One of the great stories of the 1980s to be obscured by the success of civil society organizations like Solidarity in Poland and Civic Forum in Czechoslovakia was the rise of an independent peace movement in a region dominated by official peace councils. Freedom and Peace (WiP), for instance, had a tremendous influence on what would become Poland’s first non-Communist foreign policy. The Independent Peace Association in Czechoslovakia was an important pre-Civic Forum group of dissidents.
Before them all, however, was Dialogus in Hungary, which started in 1982 when the anti-nuclear organizing was gathering steam in Western Europe and the United States. The official peace organization in Hungary condemned U.S. and European nuclear weapons but accepted the necessity of the Soviet Union to build and deploy such weapons. Dialogus worked with its Western European counterparts – European Nuclear Disarmament (END), the women of Greenham Commons – to create a common front against all nuclear weapons.
Initially, as its name suggests, Dialogus was established to create opportunities for discussion with the Hungarian government and its official organs. “After I joined there were no opportunities to talk about disarmament with the government,” explains Dialogus member Pal Kochis. “There were only discussions with government people about the nature of our organization: its legality or illegality. The government thought it was really great that we were denouncing all nuclear weapons — except that we shouldn’t denounce the Soviet ones. But we denounced those nuclear weapons too. And that bugged the government.”
Kochis was active in the independent peace movement in the 1980s and later in the Wallenberg Society and the Green movement. He fondly remembers the contacts with activists from the West.
“Greenham Commons activists, Italian peace activists — they were doing things that we wanted to do, but couldn’t,” he told me in an interview as we sat outside at a bar in Budapest in May 2013. “We did do some actions, but not like that. They really did accept us as friends. And we looked at them as friends. One of our last actions was our international camp. That’s when the Hungarian authorities struck back. There were newspaper articles in the Hungarian press about how heroic the Greenham Commons women were for standing up against nuclear weapons — and then they were kicked out of the country! We were conspiring with them. For an entire day, the police didn’t know where our meeting was. They wanted to threaten us. But no one was physically threatened.”
After Dialogus, Kochis went on to help found 4-6-0, another independent peace organization. The name derived from the belief that World War I lasted four years, World War II six years, and World War III would destroy the planet in an instant. “4-6-0 is a memory now,” he says. “There’s no continuous legacy. Formally it still exists, because we never abandoned it. But we haven’t met in many years. We became private people. We had families. However, all of us who were part of this movement have raised our kids differently as a result.”
Eventually, after a period of intensive participation, Kochis fell away from politics. But he’s glad to see that young people are again creating new initiatives in Hungary.
“When the government decided to dismantle the Dialogus group, the police sought out my father at his workplace and had a conversation with him,” Kochis told me. “And my father came home and told us about it. The police told him that I shouldn’t do the Dialogus newspaper, but I was allowed to write for X, Y, and Z newspapers. I replied to my father, ‘They are trying to negotiate with me, which means that they are really weak. So I won’t take them up on the offer to publish in those other newspapers.’ Then my father told me that he’d been the head of the workers council in his company in 1956. So, he was a revolutionary himself. He said, ‘This is your time, you are the ones who know.’ He said that he wouldn’t voice his opinion on this. And today I say the same thing to my daughters.”
Can you describe how Dialogus was created?
It was formed in the summer of 1982, and I joined in December. So I know the pre-story only from hearing about it. I relayed this to you in the last interview, so I guess the question is how I see it now. The question might be, “How come the Kadar system was so soft?” I don’t know the answer to that. The only thing I can think of was that the socialist bloc made a decision that Hungary would become the showcase country — particularly because of 1956.
We used this opportunity. All of us used it, including the government. This was why the country could take on loans in dollars. As far as we know only part of this money remained in this country. When they thought we went beyond what they thought was an accepted limit, they let us know. At that point there wasn’t even a decade left until the transition. Toward the end of the decade, the fracturing within the state apparatus already started to happen.
