Tag Archives: 1956 October Revolution

THE TRUE STORY OF BÉLA KIRÁLY, THE HERO OF THE 1956 REVOLUTION. PART II

Yesterday’s post on the career of Béla Király, the hero of the 1956 revolution, ended with his practically overnight metamorphosis from Ferenc Szálasi’s faithful follower to chief of staff of the First Infantry Division of the Hungarian Army. At the time of his appointment, he received the rank of major, but a few months later he was promoted to lieutenant colonel. He was nominated to the position by György Pálffy (1909-1949), lieutenant general and head of the military political department (KPO). Three years later Pálffy was to become one of the victims of the infamous Rajk trials. Király, who obviously didn’t want to call attention to his association with the military political department, asserted in his reminiscences that he came to know Pálffy only in 1948 when Pálffy became the inspector-general of the Hungarian Army. In an unpublished interview, however, he slipped and said that “Pálffy nominated and Jenő Tombor appointed me” to lead the first infantry division. Jenő Tombor was minister of defense for a very short period of time. He was appointed on February 4, 1946 and died a few months later, on July 25.

Portrait of Béla Király by Ferenc Simonyi in the early 1950s

The most reliable source on this period of Béla Király’s life is Ferenc Kubinyi’s Fekete lexikon, which was published in Thousand Oaks, California in 1994. Apparently Király was on friendly terms with Pálffy while he served as one of his counter-intelligence officers. Yet in September 1949, in the course of the Rajk trial, Király called Pálffy a traitor and demanded a life sentence for him at a public forum. This incident was reported in Magyar Nemzet at the time, and years later, in 2000, the journalist István Stefka asked him about the episode in an interview. He claimed not to remember, but, as he said, “under the circumstances one had to say something.” And, in any case, he added, his remarks made no difference as far as the fate of Pálffy was concerned.

One of the most uncomfortable moments in Béla Király’s life had to be in March 1990, shortly after he moved back to Hungary. Ferenc Kubinyi published an article in the March 21 issue of a weekly called Ring in which the author retold the story of Jenő Czebe, a lieutenant colonel working in the ministry of defense, who was arrested in February 1949. Kubinyi published Király’s incriminating testimony against Czebe, which Király called a forgery. But Kubinyi refused to back down, and his initial article was followed a few months later by another one in which further details of the affair were revelealed. In 1996 Kubinyi wrote a whole book on the subject (A katonapolitika regénye) from which we learn that, on behalf of the KPO, Király invited Jenő Czebe and his brother Valér to his apartment, where he initiated a conversation that led straight to their arrest. Naturally, the conversation was secretly recorded. Czebe, while attempting to escape, was shot dead; his brother Valér ended up in Recsk, the infamous secret concentration camp where thousands lost their lives because of the inhumane conditions. Király never managed to give a satisfactory explanation for the Czebe affair, which may have been the reason for Prime Minister József Antall’s suspicion of Király’s past. The case was definitely discussed between the two men in early 1990 because Király mentioned the encounter in his 2004 autobiographical book. He claimed that Antall tried to blackmail him with the Czebe story.

Fate eventually caught up with Király when he himself was arrested and sentenced to death in 1951. On appeal, the sentence was reduced to life imprisonment. In jail he felt isolated: the right-wing political and military leaders who were imprisoned after 1945 despised him because he joined the communists, while the democratically-minded prisoners didn’t trust him. He described his prison term as being in a ghetto.

Király was freed on September 7, 1956, after which, according to his recollections of 1981, he was approached by three of his former fellow soldiers who called themselves pro-Imre Nagy reformers. They invited him to join their group, which was supposed to be Imre Nagy’s military contingent. This whole episode is the figment of Király’s imagination. First of all, there was no such military group among supporters of the future prime minister. Over the years Király desperately tried to come up with stories that would prove that Imre Nagy viewed him as someone he could rely on in times of need. At one point he concocted a conversation with Imre Nagy at the reburial of László Rajk and his fellow victims on October 13, 1956. According to this story, Imre Nagy recognized him and seemed to know that he had been in the hospital. Again, Király cannot keep his stories straight. He didn’t go to the hospital until October 17. Moreover, László Gyurkó’s book on 1956, published in 1986, quotes Imre Nagy during his trial as stating that “I didn’t know Béla Király, didn’t hear about him either directly or indirectly” prior to the revolutionary days.

