Obituary: Peter Gosztonyi

George Gomori
Tuesday 27 April 1999 23:02

AFTER THE 1956 Hungarian revolution several participants of the first anti-Soviet uprising in European history left Hungary and became modern historians abroad. Apart from Bela Kirly, who found a new home in the United States, such a person was Peter Gosztonyi, who settled down in Switzerland and became one of the best historians of the Second World War and its aftermath.

Gosztonyi (in foreign publications he used the name "Gosztony") came from a middle-class Budapest family. Born in 1931, he was too young to have been involved in the war and his first choice of a profession was unconnected with history: he studied for a degree in Economics which he obtained in 1953 in Budapest, at the Academy of Economics (Kozgazdasgi Foiskola).

As an officer in reserve he was called up for regular military service in 1956 and appointed the commander of an "auxiliary labour unit" consisting of politically unreliable young Hungarians doing military service. The unit was housed in the so-called Kilin Barracks in the centre of Budapest; the Commander-in-Chief was a certain Colonel Pl Maleter.

The personality of Maleter made a lifelong impression on the young Gosztonyi and in a sense determined his later career, for the colonel (promoted to general during the revolution by Imre Nagy) was one of the top-ranking officers who switched sides in late October 1956 and became Minister of Defence in Nagy's last revolutionary government. After the suppression of the revolution Maleter was tried, and executed for "treason" in 1958; Gosztonyi fled Hungary to avoid imprisonment.

As he spoke German but did not want to stay in neutral Austria, Gosztonyi sought asylum in Switzerland where he studied at Zurich University, obtaining a doctorate in history there in 1963. From 1963 until his retirement he was Director of the Osteuropa-Bibliothek of the private Schweizerische Stiftung in Bern. This post allowed him to do research on modern military and political history from an independent position and from the mid-1960s onwards many publications followed in German, Hungarian and, occasionally, in French. In fact, the first collection which he edited was in French: Histoire du soulevement hongrois 1956 (1966).

It includes important source material on the history of the 1956 revolution. This was almost immediately followed by Der ungarische Volksaufstand in Augenzeugenberichten ("The Hungarian Popular Uprising in Eyewitness Accounts") edited by Gosztonyi, published in Dusseldorf in 1966 and republished in Munich in 1981. He also wrote a history of the 1956 uprising in Hungarian, A magyar forradalom tortenete (1981), which ran into several editions, including one in Budapest in 1989. Another publication on a similar theme was the collection Aufstande unter dem Roten Stern ("Uprisings in the Shadow of the Red Star"), published in 1979.

Apart from the history of 1956 which remained Gosztonyi's lifelong theme (he published many studies about it in such Hungarian emigre publications as Irodalmi jsg and Uj lthatr), the Hungarian-Swiss historian wrote much on the history of the Second World War. He managed to interview numerous important German military participants still alive in the 1960s and 1970s, adding interesting details to already known narratives.

The results of Gosztonyi's research were published in books such as Endkampf an der Donau 1944-1945 ("Final Struggle at the Daube", 1969), Der Kampf um Berlin in Augenzeugenberichten ("The Struggle for Berlin in Eyewitness Accounts", edited, 1970), Hitlers fremde Heere ("Hitler's Foreign Armies", 1976), Die Rote Armee, Geschichte und Aufbau der Sowjetischen Streitkrafte seit 1917 ("The Red Army: a history and development of the Soviet armed forces since 1917", 1980) and Stalins fremde Heere ("Stalin's Foreign Armies", 1991).

Although Gosztonyi had published much in Hungarian even before 1989, after that date he became a popular historian in Hungary, following up his Magyarorszg a msodik vilghborban ("Hungary in the Second World War", volumes i-ii, 1984) with several books such as Foltmadott a tenger . . . 1956 ("The Sea has Arisen . . . 1956", 1989), Legiveszely, Budapest! ("Air Raid Alarm, Budapest!", 1989), Hbor van, hbor! ("It's war, it's war!", 1990), Vihar Kelet-Europa felett ("A Storm over Eastern Europe", 1990), and a biography of Admiral Horthy, the inter-war Regent of Hungary, A kormnyz Horthy Mikls ("The Governor, Nicholas Horthy", 1990).

All these collections of essays and studies were characterised by a colourful style and an intense involvement in whatever their author discussed. Between 1992 and 1994 Peter Gosztonyi made several research trips to Moscow and during the past few years he was working on a longer study on Soviet military thinking in the post-war period.

Peter Gosztonyi, historian and journalist: born Budapest 2 December 1931; married 1958 Yvonne Meyes (one son); died Berne, Switzerland 29 March 1999.

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