The Twin Crises of Autumn 1956: Suez & Hungary, a postscript.   Leave a comment

Aftermath: Autumn into Winter…  

1-3 December: To flee or not to flee?…

For the recently extended family of Tom Leimdörfer, the first few days of December were totally surreal. Fourteen-year-old Tom, his mother Edit, Gyuri Schustek and his two children, Ferkó (16) and Marika (12) had already taken the decision to leave their homes in Budapest and to flee Hungary, following the onset of the Soviet repression. They were in a state of suspended animation in which the various experiences of excitement, planning, doubt and fear abounded. Were they too late to escape? News of the first waves of arrests at the border reached them as the border guard units were reconstituted. There was plenty of news of arrests as well as rumours of executions, as the Kádár regime asserted its authority, but the dominant feeling was one of uncertainty: Were the phones being tapped again? Had the secret police been re-established to a degree that they could be under surveillance?

Tom had been the only one of the family of five to take part in the revolutionary demonstrations of 23 October, and it was unlikely that anyone had noticed his spontaneous action in leaving their city centre flat that afternoon to join the mass crowds in the square outside Parliament. The police forces seemed only to be after known prominent figures. Getting caught while trying to flee, however, would certainly put them under suspicion, especially since Gyuri Schustek already had a prison record. In addition, many fourteen-year-olds had already been detained and questioned about their roles in the street demonstrations and fighting which had taken place from the 23rd to mid-November.

Both the contemporary and potential intellectual leaders and other icons were over-represented among those fleeing the country, and included the poet György Faludy, a distant relative of the Leimdörfers, who had spent time in the Rákosi era working in stone quarries and later recorded his experience in the book My Happy Days in Hell, and the pianist György Cziffra. Among the figures who stayed and received sentences were the writers István Bibó, Tibór Déry, Zoltán Zelk, Gyula Háy and the writer, translator (of Tolkien) and post-1989 Head of State Árpád Göncz, as well as the historian Domokos Kosáry. Of course, it is impossible to enumerate those who were removed from their jobs as punishment or in order to narrow their sphere of intercourse and influence.

With all its horror, however, Kádár’s ‘terror’ was not of the Stalinist kind in which Rákosi indulged. While it was an act of arbitrary power, its victims were not selected in any arbitrary manner and it did not collectively punish whole social groups in the name of some general political strategy, but aimed, on the basis of very specific political calculation and selectivity, at individuals who had proved to be, or were considered to be, dangerous to the Kádár régime. Almost from the beginning, the usurper’s isolation of this active minority through administrative and police measures were not pursued with any great consistency.

Naturally, those choosing to flee the country in the winter of 1956-7 were not in a position to make this judgement or take the risk. Domokos Szent-Iványi, Horthy’s cabinet secretary and envoy to Moscow, had faced a similar dilemma in 1946, when the Rákósi dictatorship  began, and had chosen to stay, only to be arrested, remaining in prison for a decade before his release on 18 September 1956. He later wrote :

The first question I was confronted with after my release was whether I should flee from Hungary or not? This question became particularly acute at the time of the mass emigration from Hungary after the collapse of Hungarian resistance on or about 7 November 1956. For many reasons I decided to stay and so… until… September 1968,  I dropped all ideas of leaving Hungary… several of our friends, like András, Sándor Kiss, Jatzkó, Szent-Miklósy, Veress and others, left the country…

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He must have feared re-arrest at any moment. Reflecting on his decision in 1977, he was able to put it in the broader context of Hungarian history and, in particular, its experience with the fake promises of freedom held out by ‘the Western democracies’, contrasted with their real imperial priorities in the Middle East:

As in the past, in 1241, in 1526, in 1711, in 1849 and in 1920, Hungary was once more abandoned in 1956 by the Western Powers which believed that their interests had more to be defended around the borders of Suez and Israel and not on the Eastern bulwark of European Civilisation… As Hungary could not and cannot expect any effective help from the Western democracies, Hungary must renounce her centuries old idea of protecting European peace, prosperity and civilisation, and must try to arrive at some peaceful settlement and cooperation with her most powerful eastern neighbour, the Soviet Union.   

