The place of October 23 in today’s Hungary

A reporter and and a cameraman walked around in downtown Budapest today and asked people what event the country is commemorating. About a dozen people, some old and some young, were asked and maybe three of them knew that it had something to do with the “thirteen days that shook the world,” as Tibor Méray titled his book about the October Revolution of 1956. Then the western world was in awe of the brave Hungarians who stood against the Soviet behemoth, but by now few Hungarians seem to know or care about those days.

There is a huge literature on October 1956, both in Hungarian and in foreign languages, but even the most basic information about the revolution hasn’t trickled down to ordinary citizens. There are several possible reasons for this indifference and ignorance. One is the sudden reversal in the interpretation of October 23 after 1989. Earlier, the uprising had been labelled a counterrevolution and was taught in schools as such. From one day to the next everything was turned upside down. Many of the teachers didn’t know how to handle this situation and chose the safest way out: they simply didn’t talk about it. This was especially easy to do because history teachers often ran out of time and never got to 1956. The other reason is the ambivalent attitude of all political parties to 1956.

Someone searching online for relevant assessments of the ’56 revolution will often find titles like “Myths and Legends of 1956.” The impulses that unwittingly created an armed conflict came from a small group of reform communists who gathered around Imre Nagy, a communist functionary out of favor at the time. These people didn’t want to overthrow the regime; they wanted to make it better. They believed in the socialist system but wrongly assumed that it could be reformed by removing the Stalinist functionaries who had led a basically admirable political system astray. These people, at least initially, didn’t want to introduce a multi-party democracy. They didn’t want to reintroduce a capitalistic mode of production. And they were not alone in their opposition to a full-fledged market economy. They were supported by the vast majority of the Hungarian working classes who envisaged direct ownership of factories similar to the Yugoslav experiment.

Gathering at the Józef Bem's statue. The sign says Lóránd University, Faculty of Arts

Gathering at Józef Bem’s statue. The sign says Lóránd Eötvös University

I ought to add at this point that the reform communist ideas about the future of the country changed a great deal even during this 13-day period. Before November 4, when the Soviet troops moved into action again, the leading politicians were ready to embrace a multi-party system. The last Nagy government had at least three ministers who came from parties of the pre-1948 era. But the workers who continued their strikes for two more months after November 4 were still organized in so-called workers’ councils. In other words, in “soviets.”

So what could the post-1990 parties whose ideologies were by and large fiercely anti-communist do with this revolution? How could they reconcile their anti-communism with their admiration for the first full-fledged uprising against the Soviet system? Obviously, with difficulty. This was a dilemma for the young Fidesz leaders already in 1989, as Viktor Orbán himself admitted. Discussing the content of his famous speech at the reburial of Imre Nagy, Orbán and his fellow politicians wondered about “what we are doing at the funeral of a communist Imre Nagy.” Later, Orbán point blank said that “Imre Nagy is not our hero.”

So, the myth making began immediately after 1990, especially on the right. MDF, and soon enough Fidesz as well, started to minimize the importance of the ideological leaders of the revolution whose writings and debates contributed so much to the awakening of the Hungarian people. Instead, they came up with the idea that the really important actors of the revolution were the “pesti srácok” (rascals of Pest). There’s no question that mostly working-class youngsters between the ages of 15 and 20 were the ones who continued the fight against the Russian forces throughout the period. As György Litván, I think rightly, pointed out, without them an earlier compromise might have been possible. But these kids had no political ideas or plans. Many of them looked upon the whole thing as a great though dangerous adventure. An emphasis on the “pesti srácok” is still the narrative of the Hungarian right when it comes to the revolution. For instance, the relatively new internet news site “Pesti Srácok” is put out by journalists whose ideas lie somewhere between Fidesz and Jobbik.

Around 1998-1999 Fidesz came up a truly bizarre narrative of 1956. This was the time when Fidesz’s buzzword was “polgári” (bourgeois). Everything was “polgári.”  I for one always had difficulty figuring out what this adjective covered in the Fidesz arsenal of slogans. Orbán must have been at a loss over what to do with it as well because soon enough the word “polgári” was struck from the official name of the party.

