Hungary: history's battleground

Gabriel Partos
8 November 2006

Hungary's government and an independent memorial committee spent over two years preparing a carefully choreographed series of festivities to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the 1956 revolution that brought a few days of freedom during four decades of communist rule. Yet in spite of appeals for joint celebrations from President László Sólyom and other public figures, major official events were boycotted by the opposition.

Fidesz - Magyar Polgári Szövetség (Hungarian Civic Alliance), which leads the conservative opposition, refused to take part in events attended by Ferenc Gyurcsány, the Magyar Szocialista Párt (Hungarian Socialist Party) prime minister. Meanwhile, ultra-nationalist and far-right demonstrators - who compared themselves to the revolutionaries of 1956 - fought running battles with police in the centre of Budapest on 23 October, exactly fifty years to the day the revolution had broken out.

Both the official and the extra-parliamentary opposition had been demanding Gyurcsány's resignation since the leaking on 17 September of taped remarks in which he admitted that his government had lied about the true state of public finances ahead of its successful re-election bid in April 2006.

Gyurcsány's opponents scorned his subsequent explanation that his references to lying had been meant to include Hungary's entire political establishment - notably its failure to explain to the public the tough belt-tightening measures required to bring the budget deficit under control.

Short of even more extensive violence and possible deaths, the anniversary events could barely have been more disastrous for Hungary. The country's previous image of stability and calm, already badly dented by the September riots, suffered another heavy blow. Instead of serving as a rallying-point to bury current differences, the commemorations of the revolution only exacerbated the deep disagreements in Hungary today. The experiences of these weeks indicate that nearly two decades after the restoration of democracy, Hungarians have yet to find a generally acceptable way of marking what many see as an iconic event in their history.

Gabriel Partos is a journalist based in London who works as southeast Europe analyst with the BBC

Also by Gabriel Partos in openDemocracy:

"Hungary: change via continuity"
(8 May 2006)

The struggle over memory

For over thirty years the 1956 revolution remained forbidden territory to Hungarian society. The regime of János Kádár, installed in power by Soviet tanks after the revolution was crushed in November 1956, branded the events an ellenforradalom (counter-revolution). The official communist-era interpretation argued that 1956 was an attempt by reactionary forces to restore Hungary's pre-1945 semi-authoritarian, rightwing rule.

That version of history glossed over the fact that the leaders of revolutionary Hungary were communist reformers, headed by prime minister Imre Nagy. The key demands of the revolutionaries were for an end to the Stalinist brand of dictatorial rule, the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary and the restoration of the basic freedoms of speech, assembly and the press - as part of the re-establishment of a multi-party, democratic system of government.

It was not until the ageing Kádár was eased out of power in 1988 and the transition to democracy got underway that the veil of silence thrown over the revolution was finally removed. In early 1989 the ruling communists of the Magyar Szocialista Munkáspárt (Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party / MSzMP) re-evaluated the events of 1956 as a "people's uprising". A few months later, on 16 June, some 200,000 Hungarians attended the reburial of Nagy and his closest associates who had been executed and buried in unmarked graves by the Kádár regime.

The struggle to find out the truth about the 1956 revolution, to allow its silent witnesses to speak again and to reassess its importance was an integral part of the return of democracy. It helped delegitimise the communist one-party state and provided a sense of historical continuity for newly-democratic, independent Hungary. It also seemed, by the beginning of the 1990s, that with the key demands of 1956, including free elections and the withdrawal of Soviet forces achieved, the revolution had lost its contemporary relevance to Hungarian society, and it could finally be consigned to academic study.

The scholars of the Az 1956-os Magyar Forradalom Történetének Dokumentációs és Kutatóintézete (Institute for the History of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution) in Budapest and their colleagues have, indeed, contributed much to establishing a broad professional consensus about the nature of the revolution. School textbooks provide a balanced and reasonably comprehensive account of what happened during 1956. Yet knowledge among the young remains hazy - not least because the teaching of this period comes right at the end of the curriculum as 18-year-olds prepare for their matriculation exams. In many cases teachers skip post-world-war-two history to allow their students more time for revision.

Those over 30, who went to school before 1989, will have learnt next to nothing about 1956. Only the older generation, those with personal experiences of their own, tend to have a keen interest in the events of 1956 - though for them the memories often remain painful. Among the general public a vague awareness of the importance of the revolution has been matched by "anniversary fatigue", caused partly by a surfeit of often reverential reports in the media and partly by the way officialdom has appropriated the commemorations.