I’m also interested in your own personal decision to get involved in December 1982. Was that your first decision of that nature?
When I first heard about this group, I didn’t believe it. I thought that if it was legal, it was Party-related. And if it wasn’t legal, then the state would destroy it. But my girlfriend at that time wanted me to go to the meetings, so I went. She’d given me a warning: the relationship was at stake!
Ah, the true motivation of political activism!
But then it became obvious that this was something that I liked.
What did you like about the organization?
The intelligence, the honesty, and the bravery. That we could actually do something, create something. We could state our opinion — that was very important — even if it wasn’t listened to. We were thinking freely.
Were you a university student then?
Were you studying computers?
No, mechanical engineering. At that time there were no PCs.
What did you think you would do with your life at that point?
I wasn’t thinking about that. I was living my life. I guess I did think I would have a family, a child. I would work as an engineer. In 1988, I was 30. So, I was 24 when I joined the group. What’s your life perspective at 24? I was running a jazz club at that time — at the university. It was a famous jazz club called R Club.
Did you play music also?
No. But there were concerts with famous Hungarian musicians. And we played records. And there was a lot of beer. Jazz club, peace movement, girls, beer, and wine!
When did you first meet with peace activists from other countries?
When I stepped into Dialogus — because it had a lot of connections with other peace movements, like END and CND.
What did you think of the peace activists from the West?
These are very difficult questions – to try to remember what I was thinking at that age!
Do you want me to get you another drink?
Of course, they were cool. I thought that in this sphere we were equals. Greenham Commons activists, Italian peace activists — they were doing things that we wanted to do, but couldn’t. We did do some actions, but not like that. They really did accept us as friends. And we looked at them as friends. One of our last actions was our international camp. That’s when the Hungarian authorities struck back. There were newspaper articles in the Hungarian press about how heroic the Greenham Commons women were for standing up against nuclear weapons — and then they were kicked out of the country! We were conspiring with them. For an entire day, the police didn’t know where our meeting was. They wanted to threaten us. But no one was physically threatened.
Later, I had a meeting at the university – I was still in school at the time studying electrical engineering. It was the Party leader, the Communist youth leader, the director of the school, and me. But I wasn’t kicked out of school because the director was a great guy.
The point of Dialogus was to meet with government people as well. What was that like?
I was not part of that dialogue. It happened before I joined. After I joined there were no opportunities to talk about disarmament with the government. There were only discussions with government people about the nature of our organization: its legality or illegality. The government thought it was really great that we were denouncing all nuclear weapons — except that we shouldn’t denounce the Soviet ones. But we denounced those nuclear weapons too. And that bugged the government.
Did you know who the informers were in your organization?
We knew that there were many of them. And we looked into the files, which were released, but the names were blacked out. What’s really interesting is that people say that the person who founded the organization, Ferenc Koszegi, was the government agent.
Do you still keep in touch with him?
No, but not for that reason.
What is he doing now?
He’s a book trader. I would be happy to see him again. We were really good friends. I would be able to ask him directly. But I don’t think the accusation is true.
So, Dialogus continued until the international gathering?
After the camp, it could only work illegally, and then it fell apart. Many people left. Some people got scared. There were some people who were punished. Some people continued in this illegal format. And then a few of us started 4-6-0. We held Hiroshima Day in 1985. It was a tough game to organize that.
Describe those difficulties.
This was the idea of the founder of 4-6-0, Ferenc Koszegi, who had also been the founder of Dialogus. He said that there were all these Hiroshima Days all over the world, but he was traveling abroad at the time so I had to take charge of the organizing.
We couldn’t organize this in a secret way, so the government had to accept it in some way. Again the government said, “You should just protest against U.S. nuclear arms.” And again, we didn’t listen to them. We gave out leaflets. That was the first legal distribution of political leaflets that didn’t come from the government since 1956. I wrote the text. The National Peace Council, the official government organization, was going to print the leaflet. The only thing they insisted on was to include the words “against U.S. nuclear arms” in the text. I said, “Then we’ll cancel the whole thing.” I wasn’t bluffing. I was risking the whole thing.