3-12 December: The Diplomatic Crisis in Bucharest, New York & Washington… 

On 23 November, the day after the abduction of the Nagy group from the Yugoslav Embassy (the occupants of the bus had refused to leave it when they arrived at the Soviet HQ and had to be pulled off by force, the women screaming and the children shrieking in fear), the Kádár government had issued a statement which was published in the press to the effect that Imre Nagy and his friends have left at their request for the Popular Republic of Romania. Of course, the truth soon became public knowledge, but it had taken until 26 November for Kádár to reply to a request for an explanation from the National Workers’ Council. He had broadcast on Radio Budapest:

We promised that the behaviour of Imre Nagy and his friends would not be subject to legal proceedings. We will keep that promise. We do not consider their departure as permanent. But, in our opinion, it is to the advantage of Imre Nagy  and his associates and their families to leave Hungary for a certain period of time.

Several days later, at the plenary session of the United Nations on 3 December, the Romanian Minister of Foreign Affairs declared:

The Romanian government assures that Prime Minister Imre Nagy and his group will enjoy the full benefit of the right of political exile. The Romanian government will observe the international rules regarding this right.

The US government also kept up its diplomatic pressure on the USSR, verbally protesting the unwarranted use of Soviet force against Hungarian citizens to the Soviet Ambassador in Washington. The US diplomats specifically noted the Soviet tanks that had parked on the sidewalk outside their Legation in Budapest. The Department of State also protested twice when the Soviets interfered with Americans who were trying to leave Hungary. It also protested to the Hungarian Legation in Washington concerning the interruption of telegraphic communications with the US Legation in Budapest. The UN General Assembly also adopted a resolution calling on the Soviet Union and Hungary to comply with earlier resolutions on the Hungarian question and to allow UN observers to visit Hungary. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld offered to visit personally, but the Kádár government refused to receive either him or admit observers. On 12 December, the GA adopted a resolution calling on the USSR to end its illegal intervention in Hungarian affairs and to make arrangements for a UN-supervised withdrawal from the country.

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The same day, President Eisenhower announced the organisation of the President’s Committee for Hungarian Refugee Relief. He also announced that Vice President Richard Nixon would visit Austria between 18 and 23 December to discuss assistance to the Hungarian refugees there. In total, up to May 1957, the United States resettled 32,075 Hungarian refugees, most of whom were processed at Camp Kilmer, a former army base in New Jersey. This was over ten thousand more than Eisenhower had promised to resettle on 1 December, with the utmost practical speed. It also provided an additional $4 million to the UN to aid Hungarian refugees, popularly known as freedom fighters, besides the funds committed by private organisations in the US.

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The Women’s Demonstration in Heroes’ Square, 4 December…

No major demonstrations or events had taken place in Heroes’ Square during the Uprising, but on 4 December, exactly one month after the second Soviet intervention, there was a silent protest of women in the square. This has not received the attention it deserves in the histories of the events of 1956. The demonstration was promoted by the underground newspaper Élünk (We Live) and was not only against the continued occupation by Soviet forces, but also a vigil for those killed in the Uprising and its suppression. The focal point was the memorial at the foot of the column in the centre of the square, originally inscribed in memory of those who had fought in World War I. It had recently been officially rededicated in memory of those who had given their lives for the freedom of the Hungarian people.

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Above: Heroes’ Square

Zsuzsanna Pajzs, a 25-year-old doctor at the time, was one of those present at the demonstration . She later recalled a line of women entering the square, one hand on the shoulder of the person in front, a candle in the other. She remembered the presence of Soviet tanks, but they made no move on the silent demonstration, and both the soldiers and the Hungarian security troops looked on in silence, according to thirteen-year-old schoolgirl, Márta Boga. She recalled how:

We believed, with the minds of children, that everything was starting again. There were lots of women. Those who had lost someone were dressed in black from head to toe. There were candles burning in many windows. There were some with pushchairs. No one shouted out. This was a silent demonstration.

A report in the Yugoslav publication Borba spoke of columns of demonstrators arriving from fifteen different directions at around 10.30 am. There were two or three women in each line carrying either the Hungarian tricolour or black flags. . The report quotes from leaflets protesting against the slanders calling our dead ‘counter-revolutionaries’ and our Hungarian revolutionaries ‘fascists’. There were old and young, and all had flowers in their hands.

