Former Hungarian prime minister Gyula Horn has died aged 81, it was announced on Wednesday. He had been hospitalised in 2007 and had been suffering a serious illness ever since.
Horn helped to end the division of Europe into two Cold War blocs – eastern and western – that occurred after World War Two. Fifteen years after the fall of Communism in Hungary, he went back to where he’d symbolically cut through part of the Iron Curtain, when he was the last foreign minister of the old regime. His Austrian counterpart Alois Mock was there, too. In 2004, Hungary joined the European Union.
Horn thanked Mock for his support: “We rely on each other and I want our European dream to come true: that one can not only be born in Europe, and die in Europe but live in Europe.”
Hungary in 1989 opened its border to East Germans who wanted to leave their country. It is generally accepted that Horn, as minister, played a part in that. Developing a more independent foreign policy, Hungary had stopped asking East Germans for a visa to get to third countries. German reunification would follow.
Through Hungary, the East Germans headed for Austria, where they could move on to West Germany. The first three days of this saw 15,000 people cross over. Horn would later credit Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow with a historically tolerant role in it all.
Horn then became the architect of an agreement with the USSR to have it fully withdraw Soviet troops from Hungarian soil in March 1990. His playing a role in these events was surprising given his background and career path till this time.
In 1954, he had joined the Hungarian Working People’s Party (Communist). Two years later, it would put down the uprising against the Soviet occupation. Moscow sent troops and tanks into Budapest, and the bid for independence failed. Horn later downplayed his actions at that time, in the Communist paramilitary brigade.
In 1994 he became prime minister, following his renamed party’s sweeping victory in elections. Now he called himself a European left-wing politician, and pursued a transition to a market economy and prepared Hungary for full entry into NATO in 1999 and the EU. He also oversaw a major fiscal austerity programme.
He was awarded the prestigious International Charlemagne Prize and the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, among other honours in recognition for his contributions to peace and unity in Europe.