The other day I was thinking about the history of national holidays. Prior to the birth of modern nationalism naturally there were no national holidays, only religious ones, and even in the last two hundred years or so some of the national holidays were slow to appear. For example, Bastille Day was not a national holiday until a century after the event. The fourth of July was made an official, paid holiday only in 1870. In Hungary, March 15th didn't become an official holiday until after the First World War. The newest Hungarian national holiday–October 23, commemorating the outbreak of the Hungarian revolution in 1956–for obvious reasons was not celebrated until 1989.
I hate what politicians do to national holidays, but when they talk all sorts of nonsense about March 15 only my historical sensibilities are bruised. However, when it comes to 1956 I feel personally violated. My own memories, my own part in the events are being trampled on.
Orbán's speeches often make my blood boil but his "oration" today, which was apparently applauded by the throngs, was really too much. As politicians are apt to do, Orbán is rewriting history. This is not the first time that he reinterprets the history of 1956. A few years ago he decided that it was a "bourgeois [polgári] revolution." After all, a "polgári" government deserves a "polgári" revolution. This time he went even further. He claimed that his government, his revolution in the voting booth is the fulfillment of our wishes in 1956. Mr. Orbán is wrong. In our worst dreams we didn't think of a future with Viktor Orbán, who is making mockery of democracy.
Well, let's get back to the current interpretation of 1956. In Orbán's mind, in the fall of 1956 it looked as if the nation didn't exist anymore. But then it became clear even to Imre Nagy that the demonstrators were not simply students, workers, intellectuals. The nation stood in front of him. In Orbán's version Imre Nagy first addressed the crowd as "comrades" but someone shouted: "We are not comrades. The nation is here." Well, the first sentence is true, except it wasn't someone but about 100,000 strong. The second is not true. No one talked about the nation being there. I was present, and I remember the whole evening vividly.
Viktor Orbán has a fertile imagination when he tries to interpret what we, those who stood there, thought. According to him we suddenly felt that the nation was "reborn." Because the nation was battered by two lost wars, by the loss of territories as a result of Trianon, by the bloodletting of the nation by those who escaped in 1945 and those who were exiled. I can assure Mr. Orbán that we didn't think about any of those things. We were not thinking of the two lost wars, Trianon, or those who together with the German troops left Hungary in 1944 and 1945. We were thinking of Stalinism, of Rákosi, the AVH, the political prisoners, the fear, the peasants' miseries, the lack of essential staples in the stores, and the lack of freedom.
I'm also baffled by the following: "The heroes of 1956 were those who didn't allow themselves to be talked out of making Hungary great." What does that mean? Sure, a lot of people were worried about the consequences of an armed uprising. They regretted the loss of life, feared crushing defeat and even worse oppression than before, but that cannot be interpreted as cowardly people who wanted to deprive Hungary of its greatness. Whom does Orbán have in mind? Those intellectuals who were fearful, rightfully so, of the consequences? Or is he trying to set participant against participant? On the one hand those who were the intellectual leaders and on the other hand those young workers and students who fought in the streets? Most likely.
Orbán's verbal flourishes are occasionally laughable. What about this sentence? "The Hungarians' sigh of freedom (szabadságsóhaj) knocked out the first brick from the wall of communism and through that opening decades later the whole socialist regime was carried away by the draught." Oh my! Can anyone imagine a sigh that knocks out a whole brick and a draught that carries away a regime?
In any case, those great Hungarians of 1956 started a struggle which "now [they] carry to its fruition." In spite of the change of regime in 1990 and the free elections, they have felt that "something holds down [their] hands…. 1956 was an unfinished story until 2010. [Orbán and Fidesz] delivered the coup de grâce to the regime of lies. The age of national unity arrived."
Orbán continues, comparing his revolution and the revolution of 1956. "We didn't win in the spring to leave everything as it had been before. The heroes of 1956 didn't sacrifice their lives, we didn't go through with the regime change, we didn't suffer through the past eight years to stop, lose our self-confidence when there is the chance…. The nation said that everything must change in Hungary." Let's not get stuck on the question of what the results of the elections empowered Orbán to do. Those who voted for Fidesz, for example, knew nothing of a new constitution or the nationalization of their private savings.
Perhaps the most egregious part of the speech is the one about the heroes of 1956 sacrificing their lives for Viktor Orbán's "revolution." That really boggles the mind. Or what can one say when he compares the last eight years to the times that followed the revolution of 1956! How can anyone in his right mind compare the two? A dictatorship imposed on Hungary by a foreign power and its lackeys and a period in which a democratically elected coalition government was in power. The period between 1957 and 1963 was a terrible time in Hungary. A time of retribution when hundreds were executed and thousands imprisoned.
And while he is turning 1956 into his own revolution he also distorts his own role in 1989. Even those who dislike the Viktor Orbán of today talk about him in glowing terms when at the reburial of Imre Nagy he dared to openly demand the withdrawal of the Soviet troops. So, he made sure today that people didn't forget the very important role he played when he said that "if in 1989 we didn't demand the withdrawal of the Soviet troops, today Central Europe would still be full of them." In brief, without the young Viktor Orbán the Soviet Union would still be intact, the Soviet Empire would still be flourishing, and the Cold War would still be with us. Surely, he himself cannot believe that. But perhaps his admirers do. One never knows. He is a persuasive fellow, especially when his audience is ignorant.