Janos Gereben
Janos Gereben

Fellowship Title:

Possibilities of Regional Development in the Danube Basin – Part II

Janos Gereben
August 28, 1969

Fellowship Year

August 1969
Lerchengasse 28/43
1080 Wien, Austria

BUDAPEST—“Excellent fig wine,” said the Liberal Western Visitor, politely and truthfully. It was really good, if you like that sort of thing and, besides, the situation called for great tact at this strange meeting in the house of some distant acquaintances who were whispered to be Very Convinced Communists.

“Oh, it’s all right,” replied the VCC wife, proud manufacturer of the homemade brew, “but the Albanian fig wine is the best.”

Eureka, thought LWV, desperately in need of a conversation topic plausible and tactful enough for a VCC-LWV fig wine blast. A good Hungarian Communist must be rather despairing of Albanians whose radio broadcasts daily tell of the “mad dog slaves of Moscow” (that’s Hungarians and other anti- or non-Maoists).

”HEIL ULBRICHT!”—Goose-stepping East German soldiers in front of East Berlin’s Museum for the Victims of Nazism. The settlement of the “German problem” is an obstacle in the path of a Danubian Federation, but the “impossible dream” of a neutral Central Europe may help in the solution of that problem. (Photos by Janos Gereben)

FOUNDING FATHER—Statue of St. Stephen in Buda Castle. He embraced Christianity in the 10thCentury, receiving the friendship of Rome and the German states in turn. The day celebrated in his honor—Aug. 20 — became Day of the Constitution, Day of New Bread, Day of Defense Forces.  Hungarians still call Aug. 20 “St. Stephen’s Day.”

“Albanian fig wine may be the best,” said LWV happily, hoping to strike a tone both liberal and inoffensive (he didn’t mind being redundant), “but you can’t get it in Budapest and that’s a shame.”

“What do you mean?” came the suspicious question.

LWV, still optimistic about this turn in the conversation, dropped some general hints about the lamentable decrease in trade between East Europe’s Comecon and Albania as well as China.

“Stupid Western propaganda,” came the not-so-tactful reply. “Our Chinese and Albanian brothers are heroically increasing the production and export of their fig wine.”

Letting the surprising reference to Peking’s fig wine production go unchallenged, LWV now thought better of being liberal in the other direction.

“Chinese production may soon outstrip the Soviet Union,” he volunteered, helpfully, “because Moscow doesn’t have anybody who could measure up to Chairman Mao.”

“Idiotic Western mad dogs’ tale,” replied the friendly hosts. “The Soviet Union will always remain the guiding star of the Socialist camp.

Can the gentle reader imagine the results of drinking the next three glasses of homemade fig wine in total silence? The tragic consequences, of course, were not of the silence but of that deceptive liquid which is surely one of the most potent weapons of mighty Albania in her constant struggle against the mad dogs of East and West.

The remarkable thing about this incongruous, tragically ridiculous scene is that it really and truly happened; the conversation is reproduced here verbatim, notwithstanding the author’s grave doubts whether it was all a very bad dream, perhaps the result of the fig wine.

Budapest must be the very last place on earth where there are still people who believe in a united Communist camp, who refuse to accept what they hear and read in Western, Russian, Chinese, or Albanian media – and in their very own, which, incidentally, covers the Sino-Soviet rift very well.

There are people in Budapest who still don’t know—because they don’t want to know—that today there is Communism with a Human Face, Pure Communism, Gulyas Communism, Socialist Leftism, Leftist Socialism, Revisionist Communism, Stalinist and anti-Stalinist Communism, to name but a few.

And they go right ahead celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the 1919 Hungarian Communist revolution, firmly believing that in matters of fig wine and of domestic and foreign politics, there is but ONE “glorious Communist camp.”

Hungarians have always had an uncanny ability to disregard reality and go on believing whatever they wanted to believe. (Hungarian Nazis in 1945 were waiting for the Red Army to collapse an soon as Hitler noticed this unpleasantness coming from the East).

It has been and still in a nation of dreamers, charming liars or obsessed monsters, of people who deceive others easily because they really believe their own, often improbable, fantasies.

In some future, real-life version of “The Mouse That Roared,” Hungary may yet turn such a ridiculous fantasy into reality and help bring peace to Central Europe, the whole of Europe, the world…

At least, this is the promise (or threat) of a scholarly dissertation about the Danubian Federation by Tibor Petho, senior editor of the daily Magrar Nemzet and vice president of the Hungarian Journalists’ Union.