So, America was not included in the leaflet. This was a common action. We decided that none of the groups would be included at the end. When the leaflets arrived on the day of the demonstration, it was signed by the National Peace Council. It occurred to me that I should cancel it. It was actually on the news. They announced the event as if it was an action of the Communist peace organization. People who knew about us also knew that it had to be of an action of 4-6-0. So they showed up on Ferenciak Ter. And they handed out the leaflets. And there was just an amazing spirit.
I was really exhausted on the day of the event. I lay down to take a nap. We told people to bring candles. When I woke up and walked out of the building it was already dark. I walked out of the building and there were candles everywhere. It was just an amazing feeling. That’s why I’m glad that I didn’t cancel it. There were many high points of the day. For instance, I gave an interview to Izvestiya.
No, through a translator. I was supposed to learn Russian in school. But I didn’t.
Were there other actions that you felt strongly about in those days?
Of course there were, especially the ones that we put a lot of effort into. 4-6-0 existed for some time before 1989, and we knew each other’s thinking for a long time. We’d talked over the disarmament issue quite deeply. There had been lots of demonstrations and many signatures collected on the petitions. When I was at these coalition meetings, I would often decide to sign on behalf of the group. I knew their thinking. Later I’d ask if I did the right thing, and they said yes. For that reason, we were quite effective.
Everyone thought we were a really huge national organization. When someone finally asked me, “Is this really a national organization?” I had to say that we were just in Budapest. I had to disillusion this person, because they really didn’t want to believe this. I said we were 10 people. But at that point we were really only five people.
So, you were a neighborhood organization!
But we were part of these umbrella organizations. They were listening to us because we had five years of experience behind us, and that was a lot in those days. Just before the transition there was a lot of organization-building among opposition groups, but they didn’t have a lot of experience. Our experience really contributed to the strategy of getting around the authorities without their knowing it. This was a short period of time. Later things became more radical, and our technical knowledge wasn’t needed any more. I’m sorry, looking back, that these organizations didn’t learn these techniques. The arrogance present in Hungarian politics today is unfortunately a result of this.
I was also part of the Wallenberg Society, the legal committee for environmental organizations, and the Nagymaros dam organizations. I was a founding member of the Green Party. I wrote the ground rules for the Green Party. 4-6-0 started a publication called Survival, which I first edited with a guy from Fidesz after which I became the sole editor. This was the first newspaper that announced the founding of Fidesz.
4-6-0 is a memory now. There’s no continuous legacy. Formally it still exists, because we never abandoned it. But we haven’t met in many years. We became private people. We had families. However, all of us who were part of this movement have raised our kids differently as a result.
Were you tempted to run for parliament?
When we founded the Green Party, I was a candidate. And the Green Party didn’t get into parliament. Then we were thrown out of the Green Party because the party didn’t get into parliament. The authentic people were kicked out, and then there was no longer any press coverage of the party. I was used to giving interviews at that point. The journalists knew me. The Danube Circle activists also were used to giving interviews. We knew what the interviewers wanted to hear and what the readers wanted to read. Some people within the Green Party felt envious of the attention, as did some people from the Communist youth movement. They thought that they could do it better and that they then would get the interviews. But they didn’t do it better, and the press ignored them.
This story is a good example from those years. The intellectuals responsible for carrying out the transition movement were either kicked out of parties or out of politics. The second line remained: the people who didn’t dare to open their mouths, the cowards. Of course I understand their frustration since they were not there at the transition. But this is the reason why politics after the transition period became debilitated. I suspect it was the same in most post-socialist countries. In the second or third elections in most countries, the former Communists returned to power, because they had the experience. The other parties didn’t have the people in them who could be the magnets. Of course there were a few exceptions, like Viktor Orban. But he has autocratic methods. And also unprincipled behavior.
