Tom Lantos was a loyal son to both his adopted home, the United States, and his native country, Hungary, even though the latter was, at one time, so painfully and tragically disloyal to him. As a young man, Lantos was forced to flee from here, and yet, his later relationship with Hungary was marked by patriotism and a readiness to be of help.
He may well have been the postwar period’s leading Hungarian-born politician, one who played a guiding role in the foreign policy of the free world’s greatest power.
With his passing, we’ve lost not only one of Hungary’s best friends, but one of the world’s most tireless defenders of democratic values.
At the same time, knowing the respect he was accorded around the world, we can be certain that his well-deserved prestige will outlive him. His personal example, his political and intellectual legacy, may have a lasting effect not just on the international estimation of our region; it is capable of giving strength and support to democrats everywhere in their unceasing struggle against extremism.
Lantos was an extraordinary man. A democrat, an East-Central European, a survivor of the 20th-century’s grimmest atrocities, a humanist and a close personal friend, he earned my affection and respect. He radiated a wise calm, the calm of one who had seen and experienced much. His wisdom was not of a detached, wishy-washy sort. When it came to all-important questions, he not only took a firm stand but fought for his convictions.
He viewed and supported our region’s most recent past — its democratization, its connection to the West — through the prism of civic responsibility. He made no allowances for extremists — whether on the right or on the left. He was just as uncompromising with the Communists of yesteryear as he was with the increasingly vociferous far-right radicals of today. When it came to this latter group, he spoke more directly and with greater resolve than a good many of our own politicians — though it should be added that this is primarily our own problem.
I saw him often in recent years. He and his wife, Annette, made multiple visits to our apartment — often with a grandchild in tow — and we had a good number of meetings at the American Embassy. If I remember correctly, he welcomed me during every one of my visits to Washington.
When it came to key international concerns, Lantos never wavered on the question of whether the current Hungarian and American administrations can work together as democratic allies. This is not to say that we always agreed on every last issue, but that on matters of utmost international significance, our views and aims were one.
On February 1, Lantos turned 80 and the Hungarian state was about to bestow its highest honor upon him. I had planned to present it personally — fly across the ocean, give it over and return. He deserved at least as much. But then Annette called me to say that Tom wasn’t well, that it was uncertain whether he could take part in a celebration, however modest.
I never had the chance to hand him his award, alas, but my countrymen and I hope to continue to honor him and his example for years to come.
Ferenc Gyurcsány is the prime minister of Hungary. This article is adapted from an entry on the prime minister’s blog and an official statement released on the day of Lantos’s death.
Adapted and translated from the Hungarian by Gabriel Sanders.