Behind Fidesz’s transformation of 1956 into a bourgeois revolution was Gyula Tellér, a close adviser of Viktor Orbán. I wrote about him a year ago. In this interpretation the real leaders of the revolution were the upper-middle class people who somewhere in the background were preparing the revolution. But the political atmosphere between 1948 and 1956 was such that no such “conspiracies” could have taken place. The prisons were full of political prisoners who had been found guilty on trumped-up charges. No one dared mutter a word. People were afraid of each other. After all, informers were everywhere. Members of the higher echelons of Hungarian society were happy to be alive and outside of prison.

Of course, there were many people who occupied high positions in the earlier regime or were party leaders between 1945 and 1948 who sooner or later would have come forth and accepted political positions after a successful revolution. In the last few days some such people did “come in from the cold” and most likely would have competed in a multi-party democratic regime if given the opportunity, but they had no role in the events.

If Fidesz initially had an uneasy relationship with 1956, the socialist party’s situation was much more difficult. After all, many of them had fully supported the Kádár regime from its inception. Many were in high government and/or party positions under the leadership of János Kádár who, after all, was responsible for the death of Imre Nagy. Gyula Horn, who led the socialists to a huge victory in 1994, was involved with the paramilitary units hastily organized after November 4. At one point during his term in office, he and Imre Nagy’s daughter appeared together at Nagy’s grave, signaling a kind of truce between the two sides.

SZDSZ’s anti-communism didn’t lead to a rejection of 1956, perhaps because some of the victims of Kádár’s early wrath against the “counterrevolutionaries,” once they were released from jail, developed a close working relationship with the younger generations of rebels, the members of the so-called democratic opposition. It’s enough to think of people like Árpád Göncz, Imre Mécs, István Eörsi, and György Litván, four people who spent many years in jail, who all ended up in or around SZDSZ.

As for the current attitude of Fidesz to Imre Nagy and the revolution, here is a sad story. A reporter for Magyar Rádió asked M. János Rainer, head of the 1956 Institute, for an interview on the occasion of the anniversary. The interview took place, but it was never broadcast. The reporter’s superior announced that “we don’t need an Imre Nagy-Rainer narrative.” Otherwise, the two speeches delivered by high-ranking Fidesz politicians drew a parallel between Hungarians defending their borders in 1956 and the Orbán government erecting a fence against the migrants.

Perhaps Róbert Friss said it best in Népszava. October 23 has become a non-holiday in which no one is interested. Just as, he added, nobody is interested in freedom.

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Paul
Guest
An interesting insight into how such things look different from inside and outside – and from past and present. This must be particularly galling for you, Éva, to see your past being ignored and effectively written out of history. But there is a general truth here too. The older I get, the more I realise that people seem to have a collective memory span of about 50 years at the most (two or three generations). The world of my youth and my parents’ young lives already only exists as politically constructed myths or glossy TV programmes – or has been forgotten altogether. After going through something as awful as WWII, the Holocaust, Stalin’s USSR, etc, you tend to assume that the events and the lessons we’ve learned from them will never be forgotten. But, sadly even such momentous and terrible times are forgotten or misremembered, until eventually even the lessons learned are also forgotten, or only partially, and incorrectly, understood. Thus we have a Europe which seems to have forgotten all about the horrors of WWII and the reasons it happened. Racism and nationalism on the increase, the EU and all the progress made since the war being talked down,… Read more »
gdfxx
Guest

The past is not written out of history, it is just re-written and re-written continuously, at the convenience of those who have the power at any given moment in time. This happens mostly in those countries where a USA-type freedom of speech clause is not written into the constitution or it’s not being respected. In other words in most of the rest of the world.

Even you write “Stalin’s USSR”, as if Lenin’s USSR or Brezhnev’s USSR or all the other’s USSR was much better.

exTor
Guest

I guess if one is a strident anticommie, then they’re all the same, ugye gdfxx? Just like all capitalists are the same, just like all politicians are the same, just like all racists are the same, just like all reactionaries are the same.

MAGYARKOZÓ

gdfxx
Guest

I guess when one doesn’t have arguments, one insults.

exTor
Guest

Not an insult, gdfxx, just a sharp point.

MAGYARKOZÓ

Paul
Guest

I wrote “Stalin’s USSR” quite deliberately as I was comparing it to the Nazis and the Holocaust, in terms of the terror used and the number of deaths caused. Whatever your political views, you surely can’t compare the USSR under Lenin or Brezhnev to what happened under Stalin?

