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East: An Expert On Eastern Politics Honored In Britain

  • Ben Partridge

London, 10 July 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A reception at the Austrian Embassy in London last night paid tribute to one of the world's most respected commentators on Central and Eastern Europe -- the Hungarian-born journalist Paul Lendvai.

Lendvai is the author of 10 books including Eagles and Cobwebs, an account of nationalism and communism in the Balkans. His TV broadcasts for ORF, the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation, were a bid draw in communist-era Hungary, Slovakia, Croatia and Slovenia.

Last night's reception was staged to mark the English-language publication of his latest book, Blacklisted, a Journalist's Life in Central Europe, an account, in his own words, of a lifetime "caught up and buffeted by the turbulent history of 20th century Europe."

Lendvai was arrested by the Nazis as a Jewish teenager in Budapest, survived the Holocaust, became a young Socialist and later Communist activist in post-war Hungary, where he became one of the country's youngest political prisoners.

After fleeing to Vienna following the 1956 Revolution, Lendvai worked as a foreign correspondent. Chris Cviic, the Croatian-born British journalist and academic, paid tribute to the impact of his TV programs on "the other Europe."

"Paul Lendvai has played a very important role in the other part of Europe while the Iron Curtain existed. I know this from personal experience. In my home town of Zagreb, people used to turn their TV aerials so they could get the program that Paul appeared on."

Cviic said Lendvai had many painful encounters with the communist authorities and police, but endured them bravely, and always spoke the truth, even though this brought him unpopularity and disapproval, with western governments, too. He was a "lifeline" to people behind the Iron Curtain.

"The regimes in the Cold War took him very much to heart, this speaking truthfully, both on television and in his books. . .He was not reluctant to be unpopular when the truth was concerned, even when the western side was anxious for him not to make waves."

Lendvai describes his latest book as a deeply personal account of a witness to the startling developments in Central and Eastern Europe which in one form or another have shaped modern times.

He says the region, over 80 years, seen terrible wars, massive destruction, unfathomable genocide, strident nationalism, ethnic hatred, as well as some of the most astonishing and enduring expressions of civilization, creativity and intellectual achievement.

In the book, Lendvai tells of his decision to abandon communism, saying he chose "imperfect democracy over the experiment to create a heaven on earth". He says it was while he was in the prisons and camps of Hungary that he learned the meaning of philosopher Karl Popper's words, "Those who believe they can make men happy are very dangerous men."

He says, in view of the crimes which he himself experienced under Stalin and Hitler, he feels an obligation to be a witness to history. And not has not lost this urge. He came to the reception in London last night from Berlin where he discussed the crisis in Kosovo with, among others, German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel. Cut Three/Paul Lendvai, English/Time: 50 seconds

"The German Foreign Minister said the victim in Kosovo will be (Serbian leader Slobodan) Milosevic. I was leading a discussion with Kinkel, Chernomyrdin and the Ukrainian foreign minister, and, being an irreverent journalist, I said that not only the small and the big nations have equality and equal status, but also journalists, political thinkers, poets and politicians. And I said, if I may correct him, that I don't think Milosevic will be the victim of Kosovo but innumerable Albanians and Serbs. It's a profoundly tragic situation and it also shows up the incredible callousness of politicians."

Last night's reception for Lendvai was staged as part of a three-week Festival of Central European Culture in London.