József Antall Senior was born into a family of lesser nobility on 28 March 1896 in Oroszi, Veszprém County. He obtained a degree in law, as well as in German and Latin languages in Budapest. After finishing his studies, he worked at the Ministry of Religion and Public Education, the Ministry of Finance, and the Ministry of Welfare and Labour. Upon the termination of the latter, Antall moved to the Ministry of Interior, where he was in charge of social issues. The first calculation of the minimum of subsistence and the concept of social policy can be associated with him. In 1931, he was founding member of the Independent Small Holders’ Party.
At the end of the 1930s, managing refugee issues was included in his duties, as the number of people taking refuge in the country had started increasing significantly in 1938. Political and refugees of Jewish origin set out primarily from Romania, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. Most of the people coming to Hungary were Polish: in autumn 1939, 70,000 civilians and soldiers fled Poland upon its occupation by Germany. In addition to aiding thousands of Polish people as a government commissioner for refugees, Antall, alongside Polish diplomat Henryk Sławik, rescued more than 5000 Polish Jews between 1939 and 1945.
Antall also took part in the organisation of the group of resistance led by Hungarian politician Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinszky, as well as the peace efforts of the Kállay government. When the Germans took control of Hungary on 19 March 1944, Antall resigned immediately, destroyed or hid documents involving refugees, and travelled to his estate in Somló, where the Gestapo found and arrested him a few weeks later. Thanks to the intervention of Hungarian Regent Miklós Horthy, he was set free on 28 August. He and his family waited out the war on his estate.
In May 1945, he returned to Budapest and joined politics as member of the Independent Small Holders’ Party. He was appointed State Secretary, then Minister for Reconstruction, his tasks including the reorganisation of the economy, the recording of valuables remaining and taken, as well as the solace of adversity. From August 1946 to 1948, he was the leader of the Small Holders’ Party, as well as President of the Hungarian Red Cross, Külforgalmi Rt., and the Hungarian-Polish Chamber of Commerce.
Antall tried to resist the growing communist pressure. Although he obtained a mandate at the elections, he was upstaged by 1949: he was removed from the position of president of the Red Cross, he could only retain his position as member of the national assembly until 1953. He was not hampered in his personal freedom thanks to his international acclaim and contacts. However, he was deprived of his ministerial pension so he had to take on a job as a private tutor. He was involved in the restructuring of the Small Holders’ Party during the revolution of 1956, but he did not take a more significant role. Then he lived in recluse working on his memoires until his death on 24 July 1974. In 1989, he was chosen among the Righteous among the Nations by the Israeli Yad Vashem institute. A tree was planted in his honour in the garden of the institute in the presence of his son, József Antall Junior, the future prime minister.
József Antall was born into a family of lesser nobility on 8 April 1932 in Budapest as the second child of József Antall Senior and Irén Szűcs. He went to the Piarist Secondary School of Budapest, then studied Hungarian language and literature, as well as in history and archival studies at the Faculty of Humanities of Eötvös Loránd University. Concurrent with completing a pedagogical degree, he obtained a certification as a librarian and museologist, and later a doctorate as well.
For a short period of time after acquiring his degree, József Antall worked in the Hungarian National Archives and, later, in the Pedagogical Institute, then started his career as a teacher. He participated and led his students in the protests of 23 October 1956, as well as took part in the formation of the Christian Youth Alliance and the reorganisation of the Independent Smallholders’ Party. In 1959, due to his political activities, József Antall was prohibited from continuing his pedagogical career. In the next couple of years, József Antall worked as a librarian, conducted research in the field of the history of medicine, and published related books.
There is one thing I can say: I have no personal career aims. I will serve as long as my service is of use. I will do so as long as I can and the nation needs my work.
In 1964, the Semmelweis Museum, Library and Archives of the History of Medicine assigned him first the position of Senior Research Fellow, then Deputy Director, and ultimately that of Director. Besides contributing greatly to the organisation of the museum, Antall continued to study politics and nineteenth-century Hungarian national liberalism.
By the time of the regime change, Antall had a firm political stance and well-formed ideas, which he hoped to realise in the framework of an existing centre-right political formation. With this goal in mind, at the beginning of 1988, he joined the movement of the opposition and founded the Budapest Branch of the Parisian Organization of the Hungarian League of Human Rights together with Árpád Göncz and many others.
From early 1988, Antall attended the events of the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF), including its protests; he was a permanent invited member of its directorial board and committee. On 21 October 1989, he was elected chairman by the delegates and it became instantly apparent that he was to be appointed as a candidate for premiership. On 23 May 1990, Antall was elected Prime Minister by the Parliament. As such, he was constantly at the centre of political attacks. He also had to fight his gradually-worsening illness. His cabinet established the political and economic conditions for the regime change in and outside of Hungary. As Chairman of MDF, he concluded a coalition with the Independent Smallholders’ Party (FKgP) and the Christian-Democratic People’s Party (KDNP). For the sake of the governability of the country, he made a pact with the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ). This agreement laid the foundations for the parliamentary functioning of Hungarian democracy. In the course of his governance, the COMECON was dissolved, which contributed to the Euro-Atlantic orientation of Hungary, the Warsaw Pact was terminated and the occupying Soviet forces withdrew from Hungary. In the realm of domestic politics, Antall had to face hardships during his career: the taxi blockade in the capital in 1990 and the withdrawal of the FKgP from the coalition forced him to restructure his government; that reorganisation ultimately saved his administration from being toppled.
He and Klára Fülepp had two children, György and Péter. Following a long illness, József Antall passed away on 12 December 1993, in Budapest.