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Hungary's 1956, central Europe's 2006: beyond illusion

About the author
Krzysztof Bobinski is the president of Unia & Polska, a pro-European think-tank in Warsaw. He was the Financial Times Warsaw correspondent (1976-2000) and later published Unia & Polska magazine.

Hungary has been providing a double spectacle this week, as commemorations of the anniversary of the 1956 uprising against the Soviets collide with ongoing opposition protests against the governing social-democrat-led coalition. Amazingly the two events ran into one when several Hungarian-flag-waving demonstrators, under pressure from the riot police, drove off a T-34 tank from a display of arms used by the Soviets to crush the 1956 revolt.

The past and present, in their minds and surely in the minds of many other Hungarians, had run together. But what are the real links?

The current wave of opposition demonstrations has lasted ever since tapes of a party meeting addressed by prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány were broadcast on 17 September 2006. The recording (made in May, a few days after his Magyar Szocialista Párt [Hungarian Socialist Party] was re-elected) admitting that the government had consistently lied about the true state of the Hungarian economy. The opposition led by Viktor Orbán's Fidesz party cried foul and called for Gyurcsány's and the government's resignation.

Gyurcsány has resisted the demands, mindful of the fact that Fidesz's inflationary pre-election promises had also ignored the dire state of the budget and current-account deficits. Indeed his admission of political mendacity had been designed to shock his supporters into supporting the tough measures needed to rectify Hungary's dire macroeconomic situation.

But Hungarians also explain that the reason for the ferocious antagonism between the two sides - the ex-communists and the anti-communists - is that responsibility for the pre-1989 period has never really been admitted by the social democrats (the inheritors of the ruling party of the Soviet-era, the Magyar Szocialista Munkáspárt [Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party]. It is felt that they have not been blamed and shamed but rather have, thanks to the democratic changes, returned to power themselves, thus managing to survive the transition as well as anyone.
Krzysztof Bobinski works at the Unia & Polska Foundation, a pro-European NGO in Warsaw. He was the Financial Times's correspondent in Warsaw.

Also by Krzysztof Bobinski in openDemocracy:

"A stork's eye view from Poland" (May 2001)

"Poland's nervous 'return' to Europe"
(April 2004 )

"Poland's letter to France: please say oui! (May 2005)

"Democracy in the European Union, more or less" (July 2005)

"The European Union's Turkish dilemma" (December 2005)

"Belarus's message to Europe" (March 2006)

"Poland's populist caravan" (14 July 2006)

The limits of freedom

The flag-waving tank-hijackers rightly recall that in 1956 their grandparents were fighting for freedom against the communists backed by a Soviet Union bent on suppressing that freedom. The parallel ends there. Then the communists were imposed on Hungary by Stalin. The present government was freely elected. Then the Hungarians were not free to choose.

But it is worth noting that there were - both in 1956 and in 2006 - other options. The chances are that if a different route had been taken on both occasions, Hungary and indeed the other new European Union member-states in central Europe could have faced - and be facing now - a better future.

A recently published book by Charles Gati, (Failed Illusions: Moscow, Washington, Budapest, and the 1956 Hungarian Revolt), argues cogently that if the Hungarians had been more circumspect in 1956 they would have gained more in the medium term instead of suffering the tragedy that befell them.

There was a precedent. Poland, also in October 1956 (though a critical few days earlier than Hungary), had seen a mass protest movement return the imprisoned communist Wladysław Gomułka to power and to free Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, the head of the Catholic church. These two had been able to stand up to Nikita Khrushchev when the Soviet leader flew into Warsaw to browbeat the Polish communist leaders for going too far in a reformist direction, especially when they sacked the Soviet nominee Konstantin Rokossovski (head of the Polish army, and hero of the defence of Moscow in 1941-42). As a result, the Polish government won a measure of freedom of manoeuvre while the internal situation was brought under control.

In Budapest the leadership of the country under Imre Nagy, a long-serving communist loyalist (and as Gati shows a Soviet secret-service veteran) failed to bring the situation under control. Even so the Soviet leadership decided at one point not to intervene, only to change their minds the next day - probably, as Gati suspects, under the influence of reports that their local communist and secret-police allies were being lynched in the streets of Budapest.

