Remembrances: 1956

President Sólyom’s refusal to give a decoration to Gyula Horn has revived the discussion about the events of 1956. It is clear that the Hungarians of today don’t quite know what to do with this "proud" moment in their history. According to some observers, the revolt of the Hungarians in 1956 was the beginning of the end of the Soviet system, an opinion I don’t myself share. Some look upon 1956 as the precursor of today’s democratic Hungary, while others point out, quite rightly, I think, that the leaders of the intellectual revolt that lay the foundations of the actual revolt had no plans for the overthrow of the socialist regime. They were simply reformers who naively thought that the system itself was viable. It needed only a little fixing. As for the Soviet occupation, there is no question that they demanded the departure of the Soviet troops, but they imagined Hungary as a neutral country. These people were inspired by the Yugoslav example, and therefore it is not surprising that during the revolution the factories were taken over by revolutionary workers’ councils. However, because of the brevity of the revolutionary period one can only guess what the final outcome would have been.

These opinions come from historians, political scientists, people who are interested in the subject and who know something about 1956. But the truth is that a very large segment of the population knows nothing about the nature and aims of the revolution. First of all, there were thirty-five years of brainwashing that pounded into everybody’s head that the revolution was actually a counterrevolution and that the leaders of the revolution were either fascists or, more kindly, reactionary politicians whose real aim was the restoration of the regime prior to 1945. Some people today are positively antagonistic toward the "revolutionaries" whose numbers, as is usual in such cases, have mushroomed since 1990. Everybody and his brother became a revolutionary and some, the noisy ones, often express extreme political views, giving the impression that 1956 was, just as the Kádár regime claimed, an extreme right-wing revolt. Nothing was farther from the truth.

Sólyom’s refusal to decorate Gyula Horn is based on Horn’s activities in 1956. Horn came from a dirt-poor family. His father served in the Red Army of the Hungarian Soviet Republic and, after the collapse of Béla Kun’s government, spent four years in jail. Both Horn and his oldest brother were attracted to the communist party; he was only about twelve years old when he helped his brother distribute anti-German, anti-Nazi pamphlets. After 1945, thanks to the communist party, the family received all sorts of privileges. Horn himself got a quicky matriculation (perhaps after one instead of four years of study) and was sent to the Soviet Union to begin his university studies. He received a diploma in economics at the University of Rostov and returned to Hungary in the summer of 1954 . His first job was in the ministry of finance. He was a member of the reserve and during the last days of the revolution was called up to serve in the national guard, organized by General Béla Király, later professor of history at Brooklyn College.

Horn’s revolutionary activities would have ended here if he did what at one point he was thinking of: escape across the Austrian border to become one of the 200,000 refugees. He and György Aczél, Kádár’s right-hand man in cultural matters, already had a truck ready when in the last moment they changed their minds.

Kádár’s regime could rely only on the Soviet troops who installed them in power. They couldn’t trust the police, they couldn’t trust the army. They decided to build up a trustworthy armed organization that would keep some kind of order in the country. The first such formation came into being on November 11. These units were made up of party functionaries, former political officers, and a few who, like Horn, studied in the Soviet Union and therefore were deemed trustworthy. When, on December 15, a unit in the ministry of finance was organized, Horn agreed to serve. His decision was reinforced when the "revolutionaries" killed his older brother who was working on the organization of the new communist party, the MSZMP (Magyar Szocialist Munkáspárt). Horn claimed in his autobiographical book  (Cölöpök, 1991) and repeats even now that these armed groups were actually serving in lieu of the police and that they were not a political force but simply in charge of public safety. His contention is supported by László Gyurkó, a historian of the revolution (A bakancsos forradalom, 2001, pp. 413-14). The minister of the interior had an even lower opinion of the effectiveness of these armed officers. According to him, the regime could rely only on the Soviet troops; these armed units were useless.

There are some people today, like the woman who talked with György Bolgár today, who are convinced that these armed forces saved them from certain death. She told the story of youngsters on a killing spree. The good guys, Horn among them, gave them food. Of course, we are talking about the offspring of a communist who obviously, by today’s standards, was on the "wrong side." She recounted stealing, murdering, atrocities of all sorts, all evil coming from the "revolutionary side." Well, this is not how I remember the events. And I was certainly in the middle of it all, living in a college dormitory at the corner of Rákóczi Street and Múzeum Kőrút, right across from the Astoria Hotel.The only stealing I saw was by Soviet soldiers in the first days of the revolution. They walked out of the tank and took bolts of fabric from the store across the street. I saw no marauding revolutionaries, but young men and women with rudimentary weapons and Molotov cocktails trying to stop the tanks. Obviously, she and I saw two different revolutions. Which was the "real one"?

Was Horn simply making certain that former inmates of prisons with wide open gates didn’t steal and kill, or was he helping to prop up a government installed by a foreign power against the wishes of the majority of the people?  And if he were on the "wrong" side should his membership in one of these armed groups make a difference today, after a distinguished career as foreign minister who was instrumental in breaking down the iron curtain and who received every conceivable decoration from Germany for his services to German unification? Horn never made a secret of what he did in 1956 and yet he and his party received an absolute majority in parliament in 1994.

I personally don’t like Horn, but I think that President Sólyom made a big mistake.

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Just read this very first post about ’56. Is it possible to know about when the borders closed. In other words until when was it relatively easy to leave the country after ’56?