Twenty years wasn’t enough to get used to the good sides of democracy. In a dictatorship you can be stupid. But in a democracy you shouldn’t be.
When you say stupid, what do you mean by that?
Most people don’t see beyond their noses. And they don’t recognize that they suffer disadvantages because of their shortsightedness. Many people who lived during socialism see what they want to see and hear what they want to hear, and that’s all. Of the generation that was born after the transition, half of them probably don’t care about such things any more. But hopefully the other half will be able to do this better.
Were there any peace movement activities here in Hungary around the war in Yugoslavia or when Hungary joined NATO? Was there a peace movement response to any of this?
There were some weak responses. These were not a continuation of the older movements. When Hungary joined NATO, an organization held an action to raise anti-NATO awareness. Environmental movements demonstrated to prevent military deployments. There was also a weak response to the war in Yugoslavia and first Iraq War. Shortly before the start of the second Iraq War, however, an organization did a giant peace sign made out of torches. It was done in Hungary first before it spread to other parts of the world.
Our wish to join the West was stronger than our desire to work towards peace. I have ambivalent feelings toward Saddam Hussein. Of course people were tortured and killed there. History has posed this question many times. Up until today, we have still not been able to provide an effective answer today. Of course, the human rights and peace movements are brother and sister. If there is a dictatorship and a war against a dictatorship, which one of my fingers do I bite? I don’t think there’s an answer to this.
When I was young, I said that with good politics you could avoid war and reach your goal without violence. I still say this. I suppose that there are smart people who could do the smart governance and diplomacy to avoid wars. But if there are such people, they are not politicians. They are involved in something smarter, like research and writing.
Are you involved in anything right now in terms of peace?
No, I am very passive.
You’re not happy with the Fidesz government.
No, I don’t like those people. I can’t find English or Hungarian words to describe how I feel. No government has been as shameless as this one. I have 10 more years before my retirement. I am an old man now. I don’t actively do politics, not for a while now.
When we were kicked out of the Green Party, we still went to the national meetings of the environmental activists. We took our kids with us. There was a lot of talk about what kind of funding they should be getting. That was so foreign to me. In the old days, we didn’t have any money. We did everything on our own, using our creativity and our commitment and enthusiasm. This newspaper Survival — I carried this out on my own, including the photocopying, which you couldn’t do legally. But I was able to do it at the Hungarian TV. This environmental organization wanted to do a newspaper, and immediately they wanted to know how much money to raise. That was alien to me. I didn’t feel any passion there.
Somehow we dropped out. Now there’s some movement going on. There’s LMP (Politics Can Be Different). But I missed out on too much, and now I’m tired. Young people need to do this now. We were young people when we were doing it. My father said the same thing to me. When the government decided to dismantle the Dialogus group, the police sought out my father at his workplace and had a conversation with him. And my father came home and told us about it. The police told him that I shouldn’t do the Dialogus newspaper, but I was allowed to write for X, Y, and Z newspapers. I replied to my father, “They are trying to negotiate with me, which means that they are really weak. So I won’t take them up on the offer to publish in those other newspapers.”
Then my father told me that he’d been the head of the workers council in his company in 1956. So, he was a revolutionary himself. He said, “This is your time, you are the ones who know.” He said that he wouldn’t voice his opinion on this. And today I say the same thing to my daughters.
How old are your children?
20 and 21. Two girls.
Are they revolutionaries too?
Their goal is not to be revolutionary but to be independent, thinking individuals with moral values. They shouldn’t just follow rules without knowing why they are following rules. I think they are actually doing this. For my two children to turn out this way is as good as any kind of political action.
When you think back to your worldview from 1990, has anything changed in the way you have looked at the world? You mentioned that many people shed their illusions. Did that happen to you as well?
