Budapest, 1956-2006

Patrice de Beer
1 October 2006

This Hungarian October has opened with the country continuing to be shaken by an extraordinary political crisis. It began with the leaking of a tape on 17 September 2006 in which centre-left prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány admitted that his government had both "screwed up" in economic-policy terms and "lied morning, evening and night" about it to the people. The admission provoked a wave of rage and protest: the worst riots in decades in Budapest, furious demands for Gyurcsány's resignation from the rightwing opposition, a diagnosis of the country's "moral crisis" by President László Sólyom.

The results of the local elections of 1 October show the degree of animosity to the prime minister, as well as the extent of Hungary political divisions: although the swing to the populist centre-right did not extend to capturing the mayoralty of Budapest (where Gabor Demsky was elected for a fifth term), it was comprehensive. But Gyurcsány's decision to call a vote of confidence in parliament on 6 October, the opposition's threat to continue street demonstrations if he does not resign, and Sólyom's clear indication of discontent with the prime minister, mean that the crisis is far from over.

As it continues, the unfolding current dispute nears the anniversary of the starting-date of the event which continues to define Hungary's (and much of Europe's) modern history: the revolution of 1956, which began with a protest demonstration on 23 October and was ruthlessly crushed by the Soviet armed forces on 4 November.

The epic revolution (forradalom in Hungarian, but for more than four decades officially designated ellenforradalom [counter-revolution] by Budapest's own commissars) has been too often invoked as a precedent of the 2006 events. True, one riot can remind us of another and one crisis of another. But, this time, such comparisons are both facile and presumptuous.

Hungary's revolution of 1956 marked a watershed in the image the world had of the communist bloc: an uprising drowned in blood was the augury of its irremediable decline. Hungary's political crisis of 2006, serious as it is, is of a type shared by many democratic countries (including Hungary's neighbours and fellow entrants to the European Union in 2004, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland); it has very little in common with the upsurge of a whole nation against a communist dictatorship.

Yet the comparison does serve as a useful reminder of the tendency in modern Europe (in the political world as much as among the public) to collective amnesia about even the relatively recent past. In the attempt to assess the true, comparative significance of 1956 and 2006, ignorance of history - its "scale" as well as its "facts" - does neither Hungarians nor others any favours.

The Suez adventure

Also on Hungary's 2006 in openDemocracy:

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

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

The fiftieth anniversary of Hungary's revolution is also that of the Franco-British operation (orchestrated with Israel, and ostensibly and deceitfully proclaimed as an attempt to "separate" the warring Egyptian-Israeli sides) against the Suez Canal which began on 31 October 1956.

The Suez adventure marked the end of colonial (or neo-colonial) dreams in Paris and London, as they broke against joint United States-Soviet opposition and rising Arab nationalism. It took six years for France to recognise reality and leave Algeria in 1962 - eight years after its war there started and after it had been kicked out of Indochina, and soon after Charles de Gaulle had granted independence to its African colonies. Britain waited even longer. But Suez was the turning-point: after it, centuries of imperialistic striving towards world domination by the old colonial powers gave way to painful (and still unfinished) adjustments to medium-sized European status.

A people's revolt

Hungary and Suez, Suez and Hungary are forever linked, though it would be wrong to use the word "coincidence" to describe the events - for the late-colonial operation was a gift to Soviet efforts to crush the Hungarian rising, and therefore played an instrumental role in the latter's course. Yet at a time when people's memories seem (under pressure of daily or existential worries - political, economic, social, ecological, or terrorism-related) ever more foreshortened, the recovery of the integrity of such events becomes both harder and more necessary.

A new book - Revolution in Hungary, the 1956 Budapest Uprising (published by Biro Editeur, Paris, and Thames & Hudson, London) is, where the defining Hungarian moment is concerned, a valuable tool in this regard. It will remind many already familiarised readers of the hopeful and hopeless moments which shaped the event while allowing others to discover for the first time how the heroic resistance of a small, repressed people shook the world.

The photographs taken before, during and after the revolution by the great Austrian photographer Erich Lessing convey vividly the stages of a drama which stirred emotion and deep humanitarian concern - but no political solidarity - in the west. The text (written by three well-known historians of communism, Nicolas Bauquet, François Fejtö and György Konrad) emphasise what was at stake in those twelve days, what the consequences were, and how a cycle of history was closed only with Hungary and its neighbours' accession to the European Union in 2004.

Hungary 1956, it can be easy to forget, was one of a chain of cold-war uprisings against the Stalinist, communist system. It followed the failed uprising of East German workers against Soviet occupation (June 1953) and the Poznan protests in Poland (June 1956), the release of Khrushchev's February 1956 "secret speech" on Stalin's crimes in June of that year, and the arrival in power of the Polish reformist Wladyslaw Gomulka in early October in response to a fresh wave of Polish claims.

