Two weeks ago Ambassador Colleen Bell returned to the United States to take part in the celebrations organized by the Hungarian Embassy in Washington for the sixtieth anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution. One of the events was the ribbon cutting ceremony for the “1956 Hungarian Freedom Fighters Exhibit,” which took place at the Pentagon. Here the American ambassador delivered a short but ringing speech about the wonderful U.S.-Hungarian friendship because “the United States and Hungary share a faith in democracy. We share a common heritage, cherishing our rights not as subjects or vassals, not as dependents or followers, but as citizens. We are citizens bound together by our love of liberty, and our willingness to serve.” What a charitable description of the present state of affairs in Hungary.
Official Hungary didn’t seem to appreciate the ambassador’s expressions of friendship and her praise of Hungarian democracy. Only a few days later at least two important political personages attacked the United States in the basest fashion in connection with the celebrations of ’56.
Let me start with Hungary’s elderly statesman Péter Boross, who for a few months in 1993 and 1994 was the prime minister of Hungary and now at least on paper is one of the chief advisers of Viktor Orbán. Anyone wanting to know more about Boross’s “love of democracy” should read my post titled “Péter Boross: No longer the wise man of Hungary?”
It just happened that three days before the anniversary of the revolution the U.S. State Department released a statement that “share[d] the concerns of global press freedom advocates, international organizations, and Hungarian citizens over the steady decline of media freedom in Hungary.” The statement called attention to two recent incidents. One was the ban of 444.hu from the parliament building on October 19; the other, “the sudden closure of Hungary’s largest independent newspaper, Nepszabadsag, on October 8.” The short statement ended with: “as a friend and ally, we encourage the Hungarian government to ensure an open media environment that exposes citizens to a diversity of views and opinions, a key component of our shared democratic values.”
The answer came soon enough. Péter Boross delivered a speech on October 22 in front of one of the several monuments commemorating the events of 1956. He spared no words condemning the United States, specifically mentioning the U.S. State Department’s statement concerning media freedom in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. As Boross explained, October 23 is “a sacred day which certain people deride.” For example, “the deputy spokesman of a great power’s foreign ministry who is worried about the state of Hungary’s media freedom.” Somewhere in Washington the last issue of Népszabadság is being exhibited, he complained indignantly, and without hesitation offered the following retort: “Shouldn’t we exhibit a couple of items from the list of the heinous crimes [gaztettek] of the American imperialists?” Well, well, old habits die hard. Or perhaps, as János Dési of Klubrádió wrote in an opinion piece, “Boross was always a useful link in all dictatorships.” Dési’s comment is appropriate because as a youngster Boross was an enthusiastic cadet in a military academy that ended up fighting alongside the Germans.
The bashing of the United States continued a couple of days later when László Kövér delivered a speech in the parliament building where MSZP and DK members and perhaps some independents were conspicuously absent. For Kövér the “lesson of the revolution and war of independence [of 1956] is that without the maintenance and defense of its own self-image, self-determination and self-esteem the whole of Europe, the whole of the European Union may become the tragic victim of the unscrupulous self-interest of great powers outside of Europe and of clandestine powers [háttérhatalmak], operating over and above the states without democratic mandate and supervision.” How he got from an uprising against a Stalinist regime and the Soviet occupation forces to the political and economic encroachment of the United States, because, let’s face it, this is what Kövér is talking about, and George Soros’s Open Society project is unfathomable to me.
Kövér continued, claiming that “the Hungarian ’56” also has a message for the 21st century. Every time I hear a politician say that either a historical occasion or a long-dead historical figure “sends messages to us” I have to laugh because I once read a very funny piece by a blogger who said: “No, my friends, St. Stephen doesn’t send us messages. Neither does Sándor Petőfi nor Lajos Kossuth.” Well, I can add, neither does the Hungarian revolution of 1956. Especially not the kind of confused message that Kövér tries to convey about national sovereignty based on the will of the people which, if tampered with, “will lead to the weakening of democracy, anarchy and subordination of Europe.” Thus, in this context, when the Orbán government defends Hungary’s national sovereignty “it defends the heritage of 1956.” Those who think that Hungarians can be made to abandon the heritage of ’56, their historical ideals and their beliefs underestimate the Hungarian people. “No threat, no lies, no sugar coating” will work.
But the above was a mild rebuke in comparison to what followed: Kövér’s reinterpretation of the United States’ role in the Hungarian revolution of 1956. It was on November 1, 1956 that Hungary declared its independence and neutrality. “The next day, on November 2, the foreign ministry of the United States informed the Yugoslav leader, Tito, who was host to the Soviet party secretary [Nikita Khrushchev] at the time, that the United States doesn’t look with favor upon those countries neighboring on the Soviet Union that are unfriendly toward the Soviet Union. It was after that, on November 4, that the Soviet Union attacked Hungary with more tanks than Hitler had sent against Poland in 1939.” In brief, the defeat of the uprising is directly attributable to the pro-Soviet policies of the United States, which assured the Russians of its support of the beleaguered Soviet Union. This is a pretty incredible statement. I have no idea where he found this, for me at least, totally unknown piece of information.
As an antidote I recommend the website of the 1956-os Intézet és Oral History Archívum, especially “Győzhetett-e volna a magyar forradalom 1956-ban?” I also recommend Charles Gati’s highly acclaimed book Failed Illusions: Moscow, Washington, Budapest, and the 1956 Hungarian Revolt (2007).