Yesterday I wrote that because of the political eclecticism of the October Revolution it is easy for people to use those days for their own political ends by latching onto one ideological strain or another. But interpretation, even if in this case necessarily reductionist, is one thing; blatant falsification of history is quite another. Unfortunately, it is the latter that’s going on in Hungary today.
Just to show the scope of the systematic rewriting, and distortion, of the history of the revolution, I will cite two recent examples. The first is an article from the notorious 888.hu, a news site that is supposed to capture the imagination of pro-Fidesz millennials and post-millennials. The other is an exhibit put together by the so-called historians of the House of Terror, whose director is Mária Schmidt, the grand master of historical falsification.
Last night I read an article that enraged me, titled “Gyurcsány falsifies the historical memory of ’56 with pathological cynicism.” His sin? He dared to say, while laying a wreath at one of the monuments to the revolution: “While the revolution of Imre Nagy aimed at advancing the homeland, the current prime minister’s references to his name, memory and legacy are a desecration of this immaculate revolution. It is naked blasphemy.” He added that “while the revolution of Imre Nagy was the revolution of freedom and democracy, the current Hungarian prime minister is the leader of the counterrevolution.”
I perfectly understand that a government-financed publication is unhappy about Ferenc Gyurcsány’s assessment of both the 1956 revolution and Viktor Orbán’s political role. But what followed in the article is the crudest distortion of historical facts. One may argue about the role of Imre Nagy in the early 1950s, but to claim that “neither the majority of historians nor the Hungarian people have ever considered” Nagy to have an important role in the revolutionary period or after is simply preposterous. I was astonished to read that “it was only an accident that Imre Nagy headed the provisional government and it was only his execution that made him more or less an honored historical character.” Further, the author of this incredible piece of prose claims that the only reason Nagy accepted martyrdom was his alleged knowledge that even if he resigned as prime minister, he would have been executed by his communist comrades.
This is, of course, a pack of lies. After 1954 the whole country pinned its hopes on Imre Nagy, and that huge crowd in front of the parliament building on October 23 stood there for hours, not moving an inch until the party chiefs inside the building produced him. Once he spoke, the crowd dispersed peacefully. To say that Nagy played only an accidental role in the revolution is such an incredible claim that it takes one’s breath away.
And now let’s move on to a much more serious act of falsification of ’56. It is more egregious than the 888.hu’s scribbler’s fantasies about ’56 because it was committed by so-called historians. Readers of Hungarian Spectrum have been exposed to enough articles by Mária Schmidt, the director of the House of Terror, to know not to expect much from anyone who works for that institution. In fact, it itself is a crude falsification of history.
The story is as follows. Viktor Orbán put Mária Schmidt in charge of the sixtieth anniversary celebrations of the ’56 revolution. She received 13.5 billion forints for proper celebrations all over the world. The House of Terror also received money to erect a picture gallery of sorts in front of its building on Andrássy út for the edification of passers-by. The exhibit is attractive. The only problem is that the most important actors of the revolution are missing: all those whose political views don’t conform to the present regime’s requirements. When including a person “on the wrong side” is unavoidable, like in the picture gallery of those executed, the historians of the House of Terror made sure that everybody would understand that the martyrdom of the “communists” was not the same as that of the rest. Of the 226 people executed, only three are identified by political affiliation (in all three cases, “communist politicians”): Imre Nagy, Géza Losonczy, and Miklós Gimes. As for the rest of the story of the revolution, important political actors simply don’t appear, as if they never existed.
There is a small civic group which calls itself “Eleven Emlékmű” (Live Memorial). It grew out of the circle of people who have been holding a vigil at the infamous memorial erected to commemorate the occupation of Hungary by German troops on March 19, 1944. They were the ones who first became aware of the lopsided presentation of the events of the October revolution. Mária Vásárhelyi, daughter of Miklós Vásárhelyi, one of the prominent participants in the revolution, and Adrienn Molnár were responsible for providing the names of those who, as a result of the present Hungarian regime’s “purification” efforts, either became non-persons or were singled out as communist politicians. The list consists of 60 names. Here I will list only the best-known.
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István Bibó (1911-1979), Hungary’s most notable politician in the 20th century, minister without portfolio in the last Nagy government. He received life imprisonment.
Tibor Déry (1894-1977), writer. He received nine years in 1957 for his role during the revolution and for his opposition to the Kádár regime.
