Times and tides.
`This is the way the world ends, Not with a bang but a whimper': Eliot at his most concise and stark rather than flaccid; Eliot with the parsonical generalities. But the world has not ended yet, only bits of it. And the Soviet world ended with neither. Rather it-went down like a slow puncture, making a barely audible hiss, and Hungary, where in 1989 guards gave up stopping East Germans going over the Austrian border to West Germany, represented the tyre flapping and shredding against the tarmac.
The Hungarian `bang' came long before the end. It came in November 1956. No-one who lived through even the reports of events that week in another country will forget it. It was the stuff of exaltation, menace, renewed hope and then the sort of black tragedy which is perfect, fearful education. Any sentimental goodwill for the Soviets which might have been left from wartime good feeling died in that week. I had teachers who were Marxists, profoundly unsinister men to whom Auden-style thirties attitudes still clung. But when the tanks came across the Budapest chain bridge and fired on the crowds, stomachs which had made allowances for the Czech putsch and, after Khrushchev's secret speech, had blamed Beria for 'excesses', finally turned. (The correspondent of the Daily Worker, Peter Fryer, would before that day's work was done, resign from paper and Party and report the killing).
We read that Monsieur Rakosi (there was a great Foreign Office tendency to treat all foreigners as honourary froggies), had been replaced as First Secretary by Monsieur Geroe. Ernoe Geroe was hated quite as much as Matyas Rakosi - and Rakosi, who had been Stalin's chosen man in Hungary, had ruled like a psychopath: instituting torture, hangings and terror for the sheer joy of it. Suddenly there were cries from the streets of `We want Imre Nagy'. He seemed like a good chap and actually he was a good chap - an agricultural specialist who had earlier tried to encourage the peasants to earn a little private profit for their apricots and red cabbages and had been removed as agriculture minister for such right-wing deviationism.
Communist politics in those countries were rather like football managerial life in Britain today. One minute you are running Flaxborough Athletic; then after a meeting in the more democratic set-ups, you aren't. Maybe you go on to a club in the lower divisions and scramble back. Maybe the publication of your memoirs and pub ownership beckon. East European politics was like that ... with executions.
In 1984, Orwell's Jones, Aaronson and Rutherford are deposed leaders hanging about the Chestnut Tree cafe waiting to disappear from the face of the Earth. In Czechoslovakia all that remained of Vladimir Clementis was his hat, sycophantically loaned to Comrade Gottwald for a team photo of the Politburo. Airbrushing and hanging had got rid of the rest of him.
Imre Nagy lived - available to the crowds who rejected heroic Soviet Union and the meaning of life. He would have only days in power, fatally accepting that the people wanted a bang: the rejection of the Soviet system. The Soviets had their own bang and they fired it out of tank turrets. The Hungarians would then live for thirty years under Janos Kadar, first collaborating, and hated, then bringing back Nagy's small peasant profits (and food) and almost liked. Kadar tired, the system developed a puncture. It dropped Kadar in his old age and brought in Karoly Grosz, either to mend the puncture or come to terms with it.
Karoly Grosz is dead and given none of the farewell blah bestowed on Francois Mitterrand. I met him in 1989 and rather liked him. He said something which at that date, April 1989, was very big news, though persuading people back at my tabloid that anything in boring Eastern Europe might matter was a weary labour.
I had gone to Budapest at the suggestion of Leonard Appleyard, British ambassador in Hungary (now Sir Leonard and our man in China). Appleyard is a diplomatic genius and nice with it. Not the usual duke-snubbing Foreign Office nob, just a Hungarian-speaker who handled party leaders like a star lobby man with a good address book. He also brings home classical CDs under his coat so as not to annoy his wife.
I was to ring him if I went to Budapest. I did this at the end of 1988. Coming to the hotel for coffee, he gave, over twenty-five minutes, a hard definitive analysis of what was happening, who was up, who down, the balance between the reformers Pozsgay and Nyers, and assorted Sovietish figures.
