Reflections on the 20th Anniversary of Hungarian Prime Minister József Antall’s Death

Washington, DC – On December 12, 1993, Prime Minister Antall died after a long illness at the age of 61.  He was considered a true Central European statesman by his peers.  As the region’s new democracies struggled, at times violently, to emerge from decades of communist repression, he kept Hungary on a stable centrist course. His major contributions to post-Communist history include being the first to propose the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, co-founding the Visegrad Group, and initiating the process of Hungary’s membership in NATO and eventually, the European Union.

Born in 1932 to an illustrious Hungarian family in Budapest, Mr. Antall, like many of his compatriots, managed to survive the Soviet dictatorship in Hungary by doing academic work.  First he worked as a teacher, then a medical history researcher, and finally as the Director of the Semmelweis Library of Medical History.  Together with his students from Eötvös Gimnázium, he participated in the demonstrations of the historic Hungarian 1956 Revolution.


On October 18, 1990 Prime Minister József Antall was accorded a formal welcome with full military honors

On October 18, 1990 Prime Minister József Antall was accorded a formal welcome with full military honors

On October 21, 1989, he was elected president of the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) by an overwhelming majority and became the party’s candidate for Prime Minister. MDF went on to win the elections on May 23, 1990, and thus he made history as the first freely elected leader of Hungary since 1945.

He described himself as a patriotic, liberal, Christian Democrat, who led a center-right coalition. His personal attitude to his role taken in the democratization process in Hungary is best expressed in his words: “This I can say:  I have no personal career goals.  I want to serve, for as long as my service is useful.  I do this according to my best knowledge, as long as I can and the Hungarian nation requires it.”

Under his leadership, Hungary quickly became an attractive destination for foreign investment and found willing partners to modernize and privatize state enterprises that needed external funding to be competitive in a new market economy.

In October 1990, he was warmly received by President George H.W. Bush for an official visit at the White House.  President Bush in his welcome remarks expressed his admiration and recognition: “Today in your homeland … Hungary’s new patriots believe that all things are possible for a nation and for a people; and they proclaim the individual, not the state, as the voice of tomorrow.  Today in Hungary that voice is being heard.  Hungary is no longer an emerging democracy; Hungary is a democracy.  The government you head is a sovereign, pluralistic, democratic European state.  The dream of Hungarians has been fulfilled and carried beyond their own borders to others in Central Europe.  And now, in 1990, Hungary has taken its natural place as a valued member of the commonwealth of free nations.”  Their cooperation charted a new and historic relationship between both nations.

He was greatly admired throughout the Hungarian diaspora and in particular the Hungarian American community.  Prior to becoming prime minister, he had formed long-standing friendships and support among our community leadership.

On his 1990 visit, he was greeted with genuine enthusiasm by leaders of the greater Hungarian American community in the Kossuth House in Washington D.C.  It was at this time that the formation of the Hungarian American Coalition was announced.  A few days later, 500 guests attended a festive dinner in Mr. Antall’s honor in Cleveland, Ohio.

“No one who comes after him will ever surpass what he did for Hungarians living outside the borders.” Hungarian writer, András Sütő said at his funeral.

The Hungarian American Coalition preserves his memory with profound respect. 

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