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Hungary: A Bitter Anniversary
50 years on, the wounds from the 1956 uprising still have not healed
John Horvath (jhorv)     Print Article 
Published 2006-10-23 13:29 (KST)   
Half a century ago, the bipolar world, split between the Soviet Union in the east and the United States in the west, was shaken to its foundations. A tiny country in central Europe dared to stand up in defiance. The threat to the status quo was such that those who professed to support people willing to fight for their freedom suddenly and ignominiously looked the other way. As a result, what began on Oct. 23 as hope for a new beginning ended in November in bloody tragedy.

Given such a past, it should come as little surprise that those who had lived through the events 50 years ago harbor within them a sense of bitterness -- even betrayal. These feelings are often manifested in the cynicism they have toward the West. Subsequent world events since the Hungarian uprising of 1956 seem to have added a measure of justification to these attitudes.

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With the internal collapse of communism in central and Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, one would assume that the events of 1956 would have found their proper place within the social consciousness of the country. Unfortunately, this has not been the case.

The Living Past

A large number of people who lived through the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 are still alive, although their numbers are dwindling with the years. Most of them were children at the time; indeed, one of the main features of the Hungarian Revolution was that it was primarily a revolution of youth. Children as young as 10 years old took an active part in the fighting. Likewise, many of them were also its victims in the aftermath. Countless incidents have been recorded of young boys and girls who were placed against a wall and summarily executed by Soviet troops.

It is hard for those who witnessed the deaths of their friends, relatives and comrades to fully comprehend the world they live in today. Most painful perhaps, the children of their oppressors -- those responsible either directly or indirectly for the sins of the past regime -- are sitting comfortably in positions of power and influence today.

Indeed, in nothing less than a slap in the face to those who lived and fought through the events of 1956, the ideological heirs and relatives of the past regime are the very same ones who are now conducting the 1956 commemorations. For instance, the grandfather of Antal Apro, who is the wife of Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany, is the very same person who had proudly stood up in parliament in 1958 and announced the death of Imre Nagy, one of the main leaders of the revolution. He was subsequently hanged.

For some, the existence of a political class made up of regime members and their children is hard to bear. To make matters worse, many of these people are presently held in high esteem by Western governments.

A prime example is Gyula Horn, foreign minister (1989-1990) for the last communist government and prime minister from 1994 to 1998. He is highly regarded in Germany for his supposed role in allowing East German refugees to cross to the West in 1989. In fact, a state medal was created in his honor. All this despite the fact that Horn's influence on the events leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was minimal; he was merely bowing to the inevitable, as people were already crossing the border anyway. What the German government does not realize -- or pretends not to realize -- is that this medal of freedom honors someone who was also a member of the worker's militia 50 years ago and who took an active part in suppressing the 1956 uprising.

There are countless other examples of individuals who have either a direct or an indirect link to the sordid regime of the past and who now make up the political class of the present. This political class also extends beyond Hungary's borders. The Hungarian EU commissioner for taxation and customs, Laszlo Kovacs, was a head of the Hungarian Communist Youth Movement and a member of the Central Committee.

In addition, there are a number of non-Hungarian individuals who have had a similar effect. The most notable is Giorgio Napolitano, the current president of Italy. In 1956, Napolitano was a leading member of the Italian Communist Party. Although he claims to have changed his views, at the time he toed the party line, considering the insurgents to be not only counter-revolutionaries but also "thugs" and "agent provocateurs." Napolitano went further when he let it be known that he was glad the Red Army had put down the revolution the way they did. His placing of a wreath on the grave of Hungarian freedom fighters during a recent visit only added to the anger and pain many felt.

Given all this, the bitterness of many of those who live on is quite understandable. Although strikes continued for some time after the communists regained power, the population was basically starved into submission. Moreover, with the onset of winter, energy supplies were used as a further weapon to pacify the public.