Borba also reported that Soviet armoured cars arrived and blocked Andrassy út (as it was named before 1950 and has been since 1990). Shots were fired in the air. Some women were pushed back and told to disperse, though there was some dialogue between the women and the Soviets. The AP reporter Endre Marton also witnessed these scenes, estimating that the demonstrators numbered twenty thousand. It constituted a cross-section of society,

the famous actress with the streetcar conductor… the lovely straight avenue… teeming with women and only women. 

Tanks appeared and stopped the silent demonstration two blocks from Heroes’ Square, Marton reported. A Soviet colonel got up on one of the tanks, shouting at the women in Russian. According to Marton, the women’s lines…

…opened up and then closed again behind the monsters, leaving them hopelessly engulfed by the oncoming thousands.

When the lines reached the square, in seconds the tomb was bedecked with flowers… The colonel now turned his eyes to the few journalists observing the events in the square, whom he began to harangue and harass:

He could not stop this mass demonstration, but wanted to prevent the world from learning what had happened.

The women then hived off and went to demonstrate in front of the US and British embassies. A Soviet tank arrived at the latter Legation. József Molnár, employed as an interpreter there, remembered an amusing exchange which occurred as Sir Leslie Fry, the British ambassador telephoned Yuri Andropov, the Soviet ambassador, for an explanation:

The Soviet ambassador said that the tank had been sent to protect the Legation from the demonstrators. To this Sir Leslie Fry responded that if the Soviet armed forces had nothing better to do in Hungary than to protect the British Legation from Hungarians, then they could peacefully go home since the Legation had no need for it.

The following day several hundred women attempted to demonstrate and lay flowers at the Petőfi statue in Március 15 tér, but were prevented from doing so by Soviet and Hungarian security forces. In the course of the next five days there were further women’s protests in the provincial towns of Gyula, Székesfehérvár, Esztergom, Pécs, Miskolc and Eger.

6-27 December: The Workers’ Councils of Budapest and Csepel…

Throughout the early weeks of December, the Budapest Central Workers’ Council continued to offer the last bastion of opposition still operative in Hungary. Since it was an elected body, with representatives from each major workplace, it had great credibility, and both the Kádár régime and the Soviets had to take it seriously. Despite the revival of the strike following the abduction of the Nagy ‘rump’, Kádár still hoped to use the council to control the workers. Its members were given travel passes, whereas most workers were restricted to travel between home and work, and were also authorised to carry arms. The security forces also appointed their own delegate, a colonel, to the council, and even Kádár and senior Soviet officials sometimes attended its meetings. Sándor Rácz, president of the council, was only twenty-three and had little public education, but as he was a remarkable speaker he had been elected to head the council. However, by the beginning of December, it seems that the Soviets, if not Kádár himself, were beginning to run out of patience with the council. By the 2-3 December, although there was still a chance that there might be some agreement between the KMT (the Central Workers’ Council) and the Kádár government, the negotiations were in their final phase. The end game was approaching and, as things turned out, it could be argued that the KMT should have been much bolder. In the event, Rácz was summoned to their general HQ where the Soviet envoy and commander, General Serov was waiting for him, and abruptly informed him:

It’s finished. We don’t want to hear any more phony demands from you and you are not going to continue the strike. Consider yourself fortunate that I allow you to walk out of this room.

On 6 December, the Greater Budapest Workers’ Council issued a memorandum which had a rather fatalistic tone, admitting its failure to reach a compromise in its negotiations with the Kádár government:

…Our wish is the same as all workers, indeed the whole Hungarian people: decent standards of living, peace, a life without fear, independence and a strong government controlled by the workers and peasants of this country. We know that the working class is the greatest force in creating and safeguarding these aims… We drew a sharp line between ourselves and those who are bent on mischief, armed forays, or acts of terror. We must state here and now that our efforts have not brought the desired results. While we have done our best to restart productive work in all workplaces throughout the countryside, we have suffered provocations from many sides, sometimes leading to strike action… We accept that Prime Minister János Kádár is doing his level best to bring the country back to normal conditions. But it seems that he is not strong enough to remove certain persons in his entourage who have earned the undying hatred of Hungarian workers.