“A rational and realistic attitude,” writes Petho, quickly establishing a sober atmosphere, “a coolly objective examination of the questions that arise, an empirical, experimental approach—in fact most what has characterized European spirit since antiquity” (does he mean Calligula or Nero?) “is apparently making it an increasingly European task to work out new solutions for the problems bedevilling the world…”

CLOSE YET FAR – Only a few miles separate the peaceful bird houses of Austria from the stirring, heroic memorabilia of Hungary, but two signs of different frames of mind in these Danubian neighbor countries.

(Just to show that taking this “task—one might even say duty” upon Hungary’s broad shoulders is not just the result of Petho’s megalomania, here’s a quote from Janos Peter, Foreign Minister of Hungary: “The solution of the problems of Europe is not simply a European affair, but has an implication for the entire world situation. Our government studies every proposal with interest and is ready to participate in the elaboration of proposals whose aim is all-European cooperation, establishing joint responsibility of the countries of the Danubian Basin.” /Nepszabadsag, Jan. 30, 1966/ It may be recalled that it was Peter who, some years back, took it upon himself to get the United States government all excited about a “peace overture” from Hanoi. Peter was in an awkward situation when it was found that he had no authorization from North Vietnam at all.)

Petho himself quickly allows that his assessment might sound a bit grandiose: “Although this sounds European-centered…nonetheless on the balance of present-day conditions, Europe seems to be the best place for an investigation of the changes taking place in various societies.”

Decrying “Western European dependence on the United States,” Petho goes on to call for a “Europe for the Europeans” program in the hope of “a new community of interests between the Western and Eastern halves.”

He gives a backhanded compliment to the U.S. “which employs today’s technology and develops tomorrow’s resources,” and warns Western Europe that instead of “taking over outmoded (U.S.) technology,” it would be far better off with “closer economic, commercial, scientific and technical cooperation with the Socialist half of Europe.” Ah, the lure of Albanian fig wine production techniques!

Petho, ever reasonable, allows that this cooperation will have to come only gradually “since it is now realized that under present conditions it is impossible to create a comprehensive all-European security system at a single blow, through a single conference.”

GOOD OLD TIMES – Statues, novels, posters, meetings, radio programs are celebrating today in Hungary the 50th anniversary of the short-lived 1919 Soviet Republic regime in Hungary which followed the Russian example but was soon put down and followed by the “White Terror” days of Admiral Horthy (an admiral without a sea and no brains to boot). These three rather remarkable posters from 1919 were among the many reissued this year.  On the left, “You, counter-revolutionary, hiding in the dark, spreading rumors – Beware!” Top right, “Join the Red Army!” Bottom right, “To Arms, To Arms!”

But, after all, there was a conference, Petho says, which came close to that “single blow.” It was the 1967 Karlovy Vary meeting of Communist parties which worked out in detail a number of possible solutions, including a formal declaration agreeing to refrain from violence (and this was on the very soil of Czechoslovakia!), the normalization of relations with West Germany, a non-proliferation pact, an extension of economic contacts between East and West, the withdrawal of foreign troops, the creation of atom-free zones, and the dissolution of military blocs, or at the least, the abolition of the military organizations of the two blocs.

There were suggestions for increasing regional cooperation, Petho notes, in the Baltic and Mediterranean zones, in Central Europe, in the Balkan Peninsula, and in the Danube Basin. Another conference, in Switzerland, also supported the idea of regional alliance because “the smaller states need no longer struggle for their very existence, as was the case between 1930 and 1945.

Petho then presents his own plan, and a simple one it is indeed. Let’s start with the area in Hungary’s vicinity and spread it out gradually…to all of Europe!

He differentiates between the Danube Basin and the Danube Valley and takes off from there:

“With due attention to the necessity for a gradual implementation, it is logical to treat the problem of cooperation in the Danube Basin as starting from cooperation in the Danube Valley.

“The nucleus for cooperation between the four countries of the Valley, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, and Yugoslavia, should be the start.”

Why here?


“This zone is better adapted to improvements in East-West relations than any other regional area in Europe.

“In Northern Europe, all the Scandinavian countries live under the same Capitalist system. In Central Europe, the unsettled nature of the German question complicates East-West relations. In the Balkans and in the Mediterranean region, the Socialist countries and the Capitalist countries belonging to NATO have frontiers in common, which again adds to the complexity of the problem.