As the new communist government of Janos Kadar regained control with the help of Soviet forces in November 1956, the crackdown that ensued was bloody and merciless. Thousands were interned and executed. Many juveniles were imprisoned without trial until they reached maturity, at which time they were then tried as adults. In this way, the government was able to circumvent the stigma of having executed juveniles. Meanwhile, those murdered by the state -- both young and old -- were thrown face down into unmarked graves, their hands still tied behind their backs.

For those who had left Hungary, the situation was not necessarily much better. In many cases, fear of the regime stayed with a person for the rest of their life.

The fall of communism in the late 1980s has meant little for many survivors. Apro, Gabor Peter (the former head of the dreaded secret police), and Istvan Dudas, to name just a few high profile communists, were all allowed to retire, or die a peaceful death in the 1990s, without ever having to answer for their crimes. Dudas was responsible for the Mosonmagyarorvar massacre, where 50 to 100 people were killed and over 200 wounded after the police opened fire on a crowd seeking to remove the red star from the town's barracks. Although Dudas was eventually convicted in 2001 and sentenced to three years (a light sentence handed down in consideration of his old age), he never served any time due to a presidential decree.

Unfortunately, there are many who accept such outcomes, pointing out that the perpetrators of past crimes are now mostly old, and that the crimes happened so long ago it is best to forgive, forget and move on. This, however, reeks of a double standard. To this day, we still persecute Nazis who had committed lesser crimes and have no qualms about bringing these old men to justice. Therefore, the same should hold true for the ideological heirs of the communist dictatorships, many of whom became "reformed communists" during the political changes of the late 1980s. As Gergely Pongratcz -- leader of a group of Hungarian freedom fighters -- once remarked: "We hear of reform communists, but that's all nonsense. Tell me, has anyone heard of a reform fascist?"

Revolution or Reform?

Not long ago, Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany caused an uproar among survivors of the revolution when he remarked that Imre Nagy was a committed communist from beginning to end. Because many regard Nagy to be the leader of the Hungarian Revolution, Gyurcsany's remarks were blasphemous. Yet apart from a lack of style and tact, Gyurcsany's remarks were in essence quite accurate. The problem with his remarks, however, was that it was a vain attempt to rewrite history: that is, Nagy and others were interested in reform, not revolution. In other words, the events of 1956 were engineered by a movement toward reform communism as opposed to abolishing the socialist state.

It is perhaps an irony of history that statues depict and streets are named after someone who had very little influence on events in 1956 and who cannot be considered a leader of the revolution. And yet, despite historical facts to the contrary, the myth and cult status of Nagy as "leader" of the Hungarian Revolution persists; indeed, denying it is actually considered a crime.

Like so many at the time, Nagy was someone caught in the flow of events. Whether he sided with the revolution or not, he was in effect a marked man. If the revolution had succeeded and he had stayed with the status quo, he would have most probably been tried and imprisoned along with other leaders of the regime. Since he went along with the revolution and it failed, he became the fall guy for the party.

Nagy was a dedicated communist and Muscovite. This means that during the Second World War he spent his time in Moscow preparing for the communist seizure of power in Hungary at the end of the war. Yet unlike many who were drawn to communism, Nagy and other Muscovites had no illusion as to the regime they were putting in place: they had first-hand experience of Stalinism at work in the Soviet Union and even used many of the tricks of the trade they had learned while in Moscow.

Thus, in no way can Nagy be considered an innocent party member oblivious to the inner workings of the Stalinist regime in Hungary headed by Matyas Rakosi. Unlike Rakosi and others, however, he did seek a slightly softer line. Yet this was more in the interest of self-preservation than genuine reform.

The environment in which Nagy operated was such that he was unable to break free of his own ideological chains. Only as the events of 1956 pushed him in a certain direction did he make certain changes. Hence, he was not a leader at the front pulling others with him, but a leader from behind being pulled by others. The best illustration of this occurred on Oct. 25 in front of parliament when he began his speech with the word "comrades," to which the crowd whistled their disapproval and shouted back, "We are not comrades!"