My wife was born in the time or Brezhnev, and lived under Andropov, Chernenko and Gorbachev, and she doesn’t remember too many Holodomors or Great Purges.

gdfxx
Guest

The legend of a benevolent Lenin compared to a tyrannical Stalin does not stand. The gulags existed under Brezhnev and the others, that followed, maybe at a reduced scale, maybe as mental institutions, where refusniks were locked up. Freedom of speech on the other hand did not. People weren’t killed by the millions but criticism of the regime was not allowed. So, what was so good under Andropov and Chernenko? Yes, under Gorbachev things changed but that was the beginning of the end of the regime. Which seems to begin to restore itself now, by the way…

Member
I reached a few conclusions as I have followed the Hungarian politics, day by day, in the last decade and a half or more. 1. A large portion of the people in Hungary, are either blaming someone else in the World for their misery or beating their chest, that they are the best and Godsend people on the World and everyone else is inferior, with perhaps the Germans the least, but even them are dumb. 2. The majority of the people in Hungary don’t know World history well enough to understand it and they don’t know the real history of Hungary, as they have been told countless and opposing stories about it in their lives. 3. Most people in Hungary are poorly educated and poorly informed about Western Culture and politics and also about the economical systems and finances of capitalism. They don’t have the faintest clue about World economy and they don’t care about it either. 4. The people described above are not willing to make any effort and sacrifice to improve their own society, their own life and they are so out of touch with the Western culture and democracy, and they care so little about anyone else,… Read more »
Gerzson
Guest
Dear Éva, A couple of years ago you wrote about your experiences in ’56. I realized then that in the corridor of your collegium where you slept, I also slept two or three nights (I wasn’t able to go back to my collegium) Not only did we sleep there during days, but we also both enjoyed the wonderful lectures of Prof. Kardos about “Dolce Stil Novo” In today’s entry you show a photo of the Bem sculpture, I was there and said a poem. I tell you this to let you know how much I feel the same pain when I see what is happening in our country of birth. All of us who understand what is going on will come to the same conclusion you did, “nobody is interested in freedom”. In today’s Hungarian society freedom is seen as a poison, and slowly the government burns out freedoms heart, like snake poison was burned out in early days. I don’t see much hope, at the same time I am ashamed when I see Mecs Imre trying to keep the flame alive. On ATV today I saw Heller Agnes who really came to the same conclusion you did, but she… Read more »
teotwawki
Guest

Why aren’t people interested in freedom? Because they know that in fact you can be free – if you have money and connections.

But no average person is free during the everydays, from their bosses, from market forces, from politics and so on. Freedom is not an issue people care about these days as they can’t ran away from real pressure. Freedom was oversold in 1990, it does exist like a BMW for rich people. The shiny, smiling world in the advertisements. If you have money. Or for a few urban liberals who already own an apartment and can make some money to subsist on. Lucky for them. For others, freedom is not an issue.

They want rather ‘protection’ from the forces of globalization, low utility prices and suchlike.

Politics that is based on freedom is doomed to fail because freedom is fundamentally a middle class issue practically since Mill. Since there’s no middle class (to the extent there’s it is conservative and politically divided), freedom manifests itself in the form of throwing away garbage, cursing, violating traffic laws these small transgressions make up for the lack of freedom. It’s good to be really free at least for a second.

Guest

The essential freedom for the average persons is the freedom to form their own trade unions and reject the government run mock unions. That freedom is lost if it has ever existed in Hungary.

Cudar
Guest

C’mon, go to the piac on any day or to a kocsma on any day in the morning and ask those people about freedom.

For an average person there’s freedom: to travel, to consume, to say whatever she wants, to hold reasonable amounts of property. All she wanted prior to 1990 is here – only she needs money to be free.

In 1956 people were just coming out of a real dictatorship with crazy éberségi rules (one had to be vigilant against the imperialists), collectivization, nationalizations, executions, kitelepítések, none of these are here, in fact freedom can be yours, but people are too poor and uneducated to live with the freedoms, so they don’t value them. Freedom lost its relevance in a more complex world when good and evil are hard to distinguish.

