György Konrád, 12. 10. 1987, Budapest, Hungary

Questions to the narrator


Location Budapest, Hungary
Date 12. 10. 1987
Length 29:22

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Jacques Rupnik: What does the partition of Europe mean to you, and to people here?

György Konrád: You know, there are two parts of Europe. One is more lucky than the other. I am living in the part which is not so lucky. So I am not so pleased by this partition, because I am, with a lot of people who are living here, the loser. And the loser is never satisfied with the status quo. Probably the superpowers are more satisfied, maybe also the western part of Europe is also satisfied, but somehow the East Europeans aren't happy with their situation. And it's, yes, maybe also a factor of the destabilisation, because somehow it shows that this problem is not arranged. And that it's an anomaly, which became a normality. And this normality is accepted, because it was the consequence of the forces, but probably a situation, which was constructed after the war on the ruins of Europe, where the European nations were somehow physically and morally also destroyed, so a structure which was built on this terrain of ruins is not so valid and meaningful as it was immediately after the war. So after 40 years almost a half century, maybe the social forces in Europe are different from that of after the war, and probably a new political structure, even a new imperial arrangement would be necessary somehow to solve a simple necessity, how is it possible to render the self-determination of the European people on the whole continent.

Czeslaw Milosz says, that is often at the frontiers of Europe that the intensity of the European feeling, of the belonging to Europe, that is most strongly felt. Do you share that view?

Of course I share that view. I guess that we are not living any more in nation state societies. Somehow our real life networks and cadres are much more large, blocks and coalitions, bigger integrations are the framework of our life, and we are living in a ‘transetetic’ period. Of course what is the next meaningful integrations level, for example for a person here in Budapest, it's first of all it's Central Europe with all the uncertainties what does it mean, what it means. And the next level, which is also plausible is Europe, Europe itself and the whole European tradition in which we live. And I guess it's absolutely normal that after the natural sciences, after the techniques, also our self-reflection is not so parochial, nation-stately or nationally provincial as it was, and we conceive ourselves in European concepts and categories, which are shared in a cultural exchange between the European intellectuals. And we can see also that, there is a European Community at least on the top of the culture. In every branches and disciplines and sciences there are the people, who does the work in every country and they meet each other in a regular way. So I would say that there is an international society at least on the level of scholars, experts, writers, and so on, on the level of the intellectuals who speak also the languages of the other people. So this intellectual society can maybe suggest slowly and with fine hands a solution, which is less dangerous than the situation, the status quo what we have, and finally between two blocks there is a military border, a military border in the heart of Europe. And finally, if it will be a war in our continent then the possibility to die is hundred times stronger today as it was after the wars. The survivor possibilities, if there is a critical case are much smaller and reduced than they were. So only this point of view proposes also a new way of thinking about the problems, how they are solvable is another and far question.

Could one say then that culturally the real border, the real…

Not to accept the Iron Curtain in the culture, there are no two literatures in Europe, there is a European literature, there are colleagues and brothers, who share ideas each other, we read the books of the colleagues and there is no national or block frontier between the literatures.

How would you define the role of the intellectual, its change over the years, the intellectual cord between state and society?

Yes, the intellectuals have normal and understandable desires and necessities. They would like to live from their work, they would like not to be punished for their works, so they need some liberty. Sometimes they believe that they will have some liberty they have also the power. And this ambiguous relationship between intellectuals and power, it's a whole story of the humankind. We can say that in this century, in this part of Europe, intellectuals were pleased by right wing dictatorships, and left wing dictatorships, and believed that finally their security will be given by the participation in that kind of power. The attitude of the western type professionals was not really the mainstream of the intellectual attitudes. But I would say that now these nations and the consciousness and the culture also of these nations, came back to the origins, to the long-term trends, it's a kind of liberalism, liberalism and the kind of civil society, culture, in this part of Europe. So after these detours and deviations, it seems to become stronger and stronger a liberal consensus, liberal democratic, or such kind of consensus in this part of Europe, which is a dialogue between socialist and liberal values.

So intellectual who at the end of the war was fascinated by power, today is rather defined vis-a-vis power?

