A fierce debate about János Kádár and 1956

On the occasion of the centennial of János Kádár’s birth a great number of articles appeared about him and his regime. For the most part they were critical. Péter Niedermüller, deputy chairman of Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Demokratikus Koalíció, was one of the many who condemned János Kádár and his regime in no uncertain terms. He claimed that the “power of Kádár was built on the ruins of the revolution and on merciless reprisals. His rule cannot be separated from the infamous murders of the leaders of the revolution.” At the same time Niedermüller called on all people regardless of political persuasion to take a critical look at the Kádár regime and come to some kind of common understanding of the period.

It was Niedermüller’s communiqué published in the name of the Demokratikus Koalíció that prompted Attila Csernok to write an article in Népszava about Kádár and the Kádár regime entitled “Sentiments, Emotions, Facts.”

Who is Attila Csernok? He is not a historian but an economist who early in his career was involved in the implementation of the 1968 economic reforms and subsequently became one of the deputy governors of the Hungarian National Bank. Since 1982 he has been living in Brazil where he moved as a representative of Medicor, a company specializing in developing and manufacturing medical equipment.

Csernok in the last few years wrote three books, all dealing with recent Hungarian history. The first, entitled The Pontoon-bridge at Komárom and published in 2008, was a hit. The next year he published With the Force of Reality, which again became a bestseller. Csernok is a realist and therefore a critic of Hungarian nationalism and self-aggrandisement. He would like to add to “Hungarian self-examination.” His first two books were controversial. Some readers welcomed Csernok’s unsentimental and scathing criticism of the country while others hated his works and called him an anti-Hungarian who belittled the significance of Trianon. His last book, As a Brook among the Rocks, also deals with the last twenty years, with special emphasis on the dangers and causes of right-wing extremism.

In any case, Niedermüller’s assessment of Kádár’s role made Csernok sit down and “correct” his picture of Kádár. In his opinion Kádár’s power wasn’t built on the ruins of the revolution or on reprisals and murders. It was Khrushchev who made the decisions and it was the Soviet army that guaranteed that his demands were met. Kádár didn’t call in the Russians, “they were already inside ever since 1945” and they were the ones who named him to the post. According to Csernok, “when [Kádár] appeared under the protection of Soviet tanks our sentiment rejected him but our common sense suggested that under the present circumstances this was the best solution.”

Csernok criticizes Niedermüller for claiming that Kádár “gave up the country’s political and economic independence.” Hungary was not an independent country. It lost the war and remained under Soviet occupation after 1945. Surely, says Csernok, Niedermüller doesn’t think that Hungary was independent politically and economically between October 23 and November 4, 1956.

Csernok is no admirer of the Hungarian freedom fighters of 1956. According to him, the revolution “was an ill-considered uprising partially fueled from abroad.” Those who started it should have known the power relations and the hopelessness of turning against the regime supported by Soviet troops. Imre Nagy drifted with the events and couldn’t bring himself to ask for Soviet help to put an end to the disturbances. Under the circumstances János Kádár was the best choice, especially since the Stalinists in Hungary and Rákosi in the Soviet Union were there to take over at any time.

October 23, 1956, the student demonstration

Csernok justifies the murders committed by János Kádár in the first few years after the revolution by pointing to some of the extremists’ murderous activities in the last week of the revolution. He specifically mentions the events at the party headquarters in Budapest and in Miskolc. He also refers to “the massacre of soldiers at the radio station.” Throughout his description of the events he seems to be siding with the regime and looking upon the Soviet soldiers as innocent victims of murderous Hungarians. For him 1956 was no more than “chaos called revolution” which led nowhere and which had no lasting significance. In Prague in 1968 “they were just talking nonsense but they were not killing communists.” So it was understandable that the communists wanted to take revenge. Moreover, the execution of Imre Nagy and his closest associates was not Kádár’s decision but Khrushchev’s. And finally, Kádár was just continuing the reforms and the thaw that Imre Nagy began in 1953.

Surely, this article by Csernok had to be answered because the man who is so proud of his impartiality and cool head went far astray. It was László Márton, one of the organizers of the student demonstration in the afternoon of October 23, 1956 and later the editor-in-chief of  the Irodalmi Újság published in Paris, who decided to answer Csernok.