Meanwhile the Hungarian section of Radio Free Europe was inciting the demonstrators even against the now reformist Nagy, in contrast to the Poles in the same building who were counselling restraint and support for Gomułka to their listeners. In both cases the Americans did nothing (even though, as Charles Gati writes of Hungary, "[there] were actions short of war that Washington might have taken").

A peaceful solution to the Hungarian crisis with a limited liberalisation on Polish lines would have had important implications for the region. A year before, Austria had been neutralised with the Soviet army withdrawing. Moscow was normalising relations with Yugoslavia. China wanted political diversity in the Soviet camp. Liberal communist regimes in Warsaw and Budapest would have strengthened the hand of the reformers in Moscow, where demands for liberalisation had been fuelled by Khrushchev's anti-Stalin "secret speech" in February 1956. Pressure would have grown for a settlement of the German question.

In the event Budapest was crushed, and while the liberal policies survived for a time in Poland and in Moscow, the fate of the reforms was sealed. When the Czechs and the Slovaks were to test the limits of freedom in 1968 they found that the only Soviet response was to send the tanks in.
Also in openDemocracy on Hungary in 1956 and 2006:

Gabriel Partos, "Hungary: change via continuity"
(8 May 2006)

George Schőpflin, "Hungary: country without consequences" (22 September 2006)

Patrice de Beer, "Budapest 1956-2006" (2 October 2006)

The Irish precedent

Despite the differences between 1956 and 2006, much is also at stake in Hungary today. The prize is better governance and faster economic growth - if only the Hungarians were to show some restraint and establish a consensus on the policies needed to make progress in achieving them. A World Bank report in September 2006 suggests rapid current growth in Hungary (but also in Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia) could be much faster if public spending were brought down and welfare systems reformed.

There is a precedent. In Ireland in 1987 Alan Dukes, then leader of the opposition Fine Gael party, declared that he would support radical moves by the governing Fianna Fàil to get the macroeconomic situation into balance. A consensus was established, the right steps were taken and the Irish economy roared ahead to become the "Celtic tiger" (see "Hungary needs to put aside the politics of conflict", Financial Times, 22 September 2006).

The politics of confrontation are in the ascendant in central Europe. Political systems are struggling to produce viable majorities and reaching more often than not for fringe parties populated by rightwing nationalists to bolster frail majorities. In Hungary the opposition knows that it would have to adopt the same unpopular policies as Ferenc Gyurcsány if the prime minister fails to put them through. A switch to the politics of consensus around macroeconomic reforms would strengthen support for the measures and increase their chances of success.

Similar challenges face the Poles, the Czechs and the Slovaks. To meet them would be both a success story for European Union enlargement and a true overcoming of the painful legacy of the past. This after all was what the Hungarians were fighting for in 1956 - freedom with security and prosperity.

Charles Gati writes:

Two weeks after Moscow crushed the revolution, I left Hungary, going first to Austria and then in a few weeks to the United States. I became one of some 182,000 refugees from Soviet-dominated Hungary. My parents, though I was their only child, did not discourage me from leaving. They stayed up all night before I left, watching me as I wrote a few notes of farewell to relatives and friends and put a few belongings together for my escape from uncertainty to uncertainty. Emerging from the kitchen, my mother came around to stuff her freshly baked sweets - the best in the world - into my small backpack. "Look up Uncle Sanyi in New York," she said. At dawn, when it was time to say goodbye, my father tried to hold back his tears but he could not. "Write often," he said, his voice quavering with emotion. We embraced. We kissed. As I left, they stood on the small balcony of our Barcsay Street apartment and waved. I walked backwards as long as I could see them, hoping they could also see me for another few seconds. (As I recall this scene some fifty years later, holding back my tears as my father once tried to do, I still see them waving on the balcony, and I always will.)

I did not fully appreciate until much later - when I had my own children in America - how unselfish my parents were to let go of me.

[This is an extract – (c) 2006 by Charles Gati - from Failed Illusions: Moscow, Washington, Budapest, and the 1956 Hungarian Revolt (Stanford University Press, 2006)]


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