Guest

This really is a sad day to remember – and the comments show that “a lot is rotten in the state of Hungary” still …
When I read about those days I automatically think about that famous film:
A Tanu …
Everybody should watch it regularly!

PS:
There are many other really fantastic tragicomedies from those days, some I’ve seen on tv, but I don’t remember the titles.
The fact that this type of film is so exceptionally well done in Hungary maybe also says something about the country and the culture.
And there are newer examples too:
Üvegtigris series, Kalándorok, Valami Amerika (forgot the exact title …), etc …

PS:
I remember vividly that film about the pregnant man and the reaction of the village people, the Church and the Party – but I
don’t remember the name of the film …
And there’s another one about the adventures of a group of soldiers at the end of WW2.

Alex Kuli
Guest

“soon enough the word ‘polgári’ was struck from the official name of the party.”

Isn’t the governing party’s official name the Fidesz-Magyar Polgári Szövetség?

exTor
Guest

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fidesz

https://hu.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fidesz_–_Magyar_Polgári_Szövetség

According to the English and the Hungarian Wikiarticles, ‘polgári’ is part of Fidesz’s name. ‘Polgári’ means more than ‘bourgeois’ in Hungarian. I wonder whether ordinary Magyars see the word as other than ‘bourgeois’.

MAGYARKOZÓ

anseret
Guest

Thanks you so much for this article. I took two taxis in Budapest yesterday and questioned each driver about the meaning of the holiday. The first one was completely clueless and said it had something to do with 1856!!! (Seriously – this from a thirty something Hungarian man). The second one said it was indeed about the “October 1956 revolution” (“forradalom” was the word used). But when pressed for more details he said he neither knew nor cared.

Btw, I think “bourgeois” is an unfortunate translation. What is wrong with “middle class”? Why use the French word?

exTor
Guest

You make a good point about ‘bourgeois’, anseret, not because it isn’t one of the many appropriate translations of ‘polgári’. The English Wikiarticle gives Fidesz – Hungarian Civic Alliance as the English version of the official party title. Fidesz – Hungarian Citizen Federation could be another.

MAGYARKOZÓ

Istvan
Guest
Eva because I was just a child in 1956 growing up in the Hungarian community in Chicago my memories could well be confused, but I would argue that the current Fidesz painting of the 1956 revolution or uprising was very close to the narrative that was given here in the period following the revolt. In fact I would argue the narrative continued to evolve into the early 1960s. First and foremost within the more or less devout Catholic community the revolt was presented as being anti-communist and driven by a desire for freedom of religion. Prince Primate (hercegprímás) József Mindszenty was presented to us as the embodiment of the revolt. In fact I recall listening to the news that Mindszenty was freed from prison and crying with joy as if it was the start of the second coming of Christ.The State seizure of Church-owned farmlands and their restoration were presented as the demands of the masses in the streets. I would argue that this picture of the revolt was fostered not only by Catholic ideology, but also by latent forces within our community inclusive of former Arrow Cross fascists operating as fervent anti-communists within the community and older supporters of… Read more »
Guest

Re polgár:
Isn’t this derived from the German “Bürger”? Polgarmester = Bürgermeister etc.
And Bürger is derived from Burg, so a Bürger might have been someone living in the town under the Burg.
So it might be translated into English as civic or citizen-?

OT:
I always find this funny when Hungarians exchange the “L” and the “R” when taking a word from German:

Elisabeth = Erzsebet

When I hear polgar in Hungary I tend to think of the “Schildbürger”, the inhabitants of the town Schilda where all kind of crazy things happened …

Guest
London Calling! Your post, Eva made me understand more about 1956 with a jolt! “These people didn’t want to overthrow the regime; they wanted to make it better…..” To this Westerner I always believed that they were striving for freedom as defined by The Mother of All Parliaments… maybe arrogantly – but more in ignorance. This explains my incredulity as to how, even now, Hungarians ‘reject’ a true democracy and freedom. (And freedom btw is a frame of mind not connected at all with how much money you have (how materialistic!)) It explains so much for me: how Orban thinks he is running an illiberal democracy; how young woman in my (Hungarian) village hanker to be in Russia’s strong embrace; how unimportant a free press is. How my partner’s relatives duped my partner into apparently rejecting Fidesz…… only to vote Jobbik. It all falls in place for me. The penny has dropped. It also explains why the Hungarians I meet in the ‘London’ diaspora aren’t interested in the least about politics in the ‘old’ country. Not one is interested. I have even given up on the idea of organising Hungarian friends so they all help each other in 2018 to… Read more »
Guest

Polgari reminds me of……. completely irrelevantly I admit!