Márton took exception to Csernok’s accusation that the organizers and the leaders of the revolt were naive idiots who had no idea about the overwhelming odds in the Soviets’ favor. Instead, as he rightly points out, no one was planning an uprising against the Soviets or anyone else. Moreover, all of the available material on 1956 makes it clear that the organizers were cautious and moderate. Márton is correct in pointing out that one cannot compare what happened at the radio station with the events at the party headquarters on Köztársaság tér (thanks to István Tarlós, today Pope John Paul II Square). At the radio station 50 soldiers and 210 revolutionaries died. They were all the victims of mass hysteria and the incompetence of the officers in charge. What happened at the party headquarters was surely the darkest moment of the revolution and cannot be compared to the actual outbreak of the revolution.

As for the executions, the truth is that the decision to execute Imre Nagy didn’t come from Moscow. In fact, the Soviets, thinking about the foreign reaction, tried to talk Kádár out of it. As for Kádár continuing Imre Nagy’s program, Márton has a low opinion of. The immediate price was at least 500 people dead and 200,000 refugees. Kádár’s regime as it developed was deeply immoral and economically unsustainable with its Trabants, its $20 every three years for foreign travel, and its small plots to build a weekend house. At least Sándor Károlyi, who laid down arms after the Rákóczi Rebellion, and Artúr Görgey, who did the same in 1849, did not take part in their comrades’ execution.

It’s unlikely that there will be any agreement over the role of János Kádár in the foreseeable future. Especially if opinions are so far apart.

47 comments

  1. Louis Kovach :
    Petrovics: Re the Soviet originally secret data:
    See:http://www.rev.hu/portal/page/portal/rev/tanulmanyok/1956/rmj2
    Yeltsin brought the documents as a gift to Hungary.
    I have always said that I am who I am. I do not hide behind false names, disguises or other misleading faces.

    Oh, I didn’t know that Yeltsin was former KGB?
    I suppose the KGB never ‘used’ their leader…
    I’m aftraid I hav to take my cue from the writer John le Carre (ok, ok, his real name is
    David John Moore Cornwell) who, when asked in the 1990’s whether he felt kindly disposed to Russia and the KGB, answered “Never!”

    I do like this part of your post: “I do not hide behind false names, disguises or other misleading faces.” Which, I suppose, is a reference to the donkey in the picture…

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  2. Petrovics: “I do like this part of your post: “I do not hide behind false names, disguises or other misleading faces.” Which, I suppose, is a reference to the donkey in the picture…”

    No, the donkey means that I am familiar and tolerant toward jackasses….which is a dire requirement here.

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  3. Louis Kovach :

    Petrovics: “I do like this part of your post: “I do not hide behind false names, disguises or other misleading faces.” Which, I suppose, is a reference to the donkey in the picture…”

    No, the donkey means that I am familiar and tolerant toward jackasses….which is a dire requirement here.

    We don’t use words like that around here.

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  4. Dr. Balogh,

    I thought I would generate some civilized, thoughtful and academic exchanges when I raised two issues: a/ that it appears Janos Kadar was more in favor of Imre Nagy’s execution than the Kremlin and b/ both Francis Joseph and Kadar started out as executioners and finished their rules on a much more positive note. Instead, some of the comments were not just spirited but lacking in civility. I regret that and do not plan to make any further postings. I will continue reading your columns though. They are enlightening. All the best.

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  5. Frank T. Csongos :

    Dr. Balogh,

    I thought I would generate some civilized, thoughtful and academic exchanges when I raised two issues: a/ that it appears Janos Kadar was more in favor of Imre Nagy’s execution than the Kremlin and b/ both Francis Joseph and Kadar started out as executioners and finished their rules on a much more positive note. Instead, some of the comments were not just spirited but lacking in civility. I regret that and do not plan to make any further postings. I will continue reading your columns though. They are enlightening. All the best.

    I’m sorry!!! I agree with you fully on both accounts. I must admit that I didn’t follow the discussion close enough and therefore I didn’t notice the lack of civility. Again, I fully agree with you and I hope you will post again.