Yes, sure, sure. So this participation in the power was an extremely dangerous adventure and experience. Because some intellectuals got the power but lost his freedom. All of them lost their freedom. And it was a bad business, so after this disappointment, I would say, that the normal intellectual understand that he needs a kind of an assured and a gratified independence from the administrative power. So the participation, the sharing of the power, become here to basic principally in the, in the existent latent civil society, but I would say that it's a quite late development, and so we are backward in this intellectual… job.

In its independence and its freedom, but he's also a citizen responsible for the fate of his society. So he also has to take a stand.

He also has?

Has to take a stand.


He cannot simply withdraw into privacy, that's what I mean.

To have freedom means freedom of activities, freedom of expressions, freedom of the normal social and political life. And then it's the individual decision how to take part in the decisions, but it's normal that freedom is somehow an active notion. So freedom from the state means, a transactive contractual relationship to the state, it's not an accident that the idea of Rousseau Contract Sociale, the Social Contract, became just in these decades quite general idea in this part of Europe. For example, Adam Michnik proposed the same, how is it possible in a communist structure to have a contractual relationship between the state and some independent centre of or some independent body of the society? It's the same problem here too.

Isn't the main challenge, the main difficulty facing dissent in Central Europe to conceive of democratic politics and democratic alternatives in an undemocratic environment?

Sure. It's the main contradiction of this society. It means, that the normal social process doesn't need more these political forms, which the society have. It's too narrow and sclerotizing, so the normal social body articulates himself and there is a real pluralisation in the whole range of the society. In this case is normal the democratic values are stronger and stronger, but what does it mean democratic policy in this situation. It's a policy of people, of individuals, of groups, and it's a quite fresh situation, when people believe, individuals believe that they can have also their own policy. So policy's not only the activity of a big party or of a state. So there is an alternative parallel, dissident society, but the society is larger and larger, so we can speak also about a kind of civil society in this sporadic term. But when there is a shift and a rapid change, and I believe that just now even in this country there is a more accelerated process, it makes also the people are more awake, there can slowly arrive the period of a qualitative change. I am sure, that the conditions of a qualitative change from external, from the external side aren't given, so it will be a new conflict and I am really concerned how can we solve this compatibility or non-compatibility, that excuse me… I am really concerned how this country will avoid a catastrophe, catastrophes which can come out from possible new conflict.

But you have also gone through an experience of '56, you have followed the experience of '68 in Czechoslovakia and more recently of Poland, surely there is a learning process of the society of these experiences.

Yes, probably this learning process is the most important of what you mentioned, and I am sure, that this society learned a lot. The question is that the society is not, not the only player in the game, so the whole world in such cases is interested and involved. So maybe all the players have to be a little bit more lucid or…

What were the lessons of '56, from that point of view?

That without an imperial arrangement, a nation which longs for the self-determination, their self-determinees, self-determination, cannot liberate himself in an open conflict. But slowly can re-conquer pieces of the lost liberty but with these pieces maybe this nation, which made the necessary fundamental compromise will not be happy. And maybe even this compromise have an upwards way and will have a downwards decline too. And somehow the feeling in this country is now in this downwards decline. From the other side I would say that it's a kind of crisis, and in the crisis there are also same healthy elements, so something is coming.

The crisis and decay also paradoxically gives greater space to society. (YES) Because the regime is less able to control it.

Sure, the society is now more active. People communicate more, people come together, there are exchanges over the cultural families and political groups. People try to understand each other, groups, separate groups come together, and they exchange also their different views, so I wouldn’t say that there is the possibility of two party instead of one. I would say that there are very different political traditions and maybe they were cotted in traditions, but they come again on the surface, on the surface, so there will be a conservative nationalism, a left wing nationalism, a social democratic tradition, mostly human rights, oriented liberal tradition and so on. And even also the democratic or Euro-communistic tendencies. And of course all of these political lines and families have the new challenges and problems, which are coming from this everyday changing situation, because it is really a paradoxical reality going toward a market participation, toward an adhesion to the west and belonging politically to the east. Somehow this paradoxical side makes also the interest of this soc.. interesting side of this society.