By the time I understand what today’s world is like, it’s already different. Everything has sped up. It’s like evolution: which animal survives is the animal that can adapt the best. They can’t remain the same. They always have to adapt. So I don’t know what the world is today. Of course I can say certain things about it. Environmental issues, for instance, have come to the forefront, though they are not important enough. The world economy is undergoing complete change. For example, we only see the outlines of the role that Europe might be playing. The world is way past the questions of the 1980s, which was the nuclear confrontation of the east and west. Those movements were needed for us to survive that period. But it’s not important any more, although maybe it’s still important for you.
Many people, not just here but in other parts of the world, have lost their illusions. And what has replaced those illusions is not positive. People need to be idealistic in some ways. They need to believe in something. Illusions are fed by our hopes that our goals can be met. When it turns out that it’s not possible, then we become frustrated. We look for the responsible parties. We become insecure. The smart but cynical politician or party can wrap people around their fingers. They’ll point to anyone or anything that is “different” and say that they are the ones who are responsible. In this way, they deflect attention from themselves. That’s how they organize their team.
There was a huge demonstration that the government sponsored, a “peace march” of right-wingers in support of Fidesz while Fidesz was in government. And we learned that it was organized by Fidesz and they even brought people from Poland to join them.
When was this?
The first one was in fall 2011. And there was another last year. And this is the same Fidesz that I announced the formation of!
The last questions are quantitative. When you look back to 1989 and everything that has changed or not changed in Hungary from 1989 until today, how would you evaluate that on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being most dissatisfied and 10 being most satisfied?
The transition was a 7. But if I look at the whole period, what is going on right now brings down the number a lot. I can’t give a negative number because certain features are okay. So, 2.5. Until 2010, the number would have been higher. There was a 30,000 percent inflation rate at the beginning of the 1990s. I’d give a 2 for that. At that time the socialists, with the liberals, had a 4/5 majority in parliament but they didn’t abuse that authority in the same way as Fidesz did now. For that I would give an 8. There was a certain package of structural adjustment reforms proposed by one of the finance ministers at that time, without which the country wouldn’t have survived. And the government had nothing to do with environmental policies at all. Now you can make an average of that.
Same scale, same period of time: your own personal life?
If we look at my private life, the same factors apply. Certain things get a 10. But others not. Whatever I say it’s not realistic. I’m very satisfied with my children. I’m not feeling so bad. I refuse to get upset over certain things even though they are just as offensive as before. But at the age of 55, if I don’t learn to manage certain conflicts in my life, I won’t live until I’m 60. And there are many people who don’t learn. I was very luck to have a father that I could learn a lot from. But he’s not alive any more. He recently passed away. I’ll say 5, which reflects my uncertainty.
When you look into the near future, how do you evaluate the prospects for Hungary on a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?
Where do you come up with questions like this? Everything can change in 2014. The number I give here depends on what I think about the elections. If Fidesz remains in power, then it’s 1.5. If change is possible and the next government survives a whole election period, then a 4.5, and that’s very optimistic. If it’s possible to kick Fidesz out of office, it’s only possible because of a coalition of very different forces. I am not expecting any grassroots change to happen. That would be the best.
Budapest, May 9, 2013
Interpreter: Judit Hatfaludi
Pal Kochis, a long-time peace activist, gave me a chronology of Hungary’s peace movement. In 1982, Kochis helped to found the first peace group, Dialog, which began contacts East-West early on (E.P. Thompson writes about the group in Double Exposure). Dialog had hoped, as its name suggests, to communicate with the government, to function as an intermediary between movement and the authorities. There were a hundred very active members, a thousand not so active, and roughly 10,000 supporters. Apparently, neither the government nor the democratic opposition liked Dialog: the former because Dialog was competing with the official peace organization and the latter because Dialog was simply a larger movement. In early 1983, Dialog produced a bi-weekly and this really started the samizdat publishing movement. They also produced the movement’s first badge: which allowed you to recognize a Dialog member or supporter instantly.
