It was fifty years ago yesterday that the week-long secret trial ended, resulting in death sentences for Imre Nagy, the prime minister, Pál Maléter, the minister of defense, and Miklós Gimes, a journalist. There was no possibility of appeal, but those condemned to death had the "privilege" of asking for clemency. Imre Nagy didn't take advantage of the offer. Instead he declared that his "only consolation is that the Hungarian people and the workers of the world will exonerate him." Maléter and Gimes did request clemency, but their requests were denied. Early the next morning, exactly fifty years ago today, all three men were executed in the courtyard of the jail. Their bodies, face down, wrapped in tar paper, their hands wired together, were put in primitive coffins and buried in the courtyard of the jail. The coffins stayed there until 1961 when they were moved to a cemetery. Their graves were marked by false names. Imre Nagy's remains were buried as Piroska Borbíró.
There were other prominent people whose cases were handled at the same secret trial but without such dire consequences. Sándor Kopácsi, second in command of the short-lived National Guard, received a life sentence. Ferenc Donáth, a socialist politician, received 12 years; Ferenc Jánosi, son-in-law of Imre Nagy, 8 years. Zoltán Tildy, before the communist takeover president of the republic who accepted a position in Imre Nagy's government, received 6 years, and Miklós Vásárhelyi, press secretary of Imre Nagy, 5 years.
The presiding judge was Ferenc Vida who after the failed revolution was responsible for a total of 35 death sentences. To his dying day he remained convinced that these men were guilty of attempting "to overthrow the people's democracy" and therefore they deserved what they got.
The fiftieth anniversary of the events in 1958 makes today, June 16th, already designated as the Day of the Martyrs of 1956, especially important. One of the highlights of the commemoration was a whole week of replaying the 56-hour court proceedings. Surprisingly there is an uncut tape recording of the trial that is currently kept in the Hungarian National Archives. The tape recording was in fairly good shape and with modern technology the tape was restored to its original, if not better, quality. The Open Society Archives (OSA), attached to the English-language East European University, received a copy of it and together with the 1956 Institute they decided to have a week-long public airing of it. However, the "owner" of the tape recording, the National Archives, had other ideas. The archivists there were convinced that playing the tape in a public venue would violate privacy laws. It took some time to settle the issue, but the OSA-1956 Institute won. The recording, according to information that appeared in the press, might soon be available on the internet. The transcript is already available from the homepage of OSA (http://tinyurl.com/544fqu).
The tapes don't provide new information for anyone familiar with the history of the revolution and its aftermath. However, making the tape recording public achieved two important results. First, those hundreds of people who sat through the daily sessions had a real sense of the atmosphere of the times. Something one cannot glean from transcripts. Second, because of the public airing the media paid an unusual amount of attention to the events preceding the execution of Imre Nagy and his comrades. In articles and reports journalists passed on information to the general public that otherwise would not have been disseminated outside of a small circle of experts and history buffs.
There will be many events marking the day at places significant to the story, including the jail which, by the way, looks much more civilized today than in 1958. There will be wreaths around Imre Nagy's statue, gatherings at the Memorial to the Revolution erected two years ago, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of the uprising. The crowning event will take place tonight in parliament where the diplomatic corps has been invited and of course, the president and the leaders of the parties. The president has "other plans," so he won't be there. Neither will Viktor Orbán and Zsolt Semjén. So neither Fidesz nor the KDNP will be represented. However, Péter Boross of MDF will be there. He is personally involved because he took part in the revolution. One of the speakers will be Tibor Méray, an important participant in the events of 1956, author of the first book written about the revolution and Imre Nagy. He has been living in France ever since 1956. Imre Nagy's grandchildren will attend, as will many of the family members of the other accused.
One has a fair idea what is waiting for us today. László Gonda, one of the leaders of the extreme right who listened to the tapes, yelled: "We will be there!" Meaning the official events. What Gonda and his friends are planning can easily be guessed. Of course, the fact that Sólyom and Orbán refuse to participate in the official memorial in parliament only lends encouragement to Gonda and his kind.
And one more interesting aside. The public airing of the court proceedings of fifty years ago prompted an ordinary citizen who phoned into Klub Rádió's "Let's Talk it Over" to make a comparison with more recent times. In the worst dictatorship of the early Kádár years there was a recording made of this "very sensitive" (from the point of view of the regime) event. Yet in democratic Hungary between 1998 and 2002 no recording was made, not even summarizing notes were taken, of cabinet meetings! One can think about this a bit.