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.
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.