Philosophically, Dialogue was close to END: both the U.S. and Soviet Union should withdraw missiles from Europe, both superpowers are responsible for the arms race. At the beginning of Soviet SS-23 deployment, Kadar was not keen about having them, so Dialog was an acceptable group. Then, when the Soviets announced that SS-23s would not be deployed in Hungary, the government changed its once-tolerant attitude. The Soviet-Hungarian deal, as Kochis imagines it, went like this: Hungary wouldn’t get nukes but in exchange, Dialog would have to be absorbed into the official peace council.
Whether the Soviets or the Hungarians ever considered such a deal, the Hungarian government did begin a campaign of harassment against Dialog in the summer of 1983. Representatives of the police sent letters to the workplaces of members and meetings were arranged. Kochis was at school at the time and was ushered into a meeting with the school principal, the head of school’s Party organization, and the head of KISZ. The trio explained to Kochis that Dialog was not a good organization, that it opposed the government and the nation. Kochis responded that Dialog was an anti-militarism movement, that sometimes its views differed from the official view, but that Hungary was a free country and such views could be expressed.
The trio was apparently stymied and no further action was taken. Other Dialog members were not treated so nicely: one member was given a choice by his boss between continued membership in Dialog and his job. Pressured, he chose the second. In general, Kochis noted, the opposition got the “hard” treatment and Dialog members received the “soft” treatment. But for young students, the “soft” treatment was a sufficient discouragement.
Dialog’s last major action was an international camp in 1983. After not being able to schedule a spot outside of Budapest, the group of participants from East and West went to Magarit Island in the city and had their discussions. At the end of the week, the police broke up the meeting and kicked the foreign visitors out of the country. As a result, Dialog split into two factions: the “radical” wing argued that independence was most important and the “moderate” wing argued that the peace movement was nothing if it were illegal.
The radical wing went underground, gradually dwindled and disappeared. The moderate faction, under the influence of a new member in 1984, began to work predominantly on the issue of conscientious objectors. But in 1984, also, a wide variety of quasi-independent groups could be formed within official organizations. 460 emerged on the outskirts of the official peace council: it signed the END appeal and attracted many young members. In 1986, 460 had achieved a high profile: Kochis, for instance, appeared frequently in the media. Western peace groups wanted to work exclusively with 460; reform communists could also point to 460 as an appropriate organization. In 1985, 460 sponsored the first shadow project for August 6. Commemorating Hiroshima day, group members outlined themselves on the pavement at a major square in the middle of Budapest and lit candles. [460, by the way, refers to the number of years of the first two world wars and the hypothetical number of the third world war].
By 1988, other organizations were appearing–FIDESZ, Democratic Forum–as the space between illegal opposition and official organizations widened. In that year, 460 founded the Hungarian Peace Society and cooperated in the opposition against the Nagymaros dam. But both 460 and the Peace Society receded as the move toward pluralism intensified.
Kochis anticipates that interest in civil movements will return and that he will be able to restart both 460 and the Peace Society. (By the way, he works an enormous amount: 8 hours a day, 2 and 1/2 hours of travel time, flat repairs and then work in the Greens, the peace movement and on the new movement newsletter “Survival.”) Three months ago, within the Green party, he founded a non-violence group that attracted many people more connected to movement than politics. The major rallying point was a government proposal (initiated by the previous government) to make handguns and teargas readily available, a request ironically supported by the police force! Why? Kochis thinks that people have been swept up by this move to the West: the West has readily available handguns (at least, so Hollywood says) therefore guns must be available in Hungary as well. An added factor: some of the police could go into business for themselves.
Although he has grown disillusioned with the Green party, Kochis still is optimistic about the formation of a network of small groups. He cites the example of the creation of a peace group, Movement for Global Parliament, in Szorvacs, a community of only 20,000. He has also written to END suggesting that the organization become European Neutrality and Disarmament with a new center in Berlin.