We used to have an outrageous comedian, Kenneth Williams, who used to sneak into his comedy, much ‘polari’ as he could get away with.

Polari is a sort of private language between gay men which he sneaked in as much as he dare. This was in the days when homosexuality was illegal and the BBC didn’t entertain such ‘diversions’.

Yes KW sadly missed, a very clever comedian, now deceased.

A bit like your Hofi – or nothing like!

Guest

In England many of us say that something is Naff! Meaning ‘rubbish’ and it has gained acceptance widely in the discourse of the nation.

It is a ‘polgari’ abbreviation for ‘Not Available For Fucking’ – which would reduce its use significantly if people understood its origins!

And yet it has embedded itself in the language – a bit like ‘blowing a raspberry’ but that’s another story – irrelevance too far!

exTor
Guest

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Backronym

Doubt it, CharlieH. ‘Naff’ is no more an acronym of ‘not available for fucking’ than ‘fuck’ is an acronym of ‘for unlawful carnal knowledge’.

‘Naff’ and ‘naff off’ (and other variants) just developed from who knows where. Give the link a looksee and learn about folk (or false) etymology.

MAGYARKOZÓ

Guest

“Origins of the word are disputed, but it appears to have come from Polari (gay slang), used to dismissively refer to heterosexual people. It was introduced as a less offensive expletive verb (“naff off”) in the ’70s UK television show, Porridge. “Naff off!” was famously used by Princess Anne in 1982.”

KW himself referred to it as an example of ‘polari’.

By all means doubt it – language and etymology are often doubtful – and as we’ve proved, the Internet can prove anything.

Your example of ‘FUCK’ is a non-sequitur. It is has never been regarded as an acronym – and certainly not anything to do with polari. Just a plain old-fashioned Anglo-Saxon swear word.

Guest

I only ever heard it like in “’nuff said” where it obviously stands for “enough”

Webber
Guest

Wolfi, those are different words and are pronounced differently, so
nuff said is also (properly?) spelled ‘nough said.

By contrast, the “a” in naff is pr. like the it is in the word “raft” (or in “contrast” for that matter).

exTor
Guest

Not a nonsequitur, CharlieH.

You misidentified ‘naff’ as an acronym, when in fact your nonevidence is a backronym. You misattributed ‘naff’ to a nonexistent ‘polgari’.

I’m aware of polari, which is an admixture of Brit gypsy, London street, Yiddish, Cockney rhyming slang, etcetera. Polari is more than just gay slang.

Of course ‘fuck’ is not an acronym. For some, ‘for unlawful carnal knowledge’ is merely an amusing backronym, that’s all.

Your response is defensively incorrect at its core.

MAGYARKOZÓ

Guest

Suit yourself.

But drop the arrogance please.

Guest

……….and have the last word.

Guest

OT:
A bit sad, but not really surprising:
Orbanistan is not only a bad place to live in for many people (Young ones are leaving en masse …), but also among the worst countries in Europe to die in:
http://www.economistinsights.com/healthcare/analysis/quality-death-index-2015/multimedia

Guest

Hello Wolfi

“Doctors do not always disclose diagnosis and prognosis to
patients, and tend to favour curative treatments.”

So says the report about Hungary.

My partner has worked for years in the English palliative care sector – now attending university for a degree in Nursing.

She is shocked (still) by the arrogance and attitude of the health professionals as hinted at in the report.

And I am shocked (still) by the state of the health service.

It’s a bit unlucky that the UK comes top (from a UK publication!) but that doesn’t diminish the contrast between the two countries.

Heightened by the fact that she is studying to be a nurse – and her mother has to attend dialysis regularly at a failing hospital.

