At the beginning of April each year, Hungary remembers József Antall, who served as our nation’s prime minister from May 1990 until his death in December 1993. Born April 8, 1932, he was our first democratically elected prime minister after the defeat of communism, and we commemorated him this year with the unveiling of a bronze bust set in the wing of the European Parliament that bears his name.
It was a touching ceremony with his widow, Klára Antall, present to do the unveiling along with Deputy Speaker of the Hungarian Parliament Gergely Gulyás and Deputy State Secretary of Human Resources Gergely Prőhle. Prime Minister Antall played a great role in our contemporary history, and I’m grateful to have some personal memories of his impact on today’s Hungary.
More than two decades have passed already since that December evening in 1993, but I remember clearly how the people stood quietly in that endless line that weaved around Kossuth Square before the Hungarian Parliament, waiting in a stupefied state of mourning to pay respects to our late prime minister as he lay in state in the rotunda. I remember how a resident of one of the nearby buildings came out and offered hot tea to the mourners on that chilly evening.
It wasn’t until late that night that I finally stepped into the rotunda of the Parliament to bow my head before Prime Minister József Antall. I was barely twenty years old and a Fidesz activist, not part of Antall’s Hungarian Democratic Forum. I was of a different generation, a different political movement. All the same, I wanted to bid farewell to our prime minister in a personal way.
What drew me, and so many others, to wait in that huge crowd there that night? Surely, it was the example that József Antall showed us.
He was an example in the way in which he, out of an awareness of a personal mission, seemed to spend his whole life preparing for a political life as a statesman. He set an example in the way in which he, although despising extremism, was always ready to strike political compromise out of a sense of democratic responsibility. And he was an example in his works and in his humanity, as an understated, refined gentleman.
He was an example in the way he had an effect on people that could transcend generations and political divides. He was the kind of example that, perhaps now more than ever, those of us who serve in this parliament would do well to understand and follow in confronting Europe’s crisis of values.
We would need József Antall’s determination, the way in which he remained faithful to his convictions even in the dark days that followed the crushing of the 1956 revolution. We would need his stubborn faith with which, even in the darkest days of dictatorship, he prepared to carry out his responsibilities when the day would inevitably come.
We would need his careful deliberation with which he, after some 40 years on an Asian detour that was communism, set Hungary’s place among the nations of Europe, where it has always belonged. Standing up, despite all, for a cooperation among the peoples of central Europe built over the ruins of the communist system.
And we would need his sense of Christian commitment as well, a commitment with which we would declare that a European community can be strong only when its founding nations honor their own values and respect one another’s traditions.