October 23, the outbreak of the revolution, found Király in the central military hospital, where he had had a minor operation. It looks as if he was in no hurry to leave the peace and quiet of the hospital and that he decided to wait out the turbulent first few days. On October 28 he emerged from the hospital, even though the political situation at that time was still extremely volatile. By the next day, however, the situation was looking more promising. The most compromised political leaders were sent to Moscow, and Imre Nagy moved into the parliament building instead of using the party headquarters. Negotiations began with the Soviet leaders about troop withdrawals. It was at that point that Király decided to join the revolution. Within a day he was chairman of the Revolutionary Committee of Armed Forces, commander of the National Guard, and commander of the city of Budapest. What Király did after November 4 is another story.

To be continued

August 28, 2017

The true story of Béla Király, the hero of the 1956 revolution. Part I

The other day a friend from Hungary sent me a brief e-mail with a link: “What do you think? For me this is too bizarre, especially because of Berkesi.” The link was to a Pesti Srácok article written by a certain Gábor Mező, who is apparently an associate of the Hamvas Institute, whose website is singularly short on any information about the institute’s activities. Mező claims that while doing research on an unrelated topic, he happened upon copies of documents that prove that Béla Király, the hero of the 1956 revolution, was an agent of the so-called Military Political Department (Katonai politikai osztály/KPO) of the Ministry of Defense. It was there that he found a statement by András Berkesi attesting to the fact that Király was his recruit and that Király dutifully reported to him on his fellow officers. András Berkesi did work for the KPO between 1945 and 1950, when he was arrested and sentenced. Yet he remained a loyal communist and fought, defending the regime, during the 1956 revolution. He became famous in the sixties as a celebrated author of crime novels.

According to these documents, former high-ranking officers, by that time in emigration, approached Király, who dutifully reported all the information he received from abroad and subsequently cooperated with KPO. As a result of his activities a fellow officer, Jenő Czebe, was uncovered. While trying to escape, he was shot. According to the document, Czebe’s fate was sealed by Király’s work as an agent.

Although I knew Béla Király quite well when we both belonged to a small association of Hungarian historians in the United States, by the mid-80s we lost touch. Of course, I knew that Béla returned to Hungary in 1990, where he ran for parliament as a candidate from the district of his hometown, Kaposvár. Occasionally I read short news items about his activities, which indicated a rather complicated series of political moves. At first he was an independent, but soon enough he moved over to the ruling, right-of-center MDF. It didn’t take long for him to become a member of the liberal SZDSZ. Király’s political career ended with him serving as a military adviser to Viktor Orbán (1998-2002).

Béla Király at the time of the 1956 revolution

Our fellow historian, Peter Pastor of Montclair University, was much closer to Béla than I was, and I decided to forward the e-mail with the link to him. Perhaps, I thought, he can shed light on that story. And indeed, Peter immediately answered and with only slight modifications authenticated the story. At the same time he promised me several articles that he had published on Béla Király, who died in 2009 and was buried with full military honors. Peter expressed his sorrow that the true story of Béla Király so far has been told by people on the right. It would be time, he said, for the left to face the fact that Béla Király was a fake who served every regime he ever encountered, including those of Ferenc Szálasi and Mátyás Rákosi.

I could hardly put down the material Peter sent me. Perhaps the most comprehensive summary of Király’s career, including a short description of his involvement in the events of the 1956 revolution, was Peter’s article “Béla Király in the light of his autobiographies,” which appeared in Memoirs and History (2012). I was mesmerized–and dismayed–by what I read. How could I have been so misled by this man? Both Peter and I had considered him a friend. But what is more important, how could he mislead a whole country?

The material I received covers Király’s career from 1912, when he was born, to 1956. During this period Hungary had a turbulent history. It seems that Király was the epitome of the survivor. His career was studded with betrayal and deceit. And yet, it is difficult to be a successful liar, especially if you live your life in the limelight and feel compelled to write and rewrite your life story. What Peter Pastor did was to compare his many published autobiographical writings and interviews and test them against what we know to be verifiable historical facts.

