Professor Laszlo Peter: Historian of Hungary
Monday 30 June 2008
In October 1956, during the Hungarian revolution, László Péter, a young historian, entered the Ministry of Interior Affairs in Budapest after the guards had fled. He spent three days looking through and quietly copying secret documents of the AVH, Hungary's dreaded security police. While other students were fighting the Soviet tanks on the streets or printing revolutionary leaflets and newspapers, Péter was doing what he was good at, recording the hitherto inaccessible material for future historians.
Soon afterwards, when the Soviets crushed the revolution, Péter fled Hungary and arrived in England via Austria, later obtaining a graduate scholarship at Nuffield College, Oxford.
Born at Rákosliget near Budapest in 1929, he had studied history and archival studies at the University of Budapest. On graduation in 1951, he was appointed director of the Szolnok County Archives, from where he moved two years later to a teaching post in Budapest. When I first met him in Oxford in 1957 (having myself had to flee Hungary), he made a great impression on me with his vast knowledge of Hungarian constitutional history and his perseverance in learning English. He was some years senior to most of the Hungarian refugee students in Oxford and was considered to be one of the brightest.
Supervised by C.A. Macartney and John Plamenatz on his PhD thesis, he began to teach history in 1961 and was taken on as a full-time lecturer of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies of London University in 1963. He continued his career within this institution, now part of University College London. His professorship came in 1990 and in 1993 he was elected an external member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.
Péter was a good speaker, a natural lecturer. His manner of delivery had an old-fashioned ring. This impressive rhetoric was nevertheless always based on solid facts and thorough research. He published less than some of his colleagues, only one book, although he edited several collections of essays and contributed many articles and studies to Hungarian journals in English and in Hungarian. He had a very supportive partner in his English-born wife Margaret, whose death two years ago lessened his own appetite for life.
His talent for speaking made Péter a popular guest at Hungarian conferences, before 1990 mostly in the West, but afterwards increasingly more often in Hungary. The émigré society he was most connected with was the Kelemen Mikes Circle in Holland, regularly attending their yearly meetings. His studies on Austro-Hungarian history were printed in many of the Circle's publications, including Eszmék nyomában ("In the Footsteps of Ideas", 1965) and Belso tilalomfák ("Inner Taboos", 1982), as well as Változás és állandóság ("Change and Permanence", 1989). After his retirement in 1994, he gave frequent talks in Hungary, occasionally publishing papers in reviews such as Hungarian Studies. He co-edited many publications of UCL-SSEES, including Intellectuals and the Future in the Habsburg Monarchy 1890-1914 (1988), Lajos Kossuth Sent Word. . . (2003) and British-Hungarian Relations since 1848 (2004). In 2006, with Professor Martyn Rady, he organised a conference in London, "Resistance, Rebellion and Revolution in Hungary and Central Europe", covering several hundred years of history; he edited the 35 conference papers for publication a year later. Péter's only book, published in Hungarian, was Az Elbától keletre ("East of the Elbe", 1998), a collection discussing various problems of Hungarian and Central European history. Almost to the day of his death, he was working on a study on Hungarian constitutional history from the 13th-century Hungarian Magna Carta to the modern period.
The post-1990 regime in Hungary honoured Péter's achievement with several awards: after the Officers' Cross of the Hungarian Republic (1992), in 2007 he was decorated with the prestigious Commanders' Cross of Merit.
László Péter, historian: born Rákosliget, Hungary 8 July 1929; Lecturer, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, London University 1963-90, Professor of Hungarian History 1990-94 (Emeritus); Honorary Fellow, University College London 1994-2008; married (one daughter); died London 6 June 2008.
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