Wednesday 13 November 2019

Obituary: Arpad Goncz

President of Hungary and ex-dissident who forged links with the West in the era after Communism

Skillful diplomat: former Hungarian President Arpad Goncz is pictured in Budapest, Hungary in 2013
Skillful diplomat: former Hungarian President Arpad Goncz is pictured in Budapest, Hungary in 2013

Arpad Goncz, the first post-Communist president of Hungary, who died on Tuesday aged 93, worked with skill over a decade to realign his country with the West and heal the wounds of the past.

A benign yet passionate man known as "Uncle Alpi", Goncz had impeccable credentials as a dissident intellectual and a champion of human rights. He joined the anti-Nazi resistance, and taught himself to become an author and translator after being jailed for life for his part in the anti-Soviet uprising of 1956.

In the heady days after Hungary triggered the collapse of Communism in central Europe by opening its border with Austria, Goncz was overshadowed as a regional icon by the Czech playwright-president Vaclav Havel. But while he lacked Havel's charisma, his contribution to the new order was substantial.

Goncz was enthusiastic in forging links with the West, and particularly with Britain. He welcomed Margaret Thatcher to Budapest in 1990 on what would be her last European tour, and in 1993 Queen Elizabeth, who he noted was the first of her line to visit Hungary since Richard the Lionheart. He twice played host to Pope John Paul II.

Despite the scars left by communism and Soviet occupation, Goncz used his limited powers in domestic politics to press for tolerance, in 1991 trying to block legislation to punish crimes committed in the name of communism.

The prime minister, Joszef Antall, angrily accused him of overstepping his powers.

Goncz voiced concern that the over-hasty embracing of capitalism would destroy traditional Hungarian village life, and, having seen his wife working to support him while he was in jail, worried that the spread of feminism would make women forget what he considered their most important role.

Though his Free Democrats polled poorly in Hungary's first free elections early in 1990, Goncz was elected president with the backing of Antall's victorious Democratic Forum. He was comfortably re-elected for a second five-year term in 1995 with the backing of the Socialists, former Communists who had liberalised.

Arpad Goncz was born on February 10 1922, the son of Lajos Goncz and the former Ilona Heimann. He took a law degree from Pazmany Peter University in 1944, then was conscripted and ordered to Germany. Deserting, he joined the resistance.

In the confused times after the Red Army expelled the Germans, Goncz - who had gone on to study agricultural science - became leader of the youth wing of the Independent Smallholders' Party, assistant to its general secretary and editor of the political weekly Generation. On the Communist takeover the party was dissolved; Goncz was left jobless, before finding work as a welder and metalsmith.

In the upsurge of liberalism under Nagy, Goncz became active in a new Hungarian Peasant Alliance. After the Soviet intervention of November 4 1956, he helped draft several anti-Communist manifestos and smuggle abroad a manuscript from Nagy. Arrested in May 1957, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment after the state prosecutor had demanded the death penalty, saying that Goncz was the sort of traitor that deserved to be hanged twice. His youngest child was just 18 months old, and in the first year he was allowed one 10-minute visit from his family.

To pass the time and retain his sanity, Goncz learnt English in his cell, and on his release under an amnesty in 1963 became a freelance translator.

Translating 10 hours a day earned Goncz just enough to feed his family. Allowed to visit America in 1982, for a writers' conference, he arrived with just $5 in his pocket.

As communism crumbled in 1989, Goncz was elected president of the Hungarian Writers' Union and co-founded the Free Democrats. His party was trounced in the elections, Goncz scraping into parliament on its regional list. But when parliament assembled in its building beside the Danube, Goncz was elected speaker and interim president.

In November 1991 Goncz became the first Hungarian president to visit Britain, holding talks with John Major on bringing Hungary closer to the European Community - which it would join in 2004. He also joined Czech, Polish and Slovak leaders to advance President Clinton's "Partnership for Peace" in the region.

The Constitutional Court limited his powers in September 1991, and he faced censure by Parliament when he condemned the government for trying to dismiss the head of state radio for showing "a lack of political perspective". Goncz considered this a gross violation of the freedom of the press.

He stepped down in August 2000, being succeeded by Ferenc Madl.

Goncz's literary output included a novel, Men of God (1974), essays and short stories, Encounters (1980), Homecoming and Shavings (1991), and plays, Hungarian Medea and Iron Bars (1979) and Balance (1990).

Arpad Goncz married his wife Maria in 1947; she survives him, with their two sons and two daughters. One daughter, Kinga Goncz, served as Hungary's foreign minister.

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