Toward the end, Nagy was not entirely in control of events. When Soviet forces re-entered the country on Nov. 4 to quash the revolution, Nagy claimed in his last radio address that Hungary's army was in place and resisting the invasion. This was clearly false: there was no large-scale resistance, only pockets of freedom fighters holding out to the end.

Myths like the one that surrounds Nagy also adhere to other so-called leaders of the revolution. Paul Maleter was the leader of Hungary's armed forces. Like Nagy, he was swept away by the events of 1956. In fact, Maleter initially fought against the revolution: he and his men battled against Pongratcz at the Corvin Koz, where several freedom fighters were killed by Maleter's men. It was only after it became clear that the revolution was going to succeed -- at least for the time being -- that Maleter decided to switch sides.

Pure and Simple

The Hungarian uprising was a revolt by an oppressed people wanting freedom. It was a spontaneous explosion with no leaders. Still, for a regime that ruthlessly wiped out any form of opposition a figurehead was needed, someone to cling to. This was the role played by Nagy and others who are looked upon today as the revolution's surrogate leaders. Meanwhile, the purity of the revolution and its aims are often encapsulated in the image of broken windows in shops with their goods untouched and open chests in the streets full of money that was donated by passersby to help those affected by the fighting.

While the overall image of the Hungarian Revolution may remain pure and simple, for the survivors old wounds cut deep. Part of the problem is with the survivors themselves. They are a fragmented group, each pursuing different agendas. As a result, there is no common ground on several issues. In one instance, Pongratcz refused a state decoration because the socialist government of Peter Medgyessy, as ideological heirs of the former regime, refused to issue an official apology. Others, however, seeking some sort of recognition for their role, and aware that time was not on their side, swallowed their principles and pride and accepted the award.

Disputes also surrounded the acquisition of apartments renovated from former Soviet barracks especially for survivors. A clique system seemed to operate, whereby certain individuals were able to secure an apartment, even though their involvement in the revolution was questionable at best. Others, meanwhile, who may not have carried a gun but nevertheless worked hard and risked their lives handing out leaflets or assisting with first aid, were left out in the cold.

In spite of these and other small disputes and problems, what seems to hurt most of all is that younger generations seem to have forgotten what it was all about. Furthermore, countless books and films about the revolution attempt to glamorize what happened to make it more appealing to a modern audience, thereby robbing it somewhat of its essence.

Yet modern day politics seems to provide some sort consolation. The antigovernment demonstration in front of parliament, now in its second month, has given some survivors hope that the flame of defiance has not been entirely extinguished. Recently, when the police sought to remove demonstrators by force from the area in order to clear parliament for official government celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the revolution, the president came out on the side of demonstrators and warned the police not to use force. Thus, the demonstrators will be allowed to remain where they are during the official ceremonies. Nevertheless, in order to hide this form of democracy in action from the outside world, billboards were erected in front of the demonstrators so visiting dignitaries will not be able to see them.

The fact that the presence of a large number of demonstrators in front of parliament may be a little uncomfortable and even intimidating to foreign leaders is of little concern to some survivors. For those who still harbor feelings of betrayal, it would have been best if these visiting dignitaries had not come at all. True, many countries had opened their borders to the 200,000 refugees who fled Hungary after the Soviet intervention in November 1956. Still, it would have been best if they had not opened their borders but instead given the assistance that was originally promised, so 200,000 people would not have had to flee their homes in the first place.

The world is fond of saying that the Hungarian Revolution started the process that ultimately brought down the communist regimes in central and Eastern Europe in 1989. They attempt to absolve themselves by claiming that the 50th anniversary of the uprising is one to be shared by all. What they fail to mention, however, is that the uprising exposed not only the brutality of the Soviet regime, but also the hypocrisy of the West. When it comes to global politics, little countries do not matter, and revolutions such as this one are a nuisance. Big countries do not like to be bothered by small nuisances, especially during a golf game, as Eisenhower, the American president at the time, vividly demonstrated.

In the end, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 does not belong to everyone. Rather, it is the exclusive preserve of those who went through it and lived. It is their anniversary -- and theirs alone.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter John Horvath

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