Árpád Göncz, Hungary’s first post-communist president who held office between 1990 and 2000, has died at the age of 93. To this day, Göncz was the only president in Hungarian history to serve out the two five-year terms allowed under Hungarian law. He was affectionately known as “Uncle Árpi”.
Parliament observed a minute of silence on Tuesday. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said on behalf of the ruling Fidesz party that the memory of Göncz will be preserved with respect. “He was an active and important political personality during the years Hungary made its transition from dictatorship to a democracy,” Orbán added.
The Government Information Centre said it had conveyed its sincere condolences and sympathies to the family of the late president. It said the government, with the agreement of his family, would ensure a worthy burial.
The co-ruling Christian Democrats voiced their condolences, saying that the former president’s “life and person was intertwined with Hungary’s history at the time of the political regime change”. The party expressed its sympathy with the Göncz family and said his “memory and his achievement will not fade”.
The radical nationalist Jobbik party expressed its condolences to the family. Green opposition party LMP said Göncz played an important and exemplary role in the anti-fascist movement in the Second World War and during the time of the 1956 uprising. “We will remember with respect the first post-communist president of Hungary,” LMP said.
Ferenc Gyurcsány, leader of the opposition Democratic Coalition, said Göncz was among the greatest of the founding fathers of the third republic. Gyurcsány said on his Facebook page that Göncz, a 1956 revolutionary, played an active role as a member of the democratic opposition that paved the way for regime change.
The head of the Hungarian Socialist Party, József Tóbiás, referred to Göncz as a “symbol of national unity” whose “magnificent personality synthesised the worthiest ideas”. Göncz was a “benchmark, exemplar and symbol”, Tóbiás said.
The opposition Together party commemorated Göncz as a “true, committed liberal democrat”. The Hungarian Liberal Party said: “The life of Árpád Göncz was an example to every liberal democrat, and a true statesman … has been lost with his death.” Throughout his years as head of state Göncz had remained the most popular and best-loved statesman in Hungary. In retirement, too, he had remained one of the most popular personalities in the country.
President János Áder said Göncz became Hungary’s president in historic times and so he should be remembered as a historic figure. “We have lost a compatriot who was faithful to the European values of patriotism, democracy and humanism,” Áder said. “As a lawyer he represented justice, as a patriot he represented freedom, as a writer he represented responsibility for words stated, and as a president he represented human decency.
“When he was elected president by the first freely elected parliament, he said in his first speech that his credo was not being afraid of debates and that he would not hide his opinion because he trusted in the power of justice.”
President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker said Göncz was a friend and a true European: “He was a man of democracy who helped steer Hungary away from dictatorship. Men like Árpád rarely come along in the history of a nation, or even a continent. He was a man who lived by the strength of his moral convictions and remains to this day a source of inspiration.”
Juncker said he “had the good fortune of meeting him on many occasions and the honour of having been able to call him a friend”. He described Göncz as “a steadfast and admirable figure in the political landscape, not just in Hungary but in Europe as well. He was a true European, who knew that the destiny of his country lay within Europe, and in respect for democracy and the rule of law.”
After graduating from law school at Budapest’s Pazmany Peter University in 1944, Göncz was immediately drafted by the Hungarian army, an ally of the Axis Powers, but he deserted and joined the armed anti-fascist resistance instead.
He joined the pro-agriculture-based Independent Smallholders’ Party in 1945 – which Soviet forces prevented from forming a government alone despite its having received 57 percent of the first post-war vote – soon becoming the leader of the party’s youth organisation. He was active in the Smallholders’ parliamentary group and served as personal secretary to its general secretary, Béla Kovács, whom the Soviet authorities arrested and imprisoned in 1947.
In 1952 he enrolled in the University of Agriculture of Gödöllő but was expelled just before graduation in 1956 for political reasons. When the revolution of 1956 broke out in October, Göncz became a member of the Peasant Alliance, and when it was crushed in November he joined in the writing of a series of memoranda describing the reprisals and in getting them smuggled out of the country.
In 1957, through a comedy of errors, the judge mixed up his orders and Göncz was sentenced to death. When the political powers let the judge know his error, the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.
Göncz was released on an amnesty in 1963. While in prison he learned English and upon his release he took a job as translator for a chemical research institute. He became a full-time writer and literary translator in 1965, and is best known for his plays. Authors he translated into Hungarian include Doctorow, Faulkner, Golding, Hemingway, Susan Sontag, Updike and Tolkien.
The writer and literary translator became active again in politics in the latter half of the 1980s. He was a founding member of the liberal Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ) in 1988 and became president of the Hungarian League for Human Rights in 1989.
In May 1990 he was elected a member of parliament and soon became its Speaker. The two dominant parties in parliament, the Hungarian Democratic Forum and his own SZDSZ, elected him to a full five-year term as president. He was re-elected to another five-year term in 1995 and retired from the presidency on August 4, 2000 after ten years in office (Hungarian law does not permit more than two terms).
Göncz is survived by his wife Zsuzsanna and four children, including his daughter Kinga, a former foreign minister under the Socialist-Liberal government between 2006 and 2009.