You've coined a phrase, anti-politics. What did you mean by that? What is the new politics that you talked of?

Politic is not only a profession of those, who is a professional politician. It's a tautology. But there are a lot of people for example you and me, and all the people who make this film, who are not professional politicians, who doesn't belong to the political class. So they are not forced to ‘adaptise’ their views to the party line of their respective party line. Who have this absolute freedom of the speech to be critical or even cynical against the whole political rhetoric of the political classes. And I would say that this approach or this attitude is quite popular, it's a kind of pop politics, because people, simple people never talk so seriously the politics, they believe us, so that it's somehow tricky, it's somehow lying, and so on.

But there was another idea in your work, there was also alternative politics, ecology, human rights...

Yes, yes, it means somehow anti-politics is the attitude of those who would like to control the politics, who would like to survive the politics, the political classes the state's politics, and who would like to make their own politics in their own local or any organisations and, and environments. But maybe the main difference between politics and anti-politics is that anti-politics is the view of those who can be more victim of the game, and not the winner of the game, but in the political game, mostly the politicians are the winner.

The Hungarian Party has this image of being the most advanced reformer in Central Europe, the most radical advocate of pluralism within the one-party system. How far can it go, and how genuine is this kind of pluralism?

It's a rapport of forces, it's a relationship of forces and maybe this Hungarian state, was reasonable enough to make some concessions. And also there were technocrats and economists, who were somehow better informed about the world economy, so also the dependence of Hungary from the, from the export, exportation make Hungary more sensitive to the world economy realities.  So the economical liberalism and the kind of monetarism came in and created a funny reform inside of the communism. Of course this is a problematic trend, because not only politically, because there are 'opposants' a kind of a new Stalinistic 'opposants', but it's a very rude description. So new centralists, there is also a Czechoslovakian and GDR, so the scientific centralism. This was not the way of the Hungarian enterprise, they wanted more enterprise, but this structure is however extremely strong, so the reintegration capacity of a centralised state is a formidable, miraculous, so they believe that they decentralise and the functions come back to a magnetic centre of the centre. Maybe it's a, it's the structural law of this kind of political structure, but however there is a process from below, the second economics, which is somehow private, cooperative, small enterprises. Somehow the economy of the society became stronger and stronger, and the state somehow has a slow withdrawal in many dimensions of the society, culture, economics and so on. So there are fields, which are no more, no more controlled by the party, they are empty now from the party influence, for example in the culture there is no politic of the, of the party in the music or in the visual arts. There is now shaky, the party, the politics of the party in the literature. They have, then they go forward, then they go back, so they are quite uncertain. And so there are in many fields of the economics, so this game, this slow duel of society, and state of city and state, it's a long struggle, a struggle without too much noise, but the struggle is going every day also in the head of the same person, you know, different cultural mentalities are struggling each against the other. So how far can it go? There is possible to have some formal withdrawal from the party, now there is this duality of party and state. Now the state recognises, that finally I am the expert, I have more expert, I am more competent, I have the responsibility, now there is also a kind of revolt of the state against the party. But it's probably also that the political opinion will articulate also himself, and there will be some clubs, forums, associations, groups with names, without names, which will create a quite colourful political plane, political field, and there will be a slow crystallisation of these very different groups.

Yes, yes it will be a pluralism without democracy, I would accept this definition. A constitutional late monarchy is a little bit parallel to that, when the king is no more an autocrat, no more a tyrant, because there is a quite strong ‘parallelity’ between these monarchical, monarchical structure and the party structure, the first secretary a kind of king, and then the whole court, and there are a lot of similar characteristics. But yes it is the late ancient regime, maybe we will have an envy, because we'll lose this period, but there is probably a qualitative step forward from this kind of loose authoritarian structure with some pluralistic elements toward a democracy. And I am sure, that it will be not an easy transition. But, if we go a little bit further to the international perspectives, a kind of Finlandisation is the inside, the imminent project of this society, for us Finlandisation would mean a lot and in a good sense a lot.

What would it mean, autonomic for the societies of Central Europe, the foreign policy arrangement with Moscow?