One must admire Király’s miraculously smooth move, within a few months, from being a faithful follower of the Hungarist/Nazi Ferenc Szálasi to being a secret communist party member in the military political department of the ministry of defense. When I call him a Szálasi loyalist I don’t use the term lightly. In January 1945 he received the high decoration of the military cross of the order of merit (Magyar Érdemrend Tiszti Keresztje). By that time Szálasi and his fellow Nazis, including Király, had moved to Kőszeg on the Austro-Hungarian border. Two months later, in March 1945, he was inducted into the Vitézi Rend, which became infamous recently because of Sebastian Gorka’s membership in the order. Keep in mind that by March 1945 Budapest was occupied by Soviet troops and that the war in Europe was rapidly coming to an end.

It was during his time in Kőszeg that Király began plotting his political survival; it was there that he decided to desert and go over to the Soviets. Of course, in his several descriptions, he greatly embellished his role in the events that took place there. Almost everything he wrote about the taking of Kőszeg by the Soviets was an outright lie. He was not the leader of the brigade defending the city, and he didn’t save Kőszeg from bombardment. Moreover, what he neglected to tell was that he stole the military vehicle of his superior officer and drove over to the Soviets, taking with him the documents of the military command.

Anyone who is familiar with the history of the post-war years cannot help but wonder how it was possible for Király to become a full-fledged member of the communist party. My very first thought was: “But there were the ‘denazification commissions.’ How did he manage to pass?” Well, there is an explanation. At this time the so-called people’s courts were investigating cases of war crimes, and one of the many hundreds of people under investigation was Károly Beregfy, minister of defense in the Szálasi government. The prosecution needed more evidence against Beregfy when “unexpected help came.” As Pál Kornis, former party secretary of the military political department of the ministry of defense at the time, reports in a book titled I appear as a witness, published in 1988, “a civilian showed up from Kaposvár who was a direct subordinate of Beregfy and was ready to give information on Beregfy’s activities as minister of defense. Béla Király was an impressive, good-looking and a very well-prepared officer. It was with his assistance that we managed to close the case of Károly Beregfy.” Beregfy was condemned to death in March 1946. As Kornis puts it, Király “managed this way to get a transfer ticket to the new army.”

Király in his memoirs written in 1981 and 1986, i.e. before the appearance of Kornis’s book, maintained that it was Beregfy’s defense that called him as a witness. However, after 1988 he had to have an explanation for Kornis’s allegations. In the 2004 version of his life he admitted that he had been interrogated by Kornis on October 23, 1945 but adds that the information he provided was not substantial enough to call him to the witness stand. A little more than a month later, on December 2, 1945, Király sailed through the investigation by the ministry’s denazification commission.

To be continued

August 27, 2017

An inveterate liar: Mária Schmidt’s celebrated freedom fighter

Today’s story is a sad commentary on the gullibility of some of the leading supporters of Fidesz. It’s the tale of a man who among his colleagues is known to be a habitual liar but who, over the past 30 years, has managed to fool an awful lot of people.

Pathological liars are not rare. I myself have encountered at least two. But most of us sooner or later realize that the stories they tell don’t add up. And we certainly don’t defend the truth of these stories in the face of evidence to the contrary. Here, however, once hard facts proved that our man had been lying through his teeth, Mária Schmidt, the chief organizer of the sixtieth anniversary of the 1956 October Revolution and allegedly a historian, came to his rescue. She attacked the media for trying to ruin her precious event and besmirching the halos of the “pesti srácok,” youngsters who fought on the streets of Budapest.

The man I am talking about is László Dózsa, an actor whose career has not been distinguished. He currently directs plays staged in the Újpest Színház, which doesn’t strike me as much of a theater. Yet shortly after Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz won the election in 2010, he was awarded the title “érdemes művész” (actor of merit). Admittedly, as far as awards in the theater world go, this one is fairly lowly. Even so, in one of his interviews a reporter asked him whether anyone had ever suggested that he received the award not so much for being an actor but rather for being a “freedom fighter.”

It would seem that his alleged activities in 1956 are central to his self-identity. In his Wikipedia entry, which most likely he wrote himself, he is described as “1956 freedom fighter, actor, director, actor of merit” in this order.

