Alajos Dornbach, one of the founders of Central European University, passed away on June 3. A lawyer and former member of the Hungarian parliament, he became known as the “lawyer of the opposition” during Hungary’s communist era.
Alajos Dornbach was born in Ozd in northeastern Hungary in 1936. Like many from his generation, the 1956 Hungarian Revolution would become a defining moment in his life. A member of his university’s revolutionary council, he also joined the Hungarian National Guard at this time. For this, he was arrested in 1959, a year after earning his law degree from Eotvos Lorand University.
Dornbach was imprisoned for two months before being released after a member of the Hungarian secret police testified that Dornbach and his friends had saved him from a mob. In 2017 the historian Krisztian Ungvary wrote in his book A szembenezes hianya (“The Absence of Self-Reflection”) that Dornbach rebuffed repeated attempts by the state security apparatus to work for them.
Over the years Dornbach remained in contact with other intellectuals active in the revolution. After being given full rights to work as a lawyer in 1964 (delayed for years due to his participation in the revolution), he became known for his work on human and citizen rights.
One of his first major cases was the defense of Ferenc Kunszabo, who had been charged with defamation over his sociographical works. Dornbach won the case, and over the following years he became known as the “lawyer for the opposition” for taking many similar cases. An important figure in the democratic opposition that formed in the 1970s, he provided legal protection to the authors and distributors of various samizdat publications.
In 1983, George Soros approached Dornbach to assist in establishing the Soros Foundation (later the Open Society Foundations), remaining a vice-president of its board of trustees until 1990. During this period, he was also George Soros’s legal representative in Hungary.
Dornbach joined the Historical Justice Committee in 1988, and later helped prepare the bill that would annul political convictions from the communist era.
Dornbach also launched the review of former Prime Minister Imre Nagy’s trial, and represented some of Nagy’s co-defendants and their heirs in court. He also helped organize the reburial of Nagy and his associates in June 1989.
In 1988 Dornbach was a founding member of the Democratic Trade Union of Scientific Workers. That same year he joined the Independent Lawyers’ Forum, and participated in various legal proceedings against the communist party and alongside the democratic opposition the year after.
Dornbach joined the Network of Free Initiatives in 1988, which would later go on to become the political party the Alliance of Free Democrats, for whom he was an MP from 1990 to 2002, and vice president of parliament from 1990-1994.
Stating that he did not want to become a career politician, Dornbach did not assume any roles that would preclude him from practicing law after 1994, and retired from politics and public life in 2002.
“Alajos Dornbach, despite considerable personal risks, was the lawyer for the members of the democratic opposition before 1989,” said Istvan Rev, Director of the Vera and Donald Blinken Open Society Archives. “Miklos Vasarhelyi, the first Chair of the Board of the Hungarian Soros Foundation, asked him to serve as the General Counsel for the Foundation, and he played a crucial role in setting it up in 1985.”
Reflecting on Dornbach’s role in CEU’s early days, Rev continued: “As Counsel for the Foundation, Dornbach was instrumental in establishing Central European University in Budapest. He negotiated with the unfriendly government and as member and Deputy Speaker of the first democratic Parliament helped Hungarian academic life strengthen academic freedom and autonomy. As a result of his intervention, CEU managed to acquire the central building of its campus in the Hungarian capital. Dornbach was a member of the university’s board of trustees, also serving as chairman of the CEU Budapest Foundation for some time.”
With respect to Dornbach’s importance to the university, CEU Provost Liviu Mate observed: “Alajos Dornbach was a brilliant lawyer and, as a politician, a Hungarian patriot. The CEU community owes him a debt of gratitude. He played a key role in establishing CEU in Hungary and allowing our university to grow roots here, until they were abusively cut by the Orban regime.”