The Irish comedian Tommy Tiernan had a routine that discussed the standard 1-2-3 division of Irish school classes. For Tiernan, group (1) consisted of those who did arts degrees; group (2) numbered those who went on make money; and, as for group (3), well, that was just where the bus brought them.
A Hungarian friend once explained the very different streaming trinity that operated in schools in the Eastern Bloc:
(1) the children of Party apparatchiks;
(2) the children of actual workers;
(3) the children of those that the parents of group (1) employed to keep the parents of group (2) in line.
On 13 February 2008, I paid a visit to the House of Terror, the Terror Háza, on Andrássy út in Pest, where the tour started on the second floor with an animated map graphic showing the ebbs and flows of Hungary’s borders in the twentieth century. The lines moved to and fro to a rhythmic, ominous soundtrack that was soon echoed elsewhere in the building by the “Hungaria” onscreen ranting of the widely supported fascist leader Szálasi, in a room lined by Arrow Cross uniforms.
Even when the SS had fled, after the Russians had crossed the Danube upriver, the Arrow Cross continued to shoot any Jews they could find on the Buda side of the city. Many Arrow Cross thugs and torturers nonetheless found new jobs in Rákosi’s post-war secret police and, indeed, there remains a sizeable fascist following in Hungary to this day.
The even more enthusiastic (Stalinist, as opposed to Nazi) puppet Rákosi appeared sinister in a more low-key way than Szálasi – he was like a bank manager, with a shaved head – but it was interesting to note that Kádár himself had received a dose of the medicine there, before he got the top job.
A bright, likeable boy with an impoverished upbringing (his father abandoned his mother before he was born), János Kádár tirelessly resisted the various forms of fascism that Hungary endured up to 1945 but, having been spirited away to Moscow in 1956, he sided with the Soviet invasion. In accepting a Soviet garrison of 200,000 in its aftermath, he was able to divert much Hungarian defence spending into welfare.
Today he remains the much-missed (by many) Jani bácsi (‘Uncle Johnny’). His regime proved to be the most liberal state in the Eastern Bloc, even though the communists had destroyed all independent cultural and folk institutions, leaving a deeply cynical, atomised society.
Kádár ruled from 1956 to 1988 at a time when Western loans, Eastern Bloc protectionism and some low-key private enterprise helped maintain a standard of living beyond the reach of most Hungarians since 1989. “A krumplileves legyen krumplileves, elvtársak” (‘The potato soup should be potato soup, comrades’). Life is a compromise, he also famously observed. His favourite book was said to be The Good Soldier Švejk.
The House of Terror dungeons were smelly and it wasn’t like a wine cellar – my companion, a dental patient, thought they might have added some audio (“screams”) down there but then added that it would surely have freaked out the many young girls we saw touring the place.
After all that, I suggested Beckett’s Irish bar, where soon we got talking to a familiar English face in the form of J., late of the French Foreign Legion and security contracting in Afghanistan. He told us that when the late bomb-maker Edward Teller, a Hungarian, was asked during an Internet Q&A session if he thought there were aliens on Earth, his answer was unequivocal.
“Yes. There are ten million of them… and they all live in Hungary.”