This year Dózsa made it as the freedom fighter of all freedom fighters. A painting based on a Life Magazine photo, depicting a young man with a rifle and captioned László Dózsa (1942-), was plastered all over Budapest. He must have felt on top of the world. But soon enough his world collapsed. It turned out that the boy in the picture was Pál Pruck (1941-2000). Once Pruck’s family learned that Dózsa had assumed his identity, they decided to act.

dozsa

It was high time to put an end to Dózsa’s outrageous stories about 1956. Dózsa was always known to tell tall tales. When after 1989 he began regaling people with his exploits during the revolution, his friends didn’t unmask him even though they figured the stories were lies. They thought the lies were harmless.

After a while the media became interested in the adventures of this extraordinary man. One of the first of these interviews, “The man who has three lives,” appeared in the October 2005 issue of Hetek, the fundamentalist Assembly of Faith’s weekly. This story was repeated over and over in several more publications, with new embellishments. It is difficult to create a coherent story from Dózsa’s recollections which were, I assume, purposefully vague, but there are a couple of fixed points: he joined a group that gathered around the Divatcsarnok at the corner of Rákóczi út and Szövetség utca and he joined the group after November 4.

According to his story, once the fighting was over the Russians made them, about 30 young boys, stand against the wall of the Rákóczi movie theater and killed everyone except him. He escaped with his throat half destroyed by a bullet. He was then taken to a prison hospital where he was interrogated and was so badly beaten that he was eventually pronounced clinically dead. He was taken, together with other dead bodies, to the cemetery on Kerepesi út and thrown into a common grave. They even poured lime on the bodies. The gravediggers, however, discovered that he was alive and returned in the darkness of night. They took him to the Jewish Hospital on Szabolcs utca where two professors operated on him. These two good men hid him until it was safe to return “from the dead.” Because of “international pressure” he was not prosecuted.

On its face the story is bizarre and unbelievable. And, after reading an interview with László Eörsi, the historian who has written scores of books on these small fighting groups, one can be pretty certain that not a word of Dózsa’s story is true. Eörsi describes himself as an “event historian” (eseménytörténész). I have several of his books, which are basically minute-by-minute descriptions of the activities of these groups. Eörsi interviewed Dózsa at one point but came to the conclusion that his stories were bogus because they could not be corroborated. No one had ever heard of the murder by the Russians of 30 people in the center of the city. Dózsa claimed that the Russians bombed the Divatcsarnok when in fact they didn’t resort to air attacks. He talked about firing squads against civilians at the Nyugati Station, but that occurred only on December 6.

So, let’s turn to Pál Pruck. Once the Pruck family found out that Dózsa had assumed the identity of the deceased Pruck, they complained. Dózsa, after the story broke, magnanimously agreed to take his name off “in reverence” to the deceased’s relatives. But he still maintained that he was the one who appeared in the Life Magazine photo despite convincing evidence to the contrary. Tamás Pruck, Pál Pruck’s son, remembers his father telling him that he had been sent by the guys of Corvin-köz (Corvin alley) for bread when a foreign photographer stopped him and took a picture of him. “But he never spoke about being such an important freedom fighter.” He was just a “srác interested in guns.” Apparently, he never received any decoration but he never asked for one either.

The Life Magazine photo

The Life Magazine photo

Yesterday I was sure that Mária Schmidt would remain quiet. The evidence against Dózsa was far too strong. I was wrong. Today Schmidt called the poor deceased Pruck a criminal and insisted that Dózsa was an outstanding national hero. At the same time she launched an attack against the opposition media, which insists on debasing the memory of the ’56 revolution and its heroes.

The photos Pál Pruck and László Dózsa at the time

Photos of Pál Pruck and László Dózsa at the time

Her defense of Dózsa stretched the limits of logic. 444.hu summarized it well. (1) Dózsa is credible because he received a lot of decorations for the heroism he demonstrated in ’56. (2) In 2007 Dózsa himself wrote that this was a photo of him, something that nobody questioned. (3) Normally photographers don’t identify their subjects in a wartime situation or they give them phony names. That’s why the photographer gave an existing person’s name to a photo depicting Dózsa. (4) This is not the first time that the wrong name is attached to this photo. (5) Dózsa years ago in a video taken at the House of Terror identified himself as the boy on the picture. (6) Nothing is known about Pál Pruck’s activities during the revolution. (7) He himself said in a television interview that he doesn’t know how the photographer got his name. (8) Pál Pruck was a criminal who was in jail several times. He was also used by the Kádár regime’s propagandists to discredit the revolution. (9) The relatives of Pruck didn’t come forth although the photo was widely known. (10) It is suspicious that Pál Pruck didn’t suffer any reprisals after the revolution.