The memorandum went on to complain about the numerous arrests of workers’ councils’ members throughout the country and the disruption of meetings, concluding that these seemed to be part of an organised attack. These abuses had been brought to the attention of the government, it stated, in the hope that an impending catastrophe might be avoided. It’s conclusion, however, was that our efforts have been fruitless. After that, its demand that the government should disclose its plans on the radio the following day (7 December) seem, in retrospect, rather weak. There was not even a hint of a threat of action by the KMT to force this. On 8 December, in what seems now like an act of desperation, the KMT addressed, in very diplomatic language, an address to Nikolai Bulganin, the USSR’s Prime Minister:

We should be deeply obliged to Your Excellency, and you would render a great service to the cause of Hungarian political consolidation, if you could give an opportunity to the democratically elected delegates of the Hungarian working class to submit to you their views on Hungarian economic-political reality.

On the same day, the KMT held a meeting with workers’ councils’ delegates from the provinces in Budapest. One of the major items on the agenda was the continuing arrest of workers’ councils’ members. As the meeting got underway, news came through of the fatal shooting of a number of workers during a protest demonstration in Salgótarján, an industrial town to the northeast of the capital. The result was an immediate call for a forty-eight-hour, nationwide general strike for 11-12 December, with the exemption of medical and energy supplies.

Meanwhile, communiques were published among the public, assuring them that Imre Nagy and his group were enjoying the hospitality of the Romanian government in an excellent atmosphere marked by mutual understanding. Despite these attempts at placating the public, On 11 December, the forty-eight-hour strike began. As Sándor Rácz recalled in 1983:

… the strike of December 11-12 and the appeal were the last things we did. We didn’t have anything left to say to Kádár’s lot who, in place of negotiating with us, had fired on us. You know, it’s my feeling that the Central Workers’ Council of Greater Budapest put its stamp on the whole revolution, showing that this wasn’t an uprising of hooligans, but of workers.

As the strike was getting underway, the government issued a strongly worded pronouncement declaring a state of emergency, introducing measures such as summary jurisdiction.  At the same time it declared:

…the Central Workers’ Council of Budapest, the district workers’ councils of the capital, and the county and town workers’ councils to be illegal… sober working men have been unable to gain ground against a counter-revolutionary majority. These… elements are working for nothing less than to turn the workers’ councils of Budapest into bastions of the counter-revolution.  Their armoury consists of spreading rumours, acts of terror, calls for strikes and renewed armed provocations.

In the government’s view the deaths and injuries at Salgótarján had been caused by counter-revolutionary provocateurs who had opened fire on the demonstrators, though it gave no evidence to support this claim in its pronouncement.

Sándor Rácz was called before parliament on 11 December, supposedly for more talks. Reluctantly, he made his way there despite the beginning of arrests of other leaders of the Greater Budapest Workers’ Council. Arriving at the door of the Parliament House, he was also arrested and bundled off to the Fő utca prison in Buda. He was later sentenced to life imprisonment. The repression continued across the city, with further arrests and the occupation of factories by Soviet troops. The general strike of mid-December was the high point for the KMT, but it also marked the beginning of its speedy decline.

This left the Csepel Workers’ Council as the only remaining organised force capable of offering resistance to Soviet control. The Council decided to take over the responsibility of negotiating with the government, in order to stop the arrests, free those who had been arrested, and preserve what elements it could of workers’ control and self-management. The Csepel workers had refused to support the general strike call and János Kádár assured them that their councils, as factory-based organisations, were not regarded as outside the law. In the end, however, negotiation with his government proved just as difficult and frustrating a task as it had done for the KMT.

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The Csepel Works, on the Danube, south of Budapest, photographed in the 1990s, following privatisation.

The leader of the Csepel Workers’  Council, Elek Nagy, had an interesting confrontation at a weekly press conference with a New York Times reporter who asked why the Csepel workers were so unprincipled and opportunistic, why they had returned to work rather than sticking to the call for the removal of Soviet troops. Nagy lost his temper and responded that he was well aware that America was anti-Soviet, and pointed out that the degree of Soviet friendship in Budapest could be judged from the widespread ruins. He asked the reporter if he would prefer not to see any building standing in the city, and to see thousands of orphans and widows, so that the critics could censure the Soviets all the more:

You would only have the moral right to raise your question if the Russian army had killed proportionately as many Americans as it has here, and was ruining your country. Until then you have no right to talk about principles and opportunism.