First a pluralisation in this block structure. Finally, it would mean also to take seriously the rhetoric of the Yalta agreement, where it was clear that the Soviet troops will be here, but however free elections were proposed in the text of the Yalta Agreement. So first of all to make valid the Yalta Agreement, so it's a, in this sense the first step is not to criticise the Yalta Agreement, in the contrary to make it really valid. And to demand the paragraphs of this agreement.

Since we're talking about the empire, there is some change in the at the very centre of the empire, since Gorbachev has arrived, has the Gorbachev factor made any difference to the predicament of Central Europe?

The experiences shows that he doesn't support in these countries the more liberal forces, within the power structure, and within the establishment. So probably in the periphery he would like to keep the integration and the control, for making something in the centre. For having a better calm and tranquillity to do some changes in the centre. Maybe it's a reasonable tactic, but everybody has his own tactic, and Mr. Gorbachev has also his tactics, but probably it's a game, where there are more players. And in the sense the smaller countries of East Central Europe probably have a larger terrain of one, if there are, if there are politicians, statesmen on the top, who are enough courageous and who have some vision of a more organic Central European policy. In this sense if it would be such kind of tendency within the party, then I am sure that a quite large coalition would be possible, still in the non-democratic pluralism, so in this framework but it could, it would be able to prepare the terrain for a democratic change without violence.

György Konrád (1933–2019)

György Konrád

György Konrád was born on April 2, 1933 in Debrecen but spent the first eleven years of his life in Berettyóújfalu. His father was a wealthy iron trader, his mother came from a middle-class Jewish family in Nagyvárad, his sister Éva is a biologist in New York. He was married three times and had five children.

He and his family survived the Holocaust, his deported parents were able to return home in the summer of 1945. The members of the Konrad family were the only ones from the Jewish community in Berettyóújfalu to survive.

In 1956 he graduated from Eötvös Loránd University Faculty of Humanities. During the 1956 revolution he was a member of the national guard formed by the university students. While his sister, cousins and friends all emigrated to the West, Konrad chose to stay. For many years he had only been doing odd jobs, finally in 1959 he secured steady employment as a children's welfare supervisor in Budapest's Seventh District. These experiences gave the inspiration for his first novel A látogató (‘The Case Worker’).

From 1965 he did urban sociology related works with Iván Szelényi. They conducted several studies and written a book together: Az új lakótelepek szociológiai problémáiról (‘On the Sociological Problems of New Housing Developments’). The printing of his second novel A városalapító (‘The City Builder’) was rejected in 1973, and only the censored version was published in 1977. In the summer of 1973, he received an official warning from the prosecution and lost his job. In 1974, once again, together with Iván Szelényi authored a book, Az értelmiség útja az osztályhatalomig (’The Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power’). The manuscript was confiscated by the authorities, and a public proceeding was initiated against them for incitement against the state. Iván Szelenyi emigrated but György Konrád chose internal emigration, his writings were only published as samizdat. The manuscripts of his novels were smuggled abroad, translated into many languages and were published by the biggest Western publishers. In 1983 he received the Herder Award.

In the 1980’s he actively took part in the work of the democratic opposition and he was a founding member of the Szabad Demokraták Szövetsége (Alliance of Free Democrats).

He received the Kossuth Award in 1990, the Literary Peace Award of the International PEN club in 1991, the Károly Awards, one of the most prestigious European awards, in 2001. Two years later he was awarded the Magyar Köztársasági Érdemrend középkeresztje a csillaggal (Commander's Cross with Star of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Hungary). In 2004 he became Honorary Citizen of Budapest, and in 2007 he was given the Franz Werfel Human Rights Award. From 1997 to 2003 he served as the chairman of the Berlin Academy of Arts (Akademie der Künster) for two terms.

He published two autobiographical novels, Elutazás és hazatérés (‘Departure and Return’) in 2002, and Fenn a hegyen nagyfogyatkozáskor (‘On the Mountain during Solar Eclipse’) in 2003. In 2017 he began an autobiographical saga titled Falevelek a szélben – Ásatás 1 (‘Leaves in the Wind – Excavation 1’).

He died at the age of 87 on September 13, 2019, at his home.