This is the best that Orbán’s court historian could come up with. Pitiful and embarrassing. But, I said to myself, isn’t it also embarrassing that Dózsa received the Officer’s Cross of the Hungarian Order of Merit in 2006 during the Gyurcsány government? At least this is what I read in his Wikipedia entry. Well, I checked the list of recipients and there is no sign of László Dózsa. He even lied about that in his Wikipedia entry.

On the other hand, he has been richly rewarded for his faithful service to right-wing causes since 2010. I already mentioned his becoming an “actor of merit” in 2011. But the big prize came this year, on the sixtieth anniversary of the revolution. He became an “honorary citizen” of Budapest. Apparently, Mayor István Tarlós and the Fidesz majority’s choice was Dózsa while Csaba Horváth (MSZP) argued for László Nemes Jeles, director of the Oscar-winning Son of Saul. Tarlós put an end to the discussion by saying that “László Dózsa is our son of Saul.” What a gift. Tarlós, Schmidt, and the rest can now contemplate how to rescue Dózsa for posterity.

November 3, 2016

A more fitting celebration of the 60th anniversary of ’56 in Washington

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.”

One of the few pictures of members of the Nagy government: Zoltán Tildy, Imre Nagy, and Pál Maléter

One of the few pictures of members of the Nagy government: Zoltán Tildy, Imre Nagy, and Pál Maléter

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.

October 28, 2016

The Hungarian government’s Anti-American rhetoric: László Kövér and Péter Boross

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.

Of of those Soviet tanks Kövér was talking about

One of those Soviet tanks László Kövér was talking about with Hungarian coat of arms plastered on it

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).

October 26, 2016

Brazen falsification of the history of ’56 by the Orbán regime

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.

Photo by Gabriella Csoszó / FreeDoc

Photo by Gabriella Csoszó / FreeDoc

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.

♦ ♦ ♦

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.

♦ ♦ ♦

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.

October 24, 2016

The sixtieth anniversary of the October Revolution

Today, on the sixtieth anniversary of the October Revolution, there were two gatherings in Budapest, with the usual speeches: the official one in front of the parliament building and the one organized by the opposition parties. As could have been predicted, no one said anything about what really happened on those autumn days sixty years ago. The speakers on both sides talked a lot about freedom-loving Hungarians, but these are words that sound hollow today.

The ideological strains of ’56 were eclectic and fluid. The original program called for a radical reform of the Soviet-type political system, but in it one could find traces of Titoism and western-type social democracy. As János M. Rainer says in his new book on the October revolution, “the common platform was patriotism, national independence. This is the common positive content of October 23.”

Since the Soviets decided not to wait for the final outcome of the uprising, ’56 has remained an unfinished story. We have no idea what would have emerged from the sometimes conflicting strains of thought, so politicians can use those events to their own advantage. But one thing is sure. Those who lived through ’56 consider it the most important time of their lives. They believe it was a special gift of fate that allowed them to witness an event which can, I believe, be compared to 1848-49 in significance for the nation. All other important historical dates–1918-1919, 1945, 1989–pale in comparison.

So, let’s see what politicians did to 1956 this year. Let’s start with the official celebration. The government, which spent over 13 billions on a “proper” celebration of the national holiday, grossly overestimated the interest in Andrzej Duda, president of Poland, and Viktor Orbán, even though a serious effort was made to ensure a full house. Fidesz mayors all over the country were urged to bring busloads of people to fill not just Kossuth tér but also Alkotmány utca, all the way to Bajcsy-Zsilinszky út. At least this is what the placement of the loudspeakers all along the street indicates. As a result, the over-magnified voices of the speakers echoed in the half empty square and the totally empty Alkotmány utca. According to those who were present, they couldn’t make out anything from the speeches.

