After the national holiday

Poor October 23, 1956. For thirty-three years one couldn't even talk about the events of those thirteen days that shook the Kremlin, to borrow the title of Tibor Meray's book about Imre Nagy and the revolution published in 1959. In fact, the silence of those years was deafening. It was not without reason that Péter György, a literary historian, called his book about the afterlife of the revolution during the Kádár regime Néma hagyomány (2000) [Silent heritage]. Only this morning Imre Mécs, one of the student leaders of the revolution and today a respected member of parliament (MSZP), mentioned that he is often invited by schools to talk about the revolution to the students. His first question always is: "Did you hear about the revolution at home?" Normally only five percent or so of the students heard about 1956 from their parents or grandparents.

What is even more surprising or puzzling is that even those Hungarians who were adults at the time later showed signs of total amnesia about 1956 and its aftermath. When talking to people of my parents' age who were in their forties between 1956 and 1963 I was astonished to hear that these people didn't remember the first few years of reprisals, the 20,000 arrests, the about 300 death sentences and the many thousands who spent years in jail and whose lives were totally destroyed as a result. As if none of this ever happened. Perhaps most shocking was that nice, middle-class ladies in their seventies told me that "only those were punished who deserved punishment."

In today's interview Imre Mécs recalled a course he gave at his alma mater, the Budapest Engineering School. He discovered that it was not enough to talk about the events that preceded the outbreak of the revolution; he had to give a kind of glossary of terms. The students seemed to be totally ignorant not only of the revolution and its immediate prehistory but according to Mécs of Hungarian history from about 1914 on. Most likely in the twelfth grade they simply ran out of time. The teacher was happy to get to the outbreak of World War I. That's too bad and perhaps explains a lot about today's youth and their political views.

Anyway, for thirty odd years one either didn't want to or didn't dare to speak about the revolution. The textbooks called it a "counterrevolution," and in fact that stuck to such an extent that even in the mid-1990s almost half of the population considered it a counterrevolution. I don't think that this is very surprising. After all a whole generation grew up during those years. Most parents didn't dare tell their children about the revolution because they were afraid that the children would say something in school that might have untoward consequences. Thus the best thing was to say nothing.

And then came October 23, 1989 when the day became an official national holiday and when the Third Republic was born. The beginnings of a new democratic regime. It sounded so idyllic. But soon enough it became obvious that the nation was divided over the meaning of the revolution. I'm not sure when it became customary for different parties to celebrate national holidays at different times and in different places. If I had to guess, I would say that it was during the Horn government when the opposition party refused to celebrate with the former communist Gyula Horn who was a participant in the revolution but unfortunately on the "wrong" side. I still remember the total shock when Gyula Horn together with the widow of Imre Nagy laid a wreath on Imre Nagy's grave or statue. Again, I'm not sure what happened during the Orbán government's tenure in office (1998-2002). But I do know that since then Fidesz has refused to take part in the official government functions. Mind you, this is true not only of October 23 but also of March 15 and August 20. On October 23 the left goes to the modern and quite stunning 56 Memorial while the right, who managed to get its own much more traditional statue on the other side of the Danube, gather there. While the left says that the Hungarian revolution of 1956 was inspired by the reform communists, the right claims that it was an anticommunist uprising pure and simple and that the real aim was the establishment of a bourgeois democracy and a market economy. The fact of the matter is that two weeks was not enough time to develop any long-term plans for the future. Some people wanted a reformed socialist system while others wanted a multi-party democracy.

Ferenc Gyurcsány in his speech yesterday at the Opera House talked about "our common treasure." The revolution is ours, the whole nation's. Neither side can lay exclusive claim to it. Unfortunately, Viktor Orbán's speech given in Buda in the old Castle section of the city sent a different message. He portrayed today's regime as a dictatorship somewhat similar to the Rákosi period. In today's dictatorship Imre Nagy would be beaten if he wanted to visit Kossuth Square, and "this poor, humiliated people can be grateful that they are not sent to Recsk." Oh yes, I had to think of Imre Mécs's glossary where surely he had to explain to his students what Recsk was. Recsk was a labor camp, the Hungarian gulag that existed between 1950 and 1953. Few people got out of Recsk alive. Today Recsk is a happy little village in northern Hungary; its home page invites people to a big Halloween party on November 15th. Orbán's absolute nonsense was greatly appreciated by an enthusiastic crowd of thousands. Whenever I hear such wild utterances I have to wonder whether the audience has any idea of what Recsk was and how absurd this statement is.

At least Orbán's fiery speech didn't have much effect on those who in the past two years managed to ruin the holiday and inflict substantial property damage. The Hungarian police made an incredible discovery: it is better to surround suspicious groups instead of chasing them halfway across town!  There were some guys who were prepared to wreak havoc, and they had everything ready: masks, knives, Molotov cocktails, bombs. But once the police surrounded them they dropped everything. The streets were littered with all sorts of weapons. As a result there was no disturbance in Budapest. The country survived without yet another embarrassment. I think that beside better police work Orbán's decision not to hold a huge rally in front of the downtown Astoria Hotel certainly helped the situation.