“Hungary conquered and in chains has done more for freedom and justice than any people for twenty years,” wrote Albert Camus.
The 1956 Hungarian Revolution lasted just 19 days, from 23 October until 10 November, before being brutally suppressed. It was the first major threat to Soviet domination of Eastern and Central Europe since the end of World War II.
In Budapest students and workers took to the streets to publicise Sixteen Points calling for the immediate evacuation of all Soviet troops, a new government and general elections by secret ballot, freedom of opinion and of expression, and freedom of the press and radio. Earlier that year, Poland’s government had been granted greater autonomy following street protests and riots (although in Poland it simply ended up legitimizing Communist rule).
In Hungary, the Soviet Union’s response was soldiers and tanks. Prime Minister Imre Nagy announced the invasion in a terse broadcast, declaring “Our troops are fighting. The government is still in place.” But within hours Nagy had sought asylum at the Yugoslav Embassy in Budapest, while his former colleague and imminent replacement, János Kádár, was secretly flown in from Moscow to take power.
Tragically for the Hungarians, the Soviet leadership under Nikita Krushchev had decided to put a violent end to the rebellion. Declassified documents show that the Soviets believed the uprising directly threatened Communist rule in Hungary; that the West would see a lack of response by Moscow as a sign of weakness; that control over neighbouring satellite states would be threatened; and that members of the Politburo would criticize a failure to respond with force.
Hundreds of tanks entered Budapest where some 30,000 people were killed. To avoid reprisals, another 200,000 fled to the West abandoning all their possessions. Imre Nagy was secretly tried, executed, and buried in the prison yard where the executions took place. In 1989, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Nagy was rehabilitated and his remains re-interred at a ceremony attended by over 100,000 people.
Hungary’s current hard-line Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, was born after the 1956 Revolution and as a student radical opposed Soviet interference in the country. Today, as an advocate of populist nationalism, he is accused of undermining democracy, curtailing the constitutional court’s ability to serve as a check on Parliament and, according to Human Rights Watch, dismantling protection for the country’s minorities.
Orbán has a history of manipulating the memory of 1956 and recently attempted to draw a parallel between Hungary’s struggle against Moscow and his own struggle against the European Union, saying that “People who love their freedom must save Brussels from Sovietization, from people who want to tell us who we should live with in our countries.” Along with other ex-Communist countries in Eastern Europe, Hungary opposes a policy that would require all EU states to take in some of the hundreds of thousands of mainly Muslim migrants seeking asylum. The Hungarian government has already sealed the country’s southern borders with a razor-wire fence and deployed there thousands of soldiers and police.
Many Hungarians believe Orbán’s government is violating the dreams of the 1956 revolution – as well as generations of freedom fighters from the 1848 Revolution to 1956 and the 1989 transition to democracy. He should perhaps recall the words of Sándor Petőfi’s “National Song”, written at the time of the 1848 Revolution, and aimed at overthrowing tyrants:
“Rise Hungarians, your country calls!
The time is now, now or never!”
Photos: The young actor Imre Sinkovits reciting Petofi’s patriotic poem “Rise Hungarians” by the poet’s statue in Pest (top). Revolutionaries demonstrating in front of the Parliament building in Pest (bottom).