The organizers hired a private company, whose employees were dressed in civilian clothes, to ensure order. I guess the idea was that having hundreds of uniformed policemen on hand wouldn’t be good for the government’s image. Those demonstrators who followed the call of Péter Juhász of Együtt were kept outside of a cordon set up for the occasion. The cordon didn’t prevent some elderly amazons from attacking the whistlers. One poured beer on a woman who wasn’t showing the same reverence for the great man as she did. A few burly men smashed faces and then ran away. One of the victims was Krisztián Ungváry, the well-known historian.

In a way Péter Juhász triumphed. The whistling was loud, continuous, and quite audible on the video I watched. (I don’t know whether state television can filter out the whistling and booing.) The whistling had to be a great embarrassment to Viktor Orbán. As we know, he is a vain man with very thin skin. Unfortunately, he is also vicious. Who knows how he will try to hit back and punish those people he considers traitors.

Orbán began by claiming that the lesson of ’56 was that “communism can be conquered.” By the end of his speech he had moved on to the possible “Sovietization of Brussels,” which, you have to admit, is an incredible feat. He called on “the freedom-loving people of Europe to save Brussels” from the fate of Sovietization. In between, in a way, he reinterpreted the meaning of the word “freedom” by insisting that “without freedom we can become only a nationality.” Hungarians hold onto their national heritage, as the Soviets learned the hard way in ’56. This sounded like a warning to Brussels of what to expect if they insist on curbing the sovereignty of Hungary. But, of course, the parallel is deeply flawed. After 1949-1950 the Rákosi regime imposed on the country a slavish imitation of the Soviet model. It was suffocating and led to a massive rejection of Soviet ways. Nothing like that is going on today. If Hungarians are adopting the customs of other European nations or the United States, it is the result of a natural development. Or when Orbán talks about diluting ethnicity, this is a natural trend due to the freedom of movement within the European Union.

He spoke in the name of love

He spoke in the name of love

Of course, he himself wants to lead the freedom-loving people of Europe to save Brussels, but, as I said a couple of days ago, with the exception of two or three East-Central European countries, he is attracting no followers. Nonetheless, he doesn’t seem to be discouraged. For him, the dates 1956, 1989, and 2016 reveal a pattern: Hungary becomes an important player on the world stage every 30 years or so. His closing the borders of the country in 2016 can be compared in significance to the revolution of 1956 or the end of the one-party system in 1989. Thus, by the end of his speech Orbán managed to portray himself as a central figure on the world stage today. As important a figure as the leading lights of ’56 or the Soviet and American politicians who managed to lift the iron curtain. The man is certainly not known for his modesty.

As for the joint demonstration of the democratic opposition parties, minus LMP and Együtt, the size of the crowd was disappointing, as were most of the speeches. Gyula Molnár is unfortunately not an inspiring speaker. Ferenc Gyurcsány is, but this speech was not up to par. Lajos Bokros was a breath of fresh air. By contrast, I found Gergely Karácsony’s reference to October 23, 2006 most unfortunate. He essentially repeated the Fidesz line, that Budapest witnessed a brutal attack on peaceful demonstrations. As one of the journalists who was there said, his remarks about the events of ten years ago were followed by total silence. Karácsony should know full well that the country is deeply divided over what happened that day. It is not something that should be brought up at the first joint celebration of the more or less united opposition. It was a huge error. I just don’t understand how it is possible that some of these younger Hungarian politicians have so little political sense. On Friday I heard Karácsony say that he didn’t know what he was going to talk about. Perhaps he should have thought a little longer about it and/or talked his intentions over with others. Blaming the politicians of MSZP and DK for crimes against democracy is not an auspicious beginning for a united democratic opposition.

Returning to Viktor Orbán’s speech. He once again tried to show off his great Biblical and classical learning. In a muddled image, he compared Hungarians to the young David who defeated Goliath because they are like “the ancient Greeks who were in possession of olden knowledge” and who claimed that “the secret of happiness is freedom. The secret of freedom is courage.” I would like to remind Viktor Orbán that Thucydides also said something else: “Justice will not come to Athens until those who are not injured are as indignant as those who are injured.” That situation might come sooner than he thinks.

October 23, 2016