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Árpád Göncz, 1st freely elected president, dies aged 93

Árpád Göncz (pictured), the former dissident and the first post-communist President of the Republic of Hungary, died today aged 93. Members of his family were gathered around him at the time of his death, according to state news agency MTI.

(Photo: MTI/Csilla Cseke)

The liberal politician was a two-term president from 1990 until 2000. He participated in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, and he was also a founding member and vice chairman of the now defunct Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ), as well as Speaker of the National Assembly of Hungary before becoming president.

A trained lawyer, Göncz graduated from Budapest’s Pázmány Péter University of Arts and Sciences in 1944. He worked as a writer with several novels, plays and essays published, and also translated a great number of prose works from English to Hungarian, most famously parts of Lord of the Rings.

In World War II he was conscripted and ordered to Germany, but deserted and joined the resistance movement. After the war he joined the Independent Smallholdersʼ Party in 1945, and served as leader of the party’s youth organization for Budapest, as well as personal secretary to the general secretary. When the party was dissolved in 1949 following the communist takeover, he became a manual laborer.

He joined the newly recreated Hungarian Peasant Alliance in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, and once the Soviet Union intervened on November 4, was involved in the writing of several memoranda, and also participated in the transfer of an Imre Nagy manuscript abroad. He was arrested in May 1957, and sentenced to life imprisonment for treason on August 2, although he was released in an amnesty in 1963.

In 1988, he was among the founding members of the SZDSZ, and a year later was elected president of the Hungarian Human Rights League. From 1989-90 he was president and later honorary president of the Hungarian Writers’ Association.

Having been voted into parliament in the landmark May 1990 general elections, he was elected president by the National Assembly on August 4, becoming Hungary’s first president in 42 years who had no past ties to communism. He was reelected in 1995 for another five-year term that ended on August 4, 2000. Although the right remained suspicious of his left-of-center leanings, Göncz enjoyed widespread public support, and regularly polled as the most popular politician of his time. When his death was announced in Parliament on Tuesday, lawmakers stood for a minute’s silence.

His efforts in creating a unified Europe were recognized when he received the “Vision for Europe Award” in 2000.