Miklós Vásárhelyi is taking stock: The memoirs of Imre Nagy’s press secretary

On this sad anniversary of the outbreak of the 1956 revolution, I decided to escape from the Orbán regime’s ghastly “celebration” into the realm of history by sharing memories with another witness, Miklós Vásárhelyi (1917-2001), press secretary of Imre Nagy in the last few days of the failed revolution and war of independence. I have been reading his memoirs, Kész a leltár (Taking stock), edited by Gyula Kozák and released a couple of weeks ago, on the 100th anniversary of Vásárhelyi’s birth in Fiume/Rijeka. Kozák, together with András B. Hegedűs, an active participant in the revolution, began studying the history of the 1956 events in 1981, first under cover, but from 1985 on legally, with the help of the Soros Foundation. As part of their project, they interviewed hundreds of people. The material they collected eventually became known as the Oral History Archivum under the auspices of the 1956 Institute.

The book is a transcription of a series of very lengthy interviews with Vásárhelyi that Kozák conducted in the 1990s. They take us through Vásárhelyi’s involvement in the communist movement before 1956, his imprisonment after the revolution, and his participation in the democratic movement of the 1980s. He became one of the founding members of the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ) and served as a member of parliament between 1990 and 1994. Between 1994 and 2001 he was the president of the Soros Foundation in Hungary.

Kész a leltár is hard to put down. Vásárhelyi’s early years in an upper-middle-class family in Fiume and Debrecen and his introduction to the communist movement by a classmate of decidedly gentry origin is as captivating as his vivid description of the unimaginable, almost Kafkaesque atmosphere of the period between 1950 and 1956 in communist Hungary. Vásárhelyi was never in the top leadership of the party or in the government, but he had access to the highest echelon of the Hungarian party leadership. Thus, he was fairly familiar with the power struggle that was going on, although he admits that from one day to the next one never knew who would be the next victim. Those who a couple of years before were sending their former comrades to the gallows were waiting for their turn.

Stalin’s death in March 1953 didn’t bring an end to the party strife. It is true that the dreaded head of the Államvédelmi Hatóság (ÁVH/State Security Authority) was arrested, but Mátyás Rákosi, still the strongman of the party, and his men tried to stop the de-Stalinization efforts of Imre Nagy, prime minister between July 4, 1953 and March 9, 1955. Vásárhelyi relates a typical Rákosi story. Ferenc Donáth, who had been a trusted member of the illegal communist party since 1934, was arrested in February 1951 and on trumped up charges was convicted. He spent almost three of his 15 years in solitary, but after Stalin’s death he was freed and rehabilitated. As Vásárhelyi, a friend of Donáth tells us, Donáth was the only person who had been convicted at a show trial to meet Rákosi personally after his release from jail. Rákosi, who was naturally behind Donáth’s incarceration, turned to him and said, “Comrade Donáth, I don’t understand you. You, as an old comrade from the illegal days who even had a taste of jail, why didn’t you find a way to get in touch with me from jail and tell me what was happening there with you? Why didn’t you tell me how these confessions and trials came into being?” (p. 136) The man’s cynicism was absolutely staggering.

I was especially interested in Vásárhelyi’s perspectives on the last crucial months leading up to October 23. In many ways, even people around Imre Nagy, like Vásárhelyi, Géza Losonczy, and Sándor Haraszti, were ignorant of the mood of the common people. As Vásárhelyi admits, they were surprised at the elemental storm that broke out in the country a few months later even though they were aware of the popularity of Imre Nagy, which was indeed genuine. Recent attempts by the Orbán regime to obliterate Imre Nagy from the national pantheon are doomed. Whether the anti-Bolsheviks of today like it or not, Imre Nagy was the hope of millions after the horrors of the Rákosi regime. His popularity, as I found out from Vásárhelyi’s book, was bolstered by the men who gathered around him and supported his program. They suggested to Nagy that he take walks on the streets of Budapest. I myself witnessed one of his appearances. We were leaving the faculty of arts building (today the Piarist Gymnasium) and there he was, standing with his wife, smiling broadly while people gathered around him, shaking his hand.