“The Danube Valley is the only area where the countries of the two military blocs are not immediate neighbors. Two of them, Czechoslovakia and Hungary are COMECON countries, Austria – at least at present—is part of EFTA, whereas Yugoslavia sends only observers to COMECON conferences.

“Military and economic confrontations are least sharp in the Danube Valley. This region, consequently, offers the maximal objective opportunity for the peaceful coexistence of countries belonging to different economic systems.”

It is hoped that at this point the reader will recall what was said here earlier about the persuasive powers of Hungarian naivete. Doesn’t he make sense?

“Historical and cultural traditions,” Petho goes on,” accentuate contemporary political realities. The experience of history stresses both the fact that the Danube Valley is a connecting link and the need for cooperation among the peoples of the Danube Basin.

“Three big European areas subjected to the influence of different cultures—Latin, Slav, and German—are neighbors in this area, and each of them has left indelible marks on the life of the Danubian peoples.” (And left those indelible marks on each other, he should add, in a thousand years of constant wars.)

“This common fate,” (remember this phrase from Janos Kadar’s speech?) “this common, mixed cultural heritage long ago created a peculiar community of interests among them; and in addition, most of them lived within the body of a single state for a long period of history.

CHANGE—700 years separate the quiet, self-effacing days of Anonymous, chronicler of King Bela (above), and loud, “Western” advertising in Hungary today.

“It is the tragedy of the Danube Basin that the interests of the Great Powers and their territorial ambitions frequently pitted the Danubian peoples against one another, incited chauvinist passions, and changed the land of the Danubian peoples into a zone of international conflict instead of an area of peace.

“Some of the best Hungarian minds” (what was that about chauvinism?) “had realized this and Lajos Kossuth in the second half of the l9th Century as well as Mihaly Karolyi and Oszkar Jaszi at the end of the First World War had outlined plans of a cooperation in the Danube Valley…

“Following the Second World War, when most of the nations of the Danube Valley started to build a Socialist society” (all by themselves, apparently) “and later when the thaw in the Cold War set in, practical conditions came into existence for the development of a new type of cooperation.”

Petho speaks of “two sorts of cooperation”—between the Communist countries of East Europe and between this bloc and Austria, the latter being “the keystone of peaceful coexistence.”

(“From time to time difficulties may, of course, arise between the Socialist countries,” he says, but these are not really very important.)

But Austria in important because it is a “Germanic” country and the “Germanic peoples” have been rather nasty about trying to rule over Europe, Petho puts it nicely. “The development of a peace-loving, democratic Germany in the center of Europe, and not the kind of Germany that hopes to realize the ‘Danubian destiny of the Germanic peoples,’ is of vital importance to the Danubian nations.” But Austria, he believes, will be all right and act in the manner required of her.

LIVING HISTORY—Castles (such as the Austrian one on the left), churches and statues (in Buda Castle, above) all along the Danube recall more than a thousand years of warring history.

Petho then points out that Austria is ready and willing and cites recent agreements in support, “particularly significant being that a permanent committee has been set up designed to promote regular consultations and create institutional forms for the more effective development of new methods and techniques of cooperation.”

He calls attention to the Danube Commission (noting that “Budapest is the seat of the group”), which, “it is true, exclusively concerned with questions of navigation, but its mere existence directs the attention beyond the Danube valley, towards the prospects of closer cooperation in the Danube Basin itself.”

Petho’s dissertation closes with a fine flourish: “The Danube flows through eight countries and takes smaller rivers from three additional countries to the sea. It carries 30 million metric tons of cargo each year. Within its catchment area of 817,OOO square kilometers live 13 peoples: Hungarians, Czechs, Austrians, Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, Romanians, Bulgarians, Croats, Serbs, Slovenes, Slovaks, and Italians.

“No other area in Europe is so varied, in all senses of the word, which is one more reason—and opportunity—for the peoples of this region to unite in making it a model area of European coexistence.”

Well, here is the sound of “The Mouse That Roared,” the promise of universal peace as a consequence of the Hungarians getting together with their neighbors.

The funny thing is that it makes a great deal of sense.

In matters of fig wine and world peace, you just never know with Hungarians.

BUDAPEST FIGURES – Lenin’s statue (which replaced Stalin’s on the Square of Heroes) and a teenager of the Socialist “Now Generation.”

Received in New York on August 28, 1969.


Mr. Gereben is an Alicia Patterson Fund award winner, on leave from the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. This article may be published with credit to Janos Gereben, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, and the Alicia Patterson Fund.