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  6. “We don’t use words like that around here”

    We don’t exactly look up each other’s facebook pages and start mocking photos just because we ran out of argument. So in this case Louis Kovach’s reaction was justified I think. As far as I remember, Petofi was the one who refused for a long time not to refer to OV “the gypsy”, many fellow contributors complained about that one too, so I’d humbly suggest warning him too at least.

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  7. Jano :

    As far as I remember, Petofi was the one who refused for a long time not to refer to OV “the gypsy”, many fellow contributors complained about that one too, so I’d humbly suggest warning him too at least.

    I think that calling someone a Gypsy is troubling only to those who are prejudiced. I wish more assimilated Roma would admit Gypsy roots.Then the current Roma population wouldn’t be so abandoned by its own intellectuals.

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  8. Jano :
    So in this case Louis Kovach’s reaction was justified I think.

    Jano, read back the thread and you’ll see that Kovach was the one who flatly stated that Petofi “knows very little about history” when Petofi didn’t agree with him. This was a typical Kovach “argument”. In quotes because he never has arguments. He quotes something from out of the blue and then starts basking in the PhD historian limelight.

    I started to think Kovach does this intentionally. He never expresses personal views – he throws in a stinkbomb, usually attacking professor Balogh. This has nothing to do with calling Orban a gipsy. I’m missing Johnny Boy. We used to have honest trolls.

    Ok, let’s be patient. Me included.

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  9. “IMHO the defeat of the 1956 uprising was caused by the political decision of the silent majority in Hungary.”

    I disagree. The revolution never had a chance to fully develop 11 days are simply not enough for that. The revolution was simply crushed by the Soviet Union’s armed intervention.

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  10. Győr Calling!

    Frank T. Csongos – Don’t go! Your posts have been very interesting – and I’m reading up on the events of 1956 and finding them very interesting.

    Most people on here are capable of civilised debate so please ignore the ‘noise’ and share your thoughts and experience with us?

    This blog is unique in my view – and its strength is the blogging community here – democracy in action outside Hungary. She sorely needs it.

    And most people know politeness and etiquette too are also important elements of democracy (hint!).

    The stats suggest that nearly 1000 people a per day read Eva’s blog – hopefully mostly Hungarians.

    Hungary needs you!

    Regards

    Charlie

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  11. Frank T. Csongos :
    Dr. Balogh,
    I thought I would generate some civilized, thoughtful and academic exchanges when I raised two issues: a/ that it appears Janos Kadar was more in favor of Imre Nagy’s execution than the Kremlin and b/ both Francis Joseph and Kadar started out as executioners and finished their rules on a much more positive note. Instead, some of the comments were not just spirited but lacking in civility. I regret that and do not plan to make any further postings. I will continue reading your columns though. They are enlightening. All the best.

    I don’t see how you can feel responsible for the comments of others. You’re comments have been both positive and quite interesting. Shame to have you not post and loss your voice and experiences.

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  12. CharlieH :

    Győr Calling!

    The stats suggest that nearly 1000 people a per day read Eva’s blog – hopefully mostly Hungarians.

    Hungary needs you!

    Regards

    Charlie

    Actually the number is higher than 1,000. On the average I would say about 1,400 and about half of the people are from Hungary. A lot from the United States, the UK, Germany, Romania, and Slovakia.

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  13. Mutt: “Jano, read back the thread and you’ll see that Kovach was the one who flatly stated that Petofi “knows very little about history” when Petofi didn’t agree with him. This was a typical Kovach “argument”. In quotes because he never has arguments. He quotes something from out of the blue and then starts basking in the PhD historian limelight.”

    I reiterate my statement! The comment related to Mutt deriding any Soviet (originally secret) (the Yeltsin)documents relating to the 1956 revolution. I have also given the source. It was not a question of “arguments” facts are facts.

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  14. The real core of the argument is who wanted Nagy dead and why? Who in Russia agreed to let it happen?
    I understand Nagy was ‘lifted’ from a Yugoslav transport by Russian troops. If this is true how did he get into Hungarian hands?
    His death alienated many western communists and destroyed the very real chances that Italy and France would elect communist majorities to their parliaments.

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