Visiting Budapest at the moment, President Bush is in a position to celebrate a little ahead of time the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian revolution of 1956. And there is much to celebrate. That revolution was a classic national uprising in which the people of a small nation took up arms for the sake of independence. They had little or no chance of success, because their oppressor was the Soviet Union. Motivated by the ideology of Communism, the Soviet Union had long proved itself the killer and jailer of small nations.
The Red Army at the end of the world war had driven the Germans out of the country, but they could not bring freedom because, as the Hungarian writer Sandor Marai lamented, they had no freedom for themselves. Soviet occupation meant a large garrison, and instructions from the Kremlin. Thanks to the notorious “salami tactics,” the Soviets replaced local democratic parties with Communists carefully chosen for their obedience. Industry, finance, agriculture, everything, was taken into the hands of the party. Former aristocrats, landowners, intellectuals, journalists, artists, priests, were rounded up for mock trials, and many a memoir unforgettably evokes their experiences in concentration camps like Vac. Two days after celebrating mass on Christmas 1948, Cardinal Mindszenty, the Hungarian prelate, was arrested. President Bush can rejoice that Mindszenty eventually found sanctuary in the American embassy.
In a sinister development, Stalin was soon to purge all the Communist parties of the new Soviet bloc. In Hungary, the foreign minister, Laszlo Rajk, a picture-book Communist, was accused of treason and hanged, and so was the general who had set up the secret police. Once Stalin was safely dead, these horrors prompted his successor Nikita Khrushchev to admit some degree of criminality at the Party Conference in Moscow in 1956. An unintentional consequence of this speech was the replacement of Stalinist stooges in Hungary by Imre Nagy, a party man but willing to follow Khrushchev and admit the need for reforms.
A student demonstration was then enough to spark an uprising. President Bush might like to recall how the crowd pulled down the gigantic bronze statue of Stalin, just as another crowd was to pull down a similar statue of Saddam Hussein. The camps and prisons opened, and here and there in the country, secret policemen were killed. Yuri Andropov, then a Soviet official in Budapest but later general secretary in Moscow, organized the suppression of the revolution with a combination of deceit and force. By the time the Soviet tanks had finished, between two and three thousand freedom fighters were dead. Twenty thousand people were then arrested, and at least 200,000 more fled the country, many of them to have successful careers abroad. Imre Nagy and his closest collaborators were hanged.
At his execution, Nagy declared that one day he would be rehabilitated. So it proved. In 1989, Nagy was reburied in the cemetery where the nation’s great men lie. Almost immediately afterwards, the Hungarian authorities lifted the country’s iron curtain, and the consequent freedom of movement signified the ending of the Cold War. The revolution of 1956 may have been a costly failure, but Hungarian national pride, and today’s delight in freedom, stem from its heroism.