I was also fascinated by Vásárhelyi’s surprise at the size of the crowd at the reburial of László Rajk, minister of interior between 1946 and 1948 and foreign minister in 1948-1949, who was sentenced to death in October 1949. The reburial took place on October 6, 1956, the anniversary of the execution of the 13 rebel generals in 1849 at his wife’s insistence. The size of that crowd was indeed very large, which should have been seen as a sign of the depth of popular discontent. Yet, when a few weeks later the question of whether to allow or forbid the student demonstration was debated, some party leaders were certain that only a few students would show up and that the workers of Csepel would march downtown and take care of them. Imre Nagy was himself truly afraid that the demonstration might end up in bloodshed.

Both Miklós Vásárhelyi and I marched along the same route, except I must have been quite a bit ahead of him. He joined the crowd only at the Astoria Hotel while I and my university friends were marching at the head of the column. Still, with some delay, we saw the same things and, I’m happy to say, our recollections are practically the same. He also recalls the soldiers hanging out of the windows of their barracks on Bem tér and, at the urging of the crowd, tearing off their Soviet-style jackets. And from Bem tér we moved along the same route all the way to the parliament building.

What I didn’t see but Vásárhelyi did was the students of the Lenin Institute marching with a huge picture of Lenin, which “fit into this demonstration; it didn’t look out of place.” Indeed, those few of us from the university who managed to stay together in that immense crowd in front of the parliament building began marching together back to the university, singing a so-called movement song about Lenin. It is difficult to understand all this today, even for those of us who went through it.

But it is one thing not to understand it. To falsify, pervert, or trample on it is something else entirely. Unfortunately, this is what Viktor Orbán is doing.

October 23, 2017
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Michael Kaplan
Guest

Thank you for your memoir along side a memoir of your own 1956 story. Sadly, the current regime has no use for actual historians. Schmidt Maria, is simply the most public symbol of illiberal “historians”, unrecognized as a serious historian outside of Hungary. There are-of course- many good historians with in and outside of Hungary regarding this period, but this regime has no use for fact, let alone shades of grey.

petofi
Guest

Sounds like Trump-nation, don’t it?

Observer
Guest

Shades of grey? Most he wouldn’t accept anything but virgin white.
I’ve been jumped at many times for trying to put things in prospective, e.g. for mentioning the earlier riots/uprising in East Germany and Poland, the armed anti communist/Russian resistance in Lithuania, etc. or for my mentioning, God forbid, the gruesome atrocities against young AVO soldiers, or the the 3200+ massacred by the Hun army in Vojevodina within three days in 1942, compared to the accepted figure of 2500 victims of 1956.

Guest

I still can’t really imagine those days of show trials etc where yesterday’s hero suddenly becomes today’s traitor and gets shot or hanged tomorrow.

I’ve watched “A Tanu” several times now – it shows at least part of the happeningsthough of course on a different level. I would urge everybody to watch it !

PS:
As I see it all Hungarian National Holidays are about losing – against the Russians, the Austrians, the Germans …
Really strange!

Guest

Not too much OT:
The German news is:
Orbán declares “East Central Europe” (we Germans call it the former Communist block aka the Balkan …) as a “Migrant free zone”!
And he seems to be proud of his inhumanity – well what do you expect from a self declared illiberal?
Really telling …
Maybe we should also send all Hungarian migrants home?

http://www.t-online.de/nachrichten/ausland/eu/id_82558570/viktor-orban-erklaert-ost-mitteleuropa-zur-migrantenfreien-zone-.html

The news portal of t-online describes Orbán:
Orbans Wortwahl erinnert an die antijüdische Rhetorik zur Zeit des Nationalsozialismus.
Orbán’s choice of words reminds one of the anti Jewish rhetoric of Nazi times
Very clearly said!