They neither communicate, nor care it seems. My partner is in despair.

bimbi
Guest

At least in the hospitals that I have visited (in Budapest) I get a print-out from the doctor saying what was discussed and what the treatment is to be on every occasion. The doctors I have met have been fully competent, very honest and very caring and they and their colleagues surely must be the reason that health care in Hungary has not totally collapsed. Yes, I have probably been very lucky and I only wish such care were available throughout the country. That it is not is an indictment of the government for its cynical inaction.

Guest

And did you (have to …) pay anything extra?

Guest
Bimbi? Yes I think you are correct. For balance it is certainly better, equipment and resource-wise, in Budapest than, say, Gyor – but the arrogance of the doctors is still very high. My partner’s mother was in extreme pain, having been sent to Budapest to see a specialist who promptly dismissed it as something that would clear up. In fact it was very dangerous collapse of, now, five vertebrae. My partner’s begging finally led to an x-ray (reluctant due to cost and age was my suspicion – if you’re old in Hungary, you’ve had your time and treatment is a waste.) However compared with Gyor facilities are a luxury – but basic. I’ve mentioned before on here the non-sterile planks of wood used to keep the patients from falling out of bed – and they are still being used in Gyor. And this from a country who gave us Semmelweiss. In England we had the dreadful Mid Staffs Hospital scandal – but the NHS has had a major overhaul. Still not perfect but the ‘hierarchy status’ with the doctor and specialist at the top of the tree and underlings treating them as deity has gone. Generally patients are treated now… Read more »
Guest

The picture caption.
“The sign says Lóránd University, Faculty of Arts”. I respectfully disagree. The sign says Eötvös Lóránd Science University.

Paul
Guest
And there I was thinking Charlie had left HS in a huff… Polari may be gay slang, but at the time of Round the Horn it was generally considered to be theatre ‘patois’ and therefore acceptable on the BBC. I certainly didn’t know anyone at the time who heard it as anything to do with the ‘gay scene’ (in as much as there was one then). The two characters who used Polari (Julian and Sandy) were ‘resting’ actors and, although they behaved in what would be perceived now to be a very obvious “gay queen” way, then it was just taken as part of the sexual innuendo that that whole sketch was based on (and indeed much of the whole program). Sexual innuendo had been acceptable in comedy for some time, even on the BBC. You couldn’t play the Stones’ Let’s Spend the Night Together, but Formby’s Mr Woo’s a Window Cleaner Now was fine (“he’s got a wobbly eye that flickers, when he’s ironing ladies’ … blouses”). As for Williams “sneaking in as much Polari as he could”, he didn’t actually write the scripts. But never mind the facts, at least it was an interesting diversion from the depressing… Read more »
Guest
The picture of the crowd in Bem Square brings back a lot of memories. I myself was there, after having marched across Margit bridge; I was fourteen and a half, just starting high school. And in the evening we marched across to the Hungarian Radio headquarters, where there was already some fighting. At the time, I was still a fanatic little Hungarian patriot, despite having endured years of antisemitic bullying at school, the playgrounds and in the streets. However, I soon got finally disabused of my illusions, when a few days later a bunch of “pesti srácok” (Budapest guys) chased me away from the barricades at Hotel Astoria with “Pusztulj innét te büdös zsidó!” (“Scram from here, you stinking Jew!”). That too was a feature of the uprising, fuelled on the one hand by memories of the good old days before ’45, when there was open season on the Jews, and on the other hand by the hatred of the many communist Jews complicit in the red terror of the Rákosi era. Actually, I personally am very grateful for that remark, because that was the proverbial straw that broke the back of the camel, and got me to leave Hungary… Read more »
Member

It is a very interesting comment you made Mike. My father told me very similar stories. Although the intention of the upraising was well intended, the core was taken over by hooligans. Many criminals took this as an opportunity to get out of Hungary under the false pretense of being revolutionaries while they were simply criminals (war criminals too). My father left for the same reasons as you did, although he was not a minor at the time. He need up in the USA, but went back to Hungary a year (?) later when general amnesty was declared.

Guest

@Some1
October 24, 2015 at 8:17 pm

Hungarian society was mentally very sick at the time, as it remains mentally very sick to this day.

Hungary is a classic case of the inmates running the lunatic asylum – under regimes that range from the disgusting to the dreadful, and right across to the utterly horrific, whether politically left or right.

I feel myself very lucky and blessed to have been able to escape from there in 1956.

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