About a week ago I included a sentence about the reception Réka Szemerkényi, Hungarian Ambassador in Washington, was giving for the sixtieth anniversary of the outbreak of the October Revolution. I reported that to the best of my knowledge a number of important American officials serving in the White House, Congress, and State Department had declined the invitation over concerns about the alarming political developments in Hungary. In addition to their general concerns, they may well have also noticed the systematic falsification of Hungarian history, which includes the events of the ’56 uprising as well. Mária Schmidt, Viktor Orbán’s court historian who had already perverted the history of the Hungarian Holocaust, rewrote the history of the revolution for the anniversary. The result is a monstrosity that bears no resemblance to reality.
This assault on the revolution prompted a group of people in Washington to organize a gathering to celebrate the real events of sixty years ago. They chose not to celebrate with those who claim that executed Imre Nagy “died nicely but wasn’t a hero.” Yes, this is a direct quotation from the chief organizer of the anniversary, Mária Schmidt. Thomas Melia (who as deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, had extensive dealings with Hungary), former Hungarian Ambassador to Washington András Simonyi, and Professor Charles Gati of Johns Hopkins University organized the event that took place last night. About forty people attended, including Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s national security adviser; Charles Kupchan, currently special assistant to the president and senior director for European affairs at the National Security Council; Damian Murphy, senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs and her husband, Robert Kagan, well-known author, columnist and foreign policy commentator; Hoyt Yee, deputy assistant secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs; André Goodfriend, chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Budapest between August 2015 and January 2016; Jackson Diehl, deputy editorial page editor of the Washington Post, who writes many of the paper’s editorials on foreign affairs; and Pál Maléter, Jr. son of the minister of defense in the last Nagy government who was reburied along with Imre Nagy on June 16, 1989. Anthony Blinken, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, couldn’t make it but sent his greetings.
Professor Gati briefly retold the story of the revolution, which is admittedly complex because the intellectual unrest that preceded it began as a factional struggle in the communist party between the Stalinists and the reformers but quickly led to a coalition government in which four parties were represented. This coalition government, which naturally included the communist party, decided to leave the Warsaw Pact. Gati emphasized that the revolution was “profoundly democratic—demanding freedom of the press and checks and balances (called ‘socialist legality’ )—and profoundly pro-Europe. These demands were at the top of the list presented by the students.”
Of course, we know that the Orbán regime’s narrative is very different: the revolution was transformed into an anti-communist crusade led by right-wing representatives of the pre-1945 period. Those intellectuals who were disillusioned communists were removed from the historical narrative prepared for the anniversary celebrations, as were social democrats and liberals. As if they never existed. They simply don’t fit into Orbán’s worldview.
Professor Gati then moved on to the situation in Hungary today and brought up the speeches of Péter Boross and László Kövér. “This Monday, the speaker of the Hungarian parliament blamed the United States not Moscow for crushing the revolution while another high official spoke of the heinous deeds of U.S. imperialism,” adding “I’m not making this up.” And, Gati continued: “Even in Washington, where Hungarian officials work hard to mislead us by praising transatlantic relations, on Sunday they somehow forgot to read Vice President Joe Biden’s message to their invited guests; I guess their feelings were hurt that they didn’t hear from President Obama.”
Gati told his personal story as a refugee after the revolution. “I came here penniless and was treated fantastically by everyone: the International Rescue Committee, Indiana University, and various employees of Columbia University, Johns Hopkins University, even the State Department.” He recalled that the quota for Hungarians (4,400) was quickly filled but that within days Congress was authorized to allow another 40,000 Hungarian refugees to come. He contrasted this behavior with the situation today. In Hungary they build a razor wire fence to keep refugees out and even in the United States some people contemplate building walls. “My hope is that the old spirit of generosity will guide us again someday soon. There is another Hungary there that deserves our attention and support,” he concluded. I think that every Hungarian refugee should join Charles Gati in remembering the generosity of Austrians, Germans, Brits, Swedes, Swiss, Canadians, Australians, and Americans in those days and feel profoundly sad at the behavior of the Hungarian government, which incited ordinary Hungarians against the refugees.
I should add that Anita Kőműves, a young journalist who used to work for Népszabadság, happened to be in Washington and was invited to speak. The applause that followed her words honored those journalists who paid for their bravery with their livelihood because Viktor Orbán doesn’t believe in a free press, one of the very first demands of the Hungarian students in 1956.