Observer
Guest

Ceterum censeo: the Orban regime is a Fascistoid one et delenta est.

:Bastiat2
Guest

What do you think about the book “Twelve days” by Victor Sebestyen?
And also about the film Szabadság, szerelem where one sees the scene at Kossuth square when Nagy was booed by the crowd because he addressed them a “Comrades”, followed by the shooting at weaponless demonstrators?

wrfree
Guest

The takeaway of ’56 is that for all intents and purposes it is necessary to know that the past is always prologue in the country. Law, morality and justice was dispensed with the wind and has been tough to collect and keep in the decades after. The murder of Mr. Nagy and those in his immediate circle showed an utter sense of marked depravity during those dark times. It was borne out of the fact of pure power unhinged and evinced a desperation so pathetic in its action of betrayal as to show it being one of the most heinous and brutal acts in modern history.

With the result that it would appear future generations have been virtually imprinted with the stain and sense that for perhaps for them things can only exist properly unless they are ‘rigged’ with a sort of rule running both subtle and overt in its coercion to fabricate a sort of needed ‘understanding’. Perhaps we are now only seeing the ‘light’ version in its dismbiguation. It remains to be seen what kind of bad trail all this will lead to while walking the ridges of a sinkhole.

petofi
Guest

@ wrfree

“…most heinous and brutal acts in modern history…” ?

That would be the forces that conspired to elect Trump. We have yet to taste the consequence(s) of Trump’s elevation.

Two thousand years ago, the Roman senators acted, a good part in self-interest and the fear of being marginalized. Where is the man who will act
now to save…not a country, but civilization and the whole planet?

Already a whole generation of Americans is growing up with a disturbed understanding of values and principles. Not only Trump, but the whole mechanism of television, media, and madison avenue have a great deal to answer for.

But first and foremost, someone must end Trump, and reform a democratic system than can function without lobbies, special interest groups, and the super-delegates tied to Hillary’s underclothes…

wrfree
Guest

If this was ‘AS’ rather than ‘HS’ that would be my lead story. 😎 As you have laid it all out it’s plain as a deranged and untruthful POTUS we all have our problems.

The 21st certainly looks to be a very bumpy ride for democracies. As the Bard said through one if his fighting characters ..’all things are ready if our minds be so’. We should hope all true ‘crats’ are up for the challenge and for the counter. The spooks are on the loose.

Observer
Guest

The single main factor is that we started to teach in our schools to value personal feelings above evidence based reasoning, according to Richard Dawkins and I totally agree. This leads to the idiotic beliefs, pigheaded self righteousness and mindless following we see around, i.e. jumpy action on first emotion without thought and correcting mechanism.
The PC crowd, the media and the smart phone tech have a lot to answer here, e.g.
https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/oct/05/smartphone-addiction-silicon-valley-dystopia

Guest

Smartphones are good for dumb people …
Another of the negative aspects of our “information society” is that misinformation, fake news, conspiracy theories travel much easier and faster – unlike in the good old times where religion took a lot of persuasio and often dozens of years to succeed.
Maybe this is a weakness of the human brain?

PS:
I have been a fan of the debunking site snopes.com for many years – it’s unbelievable what people tend to accept as fact!
Of course I’ve heard about UFOs, Area51, miracles and so on but today there’s much more that people want to believe.
So (to come back to the topic …) even if the people know about corruption in Hungary and the shameless way the Fidesz politicians take their money – they still love them …

wrfree
Guest

Re: ‘the information society’

And no doubt we can talk about it until the cows come home. The effects of overloaded and relentlessly messaged societies at this time bring up that big question about the constant ‘search for truth’. To get at it now requires more boots and extensive sifting through deeper and deeper bs. And the autocrats love it. They love slithering in the muck.
Right now it appears we are and will be on bs alert for quite awhile.

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