A recent debate: What did the Hungarians want in 1956?

Open debate, sometimes going on for weeks on end, was a favorite pastime of scholars in the Kádár regime. Because political debate was out of the question, the practitioners of the genre often went to great lengths to debate some minute point of literary analysis or some historical fact. Someone not long ago called these discussions pseudo-debates. Debates about nothing or at least not about important things. This way one could pretend that there was a lively intellectual life in a country where important issues couldn't be discussed. One could certainly have huge fights over the meaning of Mohács but one couldn't debate Hungary's role in World War I, Trianon, the Hungarian role in the Holocaust, or Hungary's steadfast support of Hitler's Germany. To this day Hungarian society has been paying a heavy price for these omissions, resulting in widespread ignorance of twentieth-century Hungarian history.

Unfortunately, though there are no longer political constraints, the days of pseudo-debates are not yet over if one can judge from an exchange between István Deák, professor emeritus at Columbia University, and István Gereben, a 1956 émigré and well-known oceanographer living in the United States. The debate is over the life of Béla Király who died recently at the age of ninety-seven. Because István Deák knew Király well after Király escaped from Hungary, he wrote a fairly lengthy obituary in Élet és Irodalom (July 17, 2009). In it he tried to draw a balanced but on the whole favorable picture of the general turned historian. Deák makes it clear, even if implicitly, that he doesn't agree with all of Király's interpretations of modern Hungarian history or his sometimes forced explanations of the motives behind the many twists and turns in his career. But Deák finishes his obituary by saying that he knows that Király's conscience was clear. He was convinced that "all his life he served the interest of his country." Deák adds that "unfortunately he was incapable of self-criticism."

I can't possibly recount, even in an abbreviated form, the life of this "most colorful personality of our age" as Deák called him. I knew Béla Király personally and have my own opinion of him as a scholar and a man, but before 1993 or 1994 I never realized how controversial he was. The right-wingers I encountered on the Internet considered Király a turncoat. My feeling is that the liberals didn't know what to make of him either. After all, as a professional soldier he swore allegiance to Ferenc Szálasi and served in his army until March 29, 1945, when he managed to get over to the Soviet side only to be imprisoned instead of being greeted with open arms. After 1945 he joined the communist party, was imprisoned in 1951, and released only in September 1956. During the revolution he was the chief of the Hungarian National Guard.

After the change of regime, Király moved back to Hungary and became a member (independent) of parliament from his birthplace, Kaposvár. A few months later he joined the SZDSZ caucus. His political career was short. After four years he left politics but later showed up as military adviser (2000-2002) to Viktor Orbán. Another new twist in his career.

But let's go back to the debate between Deák and Gereben. In response to Deák's balanced obituary István Gereben, whom I considered to be a moderate man, lost his cool. What I found interesting was that Gereben's problem wasn't Király's serpentine career; he got hung up on only one thing. In 1983 there appeared a series of interviews conducted by Michael Charleton in the Encounter and, along with Milovan Djilas and Leszek Kolakowski, Béla Király was interviewed. Charleton asked a question in which he assumed that the revolution was against "the communist government." Király protested and claimed that "we didn't fight against the communist party." Imre Nagy was a communist and remained a member of the central committee of the newly formed MSZMP. Király claimed that the Hungarian uprising was not an "anti-communist revolution."

Charleton didn't give up and pressed on: "There were 200,000 people demonstrating…." Király apparently interrupted him: "Yes, but not against the communist party. They were demonstrating for democracy and against totalitarianism." To prove his point he called Charleton's attention to the sixteen points of the university students. These points demanded reforms within the communist party. Gereben found Király's words "sickening."

István Deák answered in a brief note entitled "Black and white." In it Deák very rightly points out that those who took part in the revolution had diverging ideas. Not everybody wanted to overthrow the socialist regime. He suggested that Gereben read the transcript of the Petőfi Circle, the speeches of Imre Nagy and Zoltán Tildy, and the memorandum of István Bibó. And his last sentence: "Gereben doesn't seem to know the dilemmas and contradictions of history, politics, we may even say, of life. His simplifications are unacceptable."

A few days ago Mária Ormos, who herself was an eyewitness although not in Budapest but in Szeged, said that as long as people who participated in the events of the revolution are alive there is no hope of reconciling the different perceptions of the 1956 Revolution. To me neither Király in the Encounter interview nor Gereben in his outburst in ÉS captured reality. The revolution began as a movement for reform and for "socialism with a human face," but as time went on other forces surfaced. What would have happened if the Soviet troops didn't return we will never know, but I suspect that Hungary would have seen multi-party democracy decades earlier.

It would have been wise of Gereben to let Deák have the last word, but in the bad habit of endless Hungarian debates he continued. He claimed that in this case there can be "no nuanced opinion." Well, there has to be. A slice of the whole isn't the whole; one opinion doesn't silence other opinions; a single perspective can't describe a complex event. Black and white thinking isn't only a problem for the human psyche; it can distort a country's history.

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“A few days ago Mária Ormos, who herself was an eyewitness although not in Budapest but in Szeged, said that as long as people who participated in the events of the revolution are alive there is no hope of reconciling the different perceptions of the 1956 Revolution.” With all due respect to Mária Ormos I don’t believe the problem is this – it is more the way in which the Revolution and its memory has become implicated in post-socialist politics. In 2004 (I think) I found myself at home with the phone in and magazine programme that was broadcast after the end of Napkelte on the television. As it was 23rd October interviews with prominent veterans of 1956 were broadcast. I was shocked (but not surprised) by some of the phone in response – “they benefited from the Kádár era; why are they complaining about it?” was one response I remember. As someone who has spent alot of time pouring through the documents generated and collected by the courts, the police and others to reconstruct what actually happened in 1956 I agree very strongly with you that “The revolution began as a movement for reform and for “socialism with a… Read more »

Ceterum censeo…, some today are not willing, not capable to consider the state of mind of those who marched in 1956, had more 1944-45 in their heads as 1966. That means, to keep the 45 land-reform or not, to bring back the Horthy state( which caused a million of dead relatives), or not. No wonder, those marchers had(unfathomable for some today) even in 1956 sympathy with socialism.


I can only add my own experience and memories.
Although the participants were almost all fueled by their individual hopes for the nature of the changes they were hoping for, there certainly was a unifying ethos to the revolution that held together all kinds of people of all kinds of expectations.
First and foremost was getting rid of the Rakosi-Gero group.
Followed by the loosening of the Soviet grip on the country.
Third, the reform of the social system, while retaining its egalitarian nature.
Fourth, restoration of private property, free speech and association.
Fifth, the adoption of a neutral status for the country, like that of Austria.
Sixth, some kind of punishment for the perpetrators of the excesses and the collaborators of the Rakosi regime.
What it was not about was the restoration of the prewar system of paternal semi-fascist misery, even if there were some, who craved that.