Besides, many of the goals and achievements of the revolution appear alien to today's Hungary which is based on representative democracy, a free-enterprise economy and the individualism of the consumer. By contrast, fifty years ago - although there were many different views - mainstream thinking envisaged a "third way" between capitalism and complete state control with a largely socially-owned economy that would allow only small-scale private enterprise. Across the country a network of workers' councils was set up as a form of direct representation which survived by several months the military defeat that came after the Soviet invasion of 4 November.

"It is very difficult for the generation today to comprehend an anti-communist socialist revolution," says Gáspár Miklós Tamás, a philosopher and communist-era dissident. "Of course, the symbolism of the revolution is being used again. Today it is the right that's now rioting and resisting and making a great deal of fuss in the streets of Budapest. It's trying to appropriate the memory of the revolution and trying to say that this is a new '56."

It is not just the protesters and political extremists who have been seeking to appropriate the symbols and the meaning of the revolution. Hungary's mainstream political parties have also been doing that. For Fidesz and other conservatives the revolution was an anti-communist uprising whose defeat inaugurated another three decades of communist rule during the Kádár era. Moreover, many of them see the socialists as not only the legal successors to Kádár's MSzMP but also as the heirs of the communist tradition and, in the case of some senior officials, the beneficiaries of that bygone era.

Even Gyurcsány, who was born five years after the revolution, is regarded as someone who has profited from the Kádár regime, first as a communist youth leader in the late 1980s and then as a successful businessman who used his earlier network of contacts to become a multi-millionaire in the 1990s. Maria Wittner, a Fidesz-backed MP who spent thirteen years in jail for her role in the fighting during the revolution, was among the first to call for a boycott of the official commemorations. Why? "There has been no apology", Wittner explains. "The crimes of the former regime haven't been cleared up. There are still a lot of skeletons in the cupboard - waiting to fall out. These people haven't changed at all."

The socialists reject this interpretation. They portray themselves as the direct descendants of Nagy and his fellow-communist reformers, the most famous martyrs of the revolution. Even though their embrace of free-market competition and globalization has much more to do with Britain's New Labour than with the legacy of 1956, the socialists point to Nagy's acceptance of democratic government and basic human rights as the inspiration for their break with communist-era practices.

"The leftwing politicians and intelligentsia want to use '56 as evidence of the reformability of the left: of how the left was able - and will be able - to reform itself for the sake of Hungarian society", says László Kéri, a political scientist. "This kind of interpretation is completely unacceptable for the right which seeks to interpret '56 as national resistance - a natural part of a 1,000-year-old history when Hungarian society was ready at all times to resist the Germans, the Turks and the Russians to defend national independence."

Also in openDemocracy on Hungary in 1956 and 2006:

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

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

Victor Sebestyen, "Twelve Days"
(23 October 2006)

Krzysztof Bobinski, Hungary's 1956, central Europe's 2006: beyond illusion
(27 October 2006)

and…the Bad Democracy saga

After the anniversary

In recent weeks Hungary's leading politicians and radical political activists have turned the anniversary of the revolution into one of the main battlegrounds for their current political fights. For the socialists the commemorations provided an opportunity for a beleaguered government, with its credibility badly shaken, to hold dignified national celebrations in the presence of leaders and prominent public figures from around the world.

For Fidesz and its leader, Viktor Orbán, it was a chance to rally supporters, already angered by tax hikes and spending cuts. The two big Fidesz demonstrations were arranged on the anniversaries of the outbreak (23 October) and the crushing (4 November) of the revolution - and the latter event was also dedicated to the victims of alleged police brutality during the riots two weeks earlier.

For the small, hardcore ultra-nationalist groupings, the clashes with the police, coming after the dismantling of their five-week encampment outside parliament, generated considerable publicity - the more so as they used many symbols and slogans from the heroic days of 1956. Ironically, many of the far-right's views, including hostility to Hungary's membership of the European Union, are shared by the Magyar Kommunista Munkáspárt (Communist Workers' Party), a fringe group whose members still view the events of fifty years ago as a "counter-revolution".

In quieter times the anniversary of the revolution would have engendered far less discord. However, given the political turmoil in Hungary in recent months, it was perhaps inevitable that the commemorations would get caught up in the current agenda of opposing political forces. With the anniversary now gone, the potential for using - and abusing - the legacy of 1956 has now largely disappeared. Many now believe it is time for historians, teachers and surviving witnesses to reclaim centre-stage from the politicians to reassess what the revolution really means today.

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