Ferenc Donáth (1913-1986), politician who was jailed between 1951 and 1954. Close associate of Imre Nagy. He received a jail sentence of 12 years.
István Eörsi (1931-2005), writer, poet, translator. Worked as a journalist during the revolution. He originally received eight years.
Miklós Gimes (1917-1958), journalist. During the revolution he was the editor of a new newspaper called Magyar Szabadság. After November 4 he published a samizdat paper called Október Huszonharmadika. He was executed along with Imre Nagy.
Árpád Göncz (1921-2015), politician, agriculturist, writer, translator, president of Hungary (1990-2000). He originally received a life sentence.
Sándor Haraszti (1897-1982), journalist, politician. In 1951 he was sentenced to death but in 1954 that was changed to a life sentence and later he was set free. On October 31 he was named editor-in-chief of Népszabadság. In November he was deported to Romania. In 1958 he was sentenced to six years.
György Heltai (1914-1994), lawyer, politician. As deputy foreign minister he worked to prepare Hungary for its withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact. He emigrated, and between 1959 and 1963 was head of the Imre Nagy Institute in Brussels.
Anna Kéthly (1889-1976), social democratic politician who had an important role to play in the reorganization of the Social Democratic Party during the revolution. She was a member of Imre Nagy’s last ministry. She traveled to the Vienna conference of the II International in November and failed to return home. Abroad she became president of the Hungarian Revolutionary Council.
Sándor Kopácsi (1922-2001), police chief of Budapest who sided with the revolution. He was second-in-charge of the National Guard, which was headed by Béla Király, who by the way later became an adviser to Viktor Orbán. Király, of course, made it to the House of Terror display. Kopácsi was sentenced to life, a sentence that was commuted in 1963. In 1975 he emigrated to Canada.
Béla Kovács (1908-1959), Smallholder politician arrested by the Russians in 1947 and exiled to the Soviet Union. He was released only in April 1956. He was active in the revival of the Smallholders’ Party during the revolution and between October 27 and November 2 was minister of agriculture in the second and the third Nagy governments.
György Litván (1929-2006), historian who belonged to the opposition that centered around Imre Nagy after 1955. He was a member of the Revolutionary Committee of the Hungarian Professionals. He received six years.
Géza Losonczy (1917-1958), journalist, politician, organizer of the Petőfi Kör, member of the closest circle around Imre Nagy. He was named minister without portfolio on October 30 when Imre Nagy announced the end of the one-party system. He began a hunger strike in jail, where he died under unclear circumstances.
Pál Maléter (1917-1958), army officer, minister of defense in the last Nagy government. He was abducted during his negotiations with the Soviet leadership. He was condemned to death and was executed.
István Marián (1924-2004), army officer, head of the military department of the Budapest Engineering University who became one of the leaders of the Association of Hungarian University and College Students. He originally received a life sentence, which was commuted in 1963.
Imre Mécs (1933-), electrical engineer, active in the organization of the National Guard. In 1959 he was condemned to death, a sentence that was changed to life. He was released in 1963.
Imre Nagy (1896-1958), prime minister and foreign minister. On November 4 he and his close associates escaped to the Yugoslav Embassy, which they left on November 22 with a letter of protection from János Kádár. They were immediately arrested by the Soviets who deported them to Romania. Nagy was brought back to Hungary in April 1957 and was condemned to death on June 15. The next day he was executed.
József Szilágyi (1917-1958), politician. He joined the Imre Nagy faction in 1953. One of the organizers of the demonstration on October 23. First he worked together with Kopácsi at police headquarters and later he was the head of Imre Nagy’s secretariat. He was among those who found temporary shelter in the Yugoslav Embassy. He was also condemned to death and executed.
Zoltán Tildy (1889-1961), Hungarian Reformed minister, head of the Smallholders Party. From October 25 he served as deputy prime minister in the Nagy government. He received six years but was granted clemency in 1959.
Miklós Vásárhelyi (1917-2001), journalist. Close associate of Imre Nagy. He took part in the organization of the Petőfi Kör. On November 1 he became the press secretary of the Nagy government. He received five years. In 1990 he became a member of parliament in the first free elections.
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After going through these names, one wonders what remained of the October Revolution as chronicled by the historians of the House of Terror. I fear not much.