These last included the 'Ferenc Muennich Society' named for the most abject Soviet loyalist of 1956, whose stalwarts kept jumping up like Margaret Thatcher to demand a return to the good old days. And Piggy-in-the-middle trying to stay on his feet, was Karoly Grosz.
Once he had talked of reform turning into 'a white terror' (and they had a White Terror in Hungary - in 1920). Mote recently, he had leaned towards reform. `Look' said Appleyard, `you're on holiday now. Come back professionally before midsummer. These are-going to be the most important six months in Hungarian history'.
So in April I talked to Imre Pozsgay, the Bishop of Seged and to Gyula Horn, then foreign minister (and doing alright today - he is prime minister). But chiefly, I had an appointment with the First Secretary.
This was in April 1989. The CP had conceded many things, but it was still the sole party of state and its offices the centre of the universe. They were at the White House, handsome Party HQ near the copy-cat Gothic of Hungary's Westminsterish parliament. There is a seriously armed people's dragoon at the door, opened, like any creaking castle portal in a Bob Hope horror, by Gale Sondergaard.
This was an unrelaxed lady with a dab of `Disapproval' behind her ears, who, like the statuesque forties Hollywood character actress she so closely resembled (who, oddly, had strong left-wing tendencies), she conveyed six feet without necessarily going all the way. She took me into a great hall with a mural full of working-class defiance, tensed pectorals and cloth caps. The staircase was expensive wood and grandiose, though a touch tight on the corner for Busby Berkeley girls. But Gale Sondergaard was not giving a guided tour and we marched upstairs, via an anteroom that could stage seven-a-side football, to the beautifully pannelled office of the First Secretary himself.
A big, dark man, muscular, not flabby, the centre-haff type, sat at the far end of a table, surrounded by what looked like yes-men and nodders. In fact, Gyula Thurmer, his PA, had the pleasant style of Jim Hacker's Bernard from Yes Minister.
Grosz talked in a way still startling at that date: `Some taxes, notably on business, are absurdly high. I want to reduce them'. He offered a shot of premature Norman Lamontism: 'If I have to chose between unemployment and inflation I should choose the first'. Finally, `We understand that for the information and expertise to make liberalisation work, we will need private share capital ownership and a stockmarket'. These are now the commonplaces of East European transformation, but in April 1989 they were rough political cider.
Economic liberalisation was one thing, but Appleyard had explained that there had been a great fight inside the presidium for political transformation. The progression from Old Party to Reformed Party to elections and sharing power had been a snarling cart ride. There would be elections, but how much had the Party really given up in its heart? Even in this April '89 conversation, Grosz thought that 'the elections of 1995 will be the ones that matter'.
The total break would only come, said Appleyard, when the party faced up to a piece of ritual history. Imre Nagy, the last man to talk about making liberalisation work had been overthrown by Russian tanks crossing the Chain Bridge. Held a prisoner for nearly two years, in 1958 he had been hanged with three colleagues as a traitor to the working class.
For thirty years Nagy had been an unperson - `We don't talk about him'. He was now the spring of the lock. Concede his death as wrongful, it was agreed, and you invalidate the regime. I left this question deliberately late, after stockmarkets and tourism and joint ventures with the South Koreans. I asked it though, and the words hung in the air for about ten seconds as careful thoughts assembled and dropped into place. `I think that the view should now be taken that Imre Nagy was a force for Hungary and for the Hungarian people'.
From the man who had talked about reform as `white terror' this was momentous, carrying within it the dissolution of a regime which, however softened under Janos Kadar (and then arthritically tightened up a bit), was the creation of tank and gallows. I had seen Russian tanks the day before, scores of them, in the railway yards at Kecskemesvar in the apricot belt - loaded onto tenders to travel East.
I was the first western journalist Grosz had given an interview to and he had told me that the game was up, the old game anyway. Before summer was gone Imre Nagy had been formally exonerated and re-buried with honour. And Hungarian frontier guards could think of no reason to stop East German visitors passing West via Austria. Something said that morning had now taken its logical course.
For Grosz had intimated then that he must bow before historical inevitability which for a Marxist is rotten luck. It was neither bang nor whimper, but a graceful exhalation in a few words and worth thanks.