A correspondent for Pravda, who asked about the fulfilment of the production plan got off no more lightly. Nagy ranted in response:

Hungary isn’t working under a plan. What do you want? To tell more lies? You’ve told enough already. Rather write about how the Great Boulevard and Andrássy út are in ruins; write about how your liberating troops behaved when faced with a small nation fighting for national independence; write this rather than how we have already fulfilled the socialist norm by 150 per cent!

Negotiations with the Kádár government continued in parliament, but in an increasingly antagonistic atmosphere, the two sides failing to see eye to eye over their respective roles. József recalled one of the last meetings, on 27 December, when Kádár reiterated strongly that the Party must have the leading role, and when his fellow minister György Marosán angrily jumped up, shouting…

…Take note! Here power is in the hands of the Party, and there can be no counting on any solution which puts a question mark over the Party’s political monopoly. Meanwhile you continually talk about revolution. You should understand that it was a counter-revolution here.

By the end of the year, whatever contemporary or historical perspective was applied to the events of the previous ten weeks, the Revolution had come full circle, and remained in the same position for the next thirty years, at least.

Reflections and Projections on the fate of the Revolution and Communism  

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Above: Painting by Krisztina Rényi, The János Kádár Era (1956-89). Rényi was born in 1956, at the beginning of the era, and her son was born in 1989, at its end.

Hannah Arendt’s Reflections on the Hungarian Revolution in her renowned The Origins of Totalitarianism is often quoted and referred to as a positive appreciation of the 1956 events from a Marxist perspective, but those quoting her rarely reflect deeply on her comments about the direct democracy of the workers’ councils which emerged as being at the core of what was positive about these events. She has pointed out that whenever and wherever such councils have emerged they were met with utmost hostility from the party-bureaucracies from Right to Left, and with the unanimous neglect of political theorists and political scientists. Certainly, the role of the workers’ councils in 1956 has been (conveniently) neglected in much of both historical and commemorative writing since the tag counter-revolution was officially abandoned in October 1988.

Apart from Arendt’s writing, that of Milovan Djilas, once the friend and later the persecuted critic of Tito, reflects a positive, contemporary appraisal of the role of the Hungarian Revolution in the context of a prophetic view of the long-term, terminal decline of Communism in Eastern Europe. In The New Leader, written at the end of 1956, he drew the following lessons from that year’s events:

The Communist régimes of the East European countries must either begin to break away from Moscow or else they will become even more dependent. None of the countries – not even Yugoslavia – will be able to avert this choice. In no case can the mass movement be halted, whether it follows the Yugoslav-Polish pattern, that of Hungary, or some new pattern which combines the two. 

Despite the Soviet repression in Hungary, Moscow can only slow down the processes of change; it cannot stop them in the long run. The crisis is not only between the USSR and its neighbours, but within the Communist system as such. National Communism is itself a product of the crisis but it is only a phase in the evolution and withering-away of contemporary Communism… the revolution in Hungary means the beginning of the end in Communism.

… The Hungarian Revolution blazed a path which sooner or later other Communist countries must follow. The wound which the Hungarian Revolution inflicted on Communism can never be completely healed. All its evils and weaknesses, both as Soviet imperialists and as a definite system of suppression, had collected on the body of Hungary and there, like festering sores, were cut out by the Hungarian people.

I do not think that the fate of the Hungarian Revolution is at all decisive for the fate of Communism in the world. World communism now faces stormy days and insurmountable difficulties, and the people of Eastern Europe face heroic new struggles for freedom and independence.

Those heroic new struggles for freedom and independence began on 23 October 1988, when it was announcement on the radio that the struggle in 1956 would no longer be viewed by the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party as a counter-revolution and that the Soviet Union had agreed to star withdrawing its troops from the country the following spring. The wheel of revolution was beginning to turn again, but this time it would bring about the final fall of Communism by accelerating the development of privatisation and free-market economies throughout the Eastern states, together with a switching of military alliances.     

Secondary Sources:

László Kontler (2009), A History of Hungary. Budapest: Atlantisz

Bob Dent (2006), Budapest: Locations of a Drama. Budapest: Európa

 

  

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