very simply, there is a caderist middle, -   people who are appointed because of Kádár. Like the ex- Prime Minister, or          and many others.  There are some, have more, people most liberal, I do not   like the word because they are not liberal you know (phone..)  real sense...

Could you describe the basic different groups inside the party? – (The video starts here)

In the Politburo level it is very easy, there is a middle around Kádár, there, there are old-fashioned, let's say Stalinist Politburo members and there are the so-called liberals, but in the real sense of the word I would not say that they are liberals. And there are already, since the last year open debates among them. So there is a, in a sense, a starting of the post-Kadarist period.

Could you say something about where are the most important political decisions made, in the party?

In the Politburo level they are made, not in the Central Committee and not in the low level, it is a very centralized party. So all, all of the important decisions, many times even about personal questions, the Politburo decides. For instance, about the opposition, personally about me and about my friends, the party decides. The Politburo decides.

The Politburo decides what to do?

What to do with us. Yes.

Could you describe how the nomenklatura system works in Hungary for you?

To the, the nomenklatura is that to the most important functions in the economy and in the, in the cultural field, in the military and so on, the party have to point the leaders, not all they have to be party members but the party has a voice when they are appointed, an impo…  a very important voice.

Can you give an example how the party intervenes in daily life? The co-operative farms for example.

I think it's very typical, I was once present in a meeting where two operative leaders met with a local county party leader. There was a debate, a sharp debate between them, a real conflict, because the harvest haven't been done. So there were tensions, the party realized that, that there are some problems, and the co-operative, the far... the co-operative farm leaders wanted to go in front of the judge to decide. But his, not this happened, the party have made the decision.

Sorry can I give… can you just explain how, what the local party leader did in that dispute between the two co-operative farms… say

So, once more? As an example, I can tell you a harvest. The work hasn't been done, there was a problem because the plan, the plan was not fulfilled, it did not succeed. And the two co-operative leaders who had the debate about it wanted the legal process. There was a certain civil debate about, about the harvest, what proportions they would get, and in the reality not the judge, but one county party leader have made the decision. I was present there as a sociologist so I, I have seen how these bargaining, between them has, has been made...

How, how much, how different, how important have been the sort of political reforms in Hungary, like the introduction of more than one candidate in the local elections and for the whole economy?

It was not a real change, it was clear that the most important independent candidates, haven't become MP's, so they were not elected and they were not even on the lists of the National Front. But eventually some others in the countryside became MP's, and now in the parliament where are I think 30, 380 members, there are four or five people who are sharply criticized saying the official line, and there is, there are interesting discussions. It is like a new color… something which doesn't have real political impact, but makes the political life more interesting.

But the party still keeps essential control?

Yes, the, the party and the Politburo has the real control.

What impact has the economic crisis had on people's lives, very concretely?

As you know there is a new tax reform. It will, it will reduce the real wages, officially it is estimated to 10, 15%. because of the inflation. But we do not feel the impact of that yet. But we feel that in the last five years, most, most, the reform and the crisis was burdened on these mass of people to these poor people who are unskilled workers, and who do not have any political voice, any representatives.

Could you describe some personal experiences of actual violence you've experienced?

In '83 I was beaten up on the street by two policemen and…, because they wanted to take away a letter from my bag, and I protested against it and with, with rubber truncheons they beaten me, so I lose consciousness, I suffered brain concussion. I was for four days in hospital and in the end I have got six months suspended jail because of that. I was charged that I have assaulted a policeman.

And who were the witnesses who stood against you?

The witnesses were, were employees of the party center. Both.

How seriously is the party divided amongst itself?

The party is seriously divided in the level of the Politburo. As I mentioned, there are three different groups, and who they fight with each other, it has real historical consequences. For instances in '76 the reform was completely stopped, the city… the whole economy was frozen. They withdraw all, all of the reform steps and reform law and orders. So the consequence of that was an economic crisis, but they realized in '78, '79, that a new reform a course started. It was ended in '83, '84, when Kadar had a speech in the Central Bureau, he told, that the essence of the reform is that everybody have to work more.  It was an anti-reform statement. It was, I think because he was under the influence of the left-wing group within the Politburo.

In other words, a very small group of people in the Politburo can determine the whole economic and political policy of the country?

Yes, this little group can, can really decide the most important questions and the consequences of their decisions… (long pause)

So small groups of the Politburo determine political and economic policy for the whole country?

Yes a very small group, and we see the consequences for many years, for a long period. It takes always a lot of time when, and it is not sure that they can correct the mistakes.


Gábor Demszky (1952)

Gábor Demszky

Gábor Demszky was born in Budapest, on August 4, 1952. His parents were economists; his sister Anna is a special education teacher. He married five times, and is a father of four.

He graduated from Kafka Margit High School in 1970, and in the same year he became a student at the ELTE Faculty of Law. In 1972 he was expelled for one year due to political activity, his membership in KISZ (Young Communist League) was also suspended. He worked as a taxi driver and a librarian. Around this time, he wrote his first sociographical work titled “Borravaló” (Tipping). Later he returned to the university receiving his law degree in 1976.

From 1976 to 1981 he worked as a journalist for the monthly “Világosság” (Light). In 1979 he was one of the founders of the Szegényeket Támogató Alap (Poverty Assistance Fund) and signed a declaration of solidarity with Charta 77. Due to his political activity he lost his job, couldn’t travel or publish his work.

Between 1978 and 1981 he studied sociology at the Humanities Faculty of ELTE. At the end of 1981 he and László Rajk established the AB Independent Publisher. He also worked for the journal “Beszélő” (Speaker). In 1983 he became editor of the newsletter “Hírmondó” (Messenger) founded by him, co-authored the underground journal entitled “Máshonnan Beszélő” (Speaker from Elsewhere) and “Magyar Zsidó” (Hungarian Jew). In 1983 he was sentenced to six months in prison for violence against a public authority; the court suspended his sentence for three years. Later that year he was awarded the Freedom to Publish Award by the International Association of Swiss-based Publishers. In 1988-89 he received a scholarship from the Soros Foundation and spent ten months in the United States attending Columbia University.

He was one of the founding members of the Szabad Kezdeményezések Hálózata (Free Initiatives Network) in 1988, predecessor of party Szabad Demokraták Szövetsége (Alliance of Free Democrats). In 1990, he became a Member of Parliament, Chairman of the National Security Committee and member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs. He was elected Mayor of Budapest in the autumn of the same year. Between 1990 and 2010 he was elected five times as Mayor of the Hungarian capital.

He was awarded the Grand Golden Badge by the Provincial Parliament of Vienna for his outstanding activities for the province on 27 April 1998.

In March 2011, at the age of 58 he retired from office. In October 2011, he moved to Berlin for a year and a half, then lived in Washington for a year. In 2014 he moved back home to Budapest.