When approximately 2,000 citizens of Budapest took to the streets on 23 October to protest against their communist rulers, they helped propel to power a Hungarian reformist, Imre Nagy. After years of domination by the hated figureheads of Soviet power in Budapest, Ernö Gerö and Mátyás Rákosi, Nagy's efforts to win autonomy from Moscow's grip had near-universal backing from his people.

György Konrad, then a young student, portrays the days of mad hope and freedom which - after cat-and-mouse diplomacy and a fake withdrawal of Russian troops - ended with the empire's brutal extinction of the revolution. The cost to Hungary was immense: 2,740 Hungarians died during the bloody fighting and repression; 25,000 were arrested by the Soviet police; Nagy and his closest allies were hanged (some after a lengthy imprisonment); and 200,000 Hungarians - many of the youngest and brightest, among them the publisher of Revolution in Hungary - fled to the west.

Patrice de Beer is former London and Washington correspondent for Le Monde.

Also by Patrice de Beer in openDemocracy:

"France's incendiary crisis"
(September 2005)

"The Schröder-Merkel clash spills across the Rhine" (October 2005)

"France's political sclerosis"
(October 2005)

"Paris in flames: the limits of repression" (November 2005)

"France's enarchy"
(November 2005)

"Child's play at the CIA" (January 2006)

"France's immigration myths"
(February 2006)

"Law and disorder in France" (March 2006)

"Ukraine's inspiring boredom" (April 2006)

"France's crisis after crisis" (April 2006)

"The Ségolène phenomenon"
(May 2006)

"France and Europe: the democratic deficit exposed" (June 2006)

"Politics and soccer: France sings Les Bleus" (June 2006)

"Zidane's farewell, France's hangover"
(July 2006)

"France and Lebanon: diplomacy of tragedy" (August 2006)

"France in Lebanon: the strength of hesitation" (August 2006)

Across five decades

The Budapest tragedy offered two main lessons: that the Soviet empire (like most dictatorships) was irredeemable, a truth further confirmed by Mikhail Gorbachev's late, vain, efforts to save it; and that its captive nations, abandoned in 1956 by the United States and western Europe alike, had to rely primarily on their own resources in the search for freedom.

The western European communist parties, notwithstanding their resolute support for Moscow's policy, were shaken to the core by Hungary: their memberships shrank (by as much as 200,000 in Italy), they lost the support of many intellectuals (in France, Jean-Paul Sartre, Pablo Picasso and historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie were among those who left), and the sight of Soviet troops shooting at Hungarian crowds shattered the Soviet empire's residual image as an agent of working-class liberation.

Meanwhile, western governments were bitterly divided over the Suez adventure and unwilling either to threaten the fragile "détente" initiated between Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and US President Dwight Eisenhower or to run the risk of a new armed confrontation which might eventually turn nuclear. As a result, they spoke loudly and acted cowardly.

At the very time that the US-sponsored Radio Free Europe was encouraging the insurgents, the US ambassador in Moscow, Charles E "Chip" Bohlen, was telling the Kremlin that Washington didn't consider the Imre Nagy government as an ally. US troops based in Germany were not even placed on alert. The signals were clear: the Yalta division of Europe was still firmly in place and the road was open for Soviet tanks (supported even by heretic communist regimes like Tito's Yugoslavia or Mao's China). After it was over, the restored Hungarian communist regime of János Kádár proceeded to create an unfree but moderately comfortable Hungary that became known as "the merriest barrack in the detention camp."

1956 sent communism as a conquering ideology towards the dustbin of history. In the next decade, "eurocommunism" - the attempt to carve a reformist model of communist politics independent of the Soviet model - was incubated, and eventually had a huge impact in France, Italy and Spain.

In August 1968, the Prague spring was crushed by Soviet tanks in Czechoslovakia. In December 1979, Leonid Brezhnev's USSR invaded Afghanistan, another signal of impending systemic failure. The "iron curtain" fell in 1989 and the Soviet Union in 1991.

If the democratic world had been stronger in its commitment to democratic values, if it had had the courage to give real public support to the Hungarian freedom fighters, the division of Europe might have been ended much earlier - and at a far lower cost in human lives and economic calamity.

After the collapse of 1989-91, what remained of the old communist world became confined largely to Cuba, North Korea, and Laos; Vietnam and China each shed Marxist ideology, retaining only their Leninist repressive apparatus as a crowd-control tool while their apparatchiks (and many of their people, more modestly) reap the benefits of capitalism. The ideologies that seemed so potent in 1956 gradually faded, until the most doctrinally zealous global citizens were to be found among Islamist fundamentalists and the Christian right in the United States.

Hungary today is in the grip of another revolt, one that follows fifteen years of post-communism, consumerism, and capitalist economics. The unresolved legacy of the past, including 1956, is part of its confusion. The outcome of Hungary's current political and moral crisis will be a signal of how far Hungarians - and their fellow Europeans - have understood the scale of and the principles that guided their grandparents' revolt.

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