National Security & Defense

Twelve Days in the Fall: What the Hungarian Revolution Accomplished 60 Years Ago

Remains of a Joseph Stalin monument in Budapest, October 1956 (Image via Wikimedia)
Showing their true colors, Russian state media found a way to smear the memory of the heroes.

If you had been reading NRO on this date in 1956, you would be just at the point of starting to hope that, against all odds, the Hungarians were about to win their brave and astonishing revolution against the Soviet-imposed Communist dictatorship in their embattled country. The start of that revolution, which broke on a surprised and nervous world divided by the Cold War, is usually dated as October 23. On that date a student demonstration marched from the technical university through Budapest toward the Parliament building, collecting supporters from passersby as it went. In fact those students had been inspired by local rebellions the previous week, when students in Hungary’s many university towns dissolved their official Communist unions, established independent ones, and issued proclamations demanding social and political freedoms and national independence. In Szeged, a twelve-year-old boy, János Martonyi (later democratic Hungary’s foreign minister), accompanying his father to a demonstration, heard him respond to the students’ demands and their rejection by a senior Hungarian apparatchik with words along the lines of “Well, now the fat is well and truly in the fire.”

All of a sudden, predicted by nobody, revolution was in the air. Thousands of other Hungarians joined the Budapest students as they marched on Parliament in a growing and eventually massive demonstration. A new non-Stalinist government was demanded by the crowd; patriotic songs were sung; crowds surged around public buildings across the city. The authorities began to panic. When a delegation of students was admitted to the state radio building to broadcast their demands, they were arrested. When the secret police fired on the crowds of demonstrators outside, a student was killed. The die was cast.

From that point on the revolution swept rapidly through the country, with factory workers, soldiers, the police, and even former Communist ministers joining the students and forming a broad national reform coalition. This collection of assorted revolutionaries fought the regime forces, notably the secret police, and the occupying Soviet forces to a standstill. Students threw Molotov cocktails at tanks, and the students won. After less than a week a new government was formed, promising free elections, the disbanding of the secret police, and the withdrawal of Hungary from the Warsaw Pact. The Soviet Union agreed to withdraw its troops too.

By the end of October it looked as if the revolution had succeeded. A Soviet delegation, including Anastas Mikoyan, concluded a deal with Imre Nagy’s coalition government and returned to Moscow.

On November 4, however, the Soviet Union again invaded the country, with overwhelming force. It crushed the revolutionaries and reestablished Communist control over the country in the next week (though sporadic resistance and labor unrest in the factories continued until early 1957). Estimates for the total number of Hungarian freedom fighters killed in battle or executed later vary but run into many thousands. Seven hundred Soviet troops were also killed. Another former foreign minister, Géza Jeszenszky, who is also a historian, has estimated that 350 known Hungarians were executed, including Prime Minister Nagy and Army Minister Pál Maléter (in violation of promises of safe passage from the Red Army). Many thousands were also arrested, tried, and imprisoned; more were deported to camps in the Soviet Union. (It was not until 1963 that most of them were released.) And as many as 200,000 Hungarians crossed the border to the West, becoming permanent exiles and settling in countries around the world.

This week Hungarians around the world are marking those events with celebrations of the heroism of the freedom fighters rather than with laments for the tragic outcome. Their symbol is the Time-magazine cover showing a Hungarian revolutionary as the Man of the Year. In Washington the Hungarian ambassador, Réka Szemerkényi, presided over a series of special events to mark 1956, including a black-tie gala dinner attended by surviving “Fifty-Sixers” and an exhibition (in the foyer of the Rayburn Building on Capitol Hill) that includes news photographs of the young revolutionaries battling Soviet tanks. Speakers at the exhibition’s opening included János Horváth, who had been imprisoned by the Stalinist regime and was sent by the short-lived free Hungarian government to seek (alas, without success) U.S. and U.N. support for its heroic struggle. He could not return to Hungary until after 1989, when he served in the Parliament as its oldest MP (having been its youngest MP in the brief democratic Parliament of 1945–47). Shortly before his retirement last year, Dr. Horváth was memorably interviewed for National Review by Jay Nordlinger.

Some edited extracts from my own remarks at the exhibition opening follow:

I see that I am down on the program as president of the Danube Institute, but I think that I will speak more credibly as a representative of the generation of young people in the West who were inspired by the heroism of the Hungarians, young and old, who rose in defense of liberty, democracy, and national independence in Budapest that fall.

Of course, Hungary’s revolution could never be the kind of overriding commitment for young outsiders that it was for our Hungarian contemporaries such as János Martonyi, or for another future foreign minister, the young Géza Jeszenszky, then ferrying supplies and helping the wounded behind the barricades. How could it be? But the revolution happened at a postwar moment when millions of youthful imaginations were ripe for idealism and commitment. And millions of people, young and old, in and outside Europe, duly responded to it, passionately.

If we had had any doubts or reservations about the revolution — most of us didn’t — they would have been swept away by what was happening in Budapest. It was a simple reaction because it was a reaction to a simple situation: Good people were resisting bad people; Hungarians were rejecting their oppressors; free people were overthrowing Communist tyranny; young people were fighting tanks.

All those agonizing dilemmas that dominate the minds of modern progressive people — which of two evils to choose, how to navigate morally around different shades of gray — simply didn’t apply. Justice and liberty were on the one side; tyranny, murder, and bad faith were on the other. Some AVO secret policemen were lynched; that was deplorable and deserving punishment; but it did not affect the overall moral calculus of the revolution more than an iota.

These were truths, and vital truths, but, more, they were truths made flesh in the young people in 1950s belted macs, holding stolen guns and carrying Molotov cocktails, who ran across squares under fire and built flimsy barriers against tanks. And they were then transmitted to the world in grainy photographs and black-and-white newsreels that seem today both authentic and a metaphor for authenticity.

All in all, therefore, I rejoiced that Hungary had struck a great blow for its own independence — and for the truth that Soviet Communism was an implacable and (now) undisguised tyranny. Of course, the impact of 1956 was greatest on Hungary itself: It wiped the slate clean for the sins, follies, crimes, and tragedies of the period 1919 to 1956, when too often politics really was a choice between evils and when many Hungarians did not make the right choices.

In 1956, however, almost all Hungarians proved themselves unambiguously on the side of courage, decency, and freedom. Their bravery shaped the future for the better. They demonstrated in that turbulent two weeks that they might be crushed by overwhelming force but that they could not be permanently governed against their will and against their country’s traditions.

That was important. It meant that once the Communist dictatorship had established its rule on bayonets, it had to moderate its tyranny over time and seduce or sedate its people with limited freedoms and more generous helpings of goulash. In time, moreover, Hungarians exploited those limited rights to begin the process that led to the implosion of Soviet power and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Today, though, I will focus on a slightly different topic: the impact of 1956 on the rest of the world.

First, the Hungarian revolution was an event like the Nazi–Soviet pact — and more long-lasting. It demystified the reputation of the Soviet Union as a state with any claim to be idealistic, democratic, or peace-loving. It made the West more realistic about diplomacy with the Soviet Union — more wary, more prudent, less starry-eyed. Not until the Vietnam War seriously dented the Western European political imagination in the 1970s did liberal opinion embrace the slippery notion of Western–Soviet moral equivalence. For almost two decades, 1956 made Western governments and Western public opinion more realistic in their attitudes toward the Soviets. It was a vast obstacle to Soviet intentions,

Second, 1956 changed the Left internationally. Peter Fryer, a reporter for the U.K.’s Communist newspaper, the Daily Worker, resigned when his paper refused to print his honest dispatches from Budapest. Fryer led an exodus of left idealists from the official global Communist movement. It was evident to everyone, including sincere Marxist-Leninists, that the worker’s party was murdering the workers. Some left-wingers discovered the virtues of political liberalism; others abandoned the orthodox faith and sought hopefully a new, non-bureaucratic, non-dictatorial Marxism. In London the theoretical magazine New Left Review was launched and fostered a new kind of Marxism, one skeptical of Moscow. It was imitated in other countries and laid the groundwork for the later revolution of the Sixty-Eighters. In due course, a more varied and democratic Left emerged throughout the West. That was a mixed blessing, to say the least, but it did at least deprive the USSR of automatic left-liberal support when the final clash of the Cold War erupted in the 1980s.

Third, the emigrations of 1956 had two effects through the agency of Hungary’s exiles around the world. The exiles themselves gave the Hungarian people a good name everywhere. They contributed enormously to the countries where they were welcomed — as entrepreneurs, as musicians, as scientists, as teachers, as businessmen, and of course as good neighbors. They were the real ambassadors for Hungary in the long years of the dictatorship. And their mere presence — at dinner parties, faculty meetings, boardroom discussions — provided a standing rebuke to anyone who expressed sympathy with “really existing socialism” in the Soviet bloc. For a decade or more it was impossible for any intelligent person — if there was a Hungarian in the room — to see Soviet Russia as anything other than a monstrous tyrannical Leviathan, with Hungary as its most courageous victim.

For many of us who were not Hungarian, the defeat of 1956 was nonetheless personal. Listening to Imre Nagy’s desperate and doomed appeal for Western help via the BBC, knowing that it wouldn’t come and that the Hungarian people were condemned to many decades of Soviet rule, we developed a strong sense of obligation to Hungarians on both sides of the Iron Curtain. For millions of younger people in particular, 1956 had the same effect as the Spanish Civil War had on a young socialist in the 1930s. We wanted to rewrite that moment in history.

Budapest 1956 awoke the political imagination of a generation. And though other generations came along with other issues on their minds, not all the lessons we learned were forgotten. It was a surprise — but only for a moment — when in 1989 the famous Hungarian border picnic cut the barbed wire, created a passage through the Iron Curtain through which thousands of East Europeans fled to the West, and set off a process of creeping liberation that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of Communism, and the spread of liberty through Europe.

Borrowing from T. S. Eliot, we might say that the Cold War ended not with a bang but a picnic. But it shouldn’t have been a surprise even for a moment. For the invitations to that border picnic were sent out in 1956 — though, sadly, not all those invited to it could attend.

Celebrations like the Washington events I attended have been held by Hungarian embassies across the world. At present I am in Portugal, where the Hungarian ambassador, Klára Breuer, in cooperation with the Catholic University of Lisbon and its influential Institute of Political Studies, has just held a conference examining the later and current significance of the events of 1956. As several speakers pointed out, 1956 provided the opportunity for democratic reformers in authoritarian societies such as Portugal in 1956 to come out onto the streets in support of a revolution for liberty. Their authoritarian regimes, because they were anti-Communist, were happy to allow and even sponsor such demonstrations by their own students in favor of Hungary’s struggle. In doing so, however, they let the genie out of the bottle, invited democratic contenders for power onto the national stage, and began to undermine their own rule without knowing it. One speaker told of how exiles of varying opinions from different countries began to meet together in London’s Gay Hussar restaurant during and after 1956 to discuss the transformations of their own dictatorships. So 1956 led not only to 1968 in Prague, and to 1980–81 in Warsaw, but also to 1974 in Lisbon, and to Spain’s gradual post-Franco evolution to democracy.

Budapest 1956 led not only to 1968 in Prague, and to 1980–81 in Warsaw, but also to 1974 in Lisbon, and to Spain’s gradual post-Franco evolution to democracy.

While we were discussing these past events, 1956 suddenly thrust itself on our attention again as a new international controversy broke — and one of potentially great significance. For the past decade Russia under President Putin has conducted a sustained and well-financed propaganda campaign to weaken the links between the U.S. and Europe and between Central and Western Europe. RT television is the best-known instrument of this campaign, but it is a far more extensive and less open campaign than one official TV channel. It includes subsidies and loans to “populist” parties in Central and Eastern Europe (and, also, in France), and its messages are often delivered in news media without any apparent Russian connection, as in the old KGB’s disinformation campaigns.

Peter Pomerantsev has described the techniques and thinking of this campaign in his brilliant book Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible and in several Legatum Institute monographs. Its overall message is that the (inevitable) difficulties of these new democratic market societies are due to the United States and its instrument, NATO — in short, the recycling of an old anti-Americanism. This arguments goes on: The region’s old concept of the West is therefore a kind of fraud and/or delusion that serves to keep these countries under the thumbs of Washington and its corporate capitalism. Among other things, therefore, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is Washington’s fault and the result of NATO expansion. Though this message is absurd, it has proved quite seductive — and not only to the Left. It’s not uncommon to hear young businessmen and politicians in Central European capitals sounding off about the sins of “the West” as if they were Slavophile intriguers in a czarist court.

While the Hungarians were conducting their commemoration of 1956, however, the Russian propaganda apparatus forgot that their business was seduction and began expressing their most repellent prejudices. That’s been happening quite a lot lately. Last year the Czech and Slovak governments protested to the Kremlin that a Russian television documentary had falsely (and ludicrously) described the 1968 soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia as a response to a NATO threat. To the alarm of the Poles and the Baltic states, Russian courts have been fining bloggers who write about the secret protocols of the Nazi–Soviet pact. Moscow passed a law two years ago to the effect that officially the secret protocols didn’t happen, and so writing about them is telling lies that damage the state. Putin himself defended the pact to German chancellor Angela Merkel at a joint press conference last year. (She felt obliged to demur diplomatically.) It’s all very reminiscent of the recent Soviet past when history was a series of official fictions, but most of the time it goes on under the radar of Western journalism and diplomatic interest.

On this occasion however, Russian state radio described the Hungarian revolution as a “pogrom” at the very moment when Hungarians were mourning their lost heroes (and in most cases, their fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, uncles, and aunts). Everyone in Budapest was repelled by this slanderous attribution of anti-Semitism to the revolutionaries, because it had been a slander of the recently slain from the Kremlin and its Hungarian collaborators at the time. Russian broadcasters also employed a more modern falsehood — that 1956 was the first of the so-called color revolutions, such as the Georgian and Ukrainian democratic revolutions — which in the lexicon of subversion is code for “organized by the CIA.” Given that the West gave Hungary no aid or comfort at all in 1956, it was a particularly ill-judged accusation.

Hungarians were outraged by these comments, and the foreign ministry, supported by opposition parties, summoned the Russian ambassador for an official protest. Even if Moscow does apologize, however, the damage has been done. If the Russian state can switch from hearts and flowers to boot-stamping brutality in an instant, what are its promises of friendship or anything else really worth? Risk-averse Western governments remained silent and aloof from the Hungarian cause as it bled to death in 1956, but the Soviets rolled their tanks over human lives and human hopes. There’s a difference. Hungarians are being forcibly reminded of that difference as the country celebrates heroes who helped win a world from the grave. We should remember it too — and not risk losing the peace we and the Hungarians